I don’t think Dalton McGuinty fully understood how much it would cost to move two gas generating plants from Mississauga to Oakville. I don’t think he knew that it would deplete the already pillaged Ontario treasury by more than a billion dollars. Billion with a b. Or that moving these unwanted and unneeded electricity generating plants to rural Ontario would further deepen the divide between residents in the city and those in the countryside.
Nor did he know that in announcing a moratorium of offshore industrial wind turbines in 2011—in a gambit to save four Liberal seats in Toronto—it would cost Ontario many more millions. In this bid to stop offshore development, McGuinty had targeted an industrial wind project just off the Scarborough Bluffs, in part because it had aroused the attention and anger of urban voters. But 200 kilometres east of Toronto, another developer preparing to erect wind turbines off of Wolfe Island was caught up in the moratorium. McGuinty hadn’t calculated the motivation or legal might of his corporate partners. Or he didn’t care.
Last fall a court ruled that Ontario should pay $25 million in damages and nearly $3 million of the developer’s legal costs. Further, it declared the power purchase contract it held with the province was still in force—suggesting the province is still on the hook for another $568 million. That claim is still working its way through the courts.
Similarly, then-MPP Leona Dombrowsky assured County residents in 2009 that a newly created Environmental Review Tribunal would provide an effective and accessible way for ordinary residents to appeal the brutish and environmentally destructive Green Energy Act.
Dombrowsky knew the legislation would be devastating to the network of safeguards and protections that had been erected over decades and had served as a bulwark against the singular motivation of corporate developers. Yet she believed— or said she did—that the ERT would protect the province, its residents and the natural world in this new arena. I don’t think Dombrowsky ever imagined profithungry developers aligned with provincial politicians facing off against volunteers, community and conservancy groups. Or that her government would be fighting on the side of a developer to kill or harm endangered species.
Yet here we are.
Many in Prince Edward County are cheering this week. A developer had hoped to build as many as 29 industrial wind turbines in South Marysburgh—smack dab in the middle of a migratory bird flyway—the first land for forty kilometres.
An ERT examined the project and determined that it was a mistake—that the project as proposed would cause serious and irreversible harm to the little brown bat and the Blanding’s turtles.
Little brown bat populations have plummeted in North America over the last decade due to a fungal infection. As many as 94 per cent of little brown bats may already have been lost in Ontario according to Canada’s species-at-risk registry.
The developer argued at a subsequent hearing that it had a plan to protect the bats. It would stop the blades from spinning during certain hours at certain times of the year. It would monitor the numbers of bats carcasses littered underneath the turbines and would form an advisory committee to recommend modifications to the plan if necessary.
The developer presented an expert who said this plan would work. Last week, the ERT accepted this plan. It did, however, delete all but nine of the proposed turbines because it believed the developer’s “novel” plan to protect the Blanding’s turtle was inadequate and untested. Two had already been eliminated because they impaired the heritage value of South Marysburgh.
Opponents hope the reduced scale of the project will discourage both the developer and the province from pursuing it any further—that they will walk away.
Yet we are left with an ERT ruling that permits a developer to kill little brown bats because they have presented a plan, they will minimize mortality. Or try to do.
And who knows, maybe it will. But how will we know? And if the plan fails and bats die by the dozens or hundreds— who will stop the developer? Or compel them to take the 50-storey machines down?
With the all-consuming prospect of generating profit, the developer has a powerful incentive to test the rigour of the province’s appetite, ability and capacity for enforcement. Furthermore, the province, having fought alongside the developer with all its legal might, would seem to have a diminished interest in enforcing the rules it battled against.
On Wolfe Island, the short-eared owl—another endangered species—has mostly disappeared. Mortality among red-tailed hawks is much higher than predicted by studies conducted before 86 industrial wind turbines were constructed there. Yet they continue to spin.
Prince Edward County has enjoyed remarkable success before the ERT process—unparalleled across the province. That is to be celebrated. And with every victory the rules are made a bit clearer—blazing a trail for more appeals.
Yet the ERT is not a substitute for pre-GEA safeguards. The fate of endangered species, of human health is not negotiable. Not appealable. Sadly, the ERT process has failed too many other communities—too many other species.
Job one for a new provincial government is to restore the protections to the natural world, to restore decisionmaking and planning authority to the communities affected by industrial wind and solar development and to residents whose health is diminished or impaired by these projects.