Right to a healthy environment recognized in new amendments to Canadian Environmental Protection Act

On April 13 the Government of Canada announced proposed amendments to the Canadian Environmental Protection Act, 1999 (CEPA), the cornerstone of federal environmental laws. Bill C-28 Strengthening Environmental Protection for a Healthier Canada Act promises to fast-track the regulatory process for particularly harmful chemicals; encourage companies to avoid toxic chemicals entirely and to phase-in mandatory product labelling , beginning with cosmetics, household cleaning products and flame retardants in upholstery. The Act also recognizes and protects the right of Canadians to a healthy environment. 

The government press release is here; and a  Backgrounder and Plain language summary of key amendments is provided. In addition, the government’s talking points about the CEPA amendments are highlighted in an Opinion piece by John Wilkinson, Canada’s Minister of the Environment and Climate Change, in The National Observer.  The amendments are the culmination of a long process, including hearings by the House Standing Committee on the Environment and Sustainable Development, which received 66 submissions. The Standing Committee report, Healthy Environment, Healthy Canadians, Healthy Economy: Strengthening the Canadian Environmental Protection Act, 1999 made 89 recommendations when it was released in 2017. A summary appeared in the WCR here.  

Right to Healthy Environment proposals

Is a healthy environment a right? New CEPA bill says so”, in The National Observer (April 14, re-posted in The Toronto Star) quotes Joe Castrilli, legal counsel for the Canadian Environmental Law Association.  He states: “This bill does not create a right to a healthy environment” …. “There’s a preamble provision which says the government recognizes that … it has the duty to protect the right to a healthy environment. But it doesn’t actually create a remedy for any individual seeking to protect the environment.”

A Joint statement released by the Canadian Association of Physicians for the Environment (CAPE) Breast Cancer Action Quebec , EcoJustice, the David Suzuki Foundation, and Environmental Defence acknowledges the importance of Bill C-28, points out some weaknesses, and alludes to the debates which clearly lies ahead. From the Joint Statement :  

“Bill C-28 includes amendments to CEPA recognizing – for the first time in federal law – the right to a healthy environment . 156 UN member states already recognize this right in law, treaties and constitutions. The recognition of a right to a healthy environment in CEPA is an important step forward. However, the bill should ensure that this right has a positive impact on the lives of everyone in Canada, especially vulnerable populations who have long been denied environmental justice and disproportionately experience cumulative impacts of multiple interacting hazards. ….Bill C-28 is important as we continue to face the COVID-19 pandemic. A strengthened CEPA will be the backbone of a green and just recovery. ….All political parties must now make Bill C-28 a political priority.”

The Right to a Healthy Environment: even more is required to address environmental racism

The environmental rights and protections in Bill C-28 on April 13 come on the heels of private member’s Bill C-230, A National Strategy to Redress Environmental Racism (Bill C-230) , which was debated and passed 2nd Reading on March 24. C-230 will now come before the House Standing Committee on Environment and Sustainable Development, with the first meeting scheduled for April 14. C-230 goes further than the CEPA amendments regarding on environmental justice, and calls for the the government to

  • Examine the link between race, socio-economic status and environmental risk
  • Collect information and statistics relating to the location of environmental hazards
  • Collect information and statistics relating to negative health outcomes in communities that have been affected by environmental racism
  • Assess the administration and enforcement of environmental laws in each province

In addition, it calls for possible amendments to federal laws, policies, and programs, with the involvement of community groups, and with compensation for individuals or communities. A new article (published before the House of Commons vote) appears in Our Times in “Here for all Seasons: A Coalition to Confront Environmental Racism ”  (Feb. 21 2021). It describes some of those community and advocacy groups fighting on this issue, including the Coalition of Black Trade Unionists (CBTU). The Labour Day 2020 issue of Our Times, summarized here, describes the role of labour unions in the struggle against environmental racism – in which CBTU has been prominent.

72% of surveyed oil and gas workers in Canada want career transition – with many willing to accept wage reduction

A survey of over 2,000 respondents from across Canada who had previously worked in the oil and gas industry found that 72% indicated that their career priority was to make a career transition. Of that 72%, “35% indicated their desired employment situation was in a different role or industry; 14% were seeking a different work arrangement such as self-employment; and 12% planned to seek employment after additional training.” The survey results are summarized in two blogs on March 30, Untapped Talent: Opportunity to Transition, and Untapped Talent, Transitioning Opportunity , from Canada’s oil and gas labour market organization, PetroLMI. The survey was conducted from October 2019 to December 2020.

While a resistance to lower wages is frequently cited as a barrier to Just Transition, the PetroLMI survey showed that: “the wage expectations of respondents were not out of line given their education, experience and skills. When asked about their salary expectations, 61% indicated a salary of less than $100,000, and 28% were willing to take a reduction in their salary for stable employment. In Alberta more than 35% of respondents said they were willing to take a salary reduction.”  42% of respondents were over the age of 55; 77% had over 15 years of experience; 86% had post-secondary education  –  in Alberta, most held a university, while in the rest of Canada, trade certification was most cited.

From the industry point of view: “While layoffs rarely have a silver lining, these workforce reductions mean there is a robust pool of talent available for hire.” “The layoffs that occurred among respondents were broad and impacted a wide range of job families and occupations from trades, truck drivers, technologists and technicians to geoscientists, engineers and information technologists. The talent pool also included occupations that tended to be transferable across industries including finance, accounting, human resources, health and safety, sales, marketing and business development. They also included field operations and drilling workers with transferable skills such as working in safety-sensitive workplaces, critical thinking and problem-solving. As a result, construction and renewable energy companies have begun hiring from this talent pool.”

Canada’s Petroleum Labour Market Institute (PetroLMI- formerly the Petroleum Human Resources Council of Canada)  produces ongoing labour market analysis, recently stating: “The cumulative impacts of a six-year economic downturn, lower demand due to COVID-19 health restrictions, and structural shifts in the oil and gas industry, mean there is a smaller oil and gas workforce in Canada – down 26%, or 58,700 jobs from its peak in 2014.” Their latest detailed labour market data, sourced from Statistics Canada, is here.  Analytical reports are compiled here,  including a four-part series titled “The Impact of COVID-19 on Canada’s Energy Workforce: A four-part series on work practices, productivity and opportunities”. On that topic, Norwegian consultancy Rystad Energy ranks Canada, U.S. and Australia as hardest hit in “Covid-19 job toll: Top O&G employer China resilient, US takes larger hit than European peers” , a March 9 newsletter.  (The Canadian Energy Research Institute also published Economic Recovery Pathways for Canada’s Energy Industry: Part 2 – Canadian Crude Oil and Natural Gas in September 2020, modelling employment and economic impacts) .

Can Biden unite Labour and climate activists with his American Jobs Plan ?

On March 31, U.S. President Biden announced his “American Jobs Plan,” which outlines over $2 trillion in spending proposals, including $213 billion to build, modernize and weatherize affordable housing,  $174 billion for incentives and infrastructure for electric vehicles; $100 billion for power grid modernization and resilience; $85 billion investment in modernizing public transit and bringing it to underserved areas; $35 billion investment in clean technology research and development, including incubators and demonstration projects; $16 billion employing union oil and gas workers to cap abandoned oil and gas wells and clean up mines, and $10 billion to launch a  Civilian Climate Corps to work on conservation and environmental justice projects.  All of these are proposals, to be subject to the political winds of Washington, with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi suggesting a date of July 4 for a vote on legislation.

The White House Fact Sheet outlines the specifics . Robert Reich calls the plan “smart politics” in  “Joe Biden as Mr. Fix-it” in Commons Dreams, and according to “Nine Ways Biden’s $2 Trillion Plan Will Tackle Climate Change” in Inside Climate News, “President Joe Biden aims to achieve unprecedented investment in action to address climate change by wrapping it in the kind of federal spending package that has allure for members of Congress of both parties.”   David Roberts offers a summary and smart, informed commentary in his Volt blog, stating: “Within this expansive infrastructure package is a mini-Green New Deal, with large-scale spending targeted at just the areas energy wonks say could accelerate the transition to clean energy — all with a focus on equity and justice for vulnerable communities on the front lines of that transition. If it passes in anything like its current form, it will be the most significant climate and energy legislation of my lifetime, by a wide margin.”

Julian Brave NoiseCat writes in the National Observer on April 6, summing up the dilemma:   …” Each policy has the potential to unite or divide the Democrat’s coalition of labour unions, people of colour, environmentalists and youth activists. Some policies, like the creation of a new Civilian Climate Corps …. are directly adopted from demands pushed by activists like the youth-led Sunrise Movement. Others, like investments in existing nuclear power plants and carbon capture retrofits for gas-fired power plants, will pit labour unions against environmental justice activists from the communities those industries often imperil. Uniting the environmental activists who oppose the development of fossil fuel pipelines with the workers who build them will be among the Democrats’ greatest challenges.”

Some Specific U.S. statements:

Generally favourable reaction comes in a brief statement from the AFL-CIO. The  BlueGreen Alliance states: “This is a historic first step, and yet we know this and more will be needed to deliver the scale of investment needed, particularly in disadvantaged communities and for workers and communities impacted by energy transition.”  Similarly, Kate Aronoff writes “Biden’s Infrastructure Plan Needs More Climate Spending” in The New Republic; and the Climate Justice Alliance response is titled  “Grassroots, Environmental Justice Communities call on Biden To Go Bigger, Bolder And Faster For A Climate, Care And Infrastructure Recovery Package That Meets The Moment”.

The Sunrise Movement press release commends Biden for calling for passage of the PRO Act, for clean energy initiatives, and environmental justice aspects, and has a mixed reaction to Biden’s version of the Civilian Climate Corps: “This gives our movement a starting place, and with a foot in the door we can fight to expand and strengthen the CCC over the coming years.” ….. “The plan Biden rolled out today would create about 10,000-20,00 jobs in a Civilian Climate Corps, which would train and employ young people to build clean energy and decarbonize the economy. When FDR rolled out a similar Civilian Conservation Corps, it employed around 300,000 people per year, and that was back when the US population was ~40% of its current size .”   

Will Biden’s Plan push Canada’s climate ambitions?

The CBC published “Here are four ways Biden’s big climate bill touches Canada” .  Mitchell Beer compiles reactions in “Biden Jobs, Infrastructure Plan Aims to ‘Turbocharge the transition’ off Fossil Fuels”  in The Energy Mix, including Adam Radwanski’s response in the Globe and Mail, “Joe Biden’s new climate plans should jolt Ottawa” (restricted access).   And the Canadian United Steelworkers alludes to the “Buy American” elephant in the room for Canadians, in its press release titled, Build Back Better Through Infrastructure Spending on Both Sides of the Border (April 1)  “the United Steelworkers union (USW) sees U.S. President Joe Biden’s American Jobs Plan as an opportunity to maintain and create jobs, bolster manufacturing and make our communities safer. ….A decade ago, the USW worked with the Obama administration and the Canadian government to create a North American strategy that benefited workers in the United States and Canada…. Canada is not the problem facing U.S. manufacturing and workers. Co-operation between Canada and U.S. will build on our longstanding and productive trading relationship.”

Just Transition policies in Canada, EU and OECD countries – including unique case studies

How Can we Manage a Just Transition? A comparative review of policies to support a just transition from carbon intensive industries  was released by the University of Victoria , Institute for Integrated Energy Systems in late March 2021.  The researchers examined national Just Transition policies in Canada and in twenty-five European Union and Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) countries, along with EU-level and regional entities.  Seven main thematic areas were identified: i) governance mechanisms: ii) climate and sustainability planning; iii) workforce development; iv) economic development; v) regional and rural development; vi) innovation and research; vii) social security.  Amongst the key findings:  Jobs and environment-focussed initiatives are the most common, with well-developed workforce and skills strategies evident. However, the researchers highlight many deficiencies, including a lack of social justice language in policies; a lack of targeted strategies, excepting for the coal industry; a lack of proactive planning – with the exception of workforce development measures; and a lack of integrated planning at the industrial/economic planning level.  The report points to best practice examples –  in New Zealand for its proactive approach,  and in Scotland and Ireland, for accountability through Just Transitions Commissions.  

The report provides a thorough literature review, international analysis, and identifies areas where further research is needed. It also provides ten brief, unique case studies which include, but go beyond fossil-fuel related transitions, consisting of: Ontario, Canada; Grand-Est, France; Saarland, Germany; Western Macedonia, Greece; Piedmont, Italy; Incheon, Capital Region, Korea; Bay of Plenty, New Zealand; Basque Country, Spain; Kalmar, Småland with Islands, Sweden; and Wales, United Kingdom.

Trans Mountain pipeline protests continue as a new report estimates costs up to $13 billion for Canadian taxpayers

As construction of the Trans Mountain expansion continues and the British Columbia government weighs the risks of potential oil spills, protests against the project continue. “Tiny House Warriors And Braided Warriors Accomplices Lock Down On Trans Mountain Site” (Sparrow Project, April 3) describes the protest by those supporting the resistance of the Secwepemc First Nations – also as described in “ ‘We Will Not Stop’: First Nations Land Defenders Take Direct Action Against Trans Mountain Pipeline” in Common Dreams (April 3) . In what they call a “deep dive”, The Tyee and Investigate West co-published  “For BC’s Two Pipeline Fights, It’s Spring Forward”, which delves into the many actors in the continuing opposition to Trans Mountain and the Coastal Gas Link pipelines.  Also in The Tyee, “Youth Climate Activists Aim to Rally Support for Indigenous Land Defenders” describes the March 19 Global Climate March protest by Sustainabiliteens in Vancouver. The National Observer maintains an archive of articles documenting Trans Mountain developments, here. Amidst it all, the provincial government weighs granting an environmental certificate re protections for oil spills, as explained in “B.C. relying on the federal shoreline protections for Trans Mountain pipeline it previously called inadequate” in The Narwhal .

An academic report, released on March 31, supports the protests with financial and cost benefit analysis, as summarized by the CBC here.  Evaluation of the Trans Mountain Expansion Project is written by lead author Thomas Gunton, Director of Simon Fraser University’s  School of Resource and Environmental Management. The report concludes that continuing the construction of the Trans Mountain Expansion project will bring a net cost to Canada of $6.8 billion under base case assumptions – with the possibility of costs running as high as $13.3 billion  “….because the TMEP capacity is not required and therefore does not generate a benefit. Oil transported on TMEP could have been transported on other pipelines without expending funds building TMEP. Therefore, continuing to build TMEP as currently proposed is not in Canada’s public interest and the project should not proceed further.”

Much has changed since Professor Gunton’s previous evaluation in 2017 of the Trans Mountain expansion project, including the federal government’s purchase of Trans Mountain in 2018. The 2021 report, Evaluation of the Trans Mountain Expansion Project is highly critical of the previous assessments by the National Energy Board, used to justify the purchase – and makes specific note of how the NEB distorted job projections provided by the Conference Board of Canada to overestimate the job benefits. The December 2020 report of the Parliamentary Budget Office found that the Trans Mountain Expansion profitability was dependent on climate change policies – so the Gunton report updates the PBO analysis by taking into account the climate change policies announced in the December 2020 Healthy Environment Healthy Economy climate plan. Finally, it provides detailed cost benefit analysis both for completion and for termination of the TMX project – incorporating environmental costs, including the risks of pipeline spills. Regarding employment benefits, the analysis finds modest positive benefits, given the existing recession in the oil and gas sector.    

“A potential benefit of TMEP is providing employment to workers. As discussed in Section 3.2.6 of this report, the measure of employment benefits is not the gross number of jobs generated by TMEP but is instead the net employment and income gain of employees of TMEP relative to what they would have made if TMEP did not proceed. Historically, the economy of Western Canada has been characterized by tight labour markets in which most employees are employed. Under full employment, projects like TMEP would simply draw employees from other jobs with little to no net employment benefit. However, given the current recession and recent slowdowns in the energy sector and the potential of TM training and hiring employees through impact benefit agreements, there will likely be an employment benefit, with some hiring of persons who would otherwise be unemployed or employed at a lower wage.” (p.45).