There is significant rhetoric around how the federal and provincial governments have duplicative and therefore inefficient environmental assessment processes. The federal government has fully bought in on it and has indicated its intent to remove itself from many environmental assessments.
I for one find the duplication argument, while having some truth to it, to be quite misleading as to the underlying concerns with federal environmental assessments. Rather than being truly frustrated with duplication I see proponents simply frustrated with the scope and rigour with which federal environmental assessments are conducted. It seems to me that the federal system has, on occasion, more review and analysis of proponent environmental impact assessment than the provincial processes. Admittedly this is anecdotal opinion on my part, garnered through exposure to both federal environmental assessment (comprehensive studies and joint panel reviews) and the Alberta assessment approach.
The rigour of review and analysis is one concern; the scope of potential federal reviews is the other. Countless activities can proceed in Alberta with impacts on fisheries habitat without triggering an environmental assessment. These same activities have the potential to trigger a federal environmental assessment through operation of section 35(2) of the Fisheries Act. Recent media about a leaked draft of the Fisheries Act suggests the federal government may minimize the relevance of habitat, and appears to coincide with broader lobbying efforts to get the federal government to minimize its role around environmental management (i.e., assessment and protection).
When one goes on to consider the mandates of various provincial and federal departments and the provisions they enforce, the issue of minimizing environmental assessment on the basis of duplication argument becomes increasingly worrying. Alberta doesn’t have substantive habitat protection provisions like those found in the Fisheries Act. If the federal role is minimized in environmental assessment, what type of provincial mandate will adequately replace the Department of Fisheries and Oceans mandate.
Further, coinciding with the federal move to step back from environmental assessment, there are questions about whether federal enforcement will be pulled back. While provincial provisions relating to the disturbance of public land that results in harm to the bed and shore of a water body could stand as an inadequate proxy for the habitat provisions of the Fisheries Act, concerns remain as Alberta rarely if ever prosecutes offenders of these provisions. In contrast, the Fisheries Act has (historically) seen more proactive enforcement (and is more favourable towards private prosecutions).
So, does the rhetoric about duplication between federal and provincial environmental assessments justify removal of federal oversight? Not nearly; rather, the duplication argument is being used as a red herring for more fundamental reasons to avoid federal involvement in environmental assessment processes and environmental management more broadly, i.e., getting rid of the broad scope of assessments and rigourous reviews conducted by the federal government. As for an activity’s environmental impact on federal constitutional matters, it seems they don’t account for much.
If environmental assessments, processes and mandates are truly that duplicative, then simply walk down to the photo copy room and change the address on the covering letter.