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OTTAWA — Up to 5,000 federal environmental assessments of economic projects are conducted every year under existing laws, but the Harper government’s proposal to repeal the Canadian Environmental Assessment Act could eliminate “most” of those reviews, said Environment Minister Peter Kent in a statement tabled in Parliament before it began a marathon voting session earlier this week on legislation tied to the federal budget.
Kent also said he didn’t know how provincial governments would be able to match Canada’s national standards under proposed rules that would allow them to substitute for federal assessments with their own reviews.
“Under the current act, approximately 4,000-5,000 EAs (environmental assessments) are conducted by federal authorities every year, 99 per cent of which are for small projects with little or no risk to the environment,” said the statement, signed by Kent, in response to questions raised by Liberal environment critic Kirsty Duncan.
He indicated a newly proposed 2012 Canadian Environmental Assessment Act would “focus federal environmental assessment(s) on projects with the most potential for significant adverse environmental effects.” As a result “most of these (thousands of projects) would no longer require a federal EA.”
But Kent said an exact number of projects that would be excluded from reviews would be hard to estimate since it depends on a “project list” that would be created through regulations that he would draft at a later date without requiring additional legislation in Parliament.
The sweeping changes to Canada’s environmental review process are among hundreds of pages of legislation the federal government hopes to adopt in Parliament this month in support of its 2012 budget. The changes also propose dramatic shifts in existing laws protecting fisheries, species at risk as well as limiting the freedom of stakeholders who want to participate in environmental reviews of projects, while giving new powers and resources to the Canada Revenue Agency to investigate environmental groups and other charities.
Proposed budgetary measures for the next year would also cut millions of dollars in funding for scientific research and monitoring of air pollution, water pollution, wildlife and Canada’s oceans.
Kent said his department also prepared different “options and recommendations” for improving Canada’s environmental protection laws, but that he could not release them since they are considered to be secrets of Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s cabinet.
He also wrote there was no analysis “done to determine how each provincial process would be able to meet the conditions for substitution,” under the newly proposed 2012 Canadian Environmental Assessment Act.
Duncan, a scientist who represents a Toronto-area riding, said the changes to existing laws and cuts, including emerging details such as the elimination of a smokestack pollution research monitoring team at Environment Canada in favour of using outside sources such as the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, suggest the government is on the wrong path.
“It’s deeply concerning that the government does not understand the consequences of its actions, that it hasn’t thought through the ramifications of essentially gutting the department or they don’t care about the health and safety of Canadians,” said Duncan in an interview. “It’s ludicrous that the government would outsource the safeguards that protect Canadians to another country.”
But Kent said a federal oversight would “still” continue since a federal authority would still have to make decisions in relation to reviews of projects that it is involved with.
Adam Sweet, a spokesman for Kent, also noted that laws to protect the environment will remain in place, in some cases with stronger penalties of up to $400,000 to boost enforcement against companies that do not respect conditions of project approvals.
The comments came as a coalition of environmental organizations from around the world mocked the Canadian government by awarding it a “fossil” award at the Rio+20 Earth Summit in Brazil because they argued its federal budget was trying to “cut out” protections for the environment, while Canada’s negotiators were allegedly trying to weaken proposed commitments under discussion at the conference to promote sustainable development.
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