As the Ontario government is investing nearly $98 billion over the next decade to build new roads, highways and public transit, it is streamlining and simplifying the 50-year-old environmental assessment (EA) process.

“As Ontario grows at record speed, it’s never been more important to build new roads, highways, public transit and homes, so we can get drivers out of bumper-to-bumper traffic and bring the dream of home ownership into reach for more people,” said Andrea Khanjin, Ontario’s Minister of the Environment, Conservation and Parks.

“Our government is supporting municipal partners by streamlining and simplifying complex environmental assessment processes to get shovels in the ground and finish major projects faster. We’re doing so while protecting strong environmental oversight and ensuring meaningful consultations before projects can move forward.”

After several months of consultations, one of the changes to the EA process is moving to a project list approach, which will list the types of infrastructure projects that still require the highest level of environmental assessment such as large landfills and electricity generation facilities. The project list approach is a shift from the previous focus on project proponents to what the project is and its potential for environmental effects. Using a project list approach will bring Ontario in line with other similar jurisdictions, including the federal government, Quebec and British Columbia.

These changes, which come into effect on February 22, 2024, will help get highways, rail and electricity transmission lines built up to four years sooner by allowing them to follow a streamlined EA process that will save time and money while maintaining environmental safeguards. The projects that are being moved to streamlined processes continue to have requirements to identify and mitigate environmental impacts and for consultation, including Indigenous consultation, prior to implementation.

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“Modernizing Environmental Assessments for municipal infrastructure will help reduce the duplication of approvals necessary for the installation of low-risk infrastructure that is a required part of new housing developments,” said Steven Crombie, director of government relations and public relations, Ontario Sewer and Watermain Construction Association. “Streamlining this approvals process will save time and resources for individuals, businesses, and government agencies without compromising any environmental outcomes. By simplifying regulations and reducing administrative burdens, Ontario is making it easier for businesses to operate and invest in growth.”

The Ontario government is also beginning consultation, including with municipal partners, on a new streamlined process for certain municipal water, shoreline and sewage system projects. This new process would help accelerate project planning by limiting the process to six months from 18 months or more. These time changes could be achieved by providing a regulated timeline, whereas under the current process there is no time limit.

An example of a municipal project that would be able to go through this proposed process is building a new large wastewater treatment plant. To build this, the municipal class EA process can take up to two years or more. The proposed process could see the EA process completed in as little as six months.

The government is also considering a minor change to the Environmental Assessment Act that would make it clearer for municipalities, provincial ministries and agencies that expropriation is one of the ways property can be acquired for a project before the EA process is completed.

“Modernized environmental assessment processes are a critical enabler for housing, streamlining processes for municipalities to help them build infrastructure like roads, sewers, and water systems more quickly,” said Colin Best, president of the Association of Municipalities of Ontario (AMO). “The initiatives announced today take a risk-based approach to environmental management, removing red tape for straight-forward municipal infrastructure projects and focusing resources where they are needed most. AMO looks forward to continuing to work with the ministry on implementation details.”

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This measure is part of the upcoming Get It Done Act, that will kick off the spring sitting of the legislature on February 20, 2024.

However, several organizations across Ontario expressed their strong opposition to the amendments, claiming that MECP’s latest proposal will further dismantle endangered species protection.

“Ontario’s Endangered Species Act has been weakened throughout the years through policy changes, exemptions and poor implementation. These proposed changes will further demolish the act and create more loopholes for developers to easily harm species at risk and their habitats. The MECP’s proposal makes clear that the Ontario government cares little about the unpayable costs of biodiversity loss. Gutting remaining protections is particularly irresponsible given the current global biodiversity crisis. If we have any hope in halting and reversing biodiversity loss, the government should not proceed with these recommendations,” said Rebecca Kolarich, biodiversity and nature manager at Environmental Defence.

There is concern that the proposed changes demonstrate a persistence in prioritizing  harmful projects over protection of ecosystems.

“Once again, the government is unravelling environmental protections to serve the interests of developers. Across the board, the proposed changes will weaken the level of protection for species at risk. The overall direction is to speed up approvals and reduce costs for those who want to undertake activities that will harm Ontario’s most vulnerable plants and animals,” said Dr. Anne Bell, director of Conservation and Education at Ontario Nature.

Read the proposal for environmental assessments municipal infrastructure projects.

Featured image: The comprehensive EA process for the East-West Tie Transmission Project that runs from Wawa to Lakehead in Northern Ontario took more than five years to complete. With these changes, a similar project could follow a streamlined process and be completed within two years, while still undergoing a mandatory consultation process and continued strong environmental oversight. Ontario Minister of Energy Todd Smith is third from left. (Credit: X/Todd Smith)

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