Canada’s Supreme Court on Friday ruled a federal law assessing how major infrastructure projects like pipelines impact the environment is largely unconstitutional, a decision that will likely spur an overhaul of the environmental approval process.
“The balance of the scheme… is ultra vires (beyond the powers of) Parliament and thus unconstitutional,” Chief Justice Richard Wagner wrote in the ruling.
The decision is a victory for Alberta, Canada’s main oil-producing province, which has opposed the Impact Assessment Act (IAA), formerly known as Bill C-69, on the grounds it gave the federal government too much power to kill projects.
The IAA was drafted by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s Liberal government in 2019 in a bid to streamline and restore trust in the environmental approval process for major projects.
But the Supreme Court ruled 5-2 that a part of the act “intrudes more than incidentally into the provinces’ constitutional sphere.”
“Environmental protection remains one of today’s most pressing challenges, and Parliament has the power to enact a scheme of environmental assessment to meet this challenge, but Parliament also has the duty to act within the enduring division of powers framework laid out in the Constitution,” Wagner said.
Friday’s ruling marks a major setback for the federal government, which will likely now have to rewrite the IAA. Although the court is technically only issuing an opinion on the act, governments tend to treat that opinion as binding, said University of Calgary law professor David Wright.
The court case is the latest flashpoint between the federal Liberals in Ottawa and Alberta’s conservative provincial government, whose premier Danielle Smith has clashed repeatedly with Trudeau over climate policies.
Major proposed projects in Alberta that fall under the IAA include Suncor Energy’s plan to expand its oil sands Base Mine, and privately held Coalspur Mine Ltd’s Vista coal mine expansion.
Alberta’s Court of Appeal ruled the act was unconstitutional last year, in a case brought by former premier Jason Kenney’s government. The federal government then challenged that decision in the Supreme Court.
(Reporting by Ismail Shakil and Nia Williams; Editing by David Ljunggren and Deborah Kyvrikosaios)