Commissioner of the Environment Scott Vaughan holds a press conference at the National Press Theatre in Ottawa on Tuesday, October 4, 2011. (Sean Kilpatrick / THE CANADIAN PRESS)
Canada’s environment commissioner says there is a lot the federal government doesn’t know about the environmental effects of the oilsands, despite having spent close to $10 billion over the last three decades on climate change programs.
“There’s still major questions — there’s major unknowns in terms of what the actual environmental impacts are today,” Scott Vaughan said Tuesday on CTV’s Power Play, in response to a question about the projected growth of the oilsands.
The government already knows that emissions from the oilsands have caused acid rain, threatened water quality and the health of wildlife and people living downstream along the Athabasca River.
But Ottawa isn’t able to understand how else the area around the oilsands is being affected, because it doesn’t have basic information or proper monitoring tools, according to a report released by Vaughan’s office earlier in the day.
“As a consequence, decisions about oil sands projects have been based on incomplete, poor, or non-existent environmental information that has, in turn, led to poorly informed decisions,” the report noted.
Problems with tracking greenhouse gas emissions extend well beyond the Athabasca region, Vaughan says in the report. Information on the issue is so spotty that there’s no way of telling whether Ottawa is on track to meet its emission reduction targets.
“The government has not put in place management systems and tools needed to achieve, measure and report on greenhouse gas emission reductions,” the report says.
It predicts that without a clear focus and goal, it’s unlikely the country will be able to produce targeted results, noting that the federal government has repeatedly scaled back on its commitment to cut greenhouse gases since 1990.
“The expected (greenhouse gas) emission reductions have dropped from 282 million tones in the government’s first plan to 28 million tones in 2010, a drop of approximately 90 per cent,” the report states.
Ottawa has spent about $10 billion in various emission control projects. And yet, emissions have risen 24 per cent between 1990 and 2008, the report says.
European oilsands decision
Meanwhile, the European Commission reportedly agreed to consider oilsands exports as dirtier than conventional oil in a proposed ranking of fuels.
The move comes despite intense lobbying from Ottawa. If it wins support of European Union members, it would effectively ban oilsands crude from the EU market.
Canada exports very little oil Europe. But Canadian trade strategist Peter Clark said officials are worried the decision could produce a domino effect in which other countries follow suit.
Clark told The Canadian Press that Canada could challenge the EU decision if it’s put into practice, “but I wouldn’t say it’s a tempest in a teapot. The government is taking it seriously.”
Some environmental activists attributed the EU decision to the Conservative government’s environmental policies.
“All that foot-dragging on regulations to deal with climate change is coming back to bite the industry,” said Gillian McEachern, with Environmental Defence.
Doubts over international targets
Vaughan’s report says it should come as no surprise that Canada will not be able to meet its obligations under the 1997 Kyoto agreement. But Vaughan says Canada now appears to be in danger of missing its 2020 promise under the recent Copenhagen Accord to cut greenhouse gas emissions to 17 per cent below 2005 levels.
“It is unclear whether the federal government will be able to achieve these new reduction targets until a coherent system is in place that has clear objectives, timelines, interim targets and expectations with key partners,” Vaughan’s report said.
“The government will also need an overall strategy to coordinate efficient and effective spending of billions of dollars.”
In response to the watchdog’s report, Natural Resources Minister Joe Oliver said the government will “continue to do what we have to do to meet our Kyoto obligations.”
“We’re in the process of developing and exporting our natural resources in a socially and environmentally responsible way,” he said in an interview from Washington.
That includes “doing more monitoring,” Oliver said.
Meanwhile New Democrat environment critic Megan Leslie said she hoped the report would spur MPs to pressure the government “to do the right thing and start taking action — because right now, we’re a bit of a laughing stock internationally.”
With files from The Canadian Press
Watchdog says ‘major questions’ hang over oilsands