Canada under the influence of oil

Grave consequences for ecology, democracy, and environmental protection

Mildred Lake mine site of Syncrude Canada Ltd. in the Athabasca oil sands.


This post contributed by Sean Hoban, a post-doc in conservation biology at the University of Ferrara, Italy

The past year has seen some forward-thinking environmental policies in the US: pro-science budgets, automobile fuel efficiency standards, coal power plant and fracking regulations, a recent (though rough) climate commitment, and rejection (for now) of the Keystone XL oil pipeline. We might expect our neighbor Canada, often pictured as a realm of clean water and majestic forests, to at least keep pace. Instead we see the opposite, a worrisome erosion of environmental regulations, depreciation of science, and disregard for democratic process from a conservative and proudly pro-oil government. The following regressive changes matter to ecologists, and just about everyone, worldwide.

Budget cuts

The recently passed 2013 Canadian federal budget enacts steep cuts to environmental agencies including Parks Canada and Environment Canada, which will reach beyond layoffs to changes in agency priorities and abilities, especially to pollution monitoring and mitigation. Scientist Peter Ross writes an eloquent response here. Another victim is the National Round Table on the Environment and the Economy, an independent, interdisciplinary panel that studied and offered recommendations on air, water, biodiversity, economic, and energy policy. Disturbingly, the government openly admits the reason for disbanding the panel is only partially budgetary- its recommendations on carbon taxes were not in line with government and public opinion: “It should agree with Canadians. It should agree with the government,” said Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird. Most problematic is that the budget bill extended far beyond apportionment of funds to radically change dozens of environmental regulations. Even Conservatives say that it was undemocratic to amalgamate so much in a budget bill, that each change deserved separate debate and voting.

Fisheries Protection

For example, the bill re-words the Fisheries Act, one of Canada’s strongest environmental protection measures, which banned activities resulting in “harm” to any fish habitat. New wording focuses only on “serious harm” (permanent alteration or destruction) to “commercial, recreational or aboriginal fisheries, or the fish they depend on.” A letter written by the Canadian Society for Ecology and Evolution states that this will remove protection of most endangered fish and other organisms in the food web, and devalues the inherent importance of habitats and biodiversity, though conservatives defend the measure as re-focusing agency efforts. The change was enacted in spite of opposition from hundreds of scientists, including fisheries organizations.

Environmental Assessment

In addition to a 40 percent cut in funds for the Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency, the government has enacted several changes to environmental review of energy development projects: a cap of one to two years of assessment before a decision is made, exempting small projects from review altogether, and allowing provincial rather than federal oversight. Further, the Cabinet (appointed by the Prime Minister) will have final authority to green-light particular projects, over-ruling the National Energy Board. A further change is a limitation on who can participate in assessment panels from “any person or body having an interest in the outcome of the environmental assessment” to only those “directly affected by the carrying out of the designated project” or any person who “has relevant information or expertise.” Arguments that these changes are for greater effectiveness and efficiency seem hollow, as proponents note that changes will pave an easier and cheaper road for an estimated $500 billion in oil projects.

Closing research stations

As part of the budget cuts, several research stations are slated for closure, including the internationally renowned Experimental Lakes Area station in Ontario, which has produced much understanding of acid rain and freshwater pollution over 44 years of monitoring. This is opposed by provinces, thousands of Canadians, and scientists around the world, who hope that funding can still be found. Another closure is the Polar Environment Atmospheric Research Laboratory (PEARL), a high latitude ozone and climate monitoring station which has provided year-round data since 2005. Most other ozone monitoring stations will also be reduced. A third victim is the Global Environment Monitoring System (GEMS), a database of water quality from 3,000 freshwater sites around the world, which is managed by Canada, shared with 24 United Nations agencies, and used to evaluate and implement water policy. Canada is halting funding after 30 years of support.

Climate and development

Canada recently became the first Kyoto agreement signatory to pull out, while all other signatories recently agreed to extend the treaty. In withdrawing, Canada avoids paying 14 billion dollars in fines it would have owed because it missed its targets. Along with the US, Canada earned a “fossil award” for weak stances at the Rio+20 summit on sustainable development and environmental economics.

Silencing science

A further brazen but unfortunately effective move is to muzzle scientists who wish to voice opposition to government policies or even perform science outreach or education. Parks Canada staff were recently warned not to speak out, even in casual settings, against the government budget cuts. Scientists for Environment Canada have similarly been instructed not to talk to the media without governmental monitoring, even about their own research. In recent hearings about a proposed oil pipeline, scientific testimony regarding climate change, oil sands, or “the environmental effects of upstream hydrocarbon production projects” was considered irrelevant to making a decision. A recent panel convened by the American Association for the Advancement of Science contrasted Canadian restrictions on science communication with a new US policy encouraging and assisting scientists in communicating their findings to the media and the public.

Environmental charities

Not content with limiting its own agencies’ environmental reach, the government is tackling private groups with environmental and public health agendas. Specifically, $8 million was recently budgeted to investigate non-profits who use more than 10% of their budget for political pursuits- any organization found to be in violation of this can have their charitable status revoked. These same organization are under a barrage of rhetorical attacks, including accusations of money laundering and other crinimal activity.

A poor future for all

Why such vast measures (more are listed here and here), and why now, in a country long regarded as environment-friendly? Both proponents and opponents of the measures agree that they will immensely benefit Canada’s tar sands oil industry; some journalists are calling Canada an “increasingly corrupt petro-state.” It is clear that the environment and public health will suffer perhaps irreparable damage, and that scientific resources to monitor, understand, mitigate, and educate about these damages is dwindling fast. The near term outlook is bleak for our fellow scientists, and for Canada’s future. In the US and around the world we should vocalize emphatically and loudly our support for scientific resources and expertise, democratic process, and sustaining functioning ecosystems that we rely upon now more than ever.

Photo credit: TastyCakes




Author: Nadine Lymn

ESA Director of Public Affairs

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