Canadian Consulting Engineer

Canadian Environmental Assessments Need A Fix

March 1, 2009
By Bronwen Parsons

Following the government's budget promise in February to inject $12 billion of new spending into infrastructure construction, Transport Minister John Baird has suggested that the federal government wi...

Following the government’s budget promise in February to inject $12 billion of new spending into infrastructure construction, Transport Minister John Baird has suggested that the federal government will be looking for ways to expedite the environmental assessment process.

Such changes will be welcomed by consulting engineers and their clients. In the feature, “A Long and Winding Road” on page 30, we look at problems that are beleaguering the environmental assessment regime, making it an unwieldy monster from a procedural point of view.

The system suffers from duplication, too many different government agencies involved, and too little coordination with planning and financial approvals. Projects can take years to receive the go-ahead. Perhaps the worst-case scenario is the Mackenzie Pipeline project in Canada’s Arctic, which is still waiting for an environmental impact report after five years. A more recent case involves a proposal in Ottawa for a new interprovincial bridge at Kettle Island. After years of studies, the National Capital Commission has gone back to the drawing board and ordered detailed studies for two other potential sites.

In today’s climate of environmental consciousness we run the risk of studying projects to death. And it’s not just project proponents who are frustrated. Even staunch environmentalists like Aaron Freedman of Environmental Defence will agree that debate cannot go on forever, and at some stage a decision has to be made.

During several interviews for the story, though, it emerged that the reason projects are held up often has more to do with politics than actual environmental problems. Politicians and bureaucrats can use the environmental approvals process as a convenient tool to put a stop to projects that they no longer find palatable. For example, when First Nations are affected by a project, negotiations with them can suddenly turn things in a completely different direction. In fact, First Nations are a very large elephant in the room when it comes to federal attempts to expedite the approvals process.

Another troubling aspect of the current regime –federal and provincial –was raised by the Environmental Commissioner of Ontario in his annual report last year. There is a lack of follow up and enforcement. No matter how rigorous the review process, and no matter how many mitigation measures the project owners and their engineers promise to implement, if there is no systematic way of ensuring those measures are effective, then what’s the point of it all? Few officials are assigned to revisiting projects as a check-up. It tends to be private citizens who discover that the natural habitat hasn’t recovered as was promised, and they are the ones who raise the alarm.

Consulting engineering companies are experts in writing environmental assessment reports, and they certainly reap plenty of business in this area. But there’s no professional satisfaction in writing reports “just to sit on a shelf,” as one practitioner put it. Like everyone else, consulting engineers want to see Canada start building badly needed new infrastructure –and they also want to see it done in a truly environmentally responsible way.


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