By Mike Beale

RGI’s latest case study[1] The Dog that Doesn’t Bark — Federal Regulation of Industrial Air Pollution in Canada pays homage to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Sherlock Holmes.  In a well-known story, Holmes solved a murder mystery by pointing to the “curious incident of the dog in the night-time”.  “The dog did nothing in the night-time”, countered the Scotland Yard detective on the case.  “That was the curious incident” replied Holmes.

The dog in question (no disrespect intended) is ECCC’s regulation of industrial air pollution, and the case study addresses the question “why doesn’t the dog bark?”.  It seems like a pertinent question given that Health Canada estimates that air pollution accounts for 15,300 premature deaths annually in Canada, and that all the key air pollutants are on Canada’s list of toxic substances, giving ECCC full authority to regulate emissions.  And yet there are only a handful of federal regulations addressing air pollution from industrial/stationary sources.

There are reasons that help explain ECCC’s relatively low profile in this area:

  • Since its creation in 1971, ECCC has consistently played a secondary role to the provinces in the regulation of air pollutants from industrial sources; this despite promises in 2006-07 that ECCC would play a more active role. ECCC’s secondary role did not prevent Canada’s acid rain program of the 1980s and ‘90s from being a success story.
  • Canada’s current framework for management of air pollution – the Air Quality Management System (AQMS) – was adopted by federal, provincial and territorial governments in 2012. It calls for provinces and territories to have the opportunity to be the front-line regulator.
  • ECCC has acted on industrial air pollution indirectly, through greenhouse gas regulation; phasing out coal plants, for example, reduces air pollution as well as GHGs.
  • Canada’s air quality is good by international standards – many would argue that our approach to air quality management is an example of Canada’s federation working effectively.

On the other hand, it is striking that:

  • AQMS is essentially the same model of federal-provincial collaboration that existed in the 1970s[2]; ECCC’s role has evolved in other areas but not in this one.
  • In particular, ECCC’s proactive approach to regulating industrial GHG emissions and water pollution has not been matched on air pollution.
  • There appear to be gaps in the system, in particular with respect to air pollution from petroleum refineries.
  • The American dog down the street (the US EPA – no disrespect intended) is quite noisy by comparison.

In a sense, the case study is getting at what should be the expectations for a modern, world-class, federal environmental regulatory agency.

Is the federal approach to industrial air pollution regulation a success story or is there room for improvement?  Read the case study and form your own opinion.

[1] This case study is intended to be used as a teaching tool.

[2] See Kathryn Harrison, Passing the Buck: Federalism and Canadian Environmental Policy, UBC Press, 1996, p105.