Bill C-38 changes to the Canadian Environmental Assessment Act – The good and the bad

by: Adam Pinchefsky

On June 18, 2012, the Government of Canada passed Bill C-38, which contained sweeping changes to the Canadian Environmental Assessment Act (CEAA). The federal government proclaimed the changes as promoting a “streamlined, development friendly process” (Abouchar, J. &Vince, J., 2012), in which it has become easier and faster for corporations to go ahead with projects that can negatively affect the environment. Under the new CEAA, federal environmental assessments (EAs), will be required for only a narrow range of projects, focus on large projects only, take less time, and have greater ministerial discretion (Abouchar, J. &Vince, J., 2012). These changes will dramatically decrease the numbers of federal EAs and give the Minister of the Environment greater discretion to allow projects to proceed without an EA. This is particularly alarming considering the Conservative Government of Canada does not care very much about Canada’s environment, and giving them even greater discretion to prevent EAs from occuring and fast tracking oil, gas, and mining operations is a very ominous sign for the future of EA in Canada (Garatt, A., 2011).

Oil and mining companies have hailed the changes and said that the changes will “improve the economics of capital-intensive projects and help attract investment to Canada” (McCarthy, S. et al., 2012), which has been the government’s driving force. It should be noted that opposition parties attempted to include hundreds of amendments to the bill, all of which were unanimously rejected by the conservative government (Parliament of Canada, 2012). Under the new CEAA, strict deadlines will be imposed on the review of projects, ranging up to 2 years, which will make it difficult to make proper EAs and the government has already said that it “will apply those timelines in the case of the proposed Northern Gateway pipeline” (McCarthy, S. et al., 2012). Prime Minister Stephen Harper “has been aggressively selling Canada on the international stage as a natural resources superpower” (McCarthy, S. et al., 2012) and will use the changes to CEAA his government has made to fast track natural resource projects and ensure they go ahead unimpeded. In addition, federal EAs will no longer look at broad environmental effects of a project, which will primarily limit the effects looked at to “changes affecting Aboriginal people, fish (under the Fisheries Act), aquatic species (under the Species at Risk Act), migratory birds (under the Migratory Birds Convention Act, 1994), and other components to be set out at a future date” (Abouchar, J. &Vince, J., 2012). It should also be noted that the government has made changes to the Fisheries Act, drastically gutting the Act, further limiting what can be looked at during federal EAs (Abouchar, J. &Vince, J., 2012).

David Suzuki on the proposed changes to CEAA

Elizabeth May on Bill C-38

While industry and conservative supporters have supported the changes to CEAA, environmentalists and left-leaning proponents have spoken out very strongly against the changes, however not all the changes have been met with the same level of opposition. In the past, the federal government did not have the authority to impose financial penalties to those that violated environmental laws, however, under the new changes to the CEAA, the federal government can impose fines for individuals or businesses that violate environmental regulations, in the amount of $100,000 to $400,000 (McCarthy, S. et al., 2012). Although the addition of new fines to those who violate environmental regulations is a good step forward, critics such as NDP MP Megan Leslie, were quick to point out that “stiffer fines makes absolutely no sense if there isn’t enforcement and monitoring and robust environmental assessment in the first place” (McCarthy, S. et al., 2012). Many have viewed one change to CEAA, that will facilitate greater cooperation between federal and provincial jurisdictions and remove duplications and redundancy of some EAs, that waste time and money, as a positive change, although others believe it is just the federal government’s way of putting the bulk of the responsibilities and costs on the provinces. (McCarthy, S. et al., 2012).

While EA guidelines for Canada are above average in comparison to most countries, there are still many ways in which they can be improved. In the United Kingdom for example, while their EA guidelines are very similar to that of Canada, they also include identifying environmental enhancements to increase the projects positive impacts, which would be an important aspect to consider in EIAs in Canada (IEMA, 2011). Developers are beginning to realize the reputational benefits from “greening” their projects and the positive publicity they receive from doing so. While Canada has guidelines for public participation, it has become more limiting in who can participate and how much information they are given beforehand. In Japan, a proponent needs to “prepare a document describing how the proponent will conduct surveys, predictions or evaluation of the environmental impacts of the project, and make it public to seek opinions from local governments or people interested in environmental conservation” and after a draft EIA is prepared, the proponent must make it public again (CEAA, 2013). Canada should consider improving the quality of public participation in EIAs, by improving the distribution of information about the project to the local affected communities in EAs instead of limiting it.

While some changes that have been made to CEAA can be viewed positively, most of the changes have been negative and have decreased the effectiveness and ability of EAs to properly assess new projects and their potential impacts and propose mitigation measures. At a time when many countries have taken steps to strengthen environmental protection, Canada is taking several steps back and weakening important legislative laws put in place to protect the environment. Canada should look to what other countries are doing in respect to EAs and take out ideas that can be used to improve the effectiveness and thoroughness of EA in Canada. Only time can tell the impacts these changes will have on EA in Canada, and subsequently the impacts they will have on the environment. Although the Harper Government has decreased the effectiveness of EA in Canada, hopefully future governments can undo what was done and improve/strengthen the process.

Source: Richard, 2009.

Source: Richard, 2009.


Abouchar, J. &Vince, J., 2012. Gutting the Fisheries Act and Other Federal Environmental Legislation. Willms & Shier. Environment Aborignal Energy Law.>

CEAA, 2013. Status and Progress of Environmental Assessment in Japan. Recent Developments with National and International Environmental Impact Assessment Processes.

Garatt, A.. “Harper hating on the environment”. The Gazette: November 16, 2011.>

IEMA (Institute of Environmental Management & Assessment), 2011. Special Report- The State of Environmental Impact Assessment Practice in the UK.

McCarthy, S., Ibbitson, J., & Venderklippe, N., 2012. Industries hail Ottawa’s environmental oversight overhaul. Globe and Mail, April 17, 2012.

Parliament of Canada, 2012. Bill C-38. House publications. <Accessed October 6, 2013:;

Parliament of Canada, 2012. House Government Bill. Parliamentary Business, 41st Parliament, 1st Session. <Accessed October 7, 2013:>

Richard. Conservative Fundamentalism is Destroying Canada. One blue marble, 26 August, 2009. <Accessed October 7, 2013:


One thought on “Bill C-38 changes to the Canadian Environmental Assessment Act – The good and the bad

  1. Pingback: Can stakeholder engagement brings sustainability at the core of EIA process? | Environmental Assessment

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