OTTAWA – The NDP says it has obtained a copy of a government memo that suggests the Conservatives want to gut the federal role in environmental-impact assessments.
The leaked email from a federal bureaucrat suggests the Tories could kill the assessment process for any project worth less than $10 million, or for any project where a provincial government is already performing that role.
The email, distributed to the media with the sender’s name blacked out, says the measures would help speed up the pace of construction projects at a time of global economic standstill.
Ottawa has already committed $33 billion for infrastructure spending over seven years, with the possibility of more in a stimulus package to be released in next week’s federal budget.
But a key concern remains: how much of that spending will go to projects that are ready to begin, and which would immediately help dampen the impact of the economic slowdown?
New Democrats say the government is using the economic crisis – and the need to speed up construction projects – as a pretext for weakening environmental oversight.
“The important message here is clear,” said NDP environment critic Linda Duncan.
“The Harper government is trying to say you can’t have economic development and environmental protection. That’s what the message is. And it just isn’t true.”
The Tories have already argued publicly that Ottawa should butt out of some projects.
Transport Minister John Baird has said that the federal and provincial governments should avoid duplicating each other’s environmental assessments, because such duplication costs precious time and offers dubious benefit.
A federal spokesperson dismissed the suggestion that the government would simply abandon environmental assessments. But she would not comment on the government’s plans.
“We do recognize the importance of protecting the environment,” said Lucille Jamault of the Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency.
“There is no bill before the Parliament at this time, and no final decisions have been made.”
The NDP and environmental groups say the changes would undo major parts of the Environmental Assessment Act, enacted by the Conservative government of Brian Mulroney in 1992.
New Democrats say that instead of diluting assessment rules, the government should be using its infrastructure money on green-technology projects.
“What (Tories are) saying is, ‘Out with the environment, and in with the shovel-ready,’ ” Duncan said.
“Well, shovel-ready should mean that all federal laws have already been met – not that we’re going to skirt those environmental laws.”