Now that an environmental commission is investigating claims that the Canadian government is turning a blind eye to Alberta’s oil sands emissions, the government has warned the commission against overstepping its authority.
Since 2010, several environmental groups have been calling on the North American Commission of Environmental Cooperation (CEC) to investigate claims about Canada permitting toxic oil sands tailings to leach into Alberta ecosystems. The groups, including the U.S.-based Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), and Canada-based Environmental Defence, as well as three private Canadian citizens, argue that the government’s failure to take measures against the toxic tailings is a breach of the federal Fisheries Act, and requires CEC enforcement.
The environmental groups’ case is based on data from corporate proposals obtained in 2008 by Pembina Corporate Consulting. The data shows that approximately 11 million litres of toxic liquid tailings waste from tar sands operations leak into surrounding ecosystems every day, or upwards of four billion litres per year. The groups claim these numbers will only increase as oil sands development expands, and that some 95 per cent of the water used in the operations is “too toxic to be returned to the watershed and is eventually stored in the giant, leaking, tailings lakes.”
Specifically, the groups’ toxic liquid tailings allegations relate to subsection 36(3) of the federal Fisheries Act, which prohibits waste from being deposited in habitats frequented by fish.
While the CEC does have enforcement powers for environmental pollution, the reach of those powers has rarely been tested on such a large scale as the allegations surrounding the oil sands’ leakage. The Commission cannot penalize Canada in any direct way as much as it can publish factual findings to the international community, findings that would undoubtedly counter Canada’s stance that its oil sands operations are environmentally sustainable.
In a May 14, 2014 letter written to the CEC, Assistant Deputy Minister Dan McDougall of Canada’s International Affairs Branch, on behalf of Environment Canada, claims that the CEC “[…] cannot attribute to itself powers to interpret a Party’s domestic law, which is a power that lies with domestic courts, and not with the [CEC’s] Secretariat.”
McDougall’s letter further states how the CEC investigation is interfering with a pending Alberta court case, one that addresses the same issue regarding tailing ponds’ impact on surrounding ecosystems.
“We maintain that this process must be allowed to reach its conclusion,” writes McDougall, “as it is not the intention of the Agreement that the SEM (Submissions on Enforcement Matters) process operate parallel to such a proceeding," he adds, referring to the North American Agreement on Environmental Cooperation.
In April 2014, however, the CEC had already informed Environment Canada that the pending Alberta case referenced (Tony Boschmann vs. Suncor Energy) did not fulfill the CEC’s requirements to abandon the file and that the investigation would be proceeding. The CEC found that while the Boschmann case alleges violations of subsection 36(3) of the federal Fisheries Act (a general prohibition over the deposit of deleterious substances in water frequented by fish), the case information makes no reference to tailings ponds and does not include aspects about the locations of such violations or how they occurred.
Environmentalists are viewing the Environment Canada letter as an attempt to “undermine” the CEC’s authority so that Canada can continue polluting while cashing in on the oil sands. Hannah McKinnon of Environmental Defence issued a biting public statement on May 21, 2014 in response to Environment Canada’s stance on the oil sands allegations.
“This letter is the latest in a dangerous pattern of the federal government systematically attacking anything that gets in the way of its reckless plans for tar sands expansion,” McKinnon states. “The government has muzzled scientists, gutted environmental laws, shut the public out of pipeline hearings, attacked environmental organizations, abandoned other international treaties, and now it is attacking the respected CEC for doing what it is mandated to do – look into the pollution of our water,” she adds.
The CEC emerged from an environmental side agreement to the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). The CEC, in part, was established to investigate legitimate concerns of organizations and citizens about the enforcement of environmental laws.
Next up for the CEC is to determine if there is enough evidence to move forward with a “factual record process” for the oil sands allegation, which invites all stakeholders to submit relevant evidence related to the enforcement or lack thereof of the environmental law in question.
Environmental Defence’s statement goes on to raise the fact that the Canadian government has been spending millions in 2014 for ads in U.S. publications. The ads are an attempt to convince U.S. investors, officials, and the public at large that Canada’s oil sands operations are being conducted in an environmentally sustainable manner. The ads even relay Canada’s greenhouse gas reduction targets. One full-page ad alone, in an April 2014 edition of The New Yorker, cost the Canadian government more than $200,000.
“Canada’s climate and environmental record is under incredible scrutiny in the United States right now, and high priced ads plastered all over DC and glossy magazines won’t change this reality,” says Danielle Droitsch, director of NRDC’s Canada Program, which issued a statement following Canada’s latest letter.
“American policymakers aren’t buying the Canadian federal government’s multi-million dollar PR blitz to greenwash tar sands outside its borders. The failed oversight of that mess is also plain for all to see. Ignoring intergovernmental organizations like CEC is the latest in a string of decisions that undercut Canada's world standing,” adds Droitsch.
The Canadian citizens in the case at one point lived downstream of Alberta’s oil sands operations. Daniel T’seleie is one of the three citizens that filed the complaint with the CEC. He also released a statement with Environmental Defence.
“This is an issue of human rights and human health,” says T’seleie. “First Nations depend on this water to drink; we depend on this water to support the fish and animals that form an integral part of our traditional diets and way of life. Canada’s government is failing to do even the bare minimum to protect the water. Instead of wasting time attacking this process they should focus on cleaning up their acts,” he adds.
This news item originally appeared in EcoLog News. To learn how to subscribe, visit www.ecolog.com