Prime Minister Harper promised today a substantial increase in federal environmental enforcement. He ridiculed Environment Canada’s enforcement record and promised to get tough on polluters. Some of the promises would be significant improvements, such as hiring specialized environmental prosecutors, (as Ontario has done for 20 years); paying environmental fines into the Environmental Damages Fund to support local projects, and posting records of environmental convictions on a publicly searchable database. An additional $20-25M per year for more wildlife and environmental enforcement officers would also be welcome; wildlife staff, in particular, are very thinly stretched.
In contrast, some of the other promises are of little significance. For example, Harper promised to increase maximum fines; this is meaningless, since maximum fines are already enormously higher than any actual fines. New minimum fines may have more impact, although judges can always set them aside. Harper promised to broaden the inspection and seizure powers of environmental officers, but such powers are already extensive in most federal statutes, and are not responsible for any lack of enforcement in our experience.
Among the promises likely to have a modest impact were:
– Harper promised that bad environmental records could be used to deny environmental permits; this is not new, but perhaps Harper will make it easier.
– Corporations will be required to report convictions for “environmental crimes” to their shareholders, as in the US. However, few Canadian environmental offences count as “environmental crimes”.
– Courts are to have powers to order remedial measures; any absence of details, we cannot tell whether this will be new.
In total, the announcement is welcome but may not make major changes in the effectiveness of environmental enforcement. The most obvious announcement he did not make was to encourage citizen enforcement, by extending the current provision in the Fisheries Act awarding complainants half of any fine imposed.