Harper government to gut laws protecting fish habitat, biologist claims

Vancouver Sun, 13 March 2012 By Peter O'Neil

OTTAWA - The Harper government is planning to gut the powers in federal legislation intended to protect fish habitat, making it easier for projects like Calgary-based Enbridge Inc.'s Northern Gateway pipeline to B.C. to clear federal hurdles, according to a retired fisheries biologist who obtained the information from a government source.

Proposed new wording would prohibit activity that would cause an "adverse effect" on "fish of economic, cultural or ecological value," whereas the current law bans activity that results in the "harmful alteration, disruption or destruction of fish habitat," according to the information leaked to Otto Langer.

The changes, if enacted, would result in the total re-writing of the legislation to remove habitat protection provisions that have been in place since 1976, said Langer, who worked with the federal government for 32 years and later worked for the David Suzuki Foundation.

"This is a serious situation and will put Canada back to where we were in the pre-1976 period where Canada had no laws to protect fish habitat and no way to monitor the great industrial expansion that occurred in Canada, with the consequential loss of major fish habitat all across Canada," Langer said in a statement.

New Democratic Party MP Fin Donnelly raised the issue in the House of Commons Tuesday, asking Fisheries Minister Keith Ashfield if the government planned to include changes to "gut" the Fisheries Act in upcoming federal budget omnibus legislation.

"There has been absolutely no decision made with regard to this issue," Ashfield replied.

Langer pointed out in an interview Tuesday that the Enbridge pipeline would cross hundreds of rivers and streams, so looser federal legislation would be a major break for the Calgary company.

An intense behind-the-scenes lobbying battle has been waged over the Fisheries Act's habitat provisions, especially in Alberta and B.C.

More than three dozen industry and environmental groups registered as lobbyists in Ottawa have raised concerns about the issue, according to the lobbyist registry.

"Some of the largest and most complex natural resource and industrial development projects across the country are affected by Fisheries Act requirements, which are consistently identified as one of the top federal regulatory irritants by stakeholders across the country," stated a 2011 briefing note prepared for Ashfield.

The briefing note, obtained by Postmedia News, said the legislation's habitat protection provisions are "one of the most frequent triggers" of federal assessments under the Canadian Environmental Assessment Act.

A CEAA review "can occur for a project of any size, and across many sectors of the economy (eg. Construction, urban development, agriculture, nature resource development)."

The briefing note said there's a "strong contingent" of environmental groups advocating in favour of protecting fish habitat, while industry groups are advocating their own economic interests.

"As minister you will be required to manage these often competing interests in order to balance protection of fish and fish habitat resources with other social, environmental and economic objectives of importance."

Among the corporate lobbyists raising concerns about the Fisheries Act are the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers, the Business Council of B.C., the Canadian Electricity Association, the Canadian Hydropower Association, Encana Corp., Teck Resources Ltd., The Mining Association of Canada, the Canadian Energy Pipeline Association, the Council of Forest Industries, and the Saskatchewan Power Corp.

Environmentalist and social activist groups include the David Suzuki Foundation, Ecojustice Canada, the World Wildlife Fund Canada, MiningWatch Canada, the Pembina Institute, and Environmental Defence Canada.

(with files from Mike De Souza, Postmedia News)

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