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COVID-19 is not an opportunity to roll back environmental regulations

A joint analysis by Vi Bui and Mark Calzavara

Early in April, the Ontario government suspended the requirement for public consultation and participation before approving projects or laws that could impact the environment. Ontario is not the first province to roll back environmental regulations during the COVID-19 crisis – we’ve seen this in other provinces and in the U.S. These rollbacks suggest that governments are taking advantage of this unprecedented public health crisis to sneak through deregulation to further their neoliberal agendas.

In late March, the Alberta provincial government decided to relax environmental reporting requirements for industries during COVID-19. Industries are no longer required to report data on any environmental monitoring, including emissions of pollutants and water taking volumes. As in Ontario, the Alberta exemptions are temporary until the COVID-19-related Emergency Act is lifted.

Manitoba’s provincial government pushed through a set of bills that would open the province’s forests and parks for privatization, loosen regulations of industrial greenhouse gas emissions, and offer the private sector more control of water, forests and parks. These bills were pushed through during an emergency legislative session on COVID-19 response measures.

South of the border, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency introduced several changes to their environmental regulations and oversights, citing COVID-19 concerns. The changes are similar to those in Canadian provinces: a suspension of environmental data reporting, weakened vehicle emission standards, shortened public comment periods, gutted mercury emission standards and relaxed regulation on oil and gas exploration on federal lands.

In Ontario, Premier Doug Ford’s Progressive Conservative government has explicitly exempted projects from the entirety of Section II of the Environmental Bill of Rights (EBR), which mandates public participation before any environmentally significant decision or legislation is made.

Since 1993, tens of thousands of Council of Canadians supporters have used the EBR process to engage the Ontario government on issues such as Dumpsite-41, the Megaquarry, Nestle’s bottling of groundwater, and many more major changes to regulations. Since 2016, over 36,000 submissions from Ontarians successfully pushed the province to put in place, and later extend, the moratorium on bottled water taking, stopping Nestle from pumping millions of litres from the Middlebrook well.

Removing this process takes away critical public oversight that holds the provincial government and industries accountable and puts the health of our environment and the public at risk. It also means there is no “early warning” of upcoming changes. This is critical for communities and watchdog groups already overmatched by government and industry resources.

Ontario’s sweeping rollback limits the democratic process. It was framed as a responsible part of the COVID-19 emergency response but it is completely unnecessary. The Canadian Environmental Law Association has pointed out that the Environmental Bill of Rights has a built-in clause to exempt public consultation if the minister deems that a delay would cause harm to the public, the environment or property. The new changes mean that exemptions can be made without explanation or ministerial responsibility.

Ramming through deregulation during a crisis is extremely anti-democratic. While we have come to expect this from corporations and their legions of lobbyists, we need our elected officials to be able to stand up to corporate interest and protect people and our environment.

We know that corporations are looking for ways to get their agenda passed during this crisis. There is no finer example than this a memo from the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers, sent to federal Minister of Natural Resources, Seamus O’Regan. The memo lists over 30 requests for delays or suspensions of environmental regulations, referencing the COVID-19 pandemic. None of the requests are related to how the industry is affected by the pandemic, but appear to be an attempt to push through as much deregulation as possible with lesser scrutiny.

The risk of more industry-friendly deregulation is real in Ontario. Without oversight, the Ford government could rubberstamp water taking, gravel pit or sewage plant permits and put our water, natural habitats and community health in danger. While it is unclear if the blanket exemption of public participation is done with that in mind, the patterns seen in Alberta, Manitoba and the U.S. are concerning warning signs.

Now is the time to be even more vigilant. For decades, communities have come together to defend the air, land and water not just from megaquarries, gravel pits or sewage sludge plants, but also the corporate-friendly governments that enabled these projects. We know that our government acts in our interest when we demand it, and we will continue to protect our communities from both the virus and those who want to use the virus to push through harmful policies.