Friday, June 15, 2012

The Failure of Environmental Regulation [part one]

Cedar Waxwing nest in lilac .

It is a Friday in June. All over this northern land, in its temperate, coastal, alpine, boreal, and arctic wilds, there are birds attempting to conjure life from eggs hidden in the spires of spruce, hummocks of cliff-face, hollows of tundra, snags of maple, tussocks of fescue, mats of tule, and a hundred other secret places. They know these places with a protective and fruitful intimacy, a bond that grants them a chance of rearing viable young before the snows come. Three days from now, on Monday, their capacity to manage that parental task in summers to come will be undermined, some say. This dark happening will occur in a place unfamiliar to the birds, likewise to the salmon, the polar bears, the caribou, and the orcas. None of them, strange to tell, even think to look for their life and health in a 425 page piece of legislation, or in the chambers of government in which it was devised. None of them know anything of older, nobler documents, laws securing a degree of human forbearance and protection for those most vulnerable of natal places, or that on Monday they are going to be changed.

Those who do know--environmentalists, eco-defence lawyers, biologists--are worried. More than one hundred pages of Bill C-38 address environmental regulations. These are the laws Canadian legislators have enacted in recent decades to shield us and our wilder coinhabitants from the depredations of agriculture, mining, resource extraction, fisheries, and urban development.

The bill our legally and democratically elected government will pass on Monday eviscerates the Fisheries Act so that it will only apply to major waterways and fisheries, leaving lesser bodies of water unregulated, presumably because fish are always born and reared in the very places we “harvest” them and not in smaller streams and lakes.

The Species At Risk Act meanwhile will be changed to give the Minister of Environment new powers to grant industry players exemptions and extensions of their permits whenever he sees fit. As well, any oil or gas projects being examined by the National Energy Board will be exempted from species at risk legislation.

As for the Environmental Assessment Act, considered by many to be the cornerstone of government regulation and oversight of industry, it will in effect be repealed and replaced by a “streamlined” process that places the wellbeing of our lands and waterways firmly in the hands of industry self-regulation and ministerial discretion. Trust us, the oil companies say, we have ten environmentalists on staff. Federal cabinet, with fewer environmentalists on staff, will now have final say over all oil and gas pipelines. Large development projects will only be reviewed at the discretion of the minister and his staff. Smaller development projects, from now on, will not be assessed at all. The public review process, allowing conservationists to voice concerns on a development, will be truncated and the list of who is allowed to participate will be limited.

The National Round Table on the Environment and the Economy, a body that was given the task of finding ways to bring ecological and economic concerns into greater harmony, will be discharged. Finally, to tidy up another loose end, the bill repeals the Kyoto Protocol Implementation Act doing away with any pretense of Canada ever implementing the promises it signed onto in a moment of weakness when less visionary men were running the government.

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