The Ontario Liberal, NDP and Green parties vowed Tuesday to reverse the Progressive Conservative government’s weakening of conservation authorities if one of them wins the next election.

The government passed a bill weakening the powers of conservation authorities ⁠— agencies that oversee watersheds and development that happens nearby ⁠— in December amid widespread backlash. If elected, the opposition parties said they would also revoke permits for projects approved under the more lenient rules, without giving compensation to developers.

The parties said developers should think twice before trying to get a project approved that wouldn’t have passed muster under the old regime.

“The developers should absorb the cost if they chose to bypass proper evaluation just to gain an economic advantage,” said Liberal environment critic Lucille Collard, whose party is polling in second place behind the governing PCs.

“It certainly would be a deterrent for developers and speculators,” said Sandy Shaw, the environment critic for the NDP, the official Opposition.

“I think it's important for opposition parties to speak across party lines to put developers on notice,” Ontario Green Party Leader Mike Schreiner said.

The pledge was co-ordinated by a coalition of environmental non-profits called Yours to Protect, a group that includes Environmental Defence, the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society, the David Suzuki Foundation, Ontario Nature, the Rescue Lake Simcoe Coalition and Wilderness Committee.

The group also asked the government if it would make a similar pledge, but the Progressive Conservatives didn’t reply, said Phil Pothen, the Ontario environment program manager at Environmental Defence.

The Ford government’s changes to conservation authorities allowed the minister of natural resources to take over some decision-making about developments near key watersheds, and allowed developers to appeal conservation authorities’ decisions directly to the minister. The changes also included a stipulation requiring the agencies to issue permits for projects that have received a controversial special zoning order from the government — even if the conservation authority had concerns about the impact on the environment.

At the time, the government said the changes were aimed at improving the governance of conservation authorities.

The Ford government gutted conservation authorities' powers in 2020. Now, the Ontario Liberals, NDP and Greens have vowed to undo that change if they win the next election, and to revoke permits issued under the weaker rules. #onpoli

Earlier this month, the province used the revised rules to compel the Toronto and Region Conservation Authority to issue a permit for Durham Live, a Pickering, Ont., project for which the developers sought permission to pave over a protected wetland.

The Progressive Conservatives remain in the lead in the polls, though their popularity has dropped in recent months. But if a different party wins the next election ⁠— scheduled to happen next year ⁠— and follows through with the pledge announced Tuesday, projects like Durham Live could have their permits revoked.

“These are really egregious and extraordinary hazards that warrant taking an extraordinary measure, like cancelling existing permits,” Pothen said.

From left to right, Ontario NDP environment critic Sandy Shaw, Green Party Leader Mike Schreiner and Liberal environment critic Lucille Collard. Photos of Shaw and Collard courtesy of Legislative Assembly of Ontario, photo of Schreiner by Alex Tétreault

Could cancelling permits cost Ontario taxpayers?

When it comes to cancelling permits for projects already underway, Ontario has been there before: when the Progressive Conservatives formed government in 2018, they axed more than 750 renewable energy projects, including a partially built wind farm. That endeavour cost the government just over $230 million.

Before that, the previous Liberal government cancelled two planned gas plants in Mississauga and Oakville at a cost of $1 billion.

Developments approved under the Ford government’s new planning rules are in a different scenario ⁠— so far, they don’t involve expensive energy contracts, which were at play with both the gas plants and the green energy projects.

But the opposition parties said they recognize the risk and would look into ways to revoke permits without exposing taxpayers to financial liabilities.

“My concern around that is exactly why we put this out now... before any of those permits are issued, to put people on notice ahead of time instead of after the fact,” Schreiner said.

Shaw said the real danger the province faces is posed by the environmental impact of developing in the wrong areas.

“It certainly is not hard to quantify the risk in terms of the absolute loss of our agricultural space, our green space, the impact that the cost will have on municipalities who have to bear the costs of broken infrastructure and flooding,” she said.

“I think it's only fair and fitting and a good strategy that we need to push the risk back to those that seem to be getting a sweetheart deal from the province at the expense of all of us.”

Pothen said revoking permits for environmentally concerning projects is a different scenario than that of the wind farms or the gas plants.

“This is not a situation where the government would just simply have a different opinion about whether a project is economically worth the money being spent,” he said.

“If these developments go ahead, damage may result.”