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Environmental assessment expert optimistic

Change of government promises renewed credibility for review process
November 12, 2015 9:05 P.M.
Kevin Hanna, director of the UBC Centre for Environmental Assessment Research, speaks at a TRU environmental sciences lecture Thursday.

Environmental regulation will have its credibility restored and become far more robust with the change of government in Ottawa, the director of UBC Centre for Environmental Assessment Research predicted at TRU Thursday.

Kevin Hanna said during an environmental sciences talk that there is reason for optimism after the Conservative government weakened environmental assessment (EA) rules in 2012.

Based on the Liberal platform and conversations with colleagues, he said the new government, within two to three years, will restore evidence-based decision-making while enabling effective engagement with First Nations, new emphasis on cumulative effects and the integration of climate change as an EA consideration.

“A few weeks ago, before the election, it would have been a very different talk and it would have been more boring,” he began.

His talk drew a number of non-students, with KGHM’s Ajax Mine environmental assessment in its initial phase and close to home.

As a prelude, Hanna outlined daunting environmental challenges confronting the Trudeau government, including climate change, fossil fuel energy projects, energy diversification, water quality, biodiversity (species at risk and protected areas), the environmental assessment role and the impact of trade agreements.

Under the 2003 Canadian Environmental Assessment Act, EAs were triggered by federal involvement in a project and there were 14 different systems, one for each of the provinces and territories. The vast majority of EAs were modest undertakings, simple screenings. While some were unnecessary, they gave the opportunity to pause and consider environmental impacts, Hanna said.

“They’ve generally become stronger, more interesting over time, and sometimes to the chagrin of politicians, too strong. Never letting true facts get in the way, the Conservative government made some very significant changes to federal environmental assessment.”

The changes three years ago were based largely on myths, he said. One suggested the process unfairly burdens the proponent.

“Environmental assessment is not cheap, but often it functions in tandem with activities and functions that would normally be part of project design,” he said. “Environmental assessment actually enables you — we can say with some certainty — to get all your ducks in a row for multiple approval processes and ensure you can actually engage in good approval risk management. The function may well be that it actually speeds it up.

“It isn’t a one-stop shopping exercise. It’s multiple places in the mall you have to go get approval and if you can get that one right, it actually makes the others go more quickly.

“If a project is rejected by the EA process, it deserves to be rejected by the EA process, because it rarely ever says no. It is not about saying no; it’s about saying yes to better designed projects. It’s about making environmental design better.”

But it should have the capacity to say no when the project deserves to be rejected, he added.

In 2012, the Conservative government buried the new regulatory regime in its 800-page budget omnibus bill. Decades of research were ignored, Hanna said.

“All of the years of research and knowledge which were leading us toward an infinitely more effective collection of laws, regulations and rules, that were not only effective but cheaper. Out the door. So we’re moving back to it and that’s a very positive thing across the board.”

Among the changes, it extended discretionary powers to the political and cabinet level.

“This has led to the politicization of projects and, some will argue, greater uncertainty.”

“These changes weren’t spawned in the mind of some 22-year-old hyper-partisan in the minister of environment’s office. Some of these changes had been talked about within the agencies for some time, particularly the centralization aspect.”

The process was centralized into three agencies, Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency, the National Energy Board and the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission. The reforms also brought in equivalency or substitution, meaning the provinces could undertake EAs on their own. The most enthusiastic province was B.C., he noted.

Yet the changes haven’t made the process faster or more efficient, he argued.

“There’s really no evidence that things are moving faster, but we can be suspicious about the thoroughness.”

Hanna said he respects the CEAA but referred to the National Energy Board as “different.” They have different approaches and the NEB is far more likely to exclude participants or intervenor applications. 

He had harsh criticism for the NEB handling of the Northern Gateway Pipeline hearings: “Lots of listening, not much hearing. The complete abrogation of any kind of thinking about risk management and risk assessments.”

Hanna said the process in that case did “great damage” to the public perception of environmental assessment.

Ironically, the Conservatives’ changes had the unintended effect of arousing greater interest in the EA process on the part of the media.

With its integrity restored, the EA process in a number of ways defines Canada, he noted.

“This is home and it’s important that we protect that, because at the end of the day we have to live with the things that we build and we have to live with the mistakes that we could make.”

Would it be possible for the new government to revert to the full-panel review that the City of Kamloops requested?

"I don't know how practical, how feasible that is. Can you retroactively dump all these new requirements on them?"

Hanna admitted that he knows too little about the Ajax project to offer specific comment, but he still attempted to answer the question.

"Is a review panel more likely to say no than the administrative review that it's going through now? Possibly, but I don't have any numbers to support that."

That would be an interesting research question, he offered.

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