10/05/2011 04:32 EDT | Updated 12/05/2011 05:12 EST

Arctic environmental assessment too complex and uncertain: reports

More studies have concluded that environmental assessments on Arctic resource developments that northerners depend on to create jobs are slow, confusing and often more stringent than they would be in the south.

"Processes are used as an open forum for all issues in the region and reviewers use (them) to forward organizational or individual agendas that may not be related to the specific application," says an environmental audit done for Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development.

"These uncertainties can lead to 'public concern' ... and referral to environmental assessment for some projects that would not typically require such scrutiny."

Those conclusions released Wednesday echo a report earlier this week by a northern regulatory agency.

The Stantec report for the Mackenzie Valley Environmental Impact Review Board said that more than half the projects referred for environmental assessment in the Northwest Territories wouldn't be subject to the same level of review in the south.

"The environmental assessment process in the Mackenzie Valley is one of the lengthier processes in Canada," said the Stantec report.

Industry and governments have long complained about the time it takes to get approval for northern development that creates jobs. Environmental groups aren't happy with the amount of time and resources the process takes either.

Hearings for the now-stalled Mackenzie Valley natural gas pipeline took three years and cost more than $16 million.

The N.W.T.'s economy is almost entirely dependent on resource extraction, but exploration in the territory is declining despite healthy commodity prices.

Natural Resources Canada forecasts the N.W.T. will see $83 million in exploration this year. That's less than half the investment in 2006 and less than one-third the money spent in the Yukon and Nunavut.

Unsettled land claims are a major reason why it's considered harder to operate in the N.W.T. But the territory's regulatory system is one of the reasons commonly cited, including in reports commissioned by the territorial government and previous federal audits.

Vern Christensen, the review board's director, acknowledges the board has a low bar for requiring a project to go through a full assessment. Its legislation requires only that there be a risk of adverse environmental effects or significant public concern.

"That's a very low test," he said.

Christensen points out that much of the delay in the northern regulatory process occurs at the federal level. Projects can wait for final cabinet approval for months, even years. Only about five per cent of the projects that come before his board end up being environmentally assessed, he said.

But he said the board is working to speed up.

"Maybe the board has had a broader scope of issues that are considered in its assessment than it really needs to," he said. "We have to look at that and define what should be the break point."

Christensen said proposals for reform are expected early in the new year.

Ottawa is also conducting a review of the N.W.T.'s regulatory system, said Teresa Joudrie of Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development.

"That process is underway," she said.

Joudrie defended the inclusive nature of how potential environmental impacts are currently evaluated.

"One of the great parts about the environmental process in the N.W.T. is that everyone has a chance to participate and everyone has a chance to voice the concerns that come forward to them. It's important that people have a voice in the regulatory system."