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Feds urged to follow U.S. lead on permitting reform; Wilkinson 'won't cut corners'

WASHINGTON — It may not sound like the stuff of a taut political thriller, but permitting reform — streamlining the drawn-out approval process for energy projects — has been a key plot point in Washington's latest debt-ceiling drama.
Minister of Natural Resources Jonathan Wilkinson arrives to a cabinet meeting on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Tuesday, May 30, 2023. Wilkinson says Canada won't be "cutting corners" as it overhauls the permitting process for energy projects. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick

WASHINGTON — It may not sound like the stuff of a taut political thriller, but permitting reform — streamlining the drawn-out approval process for energy projects — has been a key plot point in Washington's latest debt-ceiling drama. 

On Tuesday, Canada introduced some intrigue of its own.

Industry leaders say it's vital that Ottawa, which claimed just last month to have a more efficient regime, keeps up with the U.S., where a dramatic new permitting overhaul could soon become law.

"It's clearly a race that's become a sprint," said Andrew McLaughlin, general counsel and vice-president of legal affairs for Major Drilling, a multinational mining services company in Moncton, N.B. 

"As we're entering this new economic era, I do think that we've got to up our game." 

The Fiscal Responsibility Act, the newborn product of tense negotiations between congressional Republicans and the White House, would streamline the environmental review process, establishing a central oversight agency that would eliminate duplication and slash the decision timeline to no more than two years.

Canada needs to follow that lead, said Louise Blais, a former diplomat who now serves as a senior adviser to the Business Council of Canada. 

"What this should signal to Canada, in my view, is the urgency of the matter," Blais said in an interview. 

It's not merely about smoothing the path for the natural resources sector, she added, but making the international transition to greener energy — including the development of critical minerals — more efficient at a time when the race against climate change grows more pressing by the day.

"No one has a sense of it moving very fast. We've heard the words, but we don't really see the action," Blais said. Neither, she added, do investors. 

"If you're sitting there and you're looking to invest right now, you're making decisions. You're thinking the U.S. got it, a little bit more, because the narrative is out there much more forcefully than what we're hearing in Canada." 

McLaughlin said he'd like to see the mining of critical minerals like copper, lithium and nickel designated as a "strategic industry" that fast-tracks its development while bringing environmental rules, Indigenous stakeholders and sustainable development standards under a single, unified umbrella. 

"The countries that will succeed at this are the ones that are able to rally all those pieces together towards this collective vision."

The U.S. bill is still far from law. The predictable political paroxysms were well underway Tuesday on Capitol Hill, where the reaction from some members of Congress from both sides of the aisle ranged from apprehension to outrage. 

Some Democrats say the bill's spending cuts are too deep, new rules around work requirements for food stamps are draconian and that expediting project approvals — not to mention fast-tracking the $6.6-billion Mountain Valley pipeline in West Virginia — will be a recipe for environmental disaster. 

Republicans, meanwhile, are calling for the ouster of House Speaker Kevin McCarthy, accusing him of relenting too early in his effort to win spending cuts in exchange for raising the debt ceiling to avoid a U.S. default.  

"We should stop taking this bill up right now," said Rep. Chip Roy (R-Tex.), one of nine Republicans on the House committee that determines whether or not to send legislation to the floor for a vote.

"There's going to be a reckoning about what just occurred."

The Sierra Club wasn't any happier, describing the bill as a rollback of "bedrock environmental protections" that also happens to cut funding for agencies that oversee climate emissions and air and water quality. 

"Congressional Republicans held America hostage while refusing to do the basic and fundamental work of paying America's bills," said executive director Ben Jealous. "We deserve better."

In Canada, where it can take as long as 12 to 15 years to get a new mine approved, the Liberal government has already promised a "concrete plan" for more efficient impact assessments and permitting before the end of the year.

But the ground is shifting beneath the feet of two senior federal civil servants who are key players in that process: deputy finance minister Michael Sabia and Janice Charette, Canada's clerk of the Privy Council. 

Sabia, a former telecom and pension fund executive, is reportedly leaving government to take over as CEO of Hydro-Québec. And the Prime Minister's Office announced Tuesday that Charette is retiring before the end of June. 

She'll be replaced by John Hannaford, a former diplomat and senior bureaucrat who is currently serving as deputy natural resources minister. 

Hannaford's political counterpart, Jonathan Wilkinson, promised Tuesday that the new approval process would not make any compromises when it comes to environmental assessment. 

"We made a commitment in the budget to come forward with a new process by the end of the year, and that is certainly in focus," the natural resources minister said. 

"We need to find ways to do things better and more efficiently. But we are not looking at cutting corners from an environmental perspective."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published May 30, 2023.

James McCarten, The Canadian Press