On Trans Mountain, ‘How long does it take to get to a clear answer?’

John Manley, head of the Business Council of Canada, on what Ottawa’s environmental assessment process means for getting big resource projects built

Sunday’s news that Kinder Morgan is putting the brakes on “non-essential” spending on its Trans Mountain pipeline project is bound to spark another round of bitter debate about whether or not it’s too hard for companies to push ahead with major resource projects in Canada.

Last month, I interviewed John Manley, the president and CEO of the Business Council of Canada, the top lobby group for the country’s biggest corporations, about a range of economic strategy issues, including the newly reformed federal environmental assessment process.  I quoted him in this story, but in light of the Kinder Morgan news, the full exchange now seems worth posting

Q: Some people think that private-sector complaints about the regulatory process just mean businesses want less attention to legitimate environmental concerns. Would you speak to that?

A: How long does it take to get to a clear answer? It’s not so much that you have to balance environmental concerns. You know, most businesses do not want to be an environmental problem.  But you do have to have some sense that you can embark in good faith on a project, and in a reasonable period of time get to a Yes, or possibly get to a No, but not that you’re left hanging in uncertainty for a long period.

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Q: Do you feel that the new Impact Assessment Act,  tabled recently by Environment Minister Catherine McKenna, exacerbates that problem of uncertainty, or does it begin to clear it up?

A: I think it’s still too soon to say. I think they have tried to address that. If you talk to Natural Resources Minister Jim Carr, he’ll say, ‘That’s exactly what we were trying to get to.” A lot of the companies are not so sure. There’s going to be a period of finding out how it functions in practice. So, the right kind of rhetoric, for sure, but not necessarily yet proven in practice.

Q: Does that mean we need to get through a test case or two under the new rules before companies will be comfortable or, alternatively, decide they don’t like it?

A: It needs to be years. With regulatory regimes, it’s partly what law says and partly if [the government] puts the resources in place to give effect to the rules. Do you have the staff, the ability to make decisions? Or do they constantly have to go upstairs? Those are things you will only know when you’ve actually tried to live with it for a while.


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