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Indigenous nations will play vital role in new BC environmental assessment process

by Mark Sabourin
EcoLog, 11/9/2018 10:41:00 AM

Much like its federal counterparts, the British Columbia (B.C.) government is hoping that a more robust and inclusive environmental assessment process will pave the way to responsible resource development largely free of controversy, public disruption and court challenges.

B.C. has introduced Bill 51, its long-awaited new Environmental Assessment Act, which outlines a process that will engage critics early, allowing them to help shape the issues under review. It will make Indigenous nations an essential party to all reviews. It includes a laundry list of issues that at a minimum must be considered for every project under review.

Bill 51 received first reading in the Legislature on November 5, 2018.

A ‘revitalized’ environmental assessment process is one of the terms of the “2017 Confidence and Supply Agreement between the BC Green Caucus and the BC New Democrat Caucus” that has kept the New Democrats in office in B.C.

In a statement, Sonia Furstenau, environment spokesperson for the B.C. Green Caucus, said the Party is still reviewing Bill 51 in detail, but her tone was supportive. The Green Caucus was consulted throughout the process that led to it, she said.

"On first glance this legislation greatly strengthens the climate test on projects, ensuring that B.C.'s legislated GHG emission targets are a specific component that must be addressed in an application. We are very pleased to see this included in the legislation,” she said.

Indigenous nations will be given a statutory role at every stage of the process. The Bill includes a requirement for early engagement to help define the scope of the assessment, and an Indigenous nation may within 80 days of first notice of that process indicate that it intends to participate. An Indigenous nation that becomes part of the process will remain a part of the process until its conclusion.

The West Coast Environmental Law Association and Ecojustice, while applauding the Bill, both warn that it falls short on evidence-based tests to approve or reject an approval. The final decision will still rest with the government based on matters it considers in the public interest. The government also retains the power to exempt a project from assessment.

The process will also continue to rely far too heavily on evidence presented by the project’s proponent, argued West Coast Environmental Law Association Staff Lawyer Gavin Smith.

“If the company proposing the project is presenting the bulk of the evidence, and there are no requirements for independent studies, expert peer reviews or panel hearings to test evidence, how can British Columbians have faith that all the concerns and potential impacts have been addressed?” he asked.

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