David Suzuki: New rules make it easier for Canadian government to harm the environment

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      Few people would argue against making environmental review processes and regulations more efficient—as long as they’re effective. But changes announced in the recent federal budget don’t do that. Instead, they make it easier for the federal government and industry to push through projects that could harm the environment and the economy, and limit the ability of ordinary Canadian citizens to have a say in matters of national importance.

      Based on the budget announcement, you’d think delays and duplication in the environmental review process are the biggest issues. They’re not. As the Pembina Institute points out, the equivalent of one major oil sands mine has been approved in each of the past five years, and the pace is increasing. Some people, including former Alberta premier Peter Lougheed, suggest we’d benefit by slowing down—for economic and environmental reasons. When there are setbacks in the review process, they’re often caused by industry’s reluctance to provide timely data or by a lack of capacity within the government itself. The latter is getting worse as funding for basic monitoring and enforcement is subject to further cuts.

      Eliminating environmental reviews for some projects altogether, shifting responsibility to the provinces, and severely cutting back on staff and agencies that provide management and information are not ways to make processes more efficient; they’re ways to accelerate approval of major projects, making the short-term interests of industry a higher priority than protecting the air, land, and water we all need to stay healthy.

      Provincial regulations are not always consistent, they’re often weaker than federal rules, and they don’t necessarily take into account the impact of decisions in one province on people in others. Remember also that B.C. approved a mining company’s proposal to destroy Fish Lake near Williams Lake, but a subsequent federal review rejected it.

      Other changes that could profoundly affect the way industrial and environmental concerns are considered include a move to restrict participation in environmental hearings to those “directly affected” and a proposal to shift decision-making authority for major energy projects, including the Northern Gateway Pipeline, from the National Energy Board to the federal cabinet. This could mean these decisions will become increasingly political rather than based on the best scientific information, expert advice, and public concern.

      A democratic government committed to openness and transparency will ensure our shared resources are used—or not—in a way that provides maximum benefit and minimum harm to its citizens. That requires listening to what experts, community members, and the organizations that represent them have to say. That’s true regardless of whether those organizations speak for the interests of people who see the environment as a priority or those whose biggest concern is tax dollars.

      Besides putting the environment and the human health that depends on it at risk, these changes to policy and regulation could actually make review processes more inefficient and time-consuming. If people lose trust, we could see more conflict and court challenges. Recently, the Nuxalk First Nation of Bella Coola withdrew from the Northern Gateway hearings—hereditary Chief Charlie Nelson argued that the government has already made up its mind to approve the project. Instead, aboriginal leaders say they will consider going to court to defend their rights and stop the project.

      The government should work to make environmental rules more effective, improving efficiency as one of a number of objectives. A consultative and transparent process that engages a range of interests, information, and expertise would work best. The opportunity to achieve this was there when a parliamentary standing committee was charged with reviewing the Canadian Environmental Assessment Act last year. But the Canadian Environmental Law Association says that process was “rushed, poorly implemented, and anything but ‘comprehensive’ in nature”.

      We all want a free and democratic country with a healthy environment and strong economy. The best way to guarantee that is to encourage scientific research and knowledge, open discourse, and respect for a range of viewpoints. There are ways we can improve efficiency of decision-making, such as clearer environmental rules. Sometimes—but not always—it may take longer to reach a decision, but at least we’d be confident it is made in the best interests of all Canadians.

      David Suzuki is a scientist, broadcaster, author, and cofounder of the David Suzuki Foundation. Written with contributions from David Suzuki Foundation Editorial and Communications Specialist Ian Hanington. Learn more at www.davidsuzuki.org.



      Mark Fornataro

      Apr 24, 2012 at 4:38pm

      Re: "... aboriginal leaders say they will consider going to court to defend their rights and stop the project.". To me First Nations court challenges are perhaps the best realistic chance for protecting the environment from Harper's mad friends who are hell-bent on earning a fast buck regardless of the consequences. But I would still like to see some cooperation amongst opposition parties in the next election- to minimize anti-Conservative vote splitting-, though it may be some time away. Can we really risk Harper winning yet another majority term?


      Apr 25, 2012 at 8:20am

      It could be a bit of deja vu but in light of recent political events and comments (ie. supporters of pedophilia, environmental terrorists, assigning minders to scientists attending a conference) one thought has come to mind;

      You can't have totalitarianism until you fully control the message and limit power to a malleable few.


      Apr 25, 2012 at 8:24am

      And now they are making the changes to the fisheries act which is pretty much the only legislation that makes a difference out there. A legislation that has been untouched sinced the 1970s. But its too burdensome for Enbridge to worry about the fish and health of our lakes, river and streams.

      I used to just not like some of the Consesrvative policies but I am now convinced that they are literally evil and they are trying very hard to do as much damage as possible before they leave office.


      Apr 25, 2012 at 9:08am

      But the Canadian Environmental Law Association says that process was “rushed, poorly implemented, and anything but ‘comprehensive’ in nature”.

      Brought to you by Tides...


      Apr 25, 2012 at 10:48am

      The Feds aren't going to know how many of us have long guns either.

      Chris Macdonald

      Apr 25, 2012 at 12:10pm

      If you know anything about economics, it's fascism that is the root cause of all of societies ills. GM and Chrysler won't move along technologically toward a cleaner mode of transport because they, along with the oil companies, are getting your money and my money to crank out the same cars.

      Don't talk to me about hybrids. A battery you're going to have to dispose of at some point coupled with a dirty fuel-powered engine? That's 2 problems for the price of one. You have to open the market. As long as GM and Chrysler and big oil are being paid off to maintain the status quo and nobody is allowed to compete with them for consumer confidence because it's too difficult to start a business here.

      The best these progressives AND conservatives can do is give our money to the auto industry to make half-a$$ed cars? When you have a system with zero competition (a la fascism/corporatism), you're going to run into issues of environmental sustainability, the economy and poverty.


      Apr 25, 2012 at 12:20pm

      Come on, Vancouver. Let's not lie down on pipeline atrocities. If we can riot for a hockey game then surely we can put aside our civil niceties for the fight against our actual destruction....no?...thought I'd ask anyways...

      Lizabeth Jane

      Apr 27, 2012 at 7:49pm

      Chiefs who pull out of processes need to make statements that give credance to their position. What I saw our Nuxalk Nation do is pull out and say nothing more than "governemtn has made up their mind" and I think that is a diservice to the Nuxalk peoples. I am Nuxalk and a handful of people here are making a statement on behalf of us all, without consulting us and I am tired of that. If the leaders want us to support them, then they need to quit following the path of federal goverments and consult and communicate openly with their people. Wait, this is not the sound off board. Begging your pardon. Nuxalk residing in Nuxalk territroty and not in favor of Embridge.