2011 December Report of the Commissioner of the Environment and Sustainable Development

The Commissioner’s Perspective

Introduction

Science helps Canadians make decisions every day, and in the federal government, informed decision making is at the heart of sound policies. Our report this year covers two themes that relate to decision making: how environmental science and monitoring help support sound environmental decision making, and how the enforcement of federal environmental laws and regulations helps to foster good environmental stewardship.

This report includes an audit of environmental science at Environment Canada, as well as a study of federal environmental monitoring systems that shows how scientific analysis supports key decisions. We also include a study of the principles of sustainable fisheries that increases our understanding of how scientific information can help to improve the management of fisheries.

Federal environmental laws and regulations need to be enforced to foster good environmental stewardship. This report presents the audit results of how the federal government is managing the enforcement of some federal environmental laws and regulations according to the Canadian Environmental Protection Act, 1999, the Transportation of Dangerous Goods Act, 1992, and the National Energy Board Act. The last chapter of this report is the annual report on environmental petitions, which summarizes the petitions submitted in the past year, from 1 July 2010 to 30 June 2011, and the performance of federal ministries in responding to petitioners.

Finally, at the end of this Perspective, and as required by law, I comment on the information in Environment Canada’s Progress Report for the government’s Federal Sustainable Development Strategy 2010–2013, submitted in June 2011.

Environmental science and monitoring

Environmental science and Environment Canada

Chapter 2, Environmental Science, examines how Environment Canada is managing various science-based activities, from understanding and managing air and water pollution to determining which of the thousands of chemicals used every day are harmless and which are toxic.

Environment Canada defines itself as a “science-based” federal department: some 3,000 professionals work in various science and technology programs, and over 65 percent of the Department’s annual budget is spent on science and technology. Analysis by Environment Canada indicates that it is among the world’s leaders in producing high-quality environmental research. The Department has a long record of accomplishments. These include taking action on the acid rain that damaged so many lakes and rivers in the 1980s, launching the UV Index in the 1990s to warn of risks from the depleted stratospheric ozone layer, and managing risks from mercury over the last several decades.

Our audit looked at how Environment Canada manages science, from ensuring the quality and strategic relevance of scientific research to communicating scientific evidence to decision makers.

We found that Environment Canada has the necessary systems in place to conduct high-quality science. How it ensures the quality of the scientific research it produces is based on principles of transparency that other world-class, science-based institutions apply so that research findings can be scrutinized and reproduced.

We examined the internal systems that Environment Canada has for informing programs and management of scientific evidence, and we found that good practices are in place. Overall, we found that federal scientists provide input into every major program area of Environment Canada; for example, reducing pollution, conserving nature, and assessing toxicity. Providing scientific evidence to meet the demands of programs and decision makers is a challenge. For example, the training of decision makers typically differs from that of scientists; the two groups use different workplace vocabularies, work on different schedules, and may have different assumptions about what constitutes fact-based decisions.

One important federal program noted in the audit is the federal government’s Chemicals Management Plan. The process for assessing if substances are toxic includes risk assessments. The decision that a particular substance is toxic or not is made publicly available, and is subject to public commentary. The information and rationale are disclosed, allowing for informed opinion and debate, even if there is disagreement regarding a recommendation or a decision. Moreover, seeking public comment provides another benefit: information not considered previously can be submitted by an outside party. That additional information can strengthen the government’s position or lead it to reconsider final recommendations.

Science and transparency

The federal government is required by law to increase its transparency in environmental matters. The specific purpose of the Federal Sustainable Development Act—adopted in 2008—is to increase the government’s transparency and accountability to Parliament for environmental decision making. In my view, the Chemicals Management Plan is a model for the kind of transparency in decision making called for in the Federal Sustainable Development Act.

Transparency is an essential part of effective governance for democratic institutions, international financial markets, scientific research, and multilateral trading systems. Transparency is not a one-way street, whereby information is disclosed to the public after the fact. Instead, it involves a two-way exchange between government and its partners, based on meaningful public participation.

The communication of scientific research to external stakeholders is an important part of transparency. By objectively explaining what science findings mean, scientists can help Parliament and Canadians understand the significance of ongoing scientific research. I encourage the government to clarify when and under what conditions federal scientists are able to communicate the results of their research externally. Chapter 4, A Study of Managing Fisheries for Sustainability, notes that open and well-documented decisions can help in promoting acceptance and compliance between government and its stakeholders.

The federal government—including Environment Canada—conducts scientific research in support of the public interest. Across Canada, First Nations communities possess a wealth of information and traditional knowledge about Canada’s changing environment. Universities, the private sector, and environmental organizations conduct important environmental research each day. However, few if any organizations, aside from the federal government, are capable of conducting credible, long-term environmental research and monitoring at a national level.

The current round of budget reductions facing the federal government underscores how critical it is for Environment Canada to have a strategy that specifies exactly which scientific research and environmental monitoring activities are indispensable and irreplaceable for Canada’s public interest; which activities are duplicated, if any; and which can be performed by others.

In 2007, Environment Canada produced a long-term strategic science plan. It contained three long-term directions for its science activities aimed at ensuring that Canadians can continue to benefit from the Department’s scientific skills and resources. However, our audit found that the plan had not been implemented across the Department. While individual programs have systems to set their own priorities, a department-wide strategic plan for science is more urgent than ever during this period of fiscal restraint.

Environmental studies

This report contains the results of two studies. Chapter 5, A Study of Environmental Monitoring, provides Parliament with an up-to-date inventory of the various federal monitoring systems in place and describes key attributes of an effective monitoring system. The second study, on sustainable fisheries, describes how scientific information can be used to confront the challenges to managing fisheries for sustainability.

Enforcing environmental laws

The second theme of this report is the enforcement of key federal laws and regulations intended to protect Canadians and the environment. We present the results of two audits: one on the transportation of dangerous products, and the other on the enforcement of the Canadian Environmental Protection Act, 1999 (CEPA 1999).

The government has established legislative and regulatory frameworks to protect human health and the environment. Transport Canada, the National Energy Board, and Environment Canada have programs intended to identify those who violate the law and have the authority to make violators take corrective action.

As discussed in Chapter 1, the Transportation of Dangerous Goods Act, 1992 regulates the everyday shipment of goods considered to be dangerous if mishandled. It covers transport systems and substances regulated by Transport Canada, such as industrial acids and petroleum products. The National Energy Board Act governs the shipment of petroleum products through the roughly 71,000 kilometres of oil and gas pipelines that are regulated by the National Energy Board.

Weaknesses in the management practices of Transport Canada’s transportation of dangerous goods program are long-standing. An internal audit conducted in 2006 identified a number of weaknesses in management practices that have yet to be addressed. These include the need for a consistent approach to planning and carrying out Transport Canada’s enforcement activities.

The National Energy Board has developed a sound risk-based approach for monitoring the adherence of regulated companies to established regulations and standards. Of concern is that the Board has yet to review many of the emergency response procedures manuals submitted by regulated companies.

In Chapter 3, Enforcing the Canadian Environmental Protection Act, 1999, we examined the enforcement of the Canadian Environmental Protection Act, 1999, and 45 of its 53 regulations that govern a wide variety of substances and activities in the Canadian economy—from hazardous wastes to contaminated fuels, asbestos, and the disposal of waste at sea. CEPA 1999 is enforced by Environment Canada.

We found that Environment Canada’s enforcement program is not well managed to adequately enforce compliance with CEPA 1999. The Department’s ability to adequately manage the enforcement program is limited by an incomplete knowledge of the regulated community. We noted that some of the regulations are not enforced at all due to a lack of training for enforcement officers or inadequate laboratory tests.

I am concerned that these three organizations have not been diligent in verifying that regulated companies have taken action to correct identified instances of non-compliance.

Assessing the fairness of information in the Progress Report for the Federal Sustainable Development Strategy 2010–2013

As required by section 23(3) of the Auditor General Act, I have assessed the information contained in Environment Canada’s Progress Report for the Federal Sustainable Development Strategy 2010–2013.

My responsibility is to examine the progress report required under section 7(2) of the Federal Sustainable Development Act to assess the fairness of the information in the report with respect to the progress of the federal government in implementing the Federal Sustainable Development Strategy (FSDS) and meeting its targets.

My assessment covered only the information contained in Environment Canada’s Progress Report for the Federal Sustainable Development Strategy 2010–2013. My assessment did not include information referenced by web links included in the report.

Environment Canada’s first progress report on the implementation of the Federal Sustainable Development Strategy 2010–2013 describes the systems and strategies needed to implement the FSDS, and describes how results will be measured and shared in future reports. The report states that subsequent progress reports will track the implementation of the FSDS, and that a second and more substantive progress report will be tabled in the fall of 2012.

The FSDS report does not contain information on the progress of the federal government in meeting the targets set out in the Federal Sustainable Development Strategy that was developed in 2010. As a consequence, at this time, there is no basis for providing an assessment of fairness as required by section 23(3) of the Auditor General Act.

Conclusion

The year 2012 marks the fortieth anniversary of many national environmental ministries in the countries that are members of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). It also marks four decades since the first global meeting was held in Stockholm to examine the planet’s changing environmental conditions. Achievements over this time have shown that environmental stewardship is complex and must be supported by informed decisions based on scientific knowledge and the results of effective environmental monitoring. Canadians look for policy choices that are based on the best available facts. I hope this report will help Parliament hold the government to account for the federal role in the environmental sciences.

 

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