Ottawa playing into hands of mining and energy companies, critics say
By Peter O’Neil, Vancouver Sun
April 25, 2012
The federal government’s planned overhaul of the Fisheries Act may reduce the regulatory burden companies such as Calgary-based Enbridge Inc. face in getting approval for major projects, Fisheries Minister Keith Ash-field said Tuesday.
But Ashfield rejected opposition accusations that the federal government’s plan for a “more sensible and practical” Fisheries Act was a result of corporate pressure from the energy and mining sectors. “It certainly hasn’t influenced me in any way shape or form. I have never sat down with [or] had any discussions with Enbridge,” he said in an interview.
Ashfield said farmers, municipalities and even some conservation groups in Canada support the government plan to shift regulatory enforcement focus away from general fish habitat and toward specific fish and fish habitat that are of “vital” importance to the recreational, commercial and aboriginal fisheries.
Ashfield drew attention to groups outside the mining and energy sectors backing the changes, including the Ontario Federation of Anglers and Hunters, Ducks Unlimited Canada and the Canadian Federation of Municipalities.
He said farmers have been prevented from cleaning out their channels and municipalities have faced delays in repairing bridge supports and maintaining drainage ditches.
“We want to adopt a sensible and practical approach to man-aging real and significant threats to fisheries and the habitat that supports them while minimizing the restrictions on routine, everyday activities that have little to no impact on the productivity of Canada’s fisheries.”
But Ashfield acknowledged his proposals could reduce Enbridge’s requirements under Fisheries Act habitat protection rules for the estimated 1,000 waterways its Northern Gateway pipeline will cross. “It could be determined that some of these waterways may not necessarily be vital waterways,” Ashfield said.
The government announcement stressed that the current fisheries law, which bans activity that results in the “harmful alteration, disruption or destruction of fish habitat,” has been too broadly enforced.
Ashfield’s confirmation of plans to rewrite the legislation follows last week’s sweeping government proposal to overhaul Canada’s environmental assessment review system to speed up federal approval of major projects and give provincial governments greater say over decisions.
Critics say Ashfield’s vaguely worded proposed changes are all about accommodating mining and energy companies such as Enbridge. “They’re using farmers and rural folks and their concerns as a guise for the real agenda – their pipeline projects,” said Fin Donnelly, the NDP fisheries critic and the MP for New Westminster-Coquitlam.
The NDP pointed out in the House of Commons that two former Progressive Conservative federal fisheries ministers, British Columbians John Fraser and Tom Siddon, have urged Ottawa to resist industry pressure to water down the legislation.
Donnelly said the changes will have a huge effect on major energy and mining processes because it will be a lot tougher for enforcement officers to prove a company is harming a specific fishery than it would be to prove damage to a fish habitat.
Green party leader Elizabeth May said Ottawa seems intent on engineering a “fundamental weakening” of the legislation. She pointed out that many important waterways, where fish are eaten by seabirds, bears and other animals, won’t benefit from protection aimed at recreational, commercial or aboriginal fisheries.
Environmental lawyers at the West Coast Environmental Law Association said the effect of Ashfield’s plans would be to exempt many major developments from fisheries review.
“We know from experience whose interests are favoured when the federal government uses legislation to pick and choose what fish habitat gets protection – the legalized use of fish lakes as tailings ponds, and new rules that will recklessly fast track megaprojects that could result in devastation of fish habitat,” Jessica Clogg, the group’s senior counsel, said in a statement. “Today’s announcements are peppered with new loopholes and exemptions that come at the expense of fish and those whose livelihoods and cultures rely on healthy fish habitat.”
Enbridge spokesman Todd Nogier said it’s “unclear” whether the proposed changes will affect Northern Gateway.
Enbridge has complained that Fisheries Act requirements to build its proposed Northern Gateway pipeline are “too onerous,” internal briefing notes obtained under the Access to Information Act show.
One Fisheries and Oceans Canada internal document obtained through the Access to Information Act described Northern Gateway as “unique” due to the “span of climatic, geographic, sociographic and biographic zones that it crosses and has the potential to impact.”
A senior federal habitat biologist, in a February 2011 email to department colleagues, noted he flew over the Northern Gate-way route with Enbridge officials and pointed out “many crossings” of concern. But Enbridge officials “seemed to brush off” those concerns “as low-issue,” he wrote.
Read my blog, Letter from Ottawa, at vancouversun.com/oneil