Opening Statement to the Subcommittee on Bill C-38 (Part III) of the Standing Committee on Finance
Protecting Fish Habitat
Applying the Canadian Environmental Assessment Act
Assessing Cumulative Environmental Effects of Oil Sands Projects
29 May 2012
Commissioner of the Environment and Sustainable Development
Mr. Chair, thank you for inviting me. We thought it would be useful to refer briefly to three past chapters of relevance to the Subcommittee’s deliberations.
Fisheries Act and the Fish Habitat Policy
In 2009, we examined how the government’s fish habitat policy was being implemented. We noted that protecting fish habitat was critical to safeguard places where fish spawn, feed, grow, and live, as well as to support aquatic and terrestrial wildlife, and to protect the quality of freshwater for Canada’s lakes and rivers.
We found that Fisheries and Oceans Canada (DFO) and Environment Canada could not demonstrate that fish habitat was being adequately protected.
For instance, DFO did not measure habitat loss or gain. It also had limited information on the state of fish habitat—that is, on fish stocks, the amount and quality of fish habitat, contaminants in fish, and overall water quality.
We reported that past streamlining efforts to focus limited resources on projects that pose a higher risk to habitat showed little sign of success. For example, monitoring of mitigation measures by DFO was rarely done. We also reported that Environment Canada actively enforced only two of the six pollution regulations under the Fisheries Act.
Canadian Environmental Assessment Act
Turning to our past work presented to Parliament related to the Canadian Environmental Assessment Act.
In 2009, we examined the overall implementation of the Act. Our findings were bothpositive and negative. For comprehensive studies and panel reviews, we observed compliance with the Act’s requirements. However, various problems hindered the most common category of assessments—screenings.
Screenings are currently used to assess environmental effects for a wide range of projects. These are often small projects. However, screenings are also currently conducted for more significant undertakings such as mines, dams and some offshore energy development projects (under a certain production threshold). Although mitigation of negative environmental effects was required in over 75 percent of screenings we reviewed, there was little evidence that mitigation measures were actually completed.
In the fall of 2011, we examined how cumulative environmental effects as referenced in the Canadian Environmental Assessment Act were being considered. Specifically, we examined projects in the oil sands region of Northern Alberta.
The audit found information gaps over the past decade—gaps in scientific data that is needed to determine the combined environmental effects of multiple projects in the same region. These include impacts on water quantity and quality, air quality, on fish and fish habitat, as well as more general effects on land and terrestrial and aquatic ecosystems.
We noted the significant progress the government had made in announcing in 2011 a new environmental monitoring system for the region. This system would be capable of establishing baseline environmental data critical to understand the cumulative impact of projects.
Mr. Chair, in conclusion, let me suggest some questions the Subcommittee members may wish to explore in relation to the Canadian Environmental Assessment Act and the Fisheries Act.
First, the Subcommittee might consider reviewing what types of projects will be included as well as excluded under the proposed changes to the Canadian Environmental Assessment Act, including the thresholds or criteria used to establish the project list. The Subcommittee may wish to explore whether certain projects—now requiring a screening-level environmental assessment—will be excluded entirely from the list of designated projects to be finalized with the regulations. Examples that come to mind include some offshore oil and gas projects and activities, certain mining developments, and aquaculture.
The Subcommittee may also wish to identify how assessment of cumulative effects will be carried out, in light of substitution and equivalency to be handled by the provinces.
Finally, on the proposed changes to fish habitat, a general question is how the proposed focus on commercial, recreational, or Aboriginal fisheries will align with assessing aquatic biodiversity and ecosystems more broadly.
Mr. Chair, this concludes my opening comments. I would be happy to answer the Members’ questions.