Federal government failing to enforce laws in oilsands

Blog - Oct. 20, 2010 - By Simon Dyer

You could be forgiven for missing an important oilsands announcement by federal Environment Minister Jim Prentice a few weeks ago, given it came in the aftermath of the media frenzy surrounding the visit of Hollywood director James Cameron to Alberta's oilsands.

But Prentice's announcement of an investigation into the industry-dominated water-monitoring program in the oilsands was an important one. It comes after years of the federal government downplaying its responsibility to ensure responsible environmental management of the oilsands.

The investigation is a great first step, but what we really need is the federal government to step up and take action to enforce all of its laws in the oilsands. Surprising as it may seem, the provincial government isn't the only one with the power to regulate the oilsands. In fact, the federal government has a constitutional responsibility to not only protect Canada's water, but to protect wildlife, meet its climate commitments and ensure appropriate consultation with aboriginal groups.

These areas of responsibility are outlined in a new report released today by three of Canada's leading environmental organizations — the Pembina Institute, Environmental Defence and Equiterre.

Key recommendations for the federal government include:

  • Reconcile oilsands development with Canada's carbon emissions budget, based on the federal government's stated climate change commitments and science-based objectives.
  • Acknowledge and minimize the negative economic impacts of oilsands development by addressing "petro-currency" impacts on Canadian manufacturing and trade, and reinvest oilsands revenues in clean energy while planning for economic diversification and easing the transition for oilsands workers and communities.
  • Protect water quality by setting and enforcing environmental limits to meet the requirements of the Fisheries Act and other federal environmental legislation, including effectively phasing out tailings ponds within a decade.
  • Protect wildlife by enforcing the Species at Risk Act and working with Alberta and Saskatchewan to create a regional network of protected areas, prioritizing the identification and protection of critical habitat for woodland caribou in the boreal forest.
  • Set binding caps on air pollution in the Canadian Environmental Protection Act to avoid acidification and protect human health, and establish an independent, transparent system to monitor air quality.
  • Live up to the legal and constitutional duty to protect the interests of Aboriginal Peoples by ensuring adequate consultation occurs with First Nations communities before approvals are granted for oilsands development, by monitoring environmental and health impacts of oilsands operations, and by enforcing environmental limits within federal jurisdiction.

Adopting these actions would go a long way in reducing the negative impacts of developing the oilsands.

However, if Ottawa continues to focus on managing public relations while neglecting its responsibility to enforce existing laws and regulations, it will not only leave the federal government exposed to continued legal challenges regarding oilsands development, but also expose the oilsands industry to tougher environmental restrictions in the international marketplace.  Most importantly, continued federal absence will leave Canadians more vulnerable to economic uncertainty resulting from tying the value of our dollar to the price of oil.

It is in the interest of all Canadians to ensure that oilsands are developed responsibly. The federal government needs to step up to plate and ensure that this actually happens.


Simon Dyer

Simon is a policy expert with the Pembina Institute. He is based in Calgary.


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