Democracy, transparency and accountability in environmental decision-making have been rapidly eroded in recent years. In an effort to “streamline” regulatory approvals for companies, the federal government has removed many environmental assessment and permitting requirements. Now, the public has significantly fewer opportunities to have a say in whether, how and where activities take place in their communities, and decision-makers have less information about environmental impacts.
With the 2012 omnibus bill C-38, the federal government replaced the Canadian Environmental Assessment Act with the much weaker CEAA 2012, undoing years of work to ensure decisions that might impact the environment were made responsibly, based on the best available information, and with public input. As a result:
- Approximately 90% of projects that used to undergo a federal environmental assessment no longer need one. It used to be the case that any project that involved the federal government – whether it required a federal permit, occurred on federal lands, received federal funding or was proposed by the federal government – triggered an environmental review. Now, only projects listed in regulations are designated for review. When the new law passed, over 3,000 environmental assessments across the country were scrapped.
- The public has been shut out of environmental decision-making. Under the old law, any member of the public could participate in an environmental assessment. CEAA 2012 limits that right to “interested parties,” which it defines as a person who is “directly affected” by the project or has “relevant information or expertise.” It is up to the body responsible for conducting the environmental assessment to decide who is “directly affected,” leading to much inconsistency and uncertainty. To participate in an assessment of a pipeline or other project for which the National Energy Board is the reviewing body, for example, you have to fill out an application that is upwards of ten pages and full of technical and daunting information. The new rules effectively silence many interested individuals from government processes.
Public confidence in the impartiality and independence of reviews is diminishing. CEAA 2012 hands the National Energy Board (NEB) responsibility for assessing energy and infrastructure projects, a job formerly done by the Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency – an independent body with special expertise and experience in conducting environmental assessments. The NEB is an agency with strong ties to the oil and gas industry and a goal of ensuring that “Canadians benefit from efficient energy infrastructure and markets.” Recent experience with the NEB review of the Kinder Morgan Trans Mountain tankers and pipelines expansion project suggests that the NEB may not have the independence, expertise or mandate to ensure that the best interests of Canadians – or the environment – are met. Indeed, Robyn Allan, former President and CEO of ICBC and intervenor in two environmental assessments of major oil tankers and pipeline proposals in British Columbia, withdrew as an intervenor in the NEB assessment of Kinder Morgan’s proposed Trans Mountain project, calling the process rigged, the system broken and the playing field uneven.