Streamlining clean growth project approvals with strategic assessments

Using strategic assessments, Canada can develop a more effective strategy to streamline regulatory processes for clean growth projects


Canada needs a better strategy for building clean electricity projects, industrial decarbonization projects, and critical mineral mining projects at the necessary speed and scale for the net zero transition. As industry and government search for ways to streamline the country’s regulations (Chalmers 2023; Thurton 2022; Crawley 2023), strategic assessments represent an important but neglected tool that the federal government can and should put to greater use.

It is abundantly clear that changes to regulatory review must be done carefully. The federal 2019 Impact Assessment Act overhauled Canada’s regulatory regime in an attempt to make it more holistic and responsive to the public interest, and the main instrument it relies on is project-level impact assessment (Wright 2021). Each impact assessment examines a project at risk of significantly impacting sustainability and has the power to stop the project if necessary.

However, in October 2023, the Supreme Court of Canada ruled that the Act is largely unconstitutional. The Court’s argument was that the impact assessment process currently allows the federal government to examine and stop projects for reasons outside of federal jurisdiction (Supreme Court of Canada 2023). Until the Act’s constitutionality is resolved, projects will face greater uncertainty during their regulatory reviews.

This is where strategic assessments could play a role. They are a way for regulators to add strategic-level analysis, where what’s being assessed are policies and systemic issues rather than individual projects. By adding strategic analysis, regulators can accelerate and strengthen Canada’s predominantly project-level regulatory system. Moreover, although the Impact Assessment Act defines strategic assessments, that part of the Act was left untouched in the October 2023 Supreme Court ruling. Canada has yet to complete a strategic assessment under the Act, but variations have been used by provinces, territories, and the federal cabinet (Gibson et al. 2020; Noble 2008; Noble 2021). The federal Strategic Assessment of Climate Change also closely followed the Act’s process (Government of Canada 2020).

Specifically, strategic assessments are a way for regulators to address the impacts of multiple projects at once. They are meant for examining and advising on overarching policies and systemic issues that may be contributing to project-level impacts. For example, a regulator could use a strategic assessment to assess the Canadian Critical Minerals Strategy and note that the strategy might contribute to impacts on waterways and Indigenous governance. As part of the strategic assessment process, the regulator could then recommend general approaches for assessing a mine’s pollution and how it shares benefits with communities. These approaches could be used to inform policy and also save future impact assessments from having to build their own approaches from scratch.

Strategic assessments are a way for regulators to address the impacts of multiple projects at once

Strategic assessments are unlikely to provoke constitutional challenges in the same way impact assessments have. By being a way to advise the federal government on strategy, strategic assessments under the Impact Assessment Act are a step removed from project approval and exist more squarely within federal jurisdiction. Conversely, though, their influence over projects depends entirely on how the federal government chooses to implement their advice.

Despite—or perhaps because of—the current uncertainty surrounding regulatory review, it is worth investigating how strategic assessments can be used to streamline the process for clean growth projects. We define clean growth projects as those that contribute to making Canada’s economy stronger, less polluting, more inclusive, and more resilient.  A great many such projects will be needed for Canada to meet its climate and economic goals. This paper explores how regulators have used strategic assessments before to make regulatory review more effective and efficient for projects, and the resulting lessons for Canada.

We define clean growth projects as those that contribute to making Canada’s economy stronger, less polluting, more inclusive, and more resilient.

Locating strategic assessments within Canada’s regulatory system

The Impact Assessment Act establishes strategic assessments as a tool for informing impact assessments. This could help streamline regulatory reviews and would be an historically novel use of the instrument. Other jurisdictions—including Canadian jurisdictions—have used strategic assessments before, but rarely in the same way as the Act intends to. For instance, the federal cabinet has its own directive to conduct strategic assessments, but for the narrower purpose of rejecting environmentally harmful policies rather than for generating strategic advice. The federal government also conducted a Strategic Assessment of Climate Change, but mainly used it to identify climate impacts rather than evaluate them (Box 1). The federal government has provided some guidance on how it plans to use strategic assessments under the Impact Assessment Act, although much of the process remains undefined.

Strategic assessments are one of three types of assessments established by the Impact Assessment Act:

  1. Impact assessments examine individual projects, assessing their direct impacts and cumulative impacts.
  2. Regional assessments examine all projects within a geographic region, and assess cumulative impacts.
  3. Strategic assessments examine policies or issues that are relevant to impact assessments, and assess cumulative impacts.

Specifically, the Act says that strategic assessments can examine:

“(a) any Government of Canada policy, plan or program—proposed or existing—that is relevant to conducting impact assessments; or

(b) any issue that is relevant to conducting impact assessments of designated projects or of a class of designated projects,” (Impact Assessment Act 2019).

There are practically no limitations on what might be considered a relevant policy or issue. Some examples of relevant policies (or plans or programs) might be policies for developing an environmentally vulnerable area, policies for installing a series of large projects, and policies for creating a supply chain for a product with significant pollution concerns. Relevant issues, meanwhile, might include environmental issues, health issues, local economy issues, and Indigenous rights and title issues frequently caused by projects.

Canada’s definition of strategic assessment is broader than other countries’ in three important ways. First, Canada uses the term strategic assessment rather than the much more common strategic environmental assessment used in the United States and elsewhere (Arnold and Beck 2023). The term reflects how, in its current form, the Act intends to holistically consider non-environmental impacts including social, health, and economic impacts.

Second, few countries recognize regional assessments as distinct from strategic assessments. Instead, if they are recognized at all, regional assessments are usually seen as a subtype of strategic assessments that happen to correspond with regional boundaries (Partidário 2003; Arnold et al. 2022). This paper focuses on strategic assessments with the understanding that many lessons are also applicable to regional assessments. Distinct regional assessments are important for Canada, given its regional differences and the place-based connections held by Indigenous Peoples.

Third, in most other countries, strategic assessments are used to assess policies (or plans or programs) and are not directly linked to impact assessments. Under Canada’s Impact Assessment Act, however, strategic assessments can only examine policies and issues relevant to impact assessments (Noble 2021; Impact Assessment Act 2019). This phrasing gives Canadian strategic assessments greater potential to proactively examine areas where impact assessments are being conducted but policies are lacking or are in development. For example, Canada could strategically assess how projects reuse building materials, even though the government is still in the process of developing regulations for reusing materials (Cundiff et al. 2023).

However they are defined, all types of assessments follow the same basic process: they start with a trigger, then are used to identify and evaluate impacts, and are wrapped up with a decision or recommendations around the impacts. Strategic assessments have not been formalized much beyond this in Canada, meaning that their process is still largely undefined.

Without clear triggers, the Impact Assessment Act’s strategic assessments lack formalization from the start. Whereas the size or location of a project can trigger impact assessments, strategic assessments are only initiated at the discretion of the federal Minister of Environment and Climate Change. The Impact Assessment Agency of Canada serves as the federal authority on assessments and can recommend that the minister initiates a strategic assessment. Anyone—including members of the public, the private sector, and other jurisdictions—can also send the Agency requests for a strategic assessment. Ultimately though, the power to initiate strategic assessments rests in the hands of the Minister.

Furthermore, there is little indication of the Minister’s or the Agency’s priorities for strategic assessment, other than the rudimentary criteria listed in the Policy Framework for Strategic Assessment. According to the framework, the Agency’s recommendations on whether to strategically assess a particular subject are based on whether doing so would be relevant, within federal jurisdiction, and in the public interest, as well as whether the assessment could adequately inform, improve, and assist with the impacts (IAAC 2022). It is difficult to imagine the Agency recommending a strategic assessment that does not meet these criteria.

Once triggered, strategic assessments also lack formalization on how they can be used to identify and evaluate impacts. The Impact Assessment Agency only provides general steps, leaving the details to be determined on a case-by-case basis (IAAC 2022):

  1. Deciding to conduct the assessment
  2. Planning informed by early engagement
  3. Drafting the assessment’s terms of reference
  4. Finalizing the assessment’s terms of reference
  5. Conducting the assessment
  6. Drafting a strategic assessment report
  7. Finalizing a strategic assessment report

When a strategic assessment is completed, the process of arranging it to inform impact assessments likewise lacks formalization. Impact assessments are currently mandated to factor in relevant strategic assessments at various stages, but the Agency has not published guidance on what “factoring in” or “relevance” look like.

Some guidance can be found that predates the Impact Assessment Act. In 2009, the Canadian Council of Ministers of the Environment proposed a detailed process for the strategic assessment of policies (CCME 2009). If the guidance were to be followed, there would be three phases for strategic assessment: i) measurement and identification, ii) projection and evaluation, and iii) implementation and monitoring.

According to the 2009 guidance, the Impact Assessment Agency should develop terms of reference and identify key impact data in the first phase of strategic assessment, and also identify particularly important baselines and trends. In the second phase, the Agency should evaluate alternative scenarios with an eye towards cumulative impacts. For example, the Agency might collate scenarios representing alternative policy choices, activity intensities, and technology mixes, and then select the scenario with the most preferential outcomes. In the third phase, the Agency should make recommendations to align with its preferred scenario, which may include new regulatory requirements, and should establish follow-up monitoring and evaluation. Further, the guidance recommends that strategic assessments should be validated through public engagement (CCME 2009).

The Council’s guidance did not visibly shape Canada’s regulatory development in the following years, and it is unclear whether strategic assessments under the Impact Assessment Act will draw on it. It is also unclear how the federal government will amend the Impact Assessment Act in response to the Supreme Court of Canada’s ruling (Supreme Court of Canada 2023). The ruling was mainly concerned with unconstitutional federal overreach during impact assessments; strategic assessments were not directly implicated. Any amendments to impact assessments could indirectly affect strategic assessments, though, because strategic assessments are required to have relevance to impact assessments. If impact assessments get scaled back in scope, strategic assessments may have a more limited range of subjects for assessment.

The Impact Assessment Agency recognizes that strategic assessments can streamline the regulatory review process for projects by sharing new information (IAAC 2022). For strategic assessments to live up to their streamlining potential, though, Canada needs to adopt a more formalized process, something other jurisdictions can shed light on.

Box 1: A short summation of strategic assessments in Canada Strategic assessments have a long but fragmented history in Canada. Since the 1990s the federal cabinet has had a mandate to strategically assess policy proposals at risk of causing significant environmental effects (PCO and CEAA 2010). However, cabinet has only recently started complying with that mandate. Moreover, cabinet uses strategic assessments more as a final safeguard against harmful policies rather than as a source of information for regulatory review (Noble 2021).

Provincial governments have also conducted variations of strategic assessments, although in different ways (Gibson 2020). Ontario has done environmental assessments of subjects that lend themselves to strategic-level approaches, such as timber management, hydro-electricity planning, and hazardous waste (Gibson et al. 2020). Saskatchewan also conducted a regional environmental study of the Great Sand Hills which informed the guidance on strategic assessment produced by the Canadian Council of Ministers of the Environment (Noble 2008; CCME 2009). The guidance itself was further used by Parks Canada to conduct a strategic assessment of activities within Wood Buffalo National Park (Public Services and Procurement Canada 2016).

The 2019 Impact Assessment Act is Canada’s first federally legislated provision for strategic assessments. The Act breaks from previous usage by directly relating strategic assessments to impact assessments. So far, two strategic assessments have been associated with the Act, neither of which was fully completed under it. The first was the Strategic Assessment of Thermal Coal Mining, which was triggered under the Act but was cancelled due to perceived irrelevance, as Canada does not intend to build more thermal coal projects (IAAC 2021).

The second is the Strategic Assessment of Climate Change, which was triggered under a different act, but since completion is considered to be a strategic assessment under the Impact Assessment Act. The Strategic Assessment of Climate Change provides technical guidance on how project proponents should account for and share their project’s greenhouse gas emissions and other climate information when undergoing federal impact assessment. This includes recommendations on how to identify a project’s net and upstream emissions, its climate resilience, and a trajectory for reaching net zero emissions by 2050 (Government of Canada 2020).

During impact assessments, the Strategic Assessment of Climate Change recommends that the Impact Assessment Agency compares a project’s emissions performance with that of similar projects, considers a project’s ability to achieve net zero emissions by 2050, and examines whether a project is aligned with and included in Canada’s emissions targets and forecasts (Government of Canada 2020). The Strategic Assessment of Climate Change stops short, however, of providing detailed recommendations on how the Agency should do this in practice (Johnston et al. 2021). For instance, the Strategic Assessment of Climate Change directs the Agency to assess a project’s net zero plans by how it “seeks to minimize greenhouse gas emissions . . . as early as possible for the project lifetime” but it doesn’t provide hard cutoffs for determining when a project’s reductions come too late.

Further detail may come in subsequent technical guidance. So far the Strategic Assessment of Climate Change has delivered two draft technical guides, one on emissions data in 2021 and another on climate resilience in 2022.

Using strategic assessments to streamline regulatory review

Streamlining clean growth project approvals means making regulatory review faster without compromising on—and ideally improving—sustainability. Regulators can use strategic assessments to streamline the regulatory review process by harnessing their potential to regulate cumulative impacts and share regulatory burdens with impact assessments.

Strategic assessments can effectively address cumulative impacts from projects

Strategic assessments are a better instrument for addressing cumulative impacts than impact assessments, which are constrained to individual projects. Cumulative impacts are impacts that may be negligible from the perspective of an individual project and are of greater significance when all impacts of its kind are combined. Assessing cumulative impacts across projects is crucial for regulating complex problems like climate change, biodiversity loss, and threats to Indigenous rights and title. In a first for Canada, the British Columbia Supreme Court used the concept of cumulative impacts in 2021 to determine that the Crown had infringed upon Treaty rights (Buhler et al. 2023).

Globally, strategic assessments have been used to successfully address cumulative impacts, but mainly through influencing policies. The European Union has had a formalized process to assess policies since 2001 with its Strategic Environmental Assessment Directive, and some member states have processes that date back farther (EC 2001). In a study of 60 European strategic assessments of transport and land use policies, Fischer (2002) found that policies that followed a strategic assessment integrated significantly greater sustainability protections.

Under Canada’s Impact Assessment Act, strategic assessments can influence projects through more than just policies. The Act currently requires strategic assessments to be relevant to impact assessments. Even though they have no direct authority over project approval, conducting strategic assessments under the Act will therefore generate information that assessed projects can find relevant. By providing a broader framework for understanding a project’s cumulative impacts, strategic assessments can be used to provide a basis for collaborative action across industry. Collaboration may resemble efforts like the Canadian Automotive Partnership Council’s work on regulatory efficiency, which is strategic in nature and relates to the impacts of multiple projects (Task Force on Major Project Development and Regulatory Excellence 2023). Regulators can also use methodologies laid out in strategic assessments to conduct more effective impact assessments. The Strategic Assessment of Climate Change, for instance, created a methodology for assessing climate impacts that empowers impact assessments.

Strategic assessments can share regulatory burdens with impact assessments and make them more efficient

Regulators can use strategic assessments to make regulatory reviews more efficient by having them share the regulatory burden of conducting impact assessments (Bonnell 2019). They can be specifically targeted towards policies and issues that come up regularly during projects’ impact assessments and inform the execution of subsequent impact assessments. For example, by providing a methodology for assessing climate impacts, Canada’s Strategic Assessment of Climate Change could save future impact assessments from creating their own duplicative methodologies.

Strategic assessments are an efficient way to assess strategic subjects like plans to build hydropower and the resulting impacts on waterways, at least relative to the overall cost of making policy. Worldwide, strategic assessments rarely cost over $685,000, and they usually comprise less than 10 per cent of the cost of planning policy and less than 1 per cent of the cost of implementing policy (Thérivel and González 2020; Thérivel and González 2021b). The information they generate can make impact assessments more efficient in turn. Strategic assessment recommendations have guided impact assessments in Ireland, particularly in terms of scoping relevant impacts and identifying vulnerable areas (González and Therivel 2022).

Regulators have only recently started to value strategic assessments for their potential to streamline regulatory review processes. Historically, their main role has been to improve policies, with their implications for projects and impact assessments being of secondary importance (Thérivel and González 2021b). Evidence suggests that they can be used to achieve streamlining, though, if they are set up for it.

Leading practices for increasing strategic assessments’ streamlining potential

Regulators can use strategic assessments to streamline regulatory review for clean growth projects, but they are not certain to succeed in every case. In a study of strategic assessments of wind energy policies, British and German government stakeholders labelled 7 out of 18 strategic assessments as unsatisfactory, which suggests that they are frequently done poorly (Phylip-Jones and Fischer 2015).

If Canada is to do better, it should draw lessons from strategic assessment usage around the world and within the country. According to the survey of usage in this paper, regulators hoping to use strategic assessments should target them towards strategic priorities and validate them with public engagement. Strategic assessments should also produce timely and practical information, and the regulators conducting them should monitor outcomes post-assessment. Otherwise, strategic assessments are at risk of being abused for political ends, providing unhelpful information, or failing to provide lasting direction.

If Canada is to do better, it should draw lessons from strategic assessment usage around the world and within the country

Prioritize the most important strategic subjects

Strategic assessments should be designed around subjects with demonstrably important implications for clean growth projects, such as policies to build projects or systemic issues caused by projects. For instance, regulators might want to strategically assess a critical mineral strategy’s approach to hazardous waste, if critical mineral projects were known to frequently clash with hazardous waste regulations. Or regulators might be interested in strategically assessing how clean energy projects impact local species-at-risk, if impacts on species-at-risk were some of the most harmful impacts from clean energy projects.

The International Association for Impact Assessment is working on identifying prevalent issues for renewable energy projects. In its first report on the topic, the Association categorizes issues by project type. It distinguishes between environmental and social issues, with land development and waste management being recurring environmental issues and livelihoods and public well-being being recurring social ones (Dalal-Clayton and Scott-Brown 2022).

Table 1: Recurring international issues for regulatory review across renewable energy projects

Environmental issuesSocial issuesGeneral issues
-Air and water quality
-Pollutants, including greenhouse gas emissions
-Biodiversity and ecosystem services
-Climate adaptation and resilience
-Land development
Waste management
-Livelihoods and job opportunities for locals
Social acceptance
-Public well-being
-Cultural heritage
-Land ownership
-Upfront costs
-Associated infrastructure, including roads and transmission lines
-Baseline data availability
-Alternative project options
Source: Dalal-Clayton and Scott-Brown, 2022.

The European Union uses strategic foresighting to identify a range of important strategic subjects. Some identified subjects include the socio-political significance of migration, the influence of social media, and climate change and environmental degradation (EC 2023). Separately, the E.U. also uses formal triggers to aim strategic assessments towards important subjects. The E.U.’s triggers include policies being integral to sustainable development, policies setting frameworks for project approval, and policies pertaining to a predefined list of sectors. Additional triggers are when policies have transboundary impacts, cumulative impacts, widespread impacts, intense impacts, or impacts on special natural characteristics or cultural heritage (EC 2001).

Conduct early and ongoing engagement

Strategic assessments should be guided by early and ongoing public engagement (González and Thérivel 2022; Rega et al. 2018; Phylip-Jones and Fischer 2015; Noble et al. 2019). Canada’s Impact Assessment Act already reflects this by requiring strategic assessments to enable meaningful public participation and report on the inclusion of Indigenous knowledge (Impact Assessment Act 2019). Instances of both are available subnationally. Strategic assessments in Quebec suggest that meaningful public engagement requires collaborative dialogue early enough to shape policy design (Gautheir et al. 2011). Meanwhile a strategic assessment in Nunavut showcases methods for embedding Indigenous knowledge, including through joint report writing, Indigenous knowledge advisory committees, and information tours for Indigenous communities (Two Worlds Consulting 2020).

Make practical and timely information available for impact assessments

Strategic assessments should provide information that is specific enough for impact assessments to use but also generalized enough to be applicable across different contexts. Timing is equally important: strategic assessments should be conducted early enough to inform policy design but not so early that they become outdated for projects built under the policy (Phylip-Jones and Fischer 2015; Bonnell 2019; González and Thérivel 2022; Buse et al. 2020; Arnold et al. 2022).

The United States was the first country to formally recognize the practical value of tiering assessments. Tiering is the positioning of broad, high-level assessments so that they inform more specific, lower-level assessments. The U.S. has used tiering in instances like a strategic assessment of an entire high speed rail project followed by impact assessments of individual sections, and a strategic assessment of waterfront development with impact assessments of irregular projects. In essence, the U.S. shows that strategic assessments can be of practical use for identifying and evaluating ideal impact thresholds and template designs. Impact assessments are then able to focus on projects that exceed ideal thresholds or stray from ideal templates (Thérivel and González 2021a). Additionally, to improve timeliness, regulators could mandate regular updates to strategic assessments (Bonnell 2019).

Conduct comprehensive monitoring of outcomes

Regulators rarely go beyond monitoring whether strategic assessments are conducted in adherence with their legislated processes. The primary objective of strategic assessments, however, should be to contribute to sustainable outcomes, so regulators should also monitor how strategic assessments outwardly influence subsequent assessments, policies, and projects (Thérivel and González 2021a; Fischer and Retief 2021).

With this imperative in mind, the United Kingdom is exploring Environmental Outcomes Reports as a new type of instrument that could replace strategic and impact assessments (Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities 2023). Rather than assessing impacts on the existing environment, these reports are used to assess deviations from the ideal environment. For example, a strategic assessment might be used to assess whether transmission lines pose a significant risk for wildfires. With an Environmental Outcomes Report, meanwhile, the assessment would start with some low level of wildfire risk as the ideal outcome and evaluate whether transmission lines would stop that outcome from being met. It is too early to say whether these reports are superior to strategic and impact assessments, but they do show that regulatory instruments can be built around improving outcomes rather than just avoiding harm.

Regulators designing strategic assessments should adhere to the above leading practices, from selecting important subjects to prioritizing sustainable outcomes. Doing so could make building at the speed and scale required by the net zero transition more manageable.

Considerations for using strategic assessments to streamline clean growth projects in Canada

Strategic assessments have significant potential for streamlining clean growth project approvals, but only if they are done well. As the federal authority on assessments, the Impact Assessment Agency is the principal designer of strategic assessments in Canada. Here are several considerations that the Agency could incorporate into the instrument’s design and use.

Strategic assessments have significant potential for streamlining clean growth project approvals, but only if they are done well

Designing strategic assessments to have triggers

Strategic assessments under the Impact Assessment Act have an ambiguous triggering process, making them vulnerable to underuse or politicalization. The Impact Assessment Agency can recommend subjects for strategic assessment and the Minister ultimately decides when to conduct one, but neither has disclosed many details on their priorities for assessment. The Agency could share more elaborate criteria on the kinds of issues and policies that would trigger a strategic assessment, similar to the European Union’s more formal triggers.

Designing strategic assessments to have tiering

The Impact Assessment Act calls for tiering between different types of assessments, but that part of the Act has not been substantively implemented.  Canada lacks standards for how strategic assessments should inform impact assessments, with the Impact Assessment Agency providing no dedicated channels, tests for relevance, timelines, or procedures for sharing information. More fundamentally, the Act tasks both strategic and impact assessments with considering cumulative impacts, making the division of impacts between them ambiguous (Impact Assessment Act 2019; IAAC 2022). Without implementing formalized tiering, Canada may continue to default to assessing strategic-level subjects in project-level assessments (Leach 2021).

Newfoundland and Labrador offers a case study in the limitations of conducting strategic assessments without formalized tiering. The Canada-Newfoundland and Labrador Offshore Petroleum Board has been conducting strategic assessments of offshore petroleum since 2002, which typically entails describing the environmental setting, identifying petroleum impacts and mitigation approaches, making policy recommendations, and consulting the public at various stages. The Board also reviews its strategic assessments every five years to maintain timeliness. Overall, in many ways, these strategic assessments reflect leading practices. However, they have failed to meaningfully influence impact assessments. The Board is too cautious about intervening with project-level recommendations in its strategic assessments, while also being too cautious about trusting information without repeating processes in its impact assessments (Bonnell 2019).

Designing strategic assessments to have outcome monitoring

Monitoring is critical to the improvement of any policy or program, but it is unclear how the Impact Assessment Agency intends to monitor strategic assessments. Practice in Canada so far suggests that basic monitoring might, at the very least, trigger better adherence to strategic assessment processes. The federal cabinet is mandated to conduct its version of a strategic assessment when receiving policy proposals with potentially significant environmental impacts. However, an audit found that the cabinet only assessed 6 per cent of such policy proposals between 2011 and 2014. After annual audits were imposed, the rate quickly rose to 93 per cent in 2017 (Noble et al. 2019).

Table 2: Compliance with the cabinet directive to strategically assess policy proposals improved after annual audits were imposed

 2015 audit2016 audit2017 audit2018 audit
Years audited2011 to 20142013 to 20152013 to 20162017
Policy proposals in need of assessment1,955506359283
Policy proposals assessed115 (6 per cent)98 (19 per cent)80 (22 per cent)263 (93 per cent)
Source: Noble et al. 2019

If the Agency does not have monitoring capacity, it can delegate the task to another body. For instance, the federal government provides up to $2 million annually for Indigenous-led monitoring of project development in the Alberta oil sands (Raderschall et al. 2020).

Using strategic assessments for clean growth subjects

In addition to design considerations, if Canada is to accelerate clean growth projects, strategic assessments should be used for relevant subjects. Two areas where impact assessments could greatly benefit from strategic guidance are assessing the positive impacts of clean growth projects and assessing cumulative negative impacts of such projects on Indigenous communities.

The Impact Assessment Act requires regulators to recognize both negative and positive impacts during assessments, but Canada does not have a well-defined approach for identifying or evaluating positive impacts (Hatfield Consultants LLP 2021). By ignoring such impacts, regulatory review is limited to only screening-out the worst projects and can’t do much to screen-in the best ones. Clean growth projects in particular have a number of significant positive benefits that are not formally accounted for in impact assessments, such as clean technology innovation, increased climate resilience, improved energy security, and decreased fossil fuel consumption.

Strategic assessments can recommend how regulators should consider the strategic importance of clean growth projects during impact assessments. They could shed light on positive climate impacts, for example, by providing methodologies for identifying and quantifying the value of climate action (SFAC 2022; Dasgupta 2021). They could also recommend benchmarks for positive climate impacts that would make a project eligible for fast-tracked regulatory review, similar to the tiered systems in the U.S. and Newfoundland and Labrador.

At the same time, projects on Indigenous territory are negatively impacting Indigenous communities beyond what impact assessments have identified. In September 2023, the British Columbia Supreme Court ruled that B.C.’s regulatory process for mining projects is in violation of the province’s duty to consult with Indigenous groups. The court specifically objected to mining project proponents being allowed to make mineral claims and surveil sites before consultations. The Supreme Court gave the provincial government an 18-month deadline to amend its process (Fionda 2023). How B.C. responds could have implications for Indigenous rights across the country, as the majority of provinces and territories similarly require few preconditions for making mineral claims—only in Alberta, Nova Scotia, and Prince Edward Island does the provincial government allow itself discretion when approving initial claims (Manhas et al. 2021).

Strategic assessments can be used to identify and evaluate cumulative impacts on Indigenous communities, including impacts from clean growth projects. For instance, standards could be established for sharing project benefits with local Indigenous communities and consulting all relevant Indigenous rights holders (Raderschall et al. 2020; Tsuji 2022). Additionally, the Impact Assessment Agency has made progress on frameworks for including Indigenous knowledge in impact assessments, but major strategic barriers include assessments lacking capacity and the historical and ongoing effects of colonization and distrust (Eckert et al. 2020).


As far back as 2009, the Council of Canadian Environment Ministers called for more strategic assessments because they can help promote environmentally sustainable policies, direct and streamline impact assessments, and effectively assess cumulative impacts (CCME 2009). The same reasons are still relevant today, and not enough progress has been made to activate this instrument.

Global experiences show that regulators can use strategic assessments to streamline regulatory reviews by providing useful information and shortening processes. To maximize the instrument’s potential, regulators should aim strategic assessments towards the most contentious policies and issues for clean growth projects and deliver information that is both practical and timely. They should also monitor outcomes to determine whether and how much clean growth project timelines are being streamlined.

So far in Canada, the Strategic Assessment of Climate Change bears the most resemblance to a strategic assessment under the Impact Assessment Act. It identifies the climate impacts that should be considered during impact assessments, but it could go further by recommending how climate impacts should be evaluated in detail. Especially with the Supreme Court of Canada’s ruling that the Act is largely unconstitutional, any additional certainty that strategic assessments can add to regulatory reviews would be helpful. If Canada is to achieve a competitive clean economy, regulators should put more and better formalized strategic assessments to use.

References (click to expand)

Arnold, Jonathan and Marisa Beck. 2023. “Permitting reform for clean energy projects in New York and California.” Canadian Climate Institute. November 11.

Arnold, Lauren, Rob Friberg, Kevin Hanna, and Chris G Buse. 2022. “OECD Case Studies of Integrated Regional and Strategic Impact Assessment: What Does ‘Integration’ Look Like in Practice?” Environmental Management, 69(2). April 6.

Bonnell, Steve. 2019. “Project EA scoping in an SEA context: a case study of offshore oil and gas exploration in Newfoundland and Labrador, Canada.” Impact Assessment and Project Appraisal, 38(1). July 29.

Buhler, Jessica, Rangi Jeerakathil, and Erica Klassen. 2023. “Blueberry River First Nations Implementation Agreement: A pathway for negotiating cumulative effects claims.” MLT Aikins. January 24.

Buse, Chris G, Rob Friberg, Lauren Arnold, and Kevin Hanna. 2020. Unlocking the promise of ‘integrated’ regional and strategic environmental assessments based on a realist review of the scholarly literature. Centre for Environmental Assessment Research. September.

Task Force on Major Project Development and Regulatory Excellence. 2023. Future Unbuilt: Transforming Canada’s Regulatory Systems to Achieve Environmental, Economic, and Indigenous Partnership Goals. Business Council of Alberta. June.

CCME (Canadian Council of Ministers of the Environment). 2009. Regional Strategic Environmental Assessment in Canada: Principles and Guidance.

Chalmers, Heather. 2023. “A ‘Team Canada’ approach to clean economy leadership.” Business Council of Canada. May 4.

Crawley, Mike. 2023. “Doug Ford government wants to speed up mining permits in Ontario.” CBC News. March 1.

Cundiff, Brad, Calvin Trottier-Chi, Rick Smith, Marisa Beck, and Chris Bataille. 2023. The Next Wave of Climate Action: How circularity can contribute to emissions reductions in Canada. Canadian Climate Institute. March 11.

Dalal-Clayton, Barry and Miles Scott-Brown. 2022. Development of Strategic Environmental Assessment (SEA) Guidelines for Renewable Energy Facilities. International Association for Impact Assessment. June 1.

Dasgupta, Partha. 2021. The Economics of Biodiversity: The Dasgupta Review. His Majesty’s Treasury. February.

Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities. 2023. Environmental Outcomes Reports: a new approach to environmental assessment. Government of the United Kingdom. March 17.

Eckert, Lauren E, Nick XEMŦOLTW Claxton, Cameron Owens, Anna Johnston, Natalie C Ban, Faisal Moola, and Chris T Darimont. 2020. “Indigenous knowledge and federal environmental assessments in Canada: applying past lessons to the 2019 impact assessment act.” FACETS, 5. February 13.

EC (European Commission). 2001. Directive 2001/42/EC of the European Parliament and of the Council of 27 June 2001 on the assessment of the effects of certain plans and programmes on the environment. June 27.

EC (European Commission). 2023. Better Regulation Toolbox. July 20.

Fionda, Francesca. 2023. “Mineral claims require First Nations consultation, B.C. Supreme Court rules.” The Narwhal. September 26.

Fischer, Thomas B. 2002. Strategic Environmental Assessment in Transport and Land Use Planning. Routledge.

Fischer, Thomas B and Francois P Retief. 2021. “Does strategic environmental assessment lead to more environmentally sustainable decisions? Reflections on its substantive effectiveness.” Chap. 8 in Handbook on Strategic Environmental Assessment, eds. Thomas B Fischer and Ainhoa González. March 12.

Gauthier, Mario, Louis Simard, and Jean-Philippe Waaub. 2011. “Public participation in strategic environmental assessment (SEA): Critical review and the Quebec (Canada) approach.” Environmental Impact Assessment Review, 31(1). January.

Gibson, Robert B. 2020. “An initial evaluation of Canada’s new sustainability-based Impact Assessment Act.” Journal of Environmental Law and Practice, 33(1). March.

Gibson, Robert B, Daniel D P McCarthy, Kiri Staples, Kira Cooper, Geneva Cloutis, Jordan Bean, Dayna Nadine Scott, Meinhard Doelle, and A John Sinclair. 2020. Synthesis at the nexus of sustainability assessment, regional/strategic assessment and Indigenous partnerships. University of Waterloo. June 17.

González, Ainhoa and Riki Thérivel. 2022. “Raising the game in environmental assessment: Insights from tiering practice.” Environmental Impact Assessment Review, 92. January.

Government of Canada. 2020. Strategic Assessment of Climate Change. October 6.

Hatfield Consultants LLP. 2021. Review of the Assessment of Positive Effects. Prepared for the Impact Assessment Agency of Canada. March 22.

IAAC (Impact Assessment Agency of Canada). 2021. Strategic assessment of thermal coal mining. Government of Canada. July 8.

IAAC (Impact Assessment Agency of Canada). 2022. Policy Framework for Strategic Assessment under the Impact Assessment Act. Government of Canada. October 5.

Impact Assessment Act. 2019. Impact Assessment Act. SC 2019 C28 S1. Government of Canada. August 28.

Johnston, Anna, Stephen Hazell, Hugh Benevides, Justina Ray, Mike Kofahl, Julia Levin, Geneviève Paul, and Anne-Sophie Doré. 2021. Is Canada’s Impact Assessment Act working? West Coast Environmental Law. May.

Leach, Andrew. 2021. “The No More Pipelines Act?” Alberta Law Review, 59(1). November 2.

Manhas, Brandon, Brian Dominique, Darrell Podowski, and Lauren White. 2021. “In brief: mining rights and title in Canada”. Lexology. May 27.

Noble, Bram. 2008. “Strategic approaches to regional cumulative effects assessment: a case study of the Great Sand Hills, Canada.” Impact Assessment and Project Appraisal, 26(2). June.

Noble, Bram F. 2021. “Strategic environmental assessment in Canada.” Chap. 19 in Handbook on Strategic Environmental Assessment, eds. Thomas B Fischer and Ainhoa González. March 12.

Noble, Bram. 2019. “Effectiveness of strategic environmental assessment in Canada under directive-based and informal practice.” Impact Assessment and Project Appraisal, 37(3-4). January 9.

Partidário, Maria do Rosário. 2003. STRATEGIC ENVIRONMENTAL ASSESSMENT (SEA): current practices, future demands and capacity-building needs. International Association for Impact Assessment.

PCO (Privy Council Office) and CEAA (Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency). 2010. The Cabinet Directive on the Environmental Assessment of Policy, Plan and Program Proposals. Government of Canada.

Phylip-Jones, John and Thomas B Fischer. 2015. “Strategic environmental assessment (SEA) for wind energy planning: Lessons from the United Kingdom and Germany.” Environmental Impact Assessment Review, 50. January.

Public Services and Procurement Canada. 2016. STRATEGIC ENVIRONMENTAL ASSESSMENT of Potential Cumulative Impacts of all Developments on the Outstanding Universal Value of WOOD BUFFALO NATIONAL PARK. Government of Canada. June 7.

Raderschall, Lisanne, Tamara Krawchenko and Lucas Leblanc. 2020. Leading practices for resource benefit sharing and development for and with Indigenous communities. Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development. October 28.

Rega, Carlo, Juan P Singer, and Davide Geneletti. 2018. “Investigating the substantive effectiveness of Strategic Environmental Assessment of urban planning: Evidence from Italy and Spain.” Environmental Impact Assessment Review, 73. November.

Supreme Court of Canada. 2023. Reference re Impact Assessment Act. SCC 23. Government of Canada. October 13.

SFAC (Sustainable Finance Action Council). 2022. Taxonomy Roadmap Report: Mobilizing Finance for Sustainable Growth by Defining Green and Transition Investments. September.

Thérivel, Riki and Ainhoa González. 2020. “Is SEA worth it? Short-term costs v. long-term benefits of strategic environmental assessment.” Environmental Impact Assessment Review, 83. July.

Thérivel, Riki and Ainhoa González. 2021a. ““Ripe for decision”: Tiering in environmental assessment.” Environmental Impact Assessment Review, 87. March.

Thérivel, Riki and Ainhoa González. 2021b. “Strategic environmental assessment effectiveness.” Chap. 7 in Handbook on Strategic Environmental Assessment, eds. Thomas B Fischer and Ainhoa González. March 12.

Thurton, David. 2022. “Ottawa’s critical mineral strategy calls for faster project approvals.” CBC News. December 10.

Tsuji, Stephen R J. 2022. “Canada’s Impact Assessment Act, 2019: Indigenous Peoples, Cultural Sustainability, and Environmental Justice.” Sustainability, 14(6). March 16.

Two Worlds Consulting. 2020. Case Studies of Indigenous Knowledge and Science in Impact Assessments. Prepared for the Impact Assessment Agency of Canada., David V. 2021. “The New Federal Impact Assessment Act: Implications for Canadian Energy Projects.” Alberta Law Review, 59(1). November 2.