Environmental Monitoring of Oil Sands; Monitoring Water Resources

Opening Statement to the Standing Committee on Environment and Sustainable Development

Environmental Monitoring of Oil Sands

(Chapter 2—2014 Fall Report of the Commissioner of the Environment and Sustainable Development)

Monitoring Water Resources

(Chapter 2—2010 Fall Report of the Commissioner of the Environment and Sustainable Development)

12 May 2015

Julie Gelfand
Commissioner of the Environment and Sustainable Development

Mr. Chair, thank you for this opportunity to contribute to your Committee’s review of the Canada Water Act Annual Report for April 2013 to March 2014. Joining me today are Jim McKenzie and Andrew Ferguson, Principals with our Office.

Fresh water is essential to the health of ecosystems, and in turn, to the well-being of Canadians, who count on fresh water for just about every aspect of their lives. Fresh water also plays an important role in economic and industrial activities in Canada, from the production of goods and services, to recreation and tourism.

But Canada faces water management challenges. The quality and quantity of its water resources are under pressure from a range of sources, including urban runoff and sewage, agriculture, and industrial activities. Other long-term threats include population growth, economic development, climate change, and scarce supplies of fresh water in certain parts of the country.

In 2010, we examined Environment Canada’s management of national programs to monitor water quality and quantity—some of the programs underlying the report being considered by this Committee. At that time, we found that Environment Canada was not adequately monitoring Canada’s surface water resources. We have not assessed the progress the Department has made since 2010 and so cannot comment on any development or improvements in Environment Canada’s fresh water monitoring program that may have occurred since our audit.

In 2010, we found that Environment Canada had not defined the extent of its water monitoring responsibilities, particularly on federal lands such as First Nations reserves, Canadian Forces Bases, national parks and national wildlife areas.

We also found that the Department had not located its monitoring stations based on an assessment of risks to water quality and quantity. In its 2012-2013 Canada Water Act Annual Report, Environment Canada did indicate that it had implemented a risk-based approach in response to our recommendations. However, we are not able to provide assurance to the Committee, as we have not done a follow-up audit on this topic.

We also found that from 2004 to 2009, Environment Canada had not submitted annual reports to Parliament as required under the Canada Water Act. We note that in the past few years, this reporting has improved.

I would now like to discuss the recent findings from our fall 2014 audit on the Joint Canada–Alberta Implementation Plan for Oil Sands Monitoring, a topic covered in the 2013–2014 Canada Water Act Annual Report.

In 2010 and 2011, the governments of Canada and Alberta commissioned independent reviews of the adequacy of oil sands monitoring, prompted by growing concerns about the environmental impacts of the oil sands. The reviews identified significant shortcomings in oil sands monitoring, including the monitoring of water quality. In early 2012, the governments of Canada and Alberta committed to establishing a joint monitoring program for the oil sands and released the Joint Canada–Alberta Implementation Plan for Oil Sands Monitoring.

In the audit we reported on in fall 2014, we examined whether Environment Canada implemented its responsibilities under the Joint Plan according to established timelines and budgets, and the objectives and approaches set out in the Plan.

We found that 60 percent of Environment Canada’s expenditures were allocated for water monitoring projects under the Joint Plan. The work plans related to monitoring of air, water, and biodiversity identified Environment Canada’s responsibilities and included budgets and timelines for deliverables. This is important. In light of the complexity and costs associated with establishing a comprehensive monitoring program for the oil sands, concrete work plans make it more likely that the program will achieve its objectives. We examined nine monitoring projects, including three water monitoring projects, led by Environment Canada and found that most were being implemented according to schedule.

Integrating the information resulting from the separate monitoring of activities across air, water, and biodiversity is also important for ensuring the most complete picture of environmental effects possible. We found that Environment Canada was taking initial steps to integrate the results of monitoring information for two substances—polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons and mercury.

We also found, however, that further efforts were needed to meet commitments to engage stakeholders, including First Nations and Métis, and to incorporate traditional ecological knowledge into Environment Canada’s monitoring activities. We also found that the Department’s role in oil sands monitoring post 2015 was unclear.

In my view, these findings from our work on oil sands monitoring highlight the importance of well-designed water monitoring systems. In a 2011 study report, we examined some of the key characteristics of good environmental monitoring systems and noted some questions that the members of this Committee may wish to consider and pose to the other witnesses. The questions include the following:

Mr. Chair, this concludes my opening remarks. We would be pleased to answer any questions the Committee may have. Thank you.