By Marla Orenstein
Published in The Hill Times

July 16, 2019

At a challenging time for national unity and the state of our federation, federal Natural Resources Minister Amarjeet Sohi decided to poke Canadians in the eye.

In an article that appeared in both the Calgary Herald and the Edmonton Journal (“New pipeline law will get projects built through trust”), Sohi attempted to justify the passage of Bill C-69—now the new Impact Assessment Act—by mischaracterizing both the previous environmental assessment system and the amendments that were proposed by the Senate. He did this in a way that further turns up the heat on partisan politics—at a time when exactly the opposite is needed. He also showed a lack of understanding of how capital investment works, which is more than a little concerning coming from the minister of natural resources.

Here’s the problem.

First, Sohi’s piece is rife with misinformation—or maybe disinformation. It implies that the TMX project was overturned by the court because of corners cut by the project proponent or the National Energy Board. Not only is this simply false, it ignores the fact that the Federal Court of Appeal’s decision hinged on the inadequacy of the federal government’s own response to concerns raised by Indigenous groups. Not the NEB or the project proponent. The government. This government. Minister Sohi’s government.

Second, the implication that the previous regulatory system for project reviews “cut corners” or abandoned its responsibility to protect the environment and protect Indigenous rights is absurd. While it was certainly imperfect and in need of an overhaul, it demonstrably did not fail in the way that Sohi states.

Third, the minister mischaracterizes the amendments that were put forward by the Conservative Senators. We have gone line-by-line through all the amendments proposed by the Senate. Many good amendments were passed. But the majority of amendments that were rejected were also ones that would have strengthened the process. They focused on efficient management and timeliness of the IA process; brought in the technical expertise of the lifecycle regulators; and strengthened the independence of the new Impact Assessment Agency.

What was wrong with these proposed amendments? There is only one explanation, and it is unsatisfactory: partisan politics. Amendments were accepted or rejected based not on their merit, but rather on who proposed them.

Furthermore, Sohi’s claim that Conservative amendments “would make the consideration of Indigenous rights optional, and one that would make environmental protections optional” is misleading at best. The amendment he refers to would have allowed the environment minister to tailor a list of 19 factors to be considered in the assessment—including but certainly not limited to environmental impacts and Indigenous rights—to only those which are relevant to the specific project and context. Hardly what the minister implies.

But perhaps the most absurd claim of all is that the new legislation—Bill C-69—“got it right” and is a “system that has the confidence of Canadians.” To be clear, there are elements of this legislation that are an improvement on the previous system, and now that the bill has passed, it is time to move forward. But the response to this bill—public protests for and against, cross-country hearings and a landmark number of amendments proposed by the all-party Senate committee—clearly show that this bill remained, until the final hour—and still remains—highly contentious and contested. In addition, a wide range of economic experts from industry, the financial sector and think tanks still predict that the bill will have a chilling effect on Canada’s investment climate, and be devastating for the energy sector. If industry can’t survive under the conditions created under the new Act, isn’t that a problem not just for industry but the economy and indeed the country? Even though the bill has passed, the prognosis is not sunny days ahead.

Finally, this article perpetuates a divisive narrative that—in addition to being inaccurate—hurts the country. The minister’s comments continue the government’s use of this legislation as a political wedge. A bill as important as this in terms of its impacts on the economy, the environment and Indigenous reconciliation needs to bring together people from all sides. Instead, the government has continued to use the passage of the bill as a way to split Indigenous groups between those who support projects and those who don’t, and to pit region against region.

What is needed now is for the federal government—and its ministers—to start extending a hand and rebuilding confidence among all parties who are involved in the impact assessment process—communities, Indigenous groups and industry alike. Sohi’s tone-deaf position does the exact opposite.

As our minister of natural resources, Sohi should know better.

Marla Orenstein is the director of the Natural Resources Centre at the Canada West Foundation.