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Scathing report details Canada's environmental shortfalls

Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s government is not doing enough to reduce carbon emissions, fight climate change and regulate oil and gas emissions, a series of audits from a federal watchdog have found.

The audits, contained in a report published Tuesday, say Canada has no detailed plan to meet its emissions reduction targets, is on pace to fall well short of missing them and has made no long-term commitment to environmental monitoring in the oil sands region, the fastest-growing source of emissions.

"In many key areas that we looked at, it is not clear how the government intends to address the significant environmental challenges that future growth and development will likely bring about," Environment Commissioner Julie Gelfand said in a written statement.

Here is what the Report of the Commissioner of the Environment and Sustainable Development found:

1. Canada is not on pace to meet its emissions reductions targets

As part of the Copenhagen Accord, Canada pledged to reduce its emissions by 17 per cent, from 2005 levels, by 2020. Tuesday’s report was the latest in a long string, including some from government, to show Canada is on pace to fall well short of that target. Tuesday’s report goes further in saying that Canada has no detailed plan to meet the targets, and that two-thirds of the reductions the country has made are due to provinces, not Ottawa.

2. Oil sands monitoring has met delays – including on a key pollutant

Canada and Alberta announced a Joint Oil Sands Monitoring (JOSM) program in 2012, one set to be in place by 2015. The auditors selected nine of the 38 monitoring initiatives Ottawa is leading under that program and found that four were delayed, due to factors including lack of staff, delayed contracts with laboratories and delays in getting permits to set up monitoring sites. The report notes that Environment Canada says “it is working to address some of these factors,” and, for instance, has “finalized a contract with a laboratory to analyze polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons.” PAHs, as they’re known, are a key pollutant linked to fish deformities and have been a focus of many of the non-governmental studies in the region.

3. The federal government has no firm plan to monitor the oil sands beyond next year

The report found that Ottawa’s role in environmental monitoring in the oil sands is “unclear” after 2015. Environment Canada’s “continued involvement was important” to stakeholders, but auditors found it “has not yet been determined.” In its response, the department said it will work with its provincial counterpart “to develop options” on what monitoring will look like after 2015, “including the extent and nature of Environment Canada’s future involvement.”

4. Industry is paying about three-quarters of monitoring costs

In the 2013-2014 fiscal year, Environment Canada led 38 of JOSM’s 58 projects for monitoring air, water and wildlife around the oil sands, spending $24.6-million. Industry repaid about $18.1-million of that.

5. Ottawa finished a draft of oil and gas regulations a year ago

The Conservative government first promised emissions regulations for the oil and gas sector in 2006. They’re critical to meeting emissions reductions targets because the bulk of emissions growth is in oil and gas, but Ottawa hasn’t delivered them in eight years and Environment Minister Leona Aglukkaq has regularly sidestepped questions about when they’ll arrive. Tuesday’s report, however, says a framework for regulations is already done, saying “detailed regulatory proposals have been available internally for over a year,” but government has only consulted privately, largely through a “small working group of one province and selected industry representatives.”

6. An emissions-reduction committee hasn’t met in three years

One of the two “strategic co-ordinating committees” looking at the sector-by-sector approach to emissions reduction has not met since 2011. It’s unclear what committee this is, but the report found that Canada is unlikely to meet its 2020 emissions reduction targets, and that “the federal government has not provided sufficiently focused coordination to meet its commitment.”

7. Ottawa’s charts are misleading

The Conservative government has pointed often to figures showing a decline in emissions since 2007 (though emissions are currently on pace to increase, not continue decreasing). Tuesday's report took issue with how those are being presented. The past reductions could be "more easily interpret[ed]" if federal charts offered a "clearer explanation" of what emissions have been mitigated already. This appears to be a subtle dig at the federal tendency to take credit for provincial initiatives, such as Ontario's elimination of coal power generation. The federal chart in question, released last year, shows emissions would be 862 megatonnes in 2020 without any measures, and 734 megatonnes with them. The target is 612 megatonnes. The federal chart does not specify that two-thirds of the drop - from 862 to 734 - is due to provincial changes. Tuesday's report suggests making that more clear.

8. Emissions reduction through “accounting rules”

Some of the projected reductions in greenhouse gas emissions are moreso “accounting rules” than “specific” action, the report found. Environment Canada reports project that Land Use, Land-Use Change and Forestry (a category known as LULUCF) will contribute a reduction of 28 megatonnes by 2020. But Tuesday’s report found that is “not the result of specific efforts to reduce emissions.” Instead, it’s predicting that forest harvesting is projected to be lower and that “in effect, the contribution attributed to this sector is partly the consequence of the recent economic recession.”

9. Canada is short on icebreakers

The report found that some of Canada’s six icebreakers are being refitted, leaving at most five available in any season. Beyond that, the two most effective ones are set to be decommissioned by 2022, when only one new one is due to come online. The Coast Guard doesn’t know “whether the services it produces are meeting the needs of users” or whether the “decreasing icebreaker presence” poses a safety risk, the report found.

10. The rules around a key environmental protection are murky

The federal government has no clear guidelines about which projects require an environmental assessment, with the commissioner noting a fear that “some significant projects may not be assessed.”

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