Construction stakeholders offered cautious praise for the new federal environmental review process unveiled by Environment Minister Catherine McKenna Feb. 8, tempered by doubt and with a general caveat that it was too early for full analysis.
The proposed reforms call for a broader impact assessment of projects that would include social, health and economic criteria, gender issues and a project’s effect on Indigenous people in addition to traditional environmental impacts.
Most major project reviews would be led by a new Impact Assessment Agency of Canada, which would replace the current Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency, and would have to be undertaken in 300 days, reduced from 365. Reviews of larger, controversial projects could extend to 600 days, down from the current 720 days, and would be reviewed by special panels nominated by the government.
Resource projects would go through a single process. The Impact Assessment Agency of Canada would work with other bodies such as the new Canadian Energy Regulator, which replaces the National Energy Board, other regulators and in co-operation with other levels of government.
“It’s not what I ideally had hoped but it’s better than I feared,” said John Gamble, CEO and president of the Association of Consulting Engineering Companies — Canada.
“It seems to be a mixed bag, and I think that is by design, to strike a balance. The government is trying to balance their constituency in the environmental movement and recognizing the reality of the Canadian economy.”
Gamble said the broadening of issues to be examined could give opponents an opportunity to “play whack-a-mole” but it would also offer proponents a platform to discuss the economic benefits of projects.
“There are certainly aspects of it like the tightened timelines that are certainly worthwhile,” he said. “Business needs the ability to make informed decisions. So the question will be, will that decision by business be yes, we want to invest, or no, we don’t want to invest. The reaction from business seems to be mixed, which compared with what I was initially expecting is good news.”
Both Gamble and Bob Blakely, Canadian operating officer of Canada’s Building Trades Unions, said they were still studying the proposals and had not yet reached fully informed conclusions.
“There are some decent things in there,” said Blakely.
“One project, one assessment, I agree with that completely. It should be that no municipality or province should be able to interfere with the process for its own ends.
“Getting rid of duplication, a huge plus. Changing the National Energy Board into the energy regulator, getting rid of a few other things, that’s pretty positive.”
Canadian Construction Association chair Chris McNally similarly said it was early in the process and was too early to issue a full comment.
However, he said, “We are certainly encouraged by the concept of one project, one assessment. That is something that is long overdue.”
“We need to remind everyone about the pipeline in B.C. It’s on, it’s off, it’s on, it’s off. That really discourages people from investing in this country and that is not good.”
McNally also said more certainty on the timeline is “very welcome,” and commented the dual approach to reviews, differentiating between small and large projects, made sense.
“You can identify when your project is big or little so you know how much time to put in to get the work finished,” he said. “That’s a good thing, I like that.”
Darrel Reid, vice-president of policy and advocacy for the Progressive Contractors Association of Canada, said in the short run giving regulatory legitimacy to a new set of voices during reviews could contribute to uncertainty rather than eliminating it.
“The government’s stated goals are laudable, to streamline the process, giving a certain amount of regulatory certainty to project proponents in a reasonable time frame,” he said. “From an industry point of view, the devil is in the details. On one hand, they are saying the old system did not work, they are putting a new system in place, but they are also adding a whole bunch of new players, voices to the table that none of us know what the impact is going to be.”
Reid said the world is telling Canada it needs to get the process right.
“We are going to co-operate and collaborate, obviously, but this has not introduced any new certainty to our lives or to our projects at this point,” he said.
Blakely agreed the broader range of issues to be addressed in an impact assessment could be a problem, although he said he understands the reasoning behind the policy.
“The idea of the impact assessment process, it introduces an element of subjectivity that really could politicize the process,” he said.
The Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers issued a statement in which its president and CEO Tim McMillan commented, “We support the one project, one assessment approach to eliminate duplication, uncertainty and unnecessary regulatory burdens and encourages transparency to the public.”
The federal statement said it would be seeking feedback from citizens to develop a more “robust” list of projects that should require review, and participation will be expanded during the review process.
The new legislation will enact the Impact Assessment Act, replacing the Canadian Environmental Assessment Act, 2012, that was introduced by the former Conservative government, and amend the Navigation Protection Act, renamed the Canadian Navigable Waters Act. It follows the tabling of legislation earlier in the week to amend the Fisheries Act.