Canadian government pledges to correct secretive environment policies

Oilsands projects that require high pressure steam injected deep underground were excluded from a list requiring mandatory environmental reviews.

Oilsands projects that require high pressure steam injected deep underground were excluded from a list requiring mandatory environmental reviews.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s government has agreed to correct a murky and secretive review process for industrial projects, says a new audit tabled in the Canadian Parliament on Tuesday.

The Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency, the National Energy Board and the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission all told auditors in the report that they would improve weaknesses identified by the audit, including a lack of transparency, the absence of documented evidence to support decisions on project approvals, and inadequate tools to allow for public and aboriginal participation in reviews.

Nearly 3,000 environmental assessments were cancelled in July 2012 after Parliament adopted the Conservative government’s proposal to replace long-standing environmental laws with new ones that reduced federal oversight. The audit said that only 37 environmental reviews began after the new laws were adopted.

“Thorough analysis and public disclosure are cornerstones of effective and transparent regulatory processes and accountability in decision making,” said the audit, released by Julie Gelfand, the assistant auditor general and federal environment commissioner. “They also create confidence and predictability in the environmental assessment process. Greater clarity in identifying projects to undergo environmental assessment would allow Canadians to better understand why certain types of projects will be assessed and why other projects will not be assessed.”

The government said in 2012 that its overhaul of environmental laws was meant to focus resources on the most significant projects, but the new audit released by Gelfand said the federal environmental assessment agency didn’t have a clear process for identifying those major projects.

“Most of the agency’s processes and the rationales on which recommendations are based are not made public,” said the audit. “As the intent of the new legislation is to focus on projects that have the greatest potential for significant adverse environmental effects, it is important for the agency to have a clear, transparent basis for identifying those projects.”

The agency told auditors it would “more rigorously document” evidence used in its decisions, and that it would commit to “increasing public information about the process.”

Gelfand noted in her report that effective environmental assessments can reduce risks of harm as well as help developers improve projects.

“Their environmental review process has been discredited.” – NDP environment critic Megan Leslie.

The federal government has an outstanding bill of nearly $11 billion to clean up sites contaminated by industrial development, according to public accounts records tabled in Parliament in 2013.

Gelfand’s report also said that there was no clear rationale for the makeup of a list of projects requiring mandatory reviews. This list excludes some activity such as in situ oilsands projects and wind turbines.

Other chapters of Gelfand’s report covered a range of topics. One section highlighted delays and a failure to address climate change and adopt good practices needed to meet Harper’s international commitments on global warming.

It said the federal government’s plan wasn’t world class and was failing on multiple fronts.

“The environment commissioner is confirming that the government doesn’t take the environment seriously,” said NDP environment critic Megan Leslie in the House of Commons. “The Conservatives will miss their own greenhouse gas emissions reduction target for 2020 and their environmental review process has been discredited.”

Another chapter of the report found that Environment Canada was behind schedule on four out of a sample of nine selected projects related to its oilsands monitoring program, including analysis of contaminants in water.

“A number of factors contributed to these delays such as insufficient staff, delays in establishing contracts with laboratories, and difficulties in obtaining leases or permits for establishing monitoring sites,” said the audit.

Although the federal department had finalized one contract with a lab to analyze polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons in water, it told the auditors it still needed to “prioritize” which samples would be analyzed by March 31, 2015.

“It’s a little like saying: ‘Well I agree that cigarette smoking is bad for me and then lighting up simultaneously.’” -Liberal environment critic John McKay.

Environment Canada has previously attempted to downplay the toxicity of this toxin – a by-product of fires or burning fossil fuels – providing a script for its scientists that asked them to claim it was similar to BBQ steak.

Overall, across 38 monitoring projects, Environment Canada had only incorporated traditional ecological knowledge in three of those, due to a failure to properly engage with the local aboriginal communities.

This chapter also raised questions about whether the federal government would continue supporting the program, introduced in response to international criticism about the industry’s environmental impacts.

When asked about the oilsands program in July, Environment Canada declined to say whether it was committed to ongoing funding of the monitoring program.

Instead it said in a media statement at that time that discussions with the provincial government and “regional stakeholders” were still underway. The monitoring plan itself, estimated to cost about $50 million per year with industry funding, does not monitor individual facilities or verify whether facilities are breaking any rules.

Liberal environment critic John McKay says the most bizarre part of the report is that the government said it agreed with the commissioner’s findings.

“It’s a little like saying: ‘Well I agree that cigarette smoking is bad for me and then lighting up simultaneously,’” said McKay, in an interview.

The audit also found that the government had inadequate charts and surveys for Arctic shipping routes, needed for potential emergency response following accidents or incidents.

“Unfortunately, it seems that the only ships in the Canadian Arctic that the Harper Conservatives care about are the ones that were on the Franklin Expedition,” said Green Party Leader Elizabeth May.

Environment Minister Leona Aglukkaq defended the government’s record in the Commons, saying that it was protecting the environment and the economy at the same time.

Transport Minister Lisa Raitt said the government accepted recommendations about Arctic shipping and was grateful for the report.

“At Transport Canada, however, we have been working on this issue for a very long period of time, and as most members should know and remember, we have a great world-class tanker panel that has been looking at safety, including specifically on shipping in the north,” Raitt told the Commons.

“We understand that the panel will soon be completing its second phase. I am very much looking forward to the report because it shows that this government is on this issue.”

Gelfand said in her report that all of the issues raised in her report raise similar questions about avoiding future economic and social costs.

Canadians expect the government to prepare for the future,” Gelfand said. “In each case it is likely that a lack of action today will translate into higher costs tomorrow.”

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