Good morning, honourable members.
Mr. Chair, I am pleased to be here this morning as you commence your study of Bill C-38. I will focus my remarks on proposals for a new Canadian Environmental Assessment Act, as well as important changes to the Species at Risk Act and the Canadian Environmental Protection Act, 1999.
Some comments during the debate about this bill have emphasized the proposal to repeal the current Canadian Environmental Assessment Act. This is not accurate. The current act will be repealed and, I must emphasize, replaced with the proposals in Bill C-38 for new and effective environmental assessment legislation.
Environmental assessment is a key part of my portfolio. It's an important part of the government's plan to strengthen environmental protection today and for the benefit of future generations of Canadians.
This is why we have protected funding for the Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency at a time of fiscal restraint. Despite what the media has reported, there are no cuts to the agency's funding. In fact, the agency's budget will increase by $1.5 million.
Sufficient and stable funding, when combined with the amendments two years ago to the Canadian Environmental Assessment Act, have laid the foundation for the fundamental changes proposed by Bill C-38. These changes will make the process more predictable and timely, reduce duplication, strengthen environmental protection, and enable meaningful consultation with aboriginal peoples.
As my colleague, the Minister of Natural Resources, has pointed out, these are the four pillars of responsible resource development. Some may erroneously view these as conflicting objectives. I do not. They are at the heart of Bill C-38 and the new environmental assessment process. I'm confident that Canadians will benefit from timely, high-quality environmental assessments that avoid duplication and needless double effort with provinces.
Bill C-38 will strengthen protection of our environment. With the time available I want to provide members of the committee with some of the highlights.
First, I've spoken in the House and elsewhere about the importance of enforcement. Bill C-38 builds on the past work of this government. This issue first came to the forefront through Budget 2008, which stated that:
Environmental laws alone are not enough to guarantee a cleaner, better environment. These laws also need to be enforced.
My predecessor followed through with the Environmental Enforcement Act that was passed by Parliament in 2009.
Bill C-38 builds on this excellent legislation by closing the enforcement gap for environmental assessment. The new Canadian Environmental Assessment Act creates a decision statement that will include enforceable conditions. These conditions are backed up by inspection powers to confirm that mitigation measures are being implemented. There are penalties ranging from $100,000 to $400,000 for violations.
Legislation is just part of the solution. The government has permanently increased resources to environmental enforcement by $21 million annually to ensure that we have the officers, the equipment, the forensic science, and the tools to do the job.
Today, there are 50% more enforcement officers than there were just five years ago. They are stationed in offices across the country. They are working in the fields to detect those who violate our environmental legislation, and take action against them.
These officers will be able to inspect and take action on violations of the Canadian Environmental Assessment Act. These new enforcement provisions are complemented by a requirement for a follow-up program after each and every environmental assessment. These programs verify the accuracy of an environmental assessment's predictions and determine whether mitigation measures are working as intended.
This is the way we will identify environmental results. It's also a means to learn and build on past successes and avoid past mistakes. It is a means to improve the practice of environmental assessment.
The bill also includes new authority for the Minister of the Environment to launch regional environmental assessments in cooperation with other jurisdictions.
Currently, the act is restricted to a single-project focus. It is a challenge to assess cumulative effects of multiple projects and activities in a region experiencing significant development. The requirement to assess cumulative effects is nevertheless carried out from the current act—it is carried over, rather, from the current act. It is an essential part of the federal regime.
What we are proposing to add, Mr. Chair, is a new tool for regional studies to deal with the issue of cumulative effects. The Minister of the Environment will have authority to establish an independent committee of experts to conduct a regional strategic environmental assessment in cooperation with another jurisdiction. The results of these studies can feed into the assessment of specific projects, and the gains therefore would be twofold.
First, we will have a deeper understanding of the ecosystem involved. This will translate into better environmental assessments and approaches to mitigation. Second, by doing much of the upfront scientific work, regional studies will streamline project-specific reviews.
Mr. Chairman, once again, the conclusion is clear. We are proposing changes that support the four pillars of responsible resource development.
With regional studies, we have a tool that will promote timely and predictable project reviews. We will gain information that strengthens environmental protection. By working with the provinces, we avoid duplication. Finally, such studies provide an opportunity for aboriginal peoples to make their concerns known, thus informing later consultations with respect to specific projects.
Mr. Chair, there has been much talk and great exaggeration and misrepresentation about the changes to environmental assessments under the responsible resource development initiative. I've brought forward some facts to correct the record.
First, and most important, the Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency's budget is not being cut. Second, with new enforcement provisions, mandatory follow-up programs, and a new tool for regional studies, we are enhancing—not gutting, as some would perceive—federal environmental assessment.
Mr. Chairman, I'd now like to speak about aboriginal consultations.
The environmental assessment process is uniquely situated to assist the Government of Canada with its constitutional duty to consult and, where appropriate, accommodate aboriginal groups when their rights might be adversely affected by a proposed project.
Environmental assessment, Mr. Chair, starts early in the planning of a project, when it is still possible to design changes to reduce impacts. Changes to the environment that affect aboriginal peoples, including their current use of the land and resources for traditional purposes, are one of the “environmental effects” specifically referred to in this bill. There are also logical points in the process to directly obtain input from aboriginal groups to learn of their concerns and to develop means to avoid or reduce negative effects.
For these reasons, the government will continue to integrate, to the extent possible, aboriginal consultations into the environmental assessment process.
Budget 2012, Mr. Chair, provides the Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency with $6.8 million per year to support consultations with aboriginal peoples. Of this, $5.3 million is a renewal of funding first provided in 2007, and it is now being topped up by a further $1.5 million in new money.
While the exact allocation of all these resources is still being determined, I can say that a significant portion will go directly to aboriginal groups involved in consultations. The remainder will be provided to the agency to support its involvement in consultation activities.
Mr. Chair, I want to assure all members of this committee that the federal government takes its responsibilities very seriously. This is why enhancing consultations with aboriginal peoples is one of the pillars of the responsible resource development initiative. Agency staff and review panels are engaging, and will continue to directly engage, aboriginal peoples in their communities.
As part of the responsible resource development plan, the government is also proposing some changes to the Species at Risk Act and to the disposal at sea provisions of the Canadian Environmental Protection Act, 1999. These changes allow legally binding timelines for permitting decisions to be set in regulations.
Amendments to the disposal at sea permitting process will also allow for permit renewals for routine, low-risk projects. They will change requirements to allow publication on the CEPA registry website, rather than in the Canada Gazette. This will create a more efficient and transparent process for issuing permits.
The Species at Risk Act amendments allow for longer-term permits and make the conditions for these permits enforceable. These changes will support effective protection of listed species, while allowing the government to issue authorizations for a time period better suited to large projects.
In closing, I wish all members of the committee well as they embark on this important study of the proposed Canadian Environmental Assessment Act, 2012.