The federal government plans to limit environmental groups’ interventions in reviews of major resource projects as it speeds up approvals for energy and mining developments.
Natural Resources Minister Joe Oliver said Tuesday the government will introduce measures to prevent opponents of new resource projects from delaying the environmental review process, which will be fast-tracked by Ottawa.
That means limiting delegations at review hearings and allowing only those who are directly affected by the project to participate.
Environmental groups said the proposed new rules, part of a larger effort to streamline resource project approvals, amount to censorship.
“This is a way to try to silence the voice of dissent in Canada,” said John Bennett, executive director of Sierra Club Canada, an environmental organization.
The Opposition also condemned the move.
“It’s more about censorship than containing the number of people who are coming,” said Liberal energy and natural resources critic, Ottawa MP David McGuinty.
The Conservative government is already being criticized for planning to hand over most environmental assessments to provinces in favour of focusing only on major projects of national interest, like the Northern Gateway pipeline.
Major changes introduced by the new plan, dubbed “Responsible Resource Development,” include:
A requirement to determine whether a federal environmental review is necessary within 45 days
Limiting panel reviews, if necessary, to no more than two years
The consolidation of environmental review agencies from 40 to just three: the Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency, the National Energy Board and the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission
Recognizing provincial reviews conducted in accord with the Canadian Environmental Assessment Act as equivalent substitutes for federal ones
Oliver also said Tuesday only those directly affected by new resource developments will be granted a chance to voice their concerns at environmental hearings.
“We don’t need a representative of Cesar Chavez’s oil company to come to Canada to tell us not to go ahead with a competing energy project,” Oliver told CTV’s Power Play, meaning Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez.
The reforms “will help prevent the long delays in reviewing major economic projects that kill potential jobs and stall economic growth by putting valuable investment at risk,” Oliver said earlier Tuesday at a news conference.
The ministry also announced tough new penalties for companies that don’t comply with environmental regulations, including fines of between $100,000 and $400,000.
In addition, the ministry said federal inspectors will be empowered to assess compliance for the first time.
By jettisoning the current tangle of review agencies for a “one project, one review” policy, Oliver said the government would not only eliminate duplication, but also facilitate more consultation with First Nations groups.
Under the current system, large-scale resource projects can take years to make their way through the approval process. The proposed Northern Gateway project, for example, is currently undergoing a joint review by the NEB and CNSC.
Under the new approach, such joint reviews would no longer be necessary.
Commenting on whether or not the proposed new regulations would have any effect on the timing of Northern Gateway project, a spokesperson for the company behind the pipeline proposal indicated it’s still too soon to say.
Todd Nogier told The Canadian Press that Enbridge, the company behind the project intended to take crude from Alberta to the West Coast, will need to examine the details before passing judgement.
After Enbridge first applied to build the Northern Gateway pipeline in May 2010, it took until January of this year for hearings to begin. A decision on whether the $5.5 billion project will get the go-ahead is not expected until late in 2013.
In the spring federal budget, the Conservatives promised to speed the review process for such major projects. Doing so, they said, will mean more investment, jobs and ultimately benefits for the economy.
In the spring federal budget, the Conservatives promised to speed that process. Doing so, they said, will mean more investment, jobs and ultimately benefits for the economy.
Critics say the reforms will cost Canadians in the long run.
But government officials insist the streamlining of environmental reviews won’t be done at the expense of the environment or thorough scientific and safety evaluations.
Instead, Oliver said the government is boosting its environmental protection efforts with a commitment to spend $35 million over two years on marine safety, as well as another $13.5 million on oil tanker and pipeline safety.
With a report by CTV’s Ottawa Bureau Chief Robert Fife