Commissioner of the Environment and Sustainable Development’s Opening Statement—2015 Fall Reports Press Conference

2015 Fall Reports of the Commissioner of the Environment and Sustainable Development Commissioner of the Environment and Sustainable Development’s Opening Statement

Good morning. My name is Julie Gelfand, and I am the Commissioner of the Environment and Sustainable Development. I am pleased to be here today to present the findings of three audits which we completed in the Fall of 2015, and also to provide our annual report on environmental petitions. Our full reports were tabled in Parliament this morning.

Before going into the results of our audits, I want to take a minute to talk about sustainable development and climate change. I raise these two topics in the preface to our reports. I believe that these two issues are intertwined, and that they are among the most pressing of our times.

In September 2015, Canada and 192 other countries committed to the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development [PDF], and to achieving the related 17 Sustainable Development goals.

In addition, prior to the UN Climate Change Conference which took place in Paris in December 2015, Canada indicated that it would reduce its greenhouse gas emissions by 30 percent compared to 2005 levels, and that it would do so by 2030. Since then, the government has indicated that it considers this target to be a minimum, and it has committed to work with the provinces to develop a Canadian plan to tackle climate change.

This country’s next Federal Sustainable Development Strategy is due in 2016. The full integration into this next strategy of the 2030 Agenda and the Paris climate change commitments will be a clear indicator of Canada’s commitment to sustainable development and responding to climate change. I look forward to reporting to Parliament on the government’s progress in achieving these all-important goals.

Let’s turn now to the results of our audit work. The first audit we are reporting on today looked at how the Pest Management Regulatory Agency has managed selected aspects of its mandate. The Agency is tasked with determining which pesticide products should be registered for use in Canada, and under which conditions. There are currently about 7,000 pesticides, containing some 600 active ingredients, available in the Canadian marketplace.

The Pest Management Regulatory Agency is required to re-evaluate the safety of registered pesticides every 15 years. Ninety-five percent of the Agency’s re-evaluations result in additional precautions to protect human health or the environment.

During the period under audit, the Agency completed some 14 re-evaluations per year. At the end of our audit, more than six times that number remained incomplete. With more re-evaluations due to start each year, the Agency needs to quicken its pace to prevent unacceptable risks to people and the environment from the unsafe use of pesticide products.

I am also concerned that it took the Agency an average of five years—and up to 11 years—to remove some pesticides from the market when it determined that they posed unacceptable risks for all uses.

The Pest Management Regulatory Agency may grant a conditional registration when it finds that it needs more information to confirm its assessment of a product’s value, and of the risks to human health or the environment. During the time that a pesticide is conditionally registered, it can be bought and used, and other products containing the same active ingredient may also be marketed.

We found that nine products remained conditionally registered for more than a decade. Eight of these belonged to the neonicotinoid class of pesticides. These products continue to be used extensively in Canada despite widespread concern that they may pose a threat to bees, other pollinators, and broader ecosystems. We did note that last week, the Agency announced that it will no longer grant conditional registrations starting June 1 of this year.

Our next audit examined the National Energy Board’s oversight of federally regulated pipelines. The Energy Board sets the requirements that companies must satisfy to ensure the safe operation of some 73,000 kilometers of pipelines that are used to transport oil and gas to customers in Canada and abroad.

Our audit concluded that the Board did not adequately track companies’ implementation of pipeline approval conditions, and that it was not consistently following up on company deficiencies. We found that the Board’s tracking systems were outdated and inefficient.

We also concluded that the National Energy Board is facing on-going challenges to recruit and retain specialists in pipeline integrity and regulatory compliance.

With the anticipated increase of pipeline capacity and the coming into force of the Pipeline Safety Act by June 2016, it is clear that the National Energy Board needs to do more to keep pace with the rapidly changing context in which it is operating.

Our final audit examined selected departments’ progress in meeting the commitments made in their sustainable development strategies to strengthen their strategic environmental assessment practices.

Cabinet has required since 1990 that 26 government departments and agencies carry out strategic environmental assessments of the proposed programs and policies they submit to ministers when implementation could have important positive or negative impacts on the environment.

In our 2015 audit, we found that the current Cabinet directive was applied to only 5 of the more than 1,700 proposals submitted to ministers responsible for Agriculture Canada, the Canada Revenue Agency, Canadian Heritage, and the Department of Fisheries and Oceans. This means, for example, that no information about potential important environmental effects was provided to support the proposal for the 2015 Pan American and Parapan American Games. The Cabinet directive was also not applied to the proposed transfer, for the purposes of building a hospital, of 60 acres of land of designated historic importance.

Today, we also presented Parliament with our annual report on environmental petitions. These petitions are an important mechanism created by Parliament as a way for Canadians to get answers from federal ministers to their questions relating to the environment and sustainable development. The Office of the Auditor General administers the petitions process.

This year, our Office received 15 environmental petitions on a range of topics, including the transport of hazardous substances and concerns about human and environmental health.

In 97 percent of cases, departments and agencies provided their responses within the 120-day statutory deadline. Overall, these responses were complete and relevant.

Past petitions have prompted such action by federal departments as new environmental projects, follow-up on alleged violations, and changes or clarifications in policies and practices. I encourage Canadians to use this important mechanism.

I am now ready to answer your questions.