OTTAWA — The federal Liberals say they are reviewing the changes the Senate has made to their environmental-assessment legislation but accuse the Conservatives of bowing to pressure from the oil and gas sector.
Bill C-69, a major overhaul to how major national resource and transportation projects are assessed, passed the Senate Thursday evening with more than 180 amendments.
Environment Minister Catherine McKenna said in a statement she is “carefully considering” what to do with the amendments and is open to some of them but won’t say which ones.
The changes, made mainly by Conservative and Independent senators, reduce the authority of the minister of the environment to intervene in the assessment process, increase the role economic considerations play in deciding on a project’s merits, and tighten the time constraints for an assessment to be completed.
They also make it harder to challenge a project’s approval in court, put some restrictions on who can participate in a review hearing and water down the consideration that must be given to a project’s impact on climate change.
Nova Scotia MP Sean Fraser, McKenna’s parliamentary secretary, said Friday that the cabinet will discuss the changes made by the Senate and then make a recommendation to the House of Commons on which ones to accept and which to defeat. The Senate would have to then approve the bill again. He wouldn’t say when it would all get done but believes it can happen before Parliament rises for the summer. That’s scheduled to happen in two weeks, though the House of Commons could choose to sit longer.
Otherwise, the bill would die when the election is called.
Fraser said no decision has been made about the amendments but signalled the government isn’t likely to sign off on all of them.
“It seems as though, when you see what happened, particularly with the amendments that came from the Conservative caucus members who still sit in the Senate, it appears as though they’ve taken their speaking points and amendments directly from the oil and gas lobby and haven’t considered the potential social, economic or environmental impact that some of those amendments would have,” Fraser said.
Many of the Conservative amendments were word-for-word copies of requests from the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers. However many similar amendments were proposed by independent senators appointed by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.
Alberta Premier Jason Kenney and Conservatives in the Senate, as well as the oil industry, have said the bill is only workable if all the amendments are accepted as a suite.
“Surprise, surprise — I disagree with Jason Kenney,” Fraser said.
Conservative natural-resources critic Shannon Stubbs said Friday the amendments “reduce the catastrophic damage” the bill would have on the energy industry but a Conservative government would repeal the legislation no matter what the Liberals do with it. She said every major industry affected by the bill “demanded” changes to it.
“Conservatives opposed this legislation for the last year and a half because Bill C-69 imposes open-ended timelines for approval, increases political interference in the review process, and introduces vague project criteria that will allow anti-resource activists to significantly delay approved projects in the courts,” Stubbs said.
McKenna said killing Bill C-69 is “a recipe for economic problems, social tensions and environmental damage.”
Environment groups are urging the government to reject most of the changes. In a letter to McKenna last week, 26 Canadian environment groups said Bill C-69 was already “a significant compromise” for the environment as the government presented it.
“There is no justification for its further weakening in favour of oil-and-gas-industry interests,” the letter reads.
The legislation fulfills a Liberal election promise to repeal Conservative changes made to the assessment process in 2012, which they argue was leading to courtroom challenges rather than construction.
The original legislation, introduced in February 2018 following a long consultation process, was already heavily amended in the House of Commons a year ago.
Mia Rabson, The Canadian Press