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OTTAWA (Reuters) - Canada wants a single federal authority to assess the potential impact of oil pipelines and mines, officials said on Thursday, a move that could help quell protests that have blocked a series of projects.
Responsibility for examining the environmental impact of projects on federally-regulated land is shared between three separate entities, a system the Liberal government says the public does not trust.
Plans released on Thursday mean the much-criticized national energy regulator would lose its power to assess natural resource projects.
Aboriginal and environmental protesters currently trying to block major pipelines complained the National Energy Board (NEB)is too close to the industry.
"This is all about rebuilding public trust in how we make decisions on major projects that are important to our economy," said an official who requested anonymity because they were not authorized to talk to the press.
The official said Ottawa was currently thinking about giving overall responsibility for probes to the Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency.
The government would retain final responsibility for deciding the fate of a project.
Anna Johnston of the West Coast Environmental Law group said that while the plan had positive aspects, it meant the government retained too much power.
"Cabinet gets to make behind closed doors some decision that basically pits short-term economic gains against environmental harms and the environment almost always loses," she said by phone.
Protests last year forced Ottawa to veto one pipeline from Alberta's oil sands to the Pacific Coast and are dragging out study of another line to the Atlantic.
Canada needs to get its landlocked crude to its east and west coasts to avoid pipeline bottlenecks that leave oil trading at a discount.
Under the plans, the new assessment body would pay more attention to the long-term implications of a project and the views of aboriginals as well as allowing public comments much earlier in the process.
The proposals would have little immediate impact on the energy sector. Existing projects, such as TransCanada Corp's (TRP.TO) proposed Energy East pipeline from Alberta to the Atlantic Coast, will be assessed by the NEB under current rules.
The government plans to introduce draft legislation later this year to implement the changes and hopes they will become law in 2018.
NEB spokeswoman Rebecca Taylor said the board supported the government's work to modernize the approach to assessments.
Reuters reported last year that the government would consider stripping the NEB of sole oversight for projects.
Additional reporting by Nia Williams in Calgary; Editing by Marguerita Choy