Mining in the North: Wrapped up in Red Tape

Trent Ernst, Editor

In 2011, the Government of Canada formed a Red Tape Reduction Commission, and no, this isn’t the start of a joke. There really was a Red Tape Reduction Commission, whose job was to come up with a list of suggestions to reduce the amount of process that companies had to go through.

While the commission wasn’t specifically targeting mining, there were a number of submissions from the mining industry, and the first recommendation on the list will have direct impacts on the mining industry.

In last year’s budget, the Federal government announced it was changing the environmental review process for major industrial projects. “We will streamline the review process for such projects, according to the following principle: one project, one review, completed in a clearly defined time period,” said Finance Minister Jim Flaherty.

Currently, companies undertaking major economic projects must navigate a complex maze of regulatory requirements and processes, according to the budget document. Approval processes can be long and unpredictable.

According to information released in last year’s budget, there are more than 40 departments and agencies that may be called upon to review a large industrial project, many of which don’t have any sort of timeline to make a decision.

This has led to situations like the Joslyn North Mine in Northeast Alberta. The oil sands mine filed its environmental application in 2006. The federal review did not begin for two years, and it took nearly another four for the project to finally get approval.

In an effort to streamline the review process, the government promised to focus on four areas: Making the review process for major projects more predictable and timely, reducing duplication and regulatory burden, strengthening environmental protection and enhancing consultations with Aboriginal peoples.

To speed up the approval process, the government will impose timelines on projects: 12 months for standard environmental assessments, 18 months for NEB hearings and two years for panel reviews.

When a project is sufficiently large enough, it triggers an environmental assessment by both the provincial government and by the federal government. These assessments tend to cover much the same ground, both metaphorically and literally. The Federal government is moving towards the principle of “one project, one review.”

At least, that’s the hope. However, new legislation passed last year doesn’t quite get there. The new Canadian Environmental Assessment Act says that a coal mine with production capacity of 3,000 tonne per day or more may be subject to a federal environmental assessment.

Northeast of Tumbler Ridge along Highway 29 is the proposed Echo Hill Thermal Coal Mine. The proposed Project will produce between 2,700 and 4,000 tonne per day, which means that it might trigger a federal review.

Gary Gould is Vice-President of Hillsborough Resources, who are developing the Echo Hill Project. He says that having a federal review does mean a lot of extra work for the company. “Because the process is different federally than provincially, you have to produce two different proposals,” says Gould. While much of this information is duplicated, some of it is not.

Even better, because Echo Hill would be one of the first projects under the new act, the government is still working out the details. “Because we’re on the cusp with this new Canadian Environmental Assessment, there are some procedural things that haven’t been worked out,” says Gould, who argues that the phrase “one project, one review,” is slightly misleading. “Instead of one project, one review, it’s equivalency or substitutional,” says Gould, where the Federal Government will accept the review of the provincial environmental agency.

“We feel the project is a candidate for substitution, where the Environmental Assessment is handled provincially,” says Gould. While Federal Regulators would still need to make a decision, he says, they would use the findings of the Province instead.

But why have a separate process in the first place? Celine Legault is a spokesperson for the Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency (CEAA). She says it’s because the Environment is managed jointly by the provinces and the Federal government. “Fish habitat and migratory birds are both managed federally.”

Legault says the Federal process is fairly specific in what it is looking for. “There are certain things that needed to be included,” says Legault. “It happens often that we get the submission and there’s information missing and we have to send it back.”

Gould says that, in hindsight, now is not a good time to be working through the Environmental process. “Our timing is not great, because we’re on this transition and the development of new process,” he says. “So, we’re feeling our way through it. We don’t even know if a federal review is required” Gould says on the up-side, the new federal laws means that there are well-defined timelines. “We know where we are at, and can plan accordingly.”

Gould says that Hillsborough has completed its project description. “That was in the neighbourhood of 150 pages, which is pretty detailed. Five years ago, it would have been 25 pages. When it comes to the environmental assessment document, I have no idea how long it will be. That document could be huge. It all depends on the scope of the review.”

Gould is quick to point out that these processes are necessary, but wonders if there is any way some information could be shared. “Every project is different, but there have been a number of resource development projects in the area,” he says. “It would be nice if we could consolidate and capture some of that information instead of having to redo it all the time.”

What sort of information? “Archaeological data doesn’t change, but some does. Water quality information, for instance. So that has to be redone, because it becomes stale. For a proper assessment, you want current info.”

Gould says that the new mine won’t go on-stream until 2015, barring any delays. He understands that big projects like this need multi-year reviews. “With respect to collecting the baseline data, some of that is multi-year, multi-seasonal, so you need to have two years of collecting data, and then getting that through the process.”

While the Federal government has announced its intentions to reduce red tape, the provincial government is also working on making the process easier. Earlier this month, Victoria announced that, starting in September, mining permit amendments will no longer be required for some low-impact exploration activities.

The new streamlined process will allow smaller scale projects with less environmental impact to move quickly through the system, while freeing up resources to be focused on higher impact projects.

“Currently, permits are required for all mine-related projects, including some small-scale mineral exploration that are low-risk and cause little-to-no health, safety or environmental concerns,” says a ministry spokesperson. “The Ministry of Energy, Mines and Natural Gas receives over 500 applications for mineral and coal exploration work a year. Once in effect, these exemptions will reduce the number of these applications by up to 15 percent. The changes should also reduce unnecessary paperwork and processing delays.”

What sort of projects will this cover? Inducted polarizing (charging the ground with an electrical current and measuring the response). Exploration drill programs on operating mine sites, and extending the timing of proposed exploration work by up to two years.

This comes shortly after changes that allowed mines to apply for a Multi-Year Area-Based permit, which means that industry does not have to apply for multiple permits when working in the same exploration area, as well as a new electronic application system for industrial projects.

Of course, too little red tape can mean that companies are not being held to an appropriate standard in consideration of a mine’s social, economic and environmental impact. Ramsey Hart, Canada Program Coordinator for MiningWatch, an organization that looks at mining’s impact on the environment, says that he’s worried the new act is too lax. “The new act excludes mines under 3000 tonnes a day, which is an arbitrary cut off,” says Hart. “But the main issue is that upon an initial screening, there may not be an environmental assessment at all. There is the a lot more discretion involved.”

And, says Hart, the scope of the Federal Process has been narrowed. “It’s been narrowed down to migratory birds, fish, aboriginal people and federal lands. We’re concerned that some other things: social changes, other environmental impacts…”

It’s not all bad news, though. “One of the things that is a little more clear is whether the act will apply to a project. If you have a project on this existing list, you’re kicked into the decision. Before, you might have thought maybe they required it, but they only needed advice. There was a grey area previously on whether act applied. Now you are on the project list or not.”

Hart says the Federal process can be a failsafe. “In BC there’s been a lot of controversy around the BCEAO process. If the provinces process doesn’t have integrity, the federal process can look at it with a much more rigourous process and come to substantively different conclusions.”

In a perfect world, says Hart, a company wouldn’t enter the EA process to figure out how to mitigate harm, but the explain the project’s social contribution. “The leading mining companies are looking at a net benefit for both society and the environment; they’re getting away from just making money for their shareholder. There should be a consideration of the project’s broader social contribution. We should ask the bigger questions about why, not about how do we minimize effects.

But is this too much to ask? No, says Hart. These companies are making use of public resources and possibly leaving behind long-term environmental effects.”