Long-standing problems impair environmental assessment

(Chapter 1—Applying the Canadian Environmental Assessment Act - Fall 2009 Report of the Commissioner of the Environment and Sustainable Development)

Ottawa, 3 November 2009—Several long-standing problems continue to impair the environmental assessment process set out in the Canadian Environmental Assessment Act, says the Commissioner of the Environment and Sustainable Development, Scott Vaughan, in his Report tabled today in the House of Commons. Over 100 federal organizations are required to apply the Act to projects that could impact the environment, such as the construction of a bridge, upgrading of a water system, or construction and operation of an oil sands mine.

“Assessing the possible effects of projects early in the planning phase is a cornerstone of good environmental management,” said Mr. Vaughan. “Identifying potential impacts such as pollution or habitat destruction, before they occur allows for corrective action to avoid or reduce environmental problems.”

The audit found that the federal government has complied with the requirements of the Act in two types of assessment—comprehensive studies and review panels. However, in screenings, which account for about 99 percent of assessments, the rationale or analysis in half of the files examined was too weak to demonstrate how environmental effects of projects had been considered and whether actions were taken to mitigate them.

The audit also found that the Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency, which administers the Act, has had limited success in working with departments to resolve disputes about the scope of a project, which can determine what type of environmental assessment is required. The Agency does not have the authority to impose a resolution.

The audit also found that the Agency has not established a comprehensive quality assurance program, although it is a requirement of the Act.

“Roughly 80,000 environmental assessments have been initiated since 1995,” said Mr. Vaughan. “Yet because it lacks a quality assurance program, the Agency does not know how good the assessments have been and whether they have contributed to environmental protection.”

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The chapter “Applying the Canadian Environmental Assessment Act” is available on the Office of the Auditor General of Canada website.

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