What are Environmental Laws?

What is Environmental Law?

Environmental law is the collection of laws, regulations, agreements and common law that governs how humans interact with their environment. The purpose of environmental law is to protect the environment and create rules for how people can use natural resources. Environmental laws not only aim to protect the environment from harm, but they also determine who can use natural resources and on what terms. Laws may regulate pollution, the use of natural resources, forest protection, mineral harvesting and animal and fish populations.

Early environmental laws

Environmental laws are relatively new in Canadian history. Lawmakers began to pass environmental laws in the twentieth century. The environmental movement began to pick up pace in the 1960s with the majority of environmental laws and regulations being created since that time.

The first environmental law focused on nuisance. When one person’s use of their property interferes with another person’s use of their own property, courts can step in to stop the nuisance. Nuisance laws largely developed through common law decisions in the courts. The laws protect a property owner from having another person or corporation infringe on their right to enjoy their own property. Early environmental laws didn’t focus on protecting the environment as a whole. They also didn’t give standing for a person to sue a polluter if they weren’t personally harmed by the other person’s actions.

What do environmental laws regulate?

Environmental laws in Canada cover a wide range of topics including the following:

Air Quality – Air quality laws protect the air from pollution and may include measures to protect the air from things like ozone depletion.

Water Quality – Environmental laws may protect water from pollution. They may also determine who can use water and how to handle potential problems like treating waste water and managing surface run off.

Waste Management – Municipal waste, hazardous substances and nuclear waste all fall in the category of waste management.

Contaminant Cleanup – Not all environmental law focuses on preventing pollution. Contaminant cleanup deals with addressing pollution after it happens. Laws may include protocols for cleanup as well as civil and criminal punishment for polluters.

Chemical Safety – Chemical safety regulations manage things like pesticide use and chemicals in products like plastic bottles.

Hunting and fishing – Environmental laws may regulate and protect wildlife populations. Lawmakers determine who can hunt and fish and how these activities are regulated.

Environmental law and practice in Canada

While the Canadian Constitution assigns different areas of responsibility to the federal parliament and the provincial legislatures, federal and provincial environmental regulatory regimes frequently overlap. Environmental protection falls primarily under the jurisdiction of the provinces, which have similar but not identical regulatory requirements. However, the federal government does exercise jurisdiction over certain specific matters.
The key federal laws relating to protection of the environment are:
  • Fisheries Act.
  • Transportation of Dangerous Goods Act 1992.
  • Species at Risk Act.
  • Migratory Birds Convention Act 1994.
  • Nuclear Safety and Control Act.
  • Canadian Environmental Assessment Act (CEAA).
Each province and territory has enacted laws to protect the environment. In some areas, such as transportation of dangerous goods and species at risk, provincial legislation tracks the relevant federal legislation. Each province has enacted some form of primary environmental protection law and has created a key environmental regulator:
  • In British Columbia, the principal environmental statute is the Environmental Management Act, administered by the British Columbia Ministry of the Environment.
  • In Alberta, the Environmental Protection and Enhancement Act is administered by Alberta Environment and Sustainable Resource Development.
  • In Saskatchewan, the Environmental Management and Protection Act is the primary environmental law. The primary environmental regulator is the Saskatchewan Ministry of Environment.
  • In Manitoba, the Environment Act is administered by the Manitoba Department of Conservation and Water Stewardship.
  • In Ontario, the Environmental Protection Act and the Ontario Water Resources Act are administered by the Ontario Ministry of the Environment, Conservation and Parks.
  • In Québec, the principal environmental statute is the Environment Quality Act, administered by the Ministry of Sustainable Development, Environment, and the Fight Against Climate Change.
  • In New Brunswick, the New Brunswick Department of Environment and Local Government administers the Clean Air Act and the Clean Environment Act.
  • In Nova Scotia, the Environment Act is administered by Nova Scotia Environment.
  • In Prince Edward Island, the Department of Environment, Labour and Justice is responsible for the administration of the Environmental Protection Act.
  • In Newfoundland and Labrador, the Environmental Protection Act is administered by the Department of Environment and Conservation.
While no two provincial regulatory regimes are identical, all provinces regulate the discharge of contaminants to the natural environment with a combination of objective standards and quantitative standards.
Information originally published at Thomson Reuters and can be found here