The critical role of EIA for environmental protection in the Plan Nord region

In the following, industrial activities will refer to any development in which environmental protection is not the main objective, such as natural resource extraction, mining, infrastructure projects. Also, protected area and natural reserve will be used interchangeably, both terms having the same signification here.

Plan Nord is an extensive project seeking to develop the economic, social, cultural and tourism potential of the Northern part of Quebec, while at the same time promoting the development, management and use of natural resources (Plan Nord, 2014).

Here the Premier Jean Charest explains the main purpose and objectives of the Plan Nord:

A word about environmental protection? I think he doesn’t care about it…

The main goal of the Quebec government seems to be to use the undisturbed and pristine lands of Northern Quebec for the development of several projects that will threat the surrounding ecosystems. Does it sound great to you? Not to me…

But the Plan Nord also plans to “protect the environment and preserve Northern Quebec’s biodiversity” (Plan Nord, 2014) by setting aside 50% of the territory for protected areas and natural reserves by 2035. Therefore, their implementation is essential in the Plan Nord to protect sensitive areas from industrial developments. For this purpose, the Quebec minister of Sustainable Development, Environment and Parks introduced in April 2012 the Bill 65, called “An act respecting natural heritage conservation and the sustainable development of the area covered by the Northern Plan”, which aims to provide a framework for the ecological conservation and the protection of the environment in the area of the Plan Nord. In particular, section 23 mentions that projects related to the creation of a protected area are subjected to an environmental and social impact assessment and review procedure, as it is stipulated in the chapter II of the Environmental Quality Act (Bill 65, 2012). Therefore, the EIA process is a primordial and mandatory tool in the creation of natural reserves in the Plan Nord area.

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Map of the Plan Nord’s territory and existing protected areas in 2011

Source: Nature Needs Half

http://natureneedshalf.org/plan-nord/

But some people are concerned by the fact that industrial projects will claim all lands with potential economic and industrial values even if these areas are sensitive and vulnerable, and that the lands granted for protected areas will be the remnant lands with no particular ecological interest for protection. Therefore, as the James Bay Advisory Committee on the Environment (2011) recommends, the priority is to identify sensitive areas which need urgent protection, and to set these lands aside, for preventing any industrial development to occur.  Thus, the EIA process here will have to play an important dual role, by boosting the development of protected areas and supporting the implementation of a network of protected areas in the Plan Nord area, but also by slowing down the development of proposed project likely to have negative impacts on the environment.

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Rivière à l’Eau Claire falls, in the national park of Tursujuq in Northern Quebec

Source: Government of Quebec

But… (there is always a “but”) not everything is crystal clear regarding what activities are allowed in natural reserves and there are some discrepancies in the Bill. Indeed, although section 26 prohibits many industrial activities such as mining, petroleum and infrastructures projects, section 29 partially undermines it by stating that these activities could operate under certain conditions determined by the Government (Bill 65, 2012). It means that in the Government interest, such industrial activities could occur in natural reserves even if it endangers and threatens their ecology, which is completely absurd and jeopardizes the goals of a protected area. The future will tell us if the establishment of these natural reserves will attain its objectives of safeguarding the biodiversity against the threat of industrial developments in the region. To be continued…

References:

Bill 65: An act respecting natural heritage conservation and the sustainable development of the area covered by the Northern Plan. (2012). 1st Reading April 17, 2012. 39th legislature. 2nd  session. Retrieved from the National Assembly of Quebec website: http://www.assnat.qc.ca/en/travaux-parlementaires/projets-loi/projets-loi-39-2.html

James Bay Advisory Committee on the Environment. (2011). Recommendations concerning the implementation of the Quebec Government’s commitment to set aside 50% of Plan Nord lands for environmental protection and other non-industrial developments. Montreal.

Plan Nord. (2014). Retrieved February 7th, 2015 from http://plannord.gouv.qc.ca/en/perspective/

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