British Columbia (B.C.) has launched a “revitalization” of its environmental assessment process, charging a 12-member committee with recommending changes “to ensure the legal rights of First Nations are respected and the public’s expectation of a strong, transparent process is met,” according to the government’s official announcement.
The review committee will be co-chaired by ecologist Bruce Fraser and Lydia Hwitsum, former Chief of the Cowichan Tribes and Chair of the First Nations Health Authority board of directors.
The government is not planning for a long, drawn-out review process. Under current project timelines, the committee will consult with key stakeholders and Indigenous groups through April 2018. A discussion paper will be out in May 2018 with opportunities for public comment. An intentions paper will be released in fall 2018, and reforms will be introduced before the end of 2018.
That sits well with Anna Johnston, staff lawyer at West Coast Environmental Law. There’s plenty of current, readily-available research and opinion of what a modern environmental assessment process should look like, much of it part of the recent federal impact assessment reforms (Bill C-69).
There’s no need for the review committee to go back to the drawing board, Johnston told EcoLog News. It can pick the best of the federal reforms, and supplement that with good ideas the federal reforms left on the table.
“We know how to do environmental assessment much better,” says Johnston. “And that ‘much better’ involves fundamental institutional and process changes.”
The federal ambition of moving from environmental impact assessment to impact assessment is worth emulating, she says. Current environmental assessments, including those in B.C., focus on reducing or minimizing environmental harm and then determining if the residual harm is outweighed by the project’s benefits. The ambition of the new process seems to be to encourage projects that make a significant and meaningful long-term contribution to society and the economy.
Johnston hopes that the project list approach to assessment, one that the new federal process will retain and that currently governs environmental assessments in B.C., is abandoned. Limiting environmental assessments to designated projects means that only the biggest, most disruptive projects get reviewed.
If both B.C. and Ottawa limit assessments to major projects, “then it means nobody is assessing the smaller and mid-sized projects that cumulatively contribute to a huge portion of Canada’s environmental damage,” says Johnston.
She also hopes B.C. doesn’t give its leaders the same wide discretion given to the federal environment minister and/or Cabinet to approve or deny approval based on public interest.
“At the end of the day they get to make this public interest determination without being required to ensure that ecological integrity is maintained, that Indigenous rights are upheld,” she says.