Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s federal government has been signalling for some time its intent to significantly ‘streamline’ environmental protection requirements in Canada, especially as they apply to oil, gas and mining projects. The full scope of the government’s plans has now been laid out in the budget implementation bill tabled on April 26th.
The bill is remarkable in its scope, comparable in many ways to the Ontario government of Mike Harris’s infamous Bill 26 - The Savings and Restructuring Act of 1996. While some aspects of the bill, such as effective dismantling of the federal environmental assessment process under the Canadian Environmental Assessment Act , were expected, others, like the proposed changes to the Fisheries Act, arguably Canada’s important federal environmental protection statute, go far much further than even the government’s critics had anticipated.
The proposed changes to the Fisheries Act, would weaken, potentially to the point of meaninglessness, the habitat protection (s.35 – prohibiting the harmful alteration or destruction of fish habitat) and pollution prevention (S.36 – prohibiting the deposit of “deleterious substances” into waters “frequented by fish”) provisions of the Act. As such the government’s proposals may represent most serious retrenchment of federal environmental legislation in Canada’s history.
The legislation would also permit the federal cabinet, rather than the National Energy Board, make decisions about approvals for major pipelines, with the implication that the government will make whatever decision it wants, regardless of what the NEB determines on the basis of the evidence it hears. Decision-making authority under the Navigable Waters Protection Act in relation to pipelines would be transferred from the Minister of Transport to the NEB. Other provisions weaken the ocean dumping control provisions of the Canadian Environmental Protection Act and elements of the Species at Risk Act.
For final good measure the government has thrown in the repeal of the 2007 Kyoto Protocol Implementation Act. That act, a Liberal private member’s bill adopted over the government’s objections while it was a minority, had required it to develop and table plans to implement Canada’s obligations under the protocol and mandated the National Round Table on Environment and Economy and the Commissioner for Environment and Sustainable Development to report on the government’s progress on their implementation.
These regulatory “streamlinings” are only one dimension of the government’s environmental agenda. There has also been a systemic effort to cut off of research, information and analysis with respect to environmental issues. Major layoffs (at least 700 positions) were already in progress at Environment Canada. To this the budget added the dissolution of the National Round Table on the Environment and Economy, first established by Prime Minister Mulroney in 1988 and a widely respected source of policy research and analysis on national environmental issues. Research networks on women’s health including the Network on Women’s Health and the Environment have emerged as further victims of the government’s strategy.
The third aspect of the government’s agenda has been to attempt to cut off what it perceives as voices of dissent. This began with the little-noticed decision to discontinue funding of the Canadian Environmental Network, which had coordinated the participation of environmental organizations across Canada in consultations with the federal government for nearly 40 years, and was unquestionably a factor in the decision to dissolve the National Round Table as well. The government has also been clear in its targeting of those who opposed its focus on facilitating exports of non-renewable resources as “radical environmentalists.” The budget included an $8 million allocation to the Canadian Revenue Agency for the specific purpose of reviewing the “political” activities of charitable organizations in Canada. Both the Finance Minister and Minister of Natural Resources have been clear that environmental organizations are to be major targets of this effort.
The government’s three-pronged environmental strategy of deregulation, cutting off sources of information and research and targeting dissenting voices seems to be being driven by several factors. First is an assumption that environmental matters are simply unimportant, and an area where a major withdrawal can be made by the federal government without serious consequence. Indeed, at times, the government, and in particular its natural resources minister, have seemed men out of time – for whom past four or five decades of science and research about the environment and its relationship to human health, well-being and prosperity simply never happened.
Rather, environmental concerns are seen to stand in the way of a one dimensional vision of Canada’s economic future – non-renewable resource exports, particularly fossil fuels and minerals, and the need to expand markets for those exports beyond the United States. For the Harper government it seems at times that there is be no other aspect of the Canadian economy worth attention or consideration.
The irony in all of this is that the government’s strategy is almost certain to be self-defeating in the long term, although not without some very serious short term costs. The stripping the federal environmental assessment process of any meaningful content and therefore legitimacy doesn’t mean that the underlying conflicts over the future of resource development, environmental sustainability and aboriginal and treaty rights will go away. Rather they will simply by played out in other forms – the media, the electoral process and the courts, where they are likely to take even longer to resolve, and have the potential to produce outcomes even less to the government’s liking.
Nor is it likely to help Canada in accessing export markets for its natural resources. Deep concerns already exist in the United States and European Union about the environmental costs associated with Canada’s resource exports, as demonstrated by the Obama administration’s delay of the Keystone XL pipeline and the Europeans’ consideration of fuel standards designed to prohibit ‘dirty’ oil like that from Canada’s sands from their market. Even China expressed dismay at Canada’s withdrawal from the Kyoto Protocol. The federal government’s approach will do nothing but reinforce these concerns.
Domestically, the political risks associated with the government’s path are enormous. The federal government’s environmental and economic agenda speaks to no one beyond a very narrow range of interests in western Canada. It offers nothing to Ontario, Quebec, and British Columbia, where next federal election is likely to be decided, and indeed compounds the challenges facing those provinces as they attempt to move in the direction of post-carbon economies. In Ontario the pursuit of an agenda very similar to that being followed by the Harper government was, eventually, instrumental in the defeat of the Harris/Eves Progressive Conservative government in 2003, but not before enormous costs had been incurred to the environment, health and safety of Ontario residents. Unfortunately there seems little hope that the current federal government will deflect from the same path before it is too late.