Natural Resources Minister Joe Oliver — yes, the one who labelled environmentalists foreign-backed radicals — announced a major overhaul today in how environmental assessments will be conducted in Canada. Not surprisingly, the government is limiting the ability of environmental groups to take part in public hearings, shortening the length of reviews, and generally streamlining the process. Put another way, public and regulatory oversight of resource development is being slashed.
What I find most interesting, however, is that Oliver seems to be trying to take the federal government out of the environmental assessment game. With the exception of “major economic projects” and other matters judged to be of national importance, the feds will now be leaving assessments to the provinces in hopes of avoiding any costly duplication of efforts. And so we find ourselves in the midst of the classic debate: which level of government — federal or provincial — is better at protecting the environment? Some argue that the provinces are the appropriate venue, because they are closer to the people most intimately affected by environmental problems, while others counter that provinces are also closer to those who stand to profit from resource exploitation.
In my opinion, both sides miss the point. Whether the feds or the provinces have more power on the environment is not nearly as important as how they interact with each other. In the introduction to an environmental policy anthology she co-edited, UBC political scientist Kathryn Harrison distinguishes three different approaches: unilateralism, rationalization, and collaboration.
Under unilateralism, both levels of government put environmental protections in place on their own and without regard for the other, resulting in inevitable duplications. A more cooperative approach is rationalization, under which the two levels divvy up responsibilities, so that some environmental questions are treated as federal jurisdiction and others as provincial. Most cooperative of all, collaboration involves the feds and the provinces getting together to agree upon and draw up the rules jointly.
What we see with Minister Oliver’s announcement today is not a decentralization of environmental policy — or at least not just that — but a shift in Canada’s environmental assessments from unilateralism to rationalization. Of course, everyone loves a little cooperation, but we might as well ask what we are losing in the process.
The greatest strength of unilateralism is frankly that it tends to produce the best results. If either a federal or a provincial government happens to be a bit weak on the environment at any given time (something that all jurisdictions can be, depending on who is in office), the planet will at least have the regulations of the other to fall back on. Unilateralism offers up some friendly jurisdictional competition to ensure that the best policies rise to the top (a conservative principle if ever I’ve heard one!). It provides a guarantee that whichever level of government is most committed to the environment is the one that will carry the day.
But what about those costly duplications? Everything in government has a cost. The question is whether we are getting good value for our money. Politics, as is often observed, is about choice. So what do we prioritize? Sustainable resource development, healthy ecosystems, and the best possible environmental assessments? Or corporate tax cuts, prisons, and F-35s? The Conservative government has made its position clear.
I wonder where most Canadians stand.