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Politics Ottawa presses ahead with contentious resource development bill

The federal government is plowing ahead on its legislation to overhaul the review process for major resource projects, with the introduction Wednesday of a package of amendments that fall far short of what conservative premiers and oil-industry executives have demanded.

Environment Minister Catherine McKenna said the government was accepting − either in whole or modified − 99 amendments to the contentious Bill C-69 that were passed by the Red Chamber, but was rejecting another 130 proposed changes, including 90 per cent of those that were put forward by Conservatives on the Senate energy and environment committee.

Ms. McKenna said the amended legislation will restore public trust in the system and protect the environment and Indigenous rights while ensuring good projects are approved in a timely and predictable manner, while the Conservative amendments would essentially gut the bill.

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Environment Minister Catherine McKenna wants the House of Commons to reject the bulk of the amendments Conservative senators are proposing to her environmental assessment legislation. The senators, oil industry lobbyists and a group of Conservative premiers say the original bill is a threat not only to Canada's oil and gas sector, but to national unity as a whole. McKenna counters that the previous Conservative government's policies and practices are to blame for polarizing Canadians in the debate over the environment and the economy. The Canadian Press

Conservative Party Leader Andrew Scheer insisted, however, that the Liberal bill would cripple the resource industry and heighten regional tensions, echoing an argument made by six premiers in a letter to the Prime Minister this week. He noted that the Liberal government of Newfoundland and Labrador argued in an open letter that legislation would “deter investment in the development of the resource sector without improving environmental protection.”

In the Commons Wednesday, Mr. Trudeau accused the conservative premiers of recklessly inflaming divisions by raising national-unity issues. “We know the only way to move forward is to protect the environment; to work in partnership with Indigenous peoples and to provide clarity for investors," the Prime Minister said.

Members of Parliament will vote on the government’s amended bill in the coming days and then return it for consideration by the Senate, which is dominated by the Independent Senate Group, most of whom were appointed by Justin Trudeau. The Conservative amendments were adopted by the Senate energy and environment committee, which approved two packages of changes – one from the opposition and another from the independent group. The full Senate then voted to send all of the proposed amendments back to the House of Commons.

Alberta Premier Jason Kenney said Wednesday that he would launch a constitutional court challenge if the government proceeds as planned, saying the legislation treads on provincial powers. Ms. McKenna insisted, however, that the bill targets only issues that are covered under federal jurisdiction.

“Bill C-69 is a threat to the prosperity of Canada,” Mr. Kenney told reporters after giving a speech in Montreal. “It will create an enormous amount of investor uncertainty."

The energy ministers of Alberta, Saskatchewan and Ontario held a joint news conference in Calgary, which is holding an international petroleum conference this week, to reiterate their opposition to Bill C-69 and condemn the federal government’s decision to reject most of the proposed amendments.

Ontario Energy Minister Greg Rickford said Bill C-69 remains "deeply flawed" and would hurt his province's manufacturing, mining and nuclear industries. He urged Parliament to kill it.

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“It represents a significant intrusion by the federal government into Ontario’s ability for self-determination in the development of our resources, energy and major infrastructure projects,” he said. //

Mr. Rickford and Saskatchewan Energy Minister Bronwyn Eyre both said they believed Bill C-69 is unconstitutional, but neither would say whether their provinces would follow Alberta’s lead with a legal challenge.

Ms. McKenna said the Conservative amendments − which were endorsed by several premiers and promoted by industry − were counter to the intent of the bill. Among other things, they would limit public participation in hearings; put industry-specific regulatory bodies in charge of reviews; and eliminate a requirement that panels must consider climate change and Indigenous rights when reviewing major resource projects.

However, the government has accepted amendments that will rein in the minister of environment’s discretion to intervene in a hearing process; clarify that the review agency has the power to manage public participation in order to meet strict timelines, and add explicit language that the goal of the project assessments is to ensure economic development along with sustainability.

Environmental advocates and some First Nations leaders have condemned the Conservative package as essentially gutting the bill and undermining protections of the environment and Indigenous rights.

The Mining Association of Canada − whose members account for most federal assessments − gave a qualified thumbs up to the legislation, saying it is an improvement over the existing system for its traditional mining members. Oil sands miners and uranium producers continue to have major reservations, Mining Association president Pierre Gratton said.

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But oil-industry lobby groups said the bill as proposed by the government would represent a major setback for their members.

“If Bill C-69 passes in its current form, it is difficult to imagine that any major new pipeline projects will be proposed or built in the future,” said Chris Bloomer, president of the Canadian Energy Pipeline Association. "This is not only an industry issue − it will hurt all Canadians, as the lack of investment could cost the country billions of dollars in revenue that fund vital social services.”

University of Calgary environmental lawyer Martin Olszynski said Bill C-69 does not represent a radical departure from the current system but added that industry was looking to ease the regulatory burden in order to compete with states such as Texas, where investment is booming and companies have no trouble getting pipelines approved. But he said the Senate amendments were “incoherent” and would have “rendered the bill unworkable.”

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