December 5, 2005

Federal action plan includes directive, $5M to improve EA process

An action plan to consolidate the federal environmental assessment (EA) process is intended to make the process more efficient, timely and better co-ordinated. The plan, initiated November 23 by Environment Minister St├ęphane Dion, who is responsible for the Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency, fulfills a pledge made by the government in the October 2004 Throne Speech to get its house in order in matters of environmental assessment.

The first part of the action plan is a Cabinet directive, taking effect immediately, that sets out the expectations of Ministers regarding the implementation of the Canadian Environmental Assessment Act.

The directive reinforces the Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency's leadership role and instructs the Agency and federal authorities on how they should conduct themselves to deliver high quality EAs in a timely and predictable manner.

It establishes common principles for determining what will be examined in a federal environmental assessment; clarifies who is responsible for ensuring implementation of mitigation measures to prevent significant adverse effects; and provides for involvement of senior officials to ensure a co-ordinated federal process. The directive does not, however, fetter the powers, duties, functions or discretion of federal authorities, the federal EA co-ordinator or the Agency.

Dion also announced an additional $5 million annually to support the implementation of the Directive.

The second part of the action plan will be a discussion paper on options for legislative change (i.e. future amendments to the Canadian Environmental Assessment Act), to be followed by public consultations; this is expected early next year. Following these consultations, a bill will be tabled in the House of Commons. The action plan as a whole, including the $5-million allocation, will proceed regardless of the federal election outcome.

The EA process can be complex because of technical issues, overlapping jurisdictional responsibilities and public expectations. For instance, about 200 projects per year require an EA by more than one federal authority. In some cases, it can take several months for departments to agree on the determination of a project to be assessed, who should lead the assessment or what type of assessment is required.

Currently, the Agency provides advice but has limited authority to address problems. In addition to compromising the quality of EAs, this can have a negative effect on Canada's investment climate and can frustrate interested parties who find their opportunities for getting involved delayed or unclear.

Through this action plan, the government seeks to reconcile the need for immediate improvement with the need to get the amendments right.

The directive may be viewed on the Agency's Web site,

The Mining Association of Canada (MAC) welcomed Dion's announcement. "Mining is the "frequent flyer" of the federal environmental assessment process," observed Justyna Laurie-Lean, MAC's vice-president of environment.

Association president and CEO Gordon Peeling noted that "the federal environmental assessment process has long been a major irritant for Canada's mining industry, not for the level of environmental scrutiny undertaken but for the inefficient, costly and frequently unco-ordinated manner in which federal EAs have been carried out. The government has listened to our industry and other stakeholders and appears ready to take the action required to improve the system," he added.

In 2003, MAC and other relevant interests worked together to support the passage of key amendments to the Canadian Environmental Assessment Act, under review at that time by Parliament. These amendments included provisions to improve co-ordination, set timelines and enhance transparency and accountability.

Their implementation was delayed, however, due to lack of resources and the absence of clear government direction. The Cabinet directive and the new funds for EA, said MAC, promise to ensure effective implementation, providing relief to industry proponents and ensuring greater transparency for the public.

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