By John Werring, Aquatic Habitat Specialist

In the recent B.C. Throne speech Gordon Campbell's Liberal government said they plan to foster greater environmental protection in British Columbia by working to "streamline" the environmental assessment process for major projects like mines and hydroelectric generation facilities. Environmental assessments entail a rigorous process that major land development or resource extraction projects must undergo to prove they won't result in excessive harm to the environment. The B.C. Liberals say they plan to work with the federal government and other provinces and territories to "pursue amendments to the Canadian Environmental Assessment Act [CEAA] to create a unified federal-provincial review process that does away with redundancy and unnecessary costs with the express purpose of encouraging investment and building jobs."

This is not a new phenomenon. In fact, this "streamlining" process has actually been going on for the past five years. An agreement between the CEAA and the BC Environmental Assessment Office to minimize duplication of efforts was originally signed in 2004, and renewed in 2008.

And what has been the result? We might find some clues by looking at the case of the Canada's federal fisheries department. Ten years ago, Fisheries and Oceans Canada (DFO), one of the largest single agencies in the federal government tasked with doing environmental assessments, was receiving upwards of 10,000 referrals per year for projects that were likely to harm fish habitat. Any one of these referrals could have potentially led to an environmental assessment under the CEAA, and in fact, many once did until DFO amended their habitat management policies in early 2004. These amendments have led to most of these projects being exempted from federal environmental review by DFO because they are deemed to pose only minor or moderate risks to fish habitat; now fewer than 1,000 projects (those deemed to pose the most significant risk to habitat) are being assessed each year by DFO. Visit The Will to Protect for more information.

Most of the "exempted" projects that would have been subject to federal environmental scrutiny under the old habitat management scheme (including many proposed for BC) do not fall under the purview of the BC Environmental Assessment Act (BCCEA), so the province is not reviewing them either. An example would be the raft of "small scale" (rated as 45-49 megawatts) hydroelectric projects that are being proposed across the province. As set out in the regulations of the BCEAA, only proposals for new hydroelectric power plants with a rated nameplate capacity of 50 MW or more are subject to environmental review.

This is problematic because for many of these projects, there is now no gate-keeper. No one will be assessing their true individual or cumulative environmental impacts. How does this equate to greater environmental protection?

Campbell's declaration in the Throne speech suggests the Liberals will now work to keep the federal government out of the remaining major project reviews — and this at a time when both the federal and provincial governments have also significantly reduced their environmental enforcement and inspection capacities. There are fewer fisheries and conservation officers in the field keeping tabs on what is happening out there. When people call to report habitat loss and destruction, there is no one left to respond to their concerns.

This has all been done in an effort to "harmonize" and "streamline" the regulatory process governing environmental assessment and to avoid duplication so as to fast-track economic development. But at what cost — and to whose benefit?

February 16, 2010

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