OTTAWA - The federal government's new approach to the environment means the public will have far less input into natural resource development in Canada, says the federal auditor general for the environment.
Scott Vaughan, the commissioner of the environment and sustainable development, says changes to federal environmental assessment introduced last week are among the most significant policy developments in 30 or 40 years.
In comments to a conference about sustainable development, Vaughan said public consultation has always been a "bedrock" of environmental policy in Canada.
But with more than 100 pages of new provisions wrapped into the budget implementation bill tabled last week, "there will be a significant narrowing of public participation," Vaughan said.
Hearings will be triggered less often. And when they are triggered, only people who are considered directly affected will be allowed to participate, Vaughan said.
A spokesman for Environment Minister Peter Kent, however, said the new process would be inclusive.
Anyone directly affected can have a say, as well as First Nations and experts. Others can write in.
Regulators will decide who is directly affected on a case-by-case basis with the aim of preventing a flood of interveners who all say the same thing, said spokesman Rob Taylor.
"People are not shut out," Taylor insisted.
However Ottawa's own experience with the oil sands shows that the direct effects of resource development can be spread far and wide, and accumulate significantly as new projects come on line, Vaughan said.
He says the new legislation raises questions about how it will be put into practice, such as how Ottawa will define the kind of "small" projects that will no longer get environmental hearings. He also wondered whether the provinces are ready to take on the larger role in environmental oversight handed to them by Ottawa.
Vaughan also expressed concerns about major changes to the Fisheries Act, which he called one of the most important triggers for environmental assessment in Canada.
Environmentalists have repeatedly castigated the legislation, and criticized the government for rolling the changes in with the budget bill. The packaging means Parliament's environment committee will not have a chance to examine the implications of the changes.
"The government did nothing short of declaring war on the environment," Desiree McGraw, executive director of the Jeanne Sauve Foundation to train youth leaders, said at the conference.
The conference was meant to examine Canada's role in the global "green" economy, leading up to a summit in Brazil in June.
The Rio+20 meeting — coming 20 years after the Rio Earth Summit in 1992 that saw a wide array of countries declare joint action on reducing environmental harms — will bring leaders together again in an attempt to plot a course to control climate change and protect biodiversity.
But the conference in Ottawa quickly turned into a mournful lament for the environmental policies of Ottawa in the past, and contempt for the current government's approach.
Indeed, Maurice Strong — a prominent Canadian who spearheaded the Rio earth summit in 1992 — urged people who are concerned about the future of the environment to do an end-run around the federal government.
The Harper administration may be "totally negative" when it comes to being a constructive force in mitigating climate change, but Canada as a whole is not, Strong said.
He pointed to the provinces, especially Quebec Premier Jean Charest, as a strong and committed voice on environmental issues.
He also urged grassroots groups to mobilize and make full use of social media to pressure governments into action.
"There's still some time to bring the pressure of people power."
At a global level, Strong is urging auditors-general around the world to hold governments to account by simply publicizing their records on putting environmental policies and promises into practice.
"I really believe we are at a tipping point. That our civilization is at risk," he said.
The Rio meeting can serve as a "launch pad" to plot a meaningful policy path forward for the world, giving the process new momentum after several failed attempts over the last few years, he said.
Still, research presented by the head of the National Roundtable on the Environment and the Economy, David McLaughlin, suggests that the federal government's role is central in dealing with climate change policy.
Action from Ottawa is crucial when it comes to setting policy and regulations for industrial development and — more controversially — setting a price on carbon, McLaughlin said.
He foreshadowed new research to be presented by the roundtable within a few weeks, showing that inaction on climate change will cost Canada and Canadian business dearly in the long run.
Canada can still meet its international commitments to significantly cut greenhouse gas emissions by 2050, but the price of carbon will have to rise for every year of delay, he said.
"We have said consistently that delay is costly," McLaughlin stressed. "The starting point: we need a plan."
The roundtable — a research and advisory body to the federal government — is in its dying days, having lost its funding in this spring's budget.
The federal government has repeatedly rejected the advisory panel's requests to put a price on carbon and deal with climate change head-on — an approach that puts Canada's international reputation and its trade at risk, said McLaughlin.
Still, Kent's spokesman says the talks at the Rio+20 summit are "a high priority" for the federal government, and especially for Kent.
Taylor said the minister hopes to use the meeting to push for global action on reducing individual pollutants that add to global warming, such as soot, methane and fluorinated gases.