Shell’s Stena IceMAX drillship. Environmentalists raised concern that there was no capping stack nearby during the drilling in case there was a blowout.
Shell’s Stena IceMAX drillship. Environmentalists raised concern that there was no capping stack nearby during the drilling in case there was a blowout.

A federal bill to change the way environmental assessments of large projects are handled met with strong and mixed reaction at a Senate Committee hearing held in Halifax yesterday.

Environmentalists like the fact assessments of new projects must include “climate change” as one factor. “The Bill is not perfect but it is a balanced and modern process,” said Sarah MacDonald, a lawyer for the non-profit advocacy group EcoJustice.

In Newfoundland on Tuesday, PC leader Ches Crosbie said “In Alberta they call this the ‘no more pipelines’ bill. Out here I call it the ‘No more offshore’ bill.”

Senators have also been told the proposed assessment process will result in energy companies pulling their money out of Canada if a project can be halted at any time at the discretion of the Energy Minister.

Another polarizing issue is what projects will require a mandatory environmental assessment by the federal Impact Assessment Agency (formerly knows as CEAA or the Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency).

Nova Scotia Energy Minister Derek Mombourquette pleaded with the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources to amend the bill by bringing in regulations to exempt from federal review aquaculture operations, seismic surveys, and the drilling of offshore exploration wells for oil and natural gas.

“We continue to believe the Canada Nova Scotia Offshore Petroleum Board (CNSOPB) is the best place to conduct Environmental Assessments of projects in Nova Scotia’s offshore,” Derek Mombourquette told the Senate Committee.

The senators got a similar pitch by the premier of Newfoundland on Tuesday.

British Columbia Senator Yuen Pao Woo wanted to know why Nova Scotia’s Energy Minister couldn’t support “creating a firewall” by separating the job of assessing the risk (the federal Impact Assessment agency’s role) from regulating the project where health, safety, and protecting the environment are concerned (the Canada Nova Scotia Offshore Petroleum Board’s role). Bill C-69 proposes separating those two functions.

“We believe we have a good system and under the present CEAA regime, the review of an exploratory well can take three years compared to 12 months under the CNSOPB process,” replied deputy Energy Minister Simon D’Entremont. “We are not confident that the proposed mandatory federal review would lead to better reviews but just longer timelines.”

According to NS’s Energy Department, delay and uncertainty are twin weapons that will kill future interest in Nova Scotia offshore development (although there has been precious little exploration under existing rules since onshore shale gas in the United States has boomed). Mombourquette wants the Senate Committee to include a maximum timeline of 730 days to approve any project, provided there is no change in the project description.

“Over the past 20 years, the Board also has a strong record of consulting with fishers and aboriginal interests,” Mombourquette said in response to question from Senator Dennis Patterson about how to balance concerns from environmental groups about incidents such as spills and tonnes of dropped equipment. Fishing groups such as the Clean Ocean Action Committee say the appointments to Offshore Boards are already weighted toward oil industry veterans and now international oil and gas companies are lobbying Ottawa and provincial governments to weaken proposed rules around environmental assessments.

“I think it’s unfortunate the Nova Scotia government doesn’t acknowledge the Offshore Board is not an expert in environmental protection and it definitely doesn’t represent the interest of other industry stakeholders such as fishermen,”said Gretchen Fitzgerald, the Sierra Club’s national policy director.

“Yes, the CNSOPB has its Committees but the fishing industry has not been heard. Fishermen have asked for a capping stack to be brought here in case, god forbid, there is a blowout. They’ve also asked for certain areas to be off limits like the Gulf of St. Lawrence or near Georges Bank which is up for discussion again.”

Mark Butler made a presentation on behalf of East Coast Environmental Law and the Ecology Action Centre. Butler said if there was any doubt about lobbying from the oil industry, one need only look at how review panels under the Impact Assessment Agency would be appointed.

When there is a project to be assessed by the Impact Assessment Agency, two members of the review panel may be appointed from the oil industry, one of whom may be named Chair of the panel. Two other parallel assessment processes, one involving nuclear energy and the other involving pipelines previously regulated by the National Energy Board (renamed the Canadian Energy Regulation Agency) do not set aside seats for any one industry.

ECELAW’s submission is critical of allowing offshore regulators to act as decision-makers for new projects:

Regulators have an important role in providing expertise to the impact assessment process, and we support consultation and cooperation with the regulator as prescribed in section 21 of the IAA. However, the assessment process should be conducted independently. As we presented to the House of Commons Committee, we continue to believe that the selection of Review Panel members should be done on a case-by-case basis with the focus of ensuring those selected have relevant expertise, local knowledge, and no conflict of interest. Limiting the role of the regulators in the assessment process to providing input and expertise rather than full participation as a panel members help protect the independence of the assessment process.

EcoJustice lawyer Sarah MacDonald told the senators under the Accord Acts that created the Offshore Boards in Newfoundland and Nova Scotia, the Boards have a duty to engage in promoting the industry, so they do not have the public’s trust they will also protect the environment.

Andrea Paul, Chief of the Pictou Landing First Nation who attended the meeting as the representative of the Atlantic Policy Congress, said the Chiefs are “generally supportive of Bill 69 which promises to protect rather than respect indigenous concerns.” Paul wishes this legislation governing large projects had been in place back in 1965 when the province reviewed and approved Scott Paper’s proposal to build the Boat Harbour effluent treatment plant. Maybe it wouldn’t have left behind a toxic cleanup for her community and provincial taxpayers.

Nova Scotia Power president and CEO Karen Hutt also made a submission to the Senate Committee. Hutt said while the electricity provider agrees with the stated intent of Bill C-69 to improve environmental protection and consider indigenous rights, “our concern is the Bill could add undue risk and cost to infrastructure and resource projects. Strong regulation can provide clarity and confidence to our investors.”

In response to questioning by senators, Hutt says federal regulation is needed to overcome barriers to moving energy among provinces. Regulations governing the production and sale of energy have generally been left to the provinces, with historic grievances between Quebec and Newfoundland over Churchill Falls half a century ago blocking the movement of energy east or west. Hutt says there is a role for the federal government to play especially because of the challenge created by climate change.

Coal still generates 53% of electricity in this province and Hutt says Nova Scotia will need imports of hydroelectricity from Quebec as well as Newfoundland to reduce that dependence. Natural gas from Alberta would help too but there are no east-west pipelines to get it here. “The path to a low carbon future in Nova Scotia can only happen with more investment in infrastructure,” Hutt says, “and we need to find a breakthrough because current regulations don’t do the job.”

The Senate Committee continues its cross-Canada tour before determining what amendments it will make to a new law governing how large infrastructure and energy projects will be approved.

Jennifer Henderson is a freelance journalist and retired CBC News reporter.

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