Ignoring environmental groups and residents’ concerns, Napanee town councillors voted Tuesday to further expand the capacity of Ontario’s largest gas plant.

Greater Napanee council approved the addition of another turbine at its generating station, citing increased demand for electricity as the major reason behind the decision.

But environmental groups have criticized the council for endorsing a bid by Atura Power, a subsidiary of publicly owned Ontario Power Generation (OPG), to expand the plant despite concerns from residents about more fossil fuel emissions. Some also question the motives behind the approval, pointing to the offer of $4.8 million in exchange for a thumbs-up from town council.

The proposition, led by OPG's subsidiary Atura Power, which holds the contract for the expansion, was presented to the town council for approval last week. However, council deferred approval and scheduled additional discussions on an environmental assessment before giving the project a green light.

About 200 kilometres east of Toronto, Napanee already hosts Ontario's largest gas plant, the Lennox facility, which boasts a capacity of 2,100 megawatts (MW). The new proposal aims to contribute an additional 450 MW to Ontario's electricity grid.

Atura Power said the payment from OPG will go to Napanee's community benefit fund, but activists say it was an attempt to persuade Ontario municipalities to accept a polluting project.

“This is a shameful lack of leadership by Napanee town council,” said Jack Gibbons, chair of the Ontario Clean Air Alliance. “Napanee town council sold Ontario Power Generation a licence to build a third large polluting gas plant in their community for $4.8 million. This will lead to more asthma attacks in Napanee, more climate damage everywhere, and higher electricity bills for Ontario consumers.”

When the world is on fire, the last thing we should be doing is building new dirty gas plants, he added.

Ward 3 Coun. Dave Pinnell Jr., who voted for the motion, said the province will require additional power beyond wind and solar energy sources.“I just think in the very near future, we're going to need a lot of energy,” he said.

Environmental groups have criticized the council for endorsing a bid by Atura Power to expand the plant. Some also question the motives behind the approval, pointing to the offer of $4.8 million in exchange for a thumbs-up from town council.

The only vote against the motion came from Ward 2 Coun. Angela Hicks.

“Napanee council is failing [its] duty to act in the public good,” said Aric McBay, a campaigner with the Providence Centre for Justice, Peace and Integrity of Creation. “Gas plant expansion in Napanee is not inevitable. It’s still possible to stop this plant. But this decision will make that much more difficult. Greater Napanee Council has missed a key opportunity to listen to the public and perform appropriate due diligence.”

On a personal note, McBay describes himself as both a farmer and first responder, actively addressing fires and medical emergencies in his community. He said the climate emergency poses a daily threat to health and well-being, as people grapple with perilous heat waves and escalating air pollution, including wildfire smoke.

“What Napanee council has done will make my work more difficult and more dangerous. Napanee council has rubber-stamped a proposal to pollute our air, endanger our future, and waste our money.”

Atura Power spokesperson Darius Sokal told Canada's National Observer that community benefit agreements are common in Ontario and an effective way for companies to establish and maintain a strong social licence to operate.

Sokal said the proposed Napanee Generating Station expansion is needed to maintain the reliable, cost-effective operation of Ontario’s electricity system during the transition to a net-zero economy.

The proposed expansion project will be completed during the second quarter of 2028, he added.

In October 2022, the Independent Electricity System Operator (IESO) recommended Ontario acquire up to 1,500 MW of new gas-fired power generation. Subsequently, the energy ministry instructed the IESO to start the procurement process.

The ministry also instructed the IESO to clarify the need for energy project proponents to secure local council support. The IESO decided project proponents must secure a municipal resolution of support to be eligible for a contract.

Recently, Thorold city council voted to deny Northland Power's proposed gas plant expansion in the city's southern region in response to mounting concerns over emissions and the environmental impact of the $300-million project. The council’s decision echoed a growing global sentiment to prioritize cleaner energy alternatives.

Canada’s National Observer reached out to Napanee town council for further comment but did not receive a response in time for publication.

This story was produced in partnership with Journalists for Human Rights for the Afghan Journalists-in-Residence program funded by the Meta Journalism Project.