Ontario’s opposition NDP took advantage of a rare opportunity to challenge the top bureaucrats behind the Doug Ford government’s threadbare climate plan on Wednesday.
But the civil servants — much like the political masters they serve — ducked and weaved through over two hours of proceedings and pointed mostly to policy actions that have yet to take effect when asked to document Ford’s climate achievements.
The Ontario legislature’s Standing Committee on Public Accounts had been convened to consider the provincial auditor general’s damning indictment of the Progressive Conservatives accounting of its emission reduction plans.
Bonnie Lysyk had said on Dec. 4 that the environment ministry’s own calculations showed the province would fall far short of the targets it would need to hit to achieve a 30 per cent reduction in emissions from 2005 levels by 2030, its stated policy goal.
Some of its expected reductions came from green policies it scrapped when it came to power, while other savings were double-counted, and more than half the initiatives didn’t include properly-estimated costs, she said at the time.
"When will we get a restatement showing that this is what's actually achievable, this is what it will cost, and this is when we will get it done by?" Peter Tabuns, the NDP’s critic for the climate crisis and energy, asked the environment ministry’s top public servants. "When is that scheduled to land in this legislature?"
“We are working internally to upgrade the model, and that’s an ongoing process,” responded Serge Imbrogno, Deputy Minister of Environment, Conservation and Parks.
(Click here for the ministry’s latest update on its responses to the 19 recommendations included in the auditor general’s report)
Imbrogno, who was named to the top environment ministry role soon after Ford's election victory, avoided repeated efforts to pin down whether a fully thought-out plan would even be in place before the next provincial election, due by mid-2022.
Ontario bureaucrats struggle to point to any Ford policies that reduced the province’s releases of the greenhouse gases warming the planet and making floods, fires and other severe weather events more common and more extreme.
In late 2018 then-environment minister Rod Phillips (who is now finance minister) first unveiled the Ford government’s replacement for the much more ambitious cap-and-trade-funded Liberal climate plan they had ripped up months earlier.
At that time, Ford’s government said it planned to spend $400 million over four years on an Ontario Carbon Trust. Most of that money was to be used to leverage private investment in clean technologies at a 4:1 ratio in order to “unlock" over $1 billion of private capital.
But when asked how much of funding had been dispersed, Imbrogno said the fund is still being set up and needs a specific budget allocation to move forward.
The next provincial budget is due to be released on March 25.
When Lysyk’s report was released, current Environment Minister Jeff Yurek responded that it was a draft document that would evolve over time, a message Imbrogno sought to echo.
Pointing out it was a plan when launched by Phillips before later being downgraded to a draft, Tabuns asked when it will again become a plan.
“We have a plan,” Imbrogno said.
“I thought you had a draft”, Tabuns replied.
“We have a draft plan,” Imbrogno responded.
“I’m just asking, given 2022 is not that far away, whether we’ll have a plan in place before the next election,” Tabuns countered.
“I can’t commit to when the government will move forward with the updates that we’re proposing,” Imbrogno said.
Litter and recycling
While Tabuns and Ian Arthur, the NDP’s environment critic, peppered Imbrogno and other ministry officials with tough questions, Progressive Conservative members of the committee sought to quiz them about litter-reduction efforts and a revamp of the province’s recycling program, which were outside Lysyk's review mandate.
The officials struggled to point to any policies introduced since Ford came to power in mid-2018 that have reduced the province’s releases of the greenhouse gases that are warming the planet and making floods, fires and other severe weather events more frequent and more extreme.
Imbrogno and his colleagues instead pointed to a planned emissions performance standard for industrial-scale emitters, and a recently-passed regulation aiming to up the amount of ethanol used in gasoline to 15 percent by as early as 2025.
The industrial scheme requires federal approval and would replace Ottawa's output-based pricing scheme without cutting emissions by as much.
A spokesperson for Minister Yurek said examples of "major, transformative projects to reduce carbon emissions" introduced by the government included the Wataynikaneyap Power Transmission Project to connect sixteen diesel-powered First Nation communities to the electricity grid, a commitment to keep the Pickering Nuclear Generating Station operating for another year past its best-before date, and the expansion and electrification of GO Transit.
Ontario teamed up with Ottawa to provide construction and project financing of up to $1.9 billion for Wataynikaneyap. Critics worry that the move to eke out more production from the Pickering nuclear power plant site is playing with fire. And the electrification of GO is a process first studied in 2010 and funded in 2015, with construction expected to run from 2020 to 2025.
Tabuns later turned to the government’s estimate that 3.2 megatonnes (Mt) of emissions could be removed via natural gas conservation efforts. The auditor general had pointed out this assumed unlimited funding for all such cost-effective measures, which ministerial staff calculated would cost $6.6 billion between 2021 and 2030.
“Did anyone talk to Enbridge to see if they would actually be doing that?” Tabuns asked.
“In the end, that would be part of an OEB (Ontario Energy Board) discussion, about whether Enbridge would come forward with that plan and whether the OEB would approve it,” Imbrogno said.
The energy board would need to decide whether to approve any increase in rates the company proposes in order to deliver such programs.
Imbrogno confirmed after further prodding that he had not personally had that discussion with Enbridge, before referring the question along to Alex Wood, the assistant deputy minister for the ministry’s climate change and resiliency division.
“This is a classic example of the dynamic nature” of developing a climate plan that requires coordination with other ministries, Wood said, saying it was the energy ministry that would be responsible for such talks.
So did the energy minister buy into this idea that all cost-effective conservation measures would be in place, Tabuns asked.
“I’d say that’s an ongoing conversation with our colleagues,” Wood replied.
“So they didn’t,” Tabuns retorted.
At this point Imbrogno jumped back in to point out that the ministry was looking at a 10-year horizon that provided time to get tougher later.
“How much do you have to turn that lever up, do you do it in 2020, in 2022, 2024. Those are discussions to have with the OEB, the company, the ministry of energy,” he said.
Ian Arthur, the other NDP parliamentarian lobbing questions at the bureaucrats, later pointed out that the energy ministry’s support for an expansion of natural gas for electricity generation was actively hindered climate action efforts.
“The expansion of natural gas generation for electricity generation specifically is going to reverse a huge amount of gains made by the elimination of coal plants,” he said.
Emissions from Ontario’s electricity sector are set to double by 2023 and triple by 2030, according to forecasts in the Independent Electricity Systems Operator’s (IESO) latest 20-year planning outlook, released in January.
Imbrogno also defended a hope the government had written into its 2030 projections that "future innovations" would result in 2.2 Mt of reductions. The auditor general said the government had provided no evidence to back up that number.
Quizzed on that, Imbrogno referred to the Ontario government’s efforts to advance the development of small nuclear reactors (SMRs), as well as carbon capture and storage, without providing updated estimates on potential gains to be achieved.
SMRs are at least a decade from being commercially viable.
Innovation is “difficult to capture in a modelling exercise,” Imbrogno said. “It is not as precise as some people would want…the day you lock in an assumption in a model, wait two or three weeks later and things change.
“So it’s meant to be a guidepost, you shouldn’t take it as an exact measurement over the next ten years.”
Lysyk, who attended the hearing, later told National Observer that she would withhold judgment on the government’s response to her office’s report until her next annual report due at the end of this year.
“It’s up to the ministry to identify what they think they can do within the time they’ll have left to meet the 2030 target,” she said. “They’re going to have to figure that out.”
Tabuns was less circumspect.
“I wasn’t surprised the ministry staff had to beat around the bush so heavily, because they had nothing to work with,” he told National Observer outside the committee hearing room at Queen’s Park.
“They weren’t able to give us any timeline on when they would bring forward a plan of any substance because I don’t think that their instructions are to bring forward a plan of any substance.”