A landmark piece of legislation that environmentalists have been lobbying to combat is in danger of going ahead. Alberta’s NDP government has acknowledged the conditions of climate change and other environmental factors in agreeing to the greening of the Enbridge Northern Gateway Pipeline and Kinder Morgan Trans Mountain project.
However, these environment-friendly amendments to the province’s legacy natural resources act could come at a cost, say scientists.
“In the context of climate change we see that restricting nature and contracting our ecosystems could be a big detriment to our efforts,” Bruce Berman, a professor of sociobiology at the University of Alberta, told the BBC.
He added: “It seems as though they’re moving in the wrong direction.”
First Nations leaders and the environmental movement, who are backing the bill, say it sets up conditions to protect the environment while allowing the oil sands industry – that relies on fossil fuels – to continue to produce and export the liquid.
‘Responsibility to future generations’
The proposed amendments, announced by the Alberta government on 4 April, build on controversial bills in previous years that stripped away environmental protections.
Although the emphasis remains on pro-business interests, the bills also seek to empower First Nations and amend the province’s defamation legislation to allow increased punishments for journalists and activists if they publish illegal information about the environment.
Former premier Alison Redford, who worked hard to help clear a path for the pipeline projects, said: “The legislation supports responsible resource development that protects communities and the environment – from the oil sands to First Nations – from the actions of polluters.”
But there are concerns that the Enbridge pipeline and Trans Mountain expansion will lead to more oil spills in the province’s remote north.
“Our customers have asked us to look at the implications of these two projects,” Ken Wharton, Enbridge’s vice-president, said.
“We need to understand the cost and benefits of these projects and our long-term ability to absorb those costs.”
Following the environmental impact studies of the proposed pipelines, the Alberta government will make its final decision this summer.
In an interview with the BBC, Suzanne Willing, director of Environment Law Centre at the University of Alberta, said: “In terms of how to respond to climate change, well, the world has agreed that we need to hold global warming to no more than two degrees, so Alberta as a province has a lot of responsibilities.
“And the responsibility does not only lie with Alberta, but within Alberta as well.”
Several environmental groups in British Columbia and British Columbia-related publications have published editorials slamming the draft legislation.
“Transforming Canada’s oldest environmental legislation, into an environmental regulatory body that lacks basic standards, appears to be setting an incredibly bad precedent,” wrote Bob Hall, a professor of law at the University of British Columbia, in the Vancouver Courier.
“The current legislation, as it stands, is a national model that Canada’s federal government should be willing to support,” Hall said.
“Changing it would surely not help find a solution to climate change.”
‘First Nations are stakeholders’
Sustainable B.C., a coalition of environmental groups based in the province, says the legislation is in breach of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.
“Alberta’s proposed legislation gives First Nations not only voice in how this legislation is drafted, but also immediate access to decision makers, allowing them to influence the legislation,” Joe Logan, a spokesperson for Sustainable B.C., told the BBC.
“It’s a key step forward for all of Canada in meeting our climate change obligations.”
The Standing Committee on Environmental and Sustainable Development, a joint committee of both the provincial and federal legislatures, has already held hearings on the legislation and plans to work toward delivering public consultations by June, said Erin Morrison, communications manager for Environment B.C.
“We are doing our due diligence with respect to this process,” Morrison said.
She added: “First Nations are stakeholders to the Enbridge Northern Gateway and Trans Mountain Expansion Pipelines.
“They’re very much involved in this process and we have full confidence they will be participating in the hearings process appropriately.”