Martha Hall Findlay: Canada can turn environmental challenges into economic opportunities
Scott Vaughan, independent commissioner of the environment and sustainable development, in his 2012 fall report released on February 5, 2013, issued this damning condemnation: “The gaps identified in this report expose Canadians to potentially significant environmental damages and related costs.” He went on to conclude that “these gaps are preventing environmental stewardship from keeping pace with natural resource development”.
The commissioner is part of the office of the independent auditor general of Canada. This report reinforces the total disregard, indeed disdain, the Stephen Harper government has for the environment and its protection. Among the most worrisome of the report’s findings are the lack of preparedness for major oils spills, and the insufficiency of financial guarantees and out of date liability caps for the private sector, in the case of spills or other environmental degradation. The report also highlights problems with the fact that the oil and gas sector is exempted from reporting pollutant releases. Given the relatively new and untested nature of hydraulic fracturing wells (with over 200,000 now in Canada, a number which is expected to double over the next 20 years), the commissioner stated that “the government cannot know if Canadians are adequately protected”.
The Harper government must address all of these issues immediately. It must fulfill the commitments and promises it has made—if not, it will have lied to the Canadian public.
But there is more here than environmental challenge: there is an opportunity for Canada. Canada now suffers the international shame of bad environmental stewardship—and we all suffer from the corresponding marketing and political challenges created by that reputation, in trying to gain access to markets. Our prosperity is diminished when we are unable sell our energy and other resources to more markets at world prices.
We can turn that around through demonstrating environmental responsibility and leadership.
No development is without risk, we know that. Leaks and spills can happen. So rather than waiting for a spill for which we are unprepared and which, managed badly, will be hugely costly, Canada can and should become the world leader in spill containment and clean-up. Canada can and should become the world leader in spill prevention. Canada can and should become the world leader in pipeline monitoring technology, in remediation, in water recycling.
This is an opportunity for the government and private sectors to work together, to protect our environment, and to develop technological capabilities. Canada should learn to export that capacity, bringing economic growth and regaining the international respect that we have so badly lost.