Just before the 2022 provincial election, Doug Ford said five words Ontarians hadn’t heard often during his first term.

“I believe in climate change,” he told reporters in May, days after a deadly derecho storm left hundreds of thousands of homes without power and caused Uxbridge, Clarence-Rockland and Peterborough to declare a state of emergency. “And we’re doing everything to prevent it by building electric vehicles, having investment into the battery plants.” 

Despite that declaration, the premier’s second term has yet to see any real increase in electric vehicle production, while promised investments haven’t resulted in operational battery plants so far. Instead, the Progressive Conservatives’ latest tenure has been defined by lost battles over land use, as the province opened up land in the protected Greenbelt and other green space to get “more homes built faster” — and then reversed almost all of it after major pushback from conservationists, cities and citizens rallying against losing farmland, wetlands and wildlife habitat.

We’re investigating Ontario’s environmental cuts
The Narwhal’s Ontario bureau is telling stories you won’t find anywhere else. Keep up with the latest scoops by signing up for a weekly dose of our independent journalism.
We’re investigating Ontario’s environmental cuts
The Narwhal’s Ontario bureau is telling stories you won’t find anywhere else. Keep up with the latest scoops by signing up for a weekly dose of our independent journalism.

Playing in the background is a looming energy supply crisis, which the Ford government is largely planning to tackle through a steep increase in natural gas use that will likely grow Ontario’s emissions. But they’ve also showed renewed interest in renewable energy, which again reverses Progressive Conservative policies and promises: one of the government’s first moves in power was to cancel hundreds of clean energy contracts and policies. 

In August 2023, the first comprehensive province-wide study of the impacts of climate change found that without a serious adaptation strategy Ontarians will face four times as many days of extreme heat, which will hurt businesses, vulnerable populations (particularly Indigenous and homeless communities) and our ability to grow food.

For the second time, The Narwhal is keeping a running tally of how the Ford government is reshaping environment, climate, conservation and energy policy. Stay tuned for updates — and if you’d like a refresher on what happened in the Progressive Conservatives’ first term, go here.

1. Doug Ford is still changing Ontario environmental policies without meaningfully consulting the public

In 1993, the Ontario government was legally mandated by the Environmental Bill of Rights to consult the public before changing environmental or energy policy, with the independent environmental commissioner’s office acting as a watchdog. 

When the Ford government axed the commissioner’s office in 2019, those responsibilities shifted to Ontario’s auditor general. In the past four years, former auditor general Bonnie Lysyk has found “recurring” violations. In her 2022 review of how the Ford government is upholding the bill of rights, Lysyk found the Progressive Conservatives are failing to consider expert opinions, while also neglecting to fully explain “the potential environmental implications of proposed legislative or policy changes, or how public consultation affected the decision-making.” 
Lysyk found the government did not properly consult the public about three major policy changes that affected the environment, including housing policy, plans to build small modular nuclear reactors and the development of a low-carbon strategy. 

This vacuum of consultation and clear information has only continued. In the 2023 annual report from acting auditor general Nick Stavropoulos, the government was called out for creating a new energy plan 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 nuclear expansion. 

There are other damning examples in the 2023 report. When the Ford government set out to weaken wetland protections, it “understated” the impacts, failing to communicate the potential loss of wetlands and subsequent consequences: dirtier drinking water, loss of wildlife habitat, increased risk of flooding. It also didn’t explain how a proposal to transfer sewage from York Region to neighbouring Durham Region could disrupt two Great Lakes ecosystems. 

The auditor general’s office isn’t the only one noticing the Ford government’s failure to meaningfully consult the public. The Chiefs of Ontario are still calling for the repeal of the omnibus housing act, Bill 23, citing the Progressive Conservative’s lack of consultation with Indigenous communities, which Indigenous leaders have called “unlawful” and an “abuse of power.” 

Doug Ford promises to end cap and trade at an election stop in April 2018
One of Doug Ford’s most high-profile 2018 campaign promises was cancelling Ontario’s cap-and-trade program, which he mischaracterized as a “carbon tax.” Photo: Doug Ford / Twitter

2. Ontario imposed a pollution price on industries

After losing a Supreme Court battle against the federally implemented carbon price, the Ford government was forced to introduce its own that met national standards. On Jan. 1, 2022, Ontario’s Emissions Performance Standards took effect on industrial polluters. The concept is similar to the federal carbon pricing system: it sets a price on carbon and creates a market for carbon credits. 

Companies that produce less than their applicable limit earn credits, or “emissions performance units,” that can be sold to heavy emitters, which are defined as companies that produce 10,000 tonnes or more of carbon dioxide annually. Companies that emit more than this benchmark must buy these credits, or pay a price per tonne of carbon dioxide. Details of the program are sparse, but Ontario companies were asked to transition from the federal carbon price program to the provincial standards by Dec.15.

Despite past laments about what Ford incorrectly dubbed the “job-killing carbon tax” — and repeated denials of the program’s climate benefits, including through a $4-million sticker campaign that an Ontario court ruled unconstitutional — the government has already signalled that its pollution price will increase in lockstep with the federal carbon price. According to its September 2021 regulatory proposal, Ontario’s price per tonne of carbon for industrial emitters will increase from the present $40 to $65 in 2024 and $170 in 2031.   

The Ford government has announced plans to open 7,400 acres of southern Ontario's long-protected Greenbelt to development.
Migrant farmworkers harvest carrots in the Holland Marsh, in southern Ontario’s protected Greenbelt. The Ford government has announced plans to open 7,400 acres of the Greenbelt to development. Photo: Christopher Katsarov Luna / The Narwhal

3. Ontario cut into the protected Greenbelt at the request of developers then took it back 

On Nov. 4, 2022, the Ford government announced plans to open up 7,400 acres of Greenbelt land in southern Ontario for housing development — a stark reversal of the premier’s years of promises never to touch it. Then-municipal affairs and housing minister Steve Clark, who had also promised not to touch the protected area in the past, said the move would help the province build 50,000 new homes, a small fraction of its goal of 1.5 million homes over the next 10 years.

In exchange, the province added 9,400 acres of other land to the Greenbelt, which was mostly protected under other mechanisms anyway. The move went against the advice of the government’s own housing affordability task force, which said Ontario’s housing crisis can be solved without cutting into the Greenbelt. It also touched off a political scandal that, over the course of 2023, gradually engulfed the government until Ford saw fit to reverse the changes. 

Two weeks after the government announced it would cut into the Greenbelt, an investigation by The Narwhal and the Toronto Star found developers with Progressive Conservative ties were the main beneficiaries of that land swap.

The Ontario Greenbelt rings around the Greater Toronto Area, stretching from northeast of Cobourg to Niagara with one branch north to the Bruce Peninsula.
The Ontario Greenbelt rings around the Greater Toronto Area, stretching from northeast of Cobourg to Niagara with one branch north to the Bruce Peninsula. Map: Jeannie Phan / The Narwhal

The reporting prompted the opposition parties to ask two watchdogs, Ontario’s integrity commissioner and auditor general, to investigate what had happened. Those watchdog reports landed in August 2023, revealing the government selected the land it removed from the Greenbelt in response to requests from well-connected developers. The findings also documented other problems that sparked more public backlash, and over the course of two chaotic months as Ontarians protested and the government remained defiant, two senior staffers and two ministers resigned, including Clark. 

Finally, on Sept. 21, 2023, Ford reversed the decision and apologized. His government passed a bill to officially put the 7,400 acres back into the Greenbelt in December, while also leaving the 9,400-acre addition in place. Although those 9,400 acres were mostly already protected anyway, the Greenbelt technically ended the year slightly bigger than it was before.

As the Ford government moves to overhaul provincial housing policy, it's also weakening rules that protect wetlands, which naturally prevent floods.
The Garner Marsh in Hamilton, Ont. As the Ford government moves to overhaul provincial housing policy, it’s also weakening rules that protect wetlands, which naturally prevent floods. Photo: Christopher Katsarov Luna / The Narwhal

4. Ontario is making it easier to build on wetlands

The Ford government’s plan to make it easier to build housing also included measures that would make it more difficult for wetlands in Ontario to be protected. This is significant because Ontario has very few wetlands left — and because bogs and swamps help sequester carbon and mitigate floods

Experts evaluating which wetlands are eligible for “provincially significant” status, which protects them from development, are guided by a manual from the province’s Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry, which outlines rules to score wetlands based on their benefits to the ecosystem. The government has proposed a huge rewrite of that manual. 

The biggest changes eliminate two major avenues for wetlands to qualify as provincially significant. First, wetland evaluators now can’t consider whether the habitat is important to species at risk. As well, wetlands must now qualify in isolation — disconnected from the wetland complexes they’re often a part of. That means very few wetlands will actually be eligible for the protection, experts told The Narwhal, particularly smaller wetlands that don’t seem important on their own, but are part of complex watersheds and migration paths. 

The new rules, finalized in December 2022, also give the province the ability to remove protection for wetlands that qualified under the old requirements but not under the new ones.

Wetland experts told The Narwhal the changes could contribute to problems with flooding, worsening water quality and the decline of endangered species.

As part of the More Homes Built Faster Act, the Progressive Conservative government is weakening the ability of conservation authorities to weigh in on the environmental implications of development proposals.
As part of the More Homes Built Faster Act, the Progressive Conservative government is weakening the ability of conservation authorities to weigh in on the environmental implications of development proposals. Photo: Christopher Katsarov Luna / The Narwhal

5. Ontario is gutting conservation authorities to speed up development 

For the second time in four years, Ford’s Progressive Conservations have disempowered conservation authorities, agencies unique to Ontario that are tasked with protecting watersheds. This time around, the gutting came via Bill 23, which weakens the authorities’ oversight powers over development plans, and instructs them to find land in the natural conservation spaces they protect that could be suitable for development. 

The list of changes is extensive. It includes watering down the criteria conservation authorities can use to review development — they can no longer consider “pollution” or “conservation of land.” The authorities are also no longer mandated to work with municipalities to ensure vital environmental spaces that supply drinking water and contain wildlife habitat aren’t damaged: these relationships are now optional and can only be advisory. For the most part, the important responsibilities of a conservation authority are now being downloaded to municipalities, which even developers say have neither the in-house technical expertise nor the financial capacity to take on the many tasks done by conservation authorities. 

The government has said repeatedly that conservation authorities will maintain their key role: to protect people and property from flooding. But authorities say the sweeping changes were made quickly and without any consultation. They came into effect on Jan. 1, 2023.  

Both Hamilton and Halton Region voted for density over sprawl in order to protect farmland, but were overruled by the Ford government and forced to expand their urban boundaries
Both Hamilton and Halton Region voted for density over sprawl in order to protect farmland, but were overruled by the Ford government and forced to expand their urban boundaries. Photo: Christopher Katsarov Luna / The Narwhal

6. Doug Ford forced Ontario municipalities to open farmland to development then took it back

On a Friday afternoon in November 2022, the Ford government released a series of bombshell decisions about municipal growth plans without notice. These unilateral decisions ordered some of Ontario’s largest urban centres to expand beyond their current boundaries and start allowing development on farmland and green space that many local residents had clearly signalled they wanted to protect. These decisions could not be appealed

In Hamilton, Ont., the municipal government underwent a year-long public consultation that saw 18,000 residents opt for intensifying development instead of permitting sprawl. Halton Region took a similar stance after a detailed study of its residents’ housing needs, concluding it could meet growth targets through intensification. 

Despite all this, both Hamilton and Halton Region were overruled by the Ford government and ordered to extend their urban boundaries, as were 10 other municipalities including Waterloo Region, Wellington County, Belleville and Peterborough. 

An investigation by The Narwhal showed the province made many of the changes to Hamilton’s urban boundaries in response to requests from unnamed third parties.The move came in the face of public opposition and warnings from public servants about potential environmental consequences. 

Then, reports from both the auditor general and integrity commissioner revealed the process that led to urban boundary decisions involved some of the same government staffers and developers implicated in the Greenbelt scandal. The government backtracked. A year after the initial decision, in October 2023, Housing Minister Paul Calandra said the urban boundary decisions weren’t done “in a manner that maintains and reinforces public trust.”

“The process was one that I was just not comfortable with,” Calandra told reporters. “I think there was just a little bit too much involvement from the minister’s office, from individuals within the previous minister’s office.”

Calandra has asked municipalities to give their feedback on original growth plans again. As of December 2023, it is still unclear what the government’s next steps will be. 

York Region desperately needs increased sewage capacity as it prepares for its population to nearly double by 2051. Some municipalities even say they will soon be forced to halt all development due to inadequate sewage treatment capacity.
York Region desperately needs increased sewage capacity as it prepares for its population to nearly double by 2051. Some municipalities even say they will soon be forced to halt all development due to inadequate sewage treatment capacity. Illustration: Shawn Parkinson / The Narwhal

7. Ontario’s plan for York Region’s sewage threatens the health of the Great Lakes, possibly violating an international agreement

The same day Bill 23 was released, the Ford government also made a sudden decision not to build a contentious sewage facility in York Region that has been fiercely debated and delayed for 13 years

One of the big challenges with residential development is ensuring new neighbourhoods are properly serviced to support a growing population, including with wastewater infrastructure. Development cannot begin without these pipes and supporting facilities in place.

Since 2009, York Region north of Toronto has been trying to set up a new sewage plant to serve the rapidly growing towns of Aurora, Newmarket and East Gwillimbury. York has spent $100 million of a $715 million proposed budget, some of it on the most expensive environmental assessment the region has ever conducted, which examined the impacts of carrying so much wastewater into Lake Simcoe. All along, the Chippewas of Georgina Island have expressed concerns about impacts on the watershed and the region’s failures to include the First Nation in the process. 

Successive governments have long delayed making a decision on this facility. In the fall of 2020, the Progressive Conservatives offered an alternative solution: instead of creating a new facility that would dump sewage in Lake Simcoe, it proposed to expand the sewage lines from York Region to reach the existing high-tech Duffin Creek Water Pollution Control Plant in Pickering, which releases treated water into Lake Ontario. 

This proposal was made official in late October, when the government issued its decision to expand the Duffin Creek plant. The government-appointed York Region Wastewater Advisory Panel, set up in 2021, supported this decision in a report released the same day, calling it “the most effective option available.” In its analysis, the panel weighed heavily the opposition by the Chippewas of Georgina Island, and noted that building a sewage plant in York Region would emit 50 per cent more greenhouse gases than the Duffin Creek option, which could also be expanded at a lower cost than building a new facility.  

Animated illustration of sewage from the York region being treated and emptying into Lake Ontario.
Ontario’s proposal to permanently increase the quantity of water  — tens of millions of litres — moving between the Lake Huron region and Lake Ontario could harm both Great Lakes watersheds. Illustration: Shawn Parkinson / The Narwhal

Much needs to be figured out by both York and Durham now that the province has made its long-overdue decision. In October 2022, Durham regional chair and CEO John Henry told Newmarket Today the municipality needs more time to “understand the technical details and implications for Durham residents.” Henry previously told The Narwhal he would be opposed to taking on additional sewage waste from York Region because Durham needed to support its own residents first. 

Expanding the Duffin Creek plant  will require an expansion of a grid of pipes that service the rapidly growing populations of York and Durham regions. This wastewater flows from the Lake Huron watershed, namely Georgian Bay and Lake Simcoe, to the plant to be cleaned, after which much is released into Lake Ontario. 

Ontario’s proposal is to permanently increase the quantity of water  — tens of millions of litres — moving between these two Great Lakes regions, which could irreversibly change and harm them: sewage carries the mineral phosphorus that can cause excess algae to grow in water, which could impact the quality and quantity of clean drinking water available to residents in both regions. 

Lake Ontario is already dealing with unprecedented levels of accidental sewage spills: 396 million litres of wastewater have flowed into the lake since 1996, resulting in a provincial decision to audit parts of the lake sewage system. The potential for low water levels in the Lake Huron watershed are also a concern. 

Aside from ecological concerns, there are diplomatic ones too: Ford’s proposal may breach an international agreement Ontario signed in 2005, pledging to protect and improve the Great Lakes ecosystems in perpetuity. The Great Lakes-St. Lawrence River Sustainable Water Resources Agreement was signed by all the American states and Canadian provinces surrounding the Great Lakes, which hold about 85 per cent of North America’s freshwater. It explicitly bans any new large transfers between Great Lakes regions, unless all signatories are properly informed and permit it, which has only happened once. Ontario briefly mentioned its plan at the last meeting of all signatories in December 2022 and told The Narwhal it is committed to meeting the conditions of the treaty. 

Ontario Power Grid
As Ontario faces a looming energy supply shortage, the Ford government has delayed the shutdown of the nuclear power plant in Pickering, Ont., and awarded contracts for four new natural gas plants. Photo: Flickr

8. After cancelling hundreds of renewable energy contracts, Ontario is bringing back solar and wind power — but also amping up nuclear and gas

One of the first things the Ford government did after first taking power was lay waste to clean energy, cancelling hundreds of solar and wind contracts, including a wind farm already under construction in Prince Edward County.

But in the government’s second term, green energy is back in a big way — as are methane-heavy gas plants and yet-unproven nuclear technology. Ontario also made a 10-year deal with Quebec to swap energy to balance out peaks in demand, a year after Smith refused to renew the previous inter-provincial agreement. All are attempts to stave off a looming energy supply shortage, caused by a growing population, the aging-out of nuclear plants and an accelerating shift to the electrification of transportation and industry. The province expects to see electricity consumption double by 2050, perhaps even sooner. 

In July 2023, the Progressive Conservatives released their first comprehensive energy policy, an 86-page plan designed to address the coming crunch. Nuclear is a centerpiece, with Energy Minister Todd Smith trying to rely on what we’ve already got — by delaying the shutdown of the Pickering nuclear plant and doubling the output of the Bruce Power plant in Kincardine — as well as introducing new sources. The government has also asked Bruce Power to look into building a new facility, which would be the first new full-scale nuclear plant in Ontario since 1993. The government has also announced the building of four small modular reactors — a technology yet to be put into use anywhere in the world — at the Darlington nuclear plant. 

The biggest shift in the Tories’ energy policy is marked by the return of renewable projects, with the Ford government offering its very first policies to encourage them. Five years after Ford cancelled over 700 clean energy contracts, the province’s electricity operator is set to tentatively plan for more wind and solar projects, and estimates its efforts could double renewables over the next decade. 

Ontario Energy Minister Todd Smith with Ontario Premier Doug Ford
Ontario Energy Minister Todd Smith has said an increase in natural gas usage is needed to ensure Ontario’s power supply is “reliable.” Photo: Flickr

The Ford government is also investing big in storage projects to help the province bridge the energy supply gap in the short term. Along with battery proposals, Smith is considering two proposals for pumped storage, which uses water to store and create energy: one by TC Energy in Meaford, Ont., which would move water in and out of Georgian Bay, and another in the Eastern Ontario town of Marmora and Lake, where an old mine pit would become the water storage reservoir.  

Smith told The Globe and Mail the market conditions for clean energy are different today than in 2018 when the government was first elected, noting “this is the first time in 19 years that electricity demand is increasing.” He has also given funding to some hydrogen projects, most of them in the research stage. 

Despite this nod to renewables, the new energy plan doesn’t make a commitment to a net-zero grid, a federal directive for all provinces to reach by 2035 to limit the worst effects of climate change. And the government has also awarded contracts for four natural gas facilities — the first new gas plants in over a decade — in a move that could increase Ontario’s emissions by 260 per cent if low-carbon sources don’t come online soon. 

Energy Minister Todd Smith told the Toronto Star natural gas was needed to ensure the system is “reliable” in the short-term. The Independent Electricity System Operator released a study projecting natural gas will make up almost a quarter of all electricity generation in the province by 2040, and “without gas generation, Ontario’s electricity system would see frequent and sustained blackouts in 2030.” 

During the Tories’ tenure, Ontario’s widely lauded low-emissions grid has already gotten dirtier per the government’s own estimates. In the March 2023 budget, Ontario’s grid is touted as “approximately 90 per cent emissions free,” a four-per-cent drop from the number the government cited in 2021.

Caroline Mulroney stands, smiling with crossed arms, in front of a sign reading "Future Site of the Bradford Bypass."
The Bradford Bypass has become a signature project for Transportation Minister Caroline Mulroney, whose riding it would run through. Photo: Caroline Mulroney / Twitter

9. Ontario started construction on early works for the Bradford Bypass

On Nov. 9, 2022, Ontario Transportation Minister Caroline Mulroney announced that the province had broken ground on a bridge needed for the construction of the Bradford Bypass, a proposed highway through Ontario’s Greenbelt. 

The bypass would connect Highways 400 and 404 north of Toronto, running a 16-kilometre path that cuts through York Region, Simcoe County and the Holland Marsh section of the Greenbelt. The bridge is an early step that moves the project forward, enabling an existing road to go over the bypass.

“This important milestone brings us another step closer to getting the Bradford Bypass built, improving economic productivity and eliminating the gridlock that hurts us all,” Mulroney said in a statement.

The marsh was once one of the largest wetlands in southern Ontario, but settlers drained it for agriculture in the 1920s. Today, it’s nicknamed Ontario’s vegetable patch because of the high-quality produce grown there. The highway would run through some of the remaining wetlands in the marsh, which are supposed to be protected from development. It would also cross over the Holland River, which drains into Lake Simcoe.

The project last received an environmental assessment in 1997, before the existence of the Greenbelt or policies tackling climate change.

The government has argued that the highway is needed to relieve already-congested traffic in the region, especially as York Region and Simcoe County are expecting a continued explosion of population growth in the coming decades. It has also said it’s holding the project to a strict environmental standard — though it has exempted the project from undergoing a new environmental assessment, it is updating that old review with a round of fresh studies.

Critics, meanwhile, point to concerns about its environmental impact. That 1997 assessment surfaced a few issues: road salt from the Bradford Bypass could contaminate groundwater and the Lake Simcoe watershed, air pollution from traffic could be higher than what’s currently recommended and the Chippewas of Georgina Island First Nation had raised concerns about archaeological sites along the route. 

Anna Moonias, 9, out partridge hunting with her family in Neskantaga First Nations territory in Ontario's Ring of Fire region.
Anna Moonias, 9, out partridge hunting with her family on Neskantaga First Nations territory. The Ford government is making it easier to open mines amid a push to extract critical minerals from the Ring of Fire, but not all the local Indigenous communities have consented. Photo: Sara Hylton / The Narwhal

10. The Ontario government is making it easier to open mines

In May 2023, the Ontario government locked in changes to the province’s Mining Act through Bill 71, which it’s calling the “Building More Mines Act.” 

The legislation made a few key revisions to the law, including making it easier for mine projects to move ahead even if their plans for closure — which should outline how they’ll rehabilitate the mine site once extraction is finished — haven’t been finalized. The bill would also make it easier for mining companies to recover minerals from mine waste, or tailings. 

Mining Minister George Pirie said the changes wouldn’t compromise Ontario’s environmental standards. He’s selling them as an environmental win, saying  they’re aimed at boosting the mine approval process to help Ontario produce more of the priority minerals, or critical minerals, needed to make electric vehicle batteries. 

Pirie’s office has also argued the bill would increase environmental scrutiny on mining projects — it would require that all aspects of mine closure plans be certified by professionals, when only some aspects of those plans need that certification right now. And although the changes allow applications to move through the system more quickly, closure plans must be in place before companies can begin building new mines. 

The push for critical minerals as part of  a homegrown Ontario electric vehicle supply chain has been a central focus for the Progressive Conservatives, who have touted the idea as a way to lower carbon emissions.

First Nations and environmentalists, however, say Ontario’s environmental protection regime is already too weak and further cuts to mining rules are concerning. And there are real questions about Indigenous consent that still need to be answered before many mining projects can go ahead, along with the issue of how the greenhouse gasses released by development and mining in environmentally sensitive areas, like the Ring of Fire in the Far North, stack up against the lower-emissions technology the minerals could help facilitate.

11. Ontario is moving to speed up environmental assessments — again

Ontario already watered down its environmental assessment regime in the Doug Ford government’s first term. And less than a year into its second, Infrastructure Minister Kinga Surma introduced a bill to speed the process up again.

When an environmental assessment has been completed, the minister is supposed to consider its findings and public feedback for 30 days before deciding whether to approve the project. The legislation, Bill 69, allowed the environment minister — then David Piccini — to change or waive that 30-day period in some circumstances. The bill passed in May 2023.

Environmentalists and opposition parties expressed some concerns about the bill, the Trillium reported. But Piccini’s office has said it would maintain environmental standards, and the waiting period would only be waived for projects that have fulfilled all of their requirements and have no outstanding issues. 

Separately, the government is also proposing changes to which types of projects undergo full environmental assessments and which ones can follow a “streamlined” process that environmentalists have raised red flags about. If the change is finalized, railways, multi-lane highways, electricity transmission and waterfront projects will all qualify for streamlined reviews. The government hasn’t announced a timeline for finalizing the proposal.

Ontario will end a ban on storing captured carbon underground, despite government reports questioning the practice's safety. High-risk wells are suspected to be the cause of an explosion in Wheatley, Ont., in 2021.
Ontario will end a ban on storing captured carbon underground, despite government reports questioning how safe the practice is. High-risk wells are suspected to be the cause of an explosion in Wheatley, Ont., in 2021. Photo: Rob Gurdebeke / The Canadian Press

12. The Ford government is ending a prohibition on sequestering carbon underground 

The concept of carbon capture, utilization and storage is gaining popularity with governments like Ontario that are lagging on efforts to cut emissions. The idea — at least in theory, though it’s been criticized as greenwashing — is essentially what it sounds like: pursue technology that can capture carbon emissions, which fuel climate change, then, store it indefinitely to keep it out of the atmosphere or use it to make other things. 

One use for captured carbon is injecting it underground into old wells to push more oil and gas  to the surface. It’s less emissions intensive than other ways of extracting oil and gas, but does still use carbon to extract more products that will then, in turn, emit carbon.

That practice used to be prohibited, but the Doug Ford government signalled intentions to change its carbon storage rules for a while. In November 2022, it took the next step towards that, proposing to remove the prohibition as part of Bill 46, dubbed the Less Red Tape, Stronger Ontario Act.

The Ontario government has touted this plan as a way to help industry decarbonize. Environmentalists, however, are taking issue with it for a few reasons. Some argue that carbon capture, utilization and storage won’t make a big dent in the climate crisis because it enables more oil and gas extraction

Others say Ontario’s oil and gas history makes storing carbon underground too delicate, if not impossible — especially given the current government’s level of oversight. Keith Brooks of the charity Environmental Defence made that point to lawmakers, which NDP MPP Terence Kernaghan referenced during debate over the bill on March 6, 2023.

According to Kernaghan, Brooks noted the reasons Ontario had avoided underground storage so far are mentioned in a 2022 government discussion paper on the practice.

“Under the right conditions, carbon dioxide might also be stored in other geologic settings such as former hydrocarbon reservoirs where the resource has been depleted,” the paper reads.

“However the long legacy of drilling for oil and gas in Ontario has affected the suitability of many of these reservoirs for the storage of carbon dioxide. Careful site selection and extensive study would be required to ensure that the carbon dioxide could be stored safely by proponents.”

The same report notes that “stronger, more proactive oversight” would be needed to protect people and the environment. 

But oversight has been a problem with Ontario’s existing oil and gas wells. Last year, Ontario Auditor General Bonnie Lysyk found the province is failing to identify and inspect high-risk wells. 

Some of those high-risk wells have caused real public safety problems in southwestern Ontario, where many are concentrated: a few in Wheatley, Ont., are believed to have caused an explosion in 2021, levelling buildings and sending seven people to the hospital. An investigation by The Globe and Mail found the Ontario government failed to act on warnings about leaks from the wells. 

The Less Red Tape Stronger Ontario Act passed in March 2023.  

The Progressive Conservatives rushed through a bill consolidating 1,500 acres of farmland to form the site of a new Volkswagen plant, land that was previously split between St. Thomas, Ont., and the neighbouring township of Central Elgin. Photo: Harold Stiver / Shutterstock

13. Ontario begins manifesting its electric vehicle battery bonanza — with more to come

In March 2023, German automaker Volkswagen announced it had picked St. Thomas, Ont., a former auto-manufacturing city, as the location of its first overseas manufacturing plant. The decision came after the Progressive Conservatives rushed through a bill that consolidated 1,500 acres of farmland to form the site of the facility, land that was previously split between St. Thomas and the neighbouring township of Central Elgin. 

This is the fifth electric battery facility the government has announced, in partnerships with Stellantis and LG Energy Solutions in Windsor; Umicore in Kingston; Ford Motor Company in Oakville; and Magna International in Brampton. Canada’s first full-scale electric vehicle manufacturing plant — a General Motors facility that was retooled to build 50,000 electric vehicles — also opened in Ingersoll in December. 

In an interview with Electric Autonomy, Vic Fedeli — the minister of economic development, job creation and trade, who is set on spurring what he calls an “electrification revolution” —  estimated that in the last two years, Ontario has attracted close to $27 billion dollars in investments in its electric vehicle battery supply chain. In December 2023, the province appointed David Paterson, former senior executive with General Motors, as its representative to Washington, whose mandate includes promoting Ontario’s electric vehicle and battery manufacturing sector.

Despite these developments, the success of a full electric vehicle supply chain depends on a whole host of factors. This includes how easy it will be to access critical minerals — future mining in the Ring of Fire is far from certain, given yet-to-occur detailed consultation with Indigenous communities, as well as environmental assessments and infrastructure building. 

There’s also a need for a culture shift, to convince consumers to choose electric vehicles. While the Ford government is quick to peg the success of its supply chain-focused Driving Prosperity plan, it has yet to make up for all of the electric vehicle programs it scrapped when it came to power, including cancelling rebates and ripping out charging stations.

The low-lying Windsor-Essex region is on the banks of the Detroit River and Lake St. Clair, with Lake Erie to the south and Lake Huron to the north.
Ontario’s 2023 budget includes $110 million to improve emergency readiness, to be used to cope with disasters including floods, wildfires and extreme heat. Photo: Essex Region Conservation Authority / Flickr

14. Ontario launched a plan and funding for emergencies, including natural disasters

In its March 2023 budget, the Progressive Conservatives committed more than $110 million over three years to improve emergency readiness. This includes creating a new emergency preparedness grant for community organizations and a fund for municipalities to provide urgent relief. On budget day, provincial officials said the emergency funding could be used “for a wide range of emergencies,” such as floods, wildfires and extreme heat. 

The funding commitment comes after Ontario launched its first-ever Provincial Emergency Management Strategy and Action Plan in February, an attempt to create a uniform and detailed approach to everything from immediate evacuations to rehabilitation after a natural disaster. Part of the plan includes enhancing flood mapping to understand flood risk, which is projected to increase as the climate changes, and creating a First Nations Emergency Response Association to find best practices for community safety.

The funding and plan are much needed. In 2022, 58 community and provincial emergencies were declared in Ontario, and more than 1,900 members from four First Nations communities were evacuated due to extreme flooding. 

An aerial photo of the Ontario Greenbelt near the Glen Major Forest.
The Ontario Greenbelt, near the Glen Major Forest. The Ford government has denied that its promise of new protected areas is a response to criticism over opening parts of the Greenbelt to development. Photo: Christopher Katsarov Luna / The Narwhal

15. Ontario outdoor recreation promises include a park, a conservation area and Muskoka campsites

The Progressive Conservative government first pitched the idea of creating a new provincial park in its 2020 budget and every one after that. No until 2023 did Ontarians learn where it would be, how much it would cost or when it might become a reality.

The park doesn’t have a tentative opening date or a price tag yet. But according to the 2023 budget, it will be located in Uxbridge on the Oak Ridges Moraine, a rocky landform that’s already protected as part of Ontario’s Greenbelt. The government said the park could include up to 532 hectares (1,315 acres) of provincially owned land, with its design meant to incorporate hiking and birdwatching. 

Speaking to reporters on budget day 2023, Finance Minister Peter Bethlenfalvy denied the Uxbridge park was a response to criticism over the government’s decision to open Greenbelt land for development. 

In the same budget, the Ontario government also teased the idea of upgrading Bigwind Lake Provincial Park near Bracebridge, in the Muskoka area north of Toronto. Bigwind Lake is already a provincial park but doesn’t have facilities like bathrooms or campsites. Now, the government plans to add 250 campsites and up to 25 cabins to the park, and will staff the park, keeping it open there year-round.

The government said it would begin upgrade work in fall 2024, with designs set to include low-energy buildings and wildlife-friendly design. 

In July 2023, one month after the Bigwind Lake announcement, former environment minister Piccini also unveiled Monarch Point Conservation Reserve on the south shore of Prince Edward County, east of Toronto. The area, which is 1,618 hectares (4,000 acres), had been designated as Crown land and was already used for a variety of outdoor activities. The province said turning it into a conservation area would give the land stronger protections. The south shore area is known as a hotspot for birds and for having one of Canada’s three monarch butterfly reserves. 

Plans for another new protected area remain fuzzy. In its 2022 pre-election budget, the government repeated a promise to “support a large near-urban provincial park at East Humber Headwaters in King Township,” just north of Toronto. But it has not given an update on that pledge since.

16. Ontario has abandoned a cornerstone of its environment plan, the Carbon Trust

The Ontario Carbon Trust was a central pillar of the Progressive Conservatives’ 2018 Made-in-Ontario environment plan — but it has never materialized. It was meant to be a $400 million fund to encourage private investment in clean technologies. But it hasn’t been included in a single government budget since then, and as of right now, there’s no indication the Tories will follow through.

Ministry of Finance officials did not directly answer when The Narwhal asked about the Carbon Trust at a briefing for reporters for the 2023 budget. (They didn’t answer when The Narwhal asked about it in 2022, either.)

Finance Minister Peter Bethlenfalvy denied that his government's promise of new protected areas is a response to criticism over opening Greenbelt land for development.
Finance Minister Peter Bethlenfalvy didn’t answer when asked about why his government has increased funding for the Ministry of Environment, Conservation and Parks after previously slashing its budget. Photo: Government of Ontario / Flickr

17. Ontario restored some — but not all — of the funding it cut from its Environment Ministry

Soon after taking office in its first term, the Progressive Conservatives slashed the Environment Ministry’s budget by a third. Successive governments had already underfunded environmental measures for decades, and the added cuts compounded long-term problems caused by that lack of resources, according to Ontario’s auditor general

The 2023 budget, however, shows the Environment Ministry’s funding is now at higher levels than the Progressive Conservatives planned back in 2019. 

The previous Liberal government gave the Environment Ministry $909 million in the fiscal year ending in 2018. The Progressive Conservatives cut it to a low of $612 million by 2020, but have gradually bumped it up every year since.  The government’s 2023 budget projects it’ll spend $742 million on the Environment Ministry this fiscal year and sets aside an additional $40 million for it the year after. That would bring the ministry’s budget to $782.6 million.

Ontario Finance Minister Peter Bethlenfalvy didn’t directly answer when The Narwhal asked him on budget day to explain the Environment Ministry’s funding. However, it appears some of that increase came from extra spending for COVID-19, and some is likely due to inflation.

A caribou sticks its tongue out
Federal Environment and Climate Change Minister Steven Guilbeault warned Ontario he will step in to protect the endangered animal’s habitat if the province doesn’t act. Photo: Christian Schroeder

18. Ontario is under fire for its approach to protecting endangered woodland caribou

Towards the end of its first term, the Ontario government inked an agreement with the federal government aimed at protecting the province’s quickly dwindling woodland caribou. That agreement was roundly criticized by environmental groups and First Nations, who said it failed to address the ways logging, road building and other industrial activity hurt the iconic but endangered species.

Less than a year later, the federal government has already expressed concern about whether Ontario is making good on its part of the deal. Though Ontario Environment Minister David Piccini announced plans in March 2023 to invest $29 million over four years in woodland caribou conservation — a move he said was the largest single investment in caribou in the province’s history — federal Environment and Climate Change Minister Steven Guilbeault sent Piccini a letter to warn him it wasn’t enough.

“It is my opinion, based on the information available, that some of the critical habitat for the boreal population of woodland caribou (boreal caribou) located on non-federal lands in Ontario is not effectively protected,” Guilbeault wrote in the letter, as reported by the Canadian Press

Guilbeault also said he was recommending the federal government issue a protection order for woodland caribou in Ontario, a power that he has through Canada’s Species At Risk Act. If Guilbeault follows through, it would allow him to impose stricter federal endangered species rules on land that’s normally provincial jurisdiction.

This power hasn’t been used before — though the federal government has in rare cases used a similar mechanism to issue emergency orders to protect endangered species. But Guilbeault has also told Quebec he’s willing to use a protection order to intervene in that province’s management of woodland caribou.

In June 2023, the federal and provincial governments mutually agreed to set an April 2024 deadline to give Ontario time to “demonstrate equivalency” between provincial protections for caribou and federal ones. If Ontario can do so, Guilbeault would agree not to issue a protection order, Environment and Climate Change Canada said in a press release.

Despite the looming threat from Ottawa, the Ontario government’s 2023 budget touted its efforts to protect caribou, which it said would “consider the economic prosperity of Ontario businesses and economic activities.” 

The Doug Ford government's April 2023 rewrite of land use policy made it easier for residential development to happen on prime agricultural land — a move critics took issue with because farmland naturally mitigates floods and sequesters carbon.
The Doug Ford government’s April 2023 rewrite of land use policy made it easier for residential development to happen on prime agricultural land — a move critics took issue with because farmland naturally mitigates floods and sequesters carbon. Photo: Christopher Katsarov Luna / The Narwhal

19. Ontario made more sweeping changes to convert land into suburbs

The Ford government continued its dramatic rewrite of urban development rules in April with a massive overhaul of the provincial policy statement that has long provided principles for making land use decisions. 

The government said its goal was to simplify and streamline its systems to encourage the construction of more homes. But the changes were contradictory. Some were aimed at high-density development near transit and in downtown cores, which discourages emissions-intensive car travel. Others, however, made it easier to build sprawling, single-family homes pretty much everywhere else, which can have the opposite effect.

The rewrite also made it easier for residential development to happen on prime agricultural land — a move critics took issue with because farmland naturally mitigates floods and sequesters carbon.

The province later promised to drop some aspects of the changes, but so far has not done enough to allay concerns of farmers and experts. 

Documents released through freedom of information legislation in the fall revealed that changes to the provincial policy statement were made by the housing minister’s office to ensure protected land would be opened to development.  

As of December 2023, the statement had not been finalized into legislation.

20. Ontario made its controversial land zoning orders even stronger, but might take some back

In urban planning, municipal zoning rules lay out how different pieces of land can be used. Anyone who wants to change the zoning of their land — from agricultural to residential, for example, which would enable housing development — usually has to go through a lengthy process with their local government. But the Ontario government has a way to override that with minister’s zoning orders, or MZOs, which give the province the ability to instantly rezone a piece of land.

The orders don’t instantly make construction happen, but they do speed up the process. They also cannot be appealed. Previous governments used them about once a year on average, mostly in special or emergency situations, but Doug Ford’s Progressive Conservatives have used them at least 100 times since 2018. Though Ford has touted them as a way to rapidly greenlight housing construction, his government has also come under fire for using them to override environmental protections and fast-track projects proposed by Tory donors

The Progressive Conservatives already made the power stronger during their first mandate. Then they did so again in April 2023, allowing the government to hand down minister’s zoning orders even if they clash with other provincial rules, like those that protect wetlands and farmland. 

Critics at the time said the move would concentrate power in the hands of the minister of municipal affairs, who holds most of the responsibility for the zoning orders, and likely allow them to ignore a raft of environmental protections. At the time of the change, that minister was Steve Clark, but after Clark stepped down amid the Greenbelt scandal in September 2023, the mechanism is in the hands of new housing minister Paul Calandra. Two months later, the Ford government bestowed minister’s zoning order powers on a second minister: Kinga Surma, who oversees the Infrastructure Ministry, including and the redevelopment of Ontario Place in Toronto. 

But as 2023 drew to a close, it seemed like the Ford government was poised to roll back some minister’s zoning orders, part of a larger slew of housing and land use policy flip-flops. Calandra announced in mid-December that he’d finished a review of the zoning orders issued by his predecessor, and was planning to revoke at least eight and monitor another 14.

The eight set to be taken back are for projects that aren’t related to housing — like a warehouse project in Pickering that was proposed to be built on a protected wetland, until public backlash in 2020 and 2021 led the province and the developer to change its plans. The other 14 projects Calandra is monitoring are housing related, and Calandra said he could take back their zoning orders if developers fail to make significant progress.

Half of those 14 zoning orders were given to projects spearheaded by one of the companies that saw its land removed from the Greenbelt in 2022 and added back in a year later.  
The possibility of reversals — and the fact that Ontario’s auditor general is currently looking into the government’s use of zoning orders — doesn’t mean Calandra intends to stop using the power. Calandra has also said he’s ready to approve more requests for the orders and is looking at creating a standard, transparent process for builders to request them, an idea his government has resisted for years.

New rules aimed at standardizing more than 200 local recycling programs — and shifting responsibility to the companies that produce materials like plastics, metal, glass and paper — were meant to be phased in from 2023 to 2025, but have been scrapped or delayed after industry pushback.
New rules aimed at standardizing more than 200 local recycling programs — and shifting responsibility to the companies that produce materials like plastics, metal, glass and paper — have been scrapped or delayed after industry pushback. Photo: Greg Heo / Flickr

21. Ontario delayed the launch of a recycling tax on manufacturers 

Ontario overhauled its blue box recycling program in June 2021, during the Progressive Conservatives’ first mandate. The new rules, aimed at standardizing more than 200 local programs — and shifting responsibility to the companies that produce materials like plastics, metal, glass and paper — were meant to be phased in from 2023 to 2025. 

But that rollout has had hiccups, with environmental groups and industry alike saying the program is complicated and difficult to understand. The province quietly rewrote the plan last spring to remove some of the most controversial sections. And now one component of it, a program that would have seen producers of non-alcoholic beverages like pop and juice pay recycling fees, has been paused.  

The program, which was meant to be operated by the Canadian Beverage Container Recycling Association, was originally supposed to launch on April 1. But the industry group pushed that back to June 1 after Piccini said they wouldn’t be able to download costs to consumers, then the association suspended the program entirely.

The Ontario government has since assembled a working group and given it six months to explore how a different kind of recycling program could work, according to a letter obtained by CTV News Toronto. The new plan, according to the letter, is to explore what’s called a “deposit-return program,” where consumers pay a recycling fee at the cash register but get money back if they bring cans or bottles back, similar to the program Ontario already has for cans and bottles for alcoholic beverages. 

22. Ontario failed to fix a ‘high-risk’ gap in mine waste rules

The Ontario government oversees 400 privately owned dams that hold back mine waste, or tailings. Those tailings are often a slurry of water, leftover metals and chemicals that can be toxic and destructive if they spill. Last year, public servants warned Ontario Minister of Mines George Pirie that the province has a “high-risk” loophole in its tailings dam rules, according to an internal government document obtained by The Narwhal through freedom of information.

The document, which The Narwhal reported on in July 2023, showed senior bureaucrats raised concerns that Ontario’s rules for the majority of tailings dams gave the province “little to no legislative authority” to prevent the dams from leaking or spilling. 

The government has known about the problem since 2017, when the Ontario Liberals were in power. But the Progressive Conservatives have formed government since 2018 and not addressed it. Pirie’s office did not respond to questions from The Narwhal about the document.

The Ford's government plan for Ontario Place involves the construction of a large indoor waterpark and spa: it's under fire from people concerned about its environmental impact and how it could limit use of the large, publicly owned space on Lake Ontario.
The Ford’s government plan for a large indoor waterpark and spa at Ontario Place is under fire from people concerned about the environmental impact and how it could limit use of the large, publicly owned space on Lake Ontario. Photo: Timothy Neesam / Flickr

23. The Progressive Conservatives are redeveloping Ontario Place — without an environmental review of the spa they want to build there

The Ford government has made a mission out of redeveloping Ontario Place, a provincially operated waterfront venue and green space in Toronto that was a theme park until a previous government decommissioned it in 2012. But the province’s plan, which involves the construction of a large indoor waterpark and spa, is under fire from people concerned about its environmental impact and how it could affect public use of the large, publicly owned space on Lake Ontario.

The province has said the redevelopment will be a net benefit for the environment and will include more green space, a new public beach and wetlands. Although plenty of people still use Ontario Place as a park, Progressive Conservatives have pointed out that the site is in need of major repairs.

Critics, however, have argued the government’s environmental study for the project didn’t account for the planned 65,000-square-metre, seven-storey private spa building, and have raised concerns about the process.

The Ontario Place site is currently home to several species at risk, including birds, and some people have said the construction work will disrupt their habitat. The province’s limited environmental study concluded those species would likely find “alternative habitat” in other nearby parks. 

In the last months of 2023, the government moved to pass a law exempting Ontario Place from a batch of land use rules. Among other things, the change means most of Ontario Place won’t be required to undergo a formal environmental assessment, though other studies looking at environmental impacts are still required. The law also gave Infrastructure Minister Surma, who oversees the redevelopment, the power to issue minister’s zoning orders — something that could allow the province to accelerate Ontario Place and skip over local planning requirements. 

An illustration of Toronto with one building coloured green to represent climate-resilient construction
Buildings are the third largest source of emissions in Ontario. Illustration: Shawn Parkinson / The Narwhal

24. Doug Ford has delayed stronger green building standards 

As the federal government readies a national strategy to ensure buildings are energy efficient, documents obtained by The Narwhal revealed the Ford government is holding up the process. The holdup is Ford’s pledge to build 1.5 million homes by 2031. Notes from federal officials show that in discussions between the two levels of government Ontario expressed concern that stronger green building standards would “affect their goal” by increasing costs for the development industry. 

The need for strong, effective green building standards is great: buildings are the third largest source of emissions in Ontario, accounting for 24 per cent of the province’s total emissions. Ford voted in favour of green building standards as a Toronto city councillor, but as premier, he has done little to prioritize climate-conscious building. 

In February 2023, former municipal affairs and housing minister Steve Clark sent a letter to municipalities speaking of “preliminary plans to commence discussions” about a “consistent province-wide approach” to green building standards. At least three local officials told The Narwhal these meetings have yet to be scheduled. In fact, Clark asked Ottawa Mayor Mark Suttcliffe to delay city council efforts to push for stronger standards; in May 2023, the city council voted to delay implementing new green building standards. 

25. The Ford government is proposing to exempt companies that transport hazardous waste from scrutiny 

In Ontario, large-scale industrial and commercial companies are required to obtain a permit from the Ministry of Environment to ensure their planned operations pose minimal risk to the environment. That includes companies that transport hazardous waste — including asbestos, industrial liquids, biomedical, polychlorinated biphenyls, or PCBs, and naturally occuring radioactive material —  and operate waste disposal sites. To get a permit, companies have to prove there will be no environmental harm and have a “financial assurance,” or a contingency fund to clean up any spills. 

The Ford government wants to eliminate these licensing requirements: in an August 2023 statement on the Environmental Registry of Ontario, it stated that the goal was to “reduce delays on projects that matter most to Ontario communities, such as new housing and job-creating businesses,” without detailing how oversight of hazardous waste causes such delays. The government is also removing the need for financial assurance, asking instead for an insurance policy that covers $500,000 in liability costs — even though legal experts say spill cleanups are estimated to start at $1 million. 

Without these licensing requirements, there will be no proactive environmental scrutiny of many industrial operations. But the 2021 annual report by the auditor general said Ontario’s oversight is already insufficient, finding that the Environment Ministry doesn’t disclose enough information to the public about the quantity and harms of hazardous spills. 

Rain falls down in heavy sheets in Toronto on July 24, 2023, as the city experiences a severe thunderstorm warning.
The Ontario government is proposing that developers no longer be required to have stormwater plans that would reduce flood risk for new buildings and protect drinking water. Photo: Rachel Verbin / The Canadian Press

26. Doug Ford wants to ‘streamline’ stormwater management to help developers

Everything that is built in Ontario — commercial, industrial, residential — requires a system to prevent rain and melted snow from causing floods, and divert it away from drinking water sources. There are rules that dictate how much groundwater can be removed or moved before a site is dug up for construction and how much a stormwater system can carry. 

Developments are only greenlit once these stormwater plans have been reviewed by technical staff at the Ministry of Environment, to ensure water resources, which are finite, will not be reduced in quantity or compromised in quality. 

But a new proposal suggests relieving many developers of this requirement, including those that build all residential buildings other than big towers, as well as the builders of gas stations, commercial and industrial warehouses, malls and hospitals. 

The new proposed rules also suggest developers be able to use as much groundwater as they want during construction. The current threshold is 400,000 litres per day, as required by the 2005 Great Lakes St. Lawrence River Basin Sustainable Water Resources Agreement signed by Ontario, Quebec and eight American states that surround the lakes. 

Before the Ontario government passed Bill 23 in fall 2022, the watershed management bodies known as conservation authorities were able to review development applications, with cumulative impacts to water quality and quantity in mind. As of last January, they’ve officially lost that power. 

Updated Dec. 19, 2022, at 1:45 p.m. ET: This article was updated to reflect that the Ford government has finalized changes to the boundaries of the Greenbelt.

Updated March 29, 2023, at 10:46 a.m.: This article was updated to add items 11 to 19, as well as update some older items.

Updated Aug. 2, 2023 at 2:21 p.m.: This article was updated to update some older items and add five new ones.

Updated Jan. 23, 2024, at 9:35 a.m. ET: This article was updated to update some older items and add three new ones.

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