By Mike DeSouza
OTTAWA — The federal government is contributing to international controversy over the oilsands by failing to live up to its legal and constitutional responsibilities to regulate the industry, says a new report released on Wednesday.
The analysis, Duty Calls: Federal responsibility in Canada’s oilsands, highlights at least five different laws that require the government to act, not including its constitutional responsibilities toward aboriginal peoples.
The report, produced jointly by three environmental research groups: Environmental Defence, Equiterre and the Pembina Institute, acknowledges that Environment Minister Jim Prentice has taken a first step by appointing a scientific advisory panel to examine water pollution monitoring in the Athabasca River, but it says there are still no major environmental management actions by the federal government to crack down on the industry.
“Despite occasional ‘tough talk’ and vague statements about the need for improvements, the federal government has failed to meet its responsibility to enforce existing federal laws and to follow through on promises for new ones,” said the report. “Instead of fixing the problems through effective regulations to manage cumulative environmental effects, the federal government has been lobbying governments in the U.S. and the E.U. in an attempt to shield the industry from environmental measures elsewhere.”
The report said the government’s approach was counter-productive for the long-term growth of an industry.
“By allowing the oilsands problems to grow in the absence of clear limits to protect the environment, the federal government is instead setting up the industry for even greater controversy and risk in the future,” the report said.
It also said that the federal government had a duty to regulate industry and monitor its environmental footprint under several laws, including the Fisheries Act, the Canadian Environmental Protection Act, the Species at Risk Act, the Canadian Environmental Assessment Act, and the Migratory Birds Convention Act.
Under the Constitution, the Crown also has a legal duty to consult aboriginal peoples when contemplating activities that may adversely affect their aboriginal and treaty rights.
“The oilsands industry impacts land, wildlife and water, meaning that aboriginal livelihoods and treaty rights are being affected,” said the report. “Although the Crown’s responsibilities are shared, the federal government has largely relied on the Province of Alberta to undertake the Crown’s duty to consult aboriginal peoples. Yet the provincial government is failing to fulfil these obligations.”
For example, the report said that consultations begin too late in a project’s development, with primary responsibility delegated to the industry.
Apart from calling on the government to enforce existing legislation, the report said it should also reconcile oilsands development with Canada’s obligations to address greenhouse gas emissions that trap heat in the atmosphere and cause global warming.
On an economic standpoint, the report also notes that Canada’s policies do not provide enough support for clean energy development that would help diversify the economy and prevent job losses in Canada’s manufacturing sector resulting from unsustainable growth in the oil and gas industry and a fluctuating Canadian dollar.
The report comes on the heels of scientific research by University of Alberta professor of biological sciences David Schindler which concluded that oilsands activities were contaminating the Athabasca River.
But the environmental groups said in the report that the federal government could eliminate air and water pollution from tailings ponds by 2020 and set new targets to crack down on the use of water. They also recommend a comprehensive health study on the impacts of oilsands development on the surrounding communities to identify measures to reduce any harmful impacts.