OTTAWA — The Harper government is facing a complaint under the North American Free Trade Agreement about whether it is adequately cracking down on water pollution from oilsands operations.
The complaint, launched by a pair of environmental groups, comes as opposition MPs voted to adopt legislation calling on the government to develop a climate-change plan with targets and goals that are based on scientific evidence.
Matt Price, the policy director at Environmental Defence Canada, prepared the complaint which alleges the government is not enforcing provisions in the federal Fisheries Act that prohibit activity that contaminates bodies of water with harmful substances.
“The federal government is essentially doing nothing to enforce this act,” Price said at a news conference. “They are waiting for phone calls to come from Alberta to tell them to swing into action on prosecutions . . . the phone has not rung from Alberta and we doubt that it ever will.”
The complaint was filed jointly with U.S.-based Natural Resources Defense Council and three citizens from Alberta, Saskatchewan and the Northwest Territories who live downstream from the oilsands.
Price explained that the failure to enforce environmental regulations can be considered as a subsidy under NAFTA by the other countries that enforce the rules.
But he said it would be up to officials from Mexico and the U.S. to accept the complaint, submitted to the Commission for Environmental Co-operation — a NAFTA panel. He added that it could take years before it is resolved, but that his group would gladly withdraw its complaint if the government agrees to start increasing monitoring efforts.
In conventional oilsands operations, the industry uses heated water to extract the crude oil from the sand, and then dumps the waste into tailings ponds that now cover 130 square kilometres and contain 720 billion litres of the oily waste, Price said.
The estimates of pollution leaking into groundwater and surface water were taken directly from industry reports and submissions for environmental assessments, Price said.
But Environment Minister Jim Prentice said that his department has not found any evidence that tailings ponds pollution is leaking into the Athabasca River in Northern Alberta near oilsands operations.
“I’ve had very specific discussions with our department about that, with the scientists in our department who do the work,” Prentice said. “I’ve indicated to the department that this is a serious issue of real concern and I expect them to step up the monitoring efforts to ensure that that continues to be the case.”
Meantime, the federal Liberals and Bloc Quebecois supported a private member’s bill introduced by the New Democrats that calls on the government to go far beyond its existing goals to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
But Prentice noted that the latest numbers suggest that greenhouse gas emissions in Canada have peaked, and are dropping because of government policies and reductions in coal-powered electricity and increases in hydro power. He said new policies such as standards to crack down on emissions from the transportation sector will allow for more progress in reducing emissions which dropped by about two per cent between 2007 and 2008, before the economic downturn.
“We’ve undertaken a lot of very specific initiatives directed at reducing our greenhouse gas emissions and we’ll continue to do that,” Prentice said.