Will Harper Gut the Species at Risk Act Next?

Letters from CAPP to the federal environment ministers expose oil industry efforts to undermine SARA.

In an earlier post I showed how the oil industry lobbied the federal government to rewrite Canada’s environmental protection laws using omnibus legislation. They got everything they asked for and more in the omnibus budget bill of March 2012. Emboldened by their success, the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers (CAPP) has continued to lobby for changes to the Species at Risk Act (SARA). There is considerable danger that SARA will be next in line for dismantling should Stephen Harper’s Conservatives win re-election.

The majestic woodland caribou, featured on Canada’s quarter, is at risk owing to habitat loss. Source: Globe & Mail.
The majestic woodland caribou, featured on Canada’s quarter, is at risk owing to habitat loss. Source: Globe & Mail.

Former Environment Minister Peter Kent was widely quoted in September 2012 as saying SARA would be reformed. In particular, he said that the Act would need to be made more “efficient” and “effective”. Where did Kent get his ideas?

From the oil industry, it would seem.

Mike De Souza uncovered a letter to Kent from CAPP dated 16 March 2012. This letter has not been reported in mainstream news. A second letter to Kent’s replacement, Leona Aglukkaq, on 7 November 2013 shows an evolved and worsened position

The first letter seeks wide-ranging changes to SARA, and concludes with the line

“Regulatory reform represents an opportunity to enable economic growth and job creation through regulatory effectiveness and efficiency while continuing to ensure responsible environmental outcomes.”

(emphasis mine). Minister Kent and CAPP were apparently speaking from the same playbook.

CAPP goes on to argue that changes are needed for three reasons:

  1. The lack of socie-economic considerations within SARA;

    This will come as a surprise to anyone familiar with the Act. Its preamble declares

    “socio-economic interests should be considered in developing and implementing recovery measures”

    and clause 49 states that species recovery plans should include

    “an evaluation of the socio-economic costs of the action plan and the benefits to be derived from its implementation.”

    Socio-economic impacts are in there, despite what CAPP claims.

  2. The legal implementation and application of SARA;

    CAPP argues that SARA is a problem because oil companies are getting sued owing to their impact on the woodland caribou, killer whale and greater sage grouse. In particular, CAPP disagrees with prohibitions against

    “permitting for the destruction of Critical Habitat.”

  3. Technical considerations.

    On this point, CAPP attacks the draft recovery strategy for the woodland caribou, saying they believe it would have

    “serious, negative implications for industrial development throughout the boreal forest region.”

To sum up, it would appear that CAPP believes saving species at risk should have no impact on oilsands development. It is rather hard to reconcile their points with their claim that they “support the broad intent of SARA”.

One wonders the degree to which CAPP’s argument encouraged Kent to avoid enforcing SARA – an act a federal court ruled illegal. Kent also tried to keep his decisions on the sage grouse secret while their numbers plummeted from 600 to 100 – but a federal court ruled against him again.

The second letter, uncovered by PressProgress repeats many of the same claims and gives three recommendations:

  1. Ensure that the competent Minister considers the broader public interest before finalizing a Recovery Strategy;

    As I have already pointed out, this is already in the Act.

  2. Reassert the distinction between “species habitat” and “critical habitat”;

    Their explicit goal here is to reduce the amount of habitat protected.

  3. Clarify jurisdictional roles in delivery of A action plans.

    CAPP argues that SARA should be applicable to federal lands only. This would further reduce the amount of habitat protected.

These changes would clearly gut SARA, and it is unconscionable that CAPP would argue for them.

There is grave cause to worry that Harper’s Conservatives would seek to dismantle SARA early in a renewed mandate given their apparent capture by the oil industry. Regardless of which party gains power, we will need to be vigilant to ensure that SARA is reinforced, not ruined.