Textes d'opinion

We need faster, fairer assessments of major energy projects

Last October, the Supreme Court of Canada found most of the federal Impact Assessment Act, previously known as Bill C-69, unconstitutional. The justices ruled that the law, adopted five years ago, is too broad and seeks to regulate activities within provincial jurisdiction. Environment and Climate Change Minister Steven Guilbeault has promised to introduce a “tightened” version of the bill that respects the division of powers.

In order to ensure broad public support for the process, in particular from Indigenous and provincial stakeholders, I believe the federal government should also take a more pragmatic and balanced approach when approving or rejecting major projects. Instead of intruding on the provinces’ jurisdiction over the environment, it should take into consideration other relevant (and crucial) aspects that are the purview of a national government.

More often than not, there is a trade-off between the economic benefits provided by a development project and its environmental costs. But it is economic growth that gives us the means and inclination to better deal with environmental degradation and ultimately even reverse it. In short, the richer we are, the easier it becomes to protect the environment.

That is why any environmental assessment of a large energy project must be coupled with an assessment of its impact on: the national economy, job creation, investment opportunities across the country and on Canada’s reputation as an attractive destination for international investors. Such a balanced approach would show that the government is serious when it says it cares both about the economic well-being of Canadians and protection of the environment.

Another important criterion that should be considered is: How will the project impact the geopolitical interests of Canada and its democratic allies? Bill C-69 contained a provision asking the regulator to study the impact of projects on women and the LGBTQ+ community. I must admit that I fail to fully grasp how a pipeline can be made to be more “gay-friendly,” but that is beside the point. A precedent already exists for studying social and political impacts, and the one I propose is at least as relevant.

The Russian invasion of Ukraine two years ago upended the energy situation in Europe and elsewhere. Energy security and its implications for military security are back at the forefront of geopolitical debates, as they were during the oil crisis of the 1970s. And yet we only look at the merit of these projects in a parochial way, focusing on Canada alone, as if we were still in an era of abundant resources available to every country.

Despite its financial and military support for Ukraine, the federal government has a track record of ignoring this aspect of the issue in its foreign policy. It turned down requests for help from Germany and Japan in the form of increased supply of liquified natural gas. In the uncertain world we live in, we cannot any longer have a serious discussion about major energy projects without tying it to the larger geopolitical discussion about energy security.

Finally, the new law must establish a hard deadline (I propose a maximum of 18 months) within which the federal regulator must render its final decision. And for the deadline to mean something project supporters should receive some sort of financial compensation if it is not met. Another option would be for the law to presume a favourable response in the absence of a timely ruling.

There should also hard deadlines for the issuing of permits by other agencies involved, to prevent foot-dragging. Finally, when these new criteria are adopted, it would be important to ensure that staffing of the federal agencies in charge of applying them is optimal.

Energy minister Jonathan Wilkinson announced a couple of weeks ago that, to boost Canada’s energy security, his government wants to slash the time it takes to develop new critical mineral mines by nearly a decade. If that’s feasible and desirable for critical minerals, why not for other major energy projects?

The Supreme Court decision has given the government an ideal opportunity to revise its approach and come back with a new version of its bill that focuses on powers, including foreign policy, that really are in the federal domain and are even more important now than when earlier versions of the law were written.

Michel Kelly-Gagnon est président-fondateur de l’IEDM. Il signe ce texte à titre personnel.

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