Canada may fast-track Big Oil at expense of environment

oil canada

Activists and critics alike are outraged at the Canadian government's recent decision to drastically downsize its environmental assessment process. Most believe this is a profit-driven bid to push environmental review and regulation aside in pursuit of oil and gas projects.

The planned changes were first announced April 17, but prior to that had been mentioned in March's federal budget. The changes would hand federal-level environmental oversight on projects down to the Canadian provinces to manage (which many feel will lessen the amount of effort put into it). Worst of all, they would reduce the number of federal environmental review organizations and departments from 40 to three.

This comes as a serious blow, not only to the departmental jobs that will be lost, but also to the environment itself. It may be particularly troubling given that this move directly follows massive layoffs at the Canadian Department of Fisheries and Oceans, which resulted in top world ocean scientists finding themselves suddenly jobless.

Minister of Natural Resources Joe Oliver has argued that the "cumbersome" current assessment process needs to be streamlined, and that doing so would free up the government to focus on "major projects." But most aren't buying that. Critics have questioned, moreover, what constitutes a "major project" - many believe Oliver is talking about Big Oil.

Provincial environmental oversight - as opposed to federal review - also worries people, who look back on a January 2010 incident in which a British Columbia review process approved an $800 million proposal for a gold and copper mine. The federal government vetoed that proposal when it was found that the project would have adverse effects on fish habitat. Essentially, environmentalists say, it would have turned the area's Fish Lake into a waste dump.

Allowing provinces to oversee environmental issues would probably not end well, said Devon Page, executive director of Ecojustice, a nonprofit Canada-based environmental law firm. "My understanding is that they've done no review of the provinces' ability to take on that responsibility," remarked Page. "We have direct experience with how that could play out," he added, referring to the Fish Lake proposal.

The big environmental downgrade will happen via legislation that will be introduced "fairly soon," according to Oliver. The law would also introduce two-year limits for assessments of major oil and gas mining projects.

In the midst of all this, there is also a third opinion. Some Canadians believe that environmental review and protection can co-exist with oil and gas production. According to the research company Ipsos Reid, which conducted a survey on the matter, "most Canadians believe we have the technology, the insight, and the means to be able to do [both]," said the company's senior vice-president, John Wright.

"We've now reached a stage in our lives having witnessed the advent of technology and oversight, that it's within the grasp of companies and governments to actually be able to do this and to enforce it," he added.

But what is occurring right now in Canada, said Page, marks a definite shift in priorities - one that "speaks more to dismantling environmental protection laws than it does to streamlining." He noted that, since smaller projects will no longer enjoy careful review, their cumulative environmental impact won't be known.

"This approach epitomizes death by a thousand cuts," he remarked.

Photo: Peter Blanchard // CC 2.0

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