Good Sunday Morning!
When I wrote last week’s letter, I mentioned storm warnings for Ottawa and high winds in Guelph. Clearly, as more reports came in, it became clear that large areas of Ontario and Quebec had been hit by an unprecedented extreme weather event driven by the climate crisis. Eleven people died. Power was out to tens of thousands for the whole week as Hydro One in Ottawa explained damage was more severe than in the 1998 ice storm – also a climate event. As has become typical, most news media rushed to explain new terms, bypassing the obvious: we are in a climate emergency.
Virtually all media shared definitions of “derechos”. Just as in last summer’s fires we started learning a new vocabulary about clouds that spread fire – pyrocumulonimbus clouds. https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/understanding-pyrocumulonimbi-aka-fire-clouds/
Then in the November floods, we learned about atmospheric rivers. Now it is derechos.
This was from the CBC: “A derecho, pronounced deh-REY-cho, is a long-lived, fast-moving thunderstorm that causes widespread wind damage. This particular storm system was fed by a heat dome over the eastern United States.”
“Heat dome” – another term we learned last year.
The derechos are seriously scary – as if clouds that spit fire are not. One of my best friends lives in the area of Ottawa hit by the 2018 tornado. On Saturday, she heard the weather warning and was trying to get home in time to take shelter. But this storm was fast moving. Usually when we hear “km/hour” about a storm, we translate that in our brain to wind speeds. We have to re-wire to really hear that the whole storm system itself was galloping at 90 km/hour. Before getting home, she saw what looked like a tornado – a dark triangular cloud pointing down. She turned off the main road to find a parking lot safely away from trees or hydro poles. The rain was driving and pounding and then she said it was as if a bomb went off. The rain was somehow vaporized into mist. She could see nothing at all, just mist and then it was as if a freight train was rolling over her car. Terrifying.
Houses were torn apart in a huge swath from Uxbridge to Peterborough to Ottawa and into Quebec. Steel hydro towers were crumpled. Huge older trees uprooted. Trucks thrown about like toys and roofs in flight. It is a miracle more people were not killed.
I gave this speech in parliament last week – focusing on the climate emergency and our government’s weak response. We are standing on the edge of too late, but it is not yet too late: https://elizabethmaymp.ca/we-are-standing-on-the-edge-of-too-late/
One reason we have been so ineffectual in our mobilization to save ourselves is the culture of incrementalism and subservience to corporate interests that runs through Canada’s civil service. I have observed this since 2015 as it seemed that, as the political powers changed, the direction of the ship of state had not. The problem of corporate capture runs deep. Former Alberta Liberal leader Kevin Taft exposed this in his 2018 book, Oil’s Deep State.
In local events Greens organized in BC, Taft said of Rachel Notley, “The NDP may be in office, but oil is in power.”
I see it everywhere I look in the federal government. To better serve the Norwegian aquaculture industry, DFO suppresses science about sea lice and viruses. https://thetyee.ca/News/2022/05/13/DFO-Suppresses-Science-Pushes-Salmon-Farms/
To better serve Big Pharma, Health Canada regulators created roadblocks to the law parliament passed to ensure mandatory reporting of drug side effects.
The problem of the “captive regulator” is real. A recent in-depth survey of the federal civil service found support for these concerns.
One of the lead authors said, “The participants felt rational thought and evidence-based decision-making are being circumvented by politicization, polarization and disinformation.”
That certainly fits my explanation for what went wrong in repairing Canada’s environmental assessment laws. (Lacking a link that gets GSM readers to a site without a pay wall, I am including my Hill Times article on the details of the EA debacle at the end of this letter.)
I think the Alberta Court of Appeal is right. The Liberals’ Impact Assessment Act (formerly known as C-69) was never constitutional – nor is it useful environmental assessment. Of course, the Alberta Court of Appeal judgement is full of sloppy and politicized pro-Alberta rhetoric with nothing to do with the law. At one point the court offers as fact that Alberta is a climate leader – but no matter. The core of the judgement, whether former C-69 is constitutional is where they get it right. On top of failing constitutional tests, the current law does not protect the environment from federal actions because the degree of ministerial discretion is unprecedented. From the 1970s until Harper’s omnibus budget bill in 2012, Canada had middling to good environmental assessment laws. Thanks to Harper, we stopped reviewing thousands of projects every year to concentrate on under 100 generally large projects.
Here is one result of the new approach. The jet fuel line to the Vancouver Airport was approved without the minister even knowing about it. https://vancouversun.com/news/national/port-of-vancouvers-jet-fuel-pipeline-approval-surprises-minister
No one studied the serious impacts on salmon habitat. Thousands of smaller projects under federal jurisdiction are no longer reviewed at all.
Repairing the law was stopped (from my personal observations) by the civil service; in this case, the Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency – itself.
This is perilous ground for a Member of Parliament. Criticizing policy is kosher. Criticizing the federal civil service is verboten. There are thousands of dedicated, diligent people working within the federal civil service. But they are not at the top.
The civil service of Canada has embraced incrementalism. It is enmeshed in telling ministers what they want to hear. I think it is likely Environment Canada and Climate Change (ECCC) as a department embraced “Net Zero by 2050” as the official messaging trick to avoid what the IPCC is actually saying. ECCC embraced Net Zero by 2050 as a goal the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers (CAPP) would embrace as well. It does not threaten them.
And in case you missed it, CAPP is not actually a group of Canadian companies. As economist Gord Laxer exposed in a recent study, they are merely “posing as Canadian.”
Next Sunday is World Environment Day. If you are anywhere near Sidney, I hope you will join me for a conference organized by Sidney-by-the-Sea Rotary Club – featuring Seth Klein and Courtney Howard, Adam Olsen and me – among many others. The full agenda is below. It is a ticketed and in-person event. Please join us!! (details in the P.S.)
Thursday is the Ontario election. Having just done campaign events Green candidates in Barrie, Toronto, Ottawa and Parry-Sound Muskoka, I think by Sunday (fingers crossed), we will have a lot to celebrate!
Have a happy day and stay safe,
Rotary World Environment Day: Acting Locally to Save the Environment
June 5 @ 8:30 am – 4:30 pm
Rotary Club of Sidney by the Sea Hosts Environment Day
Sunday, June 5, 2022 8:30 am – 4:30 pm at the Mary Winspear Centre in Sidney, B.C.
Presentations and displays on environmental challenges and sustainable initiatives. What are the greatest challenges and what initiatives business, organizations and individuals are undertaking to help sustain our environment.
Let’s talk about how we can live more sustainably in our community.
All are WELCOME!
Morning Presentations – 9:00 am – 12:00 pm
- Elizabeth May – State of the Environment
- Dr. Courtney Howard – Climate Impacts on our Health
- Tiffany Joseph – W̱SÁNEĆ Nation, What it Means to Live Locally
- Rick Kool – Sustainability and Unsustainability: Coming to Terms with Living on an Island
- Seth Klein – Mobilizing Canada for the Climate Emergency
Lunch Break: Opportunity to visit event displays, Sidney Street Market and local restaurants
Afternoon Presentations: 1:30 pm – 4:15 pm
- Anne-Marie Daniel – Bioregional Framework for the Saanich Peninsula
- Panel discussion on what we can do to live more sustainably and what you think is possible
- Learn about Seaweed Days June 2- 8, 2022
- One-on-one discussions with event display participants showcasing their environmental initiatives, products and services
The event is committed to sustainability. To reduce our impact, please bring your own reusable coffee cup or water bottle and consider walking, cycling or riding a bus to the event.
Can we set aside ‘Group Think’ long enough to fix environmental assessment in Canada?
By GREEN MP ELIZABETH MAY MAY 23, 2022
The Liberals have kept the environmental laws that were gutted by the last Conservative government, and the 2019 Impact Assessment Act does nothing to make things better.
I have often wondered when we stopped thinking. In 2016, when Liberals approved the Kinder Morgan pipeline, I looked in vain for any cost-benefit analysis. As an intervenor in the National Energy Board pipeline hearings, I knew that the NEB had refused to look at any evidence on jobs and the economy. The only evidence that the pipeline would be good for the economy was that environmentalists and Greens were against it.
When the Liberals decided to buy the pipeline in 2018, ditto. No cost-benefit analysis. No independent valuation of the viability of the project—even from a solely economic viewpoint. What made the national media also assume the project was good for the economy? Because environmentalists oppose it.
When then-prime minister Stephen Harper took an axe to Canada’s environmental laws, he used the excuse that the environmental review process was obstructing new oil sands mines and pipelines.
In reality, under the Canadian environmental assessment laws, not one pipeline, not one oilsands mine, had ever been rejected.
When the Liberals decided to bring forward Bill C-69 in 2018, national environmental groups rallied round to pass it.
Where was the evidence it was worth passing? Only that Alberta Premier Jason Kenney called it the “No More Pipelines Act.”
It could have as easily been called the “Pro-Pipeline Act.” I voted against it. I railed against it. I pointed out that its approach to environmental assessment had become unmoored from its Constitutional anchors. It fails to require assessments for thousands of projects in federal jurisdiction that must be reviewed —but now are not.
My long and painful history in environmental assessment (EA) could fill a book. I participated in Canada’s first environmental review (the Wreck Cove hydro project in Cape Breton in 1977). Graduating from law school in 1983, I practiced environmental law and worked on strengthening EA. In 1988, when the federal environment minister broke environmental assessment rules and signed the permits for the Rafferty-Alameda Dams, without any environmental review, I resigned in principle from my position as his senior policy adviser. As a member of Parliament in 2012, I stayed at my desk in the House of Commons for 24 hours of voting on my 400+ amendments to stop the destruction of EA.
I lament the massive failure that Canada’s Impact Assessment Act represents.
For Conservatives, here is the irony. The architecture of C-69 that made it unconstitutional was put in place by Stephen Harper. For Liberals, here is their irony. Given a chance to pass effective and predictable environmental assessment law, they passed a law that dramatically reduces environmental protections while maintaining Harper’s approach.
We forgot the purpose of federal EA, which is to review actions of the federal government. It is to start before irrevocable decisions are made and allow for modifications of projects to reduce environmental impacts.
Its earliest manifestation was a 1970s order-in-council calling for reviews whenever federal land, federal money, or a decision in an area of federal jurisdiction is involved. In 1984, it was revised as the Environmental Assessment Review Process, confirmed as mandatory and constitutional in the 1989 Federal Court decision in Rafferty dam (the issue over which I had resigned) and the 1992 Supreme Court decision in Friends of Oldman River.
Work began under Progressive Conservative prime minister Brian Mulroney and was finalized by the Liberal government of Jean Chrétien to create more detailed, clear, and mandatory legislation. The 1992 Canadian Environmental Assessment Act (CEAA) maintained the same constitutional frame, but added
certainty. It required an EA whenever federal land, federal money, or a decision in an area of federal jurisdiction is involved. But rather than a vague description of federal areas of authority, it created a “law list.” That list set out the permit making authorities of federal ministers—primarily under the Fisheries Act, the Navigable Waters Protection Act.
Harper’s spring 2012 omnibus budget bill (implemented in bills C-38 and C-45) destroyed the whole regime. The Fisheries Act, Navigable Waters Protection Act were wrecked. The new EA approach was to review only those projects the minister decided to put on a “project list.” The minister had vast discretion and no federal mooring lines. The impact was to reduce the number of reviews from 4,000 a year to fewer than a hundred.
When Justin Trudeau formed government in 2015, the mandate letters to new ministers required that the environmental legislation be restored. The Fisheries Act was successfully repaired by former minister Dominic LeBlanc. The Navigable Waters Act was nearly totally fixed by former minister Marc Garneau.
The EA law remained a disaster.
Then-environment minister Catherine McKenna set in place an expert panel. Johanne Gélinas, former commissioner for the Environment and Sustainable Development; Rod Northey, environmental lawyer; Doug Horswill, Teck Resources; and Renée Pelletier, an expert in Indigenous law, held intensive cross-country hearings. They called for the pre-Harper approach to be restored: “The panel recommends that federal interest be central in determining whether an [Impact Assessment] should be required for a given
project, region, plan, or policy.”
The panel’s recommendations were rejected by the Canadian Environmental Assessment Office. As one senior CEAA executive told me, “We don’t want to throw the baby out with the bathwater.” The agency convinced the minister’s staff to keep Harper’s model. Only large projects would be reviewed based on a completely discretionary project list, leaving thousands of potentially damaging projects within federal jurisdiction, unstudied. C-69 was just plain bad
Let’s forget an appeal and start fixing EA in Canada.
Elizabeth May is the MP for Saanich-Gulf Islands, B.C., and the Green Party parliamentary leader.