Frequently Asked Questions about Environmental Assessments


The Questions

What is an environmental assessment?

B.C.'s environmental assessment (EA) process provides a mechanism for reviewing major projects to assess their potential impacts. In order for a major project to proceed, an EA review must be completed successfully and the proposed project must be approved by two provincial government Ministers.

The EA process addresses a broad range of environmental, economic, social, health and heritage issues through a single, integrated process. It ensures that the issues and concerns of all interested parties and First Nations are considered together, and that a project, if it is to proceed, will do so in a sustainable manner.

What does it mean if a project is 'inactive'?

If a proponent has temporarily stopped collecting information, holding meetings or preparing documents to advance an environmental assessment (EA), such that no Environmental Assessment Office (EAO) staff time has been required on the file for a period of 26 weeks, it is considered inactive.

A project may be inactive if the proponent has not been able to resolve problems to the satisfaction of the EAO and government agencies. In other cases, a project may be inactive due to the proponent's internal corporate reasons, such as changing corporate priorities, depressed market conditions, an inability to finance the project, or a combination of economic and technical factors.

Why are so few projects refused an Environmental Assessment Certificate?

The environmental assessment (EA) of a proposed Project is an iterative process where the Environmental Assessment Office (EAO) and the working group provide regular feedback to the proponent regarding their Application. The intent is to address all issues satisfactorily such that there are no residual adverse impacts that would prevent an EA certificate from being issued. In most cases, this is achieved in the EA process.

If any issues remain outstanding or are not being addressed satisfactorily, EAO will inform the proponent and work with them to find satisfactory solutions. This may lead to a project becoming inactive while the proponent considers if a solution can be found to an outstanding issue. EAO would not normally refer a proposed project to ministers for a decision with outstanding issues. In response to any project application referral, ministers can choose to issue an EA certificate, refuse to issue an EA certificate, or order further assessment be carried out on the project.

In other words, projects that would typically not be issued a certificate seldom get to the point where their application is refused.

What is the BC Environmental Assessment Act?

The B.C. environmental Assessment Act (the Act) is the legal framework for the province's environmental assessment process for proposed major projects. The Act is supported by several regulations, including the Reviewable Projects Regulation, as well as a variety of policy, procedure and technical guidelines.

How does the Environmental Assessment Office do its work?

To see what the Environmental Assessment Office does, and how we do our work, please see our operating framework, here.

What kind of major projects are assessed by the Environmental Assessment Office?

The kinds of Major Projects that the Environmental Assessment Office could assess include the following:

  • Industrial Projects: chemical manufacturing, primary metal and forest product industries; 
  • Energy Projects: power plants, electric transmission lines, natural gas processing or storage plants and transmission pipelines; 
  • Mine Projects: coal and mineral mines, sand and gravel pits, placer mineral mines, construction stone and industrial mineral quarries and off-shore mines; 
  • Water Management Projects: water diversions, dams, dykes, groundwater extraction; 
  • Waste Management Projects: special waste facilities, local government solid and liquid waste management facilities; 
  • Food Processing Projects: meat and meat products manufacturing and fish processing; 
  • Transportation Projects: large public highway and railway, large ferry terminal and marine ports; 
  • Tourist Destination Resort Projects: large golf, marine, and ski hill destination resorts.  

What determines if a project will be reviewed?

There are three ways a project can be deemed reviewable:

  1. Reviewable Projects Regulation (RPR) provides for a broad range of major projects to be automatically reviewable if they equal or exceed relevant measurable thresholds, such as area, production volume, etc., which are set out in the regulation. Most major projects become reviewable based on this regulation. Projects triggering these thresholds are generally those with a higher potential for environmental impacts. 
  2. Ministerial Designation by the Minister of Environment who has the authority to designate projects to be reviewed, which are not automatically reviewable under the RPR. The Minister will may make such a designation if: 
  • the Minister believes the project may have a significant adverse environmental, economic, social, heritage or health effect, and that the designation is in the public interest; and 
  • if the project has not been substantially started at the time of designation. 
  1. Proponent "Opt In" is available in cases where projects are not automatically reviewable, but a proponent sees advantages in a formal environmental assessment review, such as a "one window" contact point with government or the ability to demonstrate the sustainability of their project. 

Can a member of the public request that a project be reviewed?

A member of the public may ask the Minister of Environment to designate a project as reviewable. The Minister may make such a designation if:

the Minister believes the project may have a significant adverse environmental, economic, social, heritage or health effect, and that the designation is in the public interest; and 
if the project has not been substantially started at the time of designation. 

What happens when both federal and provincial environmental assessments are required?

When a project falls under both provincial and federal environmental assessment responsibility, there is an agreement in place which ensures that the two governments will carry out a single, cooperative environmental assessment while retaining their respective decision-making powers. This means Provincial and Federal ministers make independent decisions on whether to issue an Environmental Assessment Certificate from a single report. This is called Substitution.

This one project, one assessment approach saves considerable time, money and resources for both governments, proponents, and those being consulted in the EA process, such as Indigenous Groups, stakeholders, and the public. 

How is an environmental assessment conducted in B.C.?

For details on the environmental assessment process – please see the environmental assessment process page.  

Why is the Application Information Requirements important?

The Application Information Requirements (AIR) is important as it identifies the issues to be addressed and the information to be provided by the proponent as part of their Environmental Assessment (EA) application. AIRs indicate the baseline studies needed to describe the project's environmental, economic, social, health and heritage setting, the predicted impacts on the setting, and the proposed measures to reduce, avoid or manage those impacts. The government decision on whether to issue an EA certificate focuses on how effectively the application has addressed the issues identified in the AIR. 

What public consultation occurs in the environmental assessment process?

The Public Consultation Policy Regulation sets out standards for public consultation. At a minimum there must be at least one formal public comment period during a review. Generally, there are two formal public comment periods, although some reviews have more than two. In all cases, public notice must be given at least seven days before the start of a formal public comment period. Public notice is generally given by newspaper advertisements, but can also include radio advertising or local postering.

What happens if important new information or concerns come to light late in the environmental assessment process?

The Environmental Assessment Office has the ability to change the scope of an environmental Assessment and will do so - where warranted - to ensure the application is as complete as possible.  

What opportunity does the public have to participate in the environmental assessment process?

The B.C. environmental assessment process invites public involvement in a number of different ways:

There is public notification of key consultation events; 
The public is able to access information through the EAO Project Information & Collaboration (EPIC) application; and, 
There are formal public comment periods on specific documents that may include open houses in potentially affected communities.  

Does the environmental assessment look at alternatives to proposals?

The Environmental Assessment Act only requires the review of the project that is submitted. The environmental assessment process may examine alternative ways of implementing the proposed project during the application review stage. For example, the Environmental Assessment Office may assess alternative locations for facilities, for housing the workforce, alternative processing methods for producing the end product, or alternative approaches to constructing or operating the project.  

Does the environmental assessment process consider cumulative effects?

Yes, the environmental assessment process considers cumulative impact. Further details are available here. 

What information do ministers consider in making their decision about issuing an Environmental Assessment Certificate?

The Environmental Assessment Office provides Ministers with an assessment report that presents the findings of the project assessment, and usually accompanies the report with its recommendations.

In addition, Ministers may consider any other matters that in their view are relevant to the public interest in making their decision, such as broader government objectives for the environment, the economy or social and community well-being.

How long do Ministers have to review applications?

The Prescribed Time Limits Regulation sets a time limit of 45 days from the date of referral to Ministers for them to make a decision on whether or not to certify a project. If Ministers decide that more time is needed, an order may be issued to extend the time limit.

Why are time limits set under the Environmental Assessment Act?

Time limits provide a more predictable process and greater certainty to all interested parties. The Environmental Assessment Act provides for time limits to be imposed on key steps in the environmental assessment process in two ways:

Legislated Timelines: Set in the regulations (the Prescribed Time Limits Regulation, the Concurrent Approval Regulation and the Public Consultation Policy Regulation); and 
Project-Specific Timelines: Set in the Environmental Assessment Office (EAO) procedural orders for steps not subject to legislated timelines. 
Timelines may be applied to both government and proponents. The Minister of Environment or the EAO may extend any time limit set under BCEAA, even if that time limit has already expired. All timelines expressed in days refer to calendar days (not working days).  

Why do time limits sometimes get suspended?

Under the Environmental Assessment Act, the Environmental Assessment Office (EAO) may suspend a time limit during the application review if:

The proponent requests a delay of the application review (most common reason for suspension); 
The EAO requires the proponent to provide more information, and it is the opinion of EAO staff that the request warrants additional time; or 
A required action has not been taken by a proponent, prompting the EAO to suspend the prescribed time limit for application review '

The Minister of Environment may also suspend a time limit to await the outcome of any investigation, inquiry, hearing or other process that the Minister considers relevant to the project review.
Further details on suspensions and extensions are available here. 

If an Environmental Assessment Certificate is issued, does it mean that the project can go ahead?

When a project is issued an Environmental Assessment (EA) certificate, the proponent still needs to obtain a variety of other provincial, federal and local government statutory authorizations (e.g., permits, licenses, land use by-law approvals, etc.) to construct and operate the project. Applications for required approvals may be made by proponents while the EA review is still in progress, but such approvals cannot be granted until after an EA certificate has been issued. 

How long does an Environmental Assessment Certificate last?

An EA certificate remains in effect for the life of the project, unless suspended or cancelled by the Minister of Environment for reasons of non-compliance with the Environmental Assessment Act. All certificates also contain a deadline of between three and five years from the date of issuance for the project to be "substantially started". If substantive project development has not begun by this deadline, the holder of the certificate can apply for one extension of the deadline for up to five more years. If the project has still not commenced by the new deadline, the certificate expires. 

How can the Environmental Assessment Office be sure that approved projects are constructed in compliance with conditions set out in their Environmental Assessment Certificates?

The Environmental Assessment Office's compliance and enforcement program ensures that projects are constructed and operated in accordance with their Environmental Assessment Certificates. More information is available here. 

Can a member of the public, local government or interest group appeal a decision made under the Environmental Assessment Act?

There are no formal provisions under the Environmental Assessment Act (the Act) to appeal a decision.

The option of judicial review through the courts is available to address perceived violations of the Act's legal requirements, including judicial review of the manner in which Ministers' certification decisions or the Environmental Assessment Office's administrative decisions have been made.