Environmental groups criticize the government’s reversal in evaluating the impact of pollution

“We are concerned that the government is not fully meeting its responsibility to protect Canadians and the environment from the climate impacts of large projects.”

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OTTAWA – Environmental groups say the Liberal government is giving up its authority to regulate greenhouse gas emissions through proposed amendments to the federal Impact Assessment Act.

“We are concerned that the government is not fully meeting its responsibility to protect Canadians and the environment from the climate impacts of large projects,” the groups wrote Wednesday in a letter to cabinet.

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The changes, which are included in the government’s legislation to implement the 2024 budget, are a response to a Supreme Court ruling in October that said the law strayed too far into provincial jurisdiction.

The decision is one of two major judicial defeats for the Liberals on the environment in the last year, the other being a Federal Court decision in November that found Ottawa had overstepped the mark by declaring all plastic toxic, in instead of individual plastic types. The ruling undermines Ottawa’s authority to ban single-use plastics, although existing bans remain in place pending an appeal.

The proposed change to the law would require an evaluation of projects with “a non-negligible adverse change” to the environment. However, the government has gone further than the Supreme Court required, environmental groups say.

The amendments would eliminate impact assessments for projects that would cause air pollution that crosses provincial borders. Instead, such assessments would only be necessary for projects that affect federal lands, areas outside of Canada or interprovincial waters.

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“The federal government has a strong case for jurisdiction over serious cross-border air pollution,” Ecojustice attorney Josh Ginsberg said in an email.

“They should make that argument, not run away from it.”

The government has come under sustained withering criticism from Conservative leader Pierre Poilievre and several prime ministers over environmental policy, particularly the federal price on pollution.

And with Poilievre’s conservatives enjoying a healthy lead in the polls, the political landscape is dramatically different when the bill became law in 2019.

Neither the NDP nor the federal Green Party support the proposed amendments.

“My NDP colleagues and I are deeply concerned that greenhouse gas emissions are no longer considered in impact assessments,” MP Laurel Collins wrote in a letter to Environment Minister Steven Guilbeault.

Green Party leader Elizabeth May called it a “quick and dirty” solution to the law, something her party cannot support.

Guilbeault, a former environmental activist, said the changes were made to ensure full compliance with the high court’s decision.

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“I respectfully disagree with my former colleagues in the environmental movement,” he said.

Stewart Elgie, director of the Environment Institute at the University of Ottawa, said the government is taking a “big step backwards” on environmental legislation, ceding ground to the provinces on transboundary pollution that Ottawa has been regulating for decades. .

Even the environmental assessment law passed by Stephen Harper’s Conservative government, which narrowed its scope and expanded ministerial discretion, still covered cross-border pollution, he said.

“So they are doing less than the Harper government on environmental assessment,” he said, adding that he was referring only to cross-border emissions.

But other laws have come into effect since it was originally passed in 2019, Guilbeault said.

“We didn’t have methane regulations in Canada, a zero-emission vehicle standard, a clean fuel standard in Canada,” he said.

“All of this has developed since the Impact Assessment Law was adopted.”

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