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Environmental Assessment, Public Participation and Sustainability: Foreigners Keep Out?

[And by Meredith James]

According to Natural Resources Minister Joe Oliver,

Anyone looking at the record of approvals for certain major projects across Canada cannot help but come to the conclusion that many of these projects have been delayed too long. In many cases, these projects would create thousands upon thousands of jobs for Canadians…Unfortunately, there are environmental and other radical groups that would seek to block this … Their goal is to stop any major project no matter what the cost to Canadian families in lost jobs and economic growth. No forestry. No mining. No oil. No gas. No more hydro-electric dams.

These groups threaten to hijack our regulatory system to achieve their radical ideological agenda. They seek to exploit any loophole they can find, stacking public hearings with bodies to ensure that delays kill good projects. They use funding from foreign special interest groups to undermine Canada’s national economic interest….

The regulatory system, he concludes, is broken. “It is time to take a look at it. It is an urgent matter of Canada’s national interest.”

What sparked Minister Oliver’s anger? The fact that more than 4,300 people signed up to make submissions to the Joint Review Panel considering the proposed Enbridge Northern Gateway Project, two giant pipelines to carry petroleum from Alberta’s oil sands through the British Columbia mountains to a port in Kitimat, BC., for shipment by tanker to Asia. The Joint Review combines Environmental Assessment (EA) with the economic and commercial issues normally decided by the National Energy Board. The public hearings are scheduled to wrap up by July 2012, but may now take longer.

What is the role of the public in the hearings?

The importance of the public in EA processes is set out in the Canadian Environmental Assessment Act (CEAA) itself. The preamble and purposes of Act set out the federal government’s commitment to facilitate public participation in EA by “any person”. In the often quoted Supreme Court of Canada decision Friends of the Oldman River Society v. Canada (Minister of Transport) [1992] 1 SCR 3, Justice La Forest wrote that environmental assessment is a planning tool that has “both an information gathering and a decision-making component which provide the decision maker with an objective basis for granting or denying approval for a proposed development.” The public contributes to the process both by providing information and by helping to define the public interest.

Public concerns from outside Canada can legitimately help with both these objectives. For one thing, one of the purposes of CEAA, set out in section 4, is “to ensure that projects … do not cause significant adverse environmental effects outside the jurisdictions in which the projects are carried out”. Who better to explain to the Panel these extra-jurisdictional effects than those who will be affected by them? And many people outside Canada will be affected by projects, like Gateway, that can materially increase climate change.

As to foreign funding, why would it be ok for foreign-owned multinationals to spend their money promoting the project, while denying foreign donors the right to give money to question the project? Since the issues to be addressed are complex and Canadian intervenor funding is limited, foreign donors may be essential to fund the research and representations that the Panel should hear.

Public interest standing before the courts: is it different?

The courts have struggled with somewhat similar issues (e.g., cost, delay, whose voices should be heard?) in assessing who should have public interest standing before them. As Justice Cory wrote in Canadian Council of Churches v. Canada (Minister of Employment and Immigration) [1992] 1 SCR 236:

It is essential that a balance be struck between ensuring access to the Courts and preserving judicial resources. It would be disastrous if the Courts were allowed to become hopelessly overburdened as a result of the unnecessary proliferation of marginal or redundant suits brought by well-meaning organizations pursuing their own particular cases, certain in the knowledge that their cause is all important. It would be detrimental, if not devastating, to our system of justice and unfair to private litigants.

In Shiell v. Atomic Energy Control Board, 98 F.T.R. 75, Ms. Shiell sought judicial review of an amendment to Cameco’s operating license for a uranium mine and mill. The court found that, despite her genuine interest and concern about radiation and radioactive waste, she lived several hundred miles from Cameco’s facility, and had no direct personal interest in their operations. The amended license would not affect her differently than any other members of the general public, and so she was denied standing.

On the other hand, in Citizens’ Mining Council of Newfoundland & Labrador Inc. v. Canada (Minister of the Environment), [1999] F.C.J. No. 273, the Council did get standing to challenge the Minister’s decision to assess a mine and mill proposal separately from a smelter and refinery proposal. The proponent argued that the applicant could not demonstrate “a real and continuing commitment to environmental issues raised by the developments … given that it was incorporated only three months before these proceedings were commenced, and it had less than a $100 is assets in the month following the commencement of the proceedings.” It argued that the coalition was “merely a shell company formed for the purposes of this litigation” and would not “be subject to any direct impact from the proposed projects that is distinct from the impact on the public at large.”

The Federal Court decided that the applicant raised a serious issue, and that it had a genuine interest in environmental protection. The Council was the only public group to demonstrate sufficient interest and means to mount a court challenge. It was formed “to express a communal concern and to challenge decisions that might otherwise be essentially beyond review.”

The courts can justify keeping a tight rein on intervenors, but good EA requires approval processes for major projects to be open to all. First, hearing participants do often express a communal concern and challenge decisions that might otherwise be essentially beyond review. Second, public hearings are focussed on major aspects of the public interest, and on the proper use of public resources, not on a private dispute between litigants, whose rights should take precedence. Third, the Panel’s mandate is to come to a substantive conclusion while the Court’s role is to protect procedural fairness. Fourth, the governing laws for a public hearing (such as CEAA) are built around a broad role for the public. Fifth, the Panel will make a better decision if provided with a full range of information and perspectives. And sixth, broad participation in the hearings is essential to the legitimacy of the ultimate decision.

Conclusions

In our view, the regulatory system for approving major projects may be broken, but not because of foreign donors or participants. There is a fundamental disconnect between governments and proponents (who usually think of EA as an obstacle, relevant only to how to build a project) and environmental, community and aboriginal groups (who often focus EA on whether to build a project). Everyone is frustrated:

  • proponents, because the hearings take so long and cost so much, and because applications are occasionally rejected or delayed (eg Keystone XL); and
  • Members of the public, because almost everything is approved, regardless of the evidence they offer.

Gateway is almost certain to end up in the courts, if for no other reason than the large number of overlapping aboriginal claims, which the government will find it hard to steamroll. But Minister Oliver has signalled that his government will do whatever it can to make resource project approvals faster, whatever the cost to the theory or practice of EA. Are allegations of foreign interference just a smokescreen for whatever is coming next?

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Comments

  1. Nice piece. What is needed is an independent review of the causes of delay in EA processes. Most EA practitioners and many panel members will tell you that delays are typically caused by proponents who are either sent back to improve the level of information they have provided in their applications, or who request additional time to get their evidence in order. It is a self-serving myth advanced by proponents that the process itself is responsible for the delays.