TORONTO - A major overhaul of environmental assessment rules for big projects will create jobs and growth, the federal government announced Tuesday, sparking resource industry praise and fierce criticism from environmental groups.
First signalled in last month's budget, the Conservative government said proposed new rules would encourage investment by avoiding wasteful duplication and setting strict time limits for project reviews.
"We intend to focus federal assessment efforts on major projects that can have significant environmental effects, such as energy and mining projects," Natural Resources Minister Joe Oliver said.
"Streamlining the review process ... will attract significant investment dollars and give every region of our country a tremendous economic boost."
The plan calls for three organizations — the Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency, the National Energy Board and the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission — to conduct reviews, down from 40 government departments that can currently be involved.
Ottawa would defer to provincial reviews that meet national standards, and reviews would be limited to 12 months for standard assessments, rising to a maximum of two years.
The necessity of a review would have to be determined within 45 days.
Oliver said it would be "obvious" in many cases which projects would be captured under the new legislation, but gave the example of pipelines of at least 40 kilometres that can have significant impact nationally or regionally.
Opposition New Democrats and environmental groups accused the Conservative government of ramming through legislation that would "rubber-stamp" assessments to the benefit of large corporations at the expense of communities and the environment.
The various government agencies now involved have particular expertise, and removing their input could be risky, they said.
"These changes are about handing oil and mining companies their approvals faster, rather than asking what kind of legacy this leaves for the next generation," said Keith Stewart of Greenpeace Canada.
Gillian McEachern with Environmental Defence accused Prime Minister Stephen Harper's government of abdicating its responsibilities to protect land, air and water.
"This is really a weakening of key environmental protection measures that have been in place for decades," McEachern said. "It's meant to pave the way for Big Oil to get what it wants."
However, David Collyer, president of the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers, said the legislation would not increase the likelihood that projects will get the green light.
What it would do, he said, is provide "more clarity" in terms of time frames for decisions which in turn helps "investment certainty."
Todd Nogier, a spokesman for Enbridge, said the proposals make "great sense" and would support development.
"Enbridge supports the very general concept of one project, one review completed in a clearly defined time frame," Nogier said.
Jordan Graham of Ethical Oil called the proposed changes "critically important and long overdue" because they would reduce Canadian dependence on foreign energy.
"The foreign-funded radical environmental groups opposed to (Tuesday's) announcement are essentially against any development, and want to kill Canadian jobs," Graham said.
Currently, it can take years to review projects such as the controversial Enbridge Northern Gateway pipeline that would move Alberta crude through British Columbia to be shipped to export markets in Asia.
Oliver said the legislation, to be introduced "fairly soon," would be retroactive to existing projects through transitional measures.
Nogier said it was too early to assess how the schedule for the $5.5-billion Northern Gateway might be affected.
Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty said he would consider "efficiencies" given that currently both Ottawa and the provinces are involved in the assessment process.
"If there is a way for either one of us to take on that responsibility that does not compromise our heavy responsibility to protect the environment for ourselves and our families, then we are open to that," McGuinty said.
Some groups, like the Pembina Institute, worried about leaving assessments to provinces such as Alberta, which it said is not able to review projects properly by itself.
NDP critic Laurin Liu said stronger environmental protections would allow Canada to improve trade relations because "we are currently seen as an environmental offender."
The proposed legislation would also hike penalties for non-compliance with an assessment decision to $400,000 from $100,000.
The government is also providing $35 million over two years to beef up marine safety and $13.5 million over two years to strengthen pipeline safety.
Measures include requiring west coast tankers to be double-hulled and increasing the number of oil and gas pipeline inspections.