With clock ticking on broken environmental review processes, time is of the essence

With the Paris climate talks fast approaching, and the fate of several proposed crude oil pipeline projects still up in the air, there is no time like the present for Canada’s new government to make good on its promises to repair broken environmental review processes and demonstrate real leadership on climate change.

Fixing our battered environmental laws and developing a meaningful, credible climate plan will take time, but for those of us working within the Kinder Morgan Trans Mountain pipeline review process — and looking ahead to hearings on TransCanada’s Energy East pipeline — time is of the essence.

Public confidence in the credibility of Canada’s pipeline review process has hit an all-time low. The Kinder Morgan review, punctuated by procedural delays, civil disobedience and at least five lawsuits, has been gruelling for the proponent and interveners alike. The process is fundamentally flawed; arbitrary and unreasonable timelines, restricted public participation, and lack of oral cross-examination undermine the rigorous, transparent decision-making Canadians need to grant social licence to resource projects. Equally troubling, particularly in light of this government’s commitments on climate change ahead of Paris, is the exclusion of climate impacts from the scope of this review.

If the new government is serious about restoring public trust in environmental reviews and taking action on climate change, it must suspend the Kinder Morgan review until its flaws are addressed — and ideally, a better regulatory regime is put into place.

Mechanisms within the National Energy Board Act allow the Minister of Natural Resources and the Cabinet to extend timelines. Many interveners support halting the process, and if Kinder Morgan wants the social licence it claims to seek, it too should welcome the opportunity for a more robust process. Or, the government could pass legislation suspending the review while it works to improve Canada’s broken environmental assessment process.

If the government were to pass legislation for a mid-course correction on the Kinder Morgan review, it would not be unprecedented. In 2012, the previous federal government repealed the Canadian Environmental Assessment Act and amended the National Energy Board Act, actions which, among other things, expedited Enbridge’s Northern Gateway Project review process. There were new timelines and other procedural changes to the process. Essentially, the last government weakened environmental laws mid-assessment; that gives a powerful precedent for the new federal government to fix the system.

What does a credible process look like? First, it would address procedural flaws such as limited public participation, lack of oral cross examination, and unreasonable time limits, and include meaningful consultation with Aboriginal communities.

Second, it would consider how projects, particularly crude oil pipelines, contribute to climate change. Any process that stops short of holding projects up to a simple climate test — will it make carbon pollution and climate change worse? — is not good enough.

Canada does not need incremental improvements to its broken, outdated environmental laws. What we need is a commitment to a new, modern environmental law framework. One that recognizes the imminent threat climate change poses to our security and well-being. One that rewards clean energy solutions and rejects fossil fuel projects that dump more carbon pollution into the atmosphere we all share. One that recognizes that every person in Canada has a basic human right to clean air, safe water, and a healthy environment.

These are big aspirations that will require big solutions and some patience.

In the meantime, ensuring that the Kinder Morgan project undergoes a credible review, specifically one that holds the pipeline up to a climate test, is a critical early step for the new government. If it is serious about living up to its promises to restore public faith in a badly battered environmental assessment process and demonstrate clear leadership on climate change, it must take decisive action and suspend the Kinder Morgan review now.

With the Paris climate talks just around the corner and a mandate from the Canadian public to usher in a new era of honest, transparent government that does not shy away from big challenges, this is no time for half measures.

This piece was first published in the Vancouver Sun on November 24, 2015.

Photo by Asif A. Ali via Flickr

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