Though it’s difficult to measure these things, we may well be witnessing the most widespread rollbacks of environmental protections in Canadian history.
If you don’t recall reading anything about this, that’s no accident. While provincial governments scrambled to respond to the COVID 19 crisis, many have also kept busy quietly stripping away vital environmental laws and regulations.
From Alberta suspending pollution reporting to Ontario revoking the public’s right to know about potentially environmentally damaging projects to Quebec deciding this would be a good moment to take a holiday from prosecuting serious environmental infractions, the net results of these myriad provincial decisions are staggering in their breadth and implications.
Alberta’s actions are particularly alarming, with many commentators noting that they go even further than actions taken by the Trump administration. Characterizing environmental pollution reporting as “not in the public interest” during the pandemic, the Alberta government issued ministerial orders suspending a slew of reporting requirements, from water use in fracking to sulphur dioxide emissions. Then the Alberta Energy Regulator jumped on the pandemic bandwagon and gave oil and gas companies a free pass on having to complete a long list of environmental monitoring activities, from groundwater sampling and wildlife studies to tailings ponds monitoring. That the list of suspended activities nicely meshed with a “wish list” presented by the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers is telling.
Under the Trump administration, polluters are at least required to explain why the COVID crisis is preventing them from meeting reporting requirements. In Alberta, it is a complete free pass – no explanation necessary. Alberta also kindly delayed payments from the oil and gas industry into its orphan well fund at the same time it slashed. Apparently, trillion-dollar industries are in desperate need of financial relief.
Ontario, meanwhile, decided the COVID crisis was a good moment to suspend the public’s right to know about projects that could damage the environment: A terrible move given that the linkage between poor air quality and increased risk from COVID has now been made crystal clear. Though the province restored the public consultation requirements after sustained criticism of its draconian approach, as one First Nations leader pointed out the province has made no effort to suspend mining exploration or the registering of new mining claims during the COVID crisis despite a very real lack of capacity among First Nations to be properly consulted on these activities. “People in our communities are overstretched and exhausted,” Neskantaga First Nation Chief Chris Moonias wrote.
Saskatchewan, true to pattern, has followed Alberta down the path of using the cover of COVID to loosen requirements on the fossil fuel sector. Like its big oil brother, the province has suspended reporting on everything from air pollution to greenhouse gas emissions. It is also taking a “flexible” approach to dealing with companies that fail to meet environmental standards, whether it is air emissions or industrial discharges.
The irony of these measures, of course, is that both Alberta and Saskatchewan have declared fossil fuel operations vital services. Alberta has refused to shut down work camps that have been singled out as a potentially deadly vector for COVID spread. But somehow inspection of operations is just too big a risk, even if it can often be done remotely. As Alberta Opposition Leader Rachel Notley pointed out, Albertans are now free to get a haircut, but enforcing environmental standards is still considered far too dangerous.
Many legal experts have similarly pointed out that Ontario’s Environmental Bill of Rights comes with a built-in escape clause that allows governments to issue project-by-project exemptions from public consultations under extraordinary circumstances. But the government chose a blanket exemption instead of trying to distinguish cases where there was any actual justification for suspending consultations. In fact, its preference for circumventing public objections has been made clear by its increasing reliance on Ministerial Zoning Orders (MZOs), a kind of ministerial rubber stamp for controversial development projects that face serious public opposition. The Ford government has set new records in the use of MZOs.
It is not surprising that provincial governments with a strong antipathy to environmental rules and regulations would use the COVID situation to further undermine such safeguards. After all, the Ford government pre-COVID was busy gutting the province’s Endangered Species Act, killing its carbon cap and trade system and watering down urban planning rules while the Kenney government wasted no time in killing the province’s carbon tax before slashing its parks management budget and closing 20 parks entirely. For these governments, COVID has not just been a health crisis, it has also been a useful cover for attacking environmental protections and services while avoiding a huge public outcry.
The upshot of all of this is that Canadians are going to have to demand, strongly and clearly, that any real recovery from COVID-19 must include a return to environmental standards that are vital to not only safeguarding the environment, but the health and safety of families right across the country.
Rick Smith is Executive Director of the Broadbent Institute and is the co-author of two best-selling books on the human health effects of pollution.