Smashing roadblocks to Canadian prosperity

Oscar Judelson-Kelly unpacks insights from a major summit on how permit reform can unlock opportunities across North America.

Left to right: Alex Hergott of The Permitting Institute, Bruce Agnew of PNWER and our Stewart Muir of Resource Works in Boise, Idaho, for the Pacific Northwest Economic Region Annual Summit.

The Pacific NorthWest Economic Region (PNWER) Annual Summit took place last month in Boise, Idaho and the Resource Works team was down in full force.

Stewart Muir, Resource Works founder and CEO, participated in a major panel session along with Alex Hergott of the DC-based nonprofit, The Permitting Institute. Entitled Smashing Roadblocks: Permit Modernization and Reform, the central question of this panel revolved around finding ways to streamline the permitting process for major projects.

Permitting reform impacts energy projects, manufacturing, transportation, trade and countless other sectors both domestically in Canada and the United States, and in the trade relationship between the two nations.

The critical elements to improve continental permitting processes are transparency, predictability, simultaneity, and digitization. By advocating and implementing more straightforward procedures, the process can become more efficient and streamlined. Moreover, these major economic drivers will see years, if not decades, axed from their completion dates.

That’s good news for anyone with an interest in a brighter future for the next generation in North America.

Each country faces unique challenges. Muir underlined that Canada needs to be more ambitious with permit reform, and can easily double or even triple its targets. This is not just about oil and gas projects but extends to mining and critical mineral development.

Let’s put this into context.

As of 2020, Canada sits 23rd on the World Bank’s Ease of Doing Business Index, far behind allies and comparable nations like the United States, the United Kingdom, Norway, Australia and Germany. That’s a powerful indictment of the status quo. Superfluous permitting barriers stand in the way of economic growth as Canadians report increasing financial difficulties. Something has to give, and red tape reduction is the obvious solution.

Canada sits at 23rd on the World Bank's 2020 Ease of Doing Business Index.

South of the border, Hergott emphasized that a very different type of permitting roadblock is emerging. Contrary to popular belief, it is the states themselves, not the federal government, that can slow down the permitting process. This decentralized approach to permitting can oftentimes pose challenges for project developers seeking consistency and predictability.

With shared challenges, there is a strong case for bilateral cooperation in permitting reform. Not only is collaboration essential to achieving higher-level objectives of bringing quality North American products to the market, but Muir and Hergott noted that Canada and the US should spur each other on in the permitting world in response to pressing geopolitical concerns. Just last month, Ottawa expedited permits for critical mineral exploration to help counter China’s attempts to rise to international dominance in the sector. Keeping pace with Washington DC was a necessary and encouraging factor in this decision.

Sometimes peer pressure can be a good thing.

Major projects in North America are oftentimes inextricable, spanning across different industries and across the Canada-US border. Even actions taken on LNG projects have significant impacts on mining permits, for instance, or harming an oil pipeline proposal can adversely impact a renewable transmission line.

And yet, as Muir and Hergott unpack in their panel conversation, permitting reform goes beyond paperwork; in a time of growing polarization and division, it can be a space for depoliticization.

Too often, the fate of major projects has been decided by political campaigns and oppositional de-marketing initiatives rather than through official, stable and rules-based channels. Major project decisions should be divorced from the tendency to approve or reject projects based on the electoral cycle. In fact, a truly rules-based, efficient and independent permitting process would help to restore faith in public institutions by demonstrating fairness and resistance to political interference.

In this spirit, the way forward is to move from a conflict zone to a solution space. The success of these projects will determine the nature of Canadian economic growth in the decades to come. And while there is no ‘silver bullet’ solution to shared permitting challenges, steady, incremental improvements are the most practical way to achieve meaningful change.

This article was written by Oscar Judelson-Kelly, Resource Works’s Communications and Policy Coordinator. Watch the full panel on the Resource Works YouTube channel.

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