As the Harper government started rolling out their changes to how resource projects will be reviewed yesterday, the question in my mind was: What won’t this government do to get a tar sands pipeline through BC?

To recap the changes announced yesterday (there are, no doubt, more to come):

First, we had a paradox: the federal government will only review projects of “national significance” (leaving the rest to the provinces, who often have weaker approvals processes), but will restrict public input to the review process to individuals who are “directly affected.”  

If the project is of national significance, then you would think all citizens were affected, but I suspect that isn’t what they meant. Limiting participation in the review process will not make the environmental, economic and social concerns that motivated that participation disappear – they’ll just pop up somewhere else (like on a blockade).

Indeed, the Harper government is ignoring the lessons of history. The environmental assessment process was created in Canada and around the world for similar reasons. On the one hand, discussion, debate and the weighing of evidence tends to produce better decisions. The ability for members of the public or public interest groups to cross-examine evidence from the project proponent acts as a counterweight to the universal tendencies of agencies like the National Energy Board to  be 'captured' by the industries they supposedly regulate, but in reality whom they come to serve. But on the other hand, even if you don’t care about evidence-based decision-making (and Team Harper definitely does not), these types of public processes also help to legitimize the resulting decision, channeling dissent into a setting where everyone can have their say and feel they were heard.

This then leads us to the second big change. Behind the government’s velvet rhetoric on improving “predictability” was an iron fist: Cabinet will now be able to overrule a negative decision from the National Energy Board from a hearing like the one happening right now on Enbridge’s tar sands pipeline through BC (thanks to sharp-eyed Reuters reporter David Ljunggren for spotting that in the details and following up, because the government was not advertising that major change).

But this can – and likely will – backfire. Politicizing the approvals process may make Enbridge (and Shell, and Exxon-Mobil….) more confident that they will get their approval, but will simultaneously make it harder to get the project built.

These companies already have major problems with their “social license” (because many people object to building new projects that change the climate while contaminating local air, water, soil and wildlife, when we have better options available to us).

In the current context, a green light from the federal Cabinet for a project like Enbridge’s tar sands pipeline will simply lead to court cases, as First Nations defend their lands, and civil disobedience should the oil companies/federal government still try to push the pipeline through. The heavy-handed approach thus ends up being politically messy and damaging to the democratic fiber of the country, while creating risk and uncertainty for investors. Who knows - maybe they’ll hedge their bets by putting up windmills and solar panels.

And finally (for now): there is going to be a lot of collateral damage to environmental protection in other spheres from this take-no-prisoners push for tar sands pipelines. The announcement yesterday included putting tight timelines for decisions under other legislation, like the Fisheries and Species at Risk Acts that we are also expecting to be watered down (likely in the Fall), at the same time that budgets for enforcing those laws are shrinking. So the government can announce big new penalties for those who violate environmental laws, but companies recognize that there is little fear of any one being caught because fewer people are checking.

Our existing environmental laws and approvals processes are far from perfect. But the changes announced by Minister Oliver yesterday indicate that this government is only interested in how a project should proceed, not if it is the right kind of project. This is all about weakening the existing system and changing it from being a review process, where there is a possibility of a project being rejected because of its environmental impacts, into an approvals process where companies just have to check the right boxes.

In short: they are trying to ‘fix’ the wrong problem: these changes are about handing oil and mining companies their approvals faster, rather than asking what kind of legacy this leaves for the next generation.