If the government of Ontario hoped that abolishing the Environment Commissioner, and transferring the position’s responsibilities to the Auditor General would free it from accountability on climate change, wilderness conservation, pollution and species at risk protection, it must surely be disappointed.
While the Auditor General is typically reticent about the intentions of government, a government’s intentions can be discerned from its actions, and her November 22nd “Environment Audits” revealed a government with no real interest in protecting endangered species, no real interest in reducing the number of hazardous spills, no real interest in ensuring that recyclable materials don’t go into landfill – and no genuine intention to reduce the province’s carbon emissions as promised in its Environment Plan or at the rapid pace needed to avoid runaway climate change.
Here are the highlights from the Ontario Auditor General’s Environmental Reports – which can also be called the Ontario government’s lowlights.
On endangered species, the Auditor General found that the government has increased the number of permits approved that allow harm to endangered species and destroy their habitat by more than 6000%, issuing them, for the most part, automatically, without any attempt to verify they won’t further harm or even extirpate species entirely. Separately, the committee that confers protected status on species at risk is now dominated by members who work for industry associations and companies. It seems unlikely that any government that prioritizes the survival of species at risk would put a highway project management company employee in the position to decide which species at risk will be protected. That’s especially true when it is potential impacts on endangered species that could determine the fate of multi-billion dollar highway contracts.
On hazardous spills, the Auditor General found that the government just isn’t putting in place sufficient regulations to reduce the main sources of hazardous spills, such as natural gas pipelines and fuel tanks, but that it is also failing even to enforce the regulations that do exist. Examples include:
- Spills are not being disclosed to the public when they occur.
- The Ontario government is letting the companies that caused the spills decide for themselves whether they’ve done a good enough job cleaning up
- The Ontario government is letting companies repeatedly break the rules, causing literally dozens of spills but still allowing offenders to continue operating with impunity and even expand.
MINISTER’S ZONING ORDERS (MZOs)
On sprawl-causing MZOs:
- The Auditor General found that this unprecedented torrent of Ministers’ Zoning Orders approving residential, commercial and institutional sprawl can have a “significant effect on the environment,” and that Ontario should consequently be posting them on the Environmental Registry for public review and comment long before they are made law.
- The dangers of MZOs – and of the government’s failure to post them before they’ve been made law – has been amplified by the fact the government has shredded most of the other safety measures such as conservation authority approvals, and the requirement to comply with basic planning principles, that would ordinarily give citizens an opportunity to speak out about MZOs before a development can proceed.
- Ontario creating a system that is vulnerable to the perception of favoritism, where a donor or some other politically well connected person can arrange a closed door meeting and secure approval to do almost anything before Ontarians even get a look-in.
- The Auditor general found that in addition to circumventing conservation authorities and planning consultations, the Environmental Bill of Rights requires the government to notify and consult the public of proposed sprawl MZOs
- The Auditor’s findings on Minister’s Zoning Orders are closely entwined with the similarly damning findings of her Value-for-Money Audit of Land Use Planning
On Climate change, too, as detailed by my colleague, Climate Program Manager Lana Goldeberg, the Auditor General has revealed a government interested in making climate friendly announcements, but with no interest in making actual progress.
In recent years, Ontario’s government has turned the creation of thin pretexts for positive-sounding announcements, and the doling out of those announcements to distract from obvious attacks on environmental protection, into a fine art. However, it is not the relative number of environmentally “friendly” press releases that matters. Leaders genuinely interested in environmental protection keep their focus on the “bottom line” – the physical footprint of human settlements, the release of hazardous substances into the environment, concrete reductions in carbon emissions, and the recovery of species at risk and their habitat that Ontario’s government isn’t even bothering to track closely.