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This summer, Ontario Energy Minister Todd Smith went to Windsor, Ont., stood in front of a generating station and announced a new energy plan focused on expanding nuclear and natural gas.
Dubbed “Powering Ontario’s Growth,” the plan has become the Doug Ford government’s favourite show-and-tell object, touted far and wide from Saskatchewan to Dubai. The sell is simple: Ontario is facing an impending energy supply crunch, and this 86-page document is the solution to avoiding the worst impacts of that shortage.
But a new report shows this solution emerged without the public getting proper notice or a chance to meaningfully comment. In his office’s annual report, acting provincial auditor general Nick Stavropoulos highlights that Smith’s energy plan was created unilaterally. The Ministry of Energy did not consult Ontarians about the overall plan or the specific projects it proposed, including major transmission lines in eastern Ontario and large-scale nuclear expansion.
In fact, the Ontario auditor general’s report finds, many of the province’s energy and environment policies were created in a vacuum of consultation and clear information. More than once, the government “did not give Ontarians complete or accurate information” about its proposals and their environmental implications, on topics as wide-ranging as wetland protection, clean energy credits and housing development.
“There is a pattern of no consulting,” Stavropoulos told reporters on Wednesday. That pattern violates the provincial Environmental Bill of Rights, which states any “important environmental decisions,” as the auditor general’s report puts it, should be shared widely for feedback, which should in turn be factored into the decision-making process.
This isn’t the first time the auditor general has found the Ford government failed to consult Ontarians. For five years, his office has tracked how well the government consulted the public about important environmental decisions — a task it took on after the Ford government axed the environmental commissioner in 2018.
And every year since then, the auditor general’s office has found the Ford government in violation of this right.
What makes this year’s report different is its damning examples and stark, plain language. The Ford government is not “focused on climate change or the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions in its decision-making,” Ontario’s auditor general finds. “This will make it a challenge to reduce emissions enough to achieve Ontario’s 2030 target.”
The Ministry of Energy disagrees with some of the report’s findings. Officials are cited in the report saying they had consulted widely, Ontarians and industry included, on a report from the provincial electricity operator that highlighted the need for new nuclear generation, energy storage and waterpower.
But this consultation was framed as one that would “help to inform the government’s next steps” and the auditor general’s take is clear: consulting on a report about a done deal is not the same as consulting on a proposal, and it matters when the plan will impact all Ontarians and their ability to access secure, reliable, emissions-free energy.
“The ministry’s response clearly acknowledged the environmental significance of the changes to the [energy] framework, yet the ministry did not consult Ontarians before making them,” his report says.
Energy isn’t the only policy with environmental ramifications the public had no chance to weigh in on. When the Ford government set out to weaken wetland protections, it “understated” the impacts, Ontario’s auditor general finds, failing to communicate the potential loss of wetlands and subsequent consequences: dirtier drinking water, loss of wildlife habitat, increased risk of flooding. While internal Environment Ministry documents acknowledged that “Ontario has continued to lose wetlands to accommodate land uses such as development” and that this decision would increase the pace of loss, the auditor general finds Ontarians weren’t consulted and the government denied any negative impact in its public communication.
The report also mentions the proposal to transfer York Region’s sewage to a treatment facility in neighbouring Durham Region. The government “did not address the potential ecosystem impacts of increasing the quantity of water moving between the Lake Ontario and Lake Simcoe watersheds,” the auditor general finds, an idea local politicians and experts say could disrupt two sensitive ecosystems that provide clean drinking water to millions. There’s also the issue of phosphorus, which can cause dangerous algae: while the Ford government has insisted its plan will reduce phosphorus in Lake Simcoe and keep Lake Ontario healthy, it hasn’t explained how it came to this conclusion or how it will make good on its promise, the auditor general writes.
There’s more: the Ford government has also changed the Mining Act to empower politicians and company employees to assess project safety and closure plans, rather than technical experts. Again, the government neglected to explain its rationale and downplayed environmental impact. The same was the case when the government weakened conservation authorities, reducing oversight of how development affects land and water. “It did not identify any potential environmental impacts in its proposal notice and told the public that the anticipated environmental consequences would be ‘neutral,’ ” the auditor general says.
All of these decisions threaten the environment — a risk the Ford government has still not acknowledged publicly. And as these decisions are being made without consultation, the government also isn’t tracking the impacts of its environmentally significant policies, let alone its progress on its climate and conservation targets.
The list is long. The government has failed to create a plan to properly protect endangered species like the barn owl, butternut tree and king rail bird. The Natural Resources Ministry has not begun work to create Indigenous Protected and Conserved Areas. There is no long-term strategy to permanently protect provincial parks. There is no plan for the government to publicly report hazardous spills or train environmental officers to review spills properly.
The Energy Ministry is greatly implicated. For example, the government’s one-and-only environment plan, from 2018, said reducing natural gas usage in Ontario buildings would bring the province’s largest emissions cut. But, five years on, the Energy Ministry has still not required utilities to employ measures to reduce natural gas consumption. Instead, it has relied on Enbridge, the gas provider, to offer conservation programs for homeowners to opt into. The ministry has also failed to provide strong green building codes, with the Ontario auditor general finding there has been little attempt to inspect or enforce developer compliance.
Despite a third of the auditor general’s 823-page report outlining the Ford government’s environmental obfuscation, ministers continue to deny what Ontarians can plainly see. After the report’s release, The Narwhal asked Natural Resources Minister Graydon Smith about the auditor general’s findings of a lack of consultation, and his analysis that the government has, at best, a disinterest in climate mitigation and conservation.
The natural resources minister said the government has consulted everyone, that it takes everyone’s feedback “seriously.” That claim belies very recent history: last fall, the government received over 700 comments on its omnibus Bill 23, which moved to make development easier at a time when municipalities couldn’t respond due to local elections. Most expressed concern about various proposals that were harmful to the environment — concerns that weren’t addressed as the government pushed the bill through.
There were also more than 35,000 comments on the proposal to open up parts of the Greenbelt: the auditor general found the decision was made so quickly the government “could not complete a comprehensive analysis” of public input, telling senders their thoughts “would not allow for substantive revisions.” But Ontarians still made themselves heard: after a year of protests and investigative reporting, the Greenbelt changes were reversed.
Graydon Smith also told The Narwhal the government is working towards climate goals “in a way that creates jobs in this province” and that “the actions speak for themselves.”
And they do.
Despite the Ford government’s self-claimed motto of being “for the people,” this report finds its decision-making shuts Ontarians out, and threatening the public’s environmental future.
“A lack of consultation is something that we’ve consistently found. And it’s pretty much across all the ministries,” Stavropoulos told reporters on Dec. 6. “Consultation is a key component of decision-making. Without it, those that are making decisions do not have all the information necessary to make the correct decisions.”
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