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‘Faster’ environment approval for mines measured in years, not days

‘We must be clear that it cannot take us 12 to 15 years to open a new mine in this country,' concedes Natural Resources Minister Jonathan Wilkinson
Snow Lake Resources Ltd. has outlined plans to develop over 55,000 acres in Manitoba into Canada’s first electric-powered lithium mine. It could take up to 24 months for environmental assessments to be complete, according to the company | Snow Lake Resources Ltd. / Snow Lake Lithium Ltd.

What 180-day process takes nearly a year? A federal one, of course -- specifically phase 1 of the Impact Assessment Act (IAA) process.

That’s the finding of a review by the Canada West Foundation (CWF) of projects moving through the federal government's IAA environmental review process.

“An analysis of all projects submitted under the federal Impact Assessment Act (IAA) shows that three and a half years after the act came into force, progress is slow and almost all projects are still in very early stages of assessment,” the CWF report finds.

Before the IAA replaced the Canadian Environment Assessment Act in 20189, former Environment Minister Catherine McKenna said the new environmental review process would have legislated timelines.

“Shorter legislated timelines for the project review phase will be rigorously managed to keep the process on track,” she said.

The CWF examined 25 projects in the IAA review process. One has made it all the way through and has been approved – the Haisla First Nation’s Cedar LNG project in Kitimat -- but that was through a substitution process, in which the BC Environmental Assessment Office actually conducted the environmental review.

A dozen projects are in the phase 1 stage and 11 have completed the phase 1 stage. Eight are at phase 2 -- the impact statement.

Phase 1 of the process is a new feature that was not part of the previous CEAA. At phase 1, project proponents submit a detailed project description, and the agency conducts consultations with stakeholders, produces a summary of issues, gets back a detailed project description, and then decides if an impact assessment is required.

Projects that must go through an impact assessment then go to phase two (an impact statement), phase 3 (an impact assessment) and finally phase 4 -- the decision.

The Impact Assessment Agency is supposed to get projects through phase 1 in 180 days.

Technically, the agency is meeting its 180-day time limits, the CWF found, but only because either proponents or regulators keep hitting the pause button.

“And while the data shows that the agency consistently met its legislated limits of 180 days, it’s only because ‘stopped-clock’ days are not counted,” the CWF report concludes. “With clock stoppages, it took projects an average of 332 days to complete phase 1, with a range of 127 to 693 days.

“Around 80 percent of projects required a clock stoppage, and this has gotten worse over time, not better.  Clock stoppages occurred for reasons that included the pandemic, additional time for Indigenous consultation, and ballooning requirements for information from proponents.”

As for other phases of the IAA process, it’s hard to say how the Impact Assessment Agency is doing there because most projects have not made it past phase 2 yet.

“While stopping the clock may sometimes be unavoidable, the consistent use of it indicates systemic problems that undermine the key objective of improved efficiency that the new process was supposed to achieve," The CWF report states.

"The data also do not bode well for the likelihood of completing subsequent phases in a timely manner, as subsequent phases are more complex and have longer timelines than phase 1.”

Canadian politicians – notably Natural Resources Minister Jonathan Wilkinson – have acknowledged that permitting for mines in particular in Canada is just too slow.

“With respect to regulatory delays, we must be clear that it cannot take us 12 to 15 years to open a new mine in this country – not if we want to achieve our climate goals and move rapidly through the energy transition,” Wilkinson said last year, when talking about Canada’s new critical minerals strategy.

Even the Americans have taken note of the pace of regulatory approvals in Canada.

Canada is recognized as having the world’s sixth-largest deposits of lithium, which is vital to the electric-vehicle industry and battery storage. U.S. President Joe Biden made a special mention of this during his first and recent visit to Canada.  Snow Lake Lithium Ltd., for instance, estimates IAA for its proposed lithium mine in Manitoba will take two years. “We are halfway through it now,” said Florida-based Peretz Schapiro director and interim COO of Snow Lake Resources Ltd./Snow Lake Lithium Ltd. (Nasdaq: LITM).

“Task one is to figure out how to reduce and improve the regulatory simplicity of the mining process and reduce duplicative efforts across jurisdictions,” David Cohen, American ambassador to Canada, said this month at a First Nations Major Projects Coalition conference.

“We are most concerned with the conclusions of this report demonstrating what we know in practice to be true — that the more efficient and faster process promised under the federal Impact Assessment Act has not materialized,” said Denise Mullen, director of environment, sustainability and Indigenous relations for the Business Council of BC.

“Enhancing prosperity for all Canadians means our regulatory processes must be improved because failure to do so has significant investment opportunity costs that will be felt for generations.”

“The Canada West Foundation strongly supports an approval process that is transparent, robust, inclusive, fair and evidence-based, so that what gets built, gets built right,” said the report’s author, Marla Orenstein, director of the CWF’s Natural Resources Centre.

“However, the process must also be timely and efficient to be effective. So far, the phase 1 experience shows there is a long way to go.”