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Activists worry over proposed changes

Federal Environment Minister Catherine McKenna arrives for a press conference on the government’s environmental and regulatory reviews related to major projects, in the National Press Theatre in Ottawa on Thursday. JUSTIN TANG • CP
Federal Environment Minister Catherine McKenna arrives for a press conference on the government’s environmental and regulatory reviews related to major projects, in the National Press Theatre in Ottawa on Thursday. JUSTIN TANG • CP - Canadian Press

Environmental groups are concerned that new environmental assessment legislation will give more power to offshore petroleum boards.

The changes to how the government assesses and approves major projects such as oil and gas extraction, were announced by federal Environment Minister Catherine McKenna on Thursday.

One part of the legislation deals with “lifecycle regulators,” such as the Canada-Nova Scotia Offshore Petroleum Board and the Canada-Newfoundland and Labrador Offshore Petroleum, which critics say are lobbies for the oil and gas industry.

The Canada-Nova Scotia Offshore Petroleum Board was established in 1990 as an independent joint agency of the governments of Canada and Nova Scotia to regulate petroleum activities in the Nova Scotia offshore area.

Under current assessment laws, these boards provide advice to the Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency — which under the new rules will be renamed the Impact Assessment Agency of Canada — the main body responsible for all federal assessments.

Under the new proposed laws, 

these boards would have direct input. According to the federal Department of Natural Resources, two out of five members on the panels that would be appointed to review offshore oil and gas projects would come from offshore petroleum boards.

The federal government also says it is opening up the door to the provinces to expand the role of the offshore boards into jointly managing offshore renewable energy projects, such as tidal. There is currently no regulatory framework in Canada for offshore renewable energy projects.

Lisa Mitchell, executive director of East Coast Environmental Law, said these changes are concerning.

Since offshore boards already have dual mandates as promoters of the industry as well as regulators, she said they are ill equipped to be involved in the assessment process.

Moreover, she said, the boards tend to have close relationships with the oil and gas industry.

“Organizations like petroleum boards and national energy boards, they provide technical advice and that’s where it should end,” she said.

“We have been calling for months now for someclarity on this and some reassurance that no morepowers would be given to the offshore boards, but it seems that unfortunately on this count they have succumbed to pressures

from the provinces and the oil industry,” said Gretchen Fitzgerald, the national program director of Sierra Club Canada Foundation. The foundation is one of 19 fishing, environmental and community groups that formed the Offshore Alliance to warn the government against putting more power in the hands of the offshore boards.

Fitzgerald said she’s concerned this could have detrimental impacts on the environment if projects get approved in ecologically sensitive areas.

She also said it’s unfair to other industries, like the aquaculture industry, which will have no representation in the decision making process while the oil and gas industry will have a seat at the table.

John Davis, a fisheries advocate and director of the Clean Oceans Action Committee, said he feels like the government is “giving the keys to the hen house to the fox.”

“It’s distressing and alarming,” he said. “The boards were put in place and they had a very specific mandate . . . to think you’re going to combine that mandate with environmental oversight doesn’t make sense to me or anyone I speak with.”

JoAnn Alberstat, a spokeswoman with Nova Scotia’s Department of Energy, did not say whether or not the province is ready to sign on to allow the offshore board a role in the assessment of renewable projects, but said the department has provided feedback to the federal governmentexpressing confidence in the Canada-Nova Scotia Offshore Petroleum Board as a “strong, experienced and independent regulator.”

“We already have a successful bilateral agreement with the federal government on regulating offshore petroleum resources,” she said. “We have just proclaimed the Marine Renewable-Energy Act, and we will continue to work with the federal government to ensure the appropriate regulatory environment is available to all energy developers.”

The Canada-Nova Scotia Offshore Petroleum Board said in an emailed statement that the board is closely reviewing the proposed changes to legislation and remains committed to implementing the legislative and regulatory direction determined by governments.

“As an independent joint agency of both the federal and provincial governments, the CNSOPB is committed to ensuring that all oil and gas activity off the coast of Nova Scotia is done in a safe responsible manner, and in the best interest of Nova Scotians and Canadians. We are committed to the health and safety of offshore workers, protection of the environment and the responsible management of hydrocarbon resources,” the statement reads.

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