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Tory plan to streamline environmental oversight draws fire

Quicker environmental assessments are step closer to reality now that a House of Commons committee has given the federal government a blueprint for how to streamline lengthy hearings.

Natural Resources Minister Joe Oliver and Prime Minister Stephen Harper have spoken loudly about the need to reduce the number of hoops business needs to jump through in order to develop Canada's natural resources.

Now the Conservative-dominated environment committee, in its statutory review of the Canadian Environmental Assessment Act, has shown them how.

Its 20 recommendations include the imposition of timelines, giving the federal minister more power to decide whether hearings should go ahead, and giving provinces more room to assess projects on their own.

"The recommendations focus on pragmatism; that is, ensuring Canada's natural heritage is protected while improving the efficiency of the bureaucratic processes that surround environmental assessment in our country," said Michelle Rempel, the parliamentary secretary for environment.

She cited one example of a company saying bureaucratic delays cost between $15 billion and $20 billion in economic activity.

But opposition members and environmentalists are up in arms, saying the blueprint would set Canada back decades in terms of protecting the environment from the ravages of industry.

They say the committee hearings were a sham that only serve to give Harper cover for gutting federal environmental oversight.

"By faster, she (Rempel) means streamlined. And by streamlined, she means not at all. She means ticking off some boxes," said Megan Leslie, the NDP's environment critic.

The NDP and the Liberals issued dissenting reports, refusing to support the recommendations of the majority Conservatives on the committee.

Leslie said the committee report disregards much of the expert testimony that was heard, and sets the stage for the federal government to take a minimal role in environmental assessments, leaving the provinces to their own patchwork of oversight.

"This is disastrous for environmental review," agreed Green party Leader Elizabeth May.

Oliver and Harper ramped up their talk of streamlining environmental assessment earlier this year as hearings into the Northern Gateway got underway. About 4,000 people are expected to make presentations over the next 18 months, prompting Oliver to issue a public letter denouncing the process.

He has promised to introduce legislation within the next year.

The committee recommends that the government:

— consolidate the minister's powers so that decisions to review projects are a one-step process instead of two;

— eliminate parts of the act that look at the capacity of renewable resources and that allow an examination of business alternatives;

— introduce binding timelines for all environmental assessments;

— if provinces are set up to assess a project, let them do it on their own, instead of a two-step process or a joint review;

— create a list of projects that should be reviewed, instead of assuming everything needs a review;

— stop reviewing minor projects

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