Ottawa is planning to overhaul the country's environmental assessment process to ensure major energy and mining projects aren't jeopardized by unnecessary delays, Natural Resources Minister Joe Oliver says.
The federal government has already moved to streamline the environmental review process, but Mr. Oliver said more will be done to eliminate inefficiencies, exempt small projects from review and eventually work out deals with provinces to provide a "one project, one review" approach.
While Ottawa hopes to work with the provinces to eliminate duplication, Mr. Oliver said it won't wait, but will act alone to streamline the process.
"We need to make the regulatory process more predictable, more timely, less duplicative," he said Monday. "We respect the integrity of the regulatory process but we do need to get these projects approved."
He points to the lengthy and highly politicized U.S. State Department review of TransCanada Corp.'s Keystone XL as an object lesson in what to avoid, while industry officials raise concerns that Enbridge Inc.'s Northern Gateway pipeline may face similar delays.
Critics say the government is gutting the environmental assessment system to ensure ecological concerns don't get in the way of industry's development plans.
Energy and mining executives have complained loudly in recent years that the environmental review process is too cumbersome and time consuming, adding costly delays which drive up the price for capital-intensive projects.
Mr. Oliver said he agrees with that assessment, though he points to recent progress. He wouldn't say whether the government is planning new legislation, though the House of Commons environment committee is reviewing the Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency (CEAA) and is expected to propose amendments.
He said that there are some $500-billion worth of energy and mining projects being planned for Canada over the next decade, but that governments needs to create the right conditions for those investments to occur, including an efficient regulatory regime.
Much of the delay stems from the involvement of a multitude of government agencies and departments – overseeing dozens of laws and regulations – that are involved in reviewing almost every major construction project in the country, as well as many minor ones.
In the past few years, Ottawa has taken several steps to speed up review, including the establishment of a Major Projects Management Office, which has cut the average review to 22 months from four years.
The government has also designated the National Energy Board, the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission, and the Canada-Newfoundland and Labrador Offshore Petroleum Board as the lead agencies for environmental reviews that affect companies reporting to them.
There is serious concern in the Conservative government about the Northern Gateway pipeline review, where some 4,000 intervenors have indicated they want to address a joint panel representing the NEB and the CEAA.
Mr. Oliver said the Gateway project is critical to Canada's plans to fully develop the oil sands – with all the economic spinoffs that would entail – but added he will respect the regulatory process now under way. Eventually, the joint panel will report to the government and it will be up to cabinet to decide on its recommendations.
The CEAA told the Commons committee that it must screen all projects that could touch federally regulated activity, and that more than 90 per cent of small projects have little or no environmental impact.
Green Party Leader Elizabeth May doesn't trust the government to merely eliminate duplication and overlap, saying the Conservatives are intent on gutting environmental review.
"They want a rubber stamp," Ms. May said. "What they want to do is run roughshod over the environment, period ... They do not want environmental consideration of anything to get in the way [of resource development]"