Ontario’s Auditor General has recently released her 2016 report, which deals with climate change, environmental approvals reform, and other key challenges facing the provincial government.
Arguably, however, the most welcome component of the 2016 Report is Chapter 3.06, which reviews and endorses long-standing concerns raised by CELA, other stakeholders, and the Environmental Commissioner of Ontario about the continuing inadequacy of Ontario’s environmental assessment (EA) program.
In her Report, the Auditor General correctly concludes that Ontario’s 40 year-old EA process “falls short of meeting its intended purpose,” and “needs to be modernized and aligned with best practices in Canada and internationally” (page 338).
Among other things, the Auditor General finds that:
- Ontario is the only Canadian jurisdiction in which EAs are generally not required for private-sector projects, such as mining or chemical manufacturing;
- EAs are not completed for many significant provincial plans and programs;
- the public is not adequately informed about most projects being processed under the EA Act, and there are no clear criteria (or an independent body) to determine public requests for more extensive consultation;
- the type of EA required for a particular project is often not based on its potential environmental impact;
- the Ministry of the Environment and Climate Change (MOECC) has no assurance that streamlined EAs (e.g. Class EA processes) are being conducted properly by proponents;
- cumulative effects of multiple projects are usually not assessed; and
- the MOECC lacks effective processes to ensure that projects are implemented as planned (pages 338-40).
To address these and other audit findings, the Auditor General makes 12 recommendations setting out 20 specific measures to improve and strengthen Ontario’s EA program, including:
- the EA Act should be updated to ensure that projects with potential to cause significant negative impact are assessed, regardless of whether the project is public- or private-sector (page 352);
- the EA Act should be reviewed to clarify the types of governmental plans and programs that must undergo EA (page 356);
- various improvements should be made within streamlined EAs, specifically in relation to notification, planning, and public/agency review requirements (pages 356-62);
- projects’ cumulative effects should be assessed to prevent or minimize environmental damage (page 364);
- to ensure that its decisions are appropriate and transparent, the MOECC should clarify the criteria used to determine requests for bump-ups, and requests for public hearings before the Environmental Review Tribunal (page 367);
- the MOECC should update its website to enable the public to access all relevant information and to fully participate in the EA process (page 368);
- the MOECC should conduct post-EA monitoring to ascertain the actual impacts of all projects being assessed (page 370); and – the MOECC should develop measurable performance indicators to assess the effectiveness of the EA program (page 371).
CELA applauds the Auditor General and her staff for getting it right on the overdue need for sweeping changes to Ontario’s EA regime. We note, however, that many of the Auditor General’s recommendations are not exactly new or ground-breaking. In fact, many similar recommendations have been made over the years by numerous EA practitioners, academics, stakeholder groups, and other entities, including the EA Advisory Panel established by the MOECC in 2005.
In these circumstances, any further delay in provincial EA reform is both unnecessary and unacceptable from the public interest perspective. Therefore, CELA calls upon the Ontario government to implement the Auditor General’s well-founded recommendations in a timely and credible manner.