Mr. Speaker, since this is the first sitting day of the 2015 calendar year, I begin by wishing you, Mr. Speaker, and all of my colleagues in the House a belated happy new year.
I do not know how I got lucky enough to be the first New Democrat to give a speech on a government bill in this chamber this year, but I am certain that there is a short straw with my name on it somewhere in the opposition lobby. Anyway, let us launch right into it.
The bill before us today is Bill C-46, An Act to amend the National Energy Board Act and the Canada Oil and Gas Operations Act. Perhaps it will help people to stop from nodding off if I explain at the outset that despite its unimaginative title, the bill really purports to improve pipeline safety in our country.
That is where we find the yardstick for whether my NDP colleagues and I will ultimately be able to support the bill. Does Bill C-46 actually improve pipeline safety, or is it a rhetorical exercise to provide the government cover in what is, after all, an election year? I will spend the next 20 minutes or so in this House trying to answer that single and most germane question.
I will begin by providing a bit of context first. There is no doubt that Canada's natural resources are a tremendous blessing and that our energy sector is the motor of the Canadian economy. It is imperative that we capitalize on those unique advantages. For New Democrats, that means that we have to leverage them by creating high quality middle-class jobs, by harnessing the full potential of Canada's natural gifts, and by maximizing the benefit of development for all Canadians. That development is vital to our economy and our country.
However, the reality is that resource development can only move forward if development is done sustainably. If we are going to seize the opportunities ahead, if we are going to leverage our resources to create wealth and prosperity for generations to come, then we will have to rise to meet new challenges and adapt to the new reality of the new century, and that requires a new vision, a vision that my NDP colleagues and I have been promoting tirelessly, not just for months, but for years now.
Our vision is one that promotes economic growth without sacrificing social or environmental sustainability, one that looks to the future instead of clinging to the past, and one that creates lasting prosperity instead of feeding endless cycles of boom and bust. To that end, our vision is based on three key principles: sustainability, to make sure that polluters pay for the pollution they create instead of leaving those costs to the next generation; partnership, to make sure that communities, provinces, and first nations all benefit from resource development and that we create value-added, middle-class jobs here in Canada; and most important, long-term prosperity that leverages our natural national resource wealth to invest in modern, clean energy technology that will keep Canada on the cutting edge of energy development and ensure there are affordable energy rates into the future.
For far too long, Canadians have been told they have to choose between our economy and our environment, but that is a false choice. It is an approach that is stuck in the past. A little less than two years ago, government documents revealed the very real economic costs of the environmental cleanup of the Giant Mine at Great Slave Lake. They have doubled from initial estimates, ballooning to nearly a billion dollars.
This is a vast industrial waste site bordering on the second deepest freshwater lake in the world, a Canadian treasure, and yet for more than half of the last century, it was contaminated with no regard for the costs it would impose on our children and grandchildren.
Communities from coast to coast to coast have made their voices clear. We will not let that happen again. However, despite this mess, the Conservative government is continuing down the same short-sighted path. It is dismantling every major piece of environmental protection and hurting Canada's economic development at the very same time.
Past generations can perhaps be excused for the way they treated places like Great Slave Lake, but our generation has no excuse. The fact is, in the 21st century, a social licence is every bit as important as a regulatory licence, if not more. In this day and age, any development model that relies on degrading our environment, on putting public safety at risk, or on exploiting our resources without benefiting our communities is no model at all.
Canadians understand only too well the long-term consequences of the Conservative government's attacks on our environmental laws, and they are reacting because those attacks are sabotaging resource development and ultimately our economy as a whole.
In big cities and in small towns, development projects are meeting increasing resistance. The northern gateway, Kinder Morgan, and energy east pipelines are but three of the most recent examples.
Why should Canadians not be worried? They see the Conservative government gutting environmental assessments, they see dangerous pipeline spills on the rise, and they worry whether their communities will be next.
A recent Harris/Decima poll conducted for the government made it clear that only 27% of Canadians are confident that the Government of Canada is able to respond effectively to a significant oil spill on water. The number is only slightly higher, at 32%, for oil spills on land. Similarly, a significant proportion of Canadians do not feel confident that pipelines, tankers, and trains are transporting dangerous goods safely. When it comes to rail transport, only 29% of Canadians feel confident that it is safe. Only 37% of Canadians believe oil tanker transport is safe, while 47% of Canadians are confident that pipelines can safely transport oil.
Clearly, that is not a vote of confidence in the Conservatives' handling of this critical file.
It is equally clear that Canadians share the belief of New Democrats that we must take steps to ensure that we are developing and transporting our resources in a safe and secure way; that we have to implement effective oil spill prevention measures; that we have to increase inspections in oversight; and that we have to push for expanded liability so that we are giving teeth to the polluter pays principle.
When it comes to oil transport, with the huge expansion in production and transportation of crude oil, we need enhanced safety protection. This is common sense, no matter what the method of transport.
Public safety and environmental protection must be the highest priorities if we are to develop our natural resources sustainably.
That brings us back to the heart of the bill that is before us today. Would Bill C-46 implement a true polluter pays regime in Canada, and would the bill go far enough to obviate Canadians' legitimate concerns when it comes to pipeline safety?
Let us look at what the bill purports to do.
Unfortunately, in the time allotted to me here today, it is only possible to do that in the broadest of terms. However, I am hopeful that we will be able to undertake the detailed clause-by-clause scrutiny the bill merits at the committee stage of the legislative process.
At its most general, the purpose of Bill C-46, would be to improve Canada's pipeline liability regime.
It would be part of the government's larger review of the distinct liability regimes that govern different aspects of Canada's oil and gas development. Here, members will recall that last year Bill C-22 dealt with liabilities related to offshore drilling and potential spills in both Arctic and Atlantic waters. As well, over the course of last year, the government began consultations on the liability regime governing rail transport, as it sought to do damage control in the wake of Lac-Mégantic. Now, we have yet a third piece before us dealing with the liability regime governing Canadian pipelines.
Here is what Bill C-46, would do.
It would reinforce the polluter pays principle.
It would confirm that the liability of pipeline companies is unlimited if an unintended or uncontrolled release of oil, gas, or any other commodity is a result of fault or negligence.
It would establish the limit of liability, without proof of fault or negligence, at no less than $1 billion for companies that operate pipelines with capacity to transport at least 250,000 barrels per day and an amount prescribed by regulation for companies that operate any other pipelines.
It would require that pipeline companies maintain the financial resources necessary to pay the amount of the limit of liability that would apply to them.
The bill would authorize the National Energy Board to order any company that operates a pipeline from which an unintended or uncontrolled release occurs to reimburse government institutions for the costs incurred in taking any action in relation to the release.
It would require that pipeline companies remain responsible for their abandoned pipelines.
It would authorize the NEB to order pipeline companies to maintain funds to pay for the abandonment of their pipelines.
It would authorize the Governor in Council to authorize the NEB to take, in certain circumstances, any action the NEB considers necessary in relation to an unintended or uncontrolled release.
It would also allow the Governor in Council to establish a pipeline claims tribunal to examine and adjudicate claims for compensation for damage caused by an unintended or uncontrolled release from a pipeline.
Many of these changes are long overdue, and I would be less than honest if I did not acknowledge that they appear to be a step in the right direction.
However, it is also true that, once again, the Conservatives are late to the game. New Democrats have been waiting for the government to fix oil spill liability for quite some time. As always, with the current government, the devil is in the details.
Let us take a closer look at the some of the pluses and minuses of what has been presented to us in this bill.
On the upside, the fact that polluters will be absolutely liable for harm caused by a pipeline spill is obviously a good thing. What it means is that any company operating a pipeline will be liable in the event of a spill even if it has not been negligent and has not broken any laws. Moreover, companies must have enough financial resources to cover in full the absolute liability limit. For companies whose pipelines have the capacity to move at least 250,000 barrels per day, that limit will be $1 billion once this bill passes. That monetary amount may be increased by the government in the future, but the bill would prohibit cabinet from lowering it. That too is a good thing.
The bill would also give the NEB new tools to recoup cleanup costs from polluters, and in certain circumstances it even gives the board the power to recover costs from the industry as a whole, not just from the individual polluter.
Finally on the plus side, the bill would make polluters liable for environmental damages. Members will recall that we spent a lot of time when scrutinizing of Bill C-22 on the need to make polluters responsible for environmental damages or losses of non-use value of public resources. It is as important now as it was then to ensure that liability is not just restricted to the environment's commercial value. Bill C-46 sets out to do that and is an important first step in catching up with U.S. oil spill regulation, which is much more developed with respect to the recognition of environmental damages.
However, as a thoughtful analysis by Ian Miron at Ecojustice makes clear, there is an overall lack of certainty in Bill C-46 that may well undermine what would otherwise be this positive first step. Specifically, Mr. Miron points out three things. First, and perhaps most crucially, Bill C-46 does not impose unlimited absolute liability on polluters. No liability regime can truly be called a polluter pays regime unless and until polluters are made absolutely liable for the full costs of environmental harm.
While the $1 billion limit for some companies may be a big improvement over the status quo, it still would not completely cover the cleanup costs of an accident such as Enbridge's Kalamazoo River spill in Michigan. According to recent estimates, that spill, the largest in U.S. history, cost more than $1.2 billion to clean up, not including compensation for damages.
Moreover, Bill C-46 actually takes a step backward by eliminating the government's ability to recover cleanup costs for a pipeline spill under the Fisheries Act, which applies in certain circumstances to make a polluter absolutely liable without limit. In the absence of such unlimited absolute liability, the government and, therefore, Canadians may still be on the hook for spills, and that, frankly, is wrong. If the government is so convinced that pipelines are a mature industry, then the industry is one that can and must pay for itself. Instead, the fact that this bill does not completely enshrine the polluter pays principle means that the Conservatives are giving just one more handout to its friends in the oil patch by making taxpayers liable for oil spill risks.
In that regard, it is also worth pointing out that the bill is completely silent on identifying absolute liability limits for smaller oil pipeline companies, or for gas and other non-oil pipeline companies. While such limits may be set by cabinet down the road, it begs the question of why the government would not do so now. Is volumetrics the only criterion the government has used to assess the potential magnitude of damages from a spill? I hope that in the course of our deliberations the Conservatives will give us an answer to that rather pressing question.
This leads to my final broad criticism of the bill. Just as the absolute liability limits are discretionary for all but the big pipeline companies, many other aspects of the new liability regime are as well. While the bill would create several new tools that could enhance the NEB's ability to recoup cleanup costs from a polluter, the NEB or the cabinet get to decide whether or not they will be implemented. As Ecojustice thus rightly points out, BillC-46 leaves considerable leeway for politically motivated decisions and backroom arrangements between operators and the NEB, a regulator that lacks credibility on the pipeline front.
In fact, this may be a good time to say yet again that the NEB needs a fundamental overhaul. While the Liberals and Conservatives have generally been happy simply to rubberstamp pipeline projects, my NDP colleagues and I firmly believe that major resource projects must be judged on their merits. That means that the NEB has to subject proposals to a rigorous and robust environmental assessment process. Assessment criteria must include the impact of each individual project on our emissions and climate change commitments, on Canadian jobs, and on national and regional energy security. Public consultations must be credible and democratic, not shallow, limited, or by paper only, and projects must honour our legal obligations to first nations.
Clearly, such rigour was absent in the NEB review of both Enbridge's northern gateway and Kinder Morgan's Trans Mountain expansion, and the same flawed process is now being applied to TransCanada's energy east plans as well. No wonder Canadians are worried about these pipelines snaking their way through backyards.
Northern gateway has the capacity to move 525,000 barrels per day, 890,000 barrels per day for Kinder Morgan and a staggering 1.1 billion barrels per day for energy east. The potential for disaster is huge, which brings me to the last point I want to raise in wrapping up my participation in today's debate.
While the new liability regime deals with protecting Canadians from the cost of cleaning up an oil spill, my NDP colleagues and I believe the best way to protect Canadians is to ensure such spills do not happen in the first place. Measuring risk correctly and assigning liability may be one tool in the kit to encourage industry to improve its safety practices and therefore reduce the likelihood of catastrophic accidents. However, it is only one tool of many and nothing else is being done. Where is the concrete action to fix the broken environmental assessment process that the Conservatives have dismantled? Where is the much-needed legislation that would bring in better regulation and oversight?
As far back as 2011, the environment commissioned highlighted that the National Energy Board was failing to ensure that known problems were being fixed and that pipelines were being properly maintained. We have a world-class labour force that is ready and eager to do that work. However, without companies making commitments to pipeline safety, Canadians can be forgiven for wondering not whether an oil spill will happen but when.
Canada's natural resources are a tremendous blessing and managed properly and sustainably they can be important drivers for our economy. This is particularly true of the energy sector. However, instead of guiding our energy policy in the best interest of Canadian jobs, the environment and the economy, the Conservative government is gutting assessments and reviews, and failing to address the valid concerns of Canadians. That is such a narrow-minded and counterproductive approach. Social licence, the consent of Canadians for the development of Canada's resources, is crucial to the success of any project. However, instead of working to achieve such consent, the government's intransigence is actually undermining the support for companies in the pipeline sector by exacerbating opposition to energy development right across the country.
There is a better way, and the New Democrats have been championing it for years. It is based on sustainable development. Governments must look at environmental, social and economic impacts before going forward with any development project. That way we can prevent devastating environmental damage, while ensuring that Canadians benefit from Canada's natural bounty of resources. It is the right thing to do, and it finally would allow us to move beyond the all too convenient Conservative canard that Canadians must choose between the economy and the environment. Nothing could be further from the truth.
With the right kind of leadership, Canadians will finally be able to have their cake and eat it too, and that is the kind of leadership the NDP will provide when it forms government, under the experienced leadership of the member for Outremont, later on this year. That will make this a happy new year indeed.