Environmental Lawyer Urges Strategic Assessments to Shape Pipeline, LNG Decisions
The Canadian government may be closer than it thinks to an environmental review process that moves beyond pitched battles on individual projects, using “strategic environmental assessment” to get at the impacts of multiple developments in a region or broader issues like climate change.
“Instead of the current environmental assessment process, in which pipeline reviews have become proxy battles for issues such as climate change and cumulative effects, there’d actually be a higher-level review designed specifically to examine those big-picture questions,” DeSmog Canada reports. “My highest hope is that Canada will take advantage of this once in a lifetime opportunity,” said Anna Johnston, staff counsel at West Coast Environmental Law, “and take a really visionary approach to environmental assessment.”
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Johnston, a member of an advisory council participating in the federal government’s environmental assessment review, said strategic environmental assessment could help break the logjam around individual project assessments, while providing a pathway for Canadians to participate in decisions that affect them.
“We’re in the middle of this national conversation about what we’re going to do about climate change, for example, and we’re seeing protests across the country about projects that have gone through environmental assessment, largely because people have felt like the environmental assessment was inadequate and there was a lack of transparency and accountability in the review process,” Johnston told DeSmog.
“The public really cares about climate change and they really care about their ability to have a say. So it’s about trusting government, and it’s about knowing that you’re able to have a say and influence decisions.”
Johnston traced much of the mistrust to environmental assessment rules, introduced by the Harper government in 2012, that represented “a real erosion of democracy and put Canadians’ environment at risk.” Good environmental assessment “allows the public to have a meaningful say,” and “it’s also about, on this other level, how are we going to get to carbon neutral by 2050? Environmental assessment is the main tool for making decisions about proposals that affect the environment. There’s a lot of concern that no matter how good the [climate] plans might be, we need to make sure they influence the project-level decisions.”
The best practice in environmental assessment is to make wider policy decisions at a strategic level, before individual projects are on the table. “The solution is to create a forum for those policy-level discussions where you have essentially an environmental assessment of a government policy or a plan to have oil to tidewater, without tying that conversation to a particular project,” Johnston said. “Once you get that strategic assessment that has examined those bigger-picture policy-level issues, then those assessments can provide guidance at the project level.”
Johnston pointed to British Columbia’s continuing debate over liquefied natural gas (LNG) development as a perfect case for strategic review. “Right at the very first whisperings of LNG in B.C., we should have done a strategic EA,” she said. “Then when the project proponents come along, they’d have the guidance from a strategic EA that would have said: maybe we can have one or two in B.C. Here are the different temporal spacings they’d need to occur in, and here are the locations, the pipeline routes, and the LNG facility locations where it might work. And then once you get to the project-level EA, you’re looking much more closely at the specifics.”