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Bill to update impact assessment law coming in spring: Wilkinson

OTTAWA — The federal government will introduce legislation this spring to fix the constitutional problems the Supreme Court of Canada has with the Impact Assessment Act, Natural Resources Minister Jonathan Wilkinson says.
Natural Resources Minister Jonathan Wilkinson says the government will have legislation ready by the spring to fix the constitutional problems the Supreme Court has with the federal Impact Assessment Act. A wind turbine is shown at a wind farm near Pincher Creek, Alta., Wednesday, March 9, 2016. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jeff McIntosh

OTTAWA — The federal government will introduce legislation this spring to fix the constitutional problems the Supreme Court of Canada has with the Impact Assessment Act, Natural Resources Minister Jonathan Wilkinson says.

The updated bill, which responds to a Supreme Court decision from October, will go beyond just addressing the court's concerns, Wilkinson said in an interview with The Canadian Press.

The plan is to streamline the review process even further.

"We're thinking a lot about how do we actually make this more effective, to reduce duplication and improve co-ordination with the provinces," he said.

The amended act is one of seven things the Liberals promised to do Thursday as they published the first update from a cabinet committee tasked last year with optimizing the review and permitting process for major projects.

The government is promising better co-ordination between provinces and the federal government to prevent duplicated efforts and streamlining the work of the multiple federal departments that can be asked for a permit for a single project. 

Ottawa also pledged to improve Indigenous consultation, increase the Indigenous ownership of or equity in projects and work through some of the unique barriers in the territories.

And ministers say the government aims to create a new online dashboard to list all projects and the permits required, with updates as those permits come in. 

Industry and climate advocates alike say fixing the review process is critical as Canada tries to stay competitive in the clean-tech race and meet its own climate targets.

"Canada's regulatory burden is a major factor affecting the decisions of our members to invest in projects that are essential for both our shared prosperity and meeting our climate goals," Goldy Hyder, Business Council of Canada president, said Thursday.

It can currently take more than a decade — sometimes even twice that — to get major projects assessed, permitted and built. 

That's a timeline that does not work if Canada is to build the hundreds of new mines, renewable energy projects, and electricity grid expansions it needs by 2050.

Tara Shea, vice-president of regulatory and Indigenous affairs at the Mining Association of Canada, said the update says "all the right words" and is finally raising hope for change. But she said the push for improvement has been decades long and "we've seen very limited progress."

"It's evidence there is determination to do better," Shea said of the plan.

Wilkinson said the cabinet committee hasn't yet discussed specific targets, but he thinks four to six years for one project is reasonable. That includes up to three years for a full environmental and social assessment, and one to three more years after that to get all the permits in place.

"So I wouldn't want to say the government of Canada is saying that, but I'm saying ideally I would like to find ways where we can actually get to something like (a four- to six-year timeline)," he said.

Shea, too, was hesitant to put a specific number on it, but said if the average fell to four to six years it would "make such a difference."

A big piece of that puzzle is ending, or at least easing, decades of duplication and political battles between the federal and provincial governments.

"It is clearly true in this federation that on this set of issues we do need better collaboration with the provinces and territories," Wilkinson said.

"We just do. And that includes provinces and territories where we do have some level of disagreement on other issues."

The Impact Assessment Act was one area of disagreement, with Alberta raising constitutional challenges in court.

The Liberals passed the act in 2019, in part to try to address the lengthy review times for environmental reviews and Indigenous consultation.

In October, the Supreme Court of Canada ruled that the law was too broad because it allowed Ottawa to make decisions about projects that should have been solely a provincial matter.

Alberta Premier Danielle Smith declared victory at the decision, insisting it would return to Alberta sole decision-making power over things like provincial highways and oilsands projects.

However, there is often overlap between jurisdictions, particularly when a project that would typically be a provincial decision crosses Indigenous territory or touches on a waterway. Both would give Ottawa some amount of say.

When jurisdictions overlap it can add layers of paperwork, with companies sometimes submitting the same documents more than once, or completing one environmental review only to have to restart the process to answer different or additional questions from a different government.

The act allows one government to agree that an environmental review conducted by another government can suffice for its needs as well. 

But Wilkinson said British Columbia is the only province that has so far taken advantage of the process known as "substitution."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Feb. 1, 2024.

Mia Rabson, The Canadian Press

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