Pipeline development was ‘top of mind’ in Stephen Harper’s budget bill, say “secret” records

Pipeline development was ‘top of mind’ in Stephen Harper’s budget bill, say “secret” records

By Mike De Souza September 28, 2012
Pipeline development was ‘top of mind’ in Stephen Harper’s budget bill, say “secret” records

Environment Minister Peter Kent declined an interview request from Postmedia News, referring questions to Natural Resources Canada. This photo taken during Question Period, May 31, 2012. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick

OTTAWA – Pipeline development was a “top of mind” consideration factoring into the Harper government’s regulatory reforms adopted in a 400-page piece of legislation supporting the 2012 budget, reveals an internal briefing note prepared for Environment Minister Peter Kent.

The federal document, marked “secret” but released through access to information legislation by Environment Canada, highlighted the department’s role in assessing two different proposals for pipelines linking Alberta’s oilsands industry to the west coast of British Columbia.

It also recommended that Kent tell a pipeline industry association, before the budget was tabled, that the new legislation would revamp regulations for new industrial projects.

“Pipeline development is certainly among the major industrial sectors that are top-of-mind as we consider the modernization of our regulatory system,” said the briefing material, prepared for a Jan. 26 meeting between Kent, his former deputy minister, Paul Boothe, and the Canadian Energy Pipeline Association.

Nearly one third of the budget legislation was dedicated to changing Canada’s environmental laws, offering new tools for the government to authorize water pollution, investigate environmental groups, weaken protection of endangered species, and limit public participation in consultations and reviews of proposed industrial projects.

The Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency confirmed in August that it cancelled nearly 3,000 environmental assessments as a result of the new legislation, including about 250 reviews of projects involving a pipeline.

Kent’s office referred questions about the briefing document to Natural Resources Canada, which said that energy and other resources contribute billions of dollars to Canadian economic growth.

“Resources are the backbone of our economy that creates jobs and growth for all Canadians,” the Natural Resources Department said in a statement emailed to Postmedia News. “The government’s plan for responsible resource development will create high-quality, skilled jobs across Canada… ensuring more predictable, timely reviews, reducing duplication, while maintaining the highest possible standards for protecting the environment, and ensuring more meaningful consultations with aboriginal people.”

After reviewing the briefing notes, NDP deputy leader Megan Leslie said the material demonstrates that the budget legislation, introduced in Parliament on April 26, 2012 and adopted in July, was mainly designed to remove environmental laws standing in the way of projects proposed by companies such as Alberta-based Enbridge, which is proposing the Northern Gateway pipeline from Edmonton to Kitimat, B.C.

She also said it indicates the government had made up its mind to overhaul environmental assessment legislation before Parliament had a chance to complete reviewing the situation.

“Now that I see this briefing document, I realize that the fix was in from the beginning,” said Leslie in an interview.

Previously released internal government records have indicated that Enbridge officials were disputing concerns raised by federal scientists about the risks of their proposed pipeline and the need for additional information, Postmedia News and the Vancouver Sun reported last spring.

The new budget legislation also allows ministers in Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s cabinet to overrule decisions made by the National Energy Board on project reviews.

After facing criticism for downplaying these new powers of cabinet during an announcement in April about the environmental reforms, Natural Resources Minister Joe Oliver told the National Post in an interview that the government had not highlighted the changes, but suggested that it was not trying to hide them.

Brenda Kenny, president of the industry association, told Postmedia News that she didn’t agree with the suggestion that pipelines were “top of mind” in the regulatory reforms, explaining that other sectors of the economy could also be important factors in the changes adopted in July.

But she noted that the reforms have strengthened some provisions of environmental assessments, introducing some new fines for companies that don’t respect conditions of project approvals.

She also said that there was a need to remove administrative delays that were slowing down project approvals, without offering any additional environmental protection.

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