The 2012 federal Budget Bill is out. Once again it will change environmental laws in ways not directly related to government spending or savings. The bill is certain to pass, so why all the supporting rhetoric? If anything, zealous arguments in favor of a sure thing expose the motivation for this style of lawmaking. Changes to federal environmental law in Canada have become a textbook example of how democratically elected governments pursue policies that, if widely understood, would be widely unpopular.
First consider the lead up to the 2012 bill. Since 2009, the federal environmental assessment regime has been changed by:
- Not using the regulatory advisory committee,
- Exempting government-supported infrastructure from assessment;
- Making regulations to speed up comprehensive studies;
- Changing the law to avoid a Supreme Court of Canada decision that favored public participation;
- Cutting funding to the Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency;
- Cutting funding to the Canadian Environmental Network;
- Conducting a Parliamentary review selective invitation;
- Closing the review without hearing from environmental organizations that requested to appear, and
- Expediting a report that is disproportionately supported by regulated industries.
Now consider the effects of the 2012 bill. These may include:
- Moving environmental concerns from the regulatory sphere to the political sphere. Powers to not require environmental assessments will intensify lobbying. Project reviews will be fewer and more frequently assigned to industry regulators. As for big pipelines, the final say will go to Cabinet and this change may apply to hearings in progress.
- Limiting the ability of environmental representatives to operate in any official sphere. In the regulatory sphere, participating in pipeline reviews will require proving that one is directly affected or possesses the right information and expertise. In the political sphere, the activities of charities will be regulated, monitored and enforced against.
The supposed trigger for this overhaul is that environmentalists did something wrong at the Northern Gateway Pipeline hearings. Never mind that the intervention of environmental organizations is a different issue from the sheer number of participants. The big contest is not about the project review, it’s about the law of project reviews. Take that view, and a bill that leaves the environmental sector reeling looks more proactive than reactive. The script is disturbingly familiar: eliminate public discourse, cut program spending, and liberate corporate action. Attribute broad public concern with certain private projects to a narrow, anti-social element. Confirm the existence of that element through surveillance tactics, and use the findings as grounds to suspend legal and political rights. Don’t worry if the effect is to breed more radicals. The appeal of this war is that it never ends. Just be sure to avoid ideological statements, especially faith in trickle-down economics. I would definitely not point out that disasters like the Exxon Valdez oil spill create jobs and GDP. Staying reasonable is what allows any backlash to be blamed on individual strong-armed leaders. A rational understanding of the long-term requires that “we” act now. This is just “responsible resource development”.