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Harper's Third-World Environmental Policies for the First World

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The French historian, Jules Michelet, when asked to give a brief lecture on English civilization, said, "Ladies and Gentlemen, England is an island." And with that, he walked off the podium.

In a similar spirit, the most important thing to know about the current federal government is that its roots are in energy-rich Alberta. That simple fact, above all others, explains the attitude of the Harper government toward environmental regulation (bah!), climate change (pff!), scientists in the civil service (boo!), trade with Asia (yay!), pipelines (love 'em) and oil (drill baby, drill).

The overhaul of environmental assessment rules -- and the imposition of a two-year time limit for the review of major projects -- will benefit extractive firms like Enbridge, which wants to build a pipeline to carry bitumen from Alberta to markets in Asia.

But the weakening of environmental protection could also backfire.

Environmental assessments are necessary not only to protect the environment, but also to protect industry and government from being blind-sided by opposition. They are part of the larger framework of regulatory rules that create trust in government and provide stability for investors.

Citizens need to know that governments have done their due diligence. This requires a professional civil service that is highly professional and free from political pressures. The bureaucracy must combine both in-house capacity and good linkages with external sources of expertise. The Harper government is muzzling its own scientists and disbanding the National Roundtable on the Environment and the Economy.

Extractive projects generate great wealth but they also impose what economists call negative externalities -- costly side-effects that are not counted on the balance sheets of private corporations. To ensure that policies are in the public interest, environmental externalities, like pollution or global warming, must be balanced against the jobs and growth that result from development. Yet we have no national-level policy regulating extractive industries to provide a framework for reaching decisions in the public interest. And no climate change policy either.

Instead, the government is now weakening the entire regulatory process by making the final decision on major projects -- like oil pipelines -- the prerogative of cabinet.

The flip side of politicizing the process is that it will undermine trust in government decisions. When the Nuxalk First Nation of Bella Coola pulled out of the hearing on the Enbridge pipeline, it expressed its lack of confidence in a process it sees as having a foregone conclusion. This sets the stage for a court challenge.

Canada will begin to experience the kind of conflicts around natural resources that have affected other resource-dependent nations.

At the recent Summit of the Americas held in Cartagena, Colombia, Prime Minister Harper extolled the virtues of resource development and warned that environmental reviews should not hold industry back. He should take a hard look at countries like Peru, Ecuador, Bolivia, and Guatemala, where hundreds of conflicts have erupted over the environmental effects of extractive projects -- many of which are owned by Canadian companies. The less-developed world may show us the image of our own future.