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The Harper government is giving a wide range of new powers to cabinet ministers to decide the scope of environmental assessments, as it proceeds with an omnibus budget bill that overhauls the way Ottawa will review major resource projects.

Natural Resources Minister Joe Oliver has promoted the legislative changes as providing greater certainty to investors keen to develop Canada’s vast resources. But in some major ways, the government will make the system more opaque and subject to ministerial discretion.

The March budget and resulting legislation is as much about speeding up decision-making on resource projects like oil sands pipelines and new mines across the country, as it is about government finances.

Conservative House Leader Peter Van Loan confirmed Wednesday the government will not split the budget bill as opposition have demanded, but will send the environmental amendments to a special subcommittee.

The 430-page budget bill contains 170 pages of amendments on environmental assessment – not counting a few sections aimed at environmental charities – and amends a half dozen laws, including the National Energy Board Act, the Canadian Environmental Assessment Act, the Fisheries Act and the Species at Risk Act.

Regulation and discretion

An overall trend is to remove specific rules in the various acts, and replace them with regulation, which is easier to change, and ministerial discretion.

The bill will also allow Ottawa to shift responsibility for environmental assessments to the provinces, eliminate reviews for small projects and impose new penalties on companies that fail to complete mitigation measures ordered by regulators.

Ministers will have new discretion to decide what gets reviewed by whom and the scope of those reviews, including whether a fish species is important enough to warrant consideration.

“Discretion does require trust,” said Brenda Kenny, president of the Canadian Energy Pipelines Association and former staffer at the National Energy Board.

“But if you have a very rigid regime, it does not guarantee you are going to be spending the right amount of time on the right things.”

Who reviews what and for how long?

The legislation completes a shift that the government began in previous bills to transfer environmental assessment of pipeline projects to the National Energy Board and nuclear projects to the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission from the Canadian Environment Assessment Agency (CEAA).

The agency will still be responsible for environmental assessment of developments like oil-sands projects and mines.

At the same time, departments and agencies that are participants in the reviews will no longer have decision-making powers, but will essentially serve as consultants for the three key agencies.

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