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Liberals reject most Tory amendments to environmental assessment bill

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OTTAWA — The federal Liberals will accept nearly 100 changes the Senate has made to a bill overhauling the federal environmental-assessment process for major construction projects but are rejecting dozens more, including nearly all of those proposed by Conservative senators.

Conservative Sen. David Tkachuk said he is “appalled” at the government’s decision.

“If you think Saskatchewan and Alberta are going to take this lying down, I think the country’s got another thing coming,” he said.

Environment Minister Catherine McKenna says she thinks some of the Senate’s proposals made the bill much stronger, including those that reduce the authority of the minister of the environment to interfere with timelines or the make-up of review panels, and some that clarify rules to ensure the same project won’t have to go through both a regional and a national review.

She said she is certain the new review process for national-scale resource and transportation projects, like pipelines, mines and highways, will be clear and timely. She said it will allow for as many as 100 new resource projects worth $500 billion to be proposed and examined over the next 10 years.

“This is a system that will attract investment,” McKenna said. “This is a system that Canadians, that Canadian businesses should be proud of. We can go and tell everyone that Canada is open for business.”

McKenna is rejecting 90 per cent of the amendments made by Conservatives, including some which would have allowed a new Impact Assessment Agency to decide not to consider the impacts on Indigenous people or climate change when assessing a project. She also is rejecting changes that would have put strict limits on who can participate in an assessment hearing, as well as make it harder to challenge a project approval in court.

Environment groups hailed the government’s decision as a win for the planet, ensuring climate change in particular is taken into consideration.

Conservatives, however, are warning their fight against Bill C-69, which they say is a threat to national unity, has barely begun.

Alberta Premier Jason Kenney is pondering a constitutional challenge, saying the bill infringes on provinces’ rights to control their own natural resources and that it will kill what is left of Alberta’s oil-and-gas sector.

“Without the Senate’s amendments, this bill will drive away more jobs and investment from Canada,” Kenney said. “It is not too late for the federal government, the House and the Senate to do the right thing and sustain the Senate’s amendments.”

Kenney led six premiers — five conservative provincial leaders and one non-partisan territorial leader — to write to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau Monday asking him to accept all the amendments in the name of national unity. Trudeau called it irresponsible to raise the spectre of tearing the country apart just because the premiers weren’t getting everything they wanted from Ottawa.

Kenney has tried to bring Quebec Premier Francois Legault, who leads the right-leaning Coalition Avenir Quebec, into the group of premiers declaring a threat to national unity. The Alberta premier was in Montreal Wednesday to meet with Legault and invoked a “historic alliance” between the two provinces during the 1982 talks on patriating the Constitution.

Legault won’t sign the letter. He does not like the parts of C-69 that he says infringe on provincial jurisdiction but thinks the other premiers want to cut back too much on environmental protections.

McKenna said conservative premiers, MPs and senators, as well as the oil-and-gas lobbyists, wanted a bill that would guarantee every pipeline proposed would be approved, rather than an environmental-assessment process to ensure only good projects that help the economy while protecting the environment go ahead.

“They want us to copy and paste recommendations written by oil lobbyists that would block court challenges, that would make it easier for future governments to ignore the views of Indigenous Peoples, that would limit Canadians’ input and shut Canadians out of the process, and that would increase political interference in decision-making,” McKenna said.

She said the government listened to the concerns of the provinces and accused the Conservatives of polarizing the country by changing the law in 2012 to favour the oil industry at the expense of the environment and Indigenous rights.

The House of Commons must debate and then vote on the government motion responding to the Senate amendments but the Liberals’ majority virtually guarantees that the government will get its way. Then the Senate gets another shot at the bill. Thus far, the independent senators have tended to defer to the elected House of Commons when the House rejects Senate amendments.

Early indications from independent senators, who are a majority in the Senate, suggest that will be the case with Bill C-69, too.

Sen. Yuen Pau Woo, the head of the Independent Senators Group (a loose affiliation of senators who work together for procedural purposes), said he is disappointed the government didn’t accept more of the Senate’s suggestions but thinks the ones McKenna is accepting do address three key issues raised by industry, environmental groups and First Nations.

Those include clarity and predictability about the timelines for a review, the assessment criteria, reducing ministerial discretion, and a more explicit recognition of the importance of economic considerations in an impact assessment.

—With files from Christopher Reynolds in Montreal

Mia Rabson, The Canadian Press


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Lighthizer agrees to do whatever it takes to get new NAFTA passed

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OTTAWA — U.S. trade czar Robert Lighthizer says he will work with Democrats to do whatever it takes to ratify the new North American free trade deal.

Lighthizer made the pledge in testimony today before the U.S. Senate finance committee as part of the Trump administration’s push to get the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement ratified by a divided Congress.

Lighthizer’s appearance on Capitol Hill comes two days before Prime Minister Justin Trudeau meets President Donald Trump at the White House to give impetus towards ratifying the deal.

Oregon Sen. Ron Wyden, the ranking Democrat on the committee, says the new deal has “weak enforcement” provisions on raising labour standards in Mexico that he and his party want to fix.

Lighthizer says USMCA has stronger enforcement provisions than the old North American Free Trade Agreement, including improved labour rights in Mexico, but he’s open to making it stronger.

Lighthizer says he has had good discussions with Democratic House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and suggests that getting a ratification bill introduced in the lower house of Congress — a necessary first step towards U.S. ratification of the pact — might be weeks away.

The Canadian Press

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Liberals’ balancing act between energy and the environment climaxes this week

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OTTAWA — The federal Liberal government is teetering on a tightrope this week as it attempts to prove it can balance economic development with environmental protection during the final sitting of Parliament before the fall election.

Bill C-69, legislation overhauling national assessments for major resource and transportation projects, began its final ride Monday in the Senate. The upper chamber has to decide if it can accept the bill despite the government rejecting more than half the proposed amendments made by senators last week.

The Senate will also be asked this week to reconsider the government’s oil tanker moratorium off the coast of northern British Columbia, after the government accepted a Senate amendment requiring a mandatory five-year-review, but rejected another amendment that would have required an assessment after just 180 days.

On Tuesday, cabinet will meet to decide whether to approve the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion for the second time, after the Federal Court of Appeal overturned the 2016 approval citing improper consultations with Indigenous communities and a lack of consideration for the impacts of additional oil tankers on marine life.

And all of this comes as the government Monday imposed a time limit on debate to push through its motion declaring climate change a national emergency requiring more cuts to carbon emissions than Canada has already committed to making.

That motion passed in the Commons late Monday with the support of Liberal, NDP, Bloc Quebecois and Green party MPs — part of a calculated pre-election effort to build political momentum behind the government’s environmental agenda.

The government came under attack from both left and right Monday, with Conservatives demanding the government reject C-69 and explain when construction will begin on Trans Mountain, at the same time as New Democrats were demanding the government reject the pipeline.

Natural Resources Minister Amarjeet Sohi appeared happy to be seen as coming up the middle by both trying to move Trans Mountain forward following the orders of the Federal Court of Appeal, while putting in place better protections for the environment and Indigenous rights under C-69.

“On the one hand we have Conservatives who do not get the environment,” he said. “On the other hand we have the New Democrats who do not get the economy. We are moving forward, building a strong economy, creating jobs for the middle class, and at the same time taking action on climate, ensuring that we are putting a price on pollution, ensuring that we are taking action by phasing out coal, and making sure that we meaningfully engage with Indigenous communities.”

Conservatives argue Bill C-69 will make Trans Mountain the last pipeline anyone proposes in Canada as it will scare away investors afraid to bother trying to build projects in the face of assessments they say are unfairly tipped against economic benefits and job creation.

The Liberals however argue C-69 is needed because the existing process created by the Conservatives in 2012, gutted environmental protections and is the reason the courts tore up the expansions approval in the first place.

A coalition of oil and gas industry groups, chambers of commerce and manufacturers associations are urging the Senate to kill the bill. Initially the Save Canadian Jobs coalition slogan was “Fix Bill C-69” but after the government rejected most of the fixes the Senate offered up, the coalition now says the Senate needs to “Stop Bill C-69.”

The Senate made more than 200 changes to the bill, and the government accepted 62 of them entirely, and 37 others in part. The rest were rejected, with Environment Minister Catherine McKenna saying many of them overstepped judicial discretion, limited public participation in the process and made it optional to take into account the impact on Indigenous rights or climate change.

Dennis Darby, the president of Canadian Manufacturers and Exporters, agreed Monday that the existing system “is broken.”

However Darby, and the other members of the coalition, said the new legislation will scare off investors from proposing any new projects in Canada and is even worse than what is there now. In particular, the coalition is worried the Impact Assessment Act will make for extremely lengthy reviews and assessments that don’t count job creation heavily enough.

“It’s too easy for the benefits (of projects) to be lost in the sea of negativity,” said Darby. “Local voices can be drowned out by professional activists from abroad.”

But Alberta Sen. Grant Mitchell, who is sponsoring C-69 in the upper chamber, is urging senators to see the bill as a major improvement to the existing system. Mitchell, the government’s liaison in the Senate, said 99 amendments is the highest number of changes the government has accepted from the upper house to a single piece of legislation since those records began being kept in the 1940s.

“It’s not going to be lost on senators that this is significant and that this bill has been enhanced because of the work of the Senate,” said Mitchell.  “It’s historic.”

He said the rhetoric that the legislation is going to mean no new major oil projects will ever be approved in Canada is hogwash because under the legislation every single timeline is shorter than what exists now. He said economic impacts are mentioned 179 times in C-69, where they aren’t mentioned at all in the existing bill.

“This is one heck of a bill and I’m voting for it,” he said, in an interview with The Canadian Press.

“I think this is the way we will get projects built.”

The Senate debate on C-69 began Monday and the vote is expected later this week.

Mia Rabson, The Canadian Press


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