A new study by UBC researchers offers insights on how to improve environmental assessment reviews. The research examined the conclusions of 10 recent assessments for major projects in B.C., including the Northern Gateway pipeline, and found that while environmental thresholds were often surpassed, the projects were ultimately given the green light. The researchers argue this may be a by-product of the current process which allows developers to hire their own consultants to perform the analysis.
Both the federal government, through Bill C-69, and B.C.’s provincial government are currently making changes to their processes. In this Q&A, two scientists involved in the research, Jackie Lerner, a PhD candidate, and Kai Chan, a professor with the Institute for Resources, Environment and Sustainability, explain what they’ve learned.
What is an environmental assessment and how is it used?
JL: Environmental assessment is a process that governments rely on to evaluate the environmental consequences of a particular infrastructure project before it goes forward. In Canada, it’s mainly done on a project-by-project basis.
One product of an assessment is a lengthy scientific report produced by experts in different disciplines. The culmination of the report is a statement of significance, which declares whether a project is going to have significant impacts on the environment or not. Typically, the government’s conclusions align with this statement. If the report says a project will have significant impacts, the project generally won’t go ahead.
What was the outcome of the environmental assessments you reviewed?
JL: We examined 10 environmental assessments for projects in B.C. where there were quantitative thresholds, or hard numbers, for things like air quality, human health, water quality and others. We looked at how many times the assessments said those thresholds were expected to be exceeded and then we looked at those cases to see whether they were reported as significant in the statement of significance. If the impact of the project was expected to surpass these thresholds, you would think that would be considered significant.
Instead, we found that even though the thresholds were exceeded, none of the effects were deemed to be significant.
Does this mean we can’t trust the assessment process?
KC: We put a lot of trust in the environmental assessment process. The public looks at this tool as the primary vehicle to avoid environmental impact and it is used around the world.
Our results show that the thresholds are being exceeded, often without being identified as significant. Accordingly, there is reason to question whether this tool is doing a good job of preventing large environmental impacts from occurring. The environmental assessment of the Northern Gateway pipeline project led to a loss of trust in the process, at least in B.C. Our results suggest that there’s a lot of leeway for companies to justify environmental impacts.
How could the process be improved?
KC: In most cases, the consultants that work on the assessment are hired or work for the company that is pushing the project forward, “the proponent.” I would like the assessment to be done by an objective group. It’s also important to have a real role for regulators. We’d like to see increased capacity for regulators to review environmental impact statements and to assess whether the findings are legitimate and rigorous.
As we overhaul the provincial and federal processes, our proposal is that the regulators should select the consultants that do the assessment so they are independent from the project’s proponents, but the proponents should still foot the bill.
JL: Other jurisdictions around the world tackle this issue in different ways. In the Netherlands, regulators have several independent consultants or experts that they call on to review the assessments. In the U.S., assessments must be performed by people who are arm’s length from the proponents.