In fact, Mr. Chairman, it may be that I am the one who should apologize. We had prepared a presentation that I had hoped would have been distributed to committee members before my arrival, and that appears not to have happened. I'll endeavour to have it delivered during the course of the meeting, if that will be helpful.
In the meantime, I thought I would go through the presentation. It focuses on the federal environmental assessment process as it applies to the oil sands and the oil sands project specifically. It's a fairly long presentation. I hope that's acceptable.
Mr. Chairman, what I plan to do is focus on four main issues or themes as part of this technical briefing. First I'd like to provide members with some background on the federal environmental assessment process, with specific focus on environmental assessments for oil sands projects. I think it will be helpful to understand how our process works a little bit in having this technical discussion.
I'd also like to talk a little bit about how we work in conjunction with the Province of Alberta in conducting environmental assessments. As you're no doubt aware, natural resource management is really the purview of the provincial governments; nonetheless, the federal government has certain interests in respect of oil sands projects that are assessed as part of environmental assessments federally.
Then I'd like to talk a little bit about some recent environmental assessments and concrete examples to show how those assessments have dealt with some of the issues that I think are of interest to the committee, including those related to water or water management, migratory birds, and climate change.
Finally I'd like to talk a little bit about what we expect for the next few years from an environmental assessment perspective, some of the changes or enhancements that we might see coming forward over the next few years.
I would now like to explain what an environmental assessment is. It is a process that must apply early in the planning of a project. It is not a regulatory decision, but rather a planning tool. The environmental assessment allows us to analyze and predict possible environmental affects and to propose measures to mitigate adverse affects. Public participation is a very important aspect of this process. Environmental assessments provide a meaningful opportunity for the public to influence decisions about projects in their communities. Finally, environmental assessments are a key tool for the promotion of sustainable development.
Now I'll talk a little bit about how the environmental assessment process works.
The Canadian Environmental Assessment Act, which is the governing legislation for the federal environmental assessment process, applies to proposed projects wherein a federal authority—that would be a federal department or agency—has a specific decision to make with respect to a proposed project. It could be as the proponent of the project, a source of financial assistance that would allow the project to proceed in situations where the federal government might dispose of lands or allocate an interest in lands in order for a project to occur, and finally as a regulator.
I should say that in the case of oil sands projects, the primary trigger, if you will, for the federal environmental assessment process is with respect to the regulatory decisions that can be made by the federal government concerning oil sands projects. Those typically are authorizations under the federal Fisheries Act, and in some cases, approvals or permits issued pursuant to the Navigable Waters Protection Act, which is administered by Transport Canada.
Not all oil sands projects require a federal decision of this sort, and in those cases in which there isn't a federal decision to be made, the federal environmental assessment process would not be triggered. These would include in particular in situ projects, SAGD projects or steam-assisted gravity drainage type projects, which very often can be designed in a way that avoids adverse effects to fish habitat or interference with navigation, because they don't involve water courses directly.
Oil sands projects, on the other hand, of the mining type very often and typically would involve a federal decision or trigger of some sort.
Before a federal department is able to issue the regulatory approval, it first has to have completed an environmental assessment and have determined that the effects of the project would not be significant or unacceptable.
There are several types of environmental assessment under the legislation federally. The most common assessments that are undertaken are what we call screenings. I'll talk a little later about some of the factors that must be taken into account in conducting a screening.
Another type of assessment is what we call a comprehensive study, which is a slightly more rigorous assessment that takes into consideration factors that wouldn't be taken into consideration as part of a screening.
Then finally we have what we call review panels, which essentially involve public hearings and which are sometimes, if not more frequently, undertaken in the context of oil sands projects.
I would now like to speak briefly about the requirements of the process.
All assessments must include consideration of environmental effects, including effects from possible accidents and cumulative effects, the significance of effects, mitigation measures and public comments, if any.
Comprehensive studies, the more detailed ones, and review panels must also look at the purpose of the project, it must be determined why this is an important project, alternative means of carrying out the project and the capacity of renewable resources significantly affected by the project to meet present and future needs.
I think now I'll talk a little bit about the role of our agency compared to the roles of other departments, and a little bit, as well, about the major projects management office, which I think our president spoke to a couple of weeks ago when he was before you on the main estimates.
A key feature of the environmental assessment process is that it's what we call a self-assessment process. That means that each department that has a decision to make with respect to a project is obliged to conduct an environmental assessment. There is no central agency that conducts environmental assessments on behalf of the federal government. It's a distributed responsibility that resides with each individual decision-making department.
Our agency is really the overall administrator of the process--guardian of the process, if you will. An important additional role for the agency is to support the workings of environmental assessment review panels.
One of the relatively new responsibilities that has come to the agency is in response to the initiative to enhance the effectiveness of the regulatory system for major resource development projects, the major projects management office initiative. What that means for the agency is that we've taken on a greater role than is called for under the legislation with respect to the management of the environmental assessment process. That would include, obviously, projects like the oil sands. We also have enhanced responsibilities for the coordination and conduct of aboriginal consultations related to environmental assessment.
During the evaluation, other federal authorities, with expertise in the area, are responsible for providing specialist and scientific or technical information. For example, Environment Canada has expertise in the area of migratory birds, species at risk, air emissions and water quality; Health Canada has expertise regarding potential human health impacts and drinking water quality; Natural Resources Canada has expertise in earth sciences.
The expert departments are a very important part of the process, because they provide advice to the relevant authorities regarding the scientific or technical aspects of the project.
The Major Project Management Office is a new coordinating body in Natural Resources Canada. This office provides over-arching management for major resource projects during the federally regulatory process. This includes the environmental assessment process and the post-evaluation regulatory process.
A very important aspect of the environmental assessment process is cooperation with other jurisdictions, particularly the provinces. We have entered into cooperation agreements with all the provinces, except the Atlantic provinces. That includes, Quebec, Ontario and the Western provinces, including Alberta. These cooperation agreements are very important in avoiding overlapping and promoting coordinated environmental processes.
Operationally, this cooperation often results in joint review panels. There are integrated information requirements for the proponent. This cooperation draws on the experience and expertise of the two levels of government in meeting the environmental challenges related to specific projects.
I'll turn now to the question of public participation.
As I mentioned earlier, a very important element of the environmental assessment process is to encourage an appropriate level of public engagement or participation as part of the process. This provides both proponents and government decision-makers with better information about possible effects of projects that are being proposed.
Joint review panels, for example, provide the opportunity for public intervention, and this is supported by participant funding that our agency administers.
Comprehensive studies also have certain requirements for public consultation and participation. Again, there is public funding available to encourage participation.
For screenings, public participation is discretionary on the part of the responsible authorities or the departments that are undertaking the assessments.
A relatively new feature of the environmental assessment process is that we have created a specific capacity-funding envelope for aboriginal groups to support the government's obligations with respect to aboriginal consultation. This is in the case of both comprehensive studies and review panels.
The outcomes of the environmental assessment process are an important aspect as well. The main purpose of an environmental assessment is to provide government decision-makers with enough information to decide whether or not a project is going to have significant adverse environmental effects, and indeed whether or not the government should support a project.
There are various outcomes that could occur as a result of the process. The most common outcome would be that a project is deemed to have no significant adverse environmental effects, in which case the federal authority would be in a position to proceed with its regulatory approvals or provide funding or whatever other decision is being made with respect to the project.
If, after a screening is undertaken, it's concluded that the effects could be significant, then at that point the project would be referred to a review panel if there might be some justification for those impacts. It would be up to the review panel, at that point, to make a recommendation to government through the Governor in Council as to whether or not the effects are significant enough that the project should or should not proceed.
If it's determined at the end of the process that impacts are significant and cannot be justified, then the federal authority would be prevented from taking any action that would allow the project to proceed.
I'll turn away from the Canadian Environmental Assessment Act a little and talk a bit about an issue that has been of concern for some years with respect to the oil sands, and continues to be a concern, and that has to do with cumulative effects.
In the late nineties it became clear that assessment of cumulative effects of oil sands projects on a project-by-project basis was relatively ineffective and had some severe limitations. The concentration of these kinds of projects in one area presents challenges unlike any other clustering of developments that we've seen to date.
As a result, in 2000 the Cumulative Effects Management Association was created--which is a multi-stakeholder body that includes the Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency, as well as other federal departments--to produce information on cumulative effects that could be used in future environmental assessments.
CEMA is essentially funded by industry, with some support from the Alberta government. It's truly a multi-stakeholder initiative. It works on issues that are raised in project-specific EAs but that are not confined to a single project. So they're really global issues, if you will, the idea being to produce measurement frameworks that would address those issues.
I should say, too, that the goal is a consensus-based environmental management system that would apply to the Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo, which is where the majority of oil sands occur. It's also to be implemented through what's called “the regional sustainable development strategy” for the oil sands.
To date, as I understand it, there have been six management frameworks put in place and two that are close to being finalized. To date, we have measurement frameworks with respect to trace metals, ozone, ecosystem tools, land capability and classification, and acid deposition; and two that are in progress have to do with eutrofication and the terrestrial ecosystems.
I thought what I'd do as well is, using some recent case studies if you will, illustrate how the EA process has contributed, we think, to improved projects in the oil sands area, reducing impacts associated with oil sands projects, and relate it to some of the issues that I understand have been of interest to the committee. These have to do with the whole question of water management, issues related to migratory birds—and perhaps the recent incident where a number of birds were lost in a tailings area—and climate-change issues.
Some of the projects that have dealt with these issues in the recent past include the Kearl oil sands environmental assessment, Muskeg River Mine expansion, and the Jackpine Mine, as well as the Horizon oil sands project. In all these cases, we feel that the environmental assessment process resulted in changes to the project design that improved those projects to some extent from an environmental perspective.
With respect to water issues, the main issues have really revolved around water withdrawals and water volumes, particularly in the Athabasca River, as well as water quality. And one of the things that has occurred fairly recently is that Fisheries and Oceans Canada and Alberta Environment are jointly developing a framework for regulatory decision making and setting out procedures for managing the oil sands water withdrawals from the lower Athabasca River. The framework recommends a precautionary approach to this issue. It's being implemented in phases, starting last year in 2007 and going through 2010.
On the issue of water quality, there have been concerns raised about predictions as to whether effects will indeed be negligible as a result of oil sands projects. As a result, in the case of most of the environmental assessments that are undertaken—notably Kearl, Muskeg, and Jackpine—there have been requirements set for water quality monitoring to ensure water quality standards are not exceeded.
With respect to migratory birds--and I'm coming to the end, I can assure you--Environment Canada, which has principal interest in this issue from a federal perspective, works in very close cooperation with Alberta Environment to ensure that mitigation is applied to projects to prevent unacceptable impacts to migratory birds. Using simple mitigation measures such as refraining from land-clearing during nesting periods is one example.
Recently, concerns have been raised about endangered species, such as the yellow rail, which is a migratory bird under the Species at Risk Act. Surveys are being undertaken to provide the baseline data that are necessary to ensure that mitigation is developed to protect the species in the Athabasca region.
The recent incident at the Aurora North Mine tailings pond involving the death of about 500 mallard ducks illustrates the need for improved measures to mitigate and avoid those kinds of effects. Part of the benefit of environmental assessment, in our view, is to learn from those kinds of experiences so that they can be applied to future projects.
With respect to climate change considerations, managing greenhouse gas emissions is an area that is evolving in the context of environmental assessment. I do acknowledge that this represents a huge challenge in the assessment of a specific project.
After identifying the challenges with respect to specific projects, the agency had worked a few years ago in cooperation with the provinces, in order to develop a guide for environmental assessment practitioners about the inclusion of climate change considerations based on environmental assessments. In concrete terms, that means that a specialized federal authority, such as Environment Canada, provides advice to proponents about the way to reduce their energy use by means of co-generation, regular vehicle maintenance and other methods of minimizing or reducing greenhouse gas emissions.
Beyond the environmental assessment process, as you know, regulations are being developed under the Canadian Environmental Protection Act which would be applied to large emitters, including the oil sands.
You'll be glad to know this is my final slide.
Looking ahead, you're likely aware of the recent decision in the case of the Kearl oil sands, where the Federal Court concluded that the panel hadn't properly provided sufficient rationale to justify its conclusion of insignificant effects related to greenhouse gas emissions. I think that will have the effect in future panel reviews of ensuring that the proper justifications are included in those kinds of decisions.
Secondly, I think it's prudent for us at the agency to plan for not only the current volume of projects likely to come forward, but for what we think may be an increasing number of these kinds of projects.
Thirdly, the Alberta government's regional sustainable development strategy is also being reviewed, and we're hoping that updates to that may provide us with additional context or benchmarks for future environmental assessments.
Finally, as you may know, the Canadian Environmental Assessment Act is due to be reviewed by a parliamentary committee in 2010. We hope we will be able to bring to you some of our experiences with these types of projects and others to inform your deliberations on how to strengthen the federal environmental assessment process.
Mr. Chairman, that's my presentation.
Thank you for your attention.