Proceedings of the Standing Senate Committee on
Energy, the Environment and Natural Resources
Issue 21 - Evidence - March 10, 2011
OTTAWA, Thursday, March 10, 2011
The Standing Senate Committee on Energy, the Environment and Natural Resources met this day at 8:10 a.m. to study on emerging issues related to its mandate.
Senator W. David Angus (Chair) in the chair.
The Chair: Good morning, colleagues, witnesses, ladies and gentlemen in the audience, viewers on the CPAC network and on the World Wide Web, and on our dedicated website www.canadianenergyfuture.ca. This is a formal meeting of the Standing Senate Committee on Energy, the Environment and Natural Resources.
Following last night's wonderful meeting with the new minister of the environment, we continue our focus on the environment element of our mandate. Today, we welcome Scott Vaughan, Canada's Commissioner of the Environment and Sustainable Development, and his colleague, James McKenzie. These gentlemen will talk about the environment commissioner's report of last December.
Mr. Vaughan has been with us before, as has his predecessor. We value our chances to interact with the commissioner.
The commissioner visited my office in late November to give me a heads-up on his forthcoming report, which all of us have received. It was tabled in Parliament.
I said to Mr. Vaughan, "Of course, you will be gentle on the government.''
He said, "Absolutely. The report is flattering to the government.''
Two days later, I get a phone call.
I asked, "How are you today?''
They replied, "We are stinging and smarting from the blows delivered by the perceptive commissioner.''
That is what your job is, Mr. Vaughan. That is why we value our opportunity to hear from you.
Under the tutelage of my colleague, Senator Banks, we were introduced to Johanne Gélinas. She told us that the government has all the tools at hand to deal with the perplexing problems caused by climate change; however, they are not using them.
Senator Banks looked at me and said, "Well, that is my government. However, that is what we want to hear.''
Our job is to drill down and hear about why the tools are not being properly used.
Mr. Vaughan, we are delighted that you are here with your colleague. We are in the midst of a major study on the energy sector and how it interacts with the environment and the economy. Those are the 3 Es. We are almost at the end of the second year in this study. The aspects that you deal with are all germane. Your current report focuses on oil spills and the responsibility for spills from ships.
Part of our energy review of the incident in the Gulf of Mexico had to do with spills. It led us to meeting regulators to get a sense of who is on first base. We learned that there are different people responsible for spills from ships than there are from oil installations. It is not clear. We will hear about that.
Your report also covers water monitoring and adaptation to climate change, which are square in the middle of our mandate.
I am Senator David Angus from Montreal Quebec; I chair the committee. Senator Rose-Marie Losier-Cool will be here to represent the Deputy Chair, Grant Mitchell. Sam Banks and Marc LeBlanc are from the Library of Parliament. Senator Judith Seidman is from Montreal, Quebec. Senator Richard Neufeld is from British Columbia. My predecessor, Senator Tommy Banks, is from Alberta. Lynn Gordon is our clerk. Senator Rob Peterson is from Saskatchewan. Senator Dan Lang is from the Yukon Territory. Senator Paul Massicotte is from Quebec.
We will hear from you, Mr. Vaughan. Then, we will have our questions. Mr. McKenzie, feel free at any time to jump in.
Scott Vaughan, Commissioner of the Environment and Sustainable Development, Office of the Auditor General of Canada: Good morning, honourable senators; thank you for inviting us to discuss our 2010 fall report which was tabled in December 2010. I am accompanied by James McKenzie, a senior official from my office, as well as Andrew Ferguson, Richard Arsenault and other officials from the OAG, Office of the Auditor General of Canada.
Our report examines a number of areas, ranging from oil spills from ships to fresh water monitoring and climate change impacts. It points to some common and long-standing weaknesses in the way the government has been managing environmental issues, from a lack of critical data to inadequate information about key environmental threats, to a lack of plans to tackle those threats.
For years, the government has made repeated commitments to take the lead in protecting the environment and moving towards sustainable development. Sustained leadership is necessary to successfully address the issues we have reported time and again.
The first chapter of the report examines the government's readiness to respond to oil spills from ships. Every day, on average, one oil spill is reported to the Canadian Coast Guard. Fortunately, most are small.
However, given the findings of this audit, I am concerned that the federal government is not ready to respond to a major oil spill.
We found that the Canadian Coast Guard's national emergency management plan is out-of-date, and the organization has not fully assessed its response capacity in over a decade. Although Transport Canada assesses private sector response organizations to verify their readiness to respond to spills, a similar process is not in place for the Coast Guard.
We also found that the Coast Guard could not accurately determine the number of spills that occur each year, their size, and their environmental impacts because it does not have a reliable system to track spills.
We note several areas of concern such as incomplete assessments and out-of-date emergency response plans. These must be addressed to ensure that the federal government is ready to respond to any ship-sourced oil spill occurring in Canadian waters.
In chapter 2, we examine how Environment Canada is tracking the quality and quantity of Canada's fresh water through its long-term water monitoring programs. Environment Canada has been running the federal government's water monitoring programs for 40 years, yet it has not taken such basic steps as defining its own responsibilities and responding to the threats to Canada's water resources that the department itself has identified.
Environment Canada is not monitoring water quality on most federal lands, and it does not know what monitoring, if any, is being done by other federal departments on those lands.
The department has identified threats to Canada's freshwater resources, but it has not adjusted its monitoring networks to respond to industrial development, climate change and population growth in certain regions.
Environment Canada should assess the risks to Canada's water resources, from pollution to climate change, so it can understand and respond to the greatest threats to Canada's water resources and the potential impacts on human health.
Chapter 3 presents our findings on the federal role in adapting to the impacts of climate change.
The government has stated that climate change impacts are inevitable and are already happening. The health of Canadians and Canada's natural environment, communities and economy are vulnerable to the impacts of a changing climate. The government is not ready to respond to them.
The lack of a federal strategy and action plan has hindered departments' efforts at coordinating actions to address the effects of climate change. The departments we selected for audit have identified the risks they may face because of climate change, but they have taken little action to adapt to the potential impacts. Adapting to climate change requires sustained leadership that includes a federal strategy and plan comprising concrete actions to both inform Canadians of climate impacts and to help them adapt to our changing climate.
The final chapter in the annual report is on environmental petitions. The environmental petitions process was created in 1995 to provide Canadians with a simple yet formal way to raise concerns with and to get answers from federal ministers directly on questions about environmental issues.
We received 18 petitions this year. Health impacts of environmental issues were once again the topic the most often raised, followed by toxic substances, fisheries, and water.
That concludes my opening remarks. We would be pleased to answer any questions the committee members may have. Thank you.
The Chair: Thank you very much, commissioner. You do not leave too much to our imagination.
I am sorry that my colleague, Senator Mitchell, is not here today. He is our resident point man on climate change, in particular. You do not mince your words. The words I picked up on here were that the government is not ready to respond to the health, environmental and community challenges posed by climate change. That is quite sobering.
Senator Peterson: My first thought was that I would be hesitant to take this report card home to my parents if I were a Grade 5 student with this.
Mr. Vaughan: You would not.
The Chair: You would be in Grade 4 next year.
Senator Peterson: In going through your report, it appears that the various departments you have audited neither have a defined forward-moving plan or adequate funding, or both. Yet they have all responded in light of your recommendations. They will move forward with risk assessments, defining rules of engagement and establishing procedures to ensure the recommendations are shared and acted upon. Those are all nice words; it sounds good. I could not determine exactly who would carry out this responsibility to ensure this would be done. I also did not see any timelines or checkpoints.
What confidence do you have that progress will be made in the future, and what recommendations can we make to bring some clarity or some form to this? Otherwise, we could come back in two years and we could have much the same situation. Everybody feels good about it, but there are no checkpoints.
Mr. Vaughan: Thank you, senator. We are quite careful to direct the recommendations we make in our reports at a specific department or departments. We will not make "the Government of Canada should'' statements.
Within the case of the chapter on the oil spills from ships, we looked at the recommendations, for example, specifically directed at the Canadian Coast Guard to say, "It looks like your national emergency response plan is out of date by over a decade. You should update it.'' They have accepted.
We will then typically go back in two or three years and see if they have done what they have set out to do. We do not do that with all our work but only with the ones we deem to be most critical to the interest of parliamentarians and Canadians generally. If the departments have accepted and said they would do X but ultimately have not, we will say there is unsatisfactory progress in implementation.
There is one point that might be of interest to the committee more generally: Over on the other side, often in answer to that question, committees say they would like a detailed action plan from the department. In that way, they have our response, which is at a higher level, to say when, how and over what period of time, so they can track in a more detailed way the concrete actions to address the gaps we have identified, generally within a year.
Senator Peterson: In the oversight, you are saying it would be another three years in the timeline before we revisit it and determine, again, that nothing has been done. Would it be unreasonable for this committee to narrow it down and make that time annually instead of triennially?
Mr. Vaughan: We would be pleased to do anything that this committee would do.
That is why it is important to get officials before these committees to ask them what their plan is, what they are actually doing and then holding them accountable. I think this is a critical part of holding the government to account for what they are doing and what they have said they are doing. If they have acknowledged there are gaps, what are they doing to fix those gaps?
The Chair: At this point, I would ask you to comment on something that has always been a bugbear for me. First, I spent nearly 50 years as a maritime lawyer in this country and I was very involved with the offshore regarding pollution from ships and the like. At one time, Transport Canada was the person responsible, if I can use the word "person'' in a statutory sense. However, we have this proliferation of government departments.
I found that when the Department of Fisheries and Oceans, DFO, got one piece of the Coast Guard, and then there used to be an independent agency with a commissioner of the Coast Guard. They were a proud force of Canada, with the flag flying, and they would be horrified to hear someone say they were not ready to deal with an oil spill.
It was fortunate that I then had an opportunity to chair this committee. This committee has a funny name in "Energy, the Environment and Natural Resources,'' so we transcend at least those two departments. We have actually found no less than six departments involved with the kind of things we focus on. Indian and Northern Affairs Canada, INAC, is a good example, as is Environment Canada and Natural Resources Canada.
I think I speak for my colleagues in noting that one of the biggest inhibitors to a cohesive leadership in dealing with the issues you have highlighted this morning is this passing of responsibility — well, he's responsible, no she's responsible. We discussed this last night with the Minister of the Environment, and he said the biggest issue he finds, having become a senior member of the government, is that there are so many cooks in the kitchen stirring the broth, and it is hard to make a good soup.
Could you comment on that? Is there a way to make this thing a little more efficient?
Mr. Vaughan: That was part of what was at the heart of the observation we made on the climate change impacts. We looked at five departments, but there are more. We highlighted that for the reason you said: There are too many cooks and does everybody know what others are doing? Do you know what you are doing; do you know what your relative contribution is? Is there overlap, or gaps, or duplication?
In a climate where the government itself has acknowledged that this will touch every single area of the country, every major sector, many communities and the health of Canadians, this will take a lot of departments. That is why climate impacts underscore the importance of a coordinated, cohesive plan.
Fresh water is a similar situation. That was one of the areas with a shared jurisdiction. Provinces have the lead on surface water. That kind of shared jurisdictional issue ideally should say that partnerships lead to stronger outcomes. However, often there are slippages, and it ends up nobody is doing it or it is unclear who is doing what.
Finally, I read with great interest the committee's work on the offshore petroleum boards. When Stuart Pinks from the Canada-Nova Scotia Offshore Petroleum Board was here last year, he noted that the federal regulatory system is very complex. With the oil spills chapter, as you have said, it was DFO under the Canadian Coast Guard, Transport Canada and Environment Canada. There were others as well — the private sector first responders and INAC north of 60.
This issue of coordination among the different departments is a critical issue. We see it time and again. I could not agree more. That is one of the reasons within our work that we will look very closely at roles and responsibilities within multiple departments and ask: Do you know what you are doing and what others are doing?
The Chair: Thank you for those candid remarks.
Senator Banks: I could spend hours asking these questions because, as the chair has said, we have been hearing a lot of the same story for a long time and it does not make any difference which government it is.
Government is not the same as business. However, at the heart of the problem the chair has just identified is a management question. You cannot manage something if you do not know about it.
In your opening remarks today, you talked about a lack of critical data, inadequate information about key environmental issues — all of them. These are things that have been addressed by reports of this committee in the past, particularly having to do with water, for example.
What can we do to ensure we have that information? If you do not have the information, if you do not know what it is you are trying to manage or fix or deal with, you cannot possibly do it. That is true of both the management people and the people they are directing — the people at the pointy end of the stick.
What would you recommend be done in order to fix that?
Mr. Vaughan: This has been one of my big preoccupations since I have been on this job, a little over two-and-a-half years. It is the old saying: If you cannot measure it, you cannot manage it.
We have pointed out time and again that lack of basic information on data systems — on does the government know the state of Canada's environment in some key areas. You mentioned water. That is one of the ones where we looked at what kind of data is being generated by these stations and is the data any good; is it reliable? The answer was that we do not know if it is reliable.
I would refer to Mr. McKenzie on the data for the Coast Guard that I mentioned in my opening statement. If you do not know how many spills with a high degree of certainty — you do not know how big they are or what the environmental impact of those spills is — then it is difficult to say where we are and what plans we should put in place.
Do we have the right equipment; what do those risks look like? That is basic information. If you looked at doing any plan, you would want to know where you are, where you are going and what the challenges are in terms of environmental quality. Perhaps Mr. McKenzie could add to that, just on the data for the Canadian Coast Guard.
James McKenzie, Principal, Office of the Auditor General of Canada: Your question gets to the heart of not only our chapter on oil spills, but many other issues dealing with the environment. Specifically with oil spills, some of our recommendations, I hope, will draw attention and create a demand for more and better information.
For example, we have recommendations that the departments — Transport Canada and the Canadian Coast Guard, in particular — undertake regular risk assessments. I think that will drive a demand for good information on what kind of spills have happened, how many and how significant they have been. As well, we have our recommendations surrounding the need to review emergency management plans on a regular basis.
Those two recommendations, and hopefully that process of regular review, will create a demand for better information, which ultimately will push on that need to ensure that the data is reliable, timely, accessible and, in fact, getting used. The key is to create that demand for good information. Otherwise, the information can be collected but if no one is using it, it falls to the wayside. At least in terms of our oil spills chapter, the key is to try and generate more demand for better information.
Senator Banks: There was once a time, in the government of Mr. Mulroney — who in many ways was the greenest of our prime ministers — that they put into place a sort of choke point at cabinet. As I understand it, no policy proposal or piece of legislation went forward through cabinet until it had received the imprimatur of the Minister of the Environment.
The successor government was a Liberal one. Mr. Dion, when he was Minister of the Environment, told us that the absence of that at the cabinet table — the absence of one choke point through which all government policies and legislation went and had to be checked off so that the information was known and if we pushed in here, it would bulge out over there — had to be known in advance. Was it a good idea? Did it help, and should it be reinstated?
Mr. Vaughan: What I can say is that, in the 2008 Federal Sustainable Development Act, the goal, as far as I understand, is to look not just at environment as one thing on the side and then you have the overall machinery of government here; it is to mainstream linkages between the economy and the environment, between human health and environment, resource management and environment, and social issues.
However, within that structure and the act, there was a cabinet system put in place for which, as you said, if one thing was going to bulge out one side within the system, that would be brought to the attention of the cabinet within a cabinet subcommittee, as required under the structure of that act. My guess would be that was the thinking on that — that is to say, if you are going to get this mainstreamed, then you need to look at the overall. That is my understanding of what the thinking was behind the inclusion of that within the act.
Senator Banks: Is it working?
Mr. Vaughan: That will be a question. We have a legal obligation, as you know, so we are looking at the first round of this. We were required to provide initial comments to the government, to the Minister of the Environment, which I did in June of last year. We raised what I would say were significant concerns about how it is unfolding, but it is still in the early stages. We will wait to see what happens and we will have to report to Parliament within the next year.
Briefly, back to your point, my understanding of sustainable development is the idea of integration. One looks at environment, but one looks at the linkages with other areas and departments or you do not get coordinated responses. My understanding of what the strategy looks like, from what has been unveiled in October of last year, is that it is a listing of around 450 different environmental programs or initiatives that already exist, so the idea of their linkages is unclear. It is a listing of pre-existing environmental programs alone.
The integration issue is unclear, as well as the means by which the government is going to report that. One of the obligations is to increase its transparency to Parliament, and we are not sure whether the reporting scheme in place will enhance or decrease transparency. We will look at this closely with an audit and report back to Parliament.
Senator Banks: On the sustainable development program and policy, each department is required to make a sustainable development report each year. Has the response rate and quality improved over the last time you talked about it?
Mr. Vaughan: The departments have yet to produce those individual reports. You are quite right; there are 30 different federal departments that will be required to report under the act. The timeline is yet to kick in. They looked at the overall obligations and now the system will start kicking in and then generating those individual reports; there will be 30 of them.
One of the questions is will they be stand-alone strategy reports or will they be included in other reporting mechanisms like the DPRs, departmental performance reports, and RPPs, reports on plans and priorities, of the government? If that is the case, I would question whether that enhances transparency.
Also, we will be looking at whether it improves the old system. As you know, we had raised concerns about whether the old system was a process-driven checklist as opposed to looking at some real underlying issues related to sustainable development and sustainability.
The Chair: You used the term "management,'' which is always a good term when you are private-sector oriented. In a general sense, I have an understanding that the head manager for the government is the Clerk of the Privy Council. Would that be reasonable? If so, it would lead me to asking you, in all of your work, do you talk with the clerk and make clearly known how badly you see the situation?
Mr. Vaughan: We are always looking for areas of improvement within management systems. That is what we do as auditors. I think that some things are bad, but we call things when they are good as well, so I do not want to give the impression that everything is uniformly bad. These are hard-working civil servants.
The Chair: We appreciate that.
Mr. Vaughan: When PCO, Privy Council Office, is involved, if there is a central agency involved, my colleagues will certainly coordinate with PCO. Before I table a report, generally I will brief the clerk or the deputy clerk on our findings.
During the course of an audit, certainly if PCO and Treasury Board are involved or if we think there is a central agency that ought to be involved, we will be in pretty close communication with them, in addition to the key departments we are auditing.
The Chair: It raised again with me a question. Colleagues will remember about a year-and-a-half ago we received from the Minister of the Environment this proposal for sustainable development. The witness also received that letter outlining what they are planning to do and their projected sustainable development strategy, and they wanted our comments in writing by July 31, 2009 or whatever.
We worked hard. We coordinated our reply with your own, if you will remember. You actually walked us through yours. Has anything materialized from that, or was it an exercise where we all spun our wheels?
Mr. Vaughan: I think that would be a very useful question to ask Environment Canada. I would say they put quite a bit of effort into doing these public consultations. I think they received over 160 different submissions. As you said, a lot of people worked very hard in thinking about what the expectations of the federal government are.
I have not seen anything yet for which they have said, "Here is what we received, here is what we heard, and here is the extent to which we incorporated some of those suggestions.'' Obviously, you cannot incorporate everything. When we made our suggestions, they did not incorporate all of ours, nor did I expect they would.
I think it would be a very useful question to bring before this committee.
Senator Lang: I appreciate the witnesses coming out this morning. I initially have an observation on the question of oil spills in that particular part of your report. I think there is cause for concern. At the same time, it would seem to me that we should also be looking at what we have in place from a risk management point of view to prevent an oil spill, as opposed to just concentrating on and narrowing our attention to if there were an oil spill.
My understanding, for example, at least on the West Coast, when transporting oil — perhaps Senator Neufeld can correct me if I am wrong — I believe you have to be double-hulled, and I believe there is a system of local pilots who come out when one is in the inland waters to assist and to ensure that the pilotage of these types of ships is done in a manner that is acceptable and meets the local conditions they have to face.
There are a number of elements in place where the risk management is pretty narrow now. We have done many things that the public is really not aware of. Frankly, I would not be aware had I not happened to have this position and happened to be reading these documents and become aware of it. It seems to me we have a responsibility and your office has a responsibility to determine that things have been done; these things have narrowed the possibility of this happening, but if it does happen, we are perhaps negligent in these other areas. I want to make that point, if I could.
The other area that concerns me is in the area of fresh water and the federal government's zeal to try to interfere in the provincial jurisdiction and their constitutional responsibility. For the most part, I believe they are doing what they are supposed to be doing, but it concerns me. I think everyone is very much concerned. Everyone is always concerned about fresh water, as we should be, but here in Ottawa, we think we can fix everything. I want to say that I do not necessarily adhere to that view, because I think the people actually drinking the water at the local level are probably more concerned than you and I here, quite honestly.
I want to make a point wherein the chair talked about the management and the coordination of the departments. That is a valid point and an area of weakness, one that must be looked at. Also, there must be coordination with the provinces, recognizing their responsibilities.
There was a comment made about the oil sands, questioning the water monitoring of the oil sands. I have done some reading on the oil sands, and I know it is a fact that the province has been monitoring that water for many years. We have no reason to believe they are not doing as well as they possibly can, and we have no reason to believe that the federal government would necessarily do it any better.
It is important to point out that the information they have with regard to the monitoring of the oil sands is that a lot of the information being brought forward to the public is not necessarily accurate from those who are critical; they are dealing with half-science or no science.
This leads me to another area. Has your agency looked at the prospect of the federal government setting up some mechanism where, if a so-called scientific document comes out and determines that, based on science, certain parameters are not being adhered to, the public or the science community can ask for that particular report to be assessed on its scientific merits?
My understanding now is that if a report is done and someone happens to have a university degree, a Bachelor of Science, then it is the gospel once they have completed it. I am not saying it may not be the gospel, but I think there should be a step where this type of science, which is so important to us, can be looked at by peers and, at the end of the day, the decision on the assumptions in these reports can be determined to be based on good science or not. Perhaps you could comment on that.
Mr. Vaughan: I may ask my colleague, Mr. Ferguson, to comment on the fresh water aspect.
Maybe I could address your last question and do a little advertisement. We are in the middle of conducting an audit that we will present in the fall of this year, which is looking at the role of science, going exactly to your question. Does the federal government have systems in place to assure the quality of that science? Is it peer reviewed?
It gets to a number of critical questions related to evidence-based decisions, what you do when there are areas of uncertainty, which we know, particularly in the area of environment, there will always be uncertainty; we will never have a perfect picture of everything. We are in the middle of that now. The motivation for that was very much your question.
Related to the previous senator's question on environmental data and monitoring, we are doing another one for a fall roll-up identifying all the major environmental data and monitoring systems that the federal government has in place to help answer a question of what is there, are there overlaps or duplication, and also looking at the benchmark and obtaining international environmental data systems. Those two together, which is what data is informing you and what does the science community do with that data, get at your underlying question, which I could not agree more with.
Unless we put facts on the table, this will be a dialogue of the deaf. With regard to the environment, it is politically contentious.
In terms of fresh water, I could not agree more that it is a shared jurisdiction. The provinces have a strong role in fresh water. That is in the Constitution; that is how our federation works. The federal government has exclusive responsibility on federal lands. In terms of that, there are some major gaps.
Of 3,000 First Nations reserves, there are 12 water quality monitoring stations. That is a stunning gap. Nobody is doing that. There is a long history of health and drinking water issues among First Nations.
The Chair: Andrew Ferguson is a Principal in the Office of the Auditor General of Canada. Mr Ferguson, please go ahead.
Andrew Ferguson, Principal, Office of the Auditor General of Canada: There are odd jurisdictional separations between provincial and federal authorities with respect to water monitoring. We looked at the areas within the federal jurisdiction in order to reach our conclusions. There is a broad consensus, not only based on our work but also more broadly, that the federal water quality monitoring network is not adequate to deliver on the policy commitment, and to understand and disseminate information on the quality of the water and the health of aquatic ecosystems. In its own internal analysis, the department itself indicated that it would need between a doubling and an eight-fold increase in the number of water quality monitoring stations in order to adequately monitor water in federal jurisdiction.
To do this between federal and provincial jurisdictions is a collaborative exercise. However, even in the federal domain, there is clear evidence and broad consensus beyond our office that what has been done over the last 20 years to 25 years has not been inadequate.
In its water monitoring activities, the government spends more than two-thirds of its budget on its long-term water quality monitoring. That is the principal area of expenditure and it has not been adequate.
Senator Lang: Is it inadequate, even though that amount of money has been doubled in the past number of years? We have gone from $20 million to $35 million or $40 million.
Mr. Ferguson: I think we concluded that the expenditure represents less than 1 per cent of the department's budget; I would have to go back to get the exact figure.
Mr. Vaughan: Senator, the underlying question is: What is enough? It is not for us to say how many are needed. Mr. Ferguson said that their own analysis showed a need for doubling or more. There are now international norms from the World Meteorological Organization, WMO, as to the number of stations per geographic density. This is a recommendation. Canada worked on those recommendations. We suggested that those international norms be applied to Canada to figure out how much is needed and where the gaps are. That recommendation was accepted.
A few years from now, we can look back and ask, "Did you do what you said you would?''
With regard to the oil sands, we will be reporting on May 12 under the context of the Canadian Environmental Assessment Act in terms of the federal government's responsibility in assessing cumulative effects and underlying monitoring issues. We are taking into account a Royal Society of Canada report from late last year, and Elizabeth Dowdeswell's report which I understand the government will respond to probably next week.
This area is highly complicated. We made the observation there is one water quality station 150 kilometres downstream from the oil sands. We did not look at the some of the areas Environment Canada said would be a risk. In 2001, they said that toxic pollutants from oil sands would probably be a risk. They had identified the risk; however, they had not actually done anything. This is a more comprehensive look at the question you have posed on the oil sands.
Senator Lang: In creating this report, does your office have face-to-face discussions with the province so that the left hand knows what is the right hand is doing?
Mr. Vaughan: Yes, we are. I have been to the oil sands three times in the last year-and-a-half. We have met with Environment Alberta on each of those trips as well as the industry representative, the oil sands development corporation, the president, as well as the Office of the Auditor General of Alberta. Our mandate is to look at federal responsibilities within this. However, we have looked closely at what other jurisdictions are doing even though we do not have the mandate to report on what they are doing.
Senator Lang: One has to delineate where one's responsibilities are, versus those of the province.
Mr. Vaughan: There are multiple actors and players at departments or jurisdictions working at the same time. If a federal agency had a partnership with a provincial counterpart, did they have an idea of what the provincial counterpart was doing? Was that partnership meeting the federal responsibilities? Ideally, we would like to do a joint work with provinces where there are jurisdictional issues. We may do that with Newfoundland and Nova Scotia on another issue. However, our questions in a partnership would be: Do you know what your partner is doing? Is that partnership making sure that you are complying with your legal obligations as a federal entity?
Mr. Ferguson: Ms. Dowdeswell's report concluded that current multi-stakeholder approaches lack clearly defined and recognized and accepted leadership. An holistic system and a perspective clearly focused on a set of objectives and statistically sound decision-making processes do not exist.
Her conclusion is that that kind of relationship is not working to get a cohesive approach to water monitoring.
The Chair: Senator Lang, you do not look satisfied. Are you finished?
Senator Lang: I am finished.
Mr. Vaughan: In the report, we acknowledge prevention. As of January 2010, all tankers over 5,000 tonnes are required to be double-hulled. In updating risk assessments, not all risks are going one-way upwards. There are better navigational systems, GPS systems, and pilots.
Mr. McKenzie: Prevention is key. In the introduction to our report, we provided context in terms of managing ship- source oil and chemical spills. This includes prevention, detection, preparing for spills and responding. Clearly, prevention plays a key role; double-hulled tankers and pilotage are two key aspects of prevention, as is vessel inspection. Transport Canada operates a vessel inspection program where they look at domestic and foreign vessels to ensure that they meet standards and regulations.
There is also the provision of weather services and hydrographic mapping. Concerns have been raised about the adequacy of those in the Arctic. However, the federal government has announced new funding for improving weather services and hydrographic mapping in the north, which is important.
There is also the issue of detection. We talk in the chapters about the National Aerial Surveillance Program run by Transport Canada. That is an important program because it not only detects oil spills but also acts as a deterrent. From that perspective, it can be seen as being an important prevention tool.
The aircraft Transport Canada operates were used last year during the Gulf of Mexico spill and they were recognized as being leading edge in terms of the technology they have. Therefore, there are certainly some key factors with respect to prevention and detection that exist and that are in play.
To conclude, the whole issue of the risk profile can be influenced by prevention and preventative measures being put in place, as Mr. Vaughan said. As we note in our chapter, it is important to regularly assess risks and see how they are changing over time, partly as a result of the introduction of preventative measures, which can influence the risk profile and inform emergency planning and preparedness.
Senator Massicotte: Thank you for being here. After reading your report, I am almost outraged by the number of things which are left undone. This has been a problem for several decades, and it has not been fixed yet. We all remember the report that was made after the Exxon Valdez spill, twenty years ago, about chemicals spills. I am trying to understand what's happening here.
However, your report is quite harsh. It was well reported by the media, and yet, the population is not up in arms. There is no major reaction from the public. I guess people think it is another report by an auditor who wants perfection, and perfection does not exist. They read the report and then forget about it, because they know that it is easy to find the culprit after the fact. But today, after the spill in the Gulf of Mexico, people are more aware of the problem.
You say clearly in your report that this risk does exist, and I do not understand why the population is not up in arms. Of course, the minister and the government will agree with the report, but they have been agreeing with the reports for twenty years. One year, two years later, almost nothing has been done. I'm trying to put all that in perspective, but why is the Canadian population not up in arms?
M. Vaughan: It's an interesting question. We observe in this chapter that these problems are not new, they have been here for more than 20 years. There are gaps in the system, for example, in responding to climate change impacts on oil spill prevention systems. Today, there is no system in place in case of spills of toxic and hazardous substances. Recommendations have been made since the 80s. I do not understand why the population is not more concerned about it. This is probably more a question for the politicians. We have looked at the government of Canada management system and we have submitted our findings to Parliament.
Your question about public apathy should be asked to the media and to journalists. I know there is a lot of interest in Quebec, on the part of the Quebec media, for environmental issues. Every day, there are reports in Quebec newspapers about what is happening in the St. Lawrence River, and climate change impacts in the province. I come from Nova-Scotia, and if you ask people there whether they are concerned by climate change impacts on the Nova- Scotia sea shore, 80 per cent will tell you that they are very concerned by the situation. The problems we have identified are serious, and we have made recommendations because we think there are solutions to fix them.
Senator Massicotte: I am sure there are solutions. The Coast Guard has already said it lacked funds. Everybody will pass the buck. Some have already started to reply to your report. I do hope we will find solutions. This is a major risk. Perfection does not exist, but we should at least commit ourselves to find a solution. I hope the population is adequately concerned, but I am not sure. Polls do reveal a lot of interest for the environment, but when we talk about associated costs and citizens financial contributions, they are less interested. I hope we'll succeed.
M. Vaughan: Of course there is always the financial aspect of it. But good data do not require a lot of financial resources; they require sound management practices. The gaps which we identified in data collected by the Canadian Coast Guard reveal inadequate management practices. That is why we made recommendations to improve data quality.
The Chair: I could paraphrase your question, Senator Massicotte: What the hell is going on here? It is good to ask that.
Senator Seidman: Thank you, gentlemen. Given the weather, it is not a great day to be required to be here so early, so we appreciate it.
I notice that your report was tabled in the fall of 2010. During what period did you actually collect your data to write the report?
Mr. Vaughan: Generally, it is four or five years. I would ask Mr. McKenzie and Mr. Ferguson to specify, but generally 2005 to 2010 or 2006 to 2010; it is usually a four- or five-year period.
Am I correct?
Mr. McKenzie: Yes.
Senator Seidman: That is helpful. In the last couple of years, specifically in the last year since the Gulf event, we know much more attention has been paid to these kinds of things.
Could you give us some idea of the kind of responses that you have had from the various government departments since you tabled this report? You say some serious things that have to do with the Canadian sense of safety. Our concerns have been very much related to these issues.
I would like to know what kind of response you have had from the government and what system of follow-up you actually employ.
Mr. Vaughan: Thank you. I will ask my colleagues to go into it briefly. I am sorry if our responses have been too long.
My answer returns to an earlier question. We will make detailed recommendations. We will meet with the departments during the course of crafting those recommendations. They then can either accept or not. In the case of this report, they accepted every single one of our recommendations. Those recommendations are quite detailed, as I have said.
We will make general recommendations, such as "improve your management systems,'' "clean up your data,'' "update your plans,'' "identify gaps,'' or "figure out what others are doing.'' The recommendations are quite specific. Their responses then have been that they accept and will move forward.
Related to an earlier question, our internal system is to go back in two or three years and find out if they did what they said they would do. However, there are other systems, such as the internal audit capacities of the departments. Having met with deputy ministers, their chief accountability officers take this very seriously. I think it was said earlier that things that get the attention of the deputies and the clerk generally get the attention of the system. Then we look to see whether it has been responded to.
Senator Seidman: That is a positive thing. I am trying to look at the positives here because you did say, among all these negatives, there are some positives.
The fact that there is an adequate and systemic coherent approach to looking at these issues and then to following them up is something positive.
Mr. Vaughan: Yes.
As another example, we had said in answer to the senator's earlier question, that the prevention and detection in the Canadian system is a good story. As Mr. McKenzie said, the three aircraft of Transport Canada have infrared equipment; they are among the best in the world. That is why the U.S. Coast Guard asked us to lend a hand during the Gulf of Mexico disaster.
There are good things in this. It is not all bleak. From this side, I think we all believe that these systems are there and they need to be improved, but there is a foundation you are building upon. It is not as if we are starting from nothing on this.
Senator Seidman: The Gulf of Mexico did indicate many things to us. It was a terrible catastrophe, but perhaps a good learning experience for everyone in the future. If I might make an observation, it did demonstrate inadequacies in the science and in the R&D, research and development, directed at these kinds of issues, and real challenges and frustrations with what we might call "command and control.''
I think your report pointed out — and, certainly, Senator Angus has already made reference and perhaps some of my other colleagues as well — the different departments involved, and trying to focus on who takes the lead and who really organizes in the event of a catastrophe.
For example, you stated that Transport Canada, the Canadian Coast Guard and Environment Canada all have roles to play in prevention — both in the kinds of things they might do now, and in overseeing a sorry event that could happen down the road. Do you have comments to make on that?
Mr. Vaughan: I will ask Mr. McKenzie to go into more detail. However, one of the comments we noted was, because of the number of actors involved, it is important that you do real exercises. The best plan can look perfect on the shelf but, particularly, if you are having many actors involved — the private sector has a critical role under the principle of the polluter pays — it is important to go and see how these things work in the real world by doing simulated exercises.
One thing we noted was that these were not being done enough. Departments have agreed, and that would be one area where you hope for the best but you plan for the worst. That may be one of the lessons from the Gulf of Mexico.
Mr. McKenzie: To add to that, regarding your comment on what response have we gotten from the government, from the departments we worked with, they take these issues seriously. They recognize there is work to be done and areas that need improvement.
I think it is safe to say we are optimistic that the departments — and the agency, in the case of the Canadian Coast Guard — are moving in the right direction in that regard. They understand there are gaps that need to be addressed.
They have invested in new resources in terms of the personnel they have, particularly at headquarters, which is key. In the event of a large spill, as you mentioned, the command and control is an important function. In our case in Canada, the Canadian Coast Guard — in particular, their national headquarters — would have to play a strong role. I think they recognize that.
To be fair to the Coast Guard, they recognized that there were some areas that needed improvement before the Gulf of Mexico incident occurred. It has been on their radar screen. I think they are moving toward addressing some of those issues.
Senator Seidman: Good. I will go to the monitoring issue because I think that is another serious one, monitoring our water resources. I am following up on an issue that Senator Lang already brought forward, which is the science.
First, you say the monitoring of the water has not been adequate. I would like to know if you can be more specific when you say that. I do note that we have a program set up specifically, the fresh water quality monitoring program, which is part of Environment Canada's science and technology branch.
I would like to know what you mean when you say "not adequate.'' Then I would like to know if we have the systems in place to respond to your criticisms in terms of the science. Does the science exist? Is there perhaps some way to look at best practices or international standards?
In terms of data collection, is there actually some system already in use that would give us coherent, consistent and comparable data? That is the issue. You can collect lots of data, but is it coherent, consistent and comparable? Are your terms all defined the same way across the system so everybody understands what you are collecting?
Mr. Vaughan: I will ask Mr. Ferguson to answer that.
Mr. Ferguson: We define "adequate'' in terms of delivering on the mandate, or the strategic objectives of the program. The water monitoring program, for example, is intended to provide knowledge and understanding of the impacts and risks of human activities to water quality and the health of aquatic ecosystems.
What we look to determine is whether the networks, the systems and the data are adequate to deliver on that mandate — to provide knowledge and understanding of the impacts and risks of human activities to water quality and the health of aquatic ecosystems. When we say it is not adequate, we mean it is not adequate to do that job.
Senator Seidman: That is a huge task. You would have to have ways of measuring. In order to collect data, you need to find ways to measure what it is —
Mr. Ferguson: That is right. That is what we would expect of management. The expertise lies in the department to understand, in each area of the country, which parameters ought to be monitored in order to deliver on this mandate and then to go and monitor those parameters.
Senator Seidman: That is helpful and crisp. I appreciate that.
Mr. Vaughan: Senator, on your other question, there are international norms, such as the number of stations per geographic density — by terrain, actually; the number of stations on the Prairies would be different from mountainous regions. That is under the WMO. We made the recommendation that since Canada provided leadership in addressing these international norms, we should apply them in our own country. That would get at how much is adequate in terms of the number of stations.
On your last point on comparability of data, I could not agree more. For example, looking at multiple jurisdictions in the oil sands, that was the heart of the Dowdeswell report of December. There are 20,000 different water monitoring sites or activities in that region, but the problem is that they could not talk to each other because the data was not comparable. There were different parameters, times and scales. Because of that, she concluded that there is lots of activity but there is no system.
This data comparability is something that people have worked on and it is solvable. This is not impossible; it is not a huge resource commitment either. We are very much looking forward to the government's response. I am optimistic this will move forward quickly.
Senator Seidman: In terms of the science, you mentioned that you are developing the means for a depository for science, which is very interesting.
Mr. Vaughan: No. In an audit in the fall, we are going to look at the role of federal environmental science in terms of some of the questions, such as what does the nature of evidence-based decision making look like? How much evidence is needed? What is the role of uncertainty? What is the role of the precautionary approach? Those are questions that get at the heart of what the department should be doing, and expectations in informing the decision-making process.
We would not look at the decision itself because that is how our system works; that is a ministerial discretion. In every department we have looked at, there are hundreds and hundreds of millions of dollars spent every year on science, on environmental science. Is there value for money for those investments?
Senator Seidman: Thank you.
Senator Neufeld: Thank you for being here. I want to make an observation, but first I want to ask a question. In the reports, I guess it said somewhere that there were approximately 4,160 incidents involving spills of oil or chemicals from 2007 to 2009, which is a significant amount of spills. Can you tell me what is considered a spill? Is it a litre? Is it half a litre? Is it a pint? Where does that begin and how is it reported? Is this self-reported?
Let us say a pleasure craft, a fishing boat or a barge actually has an accident. Are they compelled to self-report? Do you feel that all those reports actually come to you? Or do some people say, "Oh, Fred is not looking so I am okay?''
Mr. Vaughan: I will ask Mr. McKenzie to go into more detail. Yes to your question, which is that all types of spills in terms of magnitude, and then all sources from small pleasure crafts to large tankers, are required to report to the Canadian Coast Guard, and it is the self-reporting system. That would be the first part.
We did not compile that number. We asked the Coast Guard to find out, "What is your number?'' We were surprised in trying to get to that number — and I think I mentioned this in my opening statement — that the data and the Coast Guard's knowledge of numbers of spills, magnitude of spills and environmental impact of spills is actually quite poor. We do not use those words in reports unless there is very strong evidence to support it.
The finding on the data quality gets at the heart of how many spills we are talking about.
Mr. McKenzie: The nature in terms of the size of the spills really varies. In certain cases, it may not have been a spill. Something is reported, there may be an investigation, and it is determined that, in fact, it was not a spill. We note that in the chapter. It could be small spills.
One challenge we ran into was we found input errors in the data that was collected by the Coast Guard in terms of the size of the spill. I know the Coast Guard is working at addressing that in order to improve the reliability of that information. At the end of the day, there are all these spills but how significant are they? Are they all small spills? Are they non-events? The more we can get better, more reliable data on that is to everyone's benefit because we can then understand how significant these spills are. That is one aspect.
In terms of the nature of the vessels, it ranges from small pleasure craft, fishing vessels, tugs and barges, right up to container ships. It is a wide range of vessels that spills are reported.
It could be self-reported, but it could also come from the general public, such as when they see a spill in a harbour, for example, or it could come from the National Aerial Surveillance Program. There are a wide variety of sources in terms of reporting, such as provincial government departments, National Defence and other organizations as well.
There is a wealth of information and a lot of opportunities for mining that data. At the end of the day, it would help not just the Coast Guard but all stakeholders to understand the issue a bit better.
Senator Neufeld: You are telling me you do not know the concentration or where most of the spills happened. You do not know what body of water it was in, whether it was large or small, just a few drops of oil or barrels of oil.
When people look at those numbers, they say, "My goodness, what are we doing? Are we polluting the whole world?'' If you are missing $0.10, that is a heck of a lot different than missing $1,000. That is what I am trying to say.
When those numbers arrive in an auditor's report — although it is reported by the Coast Guard and the auditors can say they just took the information from them — you have not backchecked that, perhaps you do not have a way to do so, or that would be far too costly or time consuming to do.
We need to work towards better systems. That is with both the auditing system, which needs to be looked at differently, and especially the information that you report, which must be much more fulsome and correct. Would you agree with me?
Mr. Vaughan: When we report a number, we do so to an auditing level of assurance, which is probably amongst the strongest in the world. We do not run anything in any report unless we have checked, double-checked and triple- checked.
The reason why we came out with a serious observation on the quality of the data was because it would be an expectation that management would have that data, and we had to spend a lot of time with the team to double-check and triple-check that. We had a person working on going through files and mining that data to give you the number that is actually about as accurate as one will get.
The underlying issue and the important thing is your point, which is that this should be the work of the Coast Guard and the other departments to have this information to help them plan. Your point is absolutely right in that most of those spills were small, and that is the reality.
We did not want to be over-alarmist on this. The big observation was if something big happened, would the system be ready? Our conclusion was no, not only because of the data but for all sorts of others reasons we spelled out in the chapter.
Senator Neufeld: If in fact you researched all those numbers that you were given, such as the 4,160, could you provide us with the magnitude of every one of those spills and where they occurred? Would you have the information backing this up?
Mr. McKenzie: In response to that, the volume of the spills was something we looked at in terms of including in the report.
There are two measures. One is the estimate in terms of the amount that was spilled, and there is also an estimate with respect to the potential amount that could have been spilled and the amount that may be in the tank of a vessel that did not spill. It is a potential.
We looked at that data, and that is where we ran into problems with respect to some input errors. At the end of the day, we did not feel comfortable including that information. Even if we had put disclaimers around it, from our perspective, it was not reliable enough for us to include in the report. However, I would say that the Coast Guard recognizes the importance of it, and it is something they will work towards in terms of improving, not just the number of spills but how significant they are.
Senator Neufeld: I will go back to Senator Massicotte's question. What I heard in my previous life and what I still hear today is, "Oh, we are so terrible in Canada; my goodness, our electrical generation system is terrible, we need to get wind generation going, we need to do all this alternative energy.'' We are one of the best countries in the world. Seventy-five per cent of our electricity comes from clean sources. There are countries that people compare us to that generate electricity with 40-per-cent coal. We do a pretty good job. In fact, we do an excellent job. Are we perfect? No. Will we be perfect? I doubt it. I think we spend far too much time, not just from you folks but from the political process, of trying to blame everyone else.
It does not matter, as Senator Banks talked about, what government is in place; some of these things just do not seem to happen and we are not sure why. What I am trying to say is I would like to brag a little bit more about Canada and about how good we are. We do not seem to do that enough.
I go to your reports, and I will read a couple of things. With respect to the commissioner's perspective on the main points, you start out with identifying common weaknesses. There is not one word about the fact that we actually do some things right, as you spoke about when the U.S. Coast Guard wanted some of our equipment. You started out with identifying common weaknesses, and about the third sentence down, it says, "Specifically, this report identifies a pattern of unclear and uncoordinated actions.'' What a way to knock it. I am not saying we are perfect; do not get me wrong.
I will go to another one: Oil spills from ships. You start off in the second paragraph with the "4,160.'' There is not one thing about the U.S. actually wanting us to help them, because we do have some pretty good systems in Canada and we watch over things pretty well.
What would that lead one to believe if the public was to read it?
Chapter 3 says, "The government has not established clear priorities for addressing the need to adapt to a changing climate.'' That would say to anyone reading the first sentence, "My goodness, they are not doing anything.''
Monitoring water resources is another. I have not had a chance to read the whole thing this morning. The third paragraph says all the bad things going on.
The list goes on and on.
What would one think after reading that report? They would think we are terrible. Regardless of the government, sir, it says that any government does not give a darn about the environment.
I live in the northern part of British Columbia and most people up there are all people who work in the oil and gas industry. Not a single one gets up in the morning and thinks, "I will head into work and the first thing I will do is figure out how to pollute.'' I do not think they work for companies that want to pollute more.
I know from my experience that they have done an awful lot of things. Are they perfect? No. Is there room to improve? Certainly. When do we start talking about some of those good things we do, so that we do not get hammered when we are out on the world stage — because we do? Yet we are only 1 per cent or 2 per cent of the problem of climate change.
That is a little long. I am sorry, chair. When do we start talking about how good we are and say where we can improve?
Mr. Vaughan: Thank you, senator. I appreciate your perspective on this.
First, when we see a program that is working well, we are all jumping up and down with joy and we will tell Parliament that, and we have in the past. We have said, for example, Environment Canada's air quality monitoring inventory is a model that could be used around the world. We did that in 2009. We said Canada's drinking water system and Health Canada's guidelines had made significant improvements, and we reported to Parliament on that.
When we say there is a pattern of problems, we make that observation not on what we wish was happening. As auditors, we make that observation based on what the government itself has said it would do. It is not based on what we wish they would do or what some other norm would be. It is the stated objective of the Government of Canada in some area.
We will then find out if they have achieved it. If not, are there variants? We will only report if there are significant variances between the stated objective and the delivery. We do that not within a policy context — because that is your role — but within the context of auditing management systems. We do so to find out what the explanation is for the gap between the goal and the delivery within the context of value for taxpayers' money.
I could not agree more: When things are working well, we will be the first to say it, to be blunt. However, the role we have been charged with under the Auditor General Act is to report significant findings to Parliament. Parliament can interpret them in each way that parliamentarians will.
I appreciate your take on our interpretation of the perspective, because we could have said the perspective quite differently. However, this is our take on how this rolls up into some major messages.
Senator Neufeld: Significant things can mean things that are going well. You in fact talked about all the people out there who are doing lots of good work, and I believe there are. I have great faith in the public service. There are people out there who are just as concerned as anyone else and who do good work.
If we always premise everything with everything that is wrong but never say what is right, they will throw their arms up after 20 years or 30 years and ask themselves, "What the heck am I doing?'' because all they ever see is something wrong.
I know the chair is wagging his finger at me, so thank you.
The Chair: I was not wagging my finger at you, but I was almost subconsciously applauding you. We value the signposts given to us by the commissioner regarding things that are easily remedied and nothing is being done with the money there and the tools. On the other hand, I think you are echoing another perspective.
Commissioner, this committee authorized me to attend the Copenhagen Climate Conference in December, just before Christmas of 2009. I must tell you, it was the worst week of my life. I mean that in all sincerity. I went there and the timing of the year was not great. The weather and other things created a perfect storm.
I am a passionate Canadian — I really am. I got there and for seven consecutive days all I heard was what a terrible country Canada is, and that we are the leading polluter in the world. "Come at four o'clock to see Canada named the pig and the pollution fossil of the day.'' It was very depressing because there was no defence put up at any time.
You are quite graphic in your wording here. I saw Senator Dickson shaking his ahead when he read the thing on page 3 that I quoted earlier, talking about us not doing anything about climate change. Actually, we sat with the Minister of the Environment last night for three-and-a-half hours and we are doing a heck of a lot.
I think that is your point, is it not, Senator Neufeld? I thought you made it very well. If there was any wagging, it was a laudatory wagging.
Senator Peterson: To put the 4,160 spills in context, how many were major spills where a polluter contravened existing regulations and action was taken against them as opposed to minor ones? Would you have that information?
Mr. McKenzie: That speaks to one of the challenges we came across. Coast Guard spill classifications range from a level 1, which means there was almost no incident and it may have involved just a check to ensure that nothing happened, up to level 5, which is an international incident, where international cooperation or Canada is contributing internationally. The majority of the spills are in the level-1 and level-2 category, so they are small.
One of the challenges we ran into was the quality. During the process of the audit, we found that some of the classifications for the spills were changed. One might have gone from a level 3, which required some form of response, to a level 2, which meant it just needed an investigation and no response or deployment of resources.
We are not in a position to be able to answer confidently. It is safe to say that the majority of the spills from our understanding were small or smaller in nature. That is not to say that some larger spills did not occur.
Senator Massicotte: The majority being 51 per cent or 99 per cent?
Mr. McKenzie: I would say three-quarters.
Senator Peterson: Given the optics, it should be included in the report that most of those were minor.
Mr. Vaughan: We did say in the report that most are minor. To underscore Mr. McKenzie's point, while we were auditing this, what was listed in the Coast Guard system as level 3, meaning more serious, were made to be level 2 when we went in to look at those numbers. They then came back and told us what they thought the total numbers are, including large spills. Then they said they made a mistake, and that one of those — 5,000 tonnes or 6,000 tonnes — was a simulated exercise and not a real spill. That went into the actual.
That goes to Mr. McKenzie's earlier point. If we could have told Parliament with some level of assurance how many were minor, how many were major and what the environmental implications of those numbers were, we would have said that. However, we made the conclusion that we, and therefore you, could not rely on anything more than the total number.
The recommendation to the Coast Guard was to go make the differentiation so they have a better idea of how much is minor and how much is actually at a level 3 or level 4.
Senator Lang: A significant spill would require a charge to be laid. Surely, we have the statistics of how many charges have been laid out of those 4,000. Do you have that information?
Mr. McKenzie: We did not get into the enforcement side but, rather, the documentation on responses.
Senator Neufeld: I am looking at your report of the 4,160 pollution incidents involving spills of oil, chemicals or other pollutants. On page 1, it says:
. . . into Canadian waters were reported to the Canadian Coast Guard. About 2,000 of these incidents involved vessels ranging from pleasure craft and fishing boats to barges, cargo vessels and tankers.
You never identified that a lot of them were small. One would believe that they are large tankers. If you have the information, why not put it in here? If 75 per cent or 80 per cent of them are half a pint of oil, that should be identified. Otherwise, it is left in the readers' minds that there are 4,160 major spills.
Mr. Vaughan: We did identify; we will get you the wording. The environmental significance of a spill is not always a function of size. We identified the system both for oil and toxic substances. For toxic substances, one drop can have a significant impact. Off the East Coast, a very small quantity of oil can have important impacts on seabirds.
Senator Neufeld: I appreciate that.
Mr. Vaughan: The Coast Guard reports a number of spills annually. We wanted to look at the significance and reliability of their reporting system. Suppose you are running a community fire department. At end of the year, you say, "We think there were 300 fires; however, we are not really sure. It may have been 250. We are not sure how many of those were just kitchen stove fires or four or five storey fires.'' This is important. At end of the year, you must ask, "Do we need bigger ladders or different trucks?'' That is why this data is the foundation for what is working now and what needs to be adjusted in light of the risk.
Senator, I will follow up and send to the committee the breakdown of that total number by the levels that the Coast Guard uses. This is an example where the Coast Guard may be able to help. We audit the systems. It may be useful for the Coast Guard to come in and explain the numbers and levels of significance.
The Chair: Senator Fred Dickson is from Truro, Nova Scotia. He is a great monitor of oil spills from the window of his living room.
Senator Dickson: If I were facing a criminal charge tomorrow, I would want Senator Neufeld to be my lawyer. There is no question about it.
As Mr. Vaughan and I are from the Maritimes, I must come to his defence. I do not envy him his job. He is doing a tremendous job. Since I have been on this committee, this is the first time that we have had the opportunity to discuss environmental issues in depth.
I would like your comments with regard to offshore dwelling and exploration around Newfoundland and Nova Scotia. Have there been any significant spills or are they just drops?
Mr. Vaughan: We have not audited it yet; we looked at spills from ships. We have had an exchange of letters as well as several meetings with the Nova Scotia board a month ago and the Newfoundland board. We agreed that we will audit both boards. They have never been audited by either a federal or provincial auditor general's office. We will begin that work sometime later this year.
Senator Dickson: My next question relates to fluoridation in water. It is an issue in Nova Scotia, particularly in the Cape Breton area. Can you comment on that? If not, will you be looking at that?
Mr. Vaughan: We did not look at it in this report. However, we did a report on drinking water safety in 2009. I can make that report available to the senator. We said that the system is working well and that Health Canada updated its guidelines. The fluoridation of drinking water is included in the guidelines of Health Canada. They are doing a good job in conformity with international standards. I will be glad to follow up and send it through the chair.
The Chair: Please send it through the clerk, Ms. Gordon.
Senator Dickson: Does that not fall out of your area of responsibility? Is it not a matter for other departments of government that should be out front in getting the positive message out about the good things that Canada is doing? That leads to my other question about chapter 4 on environmental petitions. But the first one is really out of your mandate, in a way. I want to come to your aid a bit.
The Chair: I think he is capable of handling his own defence.
Senator Dickson: I do not want you to be buried before the committee before you die.
Mr. Vaughan: We look at significant programs. We do not go in with a pre-conceived idea of what those programs are. We look at what the government has said the programs will do and the underlying management systems. Finally, we say whether or not they are working. That is our role.
The good news or bad news is not for us. We are careful on what we say and do not stray into policy. That is the role for Parliament and then for Canadians to decide.
The people that work for the Canadian civil service are dedicated, hard-working and world-class professionals. Our job is to help them. These management systems are not in place to make peoples' lives more complicated. As FDR, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, said, "Give us the tools and we will do the job.'' I hope that our audits are doing this. When we identify a problem, we hope that the problem will be fixed and that the professionals working in the Canadian civil service will be better equipped to do the job. Those working in the Coast Guard do not go out when it is fair weather. They go out in life-threatening situations to provide a public service to Canadians as well as to protect our environment.
I could not say more about the dedication of people who work for the federal government in these departments.
Senator Dickson: In relation to the contingent liability of the federal government, could you please give quantification as to the contingent liability? For many environmental risks on the federal government side, you make reference to clean-up, but it is not clean-up really, it is inadequate funds, et cetera. It is really, manage the risk, so it is there and you go out and manage it. I understand the contingent liability is enormous.
Mr. Vaughan: Another thing that we are doing in our office is looking at environmental liabilities within the next year. Part of that is what does the federal government have on the books now, and then the much more difficult issue is what might be a contingent liability. You are quite right.
The first ones are where do they have the responsibilities or where may there be responsibilities. In the spills from ships for example, the first responsibility is with the private sector, under the polluter pays. As we saw from the Gulf of Mexico, if a large accident happens, it is often going to be the government that will have to pay. Then it is whatever will be the court action subsequent.
In north of 60, it is in the private sector. The Coast Guard is the first responder; they actually hold that responsibility and, therefore, the potential clean-up costs from that. The Arctic Council said in 2009 that if there was a spill in the Arctic, the consequences would be catastrophic.
Senator Dickson: In relation to pollution, I come back to Nova Scotia, the steel plant and the class action there. The federal government is a party to that class action, right?
Mr. Vaughan: To my understanding, yes.
Senator Dickson: In my understanding as well. That relates back to the health issue. In the case of cancer, the highest incidence is in Cape Breton, as you are aware, in the Sydney area. Are there any other examples of that magnitude across Canada that you can think of, where the federal government is now defending a class action?
Mr. Vaughan: Off the top of my head, I cannot. However, we would be very careful not to make any comments on any court action that is before the courts now. If I could think of one, I think drawing a comparison would be inappropriate for me to do. I will leave it at that, if I may.
The Chair: When you are doing your study on compensation and liability, I do not know whether it would extend to the nuclear field, but I hope it would, because Canada lags behind fellow members of the OECD, Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, on our nuclear liability. There is legislation somewhere in the system that does not seem to be moving, in the readings I have done of it, so it is already not enough. Your comments would be interesting.
There is another senator that we did not introduce earlier. Senator Bert Brown, the elected senator from Alberta, has oil and gas gushing out literally on his front lawn on his farm, so he knows all about these things.
Senator Brown: I apologize for being late. I waited on a cab for 35 minutes and I decided to walk. That was not too much fun either.
I am interested in asking if you have followed any studies after the well was sealed in the Gulf Coast. Are you watching what is going on there now? I have been reading some material from oil companies, in Time magazine and Maclean's. They seem to have found that there are bacteria at the bottom of the area where the oil was spilled that is actually eating the oil. They are quite impressed by this.
I know there are ways that you could put contaminated soil with petroleum products when you dig up a service station that has been leaking; they build it up into piles and inject it with bacteria. It cleans it up completely. I did not know that could happen in the ocean. Have you seen any of those studies or heard about them?
Mr. Vaughan: I did look yesterday, in preparation for the committee meeting today, at the final report in January of the National Commission on the BP Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill and Offshore Drilling. That is the last comprehensive, post-incident report that I looked at. I recommend it to the committee, if you have not had a chance.
Within that, they had some observations on the long-term effects of that spill and how effective the disbursements were, how effective the booms were. I had not seen the bacterial reference in that report, but I do not know if Mr. McKenzie has further information.
Mr. McKenzie: The issue of treatment agents or disbursements in Canada is under the purview of Environment Canada, given its role with respect to the Fisheries Act and the Canadian Environmental Protection Act. They are in the process of looking at their guidelines that currently exist across Canada regarding those treatment agents to ensure there is a consistent approach being taken.
With respect to the bacteria, I have heard that in previous spills, bacteria have played a role, for example in the Gulf. I do not know if it is unique to the Gulf, given its climate and geography — the water temperatures and things of that nature — and how, for example, if a similar type of bacteria could exist in our environment, for example, off the East Coast or the West Coast or in the Arctic. That is probably an issue that would require additional investigation to see if it works.
I have heard about it being used as a means of cleaning up contaminated sites by remediation. It is certainly one of those tools that is available.
Senator Brown: I was amazed at some of the reports I read, because there were some terrible predictions when this first started, that the Gulf Coast could forget about crustaceans and all kinds of fish in that area for decades. Now they are already selling product from the same area.
I thought I heard that some of that was spontaneous; this was not an injection of bacteria, this just happened in the seabed itself. I was curious. If you find out anything, it would be very interesting to the report.
Senator Banks: We have been making observations today, so I will make a couple as well before I ask a question.
The Chair: You are well placed to do it.
Senator Banks: When Mr. Vaughan and his colleagues, together with his predecessors and Sheila Fraser herself, make comments about these things, some of us do not like those comments. Some of us are offended by those comments. However, I want to remind us all that Mr. Vaughan's office is not an ecological organization; these are not tree huggers. They are not talking about policy; they do not recommend policy; they will not even comment on policy.
The criteria by which the Auditor General's office comments to us on these things, and by which they measure things, are the government's stated objectives, policies and systems for bringing those things about.
Mr. Vaughan has already said that today, but I think we have to remember that. They are commenting on whether the government, whatever government it is, has achieved its own objectives and whether its operating systems are doing the things that it wants them to do and that it has set out to do.
The Auditor General does not comment on the wisdom of the policies that have led to those things. We must remember who we are talking to here, and the basis upon which they make their observations.
Second, Senator Lang made an observation that the provinces are doing as well as they can. I am from Alberta, and Alberta is not doing as well as it can. Senator Seidman has pointed out to me this morning a story that an Alberta government-appointed scientific panel has backed research that indicates that oil sands development is releasing contaminants into northern Alberta watersheds; that the government monitoring program was not even trying to determine if the industry was polluting the Athabasca River; and that the government-appointed panel has now determined that it is polluting the Athabasca River. They are trying to explain why official accounts of pollution in the area clash so sharply with other reports. Alberta has long said that contamination in the Athabasca River is stable, is at low levels, and comes from eroding oil sands deposits along the riverbank. However, independent researchers, including this panel that has been reported in the proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, have traced those heavy hydrocarbons and heavy metals found in the land and water directly to industrial smokestack emissions.
In that case, at least, my province was not doing as well as it could. We have a Constitution that was devised at a time when nobody could possibly have contemplated what is going on now in the world in many respects, including the division of responsibilities, but rivers do not end at provincial boundaries. They continue on. The Athabasca River continues on into the North. When that happens, somebody has to be responsible for something. Sometimes somebody has to have a hammer, and I do not know when and how to do that, but I will ask Mr. Vaughan a specific question.
In the past, this committee has reported on the question of water studies, in particular, longitudinal studies of surface water and groundwater. Despite the constitutional division that clearly exists, it used to be the case, in the good old days, that the information in respect of measurable flows of water and the content of the water, which the provinces need in order to manage those things, was obtained as a direct result of federal government funding, which used to have thousands and thousands of stations talking the same language, speaking to each other and compiling the information that worked, which was made available.
The Liberal government, in the years in which it was bringing us to the end of deficit financing, cut that funding very substantially, and it never came back. You can read the report of this committee talking about that fact. Not even then, when it was done properly, was it regarded as a constitutional problem as between the feds and the provinces. Everyone understood the provinces were doing the work and applying the results, but the feds were coming up with the money to do the monitoring and the measurements so that management could be done properly. As we said earlier, without the information, you cannot manage anything.
In your view, Mr. Vaughan, is there a constitutional impediment to the federal government contributing to, as they once did, proper longitudinal studies of surface water flow in order that we can have proper information? Would it be a good idea — as this committee has recommended in a report and as Senator Seidman referred to earlier — to have a single repository someplace where the information, having been obtained, talking always about apples and apples and apples because no such thing presently exists, would that not be a good idea in order to achieve the ends you have set out?
Mr. Vaughan: To my knowledge, and I am not a lawyer, there is not an impediment. My understanding is that any river or water body that is traversing between provinces or between Canada and the United States, the federal government has a clear and explicit responsibility.
We point out in a chapter that with respect to the hydrometric program, there are 2,100 stations across Canada. In the report, we have said it is a program that is actually working well. The quality of that data is reliable and has very high standards, and they have a number of partnerships with provinces. Some of them are on a cost recovery and some are stand-alone. The systems are in place there.
One of the things we identified, though, is whether they are keeping up. This information on water flows is critical for the agricultural sector and for the industrial sector with respect to expanding communities. Some communities are now saying they do not think they will have enough drinking water 20 years or 30 years from now because of demographics and changes in industrial use.
We have said there is a good foundation, but the government itself has identified some gaps and we have suggested they think about closing those gaps.
Senator Lang: To respond to Senator Banks, if I could, I want to make the point that we all share concerns about the quality of water and the future of our rivers and our drinking water.
I want to make the point here again on the question of the responsibility of the provinces. It is easy for us to sit here and criticize the Province of Alberta or Yukon or the Province of British Columbia. The point I make is that they have the responsibility. You just read a report that through their political process, in one manner or another, some things have come to light that they are deficient in doing. Fair enough. It will be their responsibility to remedy it. They have the regulatory body.
What bothers me is that if we get into this attitude and this bubble we live in here in Ottawa that we will solve the problems in Alberta, because they came up with a report and they have not been doing what they are supposed to be doing. There are a lot of things we do not do well ourselves where we have direct responsibility. I could go on for an hour with a litany of things.
The Chair: Do you have a question?
Senator Lang: The witness made it very clear, and Senator Banks made the point from the point of view of agreements with the provinces and the financial wherewithal to be able to meet some of these responsibilities. That is the way I would conclude.
The Chair: That is excellent, Senator Lang. Mr. Vaughan, it is always a joy when you come and share your wisdom with us. I thought you were very even-handed in dealing with the questions, pro and con. Thank you to Mr. McKenzie and Mr. Ferguson. It was lovely to have you with us. We look forward to your next report.
I will terminate the meeting. Colleagues, I would like to keep you for one second after. The meeting is adjourned. Thank you very much.
(The committee adjourned.)