A black week for newly green Fentie

Environment Minister Dennis Fentie is picking and choosing the environmental laws he follows and breaks, says Liberal MLA Darius Elias.

Environment Minister Dennis Fentie is picking and choosing the environmental laws he follows and breaks, says Liberal MLA Darius Elias.

Under the Yukon Environment Act, the department Fentie heads is obligated to produce a State of the Environment report every three years.

The last was released in 2002 and arrived on the cusp of Fentie’s first mandate as premier. The next was scheduled for release in 2005.

Two years — and $31,900 later — there is no report.

“Here we have a premier, the ultimate authority in the Yukon — who’s also environment minister, the ultimate authority for the environment, and the environment act that he’s responsible for upholding — and he’s ignoring the law,” said Elias on Thursday.

The act states the department “shall” produce the report every three years, meaning it “must” and that Fentie is breaking the law, he said.

“Is he to decide which laws he should follow and which ones he shouldn’t?” asked Elias.

The lack of a report is the nadir of a bad week on the environment for Fentie.

He also missed a council of the federation meeting on climate change in Toronto.

Other than Prince Edward Island Premier Pat Binns — who had called an election a day before the meeting — Fentie was the only premier to play hooky.

Government officials were dispatched to the meeting in Fentie’s place.

Fentie plans to attend another national meeting about climate change in August, he said.

Critics say the absence of the report raises fears the Yukon Party government is blacking out independent appraisals of its achievements, which might highlight its lack of genuine action on the environment.

But on Wednesday, Fentie pointed to several programs created under his watch at Environment as proof the environment is “in good hands.”

The programs include the Yukon Environmental and Socio-Economic Assessment Board, a climate change strategy and increased money to modernize the territory’s plant and animal databases.

“That is the state of the environment,” said Fentie. “So, I’m not about to put out to Yukoners old news or useless information. It’s going to be updated to the fact, and we’ll provide Yukoners a clearer understanding … of the state of the Yukon’s environment.”

He hinted a report may be in the works, but could give no timelines for its release.

If a report is prepared it will first be critiqued for errors, he added.

“I can recall one (an Environment report) some time ago which had contents such as Yukon’s emission factor many multiples higher than our emission factor really was,” said Fentie.

“So we have to be careful what kind of information gets into the public domain. If it’s not correct and factual, it’s useless information.”

During question period Wednesday, Fentie refuted Elias’ claims that laws are being broken, describing them as “benign legalities.”

Report or no report, however, money has been spent.

The Environment department has received funding to write the long-overdue report every year since 2001.

In 2001-2002 it received $5,000 and by 2006-2007 that amount had increased to $30,000.

Much of the yearly money for the reports has “lapsed” — auditor-speak for not being spent.

Whatever money was not spent didn’t go to other projects, said Deputy Minister of Finance David Hrycan.

But between 2001 and the latest Yukon budget, the department spent $31,900 on the report, he said.

On Thursday, questions to the Environment department on the status of the report and the money that has been spent weren’t answered.

“The answer has to come from the minister’s office,” said one official.

Fentie’s office was contacted Thursday to provide specific details but didn’t return calls before press time.

But asked on Wednesday if money is being spent on a report that doesn’t exist, Fentie shrugged it off.

“We allow that for the department to have the resources to produce a report,” he said. “And maybe in some cases it doesn’t get produced, but it’s certainly not something the government’s concerned about.”

That response “tells a story in itself,” said Elias.

“They do this for many years and he doesn’t have the fortitude to produce the state of the environment report,” he said. “It’s not proper fiscal management and it’s not a priority.”

The absence of a report is a concern for the Yukon Conservation Society, said executive director Karen Baltgailis.

“I don’t think it’s right to slam these reports,” she said after hearing Fentie describe them as “obscure” in question period.

“I think they were invented for a good reason and that Yukon people deserve to see them. It’s almost like an audit every three years on how we’re doing on environmental issues.”

The reports have been factual and compiled by independent researchers in the past, she said.

“The point about the state of the environment report is that it should be the kind of document that actions are based on,” said Baltgailis.

“Traditionally, when it’s been done, there have been independent contractors doing various sections of it, so it’s not an internal government document that’s just saying what government might want people to hear.

“What we are hearing is words — we are hearing this government is concerned about climate change. And that’s a good change. But we’ll be looking now to see those words become action.”

Baltgailis wants to see the Yukon Party government’s climate change action plan released quickly and have money behind it, as well as an energy strategy for the territory.

The government’s often bragged about its cold climate innovation cluster and climate change centre of excellence, but details about these initiatives is still “very vague,” she added.

Fentie could be intentionally keeping Yukoners in the dark by withholding the report, charged Elias.

“Maybe what possibly might be one of the reasons is he doesn’t want something for the Yukon public to measure his accomplishments by,” he said.