A pending review of the environmental assessment (EA) process in B.C. will speed up approvals for “good” construction projects, says the province’s Environment and Climate Change Strategy Minister George Heyman.
“The goal is to have more clarity for investors and communities and speed up the process for projects that have a good chance of making it through to approval and focusing everybody’s time and energies more productively,” he said.
“We believe that we can have a process that meets the needs of resource developers as well as First Nations for economic development and the desire of communities to grow jobs and have environmental protection.”
The review was initiated because the provincial government felt the current EA process was not clear and there were too many issues between contractors and builders, the public, environmental groups and Indigenous communities which often led to lengthy delays and costly legal wrangling.
A discussion paper was released with suggested changes that included enhancing public confidence, advancing reconciliation with First Nations and protecting the environment while giving clear pathways to certain projects.
It is the result of three months of meetings with Indigenous groups, local governments, key stakeholders, environmental and other organizations. The government is asking the construction industry, the public and other sectors to share their thoughts by July 30.
Heyman said he is hopeful the review will help avoid lengthy court battles and ensure worthwhile projects get to the finish line more quickly.
“Our goal is not to have people wasting time fighting through conflict, but to clarify the issues and get a good project design to approval,” he said.
Contractors often start the application process and proceed for several years only to find out the project doesn’t get approved, Heyman said, citing an example last December when the provincial government denied an environmental certificate for the $1.5-billion Ajax copper-gold mine in Kamloops.
“What we want to do with this process is indicate very early on the kinds of measures that proponents should take to move the project along,” he stated.
One big change proposed in the paper, Heyman said, is that an EA of a project be determined by a number of codified factors and not just the size of the venture.
“We are very much interested in engaging with industry and the public to determine what those should be.”
Construction industry stakeholders in B.C. say they don’t mind the review if it speeds up the process, but they are wary it might create more red tape.
It’s absolutely essential that a broad and respectful consultation is conducted
— Chris Atchison
B.C. Construction Association
Darrel Reid, vice-president of policy and advocacy at the Progressive Contractors Association of Canada (PCA), said he has mixed feelings about the review and is worried it may slow down the EA process.
However, he said, association members are heavily engaged in resource projects and want to make sure the environment is protected so he will make sure their views are heard.
“We fear that it will just add a layer of regulatory burden into our efforts that won’t expedite and get these projects going and the shovels in the ground. That’s our concern,” he said.
“We have an interest in making sure that our members’ views are heard and integrated, hopefully, into the process and we’ll certainly be involved.”
Tom Sigurdson, executive director of the B.C. Building Trades Council, welcomed the review.
“Public consultation is important and so we laud the government’s efforts to engage stakeholders on changes to the environmental assessment process,” he said.
“We are optimistic that by working with Indigenous, environmental and industry stakeholders, the revitalized process will strike a balance that respects and supports reconciliation, protects the environment, advances the economy and finally allows us to do what we do best — build B.C.”
Chris Atchison, president of the B.C. Construction Association, said the industry needs certainty and he hopes construction stakeholders will be thoroughly consulted during the review.
He said he doesn’t object to the EA process being changed, but just wants to ensure the industry has a say.
“From an industry perspective, and specifically from the construction association, we’re looking for consistency and confidence when it comes to major infrastructure projects.”
He said the government has to figure out the best way forward for everyone.
“It won’t be easy, but it’s absolutely essential that a broad and respectful consultation is conducted.”
Atchison said contractors must plan ahead for projects, so the association wants legislated timelines to make sure EAs don’t drag on for years.
“It’s not just a simple matter of flipping on a switch and everything begins,” he said. “There’s multiple, multiple layers of general contractors and subtrades.”
Heyman said the construction industry will be thoroughly consulted during the review.
“My message to the construction industry is that we’ll have complete engagement on the discussion paper,” he said.
A document summarizing what the government hears from its discussions with stakeholders will be released later this summer and a paper outlining the intended changes to the EA process will follow in early fall.