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Canada's overhaul of environmental laws nears final Senate reading

An environmental bill overhauling Canada's federal permitting process is a step closer to its final reading in the Senate amid uncertainty over what changes to the centerpiece legislation may be considered acceptable by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's government.

A Senate committee has been holding hearings on Bill C-69 and considering amendments to the bill for months. It produced a report, with 188 proposed amendments, and submitted it to the Senate for consideration May 28.

The submission takes the legislation to its next phase in the Senate, though it remains unclear when a vote will come and if major amendments to the bill will gain broad support.

"I suspect that most of the Senate will do the government's bidding," Michael MacDonald, a Conservative senator and deputy chair of the committee, said in an interview. "How that plays out is anyone's guess at the moment. Stay tuned."

The legislation would create a new environmental assessment agency, make changes to permitting energy projects, and increase consideration of issues such as climate change, gender and cumulative impacts of projects. Canada's energy industry has strongly opposed it, while the bill has received tentative support from the mining sector. It has become a political lightning rod for grievances over environmental policy and development of oil sands projects, with protests against the legislation most notably in Alberta, Canada's energy hub.

One key amendment, which supporters of the unaltered bill oppose, would require that a project's impacts on the environment and climate change be considered on a global level. "Of course, under that rubric the impact of every project would be deemed insignificant," said Martin Olszynski, a law professor at the University of Calgary, after the amendments were reported to the Senate.

As for the timing of a vote, some senators had said they want one by May 30. But MacDonald said he doubted the Senate could do it by then.

A spokesperson for Sen. Rosa Galvez, who chaired the committee overseeing the report, was noncommittal. "We do not have a specific timeline for the vote on the report yet," the spokesperson said May 28.

The Canadian Senate, an appointed body with similar powers to the elected House of Commons where government is formed, does not usually defeat government legislation. It does make substantive changes to it, as in the case of proposed amendments to Bill C-69.

If the Senate passes the legislation with amendments, it will head back to the House of Commons for consideration. What changes Trudeau considers acceptable remains unclear.

"We have consistently stated that our government is open to amendments put forward by the Senate that strengthen and improve the bill, in addition to the 135 amendments that were approved by the House of Commons," Sabrina Kim, a spokesperson for Minister of Environment Catherine McKenna, said in an emailed statement.

Kim did not directly answer an inquiry about which amendments the Trudeau government considers palatable.

"Canadians deserve the strongest bill possible to protect our environment, honor indigenous rights and partnerships, and ensure good projects go ahead in a timely fashion," Kim said. "This will create the certainty that investors need and well-paying jobs for Canadians. It is critical to rebuild trust in how we review major projects, and this legislation is an opportunity to get this right."