What will changes to Ontario’s Environmental Bill of Rights mean for Ontarians and industries?

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Spring Panoramic Landscape. Trillium line a forest trail as spring arrives to the Great Lakes Region. Trillium are the official wildflower of Ohio and Ontario. Lakeport, Michigan.

Amendments to Ontario’s Environmental Bill of Rights

The Ontario government is making various changes to the Environmental Bill of Rights (EBR) pursuant to Bill 57, Restoring Trust, Transparency, and Accountability Act, 2018. Going far beyond amending budgetary matters, Schedule 15 of Bill 57 includes major provisions to amend the EBR which notably, includes eliminating the Environmental Commissioner of Ontario (ECO), Dianne Saxe.

Duties of Ontario’s Environmental Commissioner (ECO), Dianne Saxe

For 25 years, the ECO has existed under the EBR as an independent officer whose job has been to provide factual and non-partisan reports to the Ontario Legislature regarding climate change, energy, and the environment. Under the EBR, she has been assigned numerous important powers, responsibilities and duties.

Her duties include:

  • Reviewing the Ontario government’s compliance and performance with legal requirements prescribed by the EBR, such as ensuring adequate public notice and comment opportunities;
  • Holding successive governments accountable for their acts and omissions with respect to the obligations imposed by the EBR;
  • Filing three stand-alone annual reports on environmental protection, energy conservation, and greenhouse gas emissions applicable to the public and industries;
  • Publishing special reports on critical or environmental issues to alert the public, such as species at risk; and
  • Providing assistance and advice for public and industries interested in using the EBR to safeguard the environment.

Significantly, all changes to the EBR and ECO will come into effect on or prior to May 1, 2019.

Effects of Abolishment of the ECO

Thousands of Ontarians, including green-tech industries and the Canadian Environmental Law Association, have responded negatively to these changes due to its inevitable result in a profound loss of environmental oversight, transparency, and accountability under the EBR.

How will this occur?

  • The loss of available resources for the public and industries (e.g. ECO’s reports and available webinars concerning environmental protection, energy conservation, climate data)
  • Replacement of special reports on matters related to the EBR (e.g. waste diversion, energy plans, species at risk, etc.) by one narrowly scoped single report on limited topics
  • Annual reports related to the Environmental Bill of Rights and applicable to industries, discussing environmental protection, energy conservation, and greenhouse gas emissions, will be transferred to the Auditor General of Ontario and no longer made mandatory

Nevertheless, all Ontarians will continue to have the right to know and comment on environmentally significant proposals, but access to information will be severely impaired.

Remaining Environmentally Accountable

These changes have arrived in the midst of other environmental related changes by the government of Ontario since the 2018 election including

  • The repeal of cap and trade program;
  • Major changes concerning green energy projects;
  • Recent proposals regarding greater renewable content in fuels; and
  • The new “Made-in-Ontario Environment Plan” for addressing challenges to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

While the effects of these have not fully unfolded and may not yet wholly be understood, combined with the abolishment of the ECO, Ontario may be returning from an approach in which it is easier for the public and industries to hold the government accountable to their environmental obligations to an approach where it is difficult for the public and industries to see the facts surrounding these issues for themselves.

This may lead municipalities, NGO’s, and the public to mobilise and take action to help fill the ECO’s duties related to environmental advocacy, oversight, reporting, and educational roles to inform the public opinion and reduce the access to information issue.

In order to take action, Dianne Saxe shares some advice to organizations, industries, and the public. This includes

  • Remaining informed about current events and changes to the EBR and related environmental programs in Ontario;
  • Challenging political leaders regarding proposals and decisions; and
  • Combining knowledge with action.

With that said, due to these numerous changes that appear to be setting Ontario back in its fight against climate change, environmental accountability and taking the lead in environmental initiatives by industries continues to remain as important as ever.

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