VANCOUVER—In the three years since the Volkswagen emissions-cheating scandal was uncovered, governments in the U.S., Germany and elsewhere have fined the company billions of dollars and sent some of its top executives to jail for breaking environmental laws — but not in Canada.
“There has been nothing done,” said David Boyd, the United Nations’ newly appointed human rights and environment watchdog.
Boyd, who is also an expert in environmental law at the University of British Columbia, is concerned the Volkswagen scandal is on its way to becoming another example of Canada’s “absolutely scandalous” failure to enforce environmental laws.
“There has not been any indication that Volkswagen’s going to be held responsible for their environmental crimes here,” he said.
“It’s pretty alarming,” said Tim Gray, executive director of Environmental Defence. It was “a massive scandal perpetrated on the public.”
While federal Environment Minister Catherine McKenna said she is hopeful there will be progress on the case soon, the Canadian investigation into the emissions-cheating scandal remains ongoing three years in.
“The legal and regulatory environments vary between Canada and the U.S., and a court settlement and fines in the U.S. are not simply replicated in Canada,” said department spokesperson Gabrielle Lamontagne.
“Volkswagen Group Canada Inc. . . . has not publicly admitted to being guilty of an alleged offence in Canada,” she said, adding that the company in Canada is a separate legal entity from its parent company in Germany and affiliates in the U.S., where Volkswagen has already paid significant fines.
The scandal became public in 2015 — roughly a month before the Liberal government came to power in Ottawa. Volkswagen and subsidiaries Audi and Porsche had been caught selling roughly 11 million diesel cars worldwide that were fitted with a “defeat device.” It enabled the cars to cheat emissions testing, but on the road, they spewed significantly higher emissions than allowed — 35 times the legal standard in Canada, according to Environmental Defence.
Diesel emission standards are in place for good reason. The fumes are “highly toxic,” Boyd said. A recent Health Canada study estimated diesel emissions alone were responsible for the premature deaths of more than 700 Canadians in 2015.
In a statement, Volkswagen Canada spokesperson Thomas Tetzlaff said the company “is committed to making things right for our customers, dealers, regulators and the Canadian public.”
While the company said in a statement it settled a $2.1-billion class action lawsuit in 2017 with customers who purchased one of roughly 125,000 affected diesel vehicles sold in Canada — as it did elsewhere in the world — Volkswagen hasn’t faced any charges under the Canadian Environmental Protection Act so far.
There is concern among some observers that the federal government may not act, continuing what Boyd said is a longtime trend of leniency.
“Three years have gone by and Canada has a track record of not enforcing environmental laws,” he said.
In 2004, Petro-Canada was fined $290,000 for the spill that saw 1,000 barrels of oil flow into the Atlantic Ocean from the Terra Nova offshore production vessel. By comparison, Brazil’s petroleum regulator fined Chevron $17.3 million (U.S.) for a 3,600-barrel oil spill in 2011, and the company also agreed to pay $150 million to settle civil lawsuits related to the case, according to Reuters.
Boyd said Canada levied $2.47 million (Canadian) in fines for environmental infractions under the Canadian Environmental Protection Act between 1988 and 2010 — less than the $3.65 million the Toronto Public Library collected in overdue book fines in 2012.
In contrast, the U.S. — where Boyd said enforcement of environmental laws has been “much more aggressive” — the Environment Protection Agency levied $204 million (U.S.) in civil fines and won court cases securing another $44 million in criminal fines from environmental lawbreakers in 2012 alone.
“It’s just indicative of how absolutely scandalous Canada’s failure to enforce environmental laws has been over the past 25 years,” he said.
The Canadian government launched its own investigation into the Volkswagen emissions-cheating issue in September 2015, after the U.S. EPA issued a notice to Volkswagen alleging the company had violated the Clean Air Act.
In a statement at the time, Environment Canada said Canadian laws and regulations “prohibit vehicle manufacturers and importers from equipping a vehicle with a defeat device.”
As of this week the department is still investigating Volkswagen for alleged environmental infractions, said Eric Campbell, director of communications for Environment Minister Catherine McKenna.
“Investigations relating to alleged violations of the Canadian Environmental Protection Act are often highly complex and we must be certain that we have gathered and analyzed all of the necessary evidence and supporting information before any charges are filed,” he said in a statement.
Meanwhile, the company has been fined billions of dollars in the U.S. and Germany, and millions in Brazil and South Korea in the wake of the emissions scandal.
Volkswagen paid the equivalent of $1.5 billion (Canadian) in fines in Germany and $12 billion in the U.S., according to an analysis by Environmental Defence, which is launching a public campaign this month to pressure Ottawa to take action against the company.
In the U.S. case, Volkswagen also agreed not to contradict anything outlined in the plea agreement or statement of facts in other jurisdictions.
South of the border, that money was earmarked for initiatives to reduce nitrogen oxide emissions, which are harmful to human health, and improve infrastructure for zero-emission vehicles.
In Canada, Campbell said that “the government’s investigation is proceeding in a comprehensive and methodical manner.”
“This is a complex case involving both domestic and foreign organizations, and a number of alleged offences under (the Canadian Environmental Protection Act),” he said.
But it’s not clear to Boyd or Gray why the investigation would take longer in Canada than the U.S.
“We have politicians who like to talk about the polluter pays, but we really don’t make polluters pay in this country,” Boyd said. “It really is almost unbelievable the extent to which Canada treats corporate environmental criminals with kid gloves.”
Environmental Defence, the Canadian Association of Physicians for the Environment and their lawyers at Ecojustice hope that won’t be the case this time.
They made an official request for the environment minister to take charge of the government’s probe into Volkswagen due to the “slowness” of Environment Canada’s investigation. The request was denied because the federal department was already investigating the allegations, but the organizations have continued to fight in court for disclosure of records relevant to the Volkswagen investigation.
“This is an easy and necessary way to help advance our climate agenda and at the same time send a clear message to corporate polluters that if you violate Canadian laws, you will be prosecuted and you will pay the price for that,” Gray said.