New Pipeline Rules Deliver a Reality Check for Environmental Assessment
“Due to financial restraint, the light at the end of the tunnel has been turned off until further notice.”
than 30 years ago, on a hand-printed sign in a back corridor at the
National Research Council in Ottawa, that message captured the sense of
desperation brought on by an earlier generation of federal cutbacks.
light may have flickered back on yesterday, when Environment and
Climate Change Minister Catherine McKenna and Natural Resources Minister
Jim Carr announced five new principles to guide federal decisions on
two controversial energy megaprojects, Kinder Morgan’s Trans Mountain
pipeline expansion and TransCanada’s Energy East pipeline.
The Feds Step Up
of the details are still hazy. But so far, the five principles read
like a solid first step to restore Canadians’ confidence in a badly
broken environmental assessment process. Here they are, direct from the Natural Resources Canada website:
project proponent will be asked to return to the starting line—project
reviews will continue within the current legislative framework and in
accordance with treaty provisions, under the auspices of relevant
responsible authorities and Northern regulatory boards;
- Decisions will be based on science, traditional knowledge of Indigenous peoples, and other relevant evidence;
- The views of the public and affected communities will be sought and considered;
peoples will be meaningfully consulted, and where appropriate, impacts
on their rights and interests will be accommodated; and
- Direct and upstream greenhouse gas emissions linked to the projects under review will be assessed.
Working With What They’ve Got
so many ways, this announcement shows the new federal government making
the best of a bad situation, using the very limited tools at their
Canada’s environmental assessment regulations were dismantled in 2012,
the National Energy Board summarily decided to exclude consideration of
greenhouse gas emissions from its assessments of major pipeline
projects. The NEB panel reviewing the Trans Mountain project isn’t even
allowing cross-examination of Kinder Morgan’s submissions or testimony.
That decision makes evidence in the hearings essentially useless
according to Green Party leader Elizabeth May, a lawyer and former
Sierra Club executive director who first intervened before the NEB in
the early 1980s.
as May pointed out yesterday, McKenna and Carr would have triggered a
torrent of lawsuits if they’d forced the Trans Mountain and Energy East
hearings back to the starting gate. Gathering more robust data to inform
their own future decisions on the two pipeline proposals is the best
they can do—after a previous government took decision-making authority
away from the NEB and handed it to the federal Cabinet.
An Important Reality Check
if Wednesday’s announcement is imperfect, the five review principles
are an important reality check for pipelines and other energy
megaprojects. As we said in a news release we issued this morning:
environmental assessment processes are badly broken. By setting out
broad expectations that resource projects will have to meet, the
government has begun the process of earning public and stakeholder
confidence in the process.
tremendously important that the government is returning to its past
practice of including greenhouse gas emissions in its assessment of
major energy proposals like the Energy East pipeline and the Trans
Mountain expansion. But it isn’t yet clear what criteria Cabinet will
use to determine the acceptable level of emissions from each project.
We’re hoping Minister McKenna answered that question in Paris last
month, when she committed Canada to a long-term goal of limiting average
global warming to 1.5°C.
clarity on what is and is not acceptable in hydrocarbon development in
Canada is also the first step in diversifying the country’s resource
economy and ensuring a fair, smooth transition for people who work in
the fossil fuel industries. Clean energy already produced more direct
employment in Canada than the tar sands, even before falling oil prices
set off layoffs in the Alberta oilpatch. Canadian workers and small
businesses deserve better, and we look forward to seeing the federal
government tap the huge potential for stable, steady clean energy jobs
yesterday’s announcement, there may actually be a light at the end of
the tunnel for Canada’s environmental assessment processes. Time will
tell, but yesterday’s announcement was a courageous and noteworthy first
Interim Executive Director
Sierra Club Canada Foundation
One Earth • One Chance
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