Premier Dalton McGuinty wasn’t kidding earlier this year when he vowed that he wouldn’t tolerate NIMBYism (Not In My Back Yard) when it comes to the province’s green energy polices.
His government’s Green Energy Act, introduced last week, contains a section that would make it extraordinarily difficult for average citizens to challenge green energy developments, such as wind farms, solar farms or other projects.
The act would effectively place the burden of environmental assessment or proof on anyone who challenges a proposed “green” development. Environment assessments wouldn’t be automatically required.
That’s not the way it should be, and historically that’s not the way it’s been done in Ontario, at least not in the last several decades.
With few exceptions, the proponents of major developments — new highways, shopping malls, livestock operations… whatever — have always had to defend their projects by automatically enlisting the work of consultants and other advocates.
In fact, there have been cases where landowners have challenged utility companies that wanted to use private land for hydro transmission lines or natural gas pipelines, and were provided the necessary funding by the province to ensure their collective voices were given an equitable hearing.
But the Green Energy Act apparently changes all that.
Section 145.2.1 (3) of the proposed legislation says: “The person who required the hearing has the onus of proving that engaging in the renewable energy project in accordance with the renewable energy approval will cause serious and irreversible harm to plant life, animal life, human health or safety or the natural environment.”
In other words, if you object to a wind or solar farm being built next to your property, you can call for a hearing, but it’s up to you to defend your opposition.
This is wrong. The burden of proof shouldn’t be on a private citizen; it should be on the developer. How can any citizen of average means effectively mount an intelligent and carefully researched challenge that delineates their opposition to a wind or solar farm?
It’s not that wind farms or solar farms are bad. That’s not even the issue. But shouldn’t landowners and neighbours have a fighting chance in mounting an effective opposition, if indeed that is their desire?
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Isn’t that the way things are done in a democracy?
Apparently not in the Green Energy Act — which, by the way, has many redeeming features, but Section 145.2.1 (3) isn’t one of them.
Indeed, the proposed legislation would have a large impact in Chatham-Kent, which is quickly becoming the location for dozens and dozens of wind turbines. Again, these projects are ostensibly being developed to provide a renewable form of electricity, something most of us would agree is a good thing.
But if a neighbour or a group of neighbours believes that their health is endangered, or that the value of their property would be compromised, shouldn’t their concerns be addressed within a forum that provides them with a standing that’s balanced against the interests of the developer?
The clause within the Green Energy Act has made more than a few people nervous. Maureen Anderson of Amherstburg writes: “What is very frightening is the anti-democratic ‘reverse onus’ clause tucked into this bill. In the past, the onus would be on a developer to provide proper study and evidence that a project would do no harm to the environment or humans. No more. Bill 150 would place the onus on the ‘victim’ to prove any damages.”
Toronto-area blogger John Laforet notes that even members of McGuinty’s caucus are acknowledging this fundamental change.
Laforet quotes MPP Laurel Broten, no less, the assistant to the Minister of Energy and Infrastructure and the former environment minister. Broten told the Ontario Legislature: “Most significantly, green energy projects would no longer be subject to the requirements under the Planning Act or, in most cases, the Environmental Assessment Act.”
What? Aren’t we trying to protect the environment by using green energy?
Why would the regulations set out by the Environmental Assessment Act be sidestepped for any development?
Laforet says the McGuinty government has, through the Green Energy Act, followed through on its promise “to strip municipalities of their rights to control the land use planning issues around renewable energy projects and the promise to strip citizens’ democratic rights of dissent.”
That’s troubling, and an issue that needs to be more carefully examined.
It’s hoped that will happen as the proposed legislation is studied and discussed at the committee level.
And remember, NIMBYism isn’t necessarily a bad thing. What is a bad thing is when ordinary citizens aren’t given a fighting chance to challenge what’s being built in their back yards.
By Peter Epp
March 3, 2009