Canada has great environmental laws, but does not apply them
It's no secret that Canadian industry pollutes. Due to our large-resource rich land mass and cold winters, we are amongst largest consumers of energy and biggest emitters of greenhouse gases – per capita. Yet, we have both strong government and strong environmental laws, so what’s wrong? The principal issue is that we do not seem to have the will to enforce those laws.
Whereas the United States has a centralized and freely available database of environmental infractions, Canada's reporting of environmental infractions is sparse at best. No provincial or federal government offers an open database of environmental infractions – let alone the inspection status, warnings and other pertinent information. If an environmental law is broken and no one inspects, was there ever an infraction?
A recent report on the Alberta regulatory system for the Oil Sands industry revealed less than 1% of potential environmental infractions were followed up on by government authorities. The Alberta government was quick to retort that they have some of the best laws in the world, great! But, if no one applies them do they matter?
Nimonik conducted an analysis of Federal and Provincial environmental fines between 2000 and 2009 and found equally damning evidence of a lack of interest in applying our laws. Why bother when, for example, in Québec we only follow up on less than half of reported and identified major environmental infractions, we don't publish results of inspections and some infractions last more than twenty years before correction. All that and more is available in the Québec’s auditor general's report back in 2012 and again in the more recent 2013 one.
One might hope that the Federal government would perform better at inspection and follow-up, but alas no. Eco Justice, an Ottawa based legal organization that fights for the environment, outlined in 2012 the flagrant lack of inspections, follow-up and public information on environmental enforcement (report). We might hope that with our educated population, healthy government budgets and dynamic industries, we could actually apply our existing environmental laws and regulations. I know, crazy idea.
Canada has much to be proud of, but our lack of regard for our environmental impacts is not excusable. They used to say the solution to pollution was dilution. While that might no longer be the case, Canada, with its massive land mass seems content to let companies and organizations infringe on existing environmental law, hurt local communities and continue to pollute without much to worry about. Of course, enforcement is not a magic wand, but as any experienced criminal will tell you, the threat of enforcement is real and meaningful. Let's change things – let us publish inspections, follow-ups and warnings so that companies are pressured to improve their environmental performance – good companies who believe in environmental responsibility will be rewarded and poor performance will be improved!