The Liberal government has released a broad outline of how it plans to start changing the way environmental assessments are done before major projects like pipelines get approved and built.
The ministers of the Environment and of Natural Resources announced what they called “an interim approach” to federal environmental reviews on Wednesday – an approach that will have an immediate effect on how two major pipeline projects are being evaluated: the Energy East pipeline project and the Trans Mountain Expansion Project.
For Trans Mountain, the minister of Natural Resources, Jim Carr, has said he will seek an extension on the legislated time limit for the government’s decision on the project.
The National Energy Board, which conducts extensive reviews of projects and submits a recommendation to the government, is expected to submit its final report to Ottawa on Trans Mountain in May. After that, the government will have seven, rather than four, months to make a final decision.
That extension will allow the government to undertake more consultations with First Nations communities and assess additional greenhouse gas emissions that could be associated with the project.
On Energy East, the government says it will seek an extension on two fronts. First, it will extend the legislated review time for the NEB by six months (to 21 months total) and then also extend the time Ottawa is given to make a final decision by three months (six in total).
Again, the additional time is to be used for more in-depth consultations with Aboriginal groups, greenhouse gas assessments and also to “help facilitate expanded public input.”
That means Energy East likely won’t have a firm answer until late 2018, 27 months after the NEB starts its assessment process, which may not happen until the summer.
No companies are being asked to return to the starting line, the Liberals say, and “project reviews will continue within the current legislative framework and in accordance with treaty provisions.”
The guiding “principles” and plans released on Wednesday are designed to act as interim measures until a full review and overhaul of the federal environmental assessment process can take place. That overhaul could take “a number of years,” acknowledged Environment Minister Catherine McKenna.
“Consultation is, and will continue to be, a driving force for our government,” McKenna said. “Gathering evidence and facts on greenhouse gas emissions … will further help inform our national climate change plan.”
Carr would not say if too-high greenhouse gas emissions could eventually kill the current pipeline projects, and it’s not clear what weight will be given to emissions as the government makes its final choices.
“(Emissions) will be assessed by the Environment department and considered by the government of Canada when it’s time to make a decision,” Carr said. He noted that whatever projects are approved or rejected, the government can never please everyone.
The Conservatives were indeed displeased with Wednesday’s announcement. Tory MP Candice Bergen called the new measures “just another layer” for approvals and “a time delay” for the companies behind the pipeline projects.
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“This is not good news for the natural resources sector. This is not good news for those whose very jobs depends on the natural resources doing well,” Bergen said. “Canadians are paying the price.”
She added that the Conservatives believe that decisions on natural resources projects under a new system will be increasingly concentrated in the Prime Minister’s Office.
“It looks like a lot of room for political decision-making by this government.”
The interim principles announced Wednesday are:
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