When Devolution Goes Wrong
By Gary Gallon
President-Elect George W. Bush should be aware that there are dangers in devolving powers to the states. It may result in U.S. "Baulkanization". Devolution of federal powers can result in diminished protection for the public well-being of the whole nation. It can result in many states doing many different things, good and bad, for the environment. Also problematic is Bush's partner-devolution proposal to switch from regulation to a voluntary approach for environmental protection and health protection. Combined with giving federal powers to the states, voluntary measures can debilitate government's ability to protect the human environment.
Canada is an example of what not to do in the U.S.
If you want an example of what not to do, just look North - at Canada. Canada devolved powers to its states - - or provinces. Simultaneously, Canada has spent the last ten years promoting voluntary environmental measures. The combined impacts of devolution and embracing faulty voluntary measures has resulted in Canada losing its ability to effectively protect the environmental health of its citizens.
Canada began handing off environmental power to its ten provinces in the mid 1990's. It was done partially in response to Quebec's demand for more autonomy. Led by Quebec, provinces like Alberta and Ontario fought for more Provincial rights. Such things as the enforcement of the federal Fisheries Act and the Canadian Environmental Protection Act (CEPA) were left more and more in the hands of the provinces.
Canada began to shift to voluntary environmental measures in the early 1990's. The Accelerated Reduction/Elimination of Toxics (ARET) was created as the first voluntary program in Canada. The second was the Voluntary Challenge and Registry (VCR) created in October 1997, designed to promote voluntary greenhouse gas emission reductions.
In January 1998, the hand-off of national powers to the provinces was cemented when Canada signing the environmental "Harmonization Agreement" with them. The deal virtually took environmental protection out of the hands of the federal government and gave it to the provinces.
The Canadian public has suffered under the devolution of powers and the poor implementation of the voluntary agreements. It has dropped from being one of the "greenest" nations in the world in the 1980's, to being one of the brownest today. The national powers are supposed to be managed now by the Canadian Council of the Ministers of the Environment (CCME). Canada's Minister of the Environment is now one of equals amongst all of the ministers of the environment. The CCME is supposed establish strong, enforceable "Canada Wide Standards". However, the standards are late, weak, and not equally enforceable in a standardize manner across Canada. This jobs was the responsibility of the federal government. As a result, each of the provinces are carrying out, or not carrying out, environmental protection in their own different fashion.
In Orwellian Government Speak, the Provinces and federal government have promised harmonization and have delivered "disharmonization" in the carrying out of environmental protection across Canada.
Thus the Canada example, is not one that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency would want to emulate. There is no better example of the failure of the devolution of powers in Canada, is the Walkerton Environmental Disaster in early 2000 where seven people died and 2,000 people were sent to the hospital from E.coli pollution of groundwater drinking supplies. The disaster was caused by Ontario stumbling on its responsibility to protect drinking water. This is a federal responsibility in the United States. It has the Clean Water Act. But the Government of Canada agreed that it was a provincial responsibility. Yet Ontario decided to devolve its own responsibility for drinking water protection to the municipalities, which were in no position, financially or staff-wise, to do so. Walkerton became the largest environmental deaths disaster ever to strike Canada.
And why? Because the Province of Ontario, responsible for the provision of clean drinking water to its citizens (there is no national Clean Water Act in Canada), failed to require the training of drinking water operators, failed to step in when it knew there were system management problems, and failed to regulate the proximity of animal feedlots to vital drinking water groundwater supplies. Ontario, Canada's largest economic and population centre, pushed the hardest for "Provincial Rights". And it moved quickly away from regulation to voluntary measures in the mid-1990's. However, instead of taking the federal powers and running with them, the Progressive Conservative (read Republican) Party of Ontario simply stated that most environmental regulation is "so much red tape" and hampers business. Let's try to cut up to 50 per cent.
Ontario succeeded in cutting the Environment Ministry's operating budget by 42.4 per cent from $287-million in 1995 to $165-million for 2000, and slashing Ministry staff by 900, from 2,400 in 1995 to 1,500 in 2000. Other provinces like Quebec, Alberta and Nova Scotia have followed suit in cutting their environment budgets, while at the same time assuming their new environmental responsibilities from the federal government.
Canada's current Minister of the Environment, David Anderson, recognizing the problem, is trying to slowly regain a portion of the federal powers over environmental protection, but not without a fight from the provinces. It is clear, that once powers are given away, it is hard to take them back. It is like trying to "put Humpty Dumpty Back Together Again".
George W. Bush has much to learn from Canada, before he decides to devolve environmental and other public regulatory powers to the states. Caution is required. Unless of course, George W. Bush plans to follow in the steps of Ontario, cut the red tape, let the states get on with business and damn the environment. After all, the U.S. does need the oil.
George W. Bush's Texas is listed by the NAFTA Environment Commission for Environmental Cooperation (CEC), based in Montreal, as the number polluter out of the 61 states and provinces in the U.S. and Canada. It is not clear that his state would be an environmental model upon which to base environmental protection in the U.S. Certainly, Canada, and particularly, Ontario are not. Ontario has risen to the spot of number three polluter in North America, even though its economic activity is much less than that of other major states such as California, Michigan, and Indiana, which are much lower on the polluters list. See the ARET website at http://www.ec.gc.ca/aret/homee.html . See the Voluntary Challenge Website at http://www.vcr-mvr.ca/home_e.cfm
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