OTTAWA - New rules to streamline approvals for pipelines and other major projects may include grouping together people with similar points of view, Natural Resources Minister Joe Oliver says.
It's the latest idea in years of tinkering by the federal government in an attempt to better attract investment to develop Canada's natural resources.
Current rules will still apply to continuing hearings on the proposed Northern Gateway pipeline to the West Coast that has caused so much controversy, the minister said.
But Oliver said future hearings should be shorter and more efficient — and not get clogged by a long lineup of interveners who all say the same thing, sometimes with an eye to delaying approvals.
One idea is to prevent the same point of view being heard repeatedly by grouping people who offer similar objections, the minister said Wednesday.
"In a judicial setting, they wouldn't all be heard. There would be note of the fact there's a group of them with those views, but those particular views don't have to be repeated again and again," he said.
Grouping the interveners according to similar views would be much like lumping together people who send in form letters to the government or a corporation about a certain cause, Oliver said.
"You take note of the numbers, but you also realize they are all coming from the same perspective."
The federal government has tinkered with the environmental approval process many times over the past few years, mainly to speed up procedures, simplify the process and eliminate duplication with other layers of government.
A spokesperson for Oliver said the changes don't go far enough.
"More works needs to be done to further modernize the regulatory system," said Katie McDougald in an email.
Despite critics' concerns that approval agencies may be overloaded and underfunded, Ottawa has already centralized procedures for major projects, and eliminated much overlap with the provinces — resulting in efficiencies that are frequently touted by the minister himself.
Now Ottawa is aiming its fire in the wrong direction by targeting environmentalists for gumming up the system, said lawyer Stephen Hazell, who often represents groups or people concerned about the environment.
The reasons natural resource projects take so long for approval often have little to do with the length of the public hearing per se, Hazell said.
Frequently it's because the companies themselves are not fully prepared, or purposely delay seeking approval for political or financial advantage, he said, pointing to the Joslyn North oilsands project and the Mackenzie Valley Pipeline hearings.
Or the federal government itself may take inordinate amounts of time appointing review panel members, he added, again pointing to the previous Liberal government's handling of the Mackenzie Valley hearings.
"There's a basic dishonesty in what Mr. Oliver is saying as reasons for delay."
Indeed, Green party Leader Elizabeth May points out that Oliver's complaint that the government took two months to approve a temporary ice arena on a frozen pond was actually because the pond was in Banff National Park.
The National Parks Act requires Ottawa's approval, May points out.
"The fact that the arena approval took only two months shows the system works quite well," May wrote in a response to the minister.
Oliver, however, counters that May should be questioning whether there was an assessment needed at all.
"May, in her letter, seemed to have missed the point entirely behind the example," a spokesperson for Oliver said in an email.
Oliver's idea of grouping interveners would require a huge amount of bureaucratic preparation and would probably not help much in terms of shortening the approvals process, Hazell added.
The government also has to be careful not to discredit the hearing process — for the sake of the industries involved, said NDP environment critic Megan Leslie.
The House of Commons environment committee just finished a review of the process, she noted. While the Conservatives cut those hearings short — for reasons kept secret — there was a consensus emerging among industry, environmentalists and officials that a robust environmental approvals system is a must, Leslie said.
"All of them said we need a robust process, to have 'social licence' to do the work they do," she said in an interview. "You don't want a kangaroo court."
If the federal government interferes with the Northern Gateway hearings or if it waters down the process too much in order to favour industry, companies won't have the legitimacy they need to operate efficiently in Canada, she added.
"If I were industry, that would be really troubling for me."
There is also consensus that the environmental approvals system could be improved, both Leslie and Hazell said, so that regulators don't get bogged down in small projects and are able to pay attention to the broader environmental impact of major developments.
"There are solutions, but we need to stop being partisan about it," Leslie said.