A former federal scientist has obtained internal documents that show the government is trying to get out of the business of regulating fishing habitats, which would allow for speedier approval of megaprojects like the proposed Northern Gateway pipeline.
Meanwhile, the Conservative-dominated Commons environment committee on Tuesday recommended downloading much of the job of environmental assessment to the provinces and imposing timelines so the development of big projects won't be delayed.
The report is intended as advice for the government, which is preparing to make revisions to the Canadian Environmental Assessment Act. But opposition MPs say it is designed to provide "handy messaging" as the Conservatives cut corners and costs to push through projects with limited oversight.
Among the most sensitive natural environments in the country are fish habitats, which since 1975 have been protected by a section of the Canada Fisheries Act. But Otto Langer, an aquatic ecologist who worked for the federal government for 32 years, says Prime Minister Stephen Harper and his ministers are planning to change that.
Mr. Langer has obtained documents – he would not say from whom – that show the government intends to remove the requirement in the Canada Fisheries Act to protect fish habitats and any fish that is not of "economic, cultural or ecological value."
"Probably the main reason why the oil industry, especially in the Prairie provinces, wants it out of the act is its use triggers [a review under]the Canadian Environmental Assessment Act. If you are going to do harm to habitat, you have to do an environmental review and that takes time and money," Mr. Langer said in an interview.
The Conservative government has not denied the legitimacy of the documents.
Enbridge's proposed Northern Gateway pipeline, which would bring bitumen from the oil sands to the Pacific Coast for transport to China and other Asian markets, will have to cross 600 different rivers and streams, Mr. Langer said. Bodies of water that do not contain fish that are of human value would not need to be assessed under this legislative change, he said.
A spokeswoman for federal Fisheries Minister Keith Ashfield said no decision has been taken on the changes that have been proposed. But "federal fisheries policies designed to protect fish are outdated and unfocused in terms of balancing environmental and economic realities," she said.
That was similar to the message offered Tuesday by Michelle Rempel, the Calgary MP who is parliamentary secretary to the Environment Minister, as she announced that the environment committee of the House of Commons had proposed 20 changes to the Canadian Environmental Assessment Act that are based on "pragmatism."
In its present form, the environmental review process can cause delays and lead to lost economic opportunities, Ms. Rempel said – "a particularly important fact given that major energy and mining projects represent as much as $500-billion in potential investment over the next decade."
Megan Leslie, the NDP environment critic, said the committee did not provide sufficient notice that a study was being carried out, which meant many key witnesses did not take part. Many important stakeholders were not heard from, including the National Energy Board, the Commissioner of the Environment and Sustainable Development, and aboriginal input was limited to 10 minutes, she said.
Elizabeth May, the Leader of the Green Party who was denied an opportunity to testify before the committee, said: "This is a disaster for environmental review in this country."