October 16, 2006

Ottawa applies chaos theory to managing environmental issues

Two months ago this column discussed the briefing that industry received from federal officials on the government's Green Plan 2, a document that reportedly had been approved by Cabinet and whose release was expected this fall (EcoWeek August 21, 2006). By early this month a senior official in Environment Minister Rona Ambrose's office was telling the press that there will not be a Green Plan 2 after all. Instead, there will be something called a "green approach."

Just before Thanksgiving, Environment Minister Ambrose appeared before the House of Commons Standing Committee on Environment and Sustainable Development to talk about the government's environmental agenda. She provided very little new information and was blatantly wrong on some "facts," such as her claim that the Liberal government had spent $100 million buying foreign greenhouse gas emission credits.

On the evening of Thanksgiving Monday Dennis Bueckert, Canada's most respected Ottawa-based environmental reporter, published an article, based on information from his well-placed contacts, that three Ministers would be making the first of a series of major environmental announcements in Vancouver the following day. But the Prime Minister's office put the kibosh on most of the Ministers' announcements, which were sufficiently minor that they would have attracted some significant criticism, and substituted a Harper announcement that the government will introduce its Clean Air Act next week.

In his press conference announcement, Harper said the Clean Air Act was not "made on the fly" at some "exotic location." But in fact it has been. The Clean Air Act is still very much a work in progress that won't be finished until hours before it is tabled in the House of Commons. Consultation has been minimal. For most people, including many Canadians, Ottawa is no more and no less exotic than Kyoto, a city whose 1.5 million residents work for companies like Nintendo, Kyocera, and Murata, companies not much different from those that employ many residents of our capital.

The fact is that the federal government's management of environment issues is nothing short of chaotic. Neither the Minister nor her staff have a sufficient technical grasp of the issues to contribute effectively to the policy process. Senior officials moved from other departments have not had time to learn the ropes. The Prime Minister's office jumps in at the last minute to countermand departmental decisions. The Prime Minister himself brings opinions that are based on a significant lack of understanding of the issues.

Already there are reports that some senior industry officials have advised their Conservative Party contacts that if the government does not get its environmental act together they can expect something of a withdrawal of industry support in the next election. Unfortunately this will likely only increase the pressure being felt at Environment Canada and in the PMO. Environmental groups are preparing for a field day: governments that bungle the environment file are just great for environmentalist fundraising.

Emitters should beware: the short-term environmental forecast from Ottawa pundits includes rushed announcements, badly conceived policies, and the potential for unnecessary disruption of some aspects of Canada's economy.

~Colin Isaacs

Colin Isaacs, head of the CIAL Group and publisher of the Gallon Environmental Letter, reviews environment-related trends in policy (government and corporate) and legislation for EcoWeek. Comments may be E-mailed to cisaacs@compuserve.com.

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