Following through on promises made in the recent budget, Canada's Natural Resources Minister Joe Oliver has announced sweeping proposed changes to the federal process for environmental approvals of projects. The changes will affect consulting engineering firms who are heavily involved with helping clients steer projects through environmental approvals. Such business for consulting engineers comes from all sectors, but especially mining, oil and gas and energy.
Currently the approval process can be extremely time consuming - taking years - and costly. It often involves separate federal and provincial approvals, as well as scores of authorities and departments, such as Fisheries and Oceans, Transport Canada.
Speaking at a pipeline coating plant in Toronto on April 17, Oliver indicated that the government is moving to a "one project, one review" system. For smaller and more standard projects, provincial assessments will suffice "as long as they meet the requirements under the Canadian Environmental Assessment Act."
Federal environmental assessments will only be needed on projects that "have greater potential for significant adverse environmental effects." However, in certain circumstances, smaller and more routine projects will still be subject to both federal and provincial standards and permitting.
Decisions on whether a federal environmental assessment is required will have to be made earlier -- within 45 days.
Ottawa is also setting timelines for hearings, namely 24 months for panel reviews, 18 months for National Energy Board hearings, and 12 months for standard environmental assessments.
The government will also consolidate the number of organizations responsible for reviews from more than 40 agencies to three: the Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency, the National Energy Board, and the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commision.
For the first time Ottawa will also require follow-up on environmental assessments to verify that the predictions regarding effects and mitigations are working. Federal inspectors will have authority to conduct the examinations. Penalties could range from $100,000 to $400,000.
The government is keen to promote the natural resources industry, with 500 projects worth $500 billion reportedly in the works for the next decade.
Environmental groups are worried that the government's efforts to streamline the environmental review process go too far and could compromise the quality of the assessments.
Some critics also wonder how the government will manage to fulfil its mandate to fully consult with First Nations on projects if it is handing over more responsibility to provincial assessors. On April 17, the government said it will be introducing a variety of means to improve how it deals with Aboriginal concerns with projects, including negotiating memoranda of understanding with the provinces and territories to align their approaches.
To see the government release and full information, click here.
See related story, here.