The Canadian environmental assessment fallacy

It is commonly agreed that Environmental Assessment (EA) is intended to[1]:

– systematically identify and predict the impacts of proposed development;
– find ways to avoid or minimize significant negative biophysical and socioeconomic impacts;
– identify, enhance, and create potentially positive impacts;
– ensure that development decisions are made in the full knowledge of their environmental consequences.

Similarly, the Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency indicates that the two main purposes of environmental assessment are to[2]:

– minimize or avoid adverse environmental effects before they occur;
– incorporate environmental factors into decision making.

It can be seen that MINIMIZING environmental impacts and INFORMING the decision-making process are key elements in environmental assessment.

However, it seems that the Canadian environmental assessment process is drifting apart from these key elements.

In 2009, temporary regulations have been put in place through Canada’s Economic Action Plan which was then amended permanently in 2010 in the Canadian Environmental Assessment Act (CEAA).  These regulations exempt routine public infrastructure projects from environmental assessment[3] in an effort to streamline the assessment process.

What is considered a “routine public infrastructure project”?  A direct definition of what this does include is very difficult to find.  If we look under the Excluded Projects list of the CEAA section 7.1 (2)[4], we can see that, among others, the following government-funded projects are excluded from any federal environmental assessment:

– projects funded under the plan referred in Building Canada: Modern Infrastructure for a Strong Canada;
– projects funded under Canada Strategic Infrastructure Fund Act;
– projects funded under the funds of section 300 and 303 or the initiatives of sections 309 to 315 of the Budget Implementation Act, 2009;


So what’s the big deal?

In the Building Canada: Modern Infrastructure for a Strong Canada publication[5] we see that:

  1. Any construction projects of highways part of the National Highway System (NHS) do not require a federal environmental assessment.  As of 2005, the National Highway System represented more than 38,000 km of highways throughout Canada[6](see figure 1 below);

    Figure 1. Canada National Highway System (Source: Transport Canada)

  2. Any roads and railroads projects part of the Ontario-Quebec Continental Gateway and Trade Corridordo not require a federal environmental assessment even if this involves international trade with the USA (see figure 2 below);

    Figure 2. Ontario-Quebec Continental Gateway and Trade Corridor

Similarly, in the Canada Strategic Infrastructure Fund Act[7] and the Budget Implementation Act, 2009[8], we find that the largest funded projects excluded from federal environmental assessment are mostly transportation infrastructures.

If, as seen above, the main purposes of the CEAA environmental assessment process are to minimize environmental impacts of projects and to inform decision-makers about these impacts, these projects exclusions are totally in contradiction with that spirit.

There is an unfortunate trend to make the Canadian federal government less and less liable environmentally for projects with direct federal involvements and funding.  This again seems contradictory to the CEAA itself since one of the main components in determining if a federal EA is needed, is to answer the question “Is there a federal government authority involved?[9]

By relegating most responsibilities to provincial instances, the Canadian government is actually making the CEAA lacking any substance towards environmental protection, especially for one of the major cause of environmental damage, transportation infrastructures.


[1] NOBLE B.F. (2010) – Introduction to Environmental Impact Assessment, A Guide to Principles and Practice (OXFORD University Press, 2nd Edition). ISBN 978-0-19-542962-6, p.4.

[2] Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency (CEAA) – Basics of Environmental Assessment (http://www.ceaa.gc.ca/default.asp?lang=En&n=B053F859-1#2).  Page last accessed on March 16th 2012.

[3] Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency (CEAA) – Amendments to the Canadian Environmental Assessment Act (http://www.ceaa.gc.ca/default.asp?lang=En&xml=B6531D7A-8F4C-4A1B-AB90-4A99B713B579).  Page last accessed on March 16th 2012.

[4] Department of Justice Canada – Canada Environmental Assessment Act, Excluded Projects (http://laws-lois.justice.gc.ca/eng/acts/C-15.2/page-3.html#h-7).  Page last accessed on March 16th 2012.

[5] Government of Canada (2007) – Building Canada: Modern Infrastructure for a Strong Canada.  ISBN 978-0-662-05130-5

[6] Transport Canada – National Highway System (http://www.tc.gc.ca/eng/policy/acg-acgd-menu-highways-2149.htm).  Page last accessed on March 16th 2012.

[7] Department of Justice Canada – Canada Strategic Infrastructure Fund Act (http://laws-lois.justice.gc.ca/eng/acts/C-10.3/page-1.html).  Page last accessed on March 16th 2012.

[8] Department of Justice Canada – Budget Implementation Act, 2009 (http://laws-lois.justice.gc.ca/eng/acts/B-9.858/).  Page last accessed on March 16th 2012.

[9] NOBLE B.F. (2010), p.73.

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