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Harper government will erode environmental protection.

While the government has downplayed the significance of its plans to weaken Canada's environmental laws, a close reading of Bill C-38, the federal budget implementation bill, tells a different story.

Through Bill C-38, the Harper government will repeal the Canadian Environmental Assessment Act, and replace it with a new law that allows cabinet to override the decisions of the supposedly arms-length National Energy Board, fast-track environmental reviews to speed up approvals of infrastructure projects and dramatically narrow the definition of "environmental effects" to be considered in environmental reviews.

The net result is weaker standards for environmental review across the country and a reliance on a patchwork of less comprehensive provincial assessment laws. In other words: a huge setback for environmental protection.

The Athabasca river in northern Alberta. Changes to the federal Fisheries Act leave many lakes, rivers and streams vulnerable to impacts from development projects.

It doesn't stop there. Changes to the federal Fisheries Act would severely undermine protection for fish and the waters they live in. Not only do the changes narrow protection to fish licensed in commercial, recreational or aboriginal fisheries--leaving many lakes, rivers and streams vulnerable--they also give the minister of fisheries and oceans (or any person or entity delegated by the federal government, including industry, developers and the provinces) expanded authority to allow harm to fish habitat.

The bill also changes the definition of what constitutes serious harm to fish; the proposed changes would only prohibit permanent alteration or destruction of fish habitat, whereas the current law protects against any "harmful alteration or destruction" of habitat.

Through Bill C-38, the Harper government introduced measures that could limit citizen groups and research organizations like the Pembina Institute from participating in environmental reviews and could restrict the funding and activities of charities that advocate for better laws and policies. The bill also eliminated the independent government agency analyzing solutions to meet our international commitments to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and strips accountability and transparency from federal climate policies.

The government's aggressive attacks on environmental advocates may very well erode the public's trust in government and large companies seeking a social license to operate.

Given the breadth and scope of the proposed changes, the Harper government is clearly doing more than simply cutting unnecessary red tape--it's doing its utmost to accelerate Western Canada's mining and energy industries, and in particular Alberta's oilsands development.

This is absurd for three reasons: one, Canada's energy industry is already operating on overdrive, short of labour and infrastructure and having a tough time keeping up with the current pace of development. Two, while Ottawa says it's making these changes to move important infrastructure projects like oilsands pipelines ahead, it risks undoing any progress Alberta and the energy sector has made in improving the energy sector's tarnished reputation by taking such a heavy-handed approach on the environment. Finally, the government's aggressive attacks on environmental advocates may very well erode the public's trust in government and large companies seeking a social license to operate, at a time when--as with the Northern Gateway pipeline--social license does not come easily.

The Pembina Institute thinks that the time has come for Canadians everywhere who are concerned about our natural environment and the state of our democracy to speak out. Please join us and spread the word among your friends, family and colleagues and in your communities.

On this one folks, silence is not an option.

--The Pembina Institute,
COPYRIGHT 2012 Carol Parafenko
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Title Annotation:Editorial
Publication:Paris Chronicle (Paris, Canada)
Geographic Code:1CANA
Date:Jun 29, 2012
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