HALIFAX — A coalition of about 20 environmental and fisheries groups in Atlantic Canada and Quebec says the federal government appears poised to take a big step backward when it comes to protecting the oceans.

The Offshore Alliance staged a news conference and protest march in downtown Halifax today to raise awareness about a federal discussion paper that says changes are coming to the way environmental assessments are handled for major offshore oil and gas projects.

The paper, released in June, says Ottawa is considering streamlining the process to have it handled by one agency instead of three separate authorities.

More importantly, the alliance says it is worried about a proposal that could see assessments conducted jointly with the federal-provincial offshore petroleum boards in Nova Scotia and Newfoundland and Labrador.

Gretchen Fitzgerald, a director with the Sierra Club Canada Foundation, says the regulatory boards should not be involved because their roles as industry promoters put them in a conflict of interest when it comes to protecting the environment.

Fitzgerald says the federal government could introduce legislation within weeks.

The Canadian Press