A fresh wave of anger swept through several energy-rich provinces on Friday after the Senate passed a controversial bill to evaluate future infrastructure projects based on their impact on human health, the environment and local communities.
Critics argue that Bill C-69 will create more red tape around efforts to bring Canadian oil to market, with Alberta Premier Jason Kenney dubbing it the “No More Pipelines Bill.” Several Conservative premiers, provincial energy ministers, senators and MPs have warned that the legislation will repel energy investors and rob oil-rich regions like Alberta of the ability to capitalize on their resources.
Essentially, they worry it will be tougher and take longer to get new pipeline projects approved in Canada.
The Impact Assessment Act sets up a new authority to assess major infrastructure projects such as pipelines, mines and interprovincial highways based on how they might impact public health, the environment and the economy. It imposes more requirements for consulting Indigenous communities affected by pipeline construction. It also widens public participation in the review process and makes it mandatory to weigh climate change as a factor in any proposed project.
Critics say the new review process will create confusion and uncertainty around future projects, causing foreign investors to take their money to other, more certain markets.
However, experts who study Canadian regulatory policy say those concerns are overblown, because Bill C-69 simply restores some of the regulatory framework that the former Harper government eliminated with Bill C-38 in 2012. It also requires federal lawmakers to explain how climate change and public health factor into whatever major infrastructure projects they rule on, according to Martin Olszynski, an associate professor of environmental and natural resources law and policy at the University of Calgary.
“There’s no radical departure here,” Olszynski told Global News. He says the enhanced consultation process required under the bill might actually cut down on some of the litigation brought against future projects, because it would bring potential critics into the decision-making process before they get to courts.
“The concerns have been enormously overblown,” said Mark S. Winfield, an environmental studies professor at York University and co-chair of the school’s Sustainable Energy Initiative. “The legislation is a relatively minor adjustment to what already existed.”
Winfield says the new regulatory framework will still be “vastly weaker than what existed for the 40 years before Stephen Harper adopted Bill C-38.”
“It’s a little hard to buy the argument that this legislation is the harbinger of some kind of apocalypse,” Winfield added.
Olszynski says Bill C-69 has been politicized to rile up populist sentiment against the governing Liberals, particularly in oil-reliant Alberta. However, he says that argument is not rooted in any firm argument.
Both professors said there are still weaknesses in the bill, including some discretion for deciding when an environmental assessment is necessary.
Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer condemned the bill’s passing as a “sad day for Canada” in a statement on Thursday.
“Justin Trudeau finally has his law that will phase out Canada’s oil and gas industry,” Scheer said.
The governing Liberals touted the bill as a way to ensure that Canada’s economic and environmental interests go hand in hand.
They also argue it will ensure good projects go forward as a result of more scrupulous study that could prevent legal challenges down the road.
“The Conservatives still seem to think that the way to get big projects built is to ignore Indigenous Peoples and ignore environmental concerns,” Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said on Thursday. “That didn’t work for 10 years under Stephen Harper, and it’s certainly not going to work now.
“That’s why we had to change the process.”
Conservative senators tried to alter the bill with a record 188 amendments earlier this month, but the Liberal government only accepted 62 of those amendments as written and another 37 after alterations.
“The fact that it required a historic number of amendments clearly indicates the deeply flawed nature of this bill from the outset,” Ontario Energy Minister Greg Rickford said at a press conference last week alongside energy ministers from Alberta and Saskatchewan.
WATCH: Liberals reject most Conservative amendments to C-69 on June 12
Conservative Sen. David Tkachuk said the bill does a disservice to oil-dependent communities in Alberta and Saskatchewan.
“Mark my words,” Tkachuk said on Thursday. “These people will let (the Liberals) know exactly how they feel this October.”
Olszynski says he was surprised by the vitriol that emerged around the bill in the Senate. He also described some of the rejected amendments as “egregious,” including a change that would have allowed provinces to veto over certain federal decisions.
The Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers says the new regulations are likely to “make an already complex system more complicated while ultimately raising uncertainty and the potential for litigation.”
The Canadian Energy Pipeline Association (CEPA) said the prospects for new major pipelines in Canada are “bleak” under the new bill, which it says didn’t incorporate enough of the Conservative senators’ ideas.
“A wide cross-section of other industries, Indigenous groups, elected officials and numerous other Canadians shared our concerns,” CEPA president and CEO Chris Bloomer said in a statement. “The Senate’s package of amendments would have improved the bill. The government’s amendments do not go far enough to make it workable.”
Several energy-industry groups say Canada’s reputation has already taken a hit in the oil and gas sector due to delays with the Trans Mountain, Keystone XL and Line 3 pipelines.
Those same groups applauded the Liberal government for approving the Trans Mountain pipeline project earlier in the week.
Bill C-69 is set to receive royal assent on Friday.
—With files from the Canadian Press