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EA Review – Report back from a public workshop

Did you attend any of the Environmental Assessment Review public hearings, workshops, or panel presentations? Read on to hear about Stephanne Taylor’s take on attending the EA Review workshop, and her hopes as a scientist for the EA review.
Fish swimming underwater

As part of their mandate to revisit some of the major regulatory legislation introduced by the Harper government, the Trudeau government has appointed a panel to revisit the Canadian Environmental Assessment Act, or CEAA. This act was first introduced in 1992, and laid out the process by which infrastructure projects are evaluated for their impacts on the local, regional, or global environment. This process was significantly revamped under the 2012 amendment to the Act, and the range of projects that required a full assessment was significantly narrowed. This was in line with the Harper government’s wider agenda of loosening or repealing regulatory laws concerning the environment.

Part of the expert panel’s work is public and community consultations, which started in September in Atlantic Canada and wrap up in British Columbia in mid-December. (The panel did not schedule any meetings in the territories.) The public consultation in each city has several parts: there are formal presentations from community groups, specific sessions for indigenous communities and individuals to contribute, and public workshops. All are open to the public, though the formal presentations require registration and some documentation. The materials presented in each city, along with detailed notes and a summary of the discussions at the public workshop, are publicly available online.

I attended the public workshop in Ottawa. After laying out some background information about how and why environmental assessments are conducted, most of the workshop involved small group discussions about specific questions related to what the participants thought environmental assessment should look like. Summarizing for the larger group showed that there were some common themes that ran through the smaller discussions. These included:

Transparency: Participants repeatedly emphasized that regardless of what the environmental assessment process looks like, it is imperative that all the data and documents considered during the process should be accessible, and considerations used to make the final decision should be clearly spelled out and bolstered by evidence.

Open and independent science: The source of the scientific data must be clear, and ideally conducted by independent firms or organizations. One group suggested that a fund be established for community groups apply for funding to hire scientific contractors, since this is usually beyond the means of communities.

Community and traditional knowledge: Local knowledge is a key component of the body of evidence used to inform an environmental assessment. Whether this is traditional knowledge, an awareness of environmental factors that may not be apparent to non-local contractors, or an understanding of how the community will react to a particular project, local knowledge should be actively sought out for the assessment.

Longitudinal data: Several groups suggested that the assessment process continue after construction has started, and even after it is finished. By keeping a long record of the environmental impact of a project (particularly large projects), there is a stronger body of evidence that can be used when making future assessment decisions. Continuous monitoring also makes the long-term sustainability of a project a high priority, and participants felt that this is important for new infrastructure.

Robust record keeping: Having a consistent and detailed way to maintain records allows for straightforward comparison between similar projects. This allows for statistical methods to be used to roughly evaluate the intensity of environmental assessment needed for a particular project, and is also important for process transparency.

Assessment at several scales: Assessing projects in isolation may not provide the complete picture necessary to make a robust decision, particularly if there are other projects proposed or underway in the vicinity. Considering the impact of a project on the local as well as regional scales will ensure that sound decisions are made.

Public advocacy has become an increasingly visible part of scientists’ work, particularly in reaction to policies enacted by the Harper government. Recently, over 1700 early career researchers (graduate students, post doctoral fellows, and assistant professors) signed a letter calling on the Trudeau government to ensure the transparency and rigour of environmental and regulatory policy. (I am one of the signatories.) The success of the letter and the wide range of Canadian scientists who signed it are clear evidence that there is a cohort of young scientists who are eager to share their expertise with policy makers and the public. As the scientific community shifts to making peer-reviewed research more accessible through preprint sites, open access journals, and institutional repositories, this cohort understands the importance of open and transparent science.

The recent approval of the Kinder Morgan Trans-Mountain Pipeline Extension shows that the current process is insufficiently transparent. There is widespread opposition to the pipeline, largely due to indigenous peoples’ opposition to the pipeline crossing through their territory. There are also concerns that the environmental data used to make the decision was insufficient, and scientists point to the lack of publicly available research on specific risks associated with the increased capacity of the pipeline, including bitumen spills in the ocean. Reworking the assessment process to put transparency and scientific rigour at the centre of the process would help increase Canadians’ confidence that infrastructure projects are approved on the basis of evidence, not lobbying. The Canada-wide consultations are providing a solid body of evidence for the panel to consider, and hopefully their work will result in a reinvigorated process that focuses on transparency, sustainability, and scientific evidence.

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