Bill 197 unravels environmental protections, including the following:
Bill 197 made substantial amendments to the Environmental Assessment Act (EAA). As a result, no types of industrial or development projects will automatically be subject to an environmental assessment, a measure which is intended to ensure an upfront public examination of potential impacts before projects proceed. Instead, the amended EAA will cover only projects designated by Cabinet. No criteria are provided for determining what might be included. While the EAA has traditionally applied to landfills, incinerators, hazardous waste facilities, electricity projects, sewage works, roads and highways, Cabinet would have “unfettered discretion” to list which projects are subject (or not) to an assessment. (See comments by the Canadian Environmental law Association.)
Changes to the EAA severely restrict the grounds on which residents of Ontario (except for Indigenous communities) can seek more robust environmental assessments of contentious projects (i.e., through “bump-up” requests). These changes squash opportunities for the public to bring forward concerns. They also ignore longstanding calls for a more appropriate and transparent approach to dealing with bump-up requests, for example by the Environmental Commissioner of Ontario (Annual Report 2007-2008) and the Auditor General (2016). (See the Auditor General’s 2018 report, which shows little to no progress on 10 out of the 12 recommendations.)
Changes to the EAA come on the heels of other legislative amendments constraining environmental assessments. For example, as recently as July 1, 2020, the government exempted forestry activities from the requirements of the EAA, on the premise that it would reduce red tape by eliminating duplication with Ontario’s Crown Forest Sustainability Act. Yet, as CELA counsel Joseph Castrilli explains, the duplication theory doesn’t correspond with reality.
Changes to the Planning Act will make it easier for the Minister of Municipal Affairs and Housing to unilaterally issue zoning orders which circumvent expected public participation in important land use planning decisions about the future of our communities. Minister’s Zoning Orders provide no opportunity for public input and are not subject to appeal. The amendment would allow the Minister to reach more deeply into the planning process and overrule decisions by municipal councils and planning staff. (See Ontario Nature’s Action Alert about Minister’s Zoning Orders.)
Overall, Bill 197 reflects an unrelenting and insidious pattern of environmental deregulation that has brought sweeping changes to Ontario’s environmental laws and policies, reducing or eliminating environmental protections altogether. Examples include:
The More Homes, More Choice Act, 2019 which gutted the Endangered Species Act, 2007 and made it far easier for industrialists and developers to destroy species at risk habitats. See Ontario Nature’s submission to the ERO Review of the Endangered Species Act, 2007;
The Restoring Ontario’s Competitiveness Act, 2019 which will repeal the Toxics Reduction Act, 2009;
The Better for People, Smarter for Business Act, 2019 which weakened or removed important environmental safeguards in the Aggregate Resources Act;
Provincial Policy Statement 2020 amendments which eliminated requirements for compact development, efficient use of infrastructure, and achievement of density targets (i.e., number of people per km2);
Growth Plan 2019 amendments, which reduced density targets and opened the door to more frequently expanding settlement boundaries to accommodate development; and
Further proposed amendments to the Growth Plan, which offer more concessions to sate the appetite of developers and industrialists (See Ontario Nature’s blog.)
Timing: Bill 197 was tabled while Ontarians are grappling with a global pandemic, enabling the government to dodge public scrutiny. It was rammed through the Legislature on July 21 only 13 days after it was introduced on July 8, 2020.
Lack of transparency: Under the guise of dealing with the pandemic, the title of the new law, COVID-19 Economic Recovery Act, 2020 poorly reflects its content and hides its negative environmental, social and economic implications.
Breadth of changes: The new law amends 20 pieces of legislation at once. It’s a 92-page document of complicated legislative amendments that require continual cross-referencing to the laws being amended in order to be understood. There are 36 pages of amendments to the EAA alone, and yet, despite the length and complexity of the changes, they fail to address recommendations in recent years by the Environmental Commissioner and the Auditor General.
No opportunity for public consultation: Despite a legal obligation under the Environmental Bill of Rights, 1993 to provide at least at 30-day consultation for any amendments to the EAA, none was provided. See letter drafted by Ecojustice to Minister Yurek.
Debate curtailed: The government moved to limit debate at second reading to the minimum 6.5 hours required. It provided no opportunity for members of the Legislature or the public to raise concerns or suggest amendments through a Standing Committee hearing.
Regulatory changes will bypass the Legislature: Most of the government’s changes to the EAA will be implemented through regulation, which means that they won’t go through the Legislature. None of the regulations has been shared with the public.
Public participation diminished: As noted above, changes to the Planning Act strengthen the government’s power to use Minister’s Zoning Orders which enable development projects to proceed without public consultation or the right to appeal. Restricted opportunities for ‘bump- up’ requests under the EAA likewise undermine public participation.
It is important to note that Bill 197 was the fourth omnibus bill since the government took power two years ago – a modus operandi that mitigates against public scrutiny of and involvement in government decision-making.
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