The national energy regulator will have the power to impose tough conditions on controversial pipeline proposals – and new powers to enforce them – even as the federal cabinet takes over final approval of projects like the Northern Gateway pipeline, Natural Resources Minister Joe Oliver says.
The government is poised to introduce legislation as early as this week that will revamp its environmental assessment process and turn over many reviews to the provinces. Among the changes is the move to give the federal cabinet power to overturn any decision by the National Energy Board to reject a project on environmental grounds.
In an interview Sunday, Mr. Oliver said there will be little practical impact from that controversial change because the federal agency has so rarely turned down a project. Rather, he insisted that the board will be strengthened because it will, for the first time, be able to impose fines on companies that fail to comply with conditions included in their permits.
The environmental changes will be part of the government's omnibus budget legislation, which it aims to pass before the House of Commons rises for the summer at the end of June.
In cases where the NEB lays out conditions that project proponents must meet to reduce environmental impacts, the cabinet will be able to send those back for "reconsideration," Mr. Oliver said. But if the board insists, then cabinet will not be able to change them, and the board will now be able to impose fines of up to $400,000 for noncompliance.
"It's a more robust system to ensure compliance," Mr. Oliver said.
Opposition critics complain that the Harper government is politicizing the environmental assessment process by sending strong signals that, regardless of the outcome of a current review panel hearing, the cabinet will approve the Northern Gateway pipeline, which would carry oil sands bitumen to the British Columbia coast for export to Asia.
But Mr. Oliver said it is more appropriate for the government, rather than regulators, to make final decisions on projects of national importance.
"For major projects that can have a national or regional impact environmentally or economically, we believe it is appropriate for elected officials to make the final decision," he said.
NDP environment critic Megan Leslie said the move is more about "centralizing power in the PMO" – the Prime Minister's Office.
"They're stripping away independent regulatory oversight with this proposed change. And with the minister's musings about restricting who can and cannot participate in hearings, they're stripping away democratic oversight as well," Ms. Leslie said.
The proposed changes would also reduce the ability of non-government organizations to intervene in environmental assessments to oppose development. Mr. Oliver said they can still participate where their members are directly impacted by a project, or where a group has expertise that would inform the regulators.
But environmental groups say the move is an attempt to muzzle them.
The minister would not say how the changes will impact the ongoing Northern Gateway hearings, which are not scheduled to wrap up until the end of this year, with a decision in early 2013.