Canada’s Environmental Assessment Law is Under Attack by the Harper Government

Environmental impact assessments are the government’s responsibility to First Nations and to communities. There are currently $350-$500 billion worth of industrial projects on First Nations land that need consultation and environmental reviews, yet Prime Minister Stephen Harper, along with Environment Minister Peter Kent and Natural Resources Minister Joe Oliver, are set on eliminating the requirement for many industrial projects to conduct environmental assessments prior to construction. The Federal Government is presenting regulatory changes to the Canadian Environmental Assessment Act (CEAA) and other related legislation to the House of Commons.

If passed, these changes will undermine the power of the act to scrutinize the potential environmental impacts of small and large scale industrial projects such as oil pipelines, mines, quarries, nuclear power plants and more.Over the past few years the CEAA has suffered many cutbacks to its budget and amendments from the Harper government, resulting in a gradual weakening of the already modest act. For example, the CEAA was amended in 2010 to exclude projects funded under the federal government’s Economic Action Plan from environmental assessment. Changes to the act have also been made to fast track large scale industrial projects such as the Tar Sands operations in Alberta, without any concern for the long term environmental and social consequences of such rapid expansion. According to the Green Party leader, Elizabeth May, there are fears that the federal government is prepared to gut the agency: “This is a government that wants a verdict first and evidence later, or a verdict first and evidence never.” The CEAA is a critical piece of legislation created in 1995 designed in order to protect sensitive environmental areas by requiring an environmental assessment to be conducted for any projects which federal government is involved. The act allows greater public participation, lengthier assessment protocol, and covers more projects than provincial environmental assessment acts alone. The CEAA was due for a parliamentary review in June 2010; however, it was not started until October 2011 by the House of Commons Standing Committee on Environment and Sustainable Development. Not surprisingly, these reviews were conducted with minimal public participation and the final report has not yet been published.

Pronouncements made against the act by Stephen Harper, Peter Kent and Joe Oliver are on the grounds that the CEAA allows too much public input, takes lengthy periods of time for environment assessment, creates uncertainty for investors, and threatens economic development. According to NDP environment critic Linda Duncan, a leaked memo from the federal government states they plan to present a draft bill which would “exempt from environmental assessment: any Building Canada infrastructure projects under $10 million regardless of the environmental or health risk; any project on federal lands or using federal dollars; and, any project that a provincial government asks to be exempted.” Even large scale projects are in danger of being referred away from the Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency to the National Energy Board, the Nuclear Safety Commission or to smaller provincial agencies, making it impossible to maintain national standards on environmental and human safety. The Federal government needs to recognize that CEAA is critical as an overarching national structure which is capable of conducting rigorous environmental assessment with public involvement in order to protect the interests of communities and the environment, not just the industrial sector. At the present rate, amendments made by the federal government to the act would render the CEAA impotent.

For more information on how to take action and speak out against the devaluation of the Environmental Assessment Act, visit