Possible Changes to Offshore Assessments Causes Alarm

Environmental groups have raised alarm about the possible changes to offshore assessments and urge the government to think carefully about the East Coast environmental health.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau could be about to break one of his key election promises regarding the environment. A coalition of about 20 environmental and fisheries groups have raised alarm about possible changes to offshore assessments.

The Offshore Alliance, which includes members from Atlantic Canada and Quebec, held a news conference as well as a protest march in Halifax to bring attention to the matter. They stated that a federal discussion paper details changes that are being planned for the way environmental assessments are handled for major offshore oil and gas projects.

This paper that was released last June, says Ottawa is considering streamlining the process so that it will be handled by just one agency instead of three separate authorities which is the recommendations that have been endorsed by the coalition.

Coalition members stated that they are worried about a proposal that could see federal assessments conducted jointly with the federal-provincial offshore petroleum boards in Nova Scotia and Newfoundland and Labrador.

Gretchen Fitzgerald, national program director with the Sierra Club Canada Foundation said, "we don't want the offshore petroleum boards to have any more power over our oceans. We feel that any moves to make this happen would be a broken promise from the federal government."

Fitzgerald went on to say that the regulatory boards should not be involved because their roles as industry promoters puts them in a conflict of interest when it comes to protecting the environment. Fitzgerald also stated that the federal government could introduce legislation within weeks.

"We need a process in Canada that is legitimate so Canadians can legitimately feel that their oceans and environment are being protected. That's what this government was voted in on, and they should keep that promise."

Has Trudeau Gone Back on His Promise To Protect the Environment?

During the 2015 federal election campaign, Trudeau promised that a liberal government would ensure that environmental assessments would become credible again. He promised they would restore oversight measures so that federal ministers couldn't interfere in the process anymore.

This federal discussion paper that was released last June clearly states that the so-called impact assessments for major offshore oil and gas project could be conducted jointly with either the Canada-Nova Scotia Offshore Petroleum Board or the Canada-Newfoundland and Labrador Offshore Petroleum Board.

The coalition is of the opinion that these two unelected boards won't act in the interest of the public because each has the mandate to promote offshore drilling.

The East Coast Environmental Law Association issued a statement where they noted that an expert panel had issued a report last April saying the boards have expertise in the management of oil and gas resources, but they don't have expertise when it comes to environmental impact assessments. The association said, "the choice to reduce the independence of federal environmental assessment by handing it over to a regulatory board does not reflect the finding of the government-appointed expert panel. This would be considered by many a step backwards in environmental assessment."

John Davis, director of the Clean Ocean Action Committee, cited the legislation that created the boards, saying that their core purpose is to "provide a stable and fair offshore management regime for the oil and gas industry."

He went on to say, "they promote the development of offshore hydrocarbon resources and, by proxy, they act as advocates for the oil and gas industry. To assume that the boards can somehow combine this mandate with the authority to fairly assess environmental impacts is the height of folly."

Greg Egilsson, chairman of the Gulf Nova Scotia Herring Federation, said that giving the boards joint responsibility for assessments would be "irresponsible and reckless."

Other members of the coalition include the Bay of Fundy Inshore Fishermen's Association, the Coldwater Lobster Association, the Council of Canadians, and the Halifax-based Ecology Action Centre.

The Canadian Environmental Assessments Agency has stated that any reforms to the assessment process "will ensure that the views of Canadian, as well as facts and evidence, will guide project decisions moving forward."