Ostrander Point Tribunal drags scrutiny of wind and solar projects out into the open
Only when time has passed and the memories of the the yearslong struggle begin to fade, will we know that industrial wind turbines have been banished from Ostrander Point for good. But for now, the creatures who occupy or pass through this bit of land on Prince Edward County’s south shore may do so without the threat of bulldozers rolling across the terrain or 50-storey machines whirring overhead. Maybe forever.
The Ostrander Point wind project has been stopped. Its appeal period has expired. There remain scenarios in which the project could be revived, but that likelihood is now remote, according to the lawyer acting for the Prince Edward County Field Naturalists (PECFN).
“There is rarely a final chapter written in these types of sagas,” said Eric Gillespie. “It is fair to say, however, that the odds of this going further are extremely low. To the best of our understanding, the Gilead Power permit is revoked. That decision is not being appealed. The file has concluded.”
The volunteers who form PECFN allowed themselves to exhale on Thursday evening—after the developer’s appeal period had expired.
“It is particularly wonderful to finally realize that the battle is over,” said Cheryl Anderson of PECFN.
WHAT IT MEANS
The decision by the Environmental Review Tribunal—written by Heather Gibbs and Robert Wright—fundamentally alters the future for Ostrander Point, and has the potential to disrupt other projects involving land where Blanding’s turtles are known to nest, including White Pines and Amherst Island. But it has the potential to reach much further. Indeed, it has the potential to shake the very foundations of the Green Energy Act (GEA).
In 2009, the provincial government, led by Dalton McGuinty, was unsatisfied with the pace of wind and solar energy development in the province. Deadline after deadline had passed and his targets for renewable energy had gone unmet. A panel of experts had reported a year earlier that the regulatory process— the safeguards that protect human health, the environment and even the electrical grid itself—were causing the delays to wind and solar development across the province.
The GEA set out to remove these hurdles—eliminating safeguards in the Ministry of the Environment, Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry, Ministry of Energy and the Ontario Energy Board, among others.
Since the GEA was enacted, industrial wind and solar projects have been reviewed and approved behind closed doors in a mostly tightly controlled process. The only nod to public transparency and accountability was a single Environmental Review Tribunal.
But the test, established under the GEA, to overturn or amend a project at the Tribunal stage was thought to be impenetrable. That is, until now.
The only way to block a project with a renewable energy approval (REA), according to the legislation, is that an appellant must prove the risk posed by the project will cause “serious harm to human health,” or “serious and irreversible harm to plant life, animal life or the natural environment.”
dozens of appeal hearings, predictions of impenetrability proved true. Gillespie says this led many to despair the review mechanism was just a formality.
“If a sports team went out week after week for the better part of a decade and lost every single game, you would have to question what is going on,” said Gillespie. “Even the Toronto Maple Leafs win some games.”
He says there was growing consensus among the legal community in Ontario that the test was being interpreted in such a way that “nobody could ever get to first base.”
“For many people, that undermined the credibility of the government and the credibility of the Tribunal’s process,” said Gillespie. “Every hearing became a rubber stamp process.”
The Ostrander Point Tribunal changed that— perhaps in a profound way.
For what it does is bring the review process out into the open. The developer and its lawyers had argued that it was beyond the Tribunal’s reach to consider the thoroughness or strength of the review conducted inside ministry walls. The Tribunal could conclude only whether the tests of harm had been met.
But Tribunal adjudicators Wright and Gibbs weren’t satisfied with this constriction. Nor were they comfortable that the risks, posed by the project to the Blanding’s turtle, were acceptable or the plan to create replacement habitat would work to protect the endangered species. This was much further than some legal experts believed was contemplated by the GEA.
Faced with the probability that the project was likely to damage the Blanding’s turtle population at Ostrander Point, the Tribunal overruled the provincial government and its ministries.
“Legally, it is significant for its ruling that once ‘serious and irreversible harm’ is found and the Tribunal moves into a consideration of appropriate remedy, the Tribunal will step into the Director’s shoes to fashion an appropriate remedy,” wrote Jack Coop et al in June, in an analysis of the decision for Osler, a law firm.
For the first time, an Environmental Review Tribunal had defined the measures it deems, based on the evidence and expert opinion presented before it, necessary to protect the species at risk. It concluded the only remedy demonstrated to work was to revoke the permit—to prevent the project from being built.
The decision, in some instances, will now enable Tribunals to consider concepts as the precautionary principle— that, based on a balance of probabilities, the risk posed by the proposed project is simply too great.
The Ostrander Point decision has the potential to return relevancy to the Tribunal review process, according to Gillespie.
“If the system was to maintain any credibility in the eyes of many across the province, something had to change,” said Gillespie.
He adds it is critical to this sense of faith people have in their regulatory processes that advances made in Ostrander Point are reflected in future decisions.
“If ultimately, appeals to White Pines and Amherst Island fail then arguably, we are back to where we were three years ago,” predicted Gillespie. “People will conclude that the right to appeal such projects is completely hollow.”