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The Nasty Game, The Failure of Environmental Assessment in Canada, Andrew Nikiforuk, January 1997

Note: The following document is posted by the Sierra Club of Canada as a matter of public interest. The author is not affiliated with the Sierra Club of Canada.

The Nasty Game - The Failure of Environmental Assessment in Canada

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Executive Summary

Environmental assessment (EA) has become a cynical, irrational and highly discretionary federal policy in Canada. What should be a coherent and democratic filter to ensure that ecological and economic follies do not ruin Canada's natural riches has become a bureaucratic exercise that is neither cost-effective nor conservation-minded.

Increasing litigation, conflict of interest, missing assessments and scientific rebukes are all evidence of the government's reluctance to uphold the law on EA and apply it fairly. While a formal complaint on non-compliance has been brought before NAFTA's Commission For Environmental Cooperation, the Sierra Club of Canada is now suing the government for failing to assess the fiscal and environmental impacts of nuclear reactor sales to China.

The government's calculated exclusion of the $1.5-billion CANDU sale from an EA not only highlights a history of shoddy practices but sends an unmistakable message to the public: there is one law for the government and another for everyone else. Voisey's Bay Nickel Company, which has already spent $20 million on its impact statement on the effects of a $5-billion nickel mine that will supply Asian markets, might well ask why it is following a process that is openly belittled by Ottawa.

As a consequence members of both industry and the environmental movement now agree that EA suffers from a profound lack of leadership and direction. "Someone in Ottawa has to decide they are going to make this thing work and assume the responsibility to do so," charges Justyna Laurie Lean of the Mining Association of Canada. It is a charge echoed across the country.

Many of the current problems stem from a two-year-old law that even lawyers describe as the most complicated and convoluted legislation ever to exit Parliament. Neither a mining executive nor a Dene hunter could tell by reading the Canadian Environmental Assessment Act (CEAA) or its 491 page user's guide that predicting the impact of industrial development on the land requires fidelity to three principles: it must be done before the project has been designed, it must focus on significant effects and it must be done even-handedly. On any scale most federal EAs in the last seven years violate all of these principles.

Under CEAA there is no independent authority to conduct assessments. There are no penalties for non-compliance nor clauses preventing widespread conflict of interest. Because CEAA makes every government department a "responsible authority," there are few standards and there is little consistency and almost no responsibility. When the Department of Indian Affairs and Northern Development recently assessed the impact of BHP's diamond mine on the Great Slave Geological Province, it offered the company no guidance. Incredibly, it made all important impact agreements outside of the EA process. As one official noted: "In the end a lot of cheques were cut and everyone got a deal. But it's not clear an EA was ever done."

When the phenomenon of EA burst upon the public scene in the 1970s it quickly became adopted in more than 100 countries around the world. Responding to citizens' concerns about the loss and destruction of natural capital such as rivers and forests, the government of Canada cautiously followed the world leader in EA, the United States, by introducing an ad hoc program that later became a four-page policy subject to ministerial discretion. Litigation for non-compliance forced the government to introduce a law in 1995.

In the last 25 years more than 50 major projects worth more than $50 billion have been publicly reviewed for significant environmental effects including dams, oil wells, highways, uranium mines and airport expansions. Yet no one has ever checked on the value or quality of these assessments. "There is little systematic or collected evidence of how past assessments have made any contribution to the health of the environment or have improved the economic development in Canada," says Husain Sadar, a former EA bureaucrat and now director of Carleton University's Impact Assessment Centre. "Not a single country outside of Canada would call us a leader in EA anymore."

In the absence of clear direction and leadership, impact statements for EAs have become increasingly jargon-laden, wordy and obtuse. Masses of inaccurate and poor data now pose as science. Charges David Schindler, a world-renowned ecologist at the University of Alberta: "Every one of these things is done as though it were on another planet. There is no learning and most would not pass a scientific peer review."

In an attempt to end the duplication of EAs among federal and provincial authorities, Ottawa has embarked on an Orwellian mission called "harmonization." Yet in reality this means contracting out constitutional responsibilities for the environment to provinces who no more want to uphold these responsibilities than Ottawa currently does.

When done properly, the difficult practice of EAs can save money, conserve resources and impose limits on development in areas suffocating from too much progress. Justice Thomas Berger's review of the Mackenzie Valley pipeline in the 1970s, still a model of EA excellence, literally saved the national economy billions of dollars and insured the possibility of aboriginal homelands. The World Bank now values the decision-making tool so highly that it doesn't approve a loan without an EA. And so on.

But without major reforms and critical leadership Canada's arbitrary practice of EA will only reap international ridicule, corporate censure, public unrest, and continued litigation.
Both the business and environmental communities have forwarded sensible and economic solutions. For starters, the law must be simplified and must respect key principles. As the Liberal Red Book recommends, there should be one strong, independent agency that sets the rules, monitors the results and applies the law fairly to all.

Last but not least, harmonization should mean only one thing: one good federal law administered by 10 provinces and two territories guaranteeing one prudent assessment per significant project in the public interest.

Without a rational and consistent means of defending the public good, the government can no longer claim to be a defender of that good.

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