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Who decides which resource projects are 'national' in scope?

Natural Resources Minister Joe Oliver chats with a vendor at mining conference in Toronto on March 5, 2012.

Fred Lum/Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail

The federal budget promised a streamlined review of pipelines, mines and other resource projects. And now Natural Resource Minister Joe Oliver is delivering.

The centrepiece of the government's "Responsible Resource Development" plan, being unveiled Tuesday in Toronto, is a pledge by Ottawa to get out of the way of projects that aren't "national" in scope.

On the face of it, the plan seems reasonable. The budget, for example, talked about "thousands of low-risk projects" going through years of needless delay due to overlapping federal and provincial reviews.

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But the devil is always in the details. And it's not clear who – beyond Mr. Oliver – will determine which projects are nationally significant, and which aren't.

Pipelines that cross provincial boundaries are no-brainers. So are mines affecting interprovincial waterways. But the "national" importance of many other projects could well be debatable.

Consider Taseko Mines Ltd.'s Prosperity mine, which British Columbia initially approved and Ottawa rejected. The multi-billion open-pit copper and gold mine is an economic lifesaver for a hard-luck corner of the province, but it mean draining a trout-filled lake in the pristine Cariboo-Chilcotin region, 125 kilometres southwest of Williams Lake.

Sorting out what constitutes national scope could now come down to "ministerial discretion."

And that may well be exactly what the Conservative government wants. More control in the hands of the cabinet.

Recall Ottawa's 2011 decision to block a takeover of Potash Corp. of Saskatchewan by BHP Billiton. The decision by the then-minority Conservative government was tinged with politics in Saskatchewan.

But the decision has caused considerable confusion about the application of the "net benefit" test in the Investment Canada Act.

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Ottawa promised to clear up the rules, providing greater certainty to both domestic and foreign investors. A year and a half late, Ottawa hasn't delivered.

The absence of clear rules may be bad for investors and ordinary Canadians.

But it may be exactly what Ottawa wants – more discretion in the hands of the hands of a cabinet over hard-and-fast rules in the face of tricky regional politics.

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