The Canadian Press is reporting that the Pipeline Industry Pushed Changes to Navigable Waters Protection Act, based on documents obtained by Greenpeace under Access to Information legislation.

That is probably not too surprising to anyone who has been following environmental policy making in Canada, but I think the aftermath illustrates how the oil industry’s success in gutting Canada’s environmental laws may well be their downfall.  

Greenpeace Canada campaigner Melina Laboucan-Massimo at site of the Rainbow Pipeline oil spill in Alberta 

The documents show that the Canadian Energy Pipelines Association (CEPA) was lobbying top Foreign Affairs officials in the lead-up to last year’s omnibus budget bills that re-wrote Canada’s environmental laws. They were clearly concerned that the federal government might bow to public pressure and bring in tougher safety regulations in the wake of high-profile spills, even as they pushed for the weakening of environmental laws to speed up pipeline approvals.

Yet in light of recent warnings from the U.S. ambassador on how Canada’s poor environmental record is putting the Keystone XL pipeline at risk, they may be wishing that they’d been less persuasive.

The pipeline companies ultimately got the kind of changes they wanted to Environmental Assessment legislation and the Navigable Waters Protection Act in the 2012 budget omnibus bills. This may prove to be a pyrrhic victory, however, for not only has President Obama’s State of the Union address highlighted his desire to take executive action on climate change (and turning down Keystone is one of the things he can do without Congress), but the gutting of environmental laws has fueled both the Idle No More movement and opposition to other tar sands pipelines in Canada.

The documents (9 MB file – apologies for poor quality but that’s what my copies look like) open with a lobbyist for CEPA asking for the October 27th 2011 meeting with the Deputy Minister of International Trade , stating “The [CEPA] Board’s decision to meet in Ottawa affirms our sector’s desire to collaborate with the federal government to create a framework that will enable timely development of critical energy infrastructure to ensure Canada remains competitive in a global energy marketplace.”

Their slideshow presentation notes that they are “strong advocates for regulatory reform” and are pursuing “Changes to the Canadian Environmental Assessment Act and [n]ew regulations under Navigable Waters Protection Act.”

Their “proposed actions to meet positive outcomes” includes “Following public interest decisions [code for government conducting environmental assessments of fewer projects], small permits must be timely and constructive in order to produce positive environmental and socio-economic outcomes.” They got what they wanted here, as almost 3000 environmental assessments were cancelled, and pipelines were no longer subject to regulation under the Navigable Water Protection Act (now simply the Navigation Protection Act).

CEPA’s “proposed actions” also included “Crown consultation needs to take place early in the project development process to ensure that crown obligations do not negatively impact project regulatory timelines” and that “effective Crown consultations” with First Nations “”separates assessment from economic negotiations.”  This is consistent with the push, which I have written about elsewhere from the pipeline industry to limit the scope of First Nations’ Constitutional right to be consulted and accommodated regarding industrial development on their lands to simply providing information and limited financial compensation.

In the background, however, the industry was clearly concerned that governments might move on new regulations in the wake of high-profile spills like Enbridge’s massive spill into the Kalamazoo River in Michigan (clean-up costs over $800 million and still rising) as well as the Rainbow Pipeline spill in Alberta. The Current Pipeline Context slide lists four points:

  • Heightened public sensitivity to pipeline incidents and new project development.
  • Heightened risk of reacting to perception rather than acting on knowledge and experience.
  • Regulators under increased pressure to respond to public perception.
  • Market access and trade key driver to pipeline infrastructure development.

And now it looks like the reality of climate change and the industry’s poor safety record may make those fears come true.