Keep Fish (and Other Environment Issues) Federal

The Harper Conservatives have dropped any pretense that they care about Canada’s natural environment, and have reduced the federal government’s oversight role to miniscule proportions. Their justifications to chip away at Canada’s Environmental Assessment Act (CEAA) are inaccurate and should be corrected.

According to the Canadian Press:

Under the new plan, the government would have 45 days to decide if an assessment is needed, and if it’s required, the review would take a maximum of two years.

The changes also include recognizing provincial assessments if they meet federal standards.

They would also cut the number of agencies responsible for reviews to three, down from 40.

First, it is a fallacy to suggest that the environment is provincial jurisdiction. Fish fall under federal regulation, even if the water is provincial. Since the 1970s and the Environmental Assessment Review Process Guidelines Order of the Federal Cabinet, the Federal government has played a strong role in the assessment process.

Second, not all organizations find the process “cumbersome.” The Mining Association of Canada lobbied the federal government to leave CEAA alone. The association has found that the agency works well and is actually more predictable to deal with than other federal government agencies.

The most dangerous change is not the shortening of timelines — although it is disconcerting since proponents missing their environmental impact statement deadlines cause a majority of delays. The biggest worry is downloading the assessment process to provincial governments. For example, former Minister Jim Prentice turned down the Prosperity Mine proposal after the B.C. government had approved it. Their plan was to turn a whole lake (Fish Lake, ironically) into a tailings pond. The difference was due to federal responsibility for health of fish populations.

The changes announced today may be open to a constitutional challenge. The issue was litigated in 2010 with a B.C. Supreme Court decision (Morton v. British Columbia) where the federal government had attempted to download jurisdiction of fish farms to the province. The court ruled that the Department of Fisheries and Oceans could not do this; protection of fish habitat is squarely federal, and it seems Harper and company want to abandon this responsibility.