A Big Win for the Environmental Bill of Rights

In early April 2015, a cement manufacturing facility north of Picton pled guilty to four charges relating to excessive discharges of dust, particulates and noise. As a result, the company was fined $350,000, plus a victim surcharge of $87,500.  For neighbours of the facility, this marks an important victory in their efforts to see this company held to account for the pollution that has plagued the community for more than a decade.

Since 2003, neighbours of the facility have complained to the Ministry of the Environment and Climate Change about adverse effects related to dust emissions and, more recently, noise. In 2011, some community members decided they had had enough and filed an application for investigation under the Environmental Bill of Rights, 1993 asking the ministry to investigate whether these emissions violated the Environmental Protection Act. Although the Ministry of the Environment and Climate Change undertook an investigation and confirmed that dust emissions from the facility were causing problems, it didn’t lay any charges at that time. The applicants continued to pursue the issue and, almost a full decade after complaints began, the company was charged in 2012.

In a recent news story about this company’s guilty plea and fine, one of the applicants credits the Environmental Commissioner of Ontario (ECO) with helping ensure the ministry finally took their complaints seriously. The story states that it was only after the ECO reported on the issue to the Ontario legislature that the local community saw a real effort by the government to address their complaints; shortly thereafter, a new ministry officer was assigned to the file and charges were ultimately laid. This is a great example of the power of the Environmental Bill of Rights and the importance of the ECO’s public reporting function to ensure accountability in government decision-making, including when enforcing environmental laws.

 

Do you think that someone is breaking an environmental law in your community? Click here to learn more about applications for investigation.

 

Celebrating Soil in 2015

Soil helps to supply our food, clothing, clean water, biodiversity, and it even moderates our climate. We walk on it, dig in it, build on it, and clean it off our clothes.  Mostly, however, we just take it for granted. The United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) is an advocate for the many benefits that healthy soils provide and it has declared 2015 to be the International Year of Soils.

And today marks the beginning of Compost Week! Every year we gather on the small patch of soil beside our downtown office to add organic matter and new grass seed. We hope this will rehabilitate the soil after years of wear and tear. Stay tuned for updates on that project!

“The multiple roles of soils often go unnoticed. Soils don’t have a voice, and few people speak out for them,” says the FAO. I could not agree more. Over the past few years, I’ve also been calling for more attention to soil, particularly with respect to soil health and to the  potential for mitigating climate change.  My reports have covered topics such as soil erosion, soil carbon and the value of composting in maintaining healthy soils.  I have also blogged frequently on soil issues, particularly on the nature and importance of healthy soils.

In 2012, I hosted a soil-carbon roundtable, where experts and stakeholders discussed soil’s significant potential for sequestering carbon, and how this great opportunity for advancing climate-change mitigation and adaptation could be promoted in Ontario. Regrettably, almost three years later, little has been done in this regard.

Like Dr. Seuss’ Lorax, who spoke for the trees, we need people who will speak for the soil. Over the course of 2015, I intend to support the International Year of Soils by posting a series of blogs, covering topics such as:

  • Healthy soils and agriculture;
  • The role of soils in water management;
  • The living nature of soils and what this means for how we treat them;
  • How soils support and protect the natural environment and biodiversity;
  • Soils and climate.

I will also share useful sources of information on soil, such as the ones below. I hope you will join me in learning more about the importance of soil and in helping to make 2015 the year that soil truly finds its voice in Ontario.

 

Consciously Uncoupling: A Short-Term Solution to a Long-Term Problem

Electricity consumers who save energy should be rewarded with lower utility bills. But collectively we still need to pay enough to maintain our electricity infrastructure to ensure that the power is there when we need it. Ontario, like many other jurisdictions, has seen flat or falling electricity demand in recent years due to conservation, increased customer self-generation, industrial restructuring, and other factors. The problem faced by utilities is that declining electricity sales reduce their revenues that pay for needed infrastructure.

When I released my latest Annual Energy Conservation Progress Report in January, as the province’s environmental watchdog, I warned that I would be watching for signs that the government’s “Conservation First” vision was being realized in Ontario. Taking a look at one of the first major policy decisions to emerge in 2015 – distribution revenue decoupling – I am not so sure we’re living up to the Conservation First promise.

The Ontario Energy Board (OEB) has spent a long time studying how best to “decouple” utility distribution revenues from the amount of electricity sold in Ontario. To address the revenue problem faced by utilities, in April, the Board announced changes to the way residential electricity consumers will pay for the delivery of power to our homes.

what are distribution charges

Beginning in 2016, delivery costs will be recouped through a fixed monthly charge to consumers. The fixed charge will replace the current two-part delivery charge that is part-fixed and part-variable (tied to how much electricity you consume). At first glance, the approach seems attractive; utilities will not collect any net new revenue under the fixed approach. And according to the Board’s analysis, just over half of residential electricity bills will remain unchanged, or will see an increase or decrease of less than $5 per month. But those on either end of the electricity consumption spectrum will see a difference; in short, if you use a lot of electricity, your bill will come down, and if you use less than the average, your bill will go up.

As the Board notes, fixed pricing does have some advantages. In the short-term, a fully fixed charge is probably a more accurate way to recover current operating costs from customers. It will also continue to protect utility revenues and remove any disincentive for utilities to promote conservation to their customers.  What concerns me is the long-term implication of a fixed charge because it means distribution charges will no longer be tied to the amount of electricity we consume. This is despite good evidence that over the long-term higher electricity consumption will lead to more infrastructure being built and thus higher distribution costs. A better option, one of three fixed charge designs that the Board considered and rejected, would be a fixed monthly charge based on a customer’s consumption during peak hours.  Such a “demand charge” recognizes that the distribution system is sized to meet peak demand and discourages consumption during peak periods to avoid the need to build additional distribution infrastructure over the long term.

Why this isn’t Conservation First

A study prepared for the Board found that distribution system peak demand was the most significant predictor of long-term distribution system costs and there is a direct relationship between the two. I have argued for years that price signals should be used to help us avoid these future costs. Yet in its decision the Board implies that conservation cannot impact long-term distribution system costs. Such a position has implications beyond pricing and is inconsistent with “Conservation First” policy.

The new 100 per cent fixed charge also reduces the portion of the residential electricity bill that can be influenced through conservation. How does this impact our incentive to conserve? As a simple example, consider purchasing a new energy-efficient fridge that saves 500 kilowatt-hours of electricity a year. Under the current rules, you would save about $60 each year in lower electricity bills.[i] Under the new rules, a Toronto Hydro customer would see their savings drop to about $52 per year (the impact will vary by utility), or about $100 less over the 12-year life of the average fridge. Not a huge disincentive – but not nothing either.

Unfortunately, the Board’s choice of fixed distribution charge neglects to consider customer electricity consumption (especially peak demand) and will impose the greatest negative impact on residential customers who consume the least electricity. The policy will also weaken the ability of consumers to manage their bills through conservation and lacks long-term vision to mitigate future system costs related to growing peak demand.

Postscript – Reset of Time-of-Use rates

As I was about to post this blog, the OEB announced a second policy change linked to “Conservation First” principles. In late April, the Board set new time-of-use (TOU) prices that take effect May 1st. These rates affect the electricity charge on your bill and are reviewed every six months.  I have long argued that the Board needs to increase the differential between on-peak and off-peak electricity prices to reduce peak demand and lessen the need for new infrastructure over the long term.

The Board slightly increased this difference; the spread between the two was widened from a ratio of 1.8:1 to 2:1.  Hardly jaw dropping, and unfortunately continues to raise the off-peak price contrary to what I have previously advocated, but at least moving in the right direction compared to the past several years when the Board has narrowed the differential. Since the OEB has forfeited conservation savings derived from the delivery charge, it needs to double down on conservation obtained through the electricity charge.

As the year progresses, I will continue to keep a watchful eye on whether Ontario is truly favouring conservation as its first choice.

[i] calculations based on average 9 c/kWh RPP supply cost, 1.5 c/kWh distribution (Toronto Hydro), 1.4 c/kWh transmission

Environmental Rights – In Your Hands

Looking back at my time as Commissioner – 15 years! – a very strong theme has been the passionate engagement of so many Ontarians in environmental protection. The Environmental Bill of Rights (EBR) has had many success stories over the years, and some of the best have involved pro-active nudges by the public to strengthen law or policy.  The public has delivered these nudges thanks to the EBR’s applications process.

The fall of Hamilton's SWARU Incinerator

The fall of Hamilton’s SWARU Incinerator

As my term as Environmental Commissioner winds down, let me express my warm personal thanks to everyone who has ever submitted an application using the EBR; there are well over 1,500 of you.  Whether you applied the EBR many years ago to help shut down a polluting garbage incinerator in Hamilton, or whether you recommended just last year that Toronto should get a sewage bypass alert program – or indeed whether you drafted any of the hundreds of other thoughtful submissions on so many topics that have passed through my office, you can be proud of being part of the larger EBR success story.  Your example shows that democracy is not a spectator sport.

And for those of you who have long grumbled into your beer about environmental concerns – I may have grumbled with you! – but have held back from submitting an EBR application, allow me to offer some parting advice.  Applications are:

easy to write.  The application forms are on our website.  You should make the clearest argument you can, but you don’t need to be a lawyer or hire a lawyer. You should provide the best evidence you have, but you don’t need to submit lab test data. We offer a guidebook to walk you through the steps of completing an EBR application.

open to anyone.  People from all walks of life have submitted EBR applications, ranging from rural property owners, university students and retirees to First Nations groups, municipal councillors, environmental groups and even Members of Provincial Parliament.  Two people need to sign. As long as you are both residents of Ontario, you can submit an EBR application.  It’s that simple.

confidential. If you submit an EBR application, your name or other personal information will not be disclosed by either the ministries or by our office.  Of course, you are free to go public if you like.

a way to draw attention to your issue.  Many people have made their EBR application the subject of a news release, or have featured their submission on their website as a way of shedding light on the topic. For example, the Canadian Environmental Law Association has taken this approach.

The ECO’s website can help you get started, and explain your other rights under the EBR.  For groups of about 30 or more, you could also request a speaker from my office to give an overview talk about your toolkit of rights under the EBR.  Contact commissioner@eco.on.ca. We will try to accommodate you.

The Environmental Bill of Rights offers Ontarians a potent set of tools, but they depend on you to be used.  Best of luck!

Ontario finally moves on carbon pricing

The long wait is over; today Ontario finally announced that it will implement a carbon price (a cap-and-trade system), and I am very pleased with this development.

Ontario first joined the Western Climate Initiative in 2008 and a team of dedicated staff has been contemplating a cap-and-trade system ever since. The MOE (as the MOECC was then known) posted a carbon pricing discussion paper to the Environmental Registry in January 2009 (Environmental Registry # 010-5484) and a second follow-up proposal in May 2009 (Environmental Registry # 010-6740), but a final decision was never posted by the ministry.

Due to the ECO’s role in reporting on the province’s progress in reducing its greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions (see my annual GHG progress reports), the ECO has accumulated years of commentary on the subject of carbon pricing. Here’s a brief history of our efforts and suggestions.

The ECO’s 2010 GHG progress report explained that the ECO “supports government efforts to put a price on carbon emissions, but remains agnostic” on the mechanism. The 2010 report provides an overview of both pricing instruments (carbon tax or cap-and-trade) from the standpoints of: 1) emissions reduction certainty and price certainty; 2) administrative oversight; 3) transparency; and 4) implications for the transition to a low-carbon economy. The 2010 report also outlines the Western Climate Initiative and B.C.’s experience with a carbon tax. The report concluded by recommending one important condition for whichever carbon pricing policy instrument that Ontario chooses: that it be based on a full public review to compare emissions trading and a carbon tax in terms of their efficacy in providing a transparent price signal to the economy.

The following year, my 2011 GHG Progress report urged the provincial government to stop delaying and implement a carbon pricing mechanism sooner rather than later. This report also addressed two important concerns that had been raised about any potential carbon pricing mechanism: carbon leakage and so-called “trade-exposed industries.” Subsequently, I blogged about why a carbon price is actually good for Ontario industry.

More recently, in November of last year, I wrote a blog making a case for the potential of a carbon tax to effectively reduce GHG emissions in Ontario.

Although carbon pricing has been a slow train coming, based on the government’s renewed commitment to climate change (see The Road to Paris is paved with subnational intentions), I’m optimistic that Ontarians will finally see this policy implemented.

The road to Paris is paved with subnational intentions

Yesterday Monday was an important milestone on the road to the next United Nations (UN) climate change conference in Paris this December ‒ March 31st was the deadline for countries to submit their “intended nationally determined contributions” (INDC) for this next round of UN negotiations. The INDC is each country’s updated greenhouse gas (GHG) reduction target, which is meant to build on countries’ previously established targets. Many believe a binding international climate change agreement may finally be reached in Paris.1 In the Canadian context, it appears subnational governments are playing an important role in making this happen.

Canada’s GHG reduction target remained the same as it was in 2009 (17% below 2005 levels by 2020);2 a target which Canada will not be able to meet, according to Environment Canada’s 2014 Emissions Trends report. However, some provinces, such as Ontario, have not only stepped up to achieve emission reductions for Canada, but are beginning to play a larger role internationally, which I wrote about after attending the last UN conference in Lima in December 2014.

The province’s most recent report on its progress on reducing its GHG emissions shows that Ontario is set to meet its 2014 target (6% below 1990 levels). The Ontario government has recently demonstrated a renewed commitment to meet its targets for 2020 and beyond (15% below 1990 levels by 2020, and 80% below 1990 levels by 2050). For example, the province recently released a Climate Change Discussion Paper, which establishes its commitment to produce a new climate change strategy later this year that will include, among other measures, a carbon pricing mechanism.

I remain hopeful for the possibility of a binding international agreement in Paris, because, as the IPCC reported, to avert the risks associated with major climate change, mitigation actions will need to be taken at all levels of government. I am also increasingly optimistic about the potential for collaboration among subnational governments to make significant progress as well. With this in mind, I eagerly anticipate the meeting of Canadian Premiers in Quebec City on April 14 to discuss a national energy and climate strategy, and the Climate Summit of the Americas on July 7-9 in Toronto, where the Ontario government aims to develop and deliver a common statement on commitments by subnational governments to reduce GHG emissions.
It appears that the road to Paris may just be paved with subnational intentions.

1. See for example: Neil Bathiya, U.S. News & World Report, “This Time Is Different, Why optimism about a 2015 climate change agreement is growing” Feb.18, 2015. http://www.usnews.com/opinion/economic-intelligence/2015/02/18/paris-2015-climate-change-agreement-optimism-is-growing.

2. Compare against EU’s target of 40% below 1990 levels by 2030, Switzerland’s target of 50% below 1990 level by 2030, or the US target to cut emissions by 26-28% from 2005 levels by 2025.

Ontario needs user-friendly climate data!

EcoRoundtable_logoI’ve learned that climate data accessibility is an issue in Ontario, thanks to ongoing discussions with various stakeholders. To move the conversation forward, I organized a roundtable in early 2015. This page will tell you everything you may want to know about the event – including the agenda, a background briefing note, as well as videos and slides from the presentations.

Let me backtrack and explain what climate data is. When I use the term ‘climate data’, I am referring to projections about what the future climate will look like in terms of data points such as temperature, precipitation, and so on. How much rain can I expect in July of 2042 in the city of Ottawa? This is the type of information that the data from climate models can tell us.

Who uses climate data and what do they use it for? There are currently a variety of users, ranging from engineers through municipalities and other levels of government to companies and conservation authorities. In short, these end users are utilizing climate data to plan for the future, especially when considering large infrastructure and other capital investment decisions, such as the location and design of roads, bridges, power lines and buildings.

The climate has already changed so much that using historic data and trends to predict future weather is unwise. Decision-makers planning infrastructure are mostly worried about the extremes – rainstorms, wind, ice, heat, and so on. They want to know whether the infrastructure that they will spend millions on will be able to withstand future weather extremes.

The problem isn’t that Ontario-specific climate data and predictions aren’t available. The federal and provincial governments, as well as academia,[1] have many climate data sets. The problem is that most data users don’t know where to find them, even though many are available online. If they find do find the data, it may not be user-friendly. Even if the data is in a format people can use, they may not understand how to use it in a scientifically-sound way, i.e. ensuring they aren’t just relying on one model. Most public and private sector practitioners (and decision-makers) don’t have a background in climate science, nor should they need to have one.

You’ll be hearing more from me about this issue, so stay tuned. Climate data in Ontario needs to be made more accessible for the average decision-maker in the public and private sectors. I’m working on a report summarizing the presentations and conversations from the event, which will come out in late spring.

[1] This is just one example, from York University. (For best results please use FireFox.)

And the ECO Recognition Award goes to …

Celebrating success is always important.  We need passionate and dedicated people to come up with creative solutions to some of our more tricky environmental problems.  And it is very important to recognize the hard work of such individuals.  By highlighting their accomplishments, others can also see how a challenge was overcome and solve it somewhere else!

Every year, I ask provincial ministries to submit outstanding programs and projects to be considered for the ECO’s Recognition Award. This award is meant to recognize the hard work of ministry staff in an initiative that betters Ontario’s environment and that meets the goals of the Environmental Bill of Rights, 1993. This past year, I received nominations for ten projects and programs. An arm’s-length panel reviewed the submissions.

And the winner is…. staff from the Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry for their Water Chestnut Management Program in Voyageur Provincial Park!

2015 recognition award

Park staff came up with for an innovative project to control an infestation of European water chestnut, an invasive aquatic species. The water chestnut has become a serious nuisance in other jurisdictions because it can choke out native vegetation, decrease biodiversity, and negatively affect recreational activities.

The Voyageur Provincial Park water chestnut infestation was one of the first known cases in Ontario, and park staff acted swiftly to minimize its impact and spread. Staff consulted other jurisdictions for information and support, researched new control methods, experimented with control and monitoring techniques, and designed new equipment that can control the species more efficiently and effectively.

Water chestnut can be controlled by hand-pulling from a canoe, but this method is time-consuming and labour-intensive. Park staff developed a new system of specially adapted boats to remove and collect the tops of the plants, decreasing the possibility of flower and seed production. They also engaged and informed the public throughout the project; for example, staff circulated newsletters, created a volunteer program to assist with plant removal activities, and held education programs for park visitors.

We celebrate the passion and hard work of these members of the Ontario Public Service at a reception today at Queen’s Park.  Congratulations and keep up the great work!

 

Celebrating Soil in 2015

FAO Year of Soils LogoSoil helps to supply our food, clothing, clean water, biodiversity, and it even moderates our climate. We walk on it, dig in it, build on it, and clean it off our clothes.  Mostly, however, we just take it for granted. The United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) is an advocate for the many benefits that healthy soils provide and it has declared 2015 to be the International Year of Soils.

“The multiple roles of soils often go unnoticed. Soils don’t have a voice, and few people speak out for them,” says the FAO. I could not agree more. Over the past few years, I’ve also been calling for more attention to soil, particularly with respect to soil health and to the  potential for mitigating climate change.  My reports have covered topics such as soil erosion, soil carbon and the value of composting in maintaining healthy soils.  I have also blogged frequently on soil issues, particularly on the nature and importance of healthy soils.

In 2012, I hosted a soil-carbon roundtable, where experts and stakeholders discussed soil’s significant potential for sequestering carbon, and how this great opportunity for advancing climate-change mitigation and adaptation could be promoted in Ontario. Regrettably, almost three years later, little has been done in this regard.

Like Dr. Seuss’ Lorax, who spoke for the trees, we need people who will speak for the soil. Over the course of 2015, I intend to support the International Year of Soils by posting a series of blogs, covering topics such as:

  • Healthy soils and agriculture;
  • The role of soils in water management;
  • The living nature of soils and what this means for how we treat them;
  • How soils support and protect the natural environment and biodiversity;
  • Soils and climate.

I will also share useful sources of information on soil, such as the ones below. I hope you will join me in learning more about the importance of soil and in helping to make 2015 the year that soil truly finds its voice in Ontario.

The GTA Pipeline Begins Construction: Could It Have Been Avoided Through Conservation?  

Laying pipeWhile it hasn’t grabbed nearly as much attention as the many oil pipeline proposals, shovels are going into the ground in Ontario for one major new pipeline project. Enbridge Gas Distribution is beginning construction of a major new natural gas distribution line across the Greater Toronto Area (GTA). Enbridge will build about 50 kilometres of new pipeline in two segments, at a cost of approximately $700 million.

Figure 10New pipelines (that do not cross provincial boundaries) cannot be constructed in Ontario without approval from the Ontario Energy Board, usually through a formal hearing. At the hearing for the GTA pipeline, Enbridge argued that this pipeline expansion was needed to meet increased peak demand for natural gas, primarily due to the large amount of new residential development in the downtown Toronto core, and that the reliability of Enbridge’s supply to these customers was at risk. However, several environmental groups argued that parts of the new pipeline could be avoided by an increased focus on energy conservation, perhaps through geo-targeted conservation programs in the GTA, reducing the infrastructure costs for gas ratepayers. While the Board had some sympathy for this argument, it was not fully convinced that conservation was a viable alternative, and eventually approved the pipeline (.pdf).

Planning to Conserve thumbI review the arguments for and against the pipeline in my annual energy conservation report, Planning to Conserve, released on January 13th (I also hosted a live web chat on the report on January 20). While I did not conclude that the GTA pipeline could have been avoided, I was convinced that conservation is not given a fair chance as an alternative to “hard infrastructure” in the existing regulatory approval process.

 

 

My report makes two recommendations that could improve this situation:

The ECO recommends that the Ontario Energy Board require natural gas utilities to file advance notice of any identified distribution system need that could have significant cost impact, and ensure conservation is considered as the first resource to meet some or all of this need.

The ECO recommends that the Ontario Energy Board allow utilities to increase their conservation budget if targeted conservation spending would avoid greater future infrastructure costs.

The point of the first recommendation is to require utilities to consider the potential role of conservation as early as possible in the planning process, before there is an imminent threat to reliability such that new infrastructure becomes the only option. The second recommendation would ensure that, where a utility has identified conservation as a viable alternative to an infrastructure project, it has the resources to take action and scale up its conservation efforts.

Over the holidays, the Ontario Energy Board released an updated set of demand-side management guidelines, which will govern the conservation activities of Enbridge Gas Distribution and Union Gas through 2020. A full review will need to wait until my next annual energy conservation report, but I am pleased to note that the new guidelines include provisions similar to my two recommendations, and will improve the linkages between natural gas conservation and natural gas infrastructure planning, This is an encouraging step towards achieving the Minister of Energy’s direction (.pdf) to “put conservation first” in energy infrastructure planning in Ontario.