“Due to financial restraint, the light at the end of the tunnel has been turned off until further notice.”
More than 30 years ago, on a hand-printed sign in a back corridor at the National Research Council in Ottawa, that message captured the sense of desperation brought on by an earlier generation of federal cutbacks.
The light may have flickered back on yesterday, when Environment and Climate Change Minister Catherine McKenna and Natural Resources Minister Jim Carr announced five new principles to guide federal decisions on two controversial energy megaprojects, Kinder Morgan’s Trans Mountain pipeline expansion and TransCanada’s Energy East pipeline.
The Feds Step Up
Some of the details are still hazy. But so far, the five principles read like a solid first step to restore Canadians’ confidence in a badly broken environmental assessment process. Here they are, direct from the Natural Resources Canada website:
- No project proponent will be asked to return to the starting line—project reviews will continue within the current legislative framework and in accordance with treaty provisions, under the auspices of relevant responsible authorities and Northern regulatory boards;
- Decisions will be based on science, traditional knowledge of Indigenous peoples, and other relevant evidence;
- The views of the public and affected communities will be sought and considered;
- Indigenous peoples will be meaningfully consulted, and where appropriate, impacts on their rights and interests will be accommodated; and
- Direct and upstream greenhouse gas emissions linked to the projects under review will be assessed.
Working With What They’ve Got
In so many ways, this announcement shows the new federal government making the best of a bad situation, using the very limited tools at their disposal.
After Canada’s environmental assessment regulations were dismantled in 2012, the National Energy Board summarily decided to exclude consideration of greenhouse gas emissions from its assessments of major pipeline projects. The NEB panel reviewing the Trans Mountain project isn’t even allowing cross-examination of Kinder Morgan’s submissions or testimony. That decision makes evidence in the hearings essentially useless according to Green Party leader Elizabeth May, a lawyer and former Sierra Club executive director who first intervened before the NEB in the early 1980s.
But as May pointed out yesterday, McKenna and Carr would have triggered a torrent of lawsuits if they’d forced the Trans Mountain and Energy East hearings back to the starting gate. Gathering more robust data to inform their own future decisions on the two pipeline proposals is the best they can do—after a previous government took decision-making authority away from the NEB and handed it to the federal Cabinet.
An Important Reality Check
Even if Wednesday’s announcement is imperfect, the five review principles are an important reality check for pipelines and other energy megaprojects. As we said in a news release we issued this morning:
Canada’s environmental assessment processes are badly broken. By setting out broad expectations that resource projects will have to meet, the government has begun the process of earning public and stakeholder confidence in the process.
It’s tremendously important that the government is returning to its past practice of including greenhouse gas emissions in its assessment of major energy proposals like the Energy East pipeline and the Trans Mountain expansion. But it isn’t yet clear what criteria Cabinet will use to determine the acceptable level of emissions from each project. We’re hoping Minister McKenna answered that question in Paris last month, when she committed Canada to a long-term goal of limiting average global warming to 1.5°C.
Getting clarity on what is and is not acceptable in hydrocarbon development in Canada is also the first step in diversifying the country’s resource economy and ensuring a fair, smooth transition for people who work in the fossil fuel industries. Clean energy already produced more direct employment in Canada than the tar sands, even before falling oil prices set off layoffs in the Alberta oilpatch. Canadian workers and small businesses deserve better, and we look forward to seeing the federal government tap the huge potential for stable, steady clean energy jobs across the country.
From yesterday’s announcement, there may actually be a light at the end of the tunnel for Canada’s environmental assessment processes. Time will tell, but yesterday’s announcement was a courageous and noteworthy first step.