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Canada On Precipice of ‘Huge Step Forward’ For Environmental Assessments

Hope may finally be in sight for fixing Canada’s environmental assessment process, after a four-member expert panel released a promising report on the heels of consultations in 21 cities across the country.

Historically, the focus of Canada’s environmental assessment has been on “avoiding harm” and “significant adverse impacts” associated with new projects, but the new approach recommended by the panel would shift the focus to a “net contribution to sustainability,” said Anna Johnston, staff counsel at West Coast Environmental Law.

“The recommendations that the panel has made address a number of the concerns that were raised by the scientific community,” said Aerin Jacob, conservation scientist for the Yellowstone to Yukon Conservation Initiative. “I was pleasantly surprised.”

A key recommendation is to establish an arms-length independent agency with a broad mandate to administer environmental assessments — including gathering information, conducting the review and making the final decision (although cabinet would retain the ability to appeal). This recommendation would take reviews out of the hands of other agencies, such as the National Energy Board.

Another crucial recommendation is for government to move to a model in which the proponent continues to fund the science, but the actual science itself will be provided by independent professionals hired by the government.

“It recognizes that environmental assessment has to be integrated with assessments of the various other impacts, the costs and the benefits,” said Chris Tollefson, executive director of Pacific Centre for Environmental Law and Litigation and a law professor at the University of Victoria. “So we’re moving from an environmental assessment regime to an impact assessment regime, which is a major step forward.”

Major Overhaul of Environmental Laws Possible

There are four expert review panels currently preparing reports for the federal cabinet on environmental and regulatory processes.

Each is taking on a distinct but interrelated piece of legislation: the National Energy Board Act, the Fisheries Act, the Navigation Protection Act and the Canadian Environmental Assessment Act.

Those pieces of legislation were dramatically altered in 2012, during the Conservative government’s overhaul of Canada’s environmental laws — which sparked widespread protests across the country.

The environmental assessment panel went to 21 cities, received more than 500 online submissions and  welcomed more than 1,000 participants at engagement sessions,” according to the government.

Shift Towards ‘Impacts Assessments’ Recognizes Holistic Nature of Project Impacts

The recommended shift from an “environmental assessment” to “impact assessment” might sound like a mere semantic quibble.

But Johnston said it represents a significant move towards a more holistic “sustainability approach” that considers social, cultural and economic impacts in addition to environmental impacts. The report also recommended that environmental assessments should be conducted and decisions made in collaboration with Indigenous governments.

“It makes it clear that we have to not just look at the biophysical impacts of the project — whether there’s going to be significant adverse environmental effects — but instead to look at projects and other proposals in a more holistic way that looks at their impacts on social, economic, cultural and other important components of Canadian society,” Tollefson explained.

However, Johnston notes the report didn’t include a recommended expansion of assessment for cumulative impacts, meaning the negative effects of development from smaller projects on a landscape may still not be adequately evaluated.

Information from Environmental Assessments to Be Made Public

There’s also the issue of information sharing.

Jacob of the Yellowstone to Yukon Conservation Initiative says that one of the things she’s most excited about is a recommendation to make all data from environmental assessments publicly available. While the details are still unclear, Jacob says it would include information sharing and both baseline and monitoring data.

“That’s really key,” she says. “It goes much beyond an individual project: this is about helping Canadians know more about our country. If implemented, that would be tremendously important.

“If you want to know that somebody did something carefully and following particular standards, you have to be able to see all the details of their methods,” she adds. “It helps us build upon the shared body of knowledge. That’s critical.”

However, Jacob notes there’s still ambiguity about the independence of information collecting: although the report is “really explicit” that the new body would be impartial and the lead authority, she says there would still be a reliance on proponent-driven data.

That’s where clarification on what “best available information” looks like is needed.

“I really want to emphasize that scientists of all stripes — whether they’re at universities, working in consultancy companies or NGOs — really care about being involved in this,” she said.

Federal Government Now Seeking Responses to Report

There’s now a public comment period that’s open until May 5, 2017, giving individuals or organizations the ability to respond to the recommendations in the report. Following that, the federal cabinet will decide on changes to legislation, regulations and policies, with the government listing the estimated window of fall 2017.

Johnston said she’s been working closely with government leading up to report, and confirms the government is considering significant legislative amendments. Tollefson added that there will be “momentum towards implementation.”

“This is a real opportunity to make a huge step forward; there may be disagreements on the details but in terms of the broad sweep this is an opportunity that should not be missed,” he said.

Only time will tell how many of the panel’s recommendations are implemented. But experts agree the review process itself has bolstered confidence in the government’s interest in public consultation, which Johnston said stands in stark contrast to the processes that resulted in the changes to the 2012 legislation.

“The panel has recognized that you just don’t get quality decisions when you don’t have public values and input included in that process, and you don’t have community buy-in if the community hasn’t been able to provide their thoughts,” she said.

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