The Harper Budget: Assault on the Environment for Big Oil Profits: Roundup of Canadian Environmental NGO Responses
By Janet M Eaton, PhD, April 14, 2012 It was no surprize that the Federal Budget, or more correctly the “Economic Action Plan 2012”, as it was entitled, would continue the Harper government’s support for tar sands oil and a natural resource based export economy while ramping up its on-going assault on environmental protection . Prior attacks had already included a weakening of environmental legislation, more powers to the Ministers in charge, cuts to government departments concerned with administering and monitoring the environment and fisheries, muzzling of scientists speaking out on climate change and the environment, and more recently attacks on environmental NGOs and environmentalists. In addition leaks and pre-budget conjectures, had telegraphed the kinds of changes likely to be seen in the budget. In the end the budget specifically stated some of the anticipated changes while in other instances outlined vague proposals that would be fleshed out with more detail as the government proceeds with implementation.
A review of the budget responses from a range of Canadian Environmental NGO’s reveals the following attacks on environmental legislation, agencies, government departments and environmentalists.
Canadian Environmental Assessment Act [CEAA] and the Environmental Review Process:
It was anticipated that the environmental review process would be attacked in the budget;. in fact the government had already dealt blows to the federal law for environmental review process through legislative changes, shoved through in the 2010 omnibus budget bill, and also through budget cuts.
And indeed it was as the Pembina Institute reported: ‘The budget proposes the biggest rollback of environmental laws in Canada since the Canadian Environmental Assessment Act [CEAA] was instituted.
The Council of Canadian’s Andrea Hardin -Donahoe reported on the promised ‘streamlining’ of environmental reviews, responsibilities being downloaded on provinces, a limiting of the scope of reviews and newly imposed timelines – 24 months for Joint panel environmental reviews, 18 months for National Energy Board hearings and one year for standard environmental assessments.
CELA , the Canadian Environmental Law Association, noted in their response that the Federal government intended to do four things – streamline the assessment process for major projects; substitute provincial environmental assessment for federal assessment; reduce alleged overlap and duplication; and reduce the so-called ‘regulatory burden’ imposed by Canada’s current environmental law framework. Their staff lawyer Richard Lindgren, wrote in regard to the government’s trivialization of CEAA. “We are astounded that the budget erroneously suggests that the Canadian Environmental Assessment Act is merely ‘red tape’,” “In fact, this important legislation is intended to protect public health, prevent ecological harm, and promote environmentally sustainable development.” Environmental Defense criticized artificial deadlines for reviewing impacts and shunting responsibility to provinces as well as the retroactive inclusion of the proposed Gateway pipeline and tanker project..
Green Peace also reported that changes to the environmental review process were retroactive to assist the progress of the Enbridge Gateway Pipeline –“shutting out the public and getting approval without fuss or muss.” John Bennett Ex. Dir, Sierra Club Canada, highlighted the attack on the environmental review process saying: “The key change, essentially speeding up environmental reviews of mega-projects, will greatly hurt the public's ability to participate in future processes. Environmental assessments need to be thorough, consultative and science-based. Creating hard-time limits and rushing the process compromises all these things.”
Mark Lee, Canadian Council of Policy Alternatives [CCPA] in one of several responses to the Budget from CCPA researchers, noted that on page 96 the Budget highlighted six projects that would benefit from consolidated review- three oil and gas pipelines, a gold mine and a uranium mine as well as documenting 70 major projects on file and a foreseeable 500 projects over the decade. Finally, Simon Dyer, Policy Director,Pembina Institute wrote: “To date, companies have proposed quadrupling oilsands production. Given this planned increase in output, it seems reasonable that our government ought to be enhancing — not reducing — Canada's capacity to assess the impacts of this level of activity. Yet the new federal budget proposes a 40 percent budget cut for the Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency.”
Two weeks prior to Budget day text of proposed changes to the Fisheries Act was leaked to the media. Otto Langer, a 32 year veteran of the Departments of Environment and Fisheries with expertise in habitat and water quality issues, revealed that he had been leaked a confidential copy of proposed changes to Fisheries Act as directed by the political levels within the Harper Government. He noted that the government is totally re-writing the habitat protection provisions of Section 35(1) so as to remove habitat protection out of the Fisheries Act. “This is a serious situation and will put Canada back to where we were in the pre 1976 period when Canada had no laws to protect fish habitat and no way to monitor the great industrial expansion that occurred in Canada with the consequential loss of major fish habitat all across Canada.”
As had been widely noted at the time, removing ‘habitat protection’ from the Fisheries Act would emasculate the law essentially removing the trigger for environmental assessments and potentially leaving the final decision in the hands of the Minister. The trigger now would be whether the project might be harmful to economically, ecologically or culturally useful fish as if one can separate out those influences in an ecosystem. .
Ecojustice in their response to the budget noted that the actual law was not changed in the budget but at the same time that there was no indication it wouldn’t be. And Canadian Wildlife Federation, [CWF]’s response noted that they remain concerned, about the possible weakening of regulations to protect fish and fish habitat, while acknowledging that the anticipated cut was not in the budget.
So while the government could still bring this legislation forward it is also possible that this brash and misguided intention, rebuking good governance and ecological principles, has been sidelined by a massive backlash ,within a few days of the leak, from some 625 scientists, among them 18 Fellows of the Royal Society of Canada, warning Prime Minister Stephen Harper against any move to weaken Ottawa's most potent tool to protect the environment.
A few weeks prior to the tabling of the Budget, environment groups opposing the Gateway Pipeline had come under a searing and vindictive attack by the Harper government’s Minister of Natural Resources, Joe Oliver, who stated: "Unfortunately, there are environmental and other radical groups that would seek to block this opportunity to diversify our trade. Their goal is to stop any major project no matter what the cost..” He went on to say: "These groups threaten to hijack our regulatory system to achieve their radical ideological agenda. They seek to exploit any loophole they can find… to ensure that delays kill good projects. They use funding from foreign special interest groups to undermine Canada's national economic interest."
Ecojustice lawyer Lara Tessaro responded to Joe Oliver’s remarks to reporters in St John’s saying: “Minister Oliver has, since early January, been casting aspersions on the environmental community in Canada. To be clear, the environmental community is simply you and me and our neighbours and people who care about conserving Canada’s natural resources. ... So for the minister to allege that environmentalists are simply trying to cause interference, it’s spurious.”
And as anticipated the budget did continue its attack on environmental NGOs. According to CELA the budget stated there would be no funding from outside Canada allowed for environmental NGOs while CRA, the Canada Revenue agency, would receive 8 million dollars to impose scrutiny on NGO’s. . Ecojustice noted as regards charitable status – there would also be increased reporting requirements. Greenpeace referred to it as an all out attack on environment groups that are charities wherein the government is going to change the law to make it harder to engage in legal political action. Environmental Defense minced no words stating that the needless proposed changes to charitable regulations are clearly part and parcel of an agenda to expedite industrial projects in an inappropriate manner.”
This attack on environmental groups led one of Canada’s best known and revered environmentalists, Dr. David Suzuki, to step down from the foundation he helped create, so that he could continue to speak out on issues without harming the foundation’s charitable status. In doing so he stated in an open letter posted Friday on the foundation’s website: “I want to speak freely without fear that my words will be deemed too political, and harm the organization of which I am so proud,”
Another high-profile environmental activist Tzeporah Berman recently left her position with Greenpeace International, so that she could focus on Canadian politics. According to the April 14th Vancouver Sun , Suzuki’s and Berman’s decisions were made because the federal Conservative government has targeted groups such as the David Suzuki Foundation as “environmental radicals” that are stopping resource development in Canada.
Environmental advisory groups – NRTEE
The National Round Table on the Environment and the Economy [NRTEE] was founded in 1988 in the lead up to the Rio Earth Summit, to give independent, non-partisan, consensus-based advice to the federal government.
The Hill Times reported that NRTEE’s budget will be cut by $200,000 this year, and completely eliminated by the end of the 2012 fiscal year.
Elizabeth May former head of Sierra Club Canada and now Green party leader who served as a member of NRTEE and former Vice- Chair stated in regard to the axing of NRTEE:
“The whole point of the round table was to engage business leaders with trade unions and environmental groups and First Nations, so there’s no other place. There’s no other forum in which those groups work together to develop advice to government. It’s simply absurd.” she told The Hill Times. “Peter Kent can say he can find it on the internet but I challenge him to find any websites that engage decision-making processes from multi-stakeholder decision-making based on a consensus model. They just killed it.”
ThePembina Institute said NRTEE has been the single greatest source of constructive, third-party research and advice on climate change policy to the federal government. "Wiping out this respected think-tank . . . will make it that much harder for Canada to do its fair share in addressing the climate challenge."
In regard to ongoing cuts to Environment Canada the Council of Canadians reported : “As promised, the budget delivered steep cuts. Environment Canada’s budget is being cut again, this time by 6% and the Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency (CEAA) is in line for a 40 per cent cut in the new budget year.”
The Hill times reported that Environment Canada had its budget cut by $88-million over the next three years, while the Department of Fisheries and Oceans will see its budget cut by $79-million over the same time period.
The one bright light in the budget for Environment Canada was on going funding for the Species at Risk Act SARA. Asnoted by CPAWS, the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society, the Green Budget Coalition hadmade this a priority recommendation to the Federal Government and CPAWS was encouraged to see it reflected in the budget itself.
The Canadian Federation of Wildlife also stated that upon initial review, the government’s re-investment into Species At Risk Act and water quality appears positive.
Energy and the environment
Regarding energy references in the budget, Tides and Nature Canada noted"There doesn't appear to be anything in this budget that will move Canada toward the low-carbon clean energy future” The Council of Canadians looked at the budget to find reference to energy and found it wanting- with no renewal funding for eco-efficiency; no phase out of tar sands subsidies; no prioritization of green infrastructure spending; no funding to global south for international climate finance and no spending on energy and environment.
Kairos also commented on the energy proposals in the budget. It noted that there was no budget commitment to addressing climate change and stated on the contrary, that by dismantling the National Roundtable on the Environment and the Economy, the government will silence a public voice warning about the dangers to life on Earth posed by climate change. Like the Council, Kairos also noted that the budget failed to restore funding to programs for retrofitting buildings to increase energy efficiency or for public transit.
Consequences of the budget from environmental NGO perspectives
To assess the consequences of the government’s budget and the extent of the attack on the environment in this budget it is worthwhile noting what Canadian environmental NGO’s have said in their immediate responses after reviewing the budget.
John Bennett, Ex DirSierra Club Canada concluded: “The Harper government has done a great injustice not only to the environment but to all Canadians and future generations.” The West Coast Environmental Law Association told us “for decades Canadians have depended on the federal government to safeguard our families and nature from pollution, toxic contamination, and other environmental problems through a safety net of environmental laws. Today’s budget would cut up this safety net to serve the interests of a few big companies at the expense of all Canadians”.
Environmental Defence stated: “The plan to weaken one of Canada's foremost environmental laws outlined in today’s budget is a cynical attack on one of Canada’s most important environmental protections and it serves the immediate interests of one industry .. Big oil wins big time at the expense of all Canadians, our health, and our right to open democratic debate` Also concerned about the fate of democratic debate was Keith Stewart of Greenpeace Canada who stated : “ this government is trying to intimidate those who disagree with it and shut down democratic debate.” .
Others, like Mark Lee of the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives [CCPA], spoke of the retrogressive economic approach supported in the budget, calling it a budget buttressed by ‘a colonial vision of the economy as a quarry for foreign investment open to any foreign investor who wants our resources instead of ensuring development of these resources in a sustainable manner to ensure long term needs like energy security. Meanwhile Ecojustice drew attention to the importance of environmental law by noting that the Harper government’s vision for a Canada fuelled by big oil and gas revenues only underscores the need for even stronger environmental laws to protect Canadians and their environment not weaker laws which mean a weaker Canada.”
Finally Simon Dyer, Policy Director of the Pembina Institute wrote in an article entitled “Oil sands and environmental review”: ”Rather than presenting a barrier to investment, a strong regulatory system is key to attracting capital by ensuring a stable and predictable playing field for investors. Controversy over environmental mismanagement and the government's apparent unwillingness to set and enforce environmental rules compromise Canada's ability to export or market oilsands — these factors pose far bigger long-term risks to prospective developers than Canada's current environmental review process.”
Final Comments on the Big Picture Agenda of Big Oil’s Environmental Assault
Examining the agenda of Big Oil from a global perspective reveals a disturbing trend spelled out just a few days after the federal budget by US Professor Michael T. Klare in an ‘eye opening’ article entitled “How the Big Energy Companies Plan to Turn the United States into a Third World Petro State.” He chronicles the development of oil for 100 years in the US until the production peaked in the 1970s, and environmental laws and regulations were strengthened, which led the giant oil firms to increase their search for new reserves in the Global South in countries with compliant governments and few or non-existent environmental regulations. Then Klare refers to the next major geographical shift - what he calls ‘the energy surprise of the 21st Century’ noting: “with operating conditions growing increasingly difficult in the global South, the major firms are now flocking back to North America to exploit previously neglected reserves on this continent.” The deeply neglected reserves he is referring to are inaccessible deep sea oil, the Canadian tar sands and fracked oil and gas.
Klare’s analysis helps us to see a potentially more sinister side to the budget’s assault on the environment: “The formula for making Canada and the U.S. the “Saudi Arabia” of the twenty-first century is grim but relatively simple: environmental protections will have to be eviscerated and those who stand in the way, from landowners to local environmental protection groups, bulldozed out of the way. Put another way, North America will have to be ‘Third-Worldified.’ ”
Canadians beware. We all know the Harper government is complicit with Big Oil and that too many Canadians have grown accustomed to the global economic corporatist rhetoric that ‘there is no alternative’; however we ignore the latest Harper assaults on free speech, our environmental legislation, environmental agencies and ministries, and the demonization of Canadian environmentalists, at our own peril.
Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives [CCPA]. A budget that screws the
planet for short-term profits March 29th, 2012 by Marc Lee
Canadian Environmental Law Association [CELA]. CELA´s Response:
Letter to The Right Hon. Stephen Harper Re: Parliamentary Review of the
Canadian Environmental Assessment Act: Proposals for Reform
Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society [CPAWS] Nature in the Federal
Budget Published on Mar 30 2012 | by Éric Hébert-Daly
Canadian Wildlife Federation seeks details from federal budget March 30,
Council of Canadians: MEDIA RELEASE For Immediate Release March 29,
Federal budget bad for people and the planet, says Council of
Council of Canadians : Budget 2012: Good for Big Oil, Bad for People and
the Environment By Andrea Harden-Donahue, Friday, March 30th, 2012
Environmental Defence: Statement from Deputy Campaign Director, Gillian
McEachern, in response to today´s federal budget http://environmentaldefence.ca/articles/statement-
Green Peace Canada. Big Oil wins big in federal budget.
Blogpost by Keith Stewart - March 29, 2012 at 17:58
KAIROS Analysis of the 2012 Federal Budget, April 3, 2012 By KAIROS
Pembina reacts to 2011 federal budget: Budget ignores opportunities
to create new jobs and compete in clean energy economy Released:
March 22, 2011
Pembina Institute. Oil sands and environmental review: Faulty premise
underlies Budget 2012 "streamlining" promise. By Simon Dyer, Policy
Director, Pembina Institute.
Sierra Club Canada Release" Budget: Canadians have no say in environmental
laws Sierra Club Canada Release, March 29, 2012
Tides and Nature Canada. No green future in
Conservative budget, say Tides and Nature Canada. Alexis Stoymenoff, March
West Coast Environmental law reacts to budget rollbacks of long-
standing legal protections for the environment. Thursday, March 29,
Scientists pressure PM over Fisheries Act: 'Weakening habitat
protection' would make Canada look irresponsible, ecology professor
says. By Peter O'Neil, Vancouver Sun March 23, 2012
Don't Gut Fisheries Act, Plead 625 Scientists
Tories plan to stop protecting waterways with fish deemed to lack
'economic, cultural or ecological value.' By Andrew Nikiforuk, 24 Mar
2012, TheTyee.ca http://thetyee.ca/News/2012/03/24/Fisheries-Act-Gutting/
Elizabeth May Takes on Joe Oliver: Green leader responds to resource
minister's 'open letter' slamming 'environmentalists and other radicals.'
By Elizabeth May, 10 Jan 2012, TheTyee.ca
David Suzuki leaves foundation he helped create
By GORDON HOEKSTRA, VANCOUVER SUN April 14, 2012
Feds kill NRTEE, opposition critics say it´s `peanuts´ in savings
Published: Monday, 04/09/2012 12:01 am EDT Last Updated: Tuesday,
04/10/2012 3:59 pm EDT
How the Big Energy Companies Plan to Turn the United States into a
Third-World Petro-State By Michael T. Klare, April 1, 2012