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Four days into his job as premier, Doug Ford announced the end of Ontario’s $3 billion cap-and-trade climate program as his government’s first policy decision. Since then, the Progressive Conservatives have made dramatic changes to the province’s environmental policy. The changes affect everything from endangered species to renewable energy to development, and critics say most are harmful to wildlife and natural spaces, as well as counterintuitive given the scale of the climate crisis.
The government disagrees. “Ontario is a leader in clean, green growth in Canada and around the world, and our government takes environmental protection very seriously,” Andrew Kennedy, a spokesperson for the ministry of environment, said in an emailed statement to The Narwhal. “We are proud to lead Ontario at the front line of Canada’s climate change response.”
Ahead of the provincial election scheduled for June 2022, The Narwhal is tracking how Premier Ford and the Progressive Conservatives have shaped Ontario’s environmental policy landscape.
This list is a running tally — stay tuned for updates.
Right after taking office in the summer of 2018, Ford sent out a press release announcing the end of cap-and-trade: he inaccurately deemed it “government cash grabs,” when, in fact, the funds collected were largely earmarked for other climate-related projects. The program allowed companies to buy and sell credits to pollute, the idea being that the added cost would incentivize businesses to pollute less. Nobel-prize winning economists William Nordhaus and Paul Romer, as well as much scientific research, tout the cap-and-trade program as the most cost-effective and efficient way to reduce greenhouse gas emissions that contribute to global heating.
The emissions-trading scheme has often been mischaracterized as a “carbon tax” by members of the Ford government. On Oct. 31, 2018, the legislation killing cap-and-trade passed, MPP Sam Oosterhoff led the PC caucus in a cover version of “Monster Mash:” “We stopped the tax/We stopped the carbon tax,” he declared in a spooky voice. In the summer of 2019, the government introduced mandatory stickers for all gas pump operators that said “the federal carbon tax will cost you:” the proposed fine for not displaying them was up to $10,000 a day. The stickers showed the federally-mandated carbon price adding 4.4 cents per litre to the price of gasoline, but did not include information about available rebates or the costs associated with rising emissions. In 2020, the Ontario Superior Court of Justice deemed the stickers unconstitutional following a Canadian Civil Liberties Association challenge.
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The decision to end cap-and-trade spelled the end of a $100 million budget for school repairs, a $337 million Green Ontario Fund that offered people rebates to retrofit their homes and businesses with energy-saving technologies, and 227 clean energy programs that included 120 commuter cycling programs in 120 jurisdictions across the province, 41 sustainable social housing programs and 20 retrofit projects for social housing apartments.
In October 2019, Ontario’s Superior Court determined the Ford government acted illegally when it killed the program without first carrying out the required public consultations. Earlier this year, the Ford government lost again in the Supreme Court of Canada when it challenged the federal government’s efforts to implement a carbon price in the absence of Ontario having its own pollution pricing program. In the wake of that decision, the province has introduced a weak carbon pricing standard that sets pricing thresholds by facility, not industry.
A week after ending the cap-and-trade program, the Ford government cancelled 758 renewable energy contracts, including hydroelectric, solar and wind farms that were mid-construction. The first to be axed was the White Pines Wind Project in Milford, Ont., which was 10 years in the making and characterized by Ford as “those terrible, terrible wind turbines.” The second was the Nation Rise wind farm in North Stormont, Ont. In May 2020, a court overturned the province’s decision and allowed construction of the project to resume.
The complete list also included solar rooftops on schools, libraries, community and municipal buildings. Then-Energy Minister Greg Rickford said the cuts would save provincial ratepayers $790 million, a figure industry officials disputed and said would disproportionately hurt local and First Nations communities. The PC government spent more than $230 million to cancel these projects, a decision Ford said he was “proud” of.
In an Oct. 29, 2021 statement to The Narwhal, Palmer Lockridge, a spokesperson for Ontario’s minister of energy, said these “wasteful” contracts “would have driven up electricity bills, not only making life more expensive, but also hindering other progressive actions to reduce emissions such as electrification which benefit from affordable electricity rates.” He said the government is working on “a range of initiatives informed by feedback through the environmental registry.” This includes a project in London that explores “how a community can work together to generate renewable energy, protect the environment and lower electricity costs.”
In April 2021, the Ford government introduced a bill that would deprioritize renewable energy by repealing measures that made it easier to build new clean power projects. The province said it’s “no longer appropriate” to prioritize clean energy because “Ontario has built a clean energy supply.” Kennedy, spokesperson for the minister of environment, said the government will release the province’s low-carbon hydrogen strategy “soon.”
Most of Ontario’s electricity comes from emissions-free hydro-electric and nuclear power, which makes for a relatively clean system — the province does use some natural gas, but the fossil fuel makes up a small portion of the mix. In 2020, however, the province spent $2.8 billion to buy three natural gas plants that the Ford government is planning to fire up more often over the next decade as nuclear plants go offline for refurbishment — a move that could erase a third of the emissions reductions Ontario achieved by phasing out coal.
There is a need to find new energy sources as Ontario’s aging nuclear plants go offline for refurbishment, and gas plants can fire up quickly to meet sudden demand, such as during summer heat waves. Ontario’s Independent Electricity Systems Operator has said in the past that the province needs the plants to maintain flexibility, and was even more frank in a report released Oct. 7, 2021 stating that it wouldn’t be feasible to phase out gas plants by 2030 while meeting the province’s energy needs. Critics say the government should be focused on renewable energy sources instead.
In the fall of 2018, on the 25th anniversary of the creation of the position, the Ford government eliminated the office of the environmental commissioner, an independent provincial watchdog that held the government accountable on its environmental actions or inactions. The position was created under the Environmental Bill of Rights, and tasked with monitoring the government’s compliance with environmental laws and reporting annually on the government’s progress on its greenhouse gas reduction targets. The position was then, and last, held by Dianne Saxe (now a Green Party of Ontario candidate), who revealed that over 1,300 tonnes of sewage had been dumped into Ontario waterways in 2017 just days before her office was axed.
The bill of rights also allowed any two Ontario residents to apply to the commissioner’s office to ask it to review any law, regulation or decision by the government pertaining to the protection of the environment. That accountability mechanism was stripped, just as the Ford government was enacting one environmental cut after another. Now, those appeals go directly to the Minister of Environment, Conservation and Parks and some of the accountability work of the environment commissioner’s office has been folded into the office of the auditor general. The government did not provide The Narwhal with an update on how the new appeal process is working.
In June 2021, Ford’s then-environment minister Jeff Yurek finalized a massive rewrite of Ontario’s recycling program, into what environment ministry spokesperson Kennedy describes as a “common sense new blue box program with the highest diversion rate targets in North America” that “will save taxpayers money, keep recyclables out of landfills, and deliver standardized services to all corners of the province, including First Nations.”
The new rules, to be phased in from 2023 to 2025, standardized the process across the province — before, it happened through more than 250 local programs, each with different specifications. The changes also mean companies that produce plastic must fully pay for recycling programs, shifting costs away from municipalities.
Municipalities and the recycling industry praised the rewrite, which allows more materials to be recycled and for blue box services to be expanded to rural communities, apartment buildings, long-term care homes, schools and municipal parks. Standardizing the system could save an estimated $156 million annually, the province said. Environmentalists said they were concerned the new program’s targets weren’t high enough.
The Ford government has watered down protections for endangered species twice. The first set of changes, included in the omnibus Bill 108 — dubbed the More Homes, More Choice Act — were aimed at making it easier for the development industry to pursue projects even if they would likely harm species at risk. The legislation, passed in May 2019, allows the province to delay protecting endangered species, weakens protections for species with populations outside of Ontario, opened up the chance for non-scientific experts to join the provincial committee that classifies species at risk, and eliminated a requirement that the environment minister consult an independent expert on how certain actions could affect endangered species. It also created a “pay to slay” fund, officially known as the Species at Risk Conservation Trust, that would allow developers to destroy key habitats if they pay fees, which are meant to be used to help the species recover elsewhere.
Kennedy told The Narwhal that the trust, and the agency that oversees it, “will have the expertise to invest in strategic, large-scale, and co-ordinated actions to support positive outcomes for certain species at risk.” Environmentalists disagree: the charity Ontario Nature argues it gives developers “free rein to bulldoze, dig up, cut down and pave over the habitats of our most vulnerable plants and animals.”
The next year, in June 2020, the Ford government extended a long-running rule that exempts forestry companies from abiding by Ontario’s Endangered Species Act. Instead, those companies follow a logging-specific set of rules that attempt to minimize the impact industrial activity could have on species at risk, but do not support their recovery.
Ontario isn’t collecting enough data to know whether it is actually conserving endangered species, Auditor General Bonnie Lysyk found last year. The same report also found that many of the provincial plans governing protected lands didn’t include measures to safeguard endangered species — even though those areas are home to three-quarters of Ontario’s species-at-risk.
In another move that happened a matter of days after he was sworn in, Ford fired Ontario’s first chief scientist. Dr. Molly Shoichet, a biomedical engineer who teaches at the University of Toronto, had been in the role for six months. The previous Liberal government had meant for the chief scientist to advise the government, and to make sure all of its relevant policy decisions were rooted in science.
At the time, Ford’s office said it was seeking a “suitable and qualified replacement.” Shoichet told The Globe and Mail she believed it wasn’t about her, “but rather an out-with-the-old and in-with-the-new” decision. As of Oct. 2021, the role has not been filled. The government did not respond to a request for information on why she was fired and when the position would be filled.
In July 2020, the Ford government passed Bill 197, legislation meant to facilitate economic recovery from the devastation of COVID-19. Buried in the bill was a major overhaul to Ontario’s environmental assessment law. Environmental assessments are pivotal to development proposals, helping the government determine whether a project might have negative impacts on surrounding green space, wildlife and watersheds. At the time, Ford said “we aren’t going to dodge” the process, but make it “quicker and smarter.”
Critics say the bill actually made the regime tremendously weaker. Public-sector projects used to be subject to environmental assessments automatically — now proposals only need one if the government decides it should take place. Citizens also used to have a mechanism to ask the environment minister to conduct a full assessment on projects that would otherwise be exempt, but Bill 197 eliminated that possibility.
The Ford government passed the bill before consulting the public, which Lysyk said was “not compliant” with rules in Ontario’s Environmental Bill of Rights. The province is writing a list to guide decisions about whether environmental assessments are needed.
Kennedy wrote the government is “grateful” to Lysyk “for her shared goals for Ontario’s actions on climate and the environment; she and her team have been more than capable with respect to accountability and oversight.” He added: “oversight is also at the heart of our environmental assessment program, which supports strong environmental oversight and focuses resources on high-impact projects.”
As the first wave of COVID-19 took hold in Ontario, the Ford government dramatically ramped up its use of a special land zoning power called an MZO, or minister’s zoning order. The directives allow the ministry of municipal affairs, now headed by Steve Clark, to decide how a piece of land can be used, overriding the local planning process and any existing zoning to clear the way for a project to go ahead. The orders cannot be appealed. Up until 2018, governments tended to use them for emergency situations: in 2012, when the Liberal government headed by Dalton McGuinty used an MZO to relocate a grocery store in Elliot Lake, Ont. when the town’s only one was destroyed by the collapse of a mall roof.
Ford’s government used five in 2019 — which Clark followed up by issuing 32 of the orders in 2020, more than twice the number the previous Liberal government issued over its 15 years in power. He’s issued 19 so far in 2021. The PC government has also twice strengthened its minister’s zoning order powers through legislation. The province has said it only uses MZOs on provincially-owned land, or at the request of municipalities.
In a statement, Zoe Knowles, spokesperson for the Ontario minister of municipal affairs and housing, said MZOs “are an important part of our government’s policy toolkit to help critical local projects located outside of the Greenbelt move at the pace Ontarians need and deserve.”
“It’s important to remember that an MZO kick-starts the zoning process by ensuring red tape does not get in the way of much-needed local projects,” Knowles wrote, adding that municipalities have final say on development plan approvals, permits and more. (While this is true, any amendments to Greenbelt designations must be approved by the province.) “It is our expectation that municipalities do their due diligence and to conduct proper consultation in their communities, including with conservation authorities and other impacted stakeholders.”
Knowles also said the government has pledged not to issue MZOs for developments on the Greenbelt, but in fact, Clark did approve an MZO for provincially-owned Greenbelt land in Aurora, Ont., which allowed for more intense development. The government has also committed to add two acres to the protected zone for every acre provincewide that is developed through an MZO, Knowles said.
In many cases, the government has used these orders to override environmental concerns: 14 times from 2019 to 2020, an analysis by National Observer found. That included a case where an MZO allowed developers to pave over a protected wetland to build a Walmart warehouse in Vaughan, Ont. In several other cases, the orders have opened up farmland for development — a trend critics say is concerning because it contributes to urban sprawl, often eliminating green space that acts as a carbon sink or lessening Ontario’s ability to grow food locally.
Ontario isn’t taking its 2030 climate targets seriously enough, Lysyk warned in Nov. 2020. In an audit, her office found that the Ford government had not made emissions reduction a “cross-government priority” and is not reducing emissions from fossil fuel-use in buildings, the province’s third-largest source of greenhouse gases. Under the Paris Agreement, Ontario must reduce its emissions to 30 per cent below 2005 levels by the end of the decade.
At the time, Yurek said the government was still committed to the goal, but it would be a “difficult path to go forward” and that Ontario has a “long way to go.” The government did not respond to The Narwhal’s request for comment on this.
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