OTTAWA - Three cabinet ministers made a surprise appearance at the subcommittee looking into the environment provisions in the government's massive budget bill — raising questions about the Conservatives' commitment to giving the bill a full hearing.
Environment Minister Peter Kent, Natural Resources Minister Joe Oliver and Fisheries Minister Keith Ashfield popped up at the subcommittee hearing Thursday morning, without advance public notice.
They stayed for just over an hour, delivering prepared statements and taking MPs' questions.
It was the subcommittee's first hearing into the parts of the bill that will overhaul environmental assessments and change surveillance of fisheries.
Opposition members complained they were given little opportunity to grill the ministers over fundamental changes to Canada's environmental framework, and accused the Conservatives of trying to stifle debate.
The Conservatives have loaded the budget bill with dozens of major changes to the way government works, saying they are lumping them all together because they want to get the legislation passed quickly.
"Whoever took the decision to schedule our three ministers for one hour was not acting on the authority of the subcommittee," said Liberal MP Kirsty Duncan.
"I feel it was presumptuous, it was undemocratic, and I think it's farcical to have three ministers appear at the same time for a total of one hour.
"Taking away time for opening statements and friendly questions from the government, that gives about 20 minutes for the opposition parties to ask questions of three different ministers on 150 pages devoted to the environment on this omnibus bill."
Duncan tried to make the most of her time by asking short, pointed questions and requesting that detailed, written answers be tabled with the committee later.
Kent said he would be pleased to appear before the subcommittee again.
And his spokesman said there was nothing nefarious about the sudden appearance of the ministers, since Kent had signalled earlier this week that he would appear soon.
Spokesman Adam Sweet said the hearing was televised, and that New Democrat MP Peter Julian was told in advance the ministers would be there.
Meanwhile, more than 130 scientists and other professionals at Fisheries and Oceans were told Thursday their jobs were at risk, their union said. That's in addition to 200 others who were given similar notices in December.
The pending cuts mean that facilities such as the Experimental Lakes Area environmental program near Kenora, Ont., will lose their expertise to track freshwater ecosystem fluctuations, said Gary Corbett, president of the Professional Institute of the Public Service of Canada.
"The government is eliminating programs that have generated world-renowned studies of freshwater ecosystems as well as impacting work to monitor Arctic contaminants, dioxins and other pollutants," he said.
Corbett added that the cuts together with the changes in the budget bill throw the sustainability of Canada's environment into question.
The trio of ministers at committee repeatedly denied that the changes would weaken environmental oversight. Rather, they said the regime would be more efficient, and new enforcement measures would give legislation more teeth.
The budget bill has prompted an outcry from opposition parties, who say the legislation is packed with so many poorly defined changes that it poses more questions than it answers — not just on the environment, but also on employment insurance and old age security.
Ministers have said changes to the Fisheries Act as well as to employment insurance will be fleshed out later through regulations, which are not subject to full parliamentary debate.
"Why won't they table their plans in this House for everyone to see," New Democrat MP Libby Davies asked in the Commons.
Interim Liberal Leader Bob Rae complained that the budget bill has a "complete lack of clarity" on changes to employment insurance. He said it is not reasonable to ask Parliament to approve changes they have not yet seen.
But Heritage Minister James Moore responded that the government's plan for jobs and growth has received extensive debate.
The refining or upgrading of the tarry bitumen which lies under the oil sands consumes far more oil and energy than conventional oil and produces almost twice as much carbon. Each barrel of oil requires 3-5 barrels of fresh water from the neighboring Athabasca River. About 90% of this is returned as toxic tailings into the vast unlined tailings ponds that dot the landscape. Syncrude alone dumps 500,000 tons of toxic tailings into just one of their tailings ponds everyday.
This area, located in the extreme northwest of British Columbia, marks the western boundary of the Boreal region. On the border of the Yukon and Southeast Alaska, the western flank of these mountains descends into Alaska's Tongass Rainforest and British Columbia's Great Bear Rainforest. Far from the oil sands, the greatest remaining coastal temperate and marine ecosystem is imminently threatened by the proposal to build a 750-mile pipeline to pump 550,000 barrels per day of oil sands crude to the coast. Once there, it would be shipped through some of the most treacherous waters, virtually assuring an ecological disaster at some point in the future.
Even in the extreme cold of the winter, the toxic tailings ponds do not freeze. On one particularly cold morning, the partially frozen tailings, sand, liquid tailings and oil residue, combined to produce abstractions that reminded me of a Jackson Pollock canvas.
Photographed in late autumn in softly falling snow, a solitary spruce is set against a sea of aspen. The Boreal Forest of northern Canada is perhaps the best and largest example of a largely intact forest ecosystem. Canada's Boreal Forest alone stores an amount of carbon equal to ten times the total annual global emissions from all fossil fuel consumption.
Twenty four hours a day the oil sands eats into the most carbon rich forest ecosystem on the planet. Storing almost twice as much carbon per hectare as tropical rainforests, the boreal forest is the planet's greatest terrestrial carbon storehouse. To the industry, these diverse and ecologically significant forests and wetlands are referred to as overburden, the forest to be stripped and the wetlands dredged and replaced by mines and tailings ponds so vast they can be seen from outer space.
In an effort to deal with the problem of tailings ponds, Suncor is experimenting with dry tailings technology. This has the potential to limit, or eliminate, the need for vast tailings ponds in the future and lessen this aspect of the oil sands' impact.
So large are the Alberta Tar Sands tailings ponds that they can be seen from space. It has been estimated by Natural Resources Canada that the industry to date has produced enough toxic waste to fill a canal 32 feet deep by 65 feet wide from Fort McMurray to Edmonton, and on to Ottawa, a distance of over 2,000 miles. In this image, the sky is reflected in the toxic and oily waste of a tailings pond.
The Caracajou River winds back and forth creating this oxbow of wetlands as it joins the Mackenzie flowing north to the Beaufort Sea. This region, almost entirely pristine, and the third largest watershed basin in the world, will be directly impacted by the proposed Mackenzie Valley National Gas Pipeline to fuel the energy needs of the Alberta Oil Sands mega-project.
Oil sands pit mining is done in benches or steps. These benches are each approximately 12-15 meters high. Giant shovels dig the oil sand and place it into heavy hauler trucks that range in size from 240 tons to the largest trucks, which have a 400-ton capacity.
The Alberta oil sands are Canada's single largest source of carbon. They produce about as much annually as the nation of Denmark. The refining of the tar-like bitumen requires more water and uses almost twice as much energy as the production of conventional oil. Particularly visible in winter, vast plumes of toxic pollution fill the skies. The oil sands are so large they create their own weather systems.
Located just 70 miles downstream from the Alberta oil sands, the Athabasca Delta is the world's largest freshwater delta. It lies at the convergence of North America's four major flyways and is a critical stopover for migrating waterfowl and considered one of the most globally significant wetlands. It is threatened both by the massive water consumption of the tar sands and its toxic tailings ponds.
This network of roads reminded me of a claw or tentacles. It represents for me the way in which the tentacles of the tar sands reach out and wreak havoc and destruction. Proposed pipelines to American Midwest, Mackenzie Valley, and through the Great Bear Rainforest will bring new threats to these regions while the pipelines fuel new markets and ensure the proposed five fold expansion of the oil sands.