04/04/2013 03:30 EDT | Updated 06/04/2013 05:12 EDT

Derrick de Kerckhove, PhD Student, Questions Need For Streamlined Environmental Assessments

Research is questioning the logic behind the federal government's move to streamline environmental assessments.

After tracking thousands of assessments over a decade, the peer-reviewed findings of Derrick de Kerckhove suggest a great majority of Fisheries Act environmental reviews over the last decade were completed well within recommended timelines.

Nor was there a bottleneck of projects being held up by a clogged review process, he said.

"We didn't find any. Even when the input was high, it seemed to be handled very well."

De Kerckhove, a University of Toronto PhD candidate, analyzed 10 years worth of data from Department of Fisheries and Oceans annual reports on the progress of environmental assessments triggered under the Fisheries Act. That legislation generates more such reviews than almost any other — anywhere from 7,700 to more than 12,000 in a single year.

His paper, published last month in the Canadian Journal of Fisheries and Acquatic Sciences, found that simple reviews in which impacts on fish habitat could be fixed were completed within months, 19 times out of 20.

More complicated reviews, which required projects to compensate for damaged fish habitat, were finished within the next calendar year, 19 times out of 20.

That contradicts the rationale for the federal government's extensive changes last year to environmental assessments, de Kerckhove said. The government said it was concerned about slow processing and bottlenecked reviews holding up development.

But de Kerckhove said almost all proceeded smoothly. The ones that took a long time tended to be resource megaprojects.

The arbitrary time limit of two years for all reviews imposed in new legislation is a one-size-fits-all solution, de Kerckhove said.

"You're really doing a potential disservice to Canadians by scrapping a system that was working really well rather than tailoring the more difficult reviews for those larger economic projects."

He said other means could have been found to streamline large projects without new restrictions, which include removing protections from some rivers and many non-commercial fish species.

Fisheries and Ocean spokeswoman Melanie Carkner said the new rules do make those distinctions.

"Fisheries and Oceans Canada is adopting a practical, common-sense approach that focuses on managing threats to Canada’s recreational, commercial and aboriginal fisheries and the fish habitat on which they depend," she said in an email. "Our new approach draws clear distinctions between different types and sizes of projects and waterways and takes into account the potential serious harm to our fisheries."

John Bennett of the Sierra Club said de Kerckhove's findings reveal the underlying motive of the government's changes.

"It just demonstrates there was no real reason to do it in the first place," he said. "It was not about making it more effficient, it was about reducing the strength of environmental protection."

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