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Common Causes: Environmental protection is under attack like never before

Posted on Rabble.ca: Common Causes is an assembly of social movements dedicated to defending democracy, social justice, the environment and human rights in the face of an all-out assault by the Harper government. Throughout the week, we will be publishing extracts from Maude Barlow’s report on the goals and aims of Common Causes.

Stephen Harper is systematically wiping out decades of environmental protections and laws in order to promote unbridled resource extraction. No other government in the history of Canada has declared war on the environment in this way.

Kyoto abandoned

Under the Harper government, Canada became the only country in the world to have ratified and then abandoned the Kyoto Protocol. Harper’s environment ministers have consistently played a negative role at the annual UN climate summits, and have repeatedly been given the Climate Action Network’s “Fossil of the Year” award. At home, the Harper government has failed to create a plan to combat climate change, eliminated funding for energy conservation and efficiency and renewable energy, cut funding for the Canadian Foundation for Climate and Atmospheric Sciences, ended monitoring of smoke stack emissions, eliminated the climate adaptation research groups within Environment Canada, and cut funding for the department’s ground-breaking ozone monitoring project one year after Canada unexpectedly experienced its first-ever ozone hole over the Arctic in 2011.

The tar sands get big environmental and financial breaks

The Harper government’s support for the tar sands and the energy industry, meanwhile, has hit a new high. The federal government spends more money on subsidies to the oil patch — $1.38 billion — than it does on Environment Canada, which has a budget of $1.2 billion. To hasten energy exploration and development, Harper repealed the existing Canadian Environmental Assessment Act and replaced it with a watered-down version that will reduce the number of projects required to undergo a federal environmental assessment, narrow the definition of what might constitute a negative environmental effect, restrict the time allowed for assessments, limit public participation in the process, and give final decision-making authority to Cabinet regardless of what the assessment panel recommends. Under the new rules, 3,000 environmental assessments are now cancelled.

Prime Minister Harper also aggressively promotes industry plans to build 14,000 kilometres of new pipelines for tar sands export. Another new rule allows Cabinet, rather than the National Energy Board, to approve them.

Water laws are gutted

In its two omnibus bills — C-38 and C-45 — the Harper government has made drastic and destructive changes to freshwater protection in Canada. It gutted the Fisheries Act, the most powerful tool we had to protect water. The new law no longer protects habitat and is limited to “serious harm” to fish that have commercial, recreational or Aboriginal purposes. It killed the Navigable Waters Protection Act, stripping protections from 99 per cent of lakes and rivers in Canada. Major pipelines and interprovincial power lines now have the green light to cross over and under more than 31,000 lakes and 2.25 million rivers without federal scrutiny. The government is eliminating support for the Experimental Lakes Area, the world’s leading freshwater research centre, which has done ground-breaking work on acid rain, household pollutants and mercury contamination. By eliminating the Hazardous Materials Information Review Commission, the Harper government has given the green light to fracking companies to dump chemical contaminants into waterways without disclosure of their contents.

Independent science takes a hit

The Harper government has targeted independent science and scientists, shutting down dozens of research projects, facilities and institutes conducting basic scientific research. These include the Polar Environment Atmospheric Research Laboratory, the Canadian Foundation for Climate and Atmospheric Sciences, the Polar Continental Shelf Program, the Institute of Ocean Sciences, the POLARIS project, the Climate Change Adaptation Research Group, the Laboratory for the Analysis of Natural and Commercial Environmental Toxins, NEPTUNE Ocean Observatory, and the Study of Beluga Whales and Health in the Arctic. Of paramount concern for basic science is the elimination of the grants programs administered by the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council, which funded operations at experimental research facilities. Gone too is the 24-year-old National Roundtable on the Environment and the Economy, an independent source of expert advice the government no longer wants to hear. Ditto for the National Science Adviser.

Infrastructure is slashed

Deep government cuts to federal departments and agencies responsible for protecting the environment threaten science, the environment and public health. Cuts include: Parks Canada, which is no longer required to conduct environmental audits; Environment Canada, which gutted the unit that responds to oil spill emergencies just as the government is supporting massive new pipeline construction and made deep cuts to staff at the Canada Centre for Inland Waters, the most important scientific monitoring agency for the imperilled Great Lakes; Fisheries and Oceans, which has shut down its marine pollution monitoring program and laid off all habitat inspectors in B.C.; and Natural Resources Canada, which has gutted the popular ecoENERGY Retrofit program, and cut back on the Clean Air Agenda, ecoTRANSPORT Strategy, Canada’s Forest Sector Initiative, and grants to Sustainable Development Technology Canada. The Harper government has also invited energy companies to begin drilling for oil in the ecologically fragile Gulf of St. Lawrence, having watered down the Coasting Trade Act and gutting the Centre for Offshore Oil, Gas and Energy Research, the only agency that had the ability to assess offshore projects.

The energy industry sets environmental policy

The cuts made by the Harper government to Canada’s environmental laws were spelled out in a December 2012 letter obtained by Greenpeace. The letter revealed that the oil and gas industry, through a group called the Energy Framework Initiative that includes the major players in the industry, outlined six laws it wanted amended in order for it to do its work. Those laws included the Canadian Environmental Assessment Act, Fisheries Act, Navigable Waters Protection Act, Species at Risk Act, and Migratory Birds Convention Act. All but the last act, which is a treaty with the U.S. and therefore not easily broken, have been savaged. A report by the Polaris Institute found that the Canadian energy industry has been given unrivalled access to the Harper government in recent years. Since 2008, there have been 2,733 meetings held between the oil industry and federal government officials, many of them cabinet ministers, a number that outstrips meetings with environmental organizations by 463 per cent.