04/26/2012 11:00 EDT | Updated 06/26/2012 05:12 EDT

Canada Budget 2012: Tories Bury New Environmental Review Rules In Budget


OTTAWA - The federal government has submerged a thorough overhaul to Canada's environmental protections in a much broader piece of legislation — ensuring its speedy passage but further alienating environmentalists.

The multi-faceted changes to environmental and pipeline policy are part of the omnibus budget bill tabled Thursday — mixed in with myriad changes to tax policy and other fiscal matters.

Critics say that the omnibus approach means that radical changes to the way authorities handle natural resource development won't be properly scrutinized or debated in Parliament. That's because the measures will be debated by the Commons' finance committee as part of a wider look at the entire budget.

"The Conservatives are trying to bury critical changes to environmental legislation in a bill that's over 400 pages long," said NDP environment critic Megan Leslie.

"It's clear the Conservatives are introducing massive changes to our environmental protection laws. Fully one third of the bill is dedicated to paving the way for big oil and development projects."

The budget bill, tabled Thursday, repeals the Kyoto Protocol Implementation Act, officially severing Canada's obligations to the global agreement on greenhouse gas emissions.

It also contains fundamental changes to a number of pieces of legislation dealing with the environmental assessment process.

By rewriting the Canadian Environmental Assessment Act, the budget bill enshrines timelines for assessment hearings, allows Ottawa to hand off assessments to the provinces and consolidates the process in three government agencies.

It also gives federal cabinet the final say over oil and gas pipelines — a controversial concentration of power that worries environmentalists.

Similarly, the environment minister is given more power to decide which resource developments should be subjected to environmental scrutiny.

"Across a number of acts, this is going to increase ministerial discretion and cabinet discretion," said Ecojustice lawyer William Amos, director of the University of Ottawa's environmental law clinic.

A spokeswoman for Natural Resources Minister Joe Oliver said putting the changes into omnibus budget legislation is "routine."

But Carly Wolff added the government also plans to create special sub-committee to study the proposals on environment protection.

The budget bill overhauls the Fisheries Act to focus only on major waterways, not every single body of water. The federal government will only oversee waters supporting major fisheries of commercial, recreational or aboriginal value.

The Species At Risk Act will be changed so that the minister of environment has greater leeway to give industry players exemptions and extensions of their permits, but also to impose conditions on industry.

At the same time, the bill sets out stiffer fines for breaking environmental regulations and laws.

And it cracks down on charities involved in political activity — a move some non-governmental environment organizations interpret as an attack on their activities.

Finance Minister Jim Flaherty said he wanted to roll a wide array of policy changes into the budget bill so that it would quickly get through Parliament and into law.

"These are long-term changes," he told reporters after tabling the bill in the House of Commons. "Some of them are quite important. We need to get them done quickly."

But critics say such fundamental changes to environmental policy need separate treatment so that parliamentarians can bring in experts and scrutinize the implications.

"It is an affront to democracy to bury such far-reaching changes to laws Canadians depend upon to help protect our environment in the budget implementation bill in order to avoid public scrutiny," Greenpeace spokesman Keith Stewart wrote in an email.

The budget bill contains so many key changes to environmental legislation that it amounts to a new and major act hiding within another bill, added Amos.

The Conservatives' allies on environmental policy, however, say the budget bill gives them everything they hoped for.

Jordan Graham, spokesman for EthicalOil.org, praised the bill for getting rid of unnecessary regulatory burdens on the oilpatch.

It's not the first time the Conservative government has altered environmental policy in such an omnibus bill. In 2009, it changed the Navigable Waters Protection Act to reduce oversight of minor waterways.

And in 2010, a budget bill revised parts of the Canadian Environmental Assessment Act to streamline hearings.

Those changes were made during the Conservative minority and their inclusion in the omnibus legislation helped ensure their passage.

Environmentalists argue that this round of changes is far more pervasive. And since the Conservatives have a majority, they do not need to worry about opposition members outvoting them.

Still, government ministers have been highlighting the changes for months, and public debate has been vibrant, albeit polemic.

Oil, gas and mining interests, as well as some provincial governments, have praised Ottawa for eliminating duplication in the environmental assessment process and creating a more efficient arrangement.

But First Nations are deeply concerned about being left out of the new procedures, despite legal obligations on the government to thoroughly consult First Nations on such changes.

"It is an alarming development that Canada would take such steps," Shawn Atleo, the national chief of the Assembly of First Nations, wrote in a recent letter to Natural Resources Minister Joe Oliver.

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