OTTAWA, March 30 (UPI) -- The Canadian government said it plans to streamline the environmental assessment process for major energy projects.
Under its new budget proposal, Canada will "implement responsible resource development and smart regulation for major economic projects, respecting provincial jurisdiction and maintaining the highest standards of environmental protection," Canadian Finance Minister Jim Flaherty said Thursday.
Flaherty noted that in 2010, Canada's natural resource sectors employed more than 760,000 Canadians and that in the next decade more than 500 major projects worth $500 billion in new investments are planned.
"Yet those who wish to invest in our resources have been facing an increasingly complicated web of rules and bureaucratic reviews that have grown over time, adding costs and delays that can deter investors and undermine the economic viability of major projects," he said.
Flaherty said the new review process would follow the principle of "one project, one review, completed in a clearly defined period."
Under the new timelines, panel reviews would take no longer than two years to process; National Energy Board hearings would be completed within 18 months and any other environmental assessments would occur within one year.
By contrast, the controversial Northern Gateway pipeline that would move oil sands bitumen to Kitimat, British Columbia, for export to Asia, has been under review for 50 months, The Globe and Mail, a Toronto newspaper, reports.
The budget's proposed $35.7 million in funding over two years to support "responsible energy development" includes $13.5 million to strengthen pipeline safety.
Alluding to the United States' delays on the Keystone XL pipeline, Flaherty said, "It has become clear that we must develop new export markets for Canada's energy and natural resources, to reduce our dependence on markets in the United States."
"The booming economies of the Asia-Pacific region are a huge and increasing source of demand, but Canada is not the only country to which they can turn. If we fail to act now, this historic window of opportunity will close," he noted.
In February, Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper visited China to boost trade links, followed by a visit this month to Thailand, South Korea and Japan.
Flaherty's streamlining of the review process, however, has Canadian environmentalists concerned.
"With the amount of emphasis that the government has placed on natural resource development, the government should be working toward strengthening environmental assessments, not weakening them for faster approvals," Ed Whittingham, executive director of the Pembina Institute, a Canadian energy and environmental research group was quoted as saying by the Fort McMurray Today newspaper.
And in an apparent move to crack down on environmental groups engaging in political action against resource projects, Flaherty said the Canada Revenue Agency will step up enforcement of the Income Tax Act to ensure charitable groups don't spend more than 10 percent of their revenues on political activity.