Premier Doug Ford committed Thursday to releasing a full list of environment-related changes made by his government during a period where Ontario's duty to notify and consult the public was suspended.
Ontario's Progressive Conservative government suspended environmental protection rules in April amid worries they could slow down its response to the COVID-19 pandemic. The pause allowed the government to approve environment-related projects and change regulations without consulting or notifying the public — even if they had nothing to do with the virus.
The government restored full environmental protections this week. It has published a list of seven changes it made during the exemption period, all of which remain in place. Critics were worried that more could have been done behind closed doors but after Ford promised a full list, a spokesperson for Environment Minister Jeff Yurek confirmed that no other changes had been made without notifying the public.
"We've been pretty transparent all the way through this," Ford said in response to a question from National Observer during his daily COVID-19 briefing. "Anything that's put out there, people will know about it.
"Everything's on the table. One of our highest priorities is (to) protect the environment. And we are going to continue doing that, that's going to be a high priority for this government, I think we've shown that since we've been in office."
The government's suspension of environmental protections included a key portion of Ontario’s Environmental Bill of Rights. Aside from the duty to consult and notify the public, the suspension also exempted government ministries from a requirement to consider environmental values while making decisions.
Opposition parties and environmental groups had criticized the government for suspending the protections in the first place, saying it was unnecessary. The Environmental Bill of Rights included a failsafe for public health emergencies, but the government said deciding which measures fell under that exemption would take too much time. Environment Minister Jeff Yurek had also promised that the government would notify the public of changes in response to COVID-19, and consult the public on changes not linked to the pandemic.
Ontario Green Party Leader Mike Schreiner, who called earlier this week for the government to publish a full list of changes, said the premier's commitment is good news.
The Doug Ford government suspended environmental protections and transparency requirements for several months, citing COVID-19. On Thursday the premier committed to releasing a full accounting of environmental changes made during that period. #onpoli
"The government has a responsibility to be transparent with Ontarians," he said.
Ontario NDP environment critic Ian Arthur said the information belongs in the public eye.
“The economic response to COVID is one thing, but not coming clean about what was done during the suspension of the Environmental Bill of Rights doesn’t help our province, it doesn’t help our economy, and it almost assuredly doesn’t help the environment," he said.
Rob Wright, a staff lawyer at the non-profit Ecojustice and former vice-chair of Ontario’s Environmental Review Tribunal, said Ford's commitment is a good step, but the consequences of the changes are still unclear.
“As a starting point, it's a good thing," he said.
Kerrie Blaise, a staff lawyer at the Canadian Environmental Law Association, praised Ford's pledge, but said the effects of the changes made during the exemption period could be serious. The public already lost the ability to have input, she added.
"Government needs public input for accountability and transparency," she said.
'I will never touch the Greenbelt'
Using the exemption, Ontario reduced the number of inspections required at petroleum and petrochemical refineries. It also pushed back a deadline for industry to report greenhouse gas emissions. (That change was meant to align Ontario’s deadline with a similar delay on the federal level, Yurek has said.)
The government also delayed the implementation of new rules on excess soil dug up during construction, adjusted electricity rates, extended agricultural licences and made changes to allow municipalities to hold off on land planning decisions. All were done without consultation, but were posted publicly on the Ontario Environmental Registry
Andrew Buttigieg, a spokesperon for Yurek, said the government is committed to transparency when it makes environment-related decisions.
"That’s why, despite the regulation, ministries posted bulletins on the Environmental Registry for urgent COVID-19-related measures that would have normally required the minimum 30-day consultation period," he said in a statement. "Ministries continued to post over 450 regular proposal notices, with public consultation, for matters that did not require the same urgent action."
Schreiner said he's worried the premier sees the environment as "red tape" to be cut.
"People have a lot of distrust when it comes to the premier and the environment," he said.
One of Ford's first actions as premier was to axe the previous government's climate plan and cancel 227 clean energy projects. His government also wound down conservation programs, weakened endangered species protections and took away powers from the province’s environmental commissioner, who is meant to hold the government accountable.
Ford's replacement climate plan was slammed by Ontario's auditor general Bonnie Lysyk, who said it was "not based on sound evidence or sufficient detail."
"We’ll always (have as) our top priority to protect the environment," Ford said Thursday. "I’ll give you an example: the Greenbelt. We said we're not going to touch the Greenbelt, I will never touch the Greenbelt."
The Greenbelt is a 7,200-square-kilometre stretch of protected green space bordering the Golden Horsehoe in Southern Ontario. Twice Ford has voiced support for plans to develop the area, then backtracked amid public criticism.
"Those words ring hollow as far as I’m concerned," Schreiner said.
“Clearly the premier has spent most of his first two years dismantling environmental protections."
Arthur also said he's not reassured.
"I don’t see why we would be anything but suspicious."