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Auditor slams Ottawa lack of leadership on climate change, oil spills

OTTAWA -- Twenty years' of weak leadership on the environment means the federal government now has no strategy to deal with the increasing effects of climate change, says Canada's environmental auditor.

The government also lacks a solid plan to handle major oil spills, says Scott Vaugh, commissioner of the environment and sustainable development. Nor does it have a grip on who is supposed to be monitoring what, when it comes to federal fresh water resources, he says, pointing specifically to the Athabasca River near the Alberta oil sands.

"This report identifies a pattern of unclear and unco-ordinated actions. This has been aggravated by the overriding problem of a lack of sustained leadership," the commissioner said in the introduction to his audit, released Tuesday.

For years, the government has been promising to put together a comprehensive plan to deal with the fallout of climate change, he said. Some governments are making some plans, and assessment of the effects of climate change is well advanced, the report says.

But there's no overall strategy, nor has there been any sign of much concrete action — even though the effects of climate change are already being felt. As Atlantic Canada is battered by extreme storms, the Prairies suffer billions of dollars in crop losses because of drought, and the permafrost in the North melts, "the government is not ready to respond," Vaughan said.

Instead, regional authorities, insurance companies, businesses and other stakeholders don't know what to expect or how to plan, the report adds. Funding for the government's limited work on adaptation to date is also set to dry up in four months, it says.

Vaughan said he is particularly alarmed about the vulnerability of the Arctic. Climate change is melting ice and threatening to send sea-levels higher — destroying infrastructure and putting wildlife at risk. At the same time, the Arctic is becoming more susceptible to oil spills as the Northwest Passage opens to shipping.

But the government does not have an up-to-date plan to handle major oil spills anywhere in Canada, let alone in the frigid, distant and frequently unmapped waters of the North, Vaughan said.

An oil spill in the North "would be catastrophic," he said.

While Transport Canada has established a regime to ensure private companies are prepared to prevent and clean up spills, the coast guard — under Fisheries and Oceans — has responsibility to minimize the environmental effects of a big spill.

The coast guard hears of an average of one oil spill per day, but has not fully assessed its response capacity in 10 years. It also lacks a reliable system to track spills or to determine their environmental impacts, Vaughan said.

"Given the findings of this audit, I am troubled that the government is not ready to respond to a major spill."

Vaughan also issued a warning about the government's monitoring of fresh water in federal jurisdiction. In many cases, water quality is simply not monitored, and Ottawa often has no idea who is supposed to be keeping tabs on which water supply. Environment Canada "has not taken such basic steps as defining its responsibilities and responding to the threats to Canada's water resources that it has identified," he said.

For example, of 3,000 First Nations reserves, Ottawa's Fresh Water Quality Monitoring program only keeps tabs on 12.

The audit was released just as the federal government comes under fire for its lack of dedication to reducing greenhouse gases. Decision-makers are meeting in Cancun, Mexico, this week, attempting to put meat on the bones of an agreement to combat climate change.

Liberal critics said Tuesday the federal audit reaffirms that the Conservatives have not made the environment a priority. "It points to an abdication of leadership," said MP Francis Scarpaleggia, brushing aside questions about the Liberals' 10 years in office.

But Environment Minister John Baird says he is taking the commissioner's recommendations to heart, with work already underway to follow his advice. In a news release, Baird said he is working toward a government-wide strategy to deal with adapting to climate change, and has invested $86 million to better understand its effects. Ottawa is also taking a comprehensive approach to water quality, especially in the oil sands, he added.

Indeed, the government said it agreed with every recommendation made by the auditors. But Vaughan was reluctant to show any kind of enthusiasm that this time, the government would make good on its promises to pull up its socks. "We don't bring to Parliament's attention insignificant issues. The reason we bring this to Parliament is because we found some basic problems," he said. "I guess it's wait and see if things get any better."

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