Environmental Review in Canada and the United States | Wilson Center
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Environmental Review in Canada and the United States

Webcast available

Webcast Recap

On March 18, the Wilson Center's Canada Institute hosted Helen Cutts, the vice-president for policy development for the Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency, for a round table discussion on the environmental review process in Canada and the United States. Our expert panel gave views from both in and outside government on contrasting procedures, the role sub-federal governments play in the process, how both systems incorporate the needs of native groups into their decision making, and what role concerns about climate change should play in approving or rejecting a project.

Speakers:

Helen Cutts, Vice-President for Policy Development, Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency

Stephen Hazell, Director of Conservation and General Counsel, Nature Canada

James McElfish, Jr., Senior Attorney and Director of the Sustainable Use of Land Program, Environmental Law Institute

Fred Wagner, Principal, Beveridge & Diamond PC

Helen Cutts, vice-president for policy development for the Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency, and Stephen Hazell, director of conservation and general counsel for Nature Canada, analyzed Canada’s environmental review process. In 2012, the Canadian government introduced the Canadian Environmental Assessment Act (CEAA), which included changes encompassing Canada’s division of labor, federal jurisdiction, trans-boundary and international issues, and Aboriginal land rights for major energy projects.

The CEAA created a consolidated environmental review process between provincial and federal governments to eliminate the practice of duplication through substitution; a process whereby the province prepares a single report for both the provincial and federal minister of environment. In circumstances where trans-boundary issues are a concern, substitution is no longer allowed, and the environmental review process is conducted in one of two ways: 1) federal officials conduct an environmental assessment (EA) within a period of 356 days and deliver a report to the federal minister for approval, or 2) the federal minister appoints experts for a panel review and report on the project. In both circumstances, the minister of environment is responsible for the final decision. Finally, CEAA calls for the development of an agency that can enforce CEAA’s requirements.

Turning to the United States, Beveridge & Diamond Principal Fred Wagner and the Environmental Law Institute’s Senior Attorney James McElfish, Jr. discussed U.S. processes and standards. Similar to CEAA, the National Environmental Protection Act (NEPA) is the U.S. environmental law that establishes a national policy for environmental review, which federal agencies must consider when making decisions on proposed projects. Compared to the Canadian process, the United States’ is more complex, with greater involvement in the project proposal review from a large number of stakeholders and agencies. NEPA uses a “look before you leap” statute, whereby an environmental impact statement must be produced before the project can begin. Any involved agencies must also review the project and, similar to the Canadian process, public participation is encouraged. Essentially, NEPA attempts to  make the review process as transparent as possible, and uses goals and targets to measure success; the Canadian system employs deadlines.

Panelists noted that some of the biggest challenges for United States include: (1) the complexity of the system—too many parties can become involved, (2) the occasional lack of expertise for projects within involved agencies, and (3) the lack of cohesiveness between state and federal level environmental review processes.

In analyzing the role of climate change for Canada and the United States, there are fewer policies in place for Canadian projects compared to the United States. In December 2014, the U.S. Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ) instructed federal agencies, through NEPA, to consider the impact of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions and to set standards on a case by case basis. In Canada, despite fewer policies, governing bodies reviewing projects do consider the impact of a project’s potential GHG emissions.