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The case of the vanishing surveys

October 21, 2010

West Coast was interested to read in the Globe and Mail last week that Statistics Canada has been forced, in order to meet its budget, to cut five surveys, some of which are intended to gather what sounds like critical environmental information.  But the story raises so many unanswered questions. 

Chopping the five surveys is expected to trim some $4-million, while cutting the amount of analysis is worth another $1.5-million. Mr. Frayne cautioned that if outside funds become available, the work might be revived. …

The ditched surveys are: the Industrial Pollutant Release Survey, and the Quarterly Energy Use and Greenhouse Gas Emissions Survey, both pilot projects; the National Population Health Survey; the Survey of the Suppliers of Business Financing; and the Survey on Financing of Small and Medium-Sized Enterprises.

StatsCan.jpgIt’s cause for concern whenever the government stops collecting information about the environment, and several bloggers have raised concerns about these cuts, and what they mean for the independence of Statistics Canada

But what should we make of the loss of information from these two environmental surveys?  It’s a bit difficult to know, since no one seems to know anything about the Industrial Pollutant Release Survey or the Quarterly Energy Use and Greenhouse Gas Emissions Survey. In fact, the case could be made that the controversy is actually as much about a lack of public transparency as the loss of the information contained in the surveys themselves, since we’re left guessing as to the purpose of the surveys that are being cut. 

If you do a Google search for the title of either of these surveys, the only thing which comes up are the news stories related to the surveys being cut. 

On the issue of the release of industrial pollutants, the government already collects a fair amount of information about large scale releases through the National Pollutant Release Inventory (NPRI) created under the Canadian Environmental Protection Act.  The NPRI tracks emissions of more than 300 chemicals from 8,600 larger industries. 

Assuming that the Industrial Pollution Release Survey does not duplicate the NPRI, it seems likely that it is intended to gather information about emissions from smaller-scale industries not covered by the NPRI.  If that is, indeed, what the Industrial Pollutant Release Survey was intended to cover, this survey information would have been useful information indeed.  There are all kinds of situations in which emissions of toxins from smaller industries may be harmful to the environment and human health, and where this type of survey would help the government deal with the situation. 

And what of the Quarterly Energy Use and Greenhouse Gas Emissions Survey? 

Clearly a survey on energy use and greenhouse gas emissions is timely.  What is unclear is exactly what is covered by this survey and how this “pilot project” relates to other surveys that Statistics Canada has done for some time.  For example, Statistics Canada conducted surveys on greenhouse gas emissions from 2004 to 2008; in 2009, this survey function was transferred to Environment Canada.  Similarly, Statistics Canada’s Report on Energy Supply-Demand in Canada, 1990-2007 (released on February 2009), is a key source of information for Natural Resources Canada’s National Energy Use Database

If the Quarterly Energy Use and Greenhouse Gas Emissions Survey is truly a pilot project, then presumably it attempts to gather information that is different than the information that Statistics Canada has gathered on energy use and greenhouse gas emissions for years.  But it would certainly be nice to have a clear idea of what this pilot project does cover, and assurances that information gathering on these issues by Statistics Canada, Environment Canada and Natural Resources Canada will not be impacted by the cuts. 

So should we be upset?  Probably, but it’s not clear how upset.  One thing we can definitely be upset is the lack of publicly available information about the programs that are being cut. 

Andrewblogphoto.jpgBy Andrew Gage, Staff Lawyer