Last week the Canadian government introduced legislation to overhaul the federal environmental approval process. Changes are taking shape on several fronts:
- A new Impact Assessment Agency will be created to replace the Canadian Environmental Assessment Act. The aim is to broaden project reviews, enhance transparency, and create more opportunities for Indigenous and public input. The definition of impact is being broadened to include those to health, society, gender, climate change, Indigenous peoples, jobs and the economy.
- The Canadian Navigable Waters Act is to be expanded to include approval of projects (dams and others) that potentially obstruct navigable rivers, lakes and other waterways. Additional protections for waterways of significance to Indigenous peoples are included.
- Changes are being made to the Fisheries Act to give the federal government new tools with which to manage fisheries and safeguard fish and their habitats.
- A new Canadian Energy Regulator will be created to replace the National Energy Board. The new regulator will oversee interprovincial pipelines, international and interprovincial power lines, and offshore renewable energy projects. It will be responsible for issuing licences for the international export of oil, natural gas and electricity. Furthermore, it will regulate traffic, tolls and tariffs for the transportation of energy.
With the exception of the Canadian Energy Regulator, mineral industry activities are bound by the terms of the Fisheries, the Navigable Waters, and the Environmental Assessment laws. Certain projects must also be submitted to provincial scrutiny as well as federal.
The Mining Association of Canada says that at first glance, the draft legislation and the new concepts introduced will have an effect on the timeliness and costs as explorers and developers seek to move projects forward. There are reasons to hope for more timely assessment. But much depends on how the new laws are applied.
“How well the regulatory regime works is a decisive factor for the health of the mining industry and Canada’s ability to attract new mineral investment. It will also influence whether Canada can harness the potential of a low carbon future, which has already begun to increase global demand for key minerals and metals such as copper, lithium, nickel, cobalt, iron and steelmaking coal,” said Pierre Gratton, MAC’s president and CEO. “We will continue to engage with the federal government on the new legislation and in consultations on subsequent regulations to work towards an effective and efficient project review process.”
The federal government has pledged $1 billion over the next five years to ensure the Impact Assessment Agency and the departments with which it deals have the capacity to implement the new changes.
The changes come amid promises to reduce the length of time an assessment takes, down to 300 days from 365 for projects going before the impact agency. The timeline for projects going before a review panel is also shortened, to 600 days from 720. An early planning phase of 180 days will be added before an assessment begins. The latter phase begs the question of whether timelines will actually be shorter.
The changes are a welcome update for Canada’s environmental review process. I have my fingers crossed that they will be applied efficiently, but should the mining industry applaud these changes?
Responsible miners already do extra work consulting the public and Indigenous population before a project is started. There is nothing in the new Impact Assessment that is unfamiliar. The streamlining of the assessment process and the promise of shorter timelines will depend on how regulators apply the laws.
Give the new regulations a year or two, then we will see if government can make the promised improvements – for industry, people and the Earth.