Posted on iPolitics.ca on March 22, 2012
For the first time in Canadian history, the federal government is systematically weakening the environmental laws intended to protect this country’s magnificent natural heritage. For four decades, since the dawn of the modern environmental era, governments in Ottawa — Liberal and Progressive Conservative, majority and minority — have passed new eco-laws and strengthened existing laws. Until now.
Using an under-handed tactic pioneered by anti-environmental Republican lawmakers in the U.S., Prime Minister Harper’s Conservative government is surgically undermining the laws intended to protect Canada’s air, water, soil, biodiversity, and ecosystems.
During the 1990s, the Republican-controlled Congress attempted to roll back key environmental laws including the Clean Air Act, Clean Water Act, and Endangered Species Act. When their frontal assaults were rebuffed, the Republicans resorted to dirty tricks. Instead of directly targeting environmental laws, the Republicans attached anti-environmental riders to laws that enjoyed wide bi-partisan support, such as omnibus spending bills or payroll tax cuts. These riders were buried deep in lengthy pieces of legislation that few politicians were likely to read, and their obscurity made it difficult for environmentalists to generate public opposition.
The Conservatives obviously have learned from their southern counterparts. Next week’s budget is expected to be the third consecutive Conservative budget that contains deeply buried legislative changes that sabotage environmental laws.
In 2009, the Conservative budget law weakened several key elements of the Navigable Waters Protection Act, eliminating mandatory environmental assessments for major developments (e.g., bridges, dams, and causeways) on Canadian rivers. Whether there will be an environmental assessment now depends on the discretion of the Minister of Transport. The changes to the Navigable Waters Protection Act also authorized the Minister to make a wide range of decisions without any public notice or consultation. The Federation of Canadian Municipalities criticized these powers as broad and arbitrary.
In the 2010 budget legislation, the Canadian Environmental Assessment Act was weakened by exempting infrastructure projects from assessment, re-assigning responsibility for assessing energy projects from the unbiased Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency to the pro-development National Energy Board and Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission, and increasing the Environment Minister’s discretion to determine the scope of a project for purposes of environmental assessment. The latter change effectively reversed a Supreme Court of Canada decision that rejected the federal government’s attempt to artificially narrow the scope of environmental assessment. The beneficiaries of the weaker environmental assessment process include the oil and gas, mining, and nuclear industries.
If pre-budget trial balloons are reliable indicators, next week’s budget may include devastating changes to the Fisheries Act and further weakening of the Canadian Environmental Assessment Act. The Fisheries Act provisions that protect fish habitat have long been regarded as among the most important environmental rules in Canada. Potential changes leaked to the media last week would completely eliminate fish habitat protection. The usefulness of Canada’s environmental assessment law, already diminished by previous changes, could be slashed further by handing over decision-making powers to the provinces.
What is particularly nefarious about these environmental rollbacks is their profoundly undemocratic nature. The legal revisions are not subject to the regular process of public debate, expert review, and scrutiny by the House of Commons Committee on Environment and Sustainable Development. Instead the changes are hidden in lengthy budget implementation laws, and glossed over by the Finance Committee. The 2009 and 2010 budget laws were 528 and 880 densely written pages, respectively.
The Conservatives’ purported rationale for eviscerating Canada’s environmental laws is that our regulatory regime is too strict. This assertion does not even pass the laugh test. Every reputable study of Canadian environmental law published in the past decade finds Canada to be a laggard, with rules for protecting air quality, drinking water, food safety, and biodiversity that are substantially less stringent than the standards in other industrialized nations.
Unlike their Reform Party predecessors or their Republican role models, the Conservatives did not run on an anti-environmental platform. To do so would have compromised their electoral chances, since protection of the environment is a fundamental value for the vast majority of Canadians. Public opinion polls consistently show that 75-80% of Canadians want stronger, not weaker, environmental laws.
The Conservatives appear hell-bent on exploiting and exporting Canada’s natural resources as quickly as possible, regardless of the environmental costs. The inevitable and unconscionable result would be an ecological debt imposed on future generations.
However, the Conservatives have demonstrated a willingness to back down on poor public policy positions, reversing their position on providing an economic stimulus in response to the recession, flip-flopping on their commitment to new fighter jets, and overcoming their earlier hostility towards China. Canadians from coast to coast need to speak up for nature, children, and future generations so that the Harper government reverses course on dismantling decades of essential environmental laws.