It's been a common complaint, an issue with scientists, with environmentalists, even with activists in the Idle No More protests: why is the Harper government making significant changes in environmental legislation and burying those changes in omnibus budget bills? And who exactly are the changes being made for?
Now, it looks like an access to information request by Greenpeace might have stumbled upon an answer. Their request unearthed a Dec. 12, 2011 letter from the Canadian Petroleum Products Institute, the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers, the Canadian Energy Pipeline Association and the Canadian Gas Association that seems remarkably prescient about the changes that have since occurred. The letter suggests the federal government has an "opportunity" to "address regulatory reform for major energy industries in Canada." And while the groups said "the objective of regulatory reform is very clear: to enable economic growth and job creation while continuing to ensure responsible environmental and social outcomes," it's pretty clear that the regulatory regime that the groups envision was considerably different from what existed at the time.
"In addition to process issues, we believe that the basic approach embodied in existing legislation is outdated. At the heart of most existing legislation is a philosophy of prohibiting harm; 'environmental' legislation is almost entirely focused on preventing bad things from happening rather than enabling responsible outcomes. This results in a position of adversarial prohibition, rather than enabling collaborative conservation to achieve agreed common goals.
"The approach we advocate is based on a whole-of-government consideration of several pieces of legislation that are currently planned for review in the coming months (for example, the Canadian Environmental Assessment Act, the Species At Risk Act, and others). ... The parliamentary review of the Canadian Environmental Assessment Act has provided an opportunity to set the scene for a broader review of environmental legislation and regulation as a system."
And that's exactly what has happened - in the federal government's omnibus budget bills. As a columnist with the Huffington Post points out, the letter "asked the federal government to modify six critical environmental laws that inconvenienced the signers' industries. Five of these laws have since been chopped up into omnibus bills C-38 and C-45, which significantly dismantled Canada's environmental protection."
The salting of significant environmental changes in what should, by rights, be solely financial legislation looked mysterious enough. Stranger still that those changes - and significant changes to consultation with aboriginal Canadians as well - should be so particularly suited to just one interest group, that of petroleum producers. Last time we looked, the federal government was elected to represent the interests of all Canadians, not just the petroleum industry. And let's face a simple fact here. Environmental legislation should be entirely focused on "making sure bad things don't happen," rather than simply mitigating the mess. That's not an out of date idea - it's simply the right one.
The federal government's apparent reaction to the gas and oil lobby? It's hard to connect those dots directly. But if it walks like a duck, talks like a duck and gets oiled like a duck ... well, you get the point.