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The ins and outs of environmental assessments

What Exists:

The Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency (CEAA) reviews all non-energy projects that could have a substantial impact on the environment, including fish habitat and endangered species. The National Energy Board handles reviews of oil and gas projects and pipelines, while the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission does the assessments of nuclear-related facilities.

In the case of major projects like the Northern Gateway pipeline that would carry oil-sands bitumen to the B.C. coast for export by super-tanker, the NEB and the CEAA conduct a joint review, including a panel hearing that includes environmental, safety and social impact.

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Dozens of federal departments and agencies participate in the major reviews, including Fisheries and Oceans, Transport Canada, and Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development.

After cabinet approves a positive assessment from the CEAA or National Energy Board, companies often have to receive permits from other departments, notably Fisheries and Oceans, as they seek to mitigate projects' effects.

Industry Complaints/Environmentalist Fears:

The mining and energy industries say the reviews take too long, are carried out even when environmental impact is negligible, and that the process can bog down even after approvals are granted.

They also complain the federal and provincial governments often have duplicative review processes, which can add to delays and uncertainty.

In hearings last year, the CEAA acknowledged that 94 per cent of its screenings were for small projects – expansion of a light-craft harbour, for example – that have minor environmental impact. A report from the Conservative majority on the environment committee recommended the government create a list of types of projects to be reviewed, or have the decision left to ministerial discretion.

Environmentalists say Ottawa has been weakening its environmental assessment process by, among other things, putting pro-industry agencies like the National Energy Board in charge of oil and gas.

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They fear the government will gut what's left of the review process by reducing if not eliminating input from government scientists, and by handing the oversight to provinces.

What's To Come:

The federal government will no longer do environmental assessments for smaller projects, but only for those of national significance, although it remains unclear how that standard will be determined.

Ottawa will turn over to provinces the review of major resource projects when it deems that the specific province has the wherewithal to assess a project.

Where the federal government continues to do reviews, responsibility will fall to three central agencies; officials at Fisheries and Oceans or Transport Canada will not be able to intervene.

Agencies will have to meet fixed time lines when reviewing major resource projects.

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The government will introduce new penalties for those who contravene federal environmental regulations, ranging up to $400,000.

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About the Author
Global Energy Reporter

Shawn McCarthy is an Ottawa-based, national business correspondent for The Globe and Mail, covering a global energy beat. He writes on various aspects of the international energy industry, from oil and gas production and refining, to the development of new technologies, to the business implications of climate-change regulations. More

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