By Dale Smith
The Trudeau government’s centrepiece environmental legislation — Bill C-69, the Impact Assessment Act — is currently undergoing debate. But as the government proceeds with its pitch that being strong on the economy and strong on the environment go together, are business and environmental groups actually sold on the policy?
Anna Johnston, lawyer with West Coast Environmental Law, said that C-69 has many promising elements, notably the fact that it brings the public and other constituencies — including Indigenous communities — into the dialogue at earlier stages and includes a sustainability test. But there remains a problem for her.
“Everything is permissive in the Act, so at the end of the day we don’t know if decisions actually make sure that projects are going to help Canada meet its Paris Agreement obligations, whether they’ll contribute to sustainability, or whether the public will be meaningfully engaged as the early stage intents,” said Johnston. “We’re going to have to wait and see.”
Rachel Curran, who was an advisor in Stephen Harper’s PMO and is now a principal with Harper and Associates, noted that the timelines in the bill are potentially indefinite.
“Part of the thinking behind the Harper Government’s changes to the environmental assessment rules was to at least give investors a firm timeline by which they could expect a decision — not necessarily a positive decision, but a decision,” said Curran. “The new legislation extends that timeline potentially indefinitely.”
Jacob Irving, president of the Energy Council of Canada, said that for the pipeline industry in particular, they feel like they are on a “razor’s edge,” and are worried about the future of pipelines in Canada. Other members of the industry are concerned about the timelines and are exploring how to make them more stringent and predictable in order to encourage investment.
“Even in the best construction of a regulatory process, there are all kinds of potential off-ramps and unintended consequences that could arise once you start living it,” said Irving. “That’s the same no matter who you have in government and how they may change a regulatory process.”
Irving added that ministerial discretion can also throw uncertainty into the process, but it can similarly offer salvation to some proponents who feel that they are losing the process otherwise.
That question of discretion is why environmental groups are unhappy with the bill, says Stephen Hazell, director of conservation and general counsel at Nature Canada.
“Having certainty at the political level is super important and we don’t have that with the bill,” says Hazell, adding that it makes it hard to judge intentions, and that while every government likes to have more discretion, the business and environmental communities like rules.
“Impact assessment is about providing information for decision makers so that we can make sound decisions,” said Hazell. “The Impact Assessment Act that has been proposed is a good step.”
Bill C-69 also implements the federal climate price backstop that will be imposed on provinces that don’t have their own carbon pricing mechanisms. For Craig Stewart, vice-president of federal affairs with the Insurance Bureau of Canada, this is essential because his industry believes that in order to affect change, there needs to be a price on carbon.
“We’re experiencing the effects of climate change now,” said Stewart. “Right now, Canadian taxpayers are paying billions in losses from disaster assistance, through upgrading infrastructure because essentially, we’re seeing the effects, and our industry is losing a billion [dollars] a year from events we’re seeing like the floods here in Gatineau, to the fire in Fort McMurray in 2016, and the Calgary and Toronto floods in 2013.”
While groups like the Canadian Taxpayers Federation estimate that Canadian households could pay an additional $400 to $900 per year under the proposed carbon taxes, depending on their electricity provider, Stewart says that it’s less than they would be paying in terms of other tax dollars to deal with climate change, whether it’s municipal taxes to upgrade storm water infrastructure to deal with increased flooding or relocating critical infrastructure.
“As insurers, because we are suffering billions in losses right now, we have to look at how that’s going to affect insurance policies,” says Stewart. “The costs are here. The cost of inaction is far more than the cost of action.”
Julie Gelfand, Commissioner of the Environment and Sustainable Development, noted that in her recent report on how governments around the country are working to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions, only Nova Scotia and New Brunswick were on track to meet their 2020 targets, and that most governments are nowhere near ready to adapt to increased flooding and forest fires and rising sea levels.
“Canadians, therefore, are not ready,” said Gelfand.
Gelfand added that governments across the country need to do more risk assessments, noting that the federal government has $66 billion in assets that are not assessed for climate change risks.
“They should be assessing the risk and then developing adaptation plans so that they are ready when these changes are going to occur. They are occurring right now,” said Gelfand.
At a Before the Bell event on Thursday morning, stakeholders and experts spoke about the government’s new environmental assessment legislation, Bill C-69, and what they see as the positives and negatives in the bill so far. Stakeholders also spoke about the need to price carbon to make change, and why doing nothing about climate change will cost more than taking action.