Basics of Environmental Assessment under the Canadian Environmental Assessment Act, 2012
This document provides guidance on federal environmental assessments commenced under the former Canadian Environmental Assessment Act, 2012 (CEAA 2012). It is retained for the completion of transitional environmental assessments that commenced prior to the Impact Assessment Act and explains the process for those designated projects remaining under that Act. For more information on transitional environmental assessments, please consult the Legislation and Regulations page.
Learn here about federal environmental assessments, the Canadian Environmental Assessment Act, 2012, and how environmental assessments work. Please note: This page focuses on environmental assessments applied to designated projects and led by either the Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency (now the Impact Assessment Agency of Canada) or a review panel. With the coming into force of the Impact Assessment Act, some of the processes for transitional projects have been revised. For more information on impact assessment, consult the Basics of impact assessment.
In the event of any inconsistency between this content and CEAA 2012 or its regulations, CEAA 2012 or its regulations would prevail except in specified circumstances.
What is an environmental assessment under CEAA 2012?
An environmental assessment is a process to identify, predict and evaluate the potential environmental effects of a proposed project. This process happens before decisions about a proposed project are made.
What projects are subject to CEAA 2012?
An environmental assessment can take place when a company or organization (referred to as "the proponent") seeks to carry out a certain type of project. More specifically, under CEAA 2012, environmental assessments may be required for "designated projects": projects involving a physical activity listed in the Regulations Designating Physical Activities (also known as the Project List). A designated project is one that has the potential to cause significant adverse effects on the environment. Examples of such projects include:
- the construction of a mine
- the development of a large new marine terminal
- the extension of a highway
- the construction of new waterways
- the development of a liquefied natural gas (LNG) facility
All projects designated in the Project List are subject to CEAA 2012. The Minister of the Environment and Climate Change (the Minister) may also designate a project that is not described in the regulations, based on factors set out in the legislation. A project may be designated by the Minister if the Minister thinks the project may cause adverse environmental effects, or believes that public concerns related to those effects warrant the designation.Footnote 1
When required, environmental assessments analyze the project's potential adverse environmental effects and whether they are likely to be significant or not.
Who leads an environmental assessment under CEAA 2012?
Environmental assessments of projects under CEAA 2012 are conducted by either:
- a "responsible authority," one of three federal agencies
- a review panel — a group of independent and impartial experts appointed by the Minister. Their work is supported by the Agency.
Information on the process for environmental assessments conducted by the Agency or by a review panel is provided below. Information about assessments conducted by the National Energy Board (now the Canada Energy Regulator) or the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission is available on their websites.
What is the purpose of an environmental assessment?
An environmental assessment supports planning and decision-making. Through the environmental assessment process, the potential adverse environmental effects of a project are identified. Examples of "adverse effects" are:
- the loss or decline of fish, migratory birds, or marine plants
- changes across a border between provinces
- the contamination of foods relied upon by Indigenous peoples
If a project is likely to produce adverse environmental effects, the environmental assessment identifies mitigation measures. Mitigation measures are actions or project design features that help to reduce, eliminate or control a project's adverse effects. The environmental assessment also predicts if a project might cause significant harm to the environment even after mitigation measures are implemented. Where mitigation is not feasible, restitution measures (such as replacement, restoration or compensation) may be identified.
A follow-up program happens after the environmental assessment process. It verifies the accuracy of the assessment, and assesses the effectiveness of the mitigation measures.
When should an environmental assessment happen?
An environmental assessment should begin as early as possible so the proponent can consider the analysis for their proposed plans. For example, the proponent can incorporate mitigation measures into their work that will address the project's potential adverse effects.
What are the benefits of environmental assessment?
Environmental assessment supports better decision-making by considering how a project's design could be optimized to minimize or outright avoid negative effects on the environment. An assessment identifies a project's potential effects. It also identifies a scope of factors to be considered, including mitigation measures. Thinking of these things early on in the project planning cycle gives proponents a chance to improve or revise plans.
Other benefits include:
- creating opportunities for meaningful public participation and engagement with Indigenous peoples
- advancing and addressing any potential impacts to Indigenous rights
- increasing protections for human health
- reducing project costs and delays
- reducing risks of environmental harm or disasters
- lessening the probability that environmental effects transcend national, provincial or territorial boundaries
- contributing to the responsible development of natural resources
What is examined during a federal environmental assessment?
Environmental assessments consider:
- environmental effects, including
- effects caused by accidents and malfunctions and
- cumulative environmental effectsFootnote 4
- the significance of environmental effects
- public comments
- mitigation measures and follow-up program requirements
- the purpose of the designated project
- alternative means of carrying out the designated project
- changes to the project caused by the environment
- results of any relevant regional study
- any other relevant matter
- environmental effects, including
Who is involved in environmental assessments?
Responsible authorities ensure that an environmental assessment for a designated project is conducted according to CEAA 2012. They also ensure that the public and Indigenous peoples are given an opportunity to participate in environmental assessments.
The federal government may conduct the assessment alone or in partnership with another jurisdiction,Footnote 5 like a province. Federal and provincial/territorial governments may work together on environmental assessments when both jurisdictions have cause for reviewing a proposed project. CEAA 2012 allows for cooperation between the two orders of government. However, the decision-making authority rests with each order of government and cannot be substituted.
The general public, Indigenous peoples, and other governmental agencies participate in the process by contributing comments, knowledge, and feedback. Federal departments and agencies with specific expertise are required to provide information and expert advice that support environmental assessments or review panels.
The Minister produces a decision statement after the environmental assessment report has been completed. Before issuing a decision statement with conditions, the Minister also has responsibilities to consider the potential impacts of a project on the Aboriginal or Treaty rights of Indigenous peoples.
How can the public participate in an environmental assessment?
The public can participate in various stages of the environmental assessment process and apply for funding to participate. More information on the main steps of an environmental assessment is available below.
Once the Agency receives a complete project description, it has to decide if an environmental assessment is required. During this period, the public can comment on the proposed project and its potential for causing adverse environmental effects.
If an environmental assessment is required, the public can provide feedback on which aspects of the environment may be affected by the project, and what should be examined during the environmental assessment.
After the Agency issues the environmental assessment guidelines, interested parties can apply for funding to participate in the environmental assessment. The Agency administers a Participant Funding Program to provide limited financial assistance to individuals, incorporated not-for-profit organizations and Indigenous groups. This funding helps recipients prepare for, and participate in, key stages of environmental assessments undertaken by the Agency or by review panels.
Once the proponent submits its environmental impact statement, the public is invited to comment on potential environmental effects and mitigation measures.
During Agency-led environmental assessments, the public can comment on the draft environmental assessment report and proposed conditions. The draft environmental assessment report includes information on:
- the Agency's conclusions regarding the potential environmental effects of the project
- the mitigation measures that were considered
- the significance of the residual adverse environmental effects
During an environmental assessment by review panel, the public can also comment on:
- the draft terms of reference for the review panel
- the draft joint review panel agreement for cases involving a joint review process
In some cases, public participation might happen through open houses, public meetings or public hearing sessions.
Check our Registry to learn about public participation opportunities for ongoing environmental assessments under CEAA 2012.
What is the Canadian Environmental Assessment Act, 2012?
The Canadian Environmental Assessment Act, 2012 (CEAA 2012) and its regulations form the framework of law for federal environmental assessments in Canada.
Purpose of CEAA 2012
- Protect the environment from significant adverse environmental effects caused by a designated project
- Ensure that designated projects are considered and carried out in a careful and precautionary manner
- Promote cooperation and coordination between federal and provincial governments
- Communicate and collaborate with Indigenous peoples and the general public
- Ensure that environmental assessments are completed in a timely manner
- Encourage federal authorities to promote sustainable development for a healthy environment and economy
- Encourage further studies of the cumulative effectsFootnote 6 of physical activities in a region and to incorporate these study results in environmental assessments
CEAA 2012 also includes provisions for regional studies. A regional study assesses cumulative effects and other considerations at a regional scale.Footnote 7
Guidance material to further clarify the application of CEAA 2012 can be found in Policy and Guidance.
How does the Agency ensure compliance with the Canadian Environmental Assessment Act, 2012?
If an environmental assessment is required by the Agency, proponents cannot proceed with any part of their designated project unless:
- the Minister has issued a decision statement
- the Governor in Council has decided that such effects are justifiable in the circumstances
- the proponent has complied with all conditions in the decision statement
The Agency's enforcement officers verify that the proponent is complying with the decision statement. The Minister may also seek an injunction to stop activities that violate (or could violate) CEAA 2012. Violations of CEAA 2012 can result in fines ranging from $100,000 to $400,000.
Similarly, federal authorities cannot permit a project to go forward in any way until a decision statement has been issued.
What are the timelines and main steps of an Agency-led environmental assessment process?
Under CEAA 2012, the Agency must complete assessments within 365 days.Footnote 8 This timeline starts with the posting of a notice of the commencement of the environmental assessment to the Registry. It ends when the Minister issues the decision statement. Once this timeline ends, a number of important post-decision activities may take place before or while the project is carried out.
For a visual summary of the environmental assessment process, please see the Process Diagram: Environmental Assessments Managed by the Agency [PDF – 78 KB].
- Project description submitted — When a proponent is planning a project that the Agency is the responsible authority for, the proponent must provide the Agency with a description of the designated project. This description must include information set out in the Prescribed Information for the Description of a Designated Project Regulations.
- Project description accepted — The Agency accepts the project description once it is considered to be complete.
- Notification of project consideration and comment period — The Agency posts a notice on its Registry indicating that the Agency is considering if an environmental assessment is required for the designated project. It also posts a summary of the project description and a notice of a 20-day public comment period on the designated project and its potential for causing adverse environmental effects.
- Determining whether an environmental assessment is required — The Agency must decide if an environmental assessment is required within 45 days of posting the notice of consideration to the Registry. In making this determination, the Agency considers:
- the description of the designated project provided by the proponent
- the potential for the designated project to cause adverse environmental effects
- any comments received from the public within 20 days after posting the project description summary online
- the results of any relevant regional studies
The Agency posts an online notice of its decision as to whether an environmental assessment is required.
Environmental assessment required — If an environmental assessment is required, the Agency posts a notice online stating the environmental assessment will begin. This is referred to as the notice of commencement.
- Comment period on draft guidelines — The proponent must prepare an environmental impact statement. This document must identify and assess the environmental effects of the project and the measures proposed to mitigate those effects. This statement must also be in line with guidelines prepared by the Agency. Before the guidelines are finalized, the Agency prepares the environmental impact statement guidelines. For some projects, the Agency posts a draft of the guidelines on its Registry for public comments.
- Final guidelines for environmental impact statement issued — Before finalizing the guidelines for the proponent, the Agency considers public comments that were received by the Agency. This includes comments from Indigenous groups, and input from federal departments. The Agency then issues the final environmental impact statement guidelines to the proponent.
- Participant funding application period — Eligible individuals, incorporated not-for-profit organizations and Indigenous peoples may apply to the Agency's Participant Funding Program. The President of the Agency makes the final decision on each funding request.
- Referral to environmental assessment by Review Panel (or not) — After the notice of commencement is posted online, the Minister has 60 days to determine if an environmental assessment should be referred to a review panel. If the designated project is referred to a review panel, the Agency posts the Minister's decision to refer the environmental assessment to a review panel on the Registry. Note: The timelines and main steps for environmental assessments by review panels are below.
- Proponent completes studies and submits environmental impact statement to the Agency — Once the proponent completes the environmental studies, it prepares and submits its environmental impact statement to the Agency for review.
- The Agency conducts conformity review of the proponent's environmental impact statement — The Agency reviews the proponent's environmental impact statement to verify that it provides the required information to a sufficient level for technical review. If necessary, the Agency may ask for more information or revisions to the environmental impact statement before starting the technical review and public comment period.
- Comment period on the summary of the proponent's environmental impact statement (concurrent with technical review) — A summary of the environmental impact statement and the environmental impact statement (in the language in which it was produced) are posted to the Registry. The Agency solicits comments from the public and Indigenous groups on the potential environmental effects of the project and the proposed measures to prevent or mitigate those effects.
- The Agency conducts technical review of the proponent's environmental impact statement — The Agency reviews the proponent's environmental impact statement. The Agency may ask for clarification or more information on the project's potential environmental effects, the proposed mitigation measures or other information, taking into account input from expert federal authorities, Indigenous groups, and the public.
- Proponent submits any further information requested by the Agency — The Agency reviews the additional information submitted by the proponent for sufficiency and accuracy. If any information gaps remain or clarification is needed, the proponent provides additional information to the Agency.
- Agency prepares draft report and potential conditions — The Agency prepares the draft of the environmental assessment report. It includes the Agency's conclusions and recommendations regarding:
- the potential environmental effects of the project
- the mitigation measures that were taken into account
- the significance of the remaining adverse environmental effects
- follow-up program requirements
- Comment period on draft report and potential conditions — The Agency solicits comments from the public and Indigenous groups during a public comment period. These relate to the draft environmental assessment report including potential conditions. The Agency then finalizes its report.
- Report finalized and submitted to the Minister — The Agency takes into consideration the comments received during the comment period. It then finalizes the environmental assessment report and submits it to the Minister. This report informs the Minister's decision about the designated project.
- Determination of whether significant adverse environmental effects are justified — If the Minister's decision is that the project is likely to cause significant adverse environmental effects, the matter is referred to the Governor in Council. The Governor in Council will then decide if the likely significant adverse environmental effects are justified in the circumstances. The conclusions of the Governor in Council are included in the Minister's decision statement.
- Minister issues decision statement with enforceable conditions — After considering the information, the Minister issues the decision statement to the proponent. This statement includes the Minister's conclusion as to whether the project is likely to cause significant adverse environmental effects.
- Regulatory decision making — If regulatory decision making is required, a number of other federal decisions may need to be made before a project starts, like issuing permits or providing funding. The federal authorities responsible for such decisions may exercise powers or perform duties for the designated project if the decision statement says the project is allowed to proceed.
- Post-decision activities
- Implement mitigation measures and follow-up program — The Proponent is required to build the project as proposed and in compliance with the conditions set out in their decision statement. To this end, the proponent is responsible for implementing mitigation measures identified in the decision statement. The proponent must also comply with the decision statement at all times when carrying out the project. Often monitoring and follow-up programs are also required to verify that the environmental assessment was accurate and the mitigation measures were effective.
- Compliance Promotion and Enforcement — The Agency is then responsible for tracking, promoting, monitoring and verifying compliance with the conditions found within decision statements. The Agency's enforcement officers verify compliance and enforce any conditions included in decision statements by conducting off-site and on-site inspections. Please note: the Agency is not responsible for verifying the compliance for projects where conditions are included as part of an approval under the Canadian Energy Regulator Act, the Nuclear Safety and Control Act, the Canada–Newfoundland and Labrador Atlantic Accord Implementation Act or the Canada-Nova Scotia Offshore Petroleum Resources Accord Implementation Act.
What is an environmental assessment by review panel?
As noted above, after the notice of commencement is posted online, the Minister may determine that it is in the public interest to refer the assessment to an independent review panel. A review panel is a group of independent and impartial experts appointed by the Minister to conduct the environmental assessment and to make conclusions and recommendations to the Minister. The members of a review panel must have knowledge or experience relative to the anticipated environmental effects of a project. They must also be unbiased and free from any conflict of interest relative to the project.
When a proposed project requires an environmental assessment by both the federal government and a province or another jurisdiction, a joint review panel can be established to avoid duplication. A joint review panel agreement would be negotiated between the federal government and the other jurisdiction for each joint review. The agreement outlines the review process and the terms of reference for the panel.
Review panels conduct their assessment independently from government. As such, the Agency may participate in the environmental assessment, including by providing expertise on the potential impacts of the project on Aboriginal and Treaty rights. The Agency is also responsible for ensuring that the Crown's duty to consult, and where necessary, accommodate potential impacts on the rights of Indigenous peoples has been carried out.
Review panels under CEAA 2012 are bound by the rules of "procedural fairness." This means that environmental assessments by review panels need to be conducted fairly and transparently. Participants are entitled to see all of the information that the review panel relies on to make its conclusions and recommendation. All information received is posted on the Registry, unless the review panel has determined it should be kept confidential.
What are the timelines and main steps of an environmental assessment by a review panel?
Under CEAA 2012, a review panel has 24 months to complete its environmental assessment.Footnote 9 The timeline starts when the proposed project is referred to the review panel. It ends when the Minister issues the decision statement.
Steps 1–8 in the process outlined above apply to assessments conducted by a review panel.
9. Referral to review panel — Within 60 days from the posting of the notice of commencement on the Registry, the Minister may refer the environmental assessment to a review panel, if it is in the public's interest to do so. To determine if the designated project should be referred to a review panel, the Minister must consider:
- the potential for the designated project to cause significant adverse environmental effects
- public concerns related to the project's potential adverse environmental effects
- opportunities for coordination with another jurisdiction
In referring the environmental assessment to a review panel, the Minister establishes the time limits (which must be no more than 24 months) for:
- establishing the review panel after the referral
- the review panel to submit its environmental assessment report to the Minister
- the Minister to issue a decision statement informed by the report
10. Comment period on draft terms of reference and joint review panel agreement, if applicable — For a federal-only review panel, the Agency prepares draft terms of reference for the review panel and conducts a public comment period. For a joint review panel, the Agency works with the other jurisdiction to draft a joint review panel agreement, including terms of reference. It also conducts a joint public comment period on the document. The terms of reference set out the mandate of the panel. It outlines the issues to be addressed as well as the procedures and timelines for the review panel.
11. Final terms of reference issued — The Minister (along with the other jurisdiction in the case of a joint review panel) considers public comments. This includes comments from Indigenous peoples and input from federal departments on the draft terms of reference for the review panel. The Minister then issues the final terms of reference. These are posted online.
12. Proponent completes environmental studies and submits environmental impact statement to the government — The proponent prepares its environmental impact statement according to the guidelines provided by the Agency. The statement is submitted to the Agency (and in the case of a joint review panel, to the other jurisdiction) for review.
13. Completeness review of the environmental impact statement — The environmental impact statement is posted online in the language it was written in. The Agency reviews the completeness of the environmental impact statement to ensure it contains all the required information. The Agency then determines if the environmental impact statement contains enough information for the review panel to begin its technical review. To make this decision, the Agency invites comments from the public, including comments from Indigenous peoples and input from other government agencies. After considering these comments, the Agency may ask the proponent for clarification or more information. If more information is required, there may be another comment period on the additional information. The Agency's review does not affect or predetermine the result of the review panel's assessment of the sufficiency of the environmental impact statement.
14. Review panel appointed — Before the end of the completeness review, the Minister (along with the other jurisdiction, in the case of joint review panels) appoints the review panel members. Once the review panel members are finalized by the Minister, review panel appointments are announced and posted online.
15. Proponent revises and submits environmental impact statement information — The proponent revises the information of the environmental impact statement and submits it to the review panel. Revisions are based on direction from government officials at the end of the completeness review.
16. Review panel determines sufficiency of environmental impact statement — The review panel reviews the environmental impact statement to determine if the information provided is sufficient to proceed to public hearings. A public comment period on the proponent's revised environmental impact statement is held at the start of this review. The review panel considers all comments received, as well as its own review of the information. If the review panel believes there is insufficient information to proceed, the proponent will be required to submit additional information. In this case, the panel may provide another opportunity to comment on the additional submitted information.
17. Review panel holds public hearings — Once a review panel determines that it has sufficient information to proceed to hearings, it will issue a hearing notice. This notifies participants about when the public hearings will start. Public hearings provide an opportunity for participants to raise issues and convey their views directly to the review panel. Participants can share thoughts about the designated project and the information related to the designated project. Review panels will also typically issue procedures for the public hearings. They outline any requirements for oral or written submissions during the public hearing.
18. Review panel prepares and submits report to the Minister, and the province or other jurisdiction for joint review panels — After the public hearings, the review panel prepares its report, containing its conclusions, rationale and recommendations on the potential adverse effects of the project. The report includes a summary of the comments received from the public. It also recommends mitigation measures and outlines the follow-up program requirements. It then submits the report to the Minister. In the case of a joint review panel, the report also contains recommendations.Footnote 10 Based on the review panel's report, the Minister decides whether adverse environmental effects are likely to be significant. The role of the review panel ends with the submission of its report.
19. Agency-led comment period on potential conditions — Based on the conclusions and recommendations in the review panel's report, the Agency will prepare potential conditions to be included in the decision statement for the project, if the project is allowed to proceed. The Agency will solicit comments on the potential conditions.
20. Agency-led consultation on the review panel report with Indigenous peoples — Following the submission of the review panel report, the Agency will consult with Indigenous peoples on the conclusions and recommendations of the review panel, in order to help inform the Crown.
21. Determination of whether significant adverse environmental effects are justified — If the Minister's decision is that the project is likely to cause significant adverse environmental effects, the matter is referred to the Governor in Council to determine whether the environmental effects are justified in the circumstances. The conclusions of the Governor in Council are included in these decision statements.
22. Minister issues decision statement with enforceable conditions — After considering the review panel report and the results of the Agency's consultation with Indigenous peoples, the Minister will issue the environmental assessment decision statement. This statement includes the Minister's conclusion as to whether the project is likely to cause significant environmental effects.
- If the Minister's decision is that the project is not likely to cause significant adverse environmental effects — or if the Governor in Council determines that the project's adverse effects are justifiable under the circumstances — the Minister sets out conditions and a follow-up program. The conditions outline mitigation measures and the follow-up program outlines what the proponent must comply with in order to go forward with the proposed project.
Visit our Registry for a list of ongoing environmental assessments by a review panel under CEAA 2012.
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