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Ottawa unveils plan to speed up environmental project reviews

TORONTO -- Ottawa is getting set to change environmental-assessment rules for what it calls major economic projects.

Under the new plan, the government would have 45 days to decide if an assessment is needed, and if it's required, the review would take a maximum of two years.

The changes also include recognizing provincial assessments if they meet federal standards. They would also cut the number of agencies responsible for reviews to three, down from 40. Penalties for non-compliance with an assessment decision will rise to $400,000 from $100,000.

Natural Resources Minister Joe Oliver says the new rules will prevent long delays in project approvals that "kill potential jobs and stall economic growth."

Under the current system, it can take longer to review some projects such as the controversial Enbridge Northern Gateway pipeline (TSX:ENB) that would to take Alberta crude through British Columbia to be shipped to export markets in Asia.

The Tories first announced in last month's federal budget that they would limit project environmental reviews to two years, would eliminate overlap with provincial reviews and narrow the government's focus to large projects only.

However, Oliver has said since the budget that Ottawa wasn't planning to fast-track the approval process for the proposed $5.5 billion Northern Gateway pipeline, which he says would be within the two-year timeframe anyway.

However, the minister also complained in January as the hearings were about to begin that "radical" foreign environmental groups were hoping to bog down the process through the number of presentations made to the public hearings.

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