Status quo for Yukon assessments: Leef

This year's federal budget has big plans for environmental assessment across the country, but the Yukon should be left out, says MP Ryan Leef.

This year’s federal budget has big plans for environmental assessment across the country, but the Yukon should be left out, says MP Ryan Leef.

The only direct impact may be the obligation to tout the Yukon Environmental and Socio-economic Assessment Act and its board as examples for the country to follow, said Leef in a telephone interview from Ottawa on Friday.

“I don’t think we’re going to see any changes or disruptions to the process we have because it’s quite well defined in the Yukon,” he said. “If anything I see there being potential for us to bring forward some of the things that work best in the Yukon as a way to adapt into a provincial/federal amalgamation model.”

But Leef has put his name forward to participate in the consultation for changes that will come out of this budgetary commitment, he said.

And he encourages all Yukoners to do the same.

“Right now, we don’t know what shape or form it’s taking,” he said. “Of course, anytime you make any sort of a sweeping statement, like the one that was in the budget, without a whole great amount of detail, it’s going to cause some concern and I think rightfully so.”

The budget includes $54 million over two years for a “major projects management office initiative.” It plans to focus on big projects that could have big environmental effects.

Plans to eliminate any overlap between different levels of government, make aboriginal consultation more consistent and set strict time lines for assessments are also listed in the budget.

In the next 10 years, more than 500 major projects – representing $500 billion in new investments – are planned across Canada, the Federal Finance Department’s website says.

An Enbridge pipeline project from Alberta to Manitoba and a uranium mine in northern Saskatchewan top the budget’s list of major projects that have suffered under the complicated and redundant web of rules throughout the provinces.

But cumulative effects should not be ignored, Leef added. A project’s “size” shouldn’t be judged solely by investment, physical dimensions or number of workers. Other projects and the environment’s ability to recover should also be taken into account, he said.

Although the Yukon should escape the major changes to assessments because it has a system in place already, the territory is not safe from indirect effects from this year’s federal budget, said YESAB chair Stephen Mills.

For example, the Department of Fisheries and Oceans has to cut $79.3 million by 2014-15.

“We rely on input from First Nations, Yukon government and federal government departments, especially the Department of Environment and the Department of Fisheries and Oceans,” said Mills.

“If any cuts decrease their ability to participate in our assessments then that requires us to look at other technical expertise and that comes at a cost.”

Already First Nations are finding it hard to keep up with the project load going through YESAB, said Mills. While the assessment board did not see any cuts to its budget this year, the potential rise in contracting costs could have serious consequences, especially if technicians and biologists are forced to leave the territory.

Leef said he knows there is may be extra pressure federal departments because of the cuts.

But he also wondered whether the Yukon is doing more than it needs when it comes to environmental assessment because it has been able to.

“Have we misaligned the use of our resources because we have them?” he said.

“(Are) we paying attention to things that perhaps we don’t need to or shouldn’t simply because we have the money and the people to do it? Or are we actually maxed out and not able to do everything we should be doing?”

Leef said maybe there should be different levels of assessment for different levels of projects. The more potential a project may have to adversely affect the environment, the more rigorous the assessment should be.

For Mills, who currently has 110 projects under assessment, the real success of the territory’s assessment regime comes from how it was developed in partnership with all levels of governments and agencies.

Because of that, projects already dictate what kind of assessment they receive, he said.

For example, if a water licence is needed, the water board can make or break the project. The decision body for every project is decided on whether it is on federal, territorial or First Nations land. If blasting with explosives is part of the application, Natural Resources Canada steps in.

If the project could adversely effect fish habitat, the Department of Fisheries and Oceans gets called.

Mills won’t comment on recent reports that “habitat protection” may be removed from the federal Fisheries Act.

But that it is the “habitat protection” part of the federal act that sparks almost all assessments by the department’s biologists and technicians.

Leef reiterated that while nothing has been decided yet, the conversation about fish habitat protection has started.

Leef and a few other “outdoorsy” MPs have already taken it upon themselves to informally consult with their constituents and affected groups, he said.

Officially, things will get moving in the next couple of months, he said, meaning witnesses and interveners will be called to the Standing Committee on Fisheries and Oceans, of which he is a member.

He said he has spoken with conservation groups and industry, but he has not spoken with First Nations yet.

“But that’s obviously an instant group that we consult with on anything,” he said.

Contact Roxanne Stasyszyn at