Canada's most populous province has launched a sweeping review of a law protecting endangered species in order to find "efficiencies for businesses."
Ontario Premier Doug Ford's government announced the review of the provincial Endangered Species Act through a new discussion paper released Friday afternoon by the provincial Ministry of the Environment, Conservation and Parks.
The paper's wording suggests that Ford's Progressive Conservatives — who promised in the 2018 election campaign to make Ontario "open for business" — are eager to soften the existing legislation and reduce onerous obligations on businesses. These obligations were put in place to help protect endangered species like the caribou — the iconic species featured on Canadian quarters — that are at risk of disappearing from regions of Ontario and other provinces due to industrial development.
Another environmental law, Ontario's Environmental Bill of Rights, requires the government to begin a 45-day public consultation period as part of what it is calling its 10th-year review of the endangered species law. The consultation is now open.
Environment Minister Rod Phillips said in a statement that this would improve the "effectiveness" of environmental protections and find a "balanced approach" to boost the environment and the economy.
“During the past decade of implementing the act, we have heard what works well, and what can be improved,” he said.
Ontario is reviewing the Endangered Species Act and inviting feedback on how we can protect species at risk while improving the effectiveness of the program. Have your say here: https://t.co/0qpS7xPv3N pic.twitter.com/3ZTpFsFpyz— Environment Ontario (@ONenvironment) January 18, 2019
This is the first time the act is being reviewed in the decade since it was enacted. According to the posting, the review will look for ways to ensure “positive outcomes” for at-risk species, increase “efficiencies in service delivery,” and streamline approval processes. The goal is to maintain an “effective government oversight role.”
The review aims to ensure that future assessments of species at risk will be rooted in "up-to-date science" and meet "multiple objectives" for ecosystem management.
At present, 243 animals are on the Species at Risk in Ontario List due to environmental threats such as habitat loss, pollution, invasive species, climate change and disease. As of January 2019, the Ontario government has 140 recovery strategies for species at risk across the province.
Protecting species can be "long, onerous, and unpredictable," says discussion paper
The Endangered Species Act was enacted over 10 years ago on June 30, 2008. According to the government's discussion paper, the province has a "species-specific" approach to policy that can "sometimes limit the ability to achieve positive outcomes." The paper also claims that species have automatically been added to the province's species at risk list, without giving the public enough notice. This, the paper argues, can "contribute to high uncertainly" and have "costly impacts" to Ontario residents and businesses.
The existing legislation includes a series of restrictions to prevent the harm of endangered or threatened animals and the damage or destruction of their habitat. Under the act, the government can issue different types of permits for activities that take the necessary precautions to protect Ontario’s most vulnerable creatures, while also boosting social and economic benefits to the province.
Two out of the eight pages in the discussion paper explore how projects or activity can be authorized under the act. The paper notes that one of the challenges is that the process to get necessary permits “can create significant administrative burdens and delays, in particular for applicants filing numerous authorizations or registrations under the rules-in-regulations, for routine activities.”
The paper notes that the requirements to gain permits for development or any other activity in the act “can be extensive, creating barriers to economic development.” In some cases, the paper notes, “achieving overall benefit to a species” can be “long, onerous, and unpredictable.”
'Very fearful' Ford is planning to gut legislation
The review of the act comes a month after the Ford government axed its environment watchdog, and is part of a track record of anti-environment policy decisions, according to opposition MPPs and environment advocates. The government has also canceled the cap and trade program — a market-based system to reduce heat-trapping carbon pollution — and it has taken the federal government to court to oppose carbon pricing.
"I think it's quite scary," NDP MPP Ian Arthur told National Observer in a phone interview. While the idea of a review seems to be an "okay idea" on paper, the contents of the review and its emphasis "strongly indicates we're moving in the wrong direction again in terms of the environment," he added.
Arthur says he is concerned by the discussion paper's focus and questions about how best to give "ministerial discretion on whether to apply, remove or temporarily delay protections for a threatened or endangered species, or its habitat."
"The entire emphasis (of the review) is 'how are we going to make this more friendly for business? How are we going to streamline the application processes,'" Arthur said. "The emphasis is on profit over environment... everything they are doing is signaling destruction of our environment."
"Given that it's the Ford government opening the act for review, I'm very fearful that this is just a step to gut it," said Reykia Fick, forest campaigner with Greenpeace Canada, said.
While Fick believes that the Endangered Species Act needs to be strengthened, she believes that that is not what the end result of this review will be.
"The public must respond quickly and decisively," she said. "If we don’t act now, hundreds of endangered animals, plants and other species in this province could die out in the coming years. We must ensure that Ford doesn’t do to endangered species what he has done to climate.”
"It's hard not to imagine how this ends," Arthur said.
Editor's note: This article was updated at 5:16 p.m. ET on Jan. 18, 2019, with additional reaction and background information.