(Adds comment from petroleum producers’ group)
By David Ljunggren
OTTAWA, June 29 (Reuters) - Canada wants a single federal authority to assess the potential impact of oil pipelines and mines, officials said on Thursday, a move that could help quell protests that have blocked projects.
Responsibility for examining projects’ environmental impact on federally regulated land is shared between three entities, a system the Liberal government says the public does not trust.
Plans released Thursday mean the much-criticized national energy regulator would lose power to assess natural resource projects.
Aboriginal and environmental protesters currently trying to block major pipelines have complained the National Energy Board (NEB) is too close to the industry.
“This is all about rebuilding public trust in how we make decisions on major projects that are important to our economy,” said an official who requested anonymity because they were not authorized to address media.
The official said Ottawa is thinking about giving overall responsibility for probes to the Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency.
The government would retain final responsibility for deciding the fate of a project.
Anna Johnston of the West Coast Environmental Law group said while the plan had positive aspects, it meant the government retained too much power.
“Cabinet gets to make behind closed doors some decision that basically pits short-term economic gains against environmental harms and the environment almost always loses,” she said by phone.
Protests last year forced Ottawa to veto one pipeline from Alberta’s oil sands to the Pacific Coast and are dragging out study of another line to the Atlantic.
Canada needs to get its landlocked crude to its coasts to fetch better prices.
Under the plans, the new assessment body would pay more attention to the long-term implications of a project and the views of aboriginals as well as allowing public comments much earlier in the process.
The proposals would have little immediate impact on the energy sector. Existing projects, such as TransCanada Corp’s proposed Energy East pipeline from Alberta to the Atlantic Coast, will be assessed by the NEB under current rules.
The government plans to introduce draft legislation later this year to implement the changes and hopes they will become law in 2018.
The Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers industry lobby group said it supports the legislation.
NEB spokeswoman Rebecca Taylor said the board supported the government’s work to modernize the approach to assessments.
Reuters reported last year that the government would consider stripping the NEB of sole oversight for projects. (Additional reporting by Nia Williams and Ethan Lou in Calgary, Alberta; Editing by Marguerita Choy)