Federal budget echoes Ontario budget

By Penny Caldwell »Penny Caldwell

Harper government promotes business, disses environment

April 5th, 2012

Fish habitat

Photo by Striatic

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Guest post by Blair Eveleigh, senior associate editor

As with the Ontario budget (see my post last week), the federal budget gave short shrift to the environment and was gung-ho on promoting economic development, pushing forward huge resource extraction projects, and getting out of the way of business interest. How the government proposes doing this is with a revision of existing environmental assessment procedures. The budget outlines real problems with the timing and delays in assessment and duplication between levels of government; solving those kinds of problems makes sense. What could turn out to be really harmful to the environment, however, is the change of focus for environmental assessments.

Here’s what the budget says: “The Government will propose legislation to modernize the federal regulatory system that will establish clear timelines, reduce duplication and regulatory burdens, and focus resources on large projects where the potential environmental impacts are the greatest.” To me, it sounds like there could be a lot of smaller projects that will get cursory assessments, and I’m sure there will some who will make the case that their potentially harmful projects are small enough to merit this treatment. And I won’t be surprised when there is a difference of opinion about some of those “small enough” projects, when a community group or a cottager association makes the claim that a project is, in fact, not insignificant, but large and intrusive and damaging enough to warrant the most thorough environmental assessment possible. It’s bound to happen.

Meanwhile, the federal budget has other provisions that echo the reduced importance of environmental protection in the Ontario budget:

• Reductions in the budgets of the Environment ministry and the Department of Fisheries and Oceans Canada

• Expansion of the Metal Mining Effluent Regulations to include non-metal diamond and coal mines; these regulations control mining waste dumped into bodies of water; adding two new categories will increase the workload of Environment Canada, which administers these provisions; the regulations also contain exemptions that mining companies can apply for

• Cutbacks in travel activities for Environment Canada and Natural Resources Canada, including 160 fewer vehicles

• Elimination of the National Round Table on the Environment and the Economy

• Consolidation and streamlining of environmental enforcement and monitoring activities between Environment Canada and Parks Canada All of these changes boil down to this: Business? Good. The environment? In the way.

One item that didn’t make the budget but is apparently still in the works is a change in the Fisheries Act. Recently leaked documents show that the rewording being considered involves removing the word “habitat” from the act. Instead of prohibiting “any work or undertaking that results in the harmful alteration, disruption or destruction of fish habitat,” a protection that has been in the act since 1976, Section 35 of the act could soon be altered to read “any work, undertaking or activity, other than fishing, that results in an adverse effect on a fish of economic, cultural or ecological value.”

This is a major change, and has generated criticism from Otto Langer, a scientist who worked for the DFO and the DOE for 32 years and was one of the people instrumental in drafting the habitat provisions. Langer received the leaked confidential documents of the proposed changes and released a statement: “This newly drafted provision is not intended to protect fish habitat in any manner whatsoever…This proposed move by the Harper government is a travesty for our fishery resources and the health of the entire ecosystem and it ignores the needs of our future generations. It is little less than another attack on the biological systems that allow life to exist on this planet.”

Cottagers will recognize the significance of Section 35: It’s the part of the law that determines if and where you can build a dock or a boathouse or anything else that affects where fish live: in your water, along your shoreline. Without the strict wording now in place, would it be easier to get your projects approved? Probably. Would that be a good thing? No.

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