Departing environmental commissioner challenges Ottawa to step up protection

Blog - Feb. 11, 2013 - By Clare Demerse

As parting shots go, Scott Vaughan’s was a powerful one.

With the release of his final report as Commissioner of the Environment and Sustainable Development last week, Vaughan made the case that the development of our natural resources is running dangerously ahead of Canada’s laws and policies to protect the environment.

Although the report offers numerous illustrations of this trend, perhaps the clearest one come from its audit of liability limits for offshore oil and gas spills. Right now, the absolute (“no fault”) limit that oil and gas companies face if there’s an offshore spill is just $30 million on the Atlantic coast and $40 million in the Arctic.

Clearly, you can’t clean up a major oil spill for $40 million; you could barely build a community rec centre for that price. Indeed, as the report points out, BP’s Deepwater Horizon spill is estimated to have cost over US$40 billion. Canada’s current system leaves taxpayers on the hook for the costs above that liability cap, and the government hasn’t updated that limit in over 20 years.

In sharp contrast, Norway has no cap at all in its liability regime, providing a model that the federal government would be well advised to adopt.

But as Vaughan explains in his overview of the report, his concern doesn’t stem from any one specific policy gap. He points instead to a trend that he has documented in report after report in his five-year tenure as Canada’s environment commissioner — and it’s that accumulation of evidence that leaves him concerned “that environmental protection is failing to keep pace with economic development.”

We couldn’t agree more.

It should be common sense that as we ramp up natural resource development in Canada, putting our environment under unprecedented stress and strain, our governments respond with an equally strong effort to protect our environment.

But instead, as the Environment Commissioner’s office has documented, there’s a growing gap between development and protection. We’re flooring it on natural resource development while the laws and rules protecting our environment are stuck in neutral; in some cases, they’re actually in reverse.

Or as Mr. Vaughan put it to the journalists covering his report, “We know that there is a boom in natural resources in this country and I think what we need now — given the gaps, given the problems we found — is a boom in environmental protection in this country as well.”

It’s important to say that this shortfall in environmental protection isn’t inevitable: all of the “gaps” that Mr. Vaughan documents could be closed if the government decided to make it a priority.

Listening to our customers

Some of the benefits of ramping up environmental action, like caring for our natural heritage or giving Canadians a legacy they can be proud of, are obvious. But Mr. Vaughan is careful to point out a benefit that still gets less attention from the general public, although it’s a frequent topic of conversation among those who follow energy policy. That’s the need to satisfy the concerns of the customers who buy Canada’s natural resources.

As Vaughan explained, “A key challenge in expanding Canada’s development and export of natural resources — from oil and gas to minerals and metals — will involve meeting or exceeding the environmental standards and consumer expectations of foreign markets.”“A key challenge in expanding Canada’s development and export of natural resources — from oil and gas to minerals and metals — will involve meeting or exceeding the environmental standards and consumer expectations of foreign markets.”

— Scott Vaughan

That pressure is already real. For example, newly minted Secretary of State John Kerry, a well-known advocate of tackling climate change, is almost certain to ask tough questions about Canada’s track record on greenhouse gas emissions as he considers the Keystone XL pipeline proposal. (In fact, 60 U.S. environmental and faith groups have already called on Secretary Kerry to reject the pipeline on the grounds of its consequences for global warming.)

And maybe it’s that need to live up to our customers’ expectations, more than any of the other careful research in Mr. Vaughan’s report, that will finally get the attention of the federal government.

The government’s response

The prime minister told the House of Commons that Mr. Vaughan’s report contains “useful suggestions,” and that “as we see the growth in resource development over the decades to come, there will have to be enhanced measures of environmental protection.”

More surprisingly, Mr. Harper declared that “the polluter pay principle is at the heart of this government's environmental philosophy. We favour a policy of responsible resource development.”

Perhaps the Prime Minister manages to tune out his MPs’ daily attacks on carbon pricing — a premiere example of a “polluter pays” policy that the Harper government has categorically rejected. Unfortunately, Vaughan’s report shows that “responsible resource development” is still just a government slogan, not yet a reality.

The departments and agencies audited in this report have formally accepted all of its recommendations. Time will tell whether they’ve really heard Mr. Vaughan’s message.

Meanwhile, Mr. Vaughan’s departure leaves open the crucial position of Commissioner of the Environment and Sustainable Development, Canada’s watchdog on environmental protection. We’ll be watching closely for news of his replacement, hoping to see the appointment of someone of equal rigour, fair-mindedness and the ability to tell it like it is.

Clare Demerse
Clare Demerse

Clare Demerse was the director of federal policy at the Pembina Institute until 2014.


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