Watchdog to investigate Harper’s overhaul of environmental assessments

Environment Commissioner Scott Vaughan will look into any new risks created by Bill C-38's overhaul of the environmental …Environmental activists might be getting some help in their ongoing battle of public opinion against the Harper government's Bill C-38 — the omnibus budget bill which some say weakens environmental protections.

According to Postmedia News, Scott Vaughan, Parliament's environment watchdog, "will investigate the 'inherent risks'" from the Harper government's overhaul to the Canadian Environmental Assessment Act as part of Bill-C38.

"We're not second-guessing what Parliament has passed but ... this has been a transformative change in the regime in Canada ... this wasn't tinkering, this was a wholesale gamechanger to put in a new regime," Vaughn told Postmedia in a taped interview posted on YouTube.

"We'll go back and look at how the government is dealing with those risks. And at the end is the quality of Canada's environment, will it receive the same level of environmental protection as it did in the former regime."

The effects of Bill C-38 are already starting to be felt nationwide.

Late last month, Postmedia News reported that the federal government has walked away from environmental assessments on almost 492 projects in British Columbia.

And in Ontario, according to the Toronto Star, the Harper government has cancelled nearly 600 environmental assessments ranging from road reconstruction in Ottawa to the development of a new nuclear fuel storage facility in Chalk River.

The changes in the Act mean the feds will now focus only on those project proposals that have potential for adverse environmental effects in areas of federal jurisdiction. Other projects could still require provincial or municipal assessments.

[ More politics: Is Canada's closure of its Iran embassy a precursor to an attack? ]

Peter Julian, the NDP's energy and natural resources critic, doesn't think that's sufficient.

"Instead of screening broad classes of projects to determine if there was a need for an assessment, we now have a narrow, prescribed list of projects and activities which will be assessed. If it's not on the list, it's not evaluated," the NDP MP from British Columbia wrote in an op-ed piece for the Vancouver Sun.

"The argument that other jurisdictions — provinces or municipalities — will step in to take over environmental assessments rings hollow, especially in light of a scathing report by the B.C. environment commissioner on the sorry state of the provincial environmental assessment regime."

Are the changes to Canadian Environmental Assessment Act simply a streamlining of cumbersome and outdated environmental laws or will they lead to environmental tumult?

Hopefully Mr. Vaughan will be able to answer that question.

(Photo courtesy CBC)