2014 Fall Report of the Commissioner of the Environment and Sustainable Development

Opening Statement to the Senate Standing Committee on Energy, Environment and Natural Resources

2014 Fall Report of the Commissioner of the Environment and Sustainable Development

2 December 2014

Julie Gelfand
Commissioner of the Environment and Sustainable Development

Mr. Chair, I am pleased to be here before the Committee to discuss my first report to Parliament, which was tabled on October 7th. I am accompanied by Kimberley Leach, Bruce Sloan, and Jim McKenzie, the principals who were responsible for these audits.

I would like to start by providing a bit of background information about myself and how I plan to fulfill my mandate. As some of you may know, I have worked in the federal government, as well as in national and international conservation organizations, and in the mining industry. These past experiences have allowed me to understand the importance and benefits of bringing together different perspectives to the issues of environment and development. It is clear to me that a prosperous economy, a vibrant society, and a healthy environment complement each other. During my mandate, I intend to focus on the federal role in promoting sustainable, long-term development that meets the needs of current generations and does not compromise the ability of future generations to meet theirs.

The audits that I presented in my October 2014 Report underscore that the government does not have the answers to many questions that impact the future of sustainable development in Canada. I will come back to this point later.

Chapter 1—Mitigating Climate Change

When we last looked at climate change commitments in 2012, we concluded that the government’s approach to introducing regulations sector by sector was unlikely to reduce emissions enough to meet the Copenhagen target. Under the Copenhagen Accord, Canada committed to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions to 17 percent below 2005 levels by 2020.

Our most recent audit of climate change showed that little has changed over the last two years. We found that federal measures currently in place will have little effect on emissions by 2020.The government has introduced regulations in the transportation and electricity generation sectors. However, regulations in the oil and gas sector—where emissions are growing the fastest—are still not in place eight years after the government first indicated it would regulate this area.

There is strong evidence that Canada will not meet its international greenhouse gas 2020 emission reduction target. The federal government does not have an overall plan that maps out how Canada will achieve this target. Canadians have not been given the details about which regulations will be developed, when, nor what greenhouse gas reductions will be expected. Finally, the federal government has not provided the necessary coordination so that all levels of government, working together, can achieve the national target by 2020.

Chapter 2—Environmental Monitoring of Oil Sands

The second chapter is on oil sands monitoring, where the federal government is working with the province of Alberta to lay the groundwork for more comprehensive monitoring of the environmental effects of oil sands development.

Our audit examined Environment Canada’s performance under the Joint Canada–Alberta Implementation Plan for Oil Sands. We found that, overall, Environment Canada implemented the monitoring projects we examined on time and on budget.

Nonetheless, there remains work to be done. The monitoring information resulting from the projects that are looking at air, water and biodiversity needs to be better integrated to understand the long term environmental effects of oils sands development, including cumulative impacts. Environment Canada needs to do a better job of integrating traditional ecological knowledge and engaging First Nations, Metis, and other groups. Finally, stakeholders are looking to understand Environment Canada’s role in oil sands monitoring beyond March 2015.

Chapter 3—Marine Navigation in the Canadian Arctic

Our third chapter focused on the services that Environment Canada, Transport Canada, and Fisheries and Oceans Canada provide to support marine navigation in the Arctic. While we found that weather and ice information has improved, we also noted gaps and emerging risks that, if left unaddressed, will only grow as marine traffic increases in the Arctic.

For example, many higher-risk areas in the Canadian Arctic are inadequately surveyed and charted. Some of the maps and charts for the Arctic are over forty years old, and less than a quarter are rated as being “good” by Fisheries and Oceans Canada.

In addition, the Canadian Coast Guard is having difficulty responding to requests from the shipping industry for new or modified aids to navigation, such as beacons and shore lights. Furthermore, the Coast Guard has not assessed the risks associated with decreasing icebreaking presence in the Arctic.

I am concerned that 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.

Chapter 4—Implementation of the Canadian Environmental Assessment Act, 2012

In another audit, we examined whether the Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency, the National Energy Board, and the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission are taking steps to implement the new 2012 Canadian Environmental Assessment Act.

We noted two areas where achieving the objectives of the Act are at risk. The first is that the rationale to identify projects for environmental assessment is unclear. I am concerned that some significant projects may not be assessed, and that decision makers may not receive the information they need to address environmental impacts.

Our second concern relates to public participation. An objective of the new Act was to increase Aboriginal engagement. Many groups, including Aboriginal peoples, are worried that they do not have the capacity to participate meaningfully. This reduces the contribution these groups can make and may diminish public confidence in environmental assessments.

Chapter 5—Departmental Progress in Implementing Sustainable Development Strategies

The last audit covered in this report is part of our annual monitoring of how departments are implementing their sustainable development commitments. This year, we focused on the use of strategic environmental assessments by selected departments to integrate environmental considerations into their proposals to Cabinet and Treasury Board.

While processes have improved, there is still a risk that ministers are not getting complete information on the environmental impacts of proposed programs, plans and policies.

Chapter 6—Environmental Petitions Annual Report

As some members may know, my office administers the environmental petitions process on behalf of the Auditor General. In addition to a monitoring and reporting role, we post petitions and responses on the Office of the Auditor General of Canada’s website and carry out outreach activities.

The last chapter is our annual report on environmental petitions. This year, we received 16 petitions requesting information from government ministers on a range of environmental topics, including the management of fisheries and threats to environmental and human health posed by toxic substances.

To sum up, as this year’s audits show, despite some initiatives and progress in certain areas, there remain many unanswered questions. In many key areas that we looked at, it is not clear how the government intends to address the significant environmental challenges that future growth and development will likely bring about.

Among other questions, the government does not know what Environment Canada’s role will be in oil sands monitoring beyond March 2015. It has not made clear the rationale for what projects will be subject to environmental assessments, and I am concerned that some significant projects may not be assessed. It has also not determined what level of service it will provide in the Arctic to support increased navigation and minimize environment and safety risks. And it has not defined a national plan, with the provinces and territories, to achieve Canada’s international greenhouse gas emission reduction target.

I expect the government to have the answers to these questions. In my report, I have made many recommendations which the departments have accepted. I look forward to seeing the initiatives that will be put in place in response.

Mr. Chair, I am always interested in hearing from parliamentarians about their interests and concerns and would be happy to meet with Senators should they wish to discuss these. Our Office also considers parliamentary committees to be an invaluable ally in promoting accountability in government management of the environment and I look forward to serving parliamentarians in this important role.

Mr. Chair, that concludes my opening remarks. We are happy to answer any questions you may have.