Ask an expert: How can Nova Scotia grow and stay green?

- October 20, 2023

Environmental assessments consider the effects of major development projects, such as this highway in Cape Breton Island, Nova Scotia. (Jan Walter Luigi photo/Unsplash)
Environmental assessments consider the effects of major development projects, such as this highway in Cape Breton Island, Nova Scotia. (Jan Walter Luigi photo/Unsplash)

In late August, the Government of Nova Scotia invited members of the public to provide suggestions on how to modernize the way it considers the potential environmental effects of major development projects, like mines or highways, before they proceed.

A group of Dalhousie University faculty members and graduate students, led by Dr. Alana Westwood, an assistant professor in the School for Resourceand Environmental Studies, took the province up on its invitation, writing a detailed letter in advance of the October 6 deadline. The full letter and a summary of its recommendations can be viewed on the Westwood Lab website.

We asked Dr. Westwood (shown left) , one of the letter’s four lead authors, about the state of environmental assessments in Nova Scotia — last updated in 2008 — and what changes she and her colleagues would like to see implemented.

What does an environmental assessment typically involve?

In Nova Scotia, at this time, a project proponent (whomever wants to build the project) submits documents detailing anticipated environmental and social effects of the project. The public and Mi’kmaw groups have a very brief opportunity to comment on these documents, and then the minister of environment and climate change makes a decision about whether to approve the project, ask for more information, or reject the project.

Broadly speaking, what needs to change in how Nova Scotia conducts its environmental assessments?

The main thing is the transparency. The way it’s currently set up, most projects are approved without the proponent responding to public, expert, and Mi’kmaw input or concerns, and the public is unable to view those concerns. There should be several iterative rounds of review so we can be assured that the government and proponent are taking seriously concerns about the project and have an opportunity to respond.

Are there any provinces or territories that can serve as examples for Nova Scotia as it modernizes its environmental assessment process?

Nova Scotia would do well to learn lessons from the federal Impact Assessment Act, which regulates large projects in Canada and is much more specific and comprehensive. Perhaps the farthest ahead, though, are the territories. They are leading in considering a broad scope of social and economic effects as well as working hand-in-hand with Indigenous peoples to make sure that approved projects are for the benefit of local communities wherever possible, and not just shareholders and executives in Toronto and other countries.

Your letter states that most smaller-scale projects, known as Class 1 undertakings, are approved after a 50-day screening period. Why do you think this may be an error?

Under other impact assessment legislation in the country, it is normal to have several rounds of back and forth between government regulators, the public, and the proponent to clarify issues that arise. It is just incredibly unlikely that in these very complex assessments, proponents have absolutely aced everything the first time without any need for input and revision. While the public and expert comments aren’t made public, I am personally aware of cases where serious concerns about projects have been submitted but not addressed, and the project was simply approved. This is just not how environmental assessment systems work elsewhere, and not how ours was supposed to work.

One of the letter’s recommendations calls for the implementation of Gender-Based Analysis Plus (GBA+). Can you describe what this is and why it is important?

Despite its name, GBA+ isn’t about gender. It’s about understanding that the benefits and risks of development projects are borne differently by different people. There have been several large-scale protests in Nova Scotia against the development of major projects by Mi’kmaw communities and grandmothers, with Alton Gas being the most notorious example. We know that, for example, Indigenous women and girls are put at disproportionate risk by many project developments but don’t receive the economic benefits. GBA+ is a lens for assessment that takes into account how gender and identity interact with other factors to understand a project’s social effects and how different people might be impacted.

What made you collectively come together to write this letter?

It is very infrequently that experts and citizens have an opportunity to inform laws and regulations. This is a critical and, perhaps, a once-in-a-generation opportunity to ensure that the rigour of the environmental assessment system is improved in this province. Once a development project is built, Nova Scotians will be living with that project’s economic influence for decades and may be living with its environmental consequences for centuries. As lead authors and signatories, we felt it important to ensure that the government and public are aware that, for the sake of our province, we have to make sure we take the time to get these things right.


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