Canada: Beyond Mining Royalties: Environmental Protection, Transparency And Northern Development

In the midst of the recent and long-awaited announcement of the new Quebec mining royalties regime, the government also announced that it intends to adopt measures aimed at improving environmental protection and increasing transparency as it relates to mining activities. In addition, the government announced its priorities for northern development.

Environmental Protection

With respect to environmental protection, the government announced the following measures:

Increased financial guarantee for mine restoration. The new environmental protection measures include the previously announced changes to the mine restoration regime that were included in a Draft Regulation published on February 13, 2013. The proposed amendments seek to increase the amount of the financial guarantee required to secure mine restoration costs, and accelerate the payment schedule for the guarantee. For more information on this, please consult our February 2013 Blakes Bulletin: Quebec to Increase Financial Guarantee Requirements for Mine Restoration.

Requirement to obtain environmental approvals prior to a mining lease being granted. The government has also announced that upcoming amendments to the Mining Act will provide that a mining lease cannot be granted until all environmental approvals are issued. This will result in environmental and social impact assessments being conducted, where applicable, prior to the issuance of the mining lease. We note that a similar measure was part of proposed amendments to the Mining Act introduced by the previous government but which never passed.

Delays for processing environmental approval applications. The mining industry has raised concerns that the environmental approval process is lengthy because regulators lack the resources to process applications in a timely manner, particularly in respect of projects in northern Quebec. In order to address this concern, the government has promised to accelerate the processing of environmental approval applications by directing additional resources to the Ministry of Sustainable Development, Environment, Wildlife and Parks (the MSDEWP). To support this initiative, an amount of up to C$10-million over the next five years will be given to the MSDEWP through the new Northern Development Fund to allow the MSDEWP to attain greater knowledge of the northern territory and to increase its expertise allowing for applications to be processed more efficiently.

Transparency of Mining Operations

To improve transparency, the government is proposing:

Social acceptability of mining projects. The government has indicated its intention to put in place measures to strengthen the social acceptability of mining projects, in particular by providing for the creation of monitoring committees in upcoming amendments to the Mining Act. These committees will serve as a forum where citizens and mining corporations can exchange information on a mining project as it develops. Details with respect to how these committees will function and what powers will be attributed to them have not been established at this stage.

Role of municipalities in mining projects. The government has also indicated that upcoming amendments to the Mining Act will include provisions that will take into account the choices of regional county municipalities with respect to mining activities on their territory. Municipal involvement in decision-making relating to mining projects had been a significant topic in the discussions surrounding the previously proposed changes to the Quebec Mining Act. At this stage, there is very little information as to the extent of the powers that municipalities would have in relation to mining projects.

Governmental Priorities with Respect to Northern Development

The Premier of Quebec, Pauline Marois, and the Minister of Natural Resources, Martine Ouellet, travelled to northern Quebec on May 7, 2013, to announce the government's overarching policy priorities for northern development. The former government's Northern Plan is now called The North for Everyone.

The Northern Development Fund will be created to invest C$868-million in public funds between 2013 and 2018 in infrastructure, national parks, professional training and development and social housing in the north.

The Secretariat for Northern Development will replace the Société du Plan Nord announced by the previous government and will be under the responsibility of the Minister of Natural Resources. It is intended that the Secretariat will be responsible for establishing a new framework for investments in infrastructure for projects in the north and for linking social and economic development activities in the north with all of the parties that influence these activities. While the government has yet to unveil the details of this plan, it has announced that the Secretariat would establish a strategy for northern development that will revolve around three main themes: the social development of northern communities, the protection of the environment, and biodiversity and economic development.

With respect to measures for the protection of the territory, the government has maintained the previous government's commitment to devote 50% of the Northern Plan territory to the protection of the environment, preserving biodiversity and enhancing the province's natural heritage. However, the goal of achieving the protection of 50% of the territory by 2035 has now been set aside. For the time being, the government does not seem inclined to abide by the previous government's commitment to set aside 20% of the Northern Plan territory as protected areas by 2020 or to adopt legislation aimed at the protection of the territory. We note that the former government had tabled Bill 65: An Act respecting natural heritage conservation and the sustainable development of the area covered by the Northern Plan in April 2012 to implement to the Government of Quebec's undertaking to protect 50% of the Northern Plan territory by 2035.

While the current government's priorities do not significantly differ from the previous government's Northern Plan, the Premier emphasized that the government's priority is to develop the north responsibly in order to maximize the benefits for local communities and for all Quebecers, which according to the Premier distinguishes the current government's priorities from the former government's Northern Plan.

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