Even by Ottawa standards, Tuesday’s meeting of the House environment committee was a long and rancorous affair.
Running more than 13 hours when it finally adjourned after midnight, the marathon session was the committee’s fourth and final day to vote on hundreds of proposed amendments to Bill C-69, the Trudeau government’s effort to overhaul Canada’s environmental laws.
Leading up to the meeting, opposition MPs on the 11-member committee repeatedly protested against the schedule imposed by chair Deborah Schulte as Liberals push to get the 400-page bill back to the House for a third and final reading before Parliament adjourns for the summer.
Few are happy with the result, including scientists who say the bill puts too little emphasis on the scientific rigour and independence of impact assessments. Opposition members expressed surprise that the government hasn’t done better after two years of public consultation and expert panel recommendations.
“If a bill has to have more than 150 amendments come from the government itself, doesn’t that tell you maybe it was a bit of a scramble?” said Linda Duncan, an NDP member and vice-chair of the committee.
Conservatives on the committee say that they are equally frustrated by the manner in which the bill has been pushed through. Industry associations have complained that the legislation casts uncertainty on the assessment process, which will deter investment in projects.
The omnibus bill includes separate acts on impact assessment, energy regulation and navigable waters, and is intended to replace the controversial rewriting of federal environmental regulations under Stephen Harper in 2012.
Liberals have portrayed the bill as striking a balance between resource development and environmental protection. When it was first tabled in February, Catherine McKenna, Minister for Environment and Climate Change, suggested that such a compromise would naturally draw fire from both ends of the political spectrum. But experts say the weaknesses in the bill mean that it is unlikely to improve impact assessment or strengthen public trust.
“When you look at the actual legislative language, there’s very little change,” said Martin Olszynski, a lawyer and University of Calgary professor who was among the more than 100 expert witnesses selected to appear before the committee.
Given that none of those experts were research scientists, Prof. Olszynski opted to focus his ten minutes of testimony on adding language to the bill that would require decision-makers to adhere to principles of scientific integrity. An amendment to that effect was later introduced by Green Party Leader Elizabeth May and passed by the committee.
Yet even that step amounts to a half measure, said Aerin Jacob, an ecologist with the Yellowstone to Yukon Conservation Initiative. Dr. Jacob was among those who sought, unsuccessfully, to speak to the committee in an effort to strengthen the science underpinnings of the bill.
She said that while all persons involved in carrying out any part of an impact assessment should fall under the scientific-integrity provision, the amendment that the committee actually voted on only includes federal officials.
“By and large that’s not the problem,” Dr. Jacob said, since the data that support an impact assessment is typically gathered and interpreted not by government scientists but by private consultants paid for by industry proponents. “The problem is that the fox is watching the hen house.”
Petr Komers, a Calgary-based consultant, agreed that the bill does nothing to help those who are trying to provide a fair reading on the environmental impacts of proposed projects when they know that their clients are looking for a green light. “That makes our job really difficult,” he said.
Jonathan Wilkinson, parliamentary secretary for the Environment Ministry and a non-voting member of the committee, said that the government had considered but ultimately rejected a more hands-on approach to environmental assessments
“The answer that we came to is it’s better for [industry proponents] to do the initial work, but of course government must have the resources and the capacity to effectively assess that work,” he said. “That’s the better way of doing it.”
Kai Chan, a scientist who specializes in environmental policy at the University of British Columbia, said experience suggests otherwise.
In a paper published in March in Environmental Management, a research journal, Dr. Chan and colleagues examined 10 recent assessments and found that assessors typically underplayed the significance of environmental impacts and sought to rationalize why projects should proceed. Government officials were unlikely to questions their findings, even for controversial assessments such as the Northern Gateway pipeline, which was later cancelled.
Dr. Chan added that stronger oversight and co-ordination of the assessment process by federal authorities would fix the problem. “It’s really a shame they were so quick to dismiss that,” he said.