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No green future in Conservative budget, say Tides and Nature Canada

Critics say they’re concerned about the 2012 federal budget’s focus on resource development, and its vague promises to “streamline” environmental reviews.

Finance Minister Jim Flaherty’s 2012 budget seems to be moving Canada toward a dangerously high-carbon future, say environmental groups.

"There doesn't appear to be anything in this budget that will move Canada toward the low-carbon clean energy future,” Tides Canada’s Energy Initiative director Merran Smith said in an email to the Observer.

“In fact, it does quite the opposite. We need to start putting in place plans, policies and investments needed to ensure we will compete in a world that has slashed its dependence on our petroleum."

The "least green budget" 

In addition to hundreds of millions in cuts to environmental protection programs, Flaherty’s plan includes $8 million to crack down on green groups and charities, so that the Canada Revenue Agency can monitor and restrict “political action” by environmental organizations. The government also announced the elimination of an important federal advisory group—the National Round Table on the Environment and the Economy (NTREE).

Of course, the substantial tax incentives offered to the oil and gas industry remain untouched by the new budget.

The CBC’s Chantal Hebert called Flaherty’s plan the “least green budget since the creation of the ministry of the environment”, and since the announcement, green groups across the country have chimed in with similar commentary.


Environmental policy direction not surprising

Liberal MP Joyce Murray (Vancouver-Quadra) said that Flaherty's budget speech signals a policy direction that’s deeply concerning with respect to the environment.

But was she surprised? Hardly.

The Vancouver MP was referring to the budget’s clear focus on resource development, and what many see as an attempt to undermine the environmental assessment (EA) process through funding cuts and impending legislation changes.

“I’m not surprised that the Conservatives are really trying to change that balance and tip it towards development. To me, it’s not something that I believe Canadians will accept,”  said Murray, on the road Thursday afternoon from Penticton, BC.

Also of concern to Murray was the vague nature of Flaherty's budget speech, which she suggests is an attempt by the Tories to “run from criticism”. Details of the environmental legislation changes have not yet been revealed, but the budget pledges to “streamline and improve” regulatory processes and support responsible resource development.

“The Conservatives’ budgeting process is not honest, because it does not actually tell what jobs are being cut and what services will be affected,” Murray said.

“I think it’s deliberate. There’s lots of hinting of this, that and the other, but they’re not leveling with the public. We’re hearing wording about modernizing, streamlining…and firm timelines for environmental assessment. Well, we know the EA budget’s been gutted but we don’t know exactly what this budget means in terms of further cuts, and in terms of actual changes.”

Ottawa-based environmental group Nature Canada was watching the day’s events carefully, and shared similar concerns over environmental uncertainties.

“It is the federal government’s number one job to protect the health and safety of Canadian citizens, and that means ensuring that we have clean water, clean air, clean soil. It means protecting Canadians from environmental disasters like oil spills, it means protecting us from pollution and toxins,” said Nature Canada spokesperson Chris Sutton.

“This budget, to me, still continues that uncertainty around the future of important environmental laws that protect those very things that Canadians find so important. I wish there were more answers there in the budget, and I don’t see them yet.”

The premise for the government's new regulatory strategy is "one project, one review"—they intend to simplify the process, download some responsibilities to provinces, and implement timelines.

One thing that is certain is that the proposed changes to environmental assessment legislation will be retroactive, which means any attempts to “streamline” and limit reviews will apply to the ongoing process around the controversial Enbridge Northern Gateway pipeline.

Funds for species at risk

One positive element of the budget that Sutton pointed out was the $50 million promised over the next two years to protect endangered wildlife through the Species at Risk Act.

“That’s good news, and it’s actually very close to what Nature Canada asked for. We had asked for that level of funding to take place over five years,” he said.

While it does help certain species, that $50 million provides little comfort to those with serious long-term environmental concerns. For Murray, the next step means taking those concerns to her constituents, and hoping for a dramatic response from voters akin to the backlash against the disputed “online spying” bill.

“I’m counting on Canadians that really care about sustainability in the long term—and I think that’s the vast majority—to make their voices heard,” Murray said.

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