October 22, 2007

Federal Throne Speech overlooks real priorities, could complicate compliance

Under the guise of strong leadership, the federal government's October 16 Throne Speech promises little more for the environment than making industry's job of compliance somewhat more complex than it already is.

Interestingly, there are more significant environmental elements to be found in the sections on Strengthening the Federation and Economic Leadership than in the Environment section, where little new was promised and where observers are once again left asking against what baseline does Canada intend to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 20% by 2020.

In the Strengthening the Federation section, the government promises to respect the constitutional jurisdiction of each order of government to opt out of new shared-cost programs in areas of exclusive provincial jurisdiction. Definitions are yet to be tabled but assuming that exclusive provincial jurisdiction is considered to include natural resources and environment, this could mean that provinces may choose to opt out of new federal programs in areas such as mining, forestry, regulation of toxic substances, automobile emission standards, and so on.

The government appears ready to permit Canada to become even more of a patchwork quilt of environmental and resource regulations, more akin to the U.S. model than to the traditional Canadian model.

In the Economic Leadership section, the government's pre-announcement of its infrastructure program, the Building Canada Plan, ignores the increasingly desperate need of municipalities for renewal of environmental infrastructure. Priorities for the Building Canada Plan are stated as roads, bridges, improved cultural infrastructure, and a better quality of life.

The priority needs of Canadian municipalities are roads and the underground infrastructure of water and sewer pipes as well as water and wastewater treatment facilities. For some reason the government promises money for water treatment facilities but not for underground infrastructure or for wastewater treatment, both of which will burden municipalities with far higher costs than water treatment.

If the federal government does not address environmental infrastructure the result will almost certainly be increased municipal charges for water and sewer services, particularly to industry, and increased restrictions on industrial use of these services.

Mining and resource companies should consider the challenges posed by the Government's promise to provide a single window for major project approvals. In the past, promises of single windows have usually increased bureaucracy because individual departments are unwilling to surrender their approval processes. Restructuring of approvals could mean several years of chaos for both proponents and opponents.

Moreover, few large projects in Canada fall exclusively under federal jurisdiction. If the Prime Minister thinks that further reduction of federal environment assessment responsibilities under the guise of a single-window restructuring will go down well with Canadians, he has truly failed to grasp the environmental concerns vociferously expressed by many Canadians.

Finally, the Throne Speech promise of tougher environmental enforcement rings hollow. Relatively few regulations are enforced solely by the federal government, so it is unlikely that the majority of Canadian industries will see more--or even any--federal environmental inspectors knocking on their doors. Even the promises of measures to ensure food and consumer product safety are likely to be challenged and circumvented by provincial governments eager to support their own industries.

~Colin Isaacs

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