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Black day for green jobs: Feds prepare to cut environmental agency

By Amy Minsky, Postmedia News, Vancouver Sun, July 20, 2011

OTTAWA — The federal government will slash funding to the environmental agency that evaluates potentially harmful policies and projects before they get the green light.

And if the trend in declining funds and employees continues, Canada could experience a series of environmental disasters, as government loses access to valuable information about proposed resource projects — whether it's shale gas extraction, offshore drilling or big hydroelectric projects, critics say.

The Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency is looking at a 43.1 per cent cut in spending, dropping from $30 million in 2011-12 to $17.1 million in 2012-13, according to the agency's planning documents.

This cut follows a 6.9 per cent, or $2.2-million, drop in the funds government allocated to the agency in 2010-11.

Along with the budget cuts, the 17-year-old agency is facing a one-third reduction in the number of full-time staff, despite the government's commitment to improving the environmental assessment process laid out its June speech from the throne.

With an increasing number of large-scale mining projects coming down the pipe — including Stornoway Diamond Corp.'s foray into Quebec's first diamond mine, Taseko Mines Ltd.'s gold-copper mine in British Columbia, and the Enbridge oil pipeline — now is not the time to start taking risks, said Stephen Hazell, an environmental lawyer based in Ottawa.

"There are just all kinds of big projects lined up across the country. The level of non-renewable resource development activities in this country is just going insane," he said. "The agency has got more responsibility than ever in terms of managing the environmental assessments for all these big projects."

With that in mind, the agency should at least be maintaining levels of employees and funding because "sometimes, the engineers don't get it all sorted out," Hazell said.

As an example, he pointed to problems that led to the 2010 BP oil spill that saw nearly five million barrels of oil gush into the Gulf of Mexico over a three-month span — one of several environmental disasters that potentially, could have been avoided with complete independent environmental assessments, he said.

"BP didn't get it sorted out, and the engineers at Fukushima didn't get it figured out. Sometimes it happens. Bad things happen," he said, referring to Japan's nuclear disaster following the March 11 9.0 magnitude earthquake and resultant tsunami.

A major chunk of the funding and jobs being taken away is explained through the government's plan to end funding to two programs that received a combined $11 million in the 2007 budget, a spokeswoman for the agency said.

One of those programs compels government to consult with potentially affected aboriginal groups before making decisions on proposed projects. The other aims to improve the regulatory framework for major projects, said Celine Legault.

Legault couldn't say whether the overall cuts would compromise the environment minister's ability to be adequately advised before approving proposed projects. She said any comment would be "speculative."

She also couldn't say whether responsibilities for environmental assessments eventually would shift to other agencies or departments.

Last year, Prime Minister Stephen Harper's government amended the legislation that governs the assessment agency, the 1992 Canadian Environmental Assessment Act, to give the organization more responsibility in conducting studies of major projects.

Some critics say the irony of increased responsibility followed by budget and job cuts isn't lost on them.

"It's both ironic and unfortunate that after giving the agency this important new responsibility, the Harper government is now implementing cuts," said Richard Lindgren, counsel with the Canadian Environmental Law Association.

Further, the 43 per cent drop in funding and 33 per cent drop in jobs seem too high to be explained away by cuts to just two programs, Hazell said.

"It makes me think the documents are not giving the whole picture," he said.

The Conservatives have been slowly withdrawing from the assessment act, Hazell said, pointing to a clause in the 2009 budget bill that reduced the number of proposals automatically subject to environmental assessments.

The Conservatives also decided that some projects under the Economic Action Plan wouldn't be subject to environmental assessment — a decision former auditor general Sheila Fraser criticized.

So these new cuts, Hazell said, could represent the government swinging the hammer one more time as it chips away at the agency.

"Perhaps these cuts they're planning are just another way of reducing federal environmental assessment and getting government off the backs of industry."

aminsky@postmedia.com

Twitter.com/amyminsky

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