Canadian Environmental Assessment — going, going, gone

Confession: I am a pack rat who rarely throws out files. Last night I found the environmental assessment from the first EA process in which I participated. The Wreck Cove Hydroelectric Project EA was mailed to me on April 28, 1977. So that makes 35 years experience in environmental assessment.

Back then Environmental Assessment was under a Guidelines Order of the Privy Council, called the Environmental Assessment Review Process. Just how binding this cabinet order was remained an open question until a Federal court case on the Rafferty-Alameda Dams decision. Back in 1988 I had resigned on principle when my boss, the environment minister, signed the permits for the dams, without any environmental review. This caused the landmark Federal Court ruling.

Before my resignation, we had already been working on getting clear and effective environmental assessment law passed. As the Senior Policy Advisor to the Minister, I has steered the white paper through the Privy Council Office to get permission to draft what became the Canadian Environmental Assessment Act.

I have watched the painstaking process of bringing Canada into the 20th century of environmental law (that’s right, I meant 20th century). CEAA was never the world’s best EA law. It has been riddled with concessions to industry from the get-go.

It is a tool of planning to start an EA as soon as possible in the process. Tens of thousands of Canadian projects have been reviewed. The majority have seen improvements in the process. 99% proceed to be built, but many have modifications to reduce the environmental impact.

But the Harper Conservatives have turned it into a whipping boy for delay. Delay? It is an outrage that our limited, cautious approach to EA, SO much weaker than the law in the US, is too much for Harper.

First they weakened it in the 2010 Omnibus Budget Bill, forcing through taking energy projects out of EA and weakening comprehensive study. Then they cut CEAA’s budget by 40%.

Today, the House Committee for the Environment issued a pre-ordained set of recommendations to further destroy environmental review. Under CEAA every 5 years, there is a mandatory review of the Act. In 2000, the review took over a year. Hearings were held across the country. The process ran from January 2000 to March 2001. This time, the committee pulled the plug after hearing witnesses for nine days. That’s right — the previous government studied the law for 15 months. The conservatives didn’t give it 15 days. Many witnesses, who had been informed they would be heard, were turned away. I thought at the time that PMO must have told the Conservatives who control the committee to deliver ASAP a report to gut the process. And they did.

I fear that the sweeping changes – removing CEAA jurisdiction from any province with “equivalent” EA, removing the requirement to consider alternatives, ordering fixed time lines for reviews, giving the Minister increased powers, “streamlining” First Nations consultations – all point toward more nails in CEAA’s coffin.

After 35 years of working on environmental assessment, I am watching the current government weaken the process to less than we had in 1977. No government had a mandate to un-do environmental law. No government has a mandate to destroy our natural world.