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Federal environmental assessment gets a haircut in Bill C-9, the 2010 Canadian Budget Bill.

The federal Conservatives have made no secret of their desire to cut back federal environmental assessment. Federal EA has often been criticized, especially in the west, for:

  1. duplicating provincial environmental assessments,
  2. intruding on areas of provincial jurisdiction, and
  3. adding cost and delay to resource and development projects.

The biggest reason for federal intrusion on areas of provincial jurisdiction has been one of the four triggers for federal EA under the Canadian Environmental Assessment Act: if a project draws federal funds, it can require federal EA. (The other three are federal lands, permits, or proponents.)  Last year, the Harper Conservatives excluded from EA most projects that received national stimulus funds. Now, they have broadened this exclusion: there will no longer be federal EA for most projects that receive national funding under a whole series of programs, including infrastructure, sports facilities, borders and housing.

Other changes include:

  1. Most comprehensive federal environmental assessments will now be performed by the Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency, instead of other federal departments. The agency has greater expertise, and may be able to perform the assessments more quickly. It may also have less of a stake in the projects it is assessing.
  2. The Minister of the Environment can now “scope” federal EAs, as some provinces now do. For example, if a bridge is needed for a massive mine/mill complex, the federal EA can now be limited to just the bridge. This will overturn a recent court victory by environmentalists.
  3. There will no longer be a separate EA of projects that are before the National Energy Board or Nuclear Safety Commission (as announced last month). However, these two boards will now have power to create participant funding programs, to subsidize public participation in their hearings.
  4. Do the changes matter?

  5. Federal EA overlaps, but has not been the same as, provincial environmental assessment. One of the key differences: national assessments have been required to consider cumulative effects; provincial ones generally don’t. Eliminating federal EA therefore makes it less likely that cumulative impacts will be evaluated, such as climate change. In addition, national processes have been more open to people in other parts of the country.

The official summary of the Bill describes the changes as:

Part 19 amends the National Energy Board Act in order to give the National Energy Board the power to create a participant funding program to facilitate the participation of the public in hearings that are held under section 24 of that Act. It also amends the Nuclear Safety and Control Act to give the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission the power to create a participant funding program to facilitate the participation of the public in proceedings under that Act and the power to prescribe fees for that program.

Part 20 amends the Canadian Environmental Assessment Act to streamline certain process requirements for comprehensive studies, to give the Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency authority to conduct most comprehensive studies and to give the Minister of the Environment the power to establish the scope of any project in relation to which an environmental assessment is to be conducted. It also amends that Act to provide, in legislation rather than by regulations, that an environmental assessment is not required for certain federally funded infrastructure projects and repeals sunset clauses in the Regulations Amending the Exclusion List Regulations, 2007.

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