Skip to main content

Mining trucks carry loads of oil laden sand after being loaded by huge shovels at the Albian Sands oils sands project in Ft. McMurray, Alberta in this August 5, 2005 file photo.AP Photo/Jeff McIntosh

The federal government's information about greenhouse-gas emissions and oil sands pollution is so spotty that key decisions are being made without fully understanding the consequences, says the environmental auditor.

There's no way of telling whether Ottawa is on track to meet its targets for cutting greenhouse gases, environment commissioner Scott Vaughan says in a new report.

And in the booming oil sands area of Alberta, Ottawa can't possibly understand how the environment of the broader area is being affected because it doesn't have basic information or proper monitoring tools, Mr. Vaughan said.

"When there are several development projects in the same region, it's important to understand their combined impacts on the environment and how to minimize them," he said.

"Failure to prevent environmental impacts from the start can lead to significant problems down the road."

He said Fisheries and Environment Canada have been warning for more than a decade that they lack sufficient information to assess the combined impact of the massive oil sands developments.

They're concerned about the impact on the lower Athabaska region, and the wider Mackenzie Basin of the Northwest Territories.

Yet the warnings have largely been ignored, until recently, the audit said.

"During our audit, we found that, despite repeated warnings of gaps in environmental information, little was done for almost a decade to close many of those key information gaps."

Some of the environmental effects of the oil sands are actually well-understood, Mr. Vaughan states.

The government has realized that the projects are an enormous source of greenhouse-gas emissions, and that air pollution from the oil sands has doubled over a decade. This air pollution has led to acid rain, putting lakes and forests in the larger area at risk, the audit says.

But insufficient or inadequate monitoring means the government does not understand the impact that airborne toxic substances are having on water and wildlife, nor has it come to grips with the potential impacts downstream.

"As a consequence, decisions about oil sands projects have been based on incomplete, poor, or non-existent environmental information that has, in turn, led to poorly informed decisions."

But the government has also recognized that it has significant shortcomings, and is pursuing a plan to fix them, the report notes.

In July, Environment Minister Peter Kent introduced a new monitoring system that is meant to be "world class." It looks at the impact of the oil sands on biodiversity, air and water in the broader region around the oil sands.

"In my view, the federal government has taken an important step forward by both acknowledging the deficiencies of the current system and setting out a detailed plan to fix them," says Mr. Vaughan's report.

He warns that Ottawa needs to make good on all its words before progress can be certain. And he hopes that as other fragile parts of Canada are developed – such as Canada's North, the Bay of Fundy and the Great Lakes – the government will use the lessons it has learned from the oil sands and implement proper environmental monitoring from the start.

The commissioner also looked at the government's progress in cutting greenhouse-gas emissions more generally, as required by the Kyoto Protocol Implementation Act. While Stephen Harper's administration has made no secret that it does not intend to live up to its Kyoto commitments, the review is required by law and gives an overview of how Canada's emissions reductions are progressing.

The answer: not well.

The government may have distanced itself from the Kyoto commitments, but it has not thoroughly replaced them with other tangible and coherent plans, the report says.

Ottawa has repeatedly scaled back on its commitment to cut greenhouse gases, the report notes, but at the same time has spent about $10-billion in various scattered attempts to control emissions – which rose 24 per cent between 1990 and 2008.

"The expected emission reductions have dropped from 282 million tones in the government's first plan to 28 million tones in 2010, a drop of approximately 90 per cent," the report states.

At the same time, government spending on emissions-reduction plans is very difficult to track and is not linked to specific results, Mr. Vaughan warns. And about $6-billion-worth of initiatives won't really achieve any emissions reductions at all, at least not any time soon.

The report points out numerous difficulties in just knowing how greenhouse-gas reductions are measured now, let alone how they will be reduced in the future.

"The government has not put in place management systems and tools needed to achieve, measure and report on greenhouse gas emission reductions," the report says.

Emission reductions for 2008 were published for the first time in 2010, but the results weren't validated or verified.

"Thus it is not possible to know the extent to which the reported actual GHG reductions are credible," the report says.

Given the lack of information and the spotty measurements in place, it's hard to know whether or not Ottawa is on track to meet even its reduced commitments to cut emissions by 17 per cent below 2005 levels by 2020, Vaughan said.

"It is unclear whether the federal government will be able to achieve these new reduction targets until a coherent system is in place that has clear objectives, timelines, interim targets, and expectations with key partners," the audit says.

As is the custom, the government has a chance to respond to the audit before it is published. It promises to take most of the recommendations to heart, and points out that it has several major plans in the works to improve monitoring, especially in the oil sands.

But Environment Canada is also going through a serious cost-cutting exercise that will mean hundreds fewer scientists and staffers over the next year.