Today (Feb. 8, 2018) the federal government unveiled a new “Impact Assessment Act” that will repeal and replace the Canadian Environmental Assessment Act (2012). Together in one bill with the new Canadian Energy Regulator Act, this is an important – and massive – piece of legislation that sets out the conditions under which “major” development projects get built in Canada (or, rarely, not).
At first glance, the inclusion of a whole new section on conducting Regional Impact Assessments (RIA) appears like good news as it enables a bigger picture assessment that can capture numerous projects (e.g., multiple mines) or parts of projects (e.g., mines, roads, and smelters) and cumulative and growth-inducing effects of these projects. In Ontario’s Ring of Fire for example, a RIA could consider the multiple overlapping impacts of mineral exploration, new mines, required infrastructure (all-weather roads, transmission lines, smelters, etc.) and climate change in advance of project-level impact assessments. A robust RIA would also support Indigenous peoples’ interests.
But it remains to be seen whether the RIA envisioned in this new bill is indeed an improvement on “regional studies”, which were never used under previous legislation. RIA remains discretionary, as does the application of its results to project assessments. Fundamentally, it is open to question whether the federal government would ever use the power to order a RIA without provincial and Indigenous people’s cooperation. In the same vein, all the language in the new act around cumulative effects is the same as it was in the old act -- language that had little impact on actual EA practice.
So in this new legislation we have a glimmer of potential to start taking a more modern approach, avoiding the piecemeal decision making to assessment, particularly in situations where we can see that projects will have much more than simple site-specific impacts.
The new act also includes language around the importance of science and traditional knowledge of Indigenous peoples and transparency of decision making that was not in the previous version of the law. But it is only through subsequent regulation and guidance that we will learn whether implementation can shift to a true evidence-based approach that restores public trust and fulfills our international commitments on climate change and biodiversity.
WCS Canada has been deeply involved in providing guidance for how to improve the previous act, and we will continue to work to strengthen the legislation before it is passed into law.
We’ll have more to say on this issue as we dig through this 300-page bill. Make sure you subscribe to our e-news or follow our blog for updates.
Photo credits: Banner | William Halliday © WCS Canada