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UPDATE 1-Canada loosens green vetting for stimulus projects

(Adds comments from environmental group)

CALGARY, Alberta, March 16 (Reuters) - Canada’s federal government has given itself the power to decide whether infrastructure projects aimed at stimulating the economy are subject to environmental assessment, a top minister said on Monday.

The move is aimed at streamlining approvals for C$12 billion ($9.4 billion) of public spending being planned to kick-start the country’s flagging economy, Environment Minister Jim Prentice said.

Word of the Conservative government’s policy, which also involves delegating some assessment decisions to the provinces, had already angered environmental groups. It comes into force immediately.

Prentice said decisions on which projects avoid vetting by the Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency will not be based on size or value.

“It’s more a question of, based on the considerable experience we now have in close to 10 years of applying CEAA legislation, whether there are classes or categories of projects which do not ... have adverse environmental consequences,” Prentice told reporters after giving a speech to a business audience in Calgary.

The federal cabinet will make those calls, he said.

Stephen Hazell, executive director of the environmental group Sierra Club Canada, said he did not necessarily disagree that some projects with little likely impact could be fast-tracked, but he criticized the lack of consultation invoking the regulation.

“The bosses in Ottawa can’t get it right all on their own, and this is what’s most disturbing to me,” Hazell said.

“It seems like Minister Prentice doesn’t really have much regard for the various consultative mechanisms that have worked very, very well under Liberal and Conservative administrations,” Hazell said.

Canada’s provincial premiers have all called for approvals to be streamlined so money could start flowing, Prentice said.

“We will also avoid duplication with provincial and municipal processes and the end result will be projects that begin much sooner, creating much-needed jobs more quickly,” he said.

$1=$1.27 Canadian Reporting by Jeffrey Jones; Editing by Peter Galloway