MP Dick Harris says the thing that caught his attention in the federal budget is the intention to streamline the environmental review process.
“We’ll be able to get decisions much, much faster through a targeted streamlined program that will be as comprehensive as the others, but done in a much different way with the resources put into the areas that will make it move along quicker. There will be set timelines for decisions,” he explains.
The streamlining, he adds, will be a “huge boon” for those who have natural resource development projects that need to go through the environmental and socio-economic review process hoops before they can get an approval.
“This is going to speed that process up. No more waiting years and years to find out if you’re project is going to go or not,” Harris says.
Harris estimates there are presently $500 billion in projects, mostly in Western Canada and in B.C. waiting for approval.
“We have to find out much sooner than later if the projects are going to go ahead or not.”
He is confident the changes won’t undermine the process, but what they will undermine is the needless delays and complexity of administrative problems he says exist now in the process.
Bob Simpson, Independent MLA for Cariboo North, has no aversion to rationalizing the environmental process, because he says it’s important to figure out how to provide a one-window assessment approach — he says having two different approaches to environmental assessments is an impediment to attracting investment to B.C.
However, in order to make that system work, Simpson says issues around First Nations rights and title and a bigger national strategy around resources are issues that need to be addressed.
“If you don’t address First Nations rights and title, you could go to the most streamlined process in the world, but you’re still going to bog the process down. You have to figure out who owns the resources. The fact that it’s 2012 and we still don’t know who owns the resources is the thing that gives the investment community the biggest shivers,” Simpson says.
He also believes there has to be a strategy around mineral resources in B.C. and suggests that a mineral strategy needs to be in place so that projects can be reviewed against that context.
“If the strategy is clear then you can go to the science and other things to measure the project,” he says.
Streamlining and making the process more efficient has to be done in the context of best practices and best regulations so that the regulatory playing field is going to be stringent and is going to be best practices on water, soils, and use of the air shed. There would also need to be a stronger compliance and enforcement presence, Simpson adds.
“If you don’t have the ownership issue and the strategic context, coupled with the high level environmental standards and enforcement standards, then I would say you might as well take as long as you want on the approval process because people don’t have trust in the system. They will keep asking the questions and keep pushing at it.”
He says he doesn’t see an energy strategy in the federal budget that will give a context to something like the Enbridge Pipeline project, and alleges that pending legislation will further erode environmental standards.
“For example, they’re looking at gutting the fisheries act by taking habitat out of the fisheries act. They have already downsized the department of fisheries and the department of environment’s compliance and enforcement department. For me that’s a recipe for resource exploitation at the expense of the environment,” Simpson explains.
He also points out that there is $8 million in the budget to investigate environmental charities that receive funds from outside Canada.
“But there’s not a witch hunt for things like Enbridge’s regulatory fund, which is mostly funded by Chinese national companies. I think it shows the true colours of this government which is just to say “yes” to all this resource development, under the guise of jobs.”
Cariboo Chilcotin MLA Donna Barnett says the changes in the review process is something all local governments in the rural areas have been asking for, for a long time.
“To have two environmental assessments discourages investment and it also frustrates the public, people that want to make presentations,” Barnett says.
The existing process is long and drawn out, she says, adding if there is one process with very strict, stringent environmental regulations, then investors will know much quicker what is going to happen and communities that are looking at jobs and for investment will also know quicker.