Budget cuts threaten federal green plan for oilsands and coal: scientist

Published by Postmedia News on Tuesday Jun 12 2012

OTTAWA – Budget cuts to a team of smokestack pollution specialists at Environment Canada could jeopardize the Harper government’s efforts to crack down on pollution from industries such as the oilsands and coal-fired electricity generation, warns a University of Guelph professor, who worked with the special unit of federal scientists.

Environment Minister Peter Kent has suggested, through a spokesman, the government could replace his department’s expertise by relying on outside sources such as the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

But Bill Van Heyst, an associate professor in environmental engineering who specializes in air quality, said the Environment Canada scientists provide a level of independence as well as unique expertise on Canadian industrial practices that the government would have trouble finding elsewhere as it attempts to boost environmental monitoring efforts in the oilsands region.

“If you don`t have a legitimate background in air quality or air quality testing then it`s really easy to make mistakes, and those mistakes are going to make everybody look, in the long run, really bad,” Van Heyst said in an interview with Postmedia News.

A spokesman for Kent said the government doesn`t believe the team`s work would be critical to new environmental policies affecting the oilsands and coal electricity generating sectors. He also said that the department`s enforcement branch would intervene “if we suspect that the information we are receiving (from company reports) is incorrect.”

Van Heyst said he has worked with some privately funded smokestack sampling companies that also have expertise, but warned these specialists face obstacles when hired directly by a private company from industry.

“The thing with using non-government specialists is you could have a company saying they’re running at 100 per cent capacity, but really only running at 70 per cent,” said Van Heyst. “The stack testers from a private engineering company wouldn’t know that. Whereas I think with the Environment Canada team, there’s that level of government authority there and they would have the process knowledge to verify capacity. It adds weight. It adds credibility to stack testers being there.”

Kent’s office has estimated it would save $718,000 annually by eliminating its internal research capabilities on industrial emissions measurements. It also estimated it would need to spend about $115,000 to obtain and analyze data from other external sources, such as the EPA.

Van Heyst recognized the credibility of the EPA’s research capabilities, but noted its expertise would not come cheap. In his work, he said his university would have paid Environment Canada tens of thousands of dollars from his own research funds a few years ago on a project that analyzed the impact of emissions from crematoriums for animals.

“If you have to pay the EPA, you’re just looking at huge costs to bring in another team,” Van Heyst said. “This (Environment Canada) team has a track record. They have a history of working together. They know industry in Canada. They know our extremes in terms of temperature, winter conditions. The EPA may not be as aware of some of the extreme climate conditions that we have to go through, because they simply don’t come across them as frequently.”

All seven members of the smokestack sampling team at Environment Canada have received notices their jobs will be eliminated as part of millions of dollars in proposed federal cuts to scientific research and monitoring of Canada’s air, wildlife, water and oceans.

Kent has warned Parliament in a recent report that budget cuts put his department at risk of losing the scientific expertise it needs to counter ecological threats and protect Canada`s ecosystems. But he also has suggested that changes in the government`s scientific capacity were part of a shift of its resources to the West, highlighting the new oilsands monitoring efforts.

Van Heyst said the soon-to-be disbanded team was in the best position to lead the monitoring efforts on air quality.

“I don`t think people realize the abilities that this team has to offer Canada and the fact that if you lose that, it`s going to be gone for another five to 10 years, because you`re not going to be able to build a group back up with the knowledge and experience that this group has right now,” said Van Heyst, explaining that members of the team sometimes work up to 16 hour days out in the field supporting government efforts to crack down on pollution.

“It`s not like a lot of government employees where they start at nine and finish at 4:30 pm. They actually work until what needs to be done that day is done.”

Kent, who was not immediately available for an interview, is also expected to introduce final regulations this month to crack down on pollution from coal-fired power plants.

Van Heyst explained the Environment Canada team would have more expertise on different industrial practices in Canada`s coal-fired electricity sector, when compared to the U.S. plants.

“It makes sense that you need to have a credible stack-testing teams who knows how to quantify and if this type of source has never been quantified before, this group has the knowledge to develop new methods that will withstand scientific scrutiny,” said Van Heyst.

“That`s what separates (Environment Canada`s team) from any other stack-testing company – it`s the ability to actually come up with new methods.”


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