Strategic and Regional Environmental Assessments

AuthorJason MacLean, Bram Noble, and Jill Blakley
 17
Strategic and Regional Environmental
Jason MacLean, Bram Noble, and Jill Blakley
Strategic environmental assessment (SEA) is based on the understand-
ing that many of the decisions that help ensure sustainability outcomes
occur long before project proposals are assessed. In Canada, SEA was
formally established in the early 1990s through a Cabinet directive. It
emerged independently of project-based environmental assessment
(EA), making Canadian SEA among the “rst of the new generation of
SEA systems that evolved in the 1990s.”1 The federal Cabinet Directive
on the Environmental Assessment of Policy, Plan and Program Propos-
als mandates a SEA whenever a federal agency or department submits
a policy, plan, or program (PPP) proposal to a minister or Cabinet for
approval. The performance to date of federal SEA in Canada, however,
is at best mixed, and its ability to help achieve sustainability objectives
is questionable.2 The federal SEA paradigm has been deeply rooted in
and restricted by its use as an impact assessment (IA) tool reecting the
1 Barry Dalal-Clayton & Barry Sadler, Strategic Environmental Assessment: A Sourcebook
and Reference Guide to International Experience (London, UK: Earthscan, 2005) at 61.
2 Bram Noble et al, “Eectiveness of Strategic Environmental Assessment in Canada
Under Directive-Based and Informal Practice” (2019) 37:3–4 Impact Assessment and
Project Appraisal 344. See also Government of Canada, “The Cabinet Directive on the
Environmental Assessment of Policy, Plan and Program Proposals” (Ottawa: Privy Coun-
cil Oce & Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency, 2016), online: Government
Strategic and Regional Environmental Assessments | 373
traditional principles and practices of project EA. This is not surprising.
Globally, SEA was originally conceived as a tool for assessing environ-
mental impacts at the time when PPPs are proposed, with current
motivation for its application oen being compliance and the delivery
of an EA report.3 Most systems of SEA that have emerged over the last
thirty-plus years, including in Canada, reect this traditional approach
and are built largely on project-based EA thinking.4
The recently implemented Impact Assessment Act (IAA)5 introduces
a potentially new role for SEA in Canada. SEA provisions in the legis-
lation do not replace the SEA Cabinet directive, eectively introducing
a dual-track system, but the IAA may provide an opportunity to shi
SEA thinking and practice beyond the traditional EA-like mindset. SEA
is fundamentally about shaping the formulation and implementation
of PPPs, enabling them to proceed in a more sustainable manner, and
ensuring that development choices align with desired outcomes.6 The
exploration of strategic options, including alternative PPP scenarios,
is thus central to how SEA informs and guides planning and deci-
sion-making processes. Providing direction to both higher and lower
tiers of decision making, good SEA is integrated with the legislative,
administrative, and institutional contexts in which PPPs are concep-
tualized, formulated, and implemented, thus informing and improv-
ing institutional decision-making culture and processes.7 Assessing
the impacts of PPPs is a necessary feature of SEA but is not sucient.8
Ultimately, the true test of SEA is whether it serves to identify oppor-
tunities for and facilitate transitions toward a more sustainable future.
of Canada www /programs/strategic-
3 Vincent Lobos & Maria Partidario, “Theory Versus Practice in Strategic Environmental
Assessment (SEA)” (2014) 48 Environmental Impact Assessment Review 34.
4 Bram Noble, “Transforming IA from the Outside in: Capacity and Levers for Stra-
tegic Assessment” (2020) 38:2 Impact Assessment and Project Appraisal 122. Note that
throughout this chapter we refer to both EA and IA, and for the purposes of the
discussion here, we consider these terms interchangeable.
5 SC 2019, c 28, s 1.
6 Noble et al, above note 2.
7 Ibid.
8 Bram Noble & Kelechi Nwanekezie, “Conceptualizing Strategic Environmental Assess-
ment: Principles, Approaches and Research Directions” (2017) 62 Environmental Impact
Assessment Review 165.

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