Monday, March 21, 2016

Is the Province of Ontario Funding the Destruction of Species at Risk Habitat?

Is the Province of Ontario funding the destruction of species at risk habitat? The answer is "Yes" - and the Province is urging the federal government to join in, and fund its 1/3 share of the destruction of the habitat of blanding's turtles and whippoorwills - both threatened species which fall under the protection of the Endangered Species Act, according to the Province of Ontario.

This is all happening in my community, the City of Greater Sudbury, through a contentious road-building project known as the Maley Drive Extension.  This road project has been on the City's books for over 20 years.  It was first subject to a Class Environmental Assessment in 1995, which looked at alternatives to building a new road (including light rail) to address what was then identified as growing concerns over congestion in the City.  Ultimately, the 1995 Class EA identified a favoured corridor for the Maley project - one which wasn't at that time impacted by the presence of species at risk.

In 2008, the City undertook an Addendum to the 1995 EA.  Again, field work in the proposed road corridor was undertaken, and while new tributaries to Junction Creek were discovered, the EA Addendum again did not identify the presence of species at risk in the proposed road corridor.

A few weeks ago, the public had its first opportunity to provide input specifically on the Maley Drive Extension project since June, 1994.  Immediately prior to the oral public input meeting, the City revealed the presence of species at risk in a location just to the west of the existing Barrydowne/Maley Drive intersection - smack dab in the middle of where the new Maley road is intended to be built.

The Need to Explore Alternatives to Destroying Species at Risk Habitat

According to the facts (of which there are few), the City is currently working with the Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry to obtain an Overall Benefit Permit (to alter or destroy the habitat of species at risk) in order to allow the Maley Drive Extension project to proceed.  Apparently, the City of Greater Sudbury has known about the presence of these species at risk in the Maley corridor since 2013 (see page 24 of 29 of the "Maley Drive Extension - Phase 1 Business Case Report", City of Greater Sudbury, February 19, 2016 - specifically, Section 10.2 of the Report).

The City appears to have leapt to the conclusion that an Overall Benefit Permit is desirable for the Maley Drive Extension project, rather than first looking at and assessing alternatives for the project, including different solutions to tackle the so-called "congestion" problem (a "problem" other cities in Ontario would probably pay money to have), such as investing in transit, alternative transportation and the use of traffic demand management to achieve desired outcomes, or even just at different routes for the new road which would avoid the habitat of species at risk or have less of an impact.

The City really ought to have undertaken a new Environmental Assessment, once the presence of species at risk became known to municipal staff.  That approach, or providing a new addendum, is what's recommended by the Ministry of Environment and Climate Change in its "Code of Practice for Preparing, Reviewing and Using Class Environmental Assessments in Ontario, 2014" (see Section 6.2.10, Changing a Project After a Planning Process is Complete - which indicates that where a lapse of time between EA completion and project construction has occurred, and the environmental circumstances have changed, the results of the project review should be documented).  In this case, the 1995 EA included provisions for lapsing after 5 years.  The 2008 Addendum, prepared in part as a response to the lapsing of the 1995 EA (and in part due to the changing scope of the project) does not appear to have included a lapsing provision.  That might be important, because the Code of Practice refers specifically to lapsing, along with changed environmental circumstances.  The discovery of species at risk in the corridor by the City of Greater Sudbury in 2013 or thereabouts is clearly a "changed environmental circumstance", but if the 2008 EA Addendum has not lapsed, it may be that no further assessment of the project is actually required - even though the EA is woefully out of date, and species at risk were ultimately discovered years later, after two environmental assessments had been conducted.

We might soon find out what the Minister of Environment and Climate Changes thinks about the City's approach, however, as several concerned citizens have written to the Minister, urging him to require a new environmental assessment - one which looks at alternatives, and is based on up-to-date socio-economic and environmental conditions (see the letter beginning on page 79 of 104 of the City's public consultation summary for one example).

Maley Drive - Premature

Without alternatives having been considered by the City, it seems premature to me that the Ministry of Natural Resources would entertain an overall benefit permit - which is kind of a last resort approach to "managing" species at risk habitat which may be impacted by an infrastructure project. At the very least, the City should be looking at re-routing Maley Drive away from the species at risk habitat.  However, ultimately, that's the Minister's call.  We'll see if the overall benefit permit is issued in accordance with the City's timeline (by September, 2016).

The City's Business Case Report refers to two "assessments" of the habitat which were undertaken in 2013 and 2014.  I've asked the City for copies of these assessments (the 1995 Environmental Assessment and the 2008 Addendum have been available to the public on the City's website for some time now), but I've been told that these two assessments aren't available to the public, because of sensitive information about species at risk.  At this time, it remains unclear to me whether these two "assessments" were conducted in accordance with the Class Environmental Assessment process, or whether they are just technical documents used in support of an overall benefit permit.  Given that they're not publicly available from the City, they are more likely the latter than the former, because Class Environmental Assessments are supposed to be public undertakings.

Did the Province Know about Species at Risk and Still Choose to Fund Maley?

What's also unclear is whether the Province was aware that they are intending to publicly fund the destruction of species at risk habitat in contravention of their own Endangered Species legislation.  At this time, it's my understanding that that the Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry hasn't issued an overall benefit permit to authorize the destruction/alteration of species at risk habitat.  But that hasn't stopped the Minister of Finance from announcing in three budgets (2014, 2015 and 2016) that the Province will specifically fund the Maley Drive Extension to the tune of $26.7 million - or one third of the estimated $80.1 million costs of Phase 1 of the project (see: "Province offers Sudbury a plum budget," the Sudbury Star, May 2, 2014).

Did the province of Ontario know back in May, 2014, that the Maley Drive corridor which they committed to funding will obliterate the habitat of species at risk?  Or was the City of Greater Sudbury keeping this information secret from the province?  Either way, something isn't right here.  The City knew about the presence of species at risk at least since 2013.  The City claims that its been working with the Minister of Natural Resources and Forestry to obtain an overall benefit permit for the Maley project.  What's not clear is when the MNRF was notified of the presence of species at risk in the corridor - or if, after being notified, the Minister of Natural Resources would have shared this information with his colleague, the Minister of Finance.

What also makes little sense is once the Province became aware of the presence of species at risk in the Maley corridor, why did it continue to specifically identify the Maley Drive project as one to be funded in three consecutive budgets?  At the very least, the Province would have had to have been aware of this situation in 2016 - the City of Greater Sudbury made the information about the species at risk available to the public on February 19, 2016 - several days ahead of the February 25th budget announcement.  And of course, if the MNRF was earlier made aware through internal communications about species at risk - well, the province would have had this information available to inform budget decisions before February, 2016 - and quite possibly before the 2015 or 2014 budget commitments to Maley as well.

A Serious Commitment to Species at Risk?

I understand that there is a process in place to allow for the destruction of the habitat of species at risk through the issuance of an overall benefit permit.  But why would the Province choose to fund a road which it knew was going to destroy habitat before the requirements for a permit's issuance were fulfilled by the City?

Doesn't the Province take its own Endangered Species legislation seriously?  Anybody following the Maley Drive debacle could easily conclude that the answer is "no".  Why throw $26.7 million at a road that hasn't received all necessary provincial approvals related to species at risk? Or one that has an up-to-date Class Environmental Assessment, for that matter.

Of course, it could be that the Province was unaware of the presence of species at risk - and might have only found out about it for the first time just days in advance of the 2016 budget announcement. The City's Business Case Report is unhelpful with regards to the timing of the overall benefit permit process, except to say that it expects one to be issued by September, 2016.  It doesn't actually indicate that the City engaged the Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry - it says only that the approval process has been "ongoing" - which might simply mean that the City is taking its time filling out the paperwork to apply for a permit.

By now, though, it must be clear to the Province that there are species at risk in the corridor.  The Province should be doing everything that it can to ensure that the habitat of those species at risk is not negatively impacted by the new road project.  The Province should be demanding a new environmental assessment of the City before any money is flowed for this project.

The Liberal Record on Species at Risk

And what about the federal government? Well, they've not yet made a decision to pony up their one-third funding for Phase 1, so we'll have to wait and see whether Justin Trudeau's new Liberal government wants to be complicit in the destruction of species at risk habitat.  Judging by the press releases from Nickel Belt MP Marc Serre, though, I wouldn't bet on the feds sticking up for species at risk over giving the City the funds it needs to build Maley Drive (see: "Marc Serre, MP for Nickel Belt Urges Council to Help Him Move the Maley Extension Forward,", March 15, 2016).  Serre must be well aware of the presence of species at risk habitat, although no mention is made of it in his press release.

So, one might conclude that Liberals at both the provincial and federal level of government are content to ignore the provincial Endangered Species Act, and move forward with the destruction of the habitat of species at risk.  Some might find that offensive - maybe even immoral.  I know that I do.  We're talking about the habitat of two threatened species here - species which the Endangered Species Act indicate should have the highest level of protection.  I get that the Province has developed a process to allow for habitat destruction in certain circumstances - but the idea behind the use of overall benefit permits is that they will be a last resort - used only after all other alternatives have been exhausted.

The City of Greater Sudbury hasn't looked at alternatives to Maley Drive since 1995.  Granting the City a permit to destroy the habitat of blanding's turtle and whippoorwill based on an assessment of alternatives more than two decades old would simply be egregious - and offer further evidence that Premier Kathleen Wynne's Liberal government just isn't taking the plight of threatened and endangered species seriously.

(Opinions expressed in this blogpost are my own, and should not be considered consistent with the policies and positions of the Green Parties of Ontario and Canada)

Friday, March 18, 2016

Maley Drive & Species At Risk - More Work Necessary Before Habitat Destroyed

The following text represents my most recent submission to the City of Greater Sudbury regarding the Maley Drive Extension - Phase 1 project.


Thank you for providing an extended opportunity for the public to provide submissions on the proposed Maley Drive Extension Phase 1 project, as new information was presented to the public after the close of the written submission period prior to the March 1st public input meeting.  Interestingly, some of this information was not “new” at all, in the sense that the City has been well aware of it for some time now, but had not previously shared it with the public or Council.  Here I am referring to Section 10.2 of the Business Case Report which references the presence of species at risk in a location west of the existing Barrydowne/Maley Drive intersection – and right in the midst of the proposed corridor.  The City must have had this information available since at least 2013, as the Business Case Report refers to two “assessments” conducted by the City in support of Overall Benefit Permits with the Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry.

As I have already commented extensively on the Maley Drive Phase 1 Project as part of my earlier submission to Council, I will focus here exclusively on the matter related to species at risk.  As you know, the 1995 Class Environmental Assessment that was prepared by Marshall Macklin Monaghan did not identify the presence of species at risk. It was this EA which the then Region of Sudbury relied on to select the best transportation alternative to address issues that it had identified at that time.  That best alternative is the one that remains on the table today as part of the Maley Drive Extension, Phases 1 and 2.  It is the alternative which Council is being asked to support at the upcoming Council meeting of March 22nd, 2016.

In 2008, the 1995 Environmental Assessment was supplemented by an Addendum.  It did not identify the presence of species at risk in the Maley corridor.  It also did not review any proposed alternatives to the location of the proposed corridor, as that was beyond its mandate. 

Clearly, since 1995 and 2008, with the more recent discovery of the presence of species at risk in the corridor, the environmental circumstances impacting the Maley Drive project have changed.  As you know, the Ministry of Environment and Climate Change’s Code of Practice identifies the need for a new assessment at times where the environmental conditions for the project have changed.  At present, there has been no new Environmental Assessment undertaken by the City which evaluates transportation alternatives which do not negatively impact the existing habitat of species at risk.  Until such an undertaking is conducted, it is premature to determine that the proposed Maley Drive corridor represents the best transportation option.

I strongly urge the City of Greater Sudbury to commence a new Environmental Assessment which identifies the transportation issue under consideration, and alternatives to address that issue based on up-to-date socio-economic and environmental circumstances, including the presence of species at risk habitat.  The City should also look at other transportation options, including the provision of better transit services, along with the use of transportation demand management, to address its long-term transportation needs.

I also understand that despite my urging, this isn’t likely to happen.  I understand too that the City is in the process of working with the Ministry of Natural Resources to obtain an Overall Benefit Permit to allow the Maley Drive Phase 1 project to proceed, as per the recommendations of the 1995 Environmental Assessment, and subsequent decisions of Council.   I also understand that the portion of the proposed corridor which will impact the species at risk habitat will not be the first section of the Phase 1 project to proceed, so other elements of the Phase Project can be constructed even without an Overall Benefit Permit. 

Proceeding in this manner poses significant risk to the City.  What will happen if the Ministry of Natural Resources doesn’t issue an Overall Benefit Permit?  The City will have built half of a road – one which doesn’t connect to the Maley Drive/Barrydowne intersection.  Sensible planning for this project should at the very least mean that all necessary approvals from senior levels of government are in place prior to committing to the undertaking.  I understand that previous Councils resolved to pursue this project – but at the time that those Resolutions were made, there was no discussion about the need of an Overall Benefit Permit from the Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry, because the species at risk habitat had not been identified in either the 1995 Environmental Assessment or the 2008 Addendum.

Until such a time that the anticipated impacts of the new road on the existing species at risk habitat have been assessed through an appropriate process, and should it then be determined that the best alternative is one which will negatively impact the habitat and an Overall Benefit Permit is issued, it is premature for the City to move ahead with this project, and exposing itself to the financial risk of not being able to complete the project as planned and budgeted.

Please step back and engage in the appropriate level of assessment necessary to move forward with appropriate transportation options to meet the City’s future needs, while not negatively impacting species at risk as per the Endangered Species Act.  Please undertake a new Environmental Assessment before proceeding with any aspect of the Maley Drive Phase 1 project. 

(opinions expressed in this blogpost are my own and should not be considered consistent with the positions and policies of the Green Parties of Canada and Ontario)

Wednesday, March 16, 2016

Trudeau Sending Few Real Signals to Climate Concerned Canadians

Prime Minister Trudeau headed off to Washington this past week to talk climate change with U.S. President Barack Obama.  After a disappointing meeting with disagreeable First Minister’s in Vancouver, Canadians concerned about the climate crisis were hoping that Trudeau and Obama might send a signal about the need for urgent action.  Instead, after dining on Colorado lamb and Alaskan halibut prepared by White House chefs who aren’t fans of the 100-mile diet, it was clear Trudeau is content to putter along while the climate crisis deepens (see: “Canadian whisky on the menu for White House State dinner,” PBS NewsHour, March 9, 2016).

Gone are the days when the media questioned the validity of climate science.  With reports declaring February 2016 the warmest month in recorded history, and 2015 the hottest year, Canadians are growing increasingly aware of the seriousness of the climate crisis (see: “February may have been warmest month, but we do not know for sure – despite reports to the contrary,” Discover Magazine, March 3, 2016 and “NASA – NOAA Analyses Reveal Record-Shattering Global Warm Temperatures in 2015,” NASA, January 20, 2016 and “February continues streak of record low Arctic sea ice extent,” Arctic Sea Ice News and Analysis, March 2, 2016).  Across the nation, the conversation has shifted to what can we do about it - and who is going to step up and lead.

For a short while, Trudeau looked to be that leader. In a brilliant election campaign, he promised to develop a Canadian framework to combat climate change within 90 days of the Paris climate summit. Many seeking real climate action threw their lot in with Trudeau. And Trudeau didn’t disappoint, as he stormed the Paris conference and urged the international community to follow Canada and commit to just 1.5 degrees of warming – a half degree less than nations agreed to in Copenhagen in 2009 (see: “Canada endorses tougher 1.5 degree limit to global warming,” MacLean’s, December 7, 2016).
However, since Paris, it seems Trudeau has lost his sense of urgency to take action. Faced with an opportunity to build meaningful emissions assessments into the National Energy Board’s pipeline approval process, he opted instead to simply study downstream impacts after the NEB makes a recommendation to cabinet (see: “Justin Trudeau’s pipeline gambit could salvage Energy East,” the Toronto Star, January 31, 2016).

Yet, after 10 years of climate idleness from the Harper Conservatives, many environmental leaders continue to give Trudeau a temporary pass, hoping that he will send some sort of signal that they he really does gets the need for urgent action.

There were no signals sent from Washington this week. Trudeau and Obama stood together on the White House lawn, mostly announcing initiatives they’ve already announced (see: “U.S. – Canada Joint Statement on Climate, Energy, and Arctic Leadership,” the White House, March 10, 2016).  New is a combined commitment to reduce methane emissions from oil and gas industries by 40-45%. While this is a welcome move, it came as no surprise after Alberta, home to a majority of Canada’s oil and gas sector, announced a similar initiative last November (see: “Alberta deserves credit for new U.S. – Canada methane deal, Premier Notley says,” the Edmonton Sun, March 10, 2016).

Trudeau and Obama again recommitted to phasing out fossil fuel subsidies - even though in November, Trudeau reaffirmed Stephen Harper’s commitment to subsidize British Columbia’s dirty LNG industry (see: “Liberals promise to keep LNG tax breaks,” the Vancouver Sun, November 23, 2015). The Canada-U.S. joint statement made reference to confronting challenges in Arctic regions from climate change, while simultaneously laying the groundwork for future oil and gas exploration opportunities arising from shrinking Arctic ice coverage.

Disappointing for many was what Trudeau and Obama refused to acknowledge: that in a carbon constrained world there would be little need for new fossil fuel infrastructure, like pipelines and oil drilling platforms (see: “Paris changed everything, so why are we still talking pipelines?” David Suzuki, January 28, 2016).   A serious plan to confront climate change might have signalled the need to protect fragile Arctic communities and ecosystems from unnecessary fossil fuel exploration and development.   But that didn’t happen.

Despite the hype and optimism generated in Paris, it now seems remote that Trudeau is going to take the steps necessary to provide national leadership and set Canada on a course towards meaningfully reducing our carbon emissions.  With Trudeau’s deference to feisty Premiers in Vancouver over a national carbon pricing plan, followed by a Washington trip that yielded announcements about new opportunities for oil and gas exploration in the Arctic, can it be too much longer before the environmental community that sang his pre-election praises abandons ship?

(Opinions expressed in this blogpost are my own and should not be considered consistent with the policies and/or positions of the Green Parties of Ontario and Canada)

Originally published in the Sudbury Star as "Trudeau putters along as climate crisis deepens," March 12, 2016 (print) and "Sudbury column: PM putters along as climate crisis deepens," online.

UPDATE (March 16, 2016) - For those not as cynical as myself about last week's joint announcement from President Obama and Prime Minister Trudeau, please see how the bromance is working out for the Arctic, just one week later: "U.S. government proposes new drilling leases in Beaufort and Chukchi seas," CBC, March 16, 2016.  Looks to me like "business as usual".