Is federal environmental protection keeping pace with resource development?

Is federal environmental protection keeping pace with resource development?

Is federal environmental protection keeping pace with resource development?

The answer seems to be NO.

The most recent Report of the Commissioner of the Environment and Sustainable Development (the “Report”) was tabled last week. The Report examines three federal programs which are meant to ensure that natural resource development happens in a responsible and sustainable manner. These programs are:

  • protecting oceans by establishing marine protected areas;
  • managing environmental risks associated with offshore oil and gas development; and
  • setting financial guarantees and liability limits for mining, shipping and offshore platforms, and nuclear power.

The Report also includes a study of federal support to the fossil fuel sector. As usual, the Report also includes a review of environmental petitions over the audit period.

The Commissioner’s audit of these three federal programs reveals significant questions about the federal government’s capacity to keep pace with its enthusiastic promotion of resource development.

Nova ScotiaMarine protected areas

A national network of marine protected areas, as envisaged in Part II of the Oceans Act, S.C. 1996, c. 31, would provide protection of species and ecosystems and act as carbon sink. As well, such a network could provide social, cultural and economic benefits (such as, fisheries, recreation, tourism and research). As the world’s oceans face greater development pressures – including offshore oil and gas activities – the urgency and need for marine protected areas increases.

However, with respect to the federal government’s progress on establishing marine protected areas, the Report concludes that “conservation actions are not keeping up with the increasing pressures faced by our oceans” (page 3). Canada has committed to establishing a network of marine protected areas covering 10% of its marine areas under the United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity. In the 20 years since making that commitment, only about 1% of Canada’s marine areas have been designated as marine protected areas. There is no national network of marine protected areas.

Atlantic offshore oil and gas activities

The Report looks at the management of environmental risks associated with offshore oil and gas development in Atlantic Canada. Two joint federal-provincial bodies – the Canada-Newfoundland and Labrador Offshore Petroleum Board and the Canada-Nova Scotia Offshore Petroleum Board (together, the “boards”) – are responsible for regulating offshore oil and gas development in Atlantic Canada. This includes managing environmental impacts and risks associated with offshore oil and gas development.

The Report concludes that the boards and their federal partners are not adequately prepared to respond to a major spill in the Atlantic. The Report identifies “several shortcomings, including insufficient spill response tools across the federal government, inadequately tested capacity, poorly coordinated response plans, and out-of-date or missing agreements between the boards and supporting departments” (page 4). The Report also notes that the boards need to determine how they will meet the objectives of their legislation in light of the changes introduced by the new Canadian Environmental Assessment Act, 2012 (for details on these changes, see here). In particular, the Report notes the boards need to update their environmental assessment policies and procedures and to begin systematically tracking measures taken to prevent or reduce environmental impacts.

Financial assurances for environmental risks

The federal government does require financial assurances – including letters of credit, trust funds, guarantees and insurance – to help protect the Canadian public from the costs of environmental protection, cleanup and reclamation for a range of natural resource development projects. This practice is in accordance with the well-established environmental principle of “polluter pays” (that is, the cost of pollution ought to be borne by the polluter).

The Report considered four areas of federal regulation – mining, nuclear, offshore oil and gas and marine transportation – to assess the sufficiency of financial assurances for environmental risks. The conclusion of the Report is that the federal government “lacks information to know if the assurances received are sufficient to cover the financial risks of projects, such as the costs of decommissioning and reclamation” (page 15). This includes lack of knowledge of the total dollar value of securities held, whether the securities are still valid and whether securities are sufficient to cover environmental risks. In addition, the Report finds that liability limits for damages to third parties are outdated and generally lower than those in other countries. This means that the Canadian “taxpayers may have to cover shortfalls and pay for environmental remediation” (page 15).

What does this mean?

Clearly, the Report reveals some big holes in the federal government’s ability to protect the Canadian environment from risks associated with resource development. The federal government has been enthusiastically promoting Canada as a “Global Energy Superpower” whilst systematically reducing the level of federal environmental protection.

With the budget bills introduced in 2012, the landscape of federal environmental regulation was dramatically changed (see here and here). In addition, the federal government has slashed funding for scientific and on the ground work that supports environmental protection (see Who Needs Science when We Have Propaganda?). The ELC hopes that, in light of the Report, the federal government will begin to fill the holes in federal environmental protection rather than creating more.

On another note, the ELC notes that this is the last report that will be tabled by Scott Vaughn. Mr. Vaughn is leaving his post as Commissioner of the Environment and Sustainable Development to head up the International Institute for Sustainable Development. The ELC thanks Mr. Vaughn for 5 years of invaluable service to Canadians in his post as Commissioner of the Environment and Sustainable Development.

Photo credit: archer10 (Dennis) / / CC BY-SA




The Environmental Law Centre (ELC) has been seeking strong and effective environmental laws since it was founded in 1982. The ELC is dedicated to providing credible, comprehensive and objective legal information regarding natural resources, energy and environmental law, policy and regulation in Alberta. The ELC’s mission is to educate and champion for strong laws and rights so all Albertans can enjoy clean water, clean air and a healthy environment. Our vision is a society where laws secure an environment that sustains current and future generations.

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