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Canada’s Kent to Speed Environment Reviews of Big Projects

The Canadian government is considering to narrow the focus of its main environmental assessment agency so it can accelerate reviews of major industrial projects, Environment Minister Peter Kent said.

The Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency examines projects that receive funding from or require the approval of the federal government, including oil and gas pipelines. As part of a scheduled review, the government has been examining the law that defines the agency’s powers.

Reducing the agency’s workload from about 6,000 assessments a year to several hundred would eliminate “redundancies” created by overlapping reviews also done by Canada’s provinces, Kent said, adding that the government hopes to make the changes without “compromising appropriate environmental stewardship.”

“There are several hundred large projects ideally that I’d like to see us focus environmental assessments on to be able to do them well,” Kent said in a phone interview last night from Washington, where he attended a meeting of the Major Economies Forum on Energy and Climate. The goal is “to use our resources in a more efficient way, and also to get those environmental assessments done in a timely fashion so that we’re not holding up legitimate development.”

Canada has been looking at ways to streamline the review of major projects such as pipelines as it tries to sell more crude from Alberta’s oil sands to emerging economies such as China. The federal government estimates there will be C$43 billion ($42 billion) of investment in new pipelines over the next 15 years.

Governments Agreed

The U.S. State Department said Nov. 10 it would postpone a decision on TransCanada Corp.’s $7-billion Keystone XL pipeline until after the presidential election next year. Prime Minister Stephen Harper said the delay underscored the “necessity” for Canada to step up energy exports to Asian markets.

The federal government and the provinces agreed in July to pursue the goal of “one-project, one-review” for environmental assessments and regulatory reviews.

“There is broad agreement that one project, one assessment, appropriate to the magnitude and scale and complexity of the project, would be ideal,” Kent said.

Alberta Premier Alison Redford said yesterday that she discussed greater cooperation between the provinces and the federal government on energy projects with Harper in a meeting in Ottawa. “There’s definitely the ability for us as a federal government and provincial government to work more closely on these issues, to align ourselves with respect to regulatory policy,” she told reporters at a news conference.

One ‘Comprehensive Study’

The Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency made 3,062 decisions and started 2,961 assessments in the year ended March 31. All but 23 of the completed and ongoing assessments were “screenings,” the most basic form of review. The agency completed one “comprehensive study,” a more rigorous assessment that usually applies to large-scale infrastructure such as oil-and-gas projects, nuclear-power plants and electricity facilities.

Kent said narrowing the agency’s focus may require changes to its governing legislation. “The majority government allows us to move forward without the partisan head-bumping and obstructive legislative tactics” of the opposition in a minority parliament, he said. The Conservatives won a majority of seats in the country’s House of Commons in a May 2 election.

Opposition’s Concern

The country’s main opposition New Democratic Party is worried that shrinking the agency’s mandate may be used as a pretext to cut its resources, said Megan Leslie, an NDP lawmaker who sits on a parliamentary committee reviewing the bill.

“My fear is that the agency and the act will be whittled down to such a pathetically small level that we won’t actually have a real process,” Leslie said in a telephone interview.

Calgary-based Enbridge Inc. has proposed building a pipeline, called Northern Gateway, that would carry crude from Alberta’s oil sands to Canada’s Pacific coast, while Houston-based Kinder Morgan Inc. plans to expand its Trans Mountain route to do the same. A review panel set up by Kent and the National Energy Board is assessing the environmental impact of the Northern Gateway project.

Canada will attend an international climate meeting starting Nov. 29 in Durban, South Africa. Envoys from the U.S. and European Commission said last month that the United Nations climate-change conference won’t achieve a global treaty to replace the Kyoto agreement that lapses next year.

“We can move the process along significantly and do it without some of the acrimony” Kent said. There is growing recognition a new agreement that includes major emitters like the U.S., China and India is needed to replace Kyoto, he said.

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