Thank you, Mr. Chair. I appreciate the opportunity to appear before the committee this evening on a very important matter for Canada's environment and for sustainable development.
My message to the committee is this: less haste, more speed. The Canadian Environmental Assessment Act, by virtue of Bill C-38, will be repealed in total. It's not a tweak. It's not just about streamlining and timeframes, as was suggested in the budget documents. You are repealing an entire federal statute, and you are replacing it with another that includes a number of new concepts that have not been tested.
Many of the recent comments by several ministers have focused on the perceived need to streamline environmental assessments, such as by authorizing the substitution of federal reviews by provincial reviews, and to ensure that panel reviews are completed within reasonable timeframes. While Bill C-38 proposes many important and mainly unwise amendments to achieve streamlining and certainty in panel review timeframes, these are far from the most important changes to environmental assessment proposed in Bill C-38.
In the time I have available I want to touch on three main areas of concern that I have with respect to the bill.
The first thing is that the bill would essentially eliminate the legal requirement to carry out project environmental assessments. This will mean far fewer assessments and much narrower assessments of those project assessments that do occur. How does this work? Right now under the Canadian Environmental Assessment Act all triggered federal projects require assessment unless they've been excluded by regulation or by operation of the statute. Now, only projects that have been designated pursuant to a regulation would be subject to the act.
Let me pause here to say that we have not yet seen a draft of this regulation, although we do know that the Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency has been working on it. It is absolutely imperative for this committee to see that regulation before signing off on anything.
We don't know how long or how short this list of designated projects will be. We understand that the government is making use of the comprehensive study list regulations, the current regulations, as a template for that. At the moment, the Canadian Environmental Assessment Act registry lists 39 comprehensive studies being undertaken and 11 panel reviews. So a fairly small number of comprehensive studies and panel reviews are being undertaken. Under the new law, roughly 4,000 environmental-screening assessments being undertaken annually under CEAA would be eliminated.
There will be a fairly small number of so-called designated projects that will be subject to the act. But that doesn't mean they will actually be assessed for their environmental effects. Proposed paragraph 10(b) of CEAA 2012 gives the Environmental Assessment Agency the authority to make the determination that these designated projects not be subject to environmental assessment. In effect, there could be very few environmental assessments of projects undertaken pursuant to the new law.
Scott Vaughan, the parliamentary commissioner, was here yesterday. He estimates that 20 to 30 environmental assessments will be undertaken under the new law. I would suggest that this amounts to an abandonment by the federal government of environmental assessment. Thus the new bill could well be an empty vessel, with very few environmental assessments actually being carried out.
If this is the case, and if the new bill is applied to a mere handful of projects annually, it really doesn't matter what the rest of the legislation says with respect to timelines, substitution, equivalency, and public participation. The fact is that there's going to be very little environmental assessment activity happening at all.
My second point relates to the abundance of discretion in the bill.
I would say that CEAA 2012 is not so much a law imposing requirements for the conduct of environmental assessments as it is a statute enabling the exercise of discretion by ministers and responsible authorities. The new bill provides broad discretion to the agency and the environment minister to determine that the environmental assessment of a project is not required, to scope the factors to reconsider the environmental assessment, and to determine whether a provincial project is “an appropriate substitute” for the federal process.
This will inevitably result in the politicization of environmental assessment and consequent delays. Right now we have clear rules. We're substituting those clear rules with discretion in the hands of the agency's responsible authorities and the minister.
For example, assume that aggregate quarries on the scale of the proposed Melancthon quarry in southern Ontario are listed as a designated project by regulation. The first step of the proponent of such a quarry could well be, through obtaining an Ottawa lobbyist, to pressure the agency and the minister to exercise the proposed paragraph 10(b) discretion to ensure that no environmental assessment is required, or failing that, to exercise proposed subsection 19(2) discretion to scope the environmental assessment of the quarry down to a stream crossing.
This sort of thing does go on, I'm afraid.
My third point relates to increased litigation risks.
There will be increased litigation risks because we have a brand new piece of legislation with many new concepts that are being incorporated using terms such as designated project, environmental effects, interested party, appropriate substitute. This legislation has been developed in secret—I would suggest in haste—without the benefit of other experts, whether from industry or from civil society, and that means there are likely going to be many mistakes.
I note that the cone of silence approach that has been taken with respect to this bill is strikingly different from that undertaken with respect to previous environmental assessment laws. The original Canadian Environmental Assessment Act in 1992 was preceded by several years of public discussion and three different bills tabled in Parliament.
The major amendments to CEAA in 2003 were also preceded by a public consultation led by the agency, as well as the House of Commons environment committee hearings.
In addition, there was a multi-stakeholder process called the regulatory advisory committee, which had industry, environmental groups, first nations, provinces, and federal departments that worked over draft regulations to ensure they were right, before they came into force.
Unfortunately, we have none of that now. I do suggest that the use of a multi-stakeholder body would be an important way to get this legislation right. The government does have some record in this. I've been a part of a multi-stakeholder group that has been working on the air quality management strategy, which has had industry representatives and environmental groups, as well as provincial governments led by the Government of Alberta, and we're very close to a national deal that will reduce smog emissions in this country as part of a multi-stakeholder process, not a unilateral process.
I've only touched on a few of the many grave concerns that I have with this legislation, and certainly this subcommittee faces a significant challenge in trying to understand the bill, first of all, understand the comments of witnesses, and propose amendments that could mitigate the, frankly, devastating impacts that this legislation will have on Canada's natural environment.
Less haste will yield more speed and a better law.
My recommendation is that this subcommittee remove the proposed CEAA 2012 from Bill C-38, and propose to the overall finance committee that it be referred to the House of Commons environment and sustainable development committee for its review. I would further suggest that this review be done in collaboration with some multi-stakeholder group.
I would have suggested the National Round Table on the Environment and the Economy, but obviously that's not possible.
My final comment is that I want to repeat something I said before.
I think it's really important that this committee have that draft designated projects regulation in front of it before you wind up your hearings. I believe that the committee should ask the Minister of the Environment for that regulation before you wind up your process here.
Thank you very much, Mr. Chair.