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In 2012, Stephen Harper used the federal budget to alter more than five dozen laws with a controversial omnibus bill. Among the many changes was a major scaling back of Ottawa’s environmental oversight. Mr. Harper’s aim was clear: to pave the road to make it easier to approve industrial projects.

The prime minister was trying to solve a problem that largely didn’t exist. Regulatory approval of oil sands mines, fossil fuel pipelines and other large projects was standard. Rejections were extremely rare. Yet in Mr. Harper’s effort to aid industry, his watered-down process caused a lot of problems.

The Trans Mountain oil pipeline is a prime example. It was approved under Mr. Harper’s review process and the Liberals then gave it a green light. But all that was quashed in 2018 when the Federal Court of Appeal declared that the environmental review and consultations with Indigenous people were inadequate. The loss added years to building the pipeline.

In 2019, the federal Liberals enacted a new review process with the Impact Assessment Act. It was the result of lengthy consultations. The aim was a more robust and reliable process, in a shorter time frame, one that included a focus on Indigenous input and climate change.

Alberta responded angrily and derided it as the “no more pipelines” law, even as Ottawa was spending many billions of dollars of Canadians’ money to buy and build the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion. The province moved to fight the new law in court, just as it had fought Ottawa’s carbon tax.

The province’s political leaders found a willing ear in provincial court. Ottawa’s carbon pricing was deemed unconstitutional by the Alberta Court of Appeal. The Supreme Court rejected that ruling in 2021. The same Alberta Court of Appeal last year ruled the Impact Assessment Act to be unconstitutional, seeing it as federal overreach into provincial domain. The court also seemed to view the legislation as taking direct aim at Alberta, that the new review system would automatically say no to fossil fuels and thus represented a “wrecking ball” to Alberta’s economy.

The final word in this important test of federalism – the overlaps and divides between Ottawa’s powers and those of the provinces – will be again decided at the Supreme Court. Hearings are set for March 21 and 22.

First, politics need to be unravelled from constitutional questions. There is no legal debate about Ottawa’s right to oversee a proposed interprovincial pipeline. What the Alberta court viewed as unconstitutional is Ottawa’s hand in projects within provincial boundaries and what it saw as the law’s undue breadth. But Supreme Court precedent – the 1992 Oldman decision – stakes a clear role for Ottawa. Oil sands mines are one example. They were included under Mr. Harper’s federal review process.

The case’s outcome is uncertain, but experts suggest the odds appear to tilt in Ottawa’s jurisdictional favour, similar to the carbon pricing case. Ottawa has an established, if constrained, right to weigh in on matters of the environment.

Beyond the federal-provincial legal debate, there is a broader public policy issue: getting things built, whether it is about fossil fuels or power transmission lines and mining for critical minerals. In all cases, reviews must be robust – and that means Indigenous voices and climate goals. This underpins public confidence and legal scrutiny. But reviews also have to be efficient. Good projects need to be approved in a reasonable time.

To start construction on a big project involves two main steps: garnering approval in a regulatory review and assembling a variety of provincial and federal permits. Both industry and governments can do better.

Companies have to be fully prepared for detailed scrutiny. Industry is often the reason for delays. But governments need to be nimble. The federal Liberals acknowledged that in last fall’s budget update with $1.3-billion to make it happen, about $250-million a year starting this April. The money is supposed to “improve the efficiency of assessments” as a rising number of large projects are proposed.

Developing Canada’s bountiful resources has always required a careful consideration of both environment and economy. Mr. Harper tried to push too far in one direction. The current system promises to deliver a better balance.