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The Suncor oil sands processing plant near the Athabasca River at their mining operations near Fort McMurray, Alta. (TODD KOROL/REUTERS)
The Suncor oil sands processing plant near the Athabasca River at their mining operations near Fort McMurray, Alta. (TODD KOROL/REUTERS)

Scathing report details Canada’s environmental shortfalls Add to ...

Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s government is not doing enough to reduce carbon emissions, fight climate change and regulate oil and gas emissions, a series of audits from a federal watchdog have found.

The audits, contained in a report published Tuesday, say Canada has no detailed plan to meet its emissions reduction targets, is on pace to fall well short of meeting them and has made no long-term commitment to environmental monitoring in the oil sands region, the fastest-growing source of emissions.

The report offered a sweeping critique of many environmental policies of Mr. Harper’s government, but it was Canada’s poor record on emissions reduction that stood out to Julie Gelfand, the Commissioner of the Environment and Sustainable Development appointed earlier this year.

“My biggest concern is it does not look like Canada will meet its international [emission reduction] commitment. I think that when you make a commitment, you need to keep it, and it’s very difficult for us, for Canada, to expect other countries to meet their commitments when Canada can’t meet its own,” Ms. Gelfand said at a press conference in Ottawa Tuesday. “So the biggest issue I have, when I look at all the chapters, is that the evidence is really not strong that the sector-by-sector approach [to emissions reduction] is going to help Canada achieve its target. Canada is not working with the provinces. There’s no overall plan, national plan, for how we’re going to achieve our target. And climate change is affecting all Canadians.”

Here is what her report found:

1. Canada is not on pace to meet its emissions reductions targets

As part of the Copenhagen Accord, Canada pledged to reduce its emissions by 17 per cent, from 2005 levels, by 2020. Tuesday’s report was the latest in a long string, including some from government, to show Canada is on pace to fall well short of that target. Tuesday’s report goes further in saying that Canada has no detailed plan to meet the targets, and that two-thirds of the reductions the country has made are due to provinces, not Ottawa. “The evidence is pretty strong that we will not meet the target,” Ms. Gelfand said, adding it was the current government’s own target.

2. Oil sands monitoring has met delays – including on a key pollutant

Canada and Alberta announced a Joint Oil Sands Monitoring (JOSM) program in 2012, one set to be in place by 2015. The auditors selected nine of the 38 monitoring initiatives Ottawa is leading under that program and found that the program was largely proceeding on schedule but that four were delayed, due to factors including lack of staff, delayed contracts with laboratories and delays in getting permits to set up monitoring sites. The report notes that Environment Canada says “it is working to address some of these factors,” and, for instance, has “finalized a contract with a laboratory to analyze polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons.” PAHs, as they’re known, are a key pollutant linked to fish deformities and have been a focus of many of the non-governmental studies in the region. Ms. Gelfand said Environment Canada staff say their initial focus has been on monitoring air, water and wildlife. “They’re going to start looking at groundwater, they want to figure out how to look at wetlands. There are more things that they want to look at, so potentially in the future it will all be up and running,” she said.

3. The federal government has no firm plan to monitor the oil sands beyond next year

The report found that Ottawa’s role in environmental monitoring in the oil sands is “unclear” after 2015. Environment Canada’s “continued involvement was important” to stakeholders, but auditors found it “has not yet been determined.” In a written response that was included in the report, the department said it will work with its provincial counterpart “to develop options” on what monitoring will look like after 2015, “including the extent and nature of Environment Canada’s future involvement.”

4. Industry is paying about three-quarters of monitoring costs

In the 2013-2014 fiscal year, Environment Canada led 38 of JOSM’s 58 projects for monitoring air, water and wildlife around the oil sands, spending $24.6-million. Industry repaid about $18.1-million of that.

5. Ottawa finished a draft of oil and gas regulations a year ago

The Conservative government first promised emissions regulations for the oil and gas sector in 2006. They’re critical to meeting emissions reductions targets because the bulk of emissions growth is in oil and gas, but Ottawa hasn’t delivered them in eight years and Environment Minister Leona Aglukkaq has regularly sidestepped questions about when they’ll arrive. Tuesday’s report, however, says a framework for regulations is already done, saying “detailed regulatory proposals have been available internally for over a year,” but government has only consulted privately, largely through a “small working group of one province and selected industry representatives.” Ms. Gelfand said she believes that province was Alberta and that the internal consultation “does not meet the criterion” of a world-class system. “What we found was that the consultation has occurred narrowly and privately. We made a recommendation to the government that they need to develop an overall plan for developing [oil and gas emissions] regulations. Canadians want to know when the regulations are going to come in, what level of regulation it’s going to be, what level of greenhouse gas reduction we’re going to achieve, reporting back to Parliament on a regular basis,” she said.

6. An emissions-reduction committee hasn’t met in three years

One of the two “strategic co-ordinating committees” looking at the sector-by-sector approach to emissions reduction has not met since 2011. It’s unclear what committee this is, but the report found that Canada is unlikely to meet its 2020 emissions reduction targets, and that “the federal government has not provided sufficiently focused coordination to meet its commitment.”

7. Ottawa’s charts are misleading

The Conservative government has pointed often to figures showing a decline in emissions since 2007 (though emissions are currently on pace to increase, not continue decreasing). Tuesday’s report took issue with how those are being presented. The past reductions could be “more easily interpret[ed]” if federal charts offered a “clearer explanation” of what emissions have been mitigated already. This appears to be a subtle dig at the federal tendency to take credit for provincial initiatives, such as Ontario’s elimination of coal power generation. The federal chart in question, released last year, shows emissions would be 862 megatonnes in 2020 without any measures, and 734 megatonnes with them. The target is 612 megatonnes. The federal chart does not specify that two-thirds of the drop – from 862 to 734 – is due to provincial changes. Tuesday’s report suggests making that more clear.

8. Emissions reduction through “accounting rules”

Some of the projected reductions in greenhouse gas emissions are moreso “accounting rules” than “specific” action, the report found. Environment Canada reports project that Land Use, Land-Use Change and Forestry (a category known as LULUCF) will contribute a reduction of 28 megatonnes by 2020. But Tuesday’s report found that is “not the result of specific efforts to reduce emissions.” Instead, it’s predicting that forest harvesting is projected to be lower and that “in effect, the contribution attributed to this sector is partly the consequence of the recent economic recession.”

9. Canada is short on icebreakers

The report found that some of Canada’s six icebreakers are being refitted, leaving at most five available in any season. Beyond that, the two most effective ones are set to be decommissioned by 2022, when only one new one is due to come online. The Coast Guard doesn’t know “whether the services it produces are meeting the needs of users” or whether the “decreasing icebreaker presence” poses a safety risk, the report found.

10. As Arctic waterways open, we need a new roadmap

The report recommends Fisheries and Oceans Canada identify areas of the Arctic that need to be surveyed and charted and make them a priority. It also called on the department to review where navigation aids, such as a beacon, are placed and where new or improved ones should be required. The department has agreed to both recommendations. Transport Canada, in response to another recommendation, has pledged to develop “a long-term approach for marine transportation in Canada’s Arctic waters.” Ms. Gelfand said in a written statement that she is “concerned there seems to be no overall vision of what the federal government intends to provide in this vast new frontier, in terms of modern charts, aids to navigation and icebreaker services, given the anticipated increase in vessel traffic.” As she investigated where the maps were, she added in a press conference that her staff were told “repeatedly there was a lack of resources.”

11. The rules around a key environmental protection are murky

The federal government has no clear guidelines about which projects require an environmental assessment, with the commissioner noting a fear that “some significant projects may not be assessed.”

12. Environment Canada’s response

Environment Canada wrote it “agreed” in response to recommendations in the report, then nonetheless largely rejected some specific proposals in its written responses. For instance, the report noted a “substantial lag” in understanding and reporting how existing emissions regulations are working. The report called on Environment Canada to “publicly report the effects of the regulations currently in place.” The departmental response “agreed” but said it will “continue to report publicly” on its actions, which the report had just said was inadequate. At another point, the report calls for a quantitative description of how the federal government will reduce emissions, including timelines. Environment Canada once again wrote “agreed” in its response but did not actually commit to doing what the report called for, instead listing what it already does. Other departments pledged new action in their responses. Asked about Environment Canada’s answers, Ms. Gelfand said only “I take on faith they will implement the recommendations.”

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