Environment commissioner ‘spinning wheels’ in top post, quits two years early
Canada’s Environment Commissioner Scott Vaughan is being praised for professionalism, but colleagues say a lack of federal engagement on environmental issues contributed to early departure.
The Hill Times photograph by Jake Wright
Environment Commissioner Scott Vaughan, pictured with former auditor general Sheila Fraser.
By CHRIS PLECASH |
Published: Monday, 01/28/2013 12:00 am EST
Last Updated: Monday, 01/28/2013 9:39 am EST
Colleagues of Canada’s Environment Commissioner Scott Vaughan say they aren’t surprised that he will resign from his post with more than two years left on his seven-year mandate so that he can head the International Institute for Sustainable Development.
“I was not surprised at the news,” admitted Scott Findlay, a member of Mr. Vaughan’s panel of environmental advisers and a professor of biology at the University of Ottawa. “None of us are dummies. We were all very well aware of the extent to which the environment is a priority of the current government.”
As a member of Mr. Vaughan’s panel of environmental advisers, Dr. Findlay is one of eight experts who met annually with the commissioner to provide feedback on audit practises and priorities.
Like many who have worked with Mr. Vaughan at some point in his career, Dr. Findlay praised the commissioner for his professionalism.
“Scott is a very bright, talented, dedicated, industrious guy. You don’t want people like that spinning their wheels,” Dr. Findlay said.
Mr. Vaughan’s decision to leave his post as the Commissioner of the Environment and Sustainable Development in the Auditor General’s Office was announced quietly in a press release from the IISD on Jan. 16. Mr. Vaughan will assume the role of president and CEO of the international research institute on April 1.
He holds graduate degrees from the London School of Economics, the University of Edinburgh, and Dalhousie University, and has worked in the environmental programs of major international organizations, including the Organization of American States, the World Trade Organization, and the United Nations Environment Program.
Former IISD president David Runnalls, a colleague of Mr. Vaughan’s at the WTO and NAFTA’s Commission for Environmental Cooperation, called him an “ideal fit” for the IISD.
“If you read his resumé, it sounds as if he was sent over by central casting,” said Mr. Runnalls, who also wasn’t surprised to hear that Mr. Vaughan was stepping down.
“This is a very, very unreceptive government. … I think it must have been pretty frustrating, because Scott did a very good job, produced good reports, but nobody paid any attention,” he said.
Acting IISD president Daniel Gagnier, chair of the organization’s board of directors, said that the organization used a headhunting firm that approached Mr. Vaughan, who was one of roughly 90 applicants for the position.
Mr. Gagnier said that Mr. Vaughan will be travelling between IISD offices in Ottawa, Winnipeg, New York, and Geneva, with a focus on the organization’s future operations in China.
“He’s a very experienced asset. He could be anything he wants—a deputy minister, head of an organization, nationally or internationally,” Mr. Gagnier told The Hill Times. “We’re at a point going forward where we want to establish an IISD presence in China, so that will be something that Scott will be focusing on.”
Appointed Commissioner of the Environment and Sustainable Development by former auditor general Sheila Fraser in the spring of 2008, Mr. Vaughan built a reputation of holding the government to account for its commitments to environmental protection and sustainable development without the strident criticisms that marked his predecessor Johanne Gélinas’ tenure.
In his 2009 report on federal fish habitat protection, Mr. Vaughan found that the Department of Fisheries and Oceans was unable to demonstrate adequate enforcement of the Fisheries Act, and Environment Canada lacked a “systematic approach” to addressing the risks of non-compliance with the legislation.
At the time the departments agreed with his recommendations, but in the 2012 federal budget the government significantly narrowed its obligations under the Fisheries Act by limiting the scope of the act to “commercial, recreational, and aboriginal fisheries.”
Dr. Findlay said that there was no evidence that the changes were made in response to the commissioner’s report, but they did reduce federal commitments in an area that the commissioner was responsible for auditing the government on.
“If you’re not particularly interested in having your performance judged by the standard of what’s in a piece of legislation and what duties are under the legislation, then the obvious action is to change the legislation so it’s no longer a responsibility or obligation on the part of the government,” Dr. Findlay observed.
In 2010, Mr. Vaughan’s review of federal oil spill preparedness found that emergency plans for responding to ship-source oil spills were outdated, and Transport Canada and the Canadian Coast Guard had failed to conduct systematic risk assessments of oil spills in Canadian waters.
Mr. Runnalls described Mr. Vaughan’s work on oil spill preparedness as “chilling” given the federal government’s focus on Arctic resource development and exporting oil by tanker.
“We have no capacity whatsoever to deal with any kind of accidents from navigation in the North,” said Mr. Runnalls. “He’s continually turned the spotlight on the government and said, ‘You’re not going to meet any of your commitments the way you’re going now’—and demonstrated that quite calmly.”
But it was Mr. Vaughan’s work on the government’s climate change planning that was particularly damning.
In the fall of 2011, the environment commissioner reported that the federal government lacked tools to limit greenhouse gas emissions, and that financial management of $9-billion that had been invested in climate change mitigation and adaptation was inadequate.
In a recent interview with The Hill Times, Environment Minister Peter Kent (Thornhill, Ont.) was vague in outlining the improvements his department had made in the financial reporting of federal climate change funding since that report.
“The strategy goes across government and I’ve been looking at the draft report for this year, and it’s a work in progress and it’s one that we’ll continue to develop,” Mr. Kent said in response to a question about progress towards meeting Mr. Vaughan’s recommendations.
Under the 2009 Copenhagen Accord, the federal government committed to reducing Canada’s greenhouse gas emissions to 17 per cent below 2005 levels by 2020 — the same benchmark agreed to by the U.S. Measures taken by the federal government to date include harmonizing fuel efficiency standards with the U.S. on light and heavy duty vehicles and commercial aviation, and restrictions on the construction of new coal-fired electricity plants.
The Conservatives made it clear that they will not attempt to outdo the U.S. government on GHG emissions regulations to protect the Canadian economy.
However, in his inaugural address last week, U.S. President Barack Obama pledged that his administration would “respond to the threat of climate change” in his second term.
The Obama administration’s response could include the introduction of a carbon tax, which would put the Conservatives in a difficult position. While the federal government has opted to harmonize with the U.S. on regulating carbon emissions, they have rejected imposing a carbon tax on the grounds that it would “raise the price on everything.” Mr. Kent has repeatedly stated that the government does not consider carbon pricing to be a policy option.
Despite Mr. Kent’s claim that Canada is “halfway” to meeting its Copenhagen target, Mr. Vaughan wrote in an op-ed in last week’s Hill Times that Canada was “unlikely” to meet the 2020 commitment.
“[I]t is unlikely—based on what is in place or proposed—that Canada will meet its 2020 target for several reasons: regulations take as much as five years to complete, so the clock is ticking; the regulations we looked at are expected to bring emissions down by about 12 million tons, yet the government still needs to close a gap of more than 10 times this amount to hit its target,” wrote Mr. Vaughan and colleagues Kimberly Leach and James Reinhart of the Auditor General’s Office.
Mr. Vaughan’s final report will be released on Feb. 5, and will include audits of Atlantic offshore oil and gas activities, the establishment of marine protected areas, and the federal government’s support of the fossil fuel industry.
Auditor General Michael Ferguson is responsible for appointing Mr. Vaughan’s replacement under the Auditor General Act.
“It’s just the nature of the beast. Bureaucrats hate the auditor general because he’s turning over rocks and watching things slither out from underneath them, but I thought Scott did it in as professional and tactful a manner as possible,” said Mr. Runnalls. “He didn’t set out to offend. People would get offended because they don’t like the truth being told.”
The Hill Times