Globe editorial

Ottawa still has a role to play in environmental regulation

The Globe and Mail

A highway loops around a tailings pond at the Syncrude facility as seen from a helicopter tour of the oil sands near Fort McMurray, Alta. (Jeff McIntosh/CP)

In this year’s federal budget, Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s government outlined a plan to streamline federal and provincial environmental regulations, to reduce overlap and delays in resource development. It’s a sensible premise, but news this week that Ottawa plans to effectively defer to Alberta on greenhouse-gas rules - allowing it to place fewer limits on carbon emissions from oil-sands development than might otherwise be the case - raises concerns about what it will lead to.

Story continues below ad

The decision is based on the concept of “equivalency,” which would allow Alberta and the other provinces to swap federal regulations for their own, so long as they seek to achieve federal emission-reduction targets.

At first blush, this seems reasonable. The objective, after all, is to get Canada to its goal of cutting overall greenhouse gas emissions by 17 per cent from 2005 levels; under the Copenhagen Accord, Canada is committed to doing that by 2020. Alberta’s oil patch wants to meet reduction targets in a way that won’t kill jobs and competitiveness. Similarly, Nova Scotia wants flexibility to keep some of its coal-fired generators running longer, as it boosts imports of cleaner hydroelectric power.

The problem is that oil-sands production is exploding. Even as the industry becomes cleaner, the emissions-reduction challenge grows tougher.

Environment Minister Peter Kent acknowledged this week that GHG emissions from the oil sands are on pace to more than double from 2005 levels, without intervention. The federal government can ill afford to remove itself from a discussion of what that intervention looks like.

In some regards, such as financial markets, Ottawa favours strong national regulation – continuing to work toward a single national securities regulator, and arguing that the current system of 13 provincial and territorial regulators is costly and confusing. Yet when it comes to the environment, it seems comfortable with the notion of 13 different regulatory regimes.

That goes beyond streamlining, and into something more akin to provincial autonomy in an area where it has not hitherto existed, with the risk of a patchwork system that does not offer consistent protection. Surely there is room for give-and-take, as the federal government works with the provinces to make environmental scrutiny more efficient.

Follow us on Twitter: @GlobeDebate