Canada: BC Government Sets The Stage For "Revitalizing" The Provincial Environmental Assessment Process

Changes are on the horizon for the BC Environmental Assessment (EA) process. On March 7, 2018, Minister of Environment and Climate Change Strategy George Heyman announced that the provincial government will "revitalize" the provincial EA process with a view to enhancing public confidence, advancing reconciliation with First Nations, and protecting the environment while supporting sustainable economic growth. Minister Heyman emphasized the province's goal of ensuring that First Nations, local governments, and the general public can participate in an EA process that is "transparent, science-based, timely and provides early indications of the likelihood of success."

Background

The notion of "revitalizing" the provincial EA process first emerged in the May 2017 Confidence and Supply Agreement between the BC Greens and the BC NDP, which paved the way for the NDP's ascension to power on July 18, 2017. Under the agreement, the NDP agreed, should it be called upon to form a new government, to make efforts to "[r]evitalize the Environmental Assessment process in BC and review and address failures in the professional reliance model in BC so that British Columbians' faith in resource development can be restored." The goal of revitalizing the EA process eventually found its way onto Minister's Heyman's to-do list upon receiving his mandate letter from Premier John Horgan in July 2017 directing him to, among other things, "[r]evitalize the Environmental Assessment process and review the professional reliance model to ensure the legal rights of First Nations are respected, and the public's expectation of a strong, transparent process is met."

Timeline

Alongside the March 7 announcement, the Environmental Assessment Office (EAO) released its "path to revitalization" setting out the following timeline:

  • Engagement Phase (Feb – Apr 2018)
    • Formation of the Environmental Assessment Advisory Committee (EAAC): An independent advisory committee, the EAAC, has been formed to review and make recommendations on potential reforms to the EA process. The EAAC is co-chaired by ecologist Bruce Fraser and lawyer and former Chief of Cowichan Tribes Lydia Hwitsum. It includes ten additional members from local government, industry, environmental NGOs, Aboriginal and environmental law, the labour sector, and other backgrounds.
    • First Nations Engagement: In collaboration with the First Nations Energy and Mining Council, the EAO is holding workshops across the province to gather input from First Nations. Four such workshops – covering Terrace, Nanaimo, Kamloops, and Prince George – have already taken place, with a fifth to follow in Vancouver.
    • Direct Engagement: The EAO is holding meetings with key stakeholders – including representatives from industry, environmental NGOs, local governments, labour groups, and others – to gather feedback on how to revitalize the EA process. In addition, government-to-government meetings with Indigenous groups will be held as requested.
  • Release of Discussion Paper (May 2018)
    • A discussion paper informed by the engagement process outlined above and the recommendations of the EAAC will be released. This paper will address the perceived issues associated with the existing EA process, the opportunities for improvement, and recommended reforms.
  • Comment Period (June 2018)
    • Following the release of the discussion paper, the public will be invited to submit comments.
  • "What We Heard" and Intentions Paper (Fall 2018)
    • Reports will be produced summarizing the information gathered through the engagement process and indicating the intended direction for reforms.
  • Revitalization (late fall 2018)
    • Reforms to the EA process will be introduced.

In setting out the path forward, the EAO emphasized that it will be working with Indigenous groups throughout the revitalization process to support the provincial government's commitment to fully implement the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. The EAO also clarified that EAs that have already commenced will continue under the current process. Accordingly, the revitalized EA process will not have retrospective effect. Finally, the EAO has set up a dedicated EA revitalization page to assist in keeping the public engaged and informed as the revitalization process develops.

Federal EA Process Reforms

The BC government is not the only government in Canada eyeing major EA process reforms. The province's announcement comes shortly on the heels of the first reading of federal Bill C-69, which, if passed, would usher in sweeping changes to the federal EA process by replacing the National Energy Board with a new Canadian Energy Regular and by replacing the Canadian Environmental Assessment Act, 2012 with a new Impact Assessment Act (IAA). For further discussion of these proposed reforms, please consult our previous blog posts on the proposed replacement of the National Energy Board, the nature and scope of the proposed IAA, and the potential impact of the IAA on Canada's relationship with Indigenous peoples.

Overlapping Themes

Although the stage has only been set, and we have yet to see what concrete proposals will come out of the engagement process, several key themes have emerged from the structure of the process itself and the language of the provincial government's announcements. Notably, these themes overlap with several key themes underlying the proposed federal reforms, suggesting that the province and the federal government may be moving in a similar direction on certain issues. In particular:

  • both governments envision an EA process that involves increased engagement with and participation by Indigenous groups, and both have indicated their desire more generally to foster reconciliation and to bring about a renewed relationship with Indigenous peoples;
  • both governments are seeking to put in place more transparent EA processes that involve greater public engagement and participation, with a view to enhancing public confidence in these processes; and
  • both governments have acknowledged the need to protect the environment while supporting sustainable growth.

Given the shared themes underlying both governments' proposed reforms and ongoing federal/provincial efforts to harmonize EA review processes, certain aspects of the proposed IAA may serve to guide the revitalization of the provincial EA process. Stay tuned for further developments.

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