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Bill C-69, the federal government’s proposal for changing the current environmental assessment regime, is currently at first reading. The Bill proposes to reconfigure the way that potential environmental impacts of a project are evaluated in advance of its approval. The proposed changes are wide-ranging, encompassing the kinds of projects that will be subject to review, how the review is conducted, who conducts the review, and who may participate at the various decision-making steps.

The government was under pressure to make changes to the current federal environmental assessment regime, which has been widely criticised since the previous Conservative government introduced sweeping changes in 2012. Although there has been widespread agreement that changes are needed, the changes proposed by Bill C-69 have not been free from criticism.

With the tabling of Bill C-69, the government of Quebec has taken the opportunity to express its desire to conduct environmental assessments on its own—without federal involvement. Per current practice, provincial and federal authorities work together on a single assessment. However, the federal authorities have, on several occasions, conducted their own assessments without the participation of the Quebec authorities. The Quebec government has also expressed concerns with proposed enhanced involvement for indigenous peoples.

Commentators have raised additional concerns about Bill C-69. Some have queried the independence of project assessors (the Impact Assessment Agency of Canada would have the sole authority to conduct assessments under the proposed new regime) from regulators—the Canadian Energy Regulator (formerly, the National Energy Board) and the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission.

Others, including Conservative politicians, have expressed concerns that the new process, which introduces a preliminary “planning” phase to assessments, would create excessive delays in seeing resource projects get off the ground.

Meanwhile, environmental groups have also criticized Bill C-69 for reasons that include its failure to explicitly recognize Indigenous authority, the degree of discretion it leaves to Cabinet Ministers, and the fact that it merely mandates consideration of climate impacts in the decision-making process but does not specifically require their reduction. It remains to be seen whether or not the government will listen to the commentary and make amendments to the environmental assessment regime as currently proposed.

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