New Environmental Assessment Act for British Columbia

British Columbia passed a new Environmental Assessment Act this fall.

Under the new Act, large projects being proposed in BC will have a new set of criteria to help determine whether or not they should go ahead. BC has long needed a new way to consider the impacts of large projects. Previously, projects were looked at on a one-off basis and there was no consideration of the cumulative impacts to a region or ecosystem. A project’s greenhouse gas emissions were not considered and Indigenous voices were heard only through consultation. Some examples of projects in our area that have undergone provincial environmental assessments are the Jumbo Glacier Resort and the Elk Valley coal mines.  

Earlier this year, Wildsight joined together with West Coast Environmental Law (WCEL), and other environmental organizations across the province, to advocate for a new Environmental Assessment process that would help achieve sustainability and a more robust review process in BC. 

The good news is that the new Act builds in a whole lot more consultation with Indigenous nations, allows the public more opportunity to comment and for those comments to be considered, and allows the public to get more information about a project from the very start. The new Act also allows the government to put a stop to clearly untenable projects much earlier in the process and requires all assessments to consider a broader set of potential impacts. While the new Act is an improvement for the environment, many of the changes we advocated for were not achieved. Below is a brief overview of some of the key changes. If you want more detail, you can read a detailed analysis from WCEL here

Recognizing Indigenous jurisdiction is among the biggest changes to the new Act, requiring the BC Environmental Assessment Office to support reconciliation. It provides new tools, including Indigenous-led assessments, but in the end, requires only that the government seek consensus with Indigenous Nations—they can still go ahead with projects in the absence of Indigenous consent.

With our ever-expanding human footprint, we have to consider the impacts of all of the projects on the landscape together, not one by one, as if there were no connections between them. The new Act puts in place a process for regional assessments, but it doesn’t require regional assessments. Government can decide when and where they want regional assessments and even if they do a regional assessment, the outcome of that assessment is just for guidance and can be completely ignored in the future. As efforts are underway across the province to consider cumulative impacts in the context of land management, like the Elk Valley Cumulative Effects Management Framework, it only makes sense that the regional scale is considered in the EA process—but we need much stronger rules to make sure that happens.

One big weakness in the new Act is that projects can be approved even if they are incompatible with BC’s greenhouse gas reduction commitments. We know that if we are going to get serious about reducing our carbon emissions, we can’t approve big projects that will add huge amounts of carbon dioxide to our atmosphere. But the new Act only requires that a project’s greenhouse gas emissions are considered in the assessment process, leaving the government free to approve projects, like LNG, that will lead to big increases in our emissions for decades to come.

In fact, this wording that only requires that environmental effects are considered is everywhere in the new Act. At the end of the day, the government just has to consider the environmental impacts of any project and then they can go ahead and approve it, no matter how damaging it may be for our environment.

So, while the new Environmental Assessment Act is a significant step forward, it still needs some important changes in order to place environmental protection and reconciliation at the core of any review.