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The Nova Scotia government is proposing a suite of amendments to the federal government’s environmental assessment bill aimed at shoring up timelines for offshore projects and continuing a hands-on role for the offshore petroleum boards.
Senators on the energy, environment and natural resources committee were in Halifax Wednesday — their second out of three stops in Atlantic Canada, and part of a nine-stop coast-to-coast public hearing tour — to hear from stakeholders before proposing amendments to government Bill C-69, also known as the Impact Assessment Act and the Canadian Energy Regulator Act.
The bill, first introduced in early 2018, proposes sweeping changes to how the government assesses and approves major projects, such as oil and gas extraction. It aims to give Ottawa greater control over the environmental assessment process.
“The bill gives the ability to the minister, at the end of the process, to arbitrarily decide if the project will go ahead.” — Sen. Michael MacDonald
The bill also changes the roles of the so-called life cycle regulators including the Canadian Energy Regulator (previously the National Energy Board), Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission as well as the Canada-Nova Scotia Offshore Petroleum Board and the Canada-Newfoundland and Labrador Offshore Petroleum Board. In some cases it removes powers and in others it adds them.
Derek Mombourquette, Nova Scotia’s minister of energy and mines told The Chronicle Herald that Canada’s environmental assessment approach needs reform.
In submissions to the Senate, the province proposed amendments to the bill that would give Canada-Nova Scotia Offshore Board the ability to “continue to do its job” under the new legislation.
“One of the main aspects for us is to ensure our offshore regulator still continues to play a lead role in the joint management of our offshore,” Mombourquette said.
The province also proposed amendments that would place a limit of 730 days for environmental assessments and eliminate the minister and cabinet’s ability to extend timelines “except at the request of proponents or in cases of changes to a project.”
Additionally, the province is seeking clarity in the legislation to ensure what it calls routine activities, such as offshore exploration, delineation drilling and geological surveys are not captured under the list of projects that need comprehensive federal environmental assessment.
“As a province, we need to ensure Nova Scotian voices are heard not only on the environmental side but also on the resource development side,” Mombourquette said.
Nova Scotia Conservative Senator and Senate committee co-chair Michael MacDonald said senators heard similar concerns at hearings in other parts of the country.
“Both Nova Scotia and Newfoundland and Labrador want their offshore petroleum boards to have the authority to manage these projects and be exempt from the legislation,” he said.
MacDonald also said industry groups and provincial governments have expressed concerns that, in its current form, the bill will mean less certainty for investors.
“The bill gives the ability to the minister, at the end of the process, to arbitrarily decide if the project will go ahead,” he said.
MacDonald also said the bill gives the ability to groups or individuals, whether they are impacted by the project or not, to delay the environmental assessment.
“Set timelines will streamline the process but a as long as anyone can intervene, the timelines are meaningless,” he said.
“Why would someone spend millions, hundreds of millions, maybe even billions proposing a project ... if you allow individuals and groups the ability to intervene in the process and delay a project forever.”
Concern over regulators’ role
While some are concerned about the offshore boards losing their influence, others told senators the legislation gives them too much.
Under current assessment laws, The Canada-Nova Scotia Offshore Petroleum Board and the Canada-Newfoundland and Labrador Offshore Petroleum Board, which are independent joint petroleum activity regulators, simply provide advice to the Impact Assessment Agency of Canada, the main body responsible for all federal assessments.
Under the new proposed laws, these boards would have direct input — two out of five members on the panels that would be appointed to review designated offshore and gas projects would come from offshore petroleum boards. Critics argue that these regulators are advocates for the oil and gas industry, and should only be involved in a regulatory role, not in project assessment, while the CNSOPB itself says their job is to ensure regulatory compliance, not to promote industry.
“What they’ve done is reduce the role of National Energy Board and they’ve reduced the powers of the Nuclear Safety Commission, but they’ve increased the role of the two petroleum boards,” Mark Butler of the Halifax-based Ecology Action Centre told The Chronicle Herald.
“You’ve got to have consistency.”
Colin Sproul, of the Bay of Fundy Inshore Fishermen’s Association, who also presented at the hearings, said he supports much of the bill, but that an increased role for the offshore boards is a concern for the fishing industry.
“If you look at the composition for the boards you will see they’re staffed with oil industry veterans. They certainly have experience in the commercialization of oil exploration, they really don’t have the experience to do environmental assessment,” Sproul said
“It’s incredibly difficult for Canadians to have trust in these groups to act in the best interest of Nova Scotians when their stated mandate is to advance the oil industry. How can we expect these same people to be able to make the best decisions for Canada’s environment and oceans?”
Following remaining consultation in New Brunswick, Quebec and Ottawa, MacDonald said the committee will consider all it has heard at the hearings in crafting amendments for the bill.
“There’s no question amendments will be proposed,” he said. “I guess we’ll have to wait and see if the government is prepared to accept them.”