Thank you, Mr. Chair.
Good morning, members. My name is Stephen Hazell. By way of introducing myself, I should say that I'm a lawyer in private practice but I wear a number of hats, one of which is that I act as counsel with Ecojustice, a not-for-profit law firm. Today I'm speaking as an individual.
I thought I would provide what I call a number of new directions for the committee to consider as it figures out how it wants to proceed with the seven-year review. I'm of the view that the Canadian Environmental Assessment Act has done a pretty good job over the years, but it has many flaws.
It has become complicated and unwieldy, and it's not addressing Canada's most pressing ecological issues or the needs of governments, proponents, and the public in the environmental assessment process. CEAA is often failing to properly assess projects with critically important environmental effects, such as greenhouse gas emissions from oil sands projects, but it also legally requires assessments of hundreds of small projects--such as scientific permits to study birds--whose well-understood effects either are minimal or can be mitigated.
This committee has a tremendous opportunity to step back and take a look at some other ways of proceeding with environmental assessment and to make the system better, from a number of perspectives.
Copies of my brief have not been distributed because unfortunately I was away on holidays last week and didn't really get down to serious writing until the weekend. The clerk assures me that it will be provided once it's translated.
I firmly believe that any environmental assessment process has a number of key elements, and I won't review those. But it must be legislated, it must engage the public effectively, it must be accountable,and it must avoid duplication of other environmental assessment processes.
I want to focus the bulk of my time on discussing some of these ideas. Probably none of them are my ideas, really. It's just that I'm here compiling and presenting to the committee some different ways in which we could proceed with environmental assessment that I think would improve the process.
They're not necessarily mutually consistent either, so one idea doesn't necessarily mesh well with the others. Partly that's your job, as I see it, to figure out what the best structure should be as we go forward.
There are five basic ideas.
One, shouldn't we focus on sustainability as opposed to assessing environmental effects?
Secondly, shouldn't we try to make sure that we're addressing federal environmental commitments in our federal environmental assessment system process?
Thirdly, there's this thought that maybe if we had permitting for environmental assessments, once completed that would be helpful in terms of their implementation.
For the fourth idea, which was raised a little bit by President Elaine Feldman of CEAA the other day, how about a single agency approach rather than the self-assessment approach by multiple departments and agencies?
Finally, this one is a bit more dramatic, perhaps, but I think it has some appeal. It's the idea of integrating the environmental assessment process with the regulatory approval process for projects, so that it would be one-stop shopping federally for assessments as well as for approvals.
Sustainability assessment asks these questions. Does a project or policy provide net benefits for the community, province, and nation? Does it advance our economy and society towards a sustainable future? It's a much narrower framework, and it differs from environmental assessment under CEAA, which asks, “What are the adverse environmental effects of a project, are they significant, and how can they be mitigated?”
As well, sustainability assessment asks questions about how to improve the positive aspects of a project instead of just focusing always on the negative stuff. Sustainability assessment also looks at fairness issues--intergenerational as well as intra-generational.
Sustainability assessment has been gaining ground in a number of environmental assessment processes around the country. Some federal panel reviews have used the sustainability assessment approach, partly because it deals better with issues such as greenhouse gas emissions, which, frankly, have been very poorly dealt with by most panel reviews recently. There are a few exceptions to that, but given my limited time I won't get into them.
Think about whether we should be assessing the sustainability of projects. And by sustainability, I'm talking about environmental, social, economic sustainability, and not just focusing on adverse environmental effects, as is currently the case. So this is asking the committee to think about that.
Secondly, on achieving federal environmental commitments, the federal government has a number of environmental commitments. Some of them are stated in, say, the federal sustainable development strategy. Some of them are stated pursuant to international agreements that we have, say, the Copenhagen Accord or the biodiversity convention. Shouldn't we be using the environmental assessment process to support the achievement of those existing federal commitments?
We can do that in a number of ways. Australia has done it one way. They identify projects that are of national significance and that may not have a specific federal trigger, so those projects are assessed. There's a determination that it is a project of national significance and they're going to do a federal environmental assessment because it's important for the country to do that.
There's another way of looking at this. In the recent couple of years, we've had a number of terrible disasters, the Fukushima disaster this year, the Deepwater Horizon disaster last year, and to make sure that we don't omit some Canadian disasters, the 1984 Ocean Ranger disaster, which killed close to 100 people. The environmental effects we don't know about; they weren't really measured. Maybe they weren't that great. Nonetheless, it was a terrible disaster. How can we use an assessment process to ensure that Canada doesn't have those types of disasters anymore?
The current legislation doesn't require assessment of worst-case scenarios. It does require assessment of accidents and malfunctions, but generally speaking, there has been a minimal attempt to try to figure out what would be the worst thing that can happen. What would we do about it? What would be the effects if the worst case happened?
One that's been on my mind a lot recently, because I've been involved in some of the panel reviews in northern Alberta, relates to tailings dams for oil sands projects. What if there were a tailings dam failure along the Athabasca River?
If you've ever seen photos of the Suncor tailings dam adjacent to the Athabasca River...it's pretty startling. You have a gigantic tailings reservoir cheek by jowl with the Athabasca River and dozens of metres above the level of the Athabasca River. This is just a pile of dirt, basically.
There are engineered standards. There are the Canadian Standards Association standards that are applicable to these tailings dams; nonetheless, what would a worst-case scenario mean if something were to happen to that dam? Basically, you would probably wipe out most aquatic life in the Athabasca River for many kilometres downstream.
On a different thought, right now when an environmental assessment is done under CEAA, a determination is made as to the significance of the effects and suggested terms and conditions. Those are implemented by the responsible authority, and then there's supposed to be follow-up and monitoring, which, generally speaking, doesn't happen, or happens very infrequently.
One idea is to say okay, the agency is going to actually issue a permit following the completion of the environmental assessment. The permit will say what the terms and conditions related to that approval are, and it will cover off the full gamut of environmental issues dealt with by...whether it's a joint panel review or a comprehensive study. So that's another one.
There are two others, which I'll run through quickly. One is about establishing a single agency rather than the self-assessment approach. Elaine Feldman discussed that one a little the other day. I think this is a good idea. You would enable the agency to focus on bigger projects and perhaps have less focus on smaller projects.
One quick point that didn't come up the other day in the committee was that there are existing regimes federally that allow smaller projects to be assessed. You have the parliamentary commissioner in place now, who wasn't there 20 years ago when CEAA was enacted, and you also have the federal sustainable development strategy and the departmental sustainable development strategies to look after the smaller types of projects.
Finally, this is probably the boldest idea of all. It is the idea of having the agency, probably the Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency, do assessments of big projects like comprehensive study projects and the panel review types of projects, but also having it issue the approvals for those. It would be one-stop shopping.
If you're a proponent, a mining company, say, and you're looking for some federal decisions so you can get on with your project, there would be one agency you could go to and say, “Okay, let's do the environmental assessment”. At the end of that day, that same agency would issue the approvals, whether it's Fisheries Act stuff, CEPA, or species at risk, you name it.
The chairman is telling me I have to wind up, so I will stop there.