The federal government is failing to protect Canadians from toxic refinery emissions pumped into the air at rates far beyond those in the United States, opposition politicians said Thursday in response to a Toronto Star/Global News/National Observer investigation.
Never-before-published data showed substantially higher rates of sulphur dioxide, carbon monoxide and nitrogen oxides emitted by Canadian refineries compared with the U.S. averages in 2014, prompting the Tories and NDP to vow cooperation with the Liberal government in taking swift action.
“(The investigation) clearly highlights that we have fallen behind the United States and that is impairing human health in Canada so we do need to act,” said Ed Fast, Conservative MP and vice chair of the environment committee. “I will admit I was shocked as well. Especially since Canadians generally feel that we are more progressive than the United States.
Based on 2014 data, the investigation reported Canada’s 15 refineries emitted 62 per cent more sulphur dioxide (SO2) — which can harm the respiratory system — than 127 U.S. plants combined.
“This is a wake-up call to all of us because I believe Canada can do better,” said Fast. “This is really a collective responsibility for all of us — previous Canadian governments, both Conservative and Liberal, and the current Liberal government probably didn’t pay enough attention to the degree to which we were minimizing these emissions into our atmosphere.”
NDP MP Linda Duncan, who sits on the environment committee, called the emissions disparity between Canada and the U.S. “deeply troubling” if not surprising. The Alberta MP dubbed the findings “another promise broken” and called on the government to step up and regulate emissions.
“They promised they would immediately move to strengthen environmental laws that protect health and the environment, and they’re sitting on their hands,” she said.
Asked about the investigation’s findings outside of the House of Commons Thursday, environment minister Catherine McKenna said, “We need to do better and we’re certainly committed to doing that.”
“We understand the importance of clean air, clean water. And we need to be acting with the provinces. We had a meeting of ministers of the environment where we agreed to higher air quality standards.”
The Liberals are looking at updating the Canadian Environmental Protection Act, she said, because, “it is very important that Canadians can be sure that they have clean air to breathe.”
That call to action has been repeated for nearly two decades by Tory and Liberal governments.
In 2001, government, industry and non-governmental organizations first agreed to move Canadian refinery emissions in line with U.S. benchmarks.
A series of meetings and subsequent efforts ended in an “impasse,” federal documents show.
In the meantime, Canada hasn’t come anywhere close to closing its emissions gap with the U.S. on key pollutants.
The Star/Global/Observer investigation, based on 2014 data comparing U.S. and Canadian refinery emissions, found:
- Fourteen out of 15 refineries in Canada would have to cut their sulphur dioxide emissions by at least half to meet the average level of emissions in the U.S., the data shows. Of those, nine of them would need a reduction of 90 per cent or more to reach the U.S. average.
- 11 of the 15 Canadian refineries would need to cut nitrogen oxides emissions by at least half to reach the U.S. average.
- Nine of the 15 would need at least a 50 per cent reduction in carbon monoxide emissions to reach the U.S. average.
The data analysis also showed how comparably sized refineries separated by the U.S./Canada often have dramatically different emissions of key pollutants.
Among them, Sarnia’s Imperial Oil refinery which emitted 10 times more fine particulate matter, seven times more carbon monoxide and 49 times more sulphur dioxide than a Detroit plant 90 minutes away.
That gap shows how vigorous regulation can work, says Sarnia-Lambton Tory MP Marilyn Gladu.
“Depending on the aggressive pace of the regulations, you do get a reduction, so that’s good news. That said, there’s way more room to improve in Canada than in the U.S. They pace their regulations more aggressively.”
In response to questions about its emission levels, Imperial Oil issued a statement saying the company operates “in compliance with government emissions regulations” and that they “strive for continuous improvement.”
Sarah Henderson, a senior scientist with the B.C. Centre for Disease Control, says the numbers indicate U.S. environmental regulators are managing to bring emissions “under better control than we’re managing to bring our emissions and at a faster speed…If the U.S. can do it, you would assume that Canadian facilities could do it as well.”
Liberal MP William Amos, who sits on the parliamentary standing committee on environment and sustainable development, said he was “surprised” by the investigation’s findings.
“I didn’t realize that Canadian refineries were not meeting the same levels as the U.S. refineries were, but as we say in government, better is always possible. And we can certainly do more…There’s really room to improve.”
On Wednesday, Ontario’s environment minister, Chris Ballard, responded on social media to the Toronto Star/Global News/National Observer investigation’s findings by noting his provincial government had recently adopted more stringent regulations for SO2 emissions — but the new standards will not take effect until 2023.