By Ian Pattison

With so much good news on the COVID front this week, it is easy to overlook the fact that other news is not so good. We’ve got a vaccine in record time but on the environment, protections are waning.

While you weren’t looking, Ontario has been doing two things at once. While trying to beat back the virus in hot spots it let develop, Doug Ford’s government has been whittling away at environmental protections built over decades.

In just their latest move, the Conservatives tucked into their budget bill this week a provision to reduce the ability of conservation authorities to regulate development while making it easier for developers to obtain permits.

Conservation authorities, like Thunder Bay’s, are unique in Canada. Created by an act of the legislature nearly 75 years ago in response to concerns about rapid development and deforestation, they do important work to maintain our natural features, chiefly by protecting local watersheds against erosion and flooding.

They own and operate control structures like the Neebing-McIntyre Floodway that courses through the middle of Thunder Bay where once flooding was all too common. The Lakehead Region Conservation Authority is the body that issues flood alerts. It regulates development around wetlands and along shorelines.

These authorities build and do their best to maintain parks called conservation areas. They do their best in spite of much mindless vandalism and the refusal of many to drop a loonie in a coin box to help defray the cost of operations, including boat launches.

Conservation authorities get more than half of their funding from member municipalities, about a third from those coin boxes and other revenue-generating efforts, with only about 12 per cent from senior governments. Even that was too much for Ford and Co., who last year cut support for flooding initiatives in half.

Here’s what LRCA chair Donna Blunt said of the budget measure, living up to her name: “The Ford government seems to be putting business interests and developer interests ahead of the environment and science-based decisions.”

Last month, Thunder Bay city council unanimously urged the province to reconsider the provision. “It places a tremendous amount of power in the minister’s office to allocate permits, potentially contrary to the advice of a conservation authority,” said Coun. Andrew Foulds who moved the motion.

The bill goes so far as to empower the municipal affairs minister to authorize immediate approval for a development and to force the local conservation authority to go along. That was too much for Mayor Bill Mauro, a former Ontario natural resources minister, who said, “The fact that it is allowing the minister to … bypass regular planning and permitting approvals is a big, big deal – especially when it comes to potential development of wetlands, hazard lands, floodplain zones, and the like.”

David Crombie, a former federal Progressive Conservative cabinet minister, resigned as chairman of the province’s advisory Greenbelt Council last weekend in protest, calling the government’s changes “high-level bombing.” Half of the remaining council members followed suit. Ford remains unmoved.

Last month, Ontario’s auditor general issued a scathing indictment of the government, saying it is failing to obey environmental laws and is fond of evading transparency rules in the process.

The province is no longer collecting enough data to know whether it’s actually conserving protected lands and endangered species, said Bonnie Lysak’s report. Ontario Parks lacks the staff to conduct all of its work and the province risks missing its 2030 emissions reduction target, in part because it isn’t reducing its use of fossil fuels.

Is this what Ontarians wanted when they voted as much to punish the former Liberal government as they did to usher in a new, blue administration? Or are too many people preoccupied with the pandemic to notice, or care?

South of us, President Donald Trump has taken his climate change denial to extremes, axing all sorts of environmental protections, opening up pristine protected areas to drilling and development, and this month rejecting tougher standards on soot, the country's most widespread, deadly air pollutant.

Bucking Trump’s trend, several clean energy executives at Royal Dutch Shell have resigned amid a split over how far and fast the oil giant should shift towards greener fuels, reports the Financial Times. Some executives have pushed for a more aggressive shift from oil but top management is more inclined to stick closer to the company’s current path.

Exxon, meanwhile, purports to “believe that climate change risks warrant action and it’s going to take all of us — business, governments and consumers — to make meaningful progress.” But, according to investment advisor Green Century, newly leaked documents from the company show that ExxonMobil’s 2018 investment plan projected that it would increase annual carbon emissions by as much as the amount emitted by the entirety of Greece.

Exxon-owned Imperial Oil Canada appears equally unmoved by the climate crisis. After Imperial's presentation at its annual general meeting last Friday failed to mention anything about green energy, some shareholders wanted to know why.

“CEO Rich Kruger replied by suggesting the company is focused on producing oil and gas for decades to come, although it looks at renewables every now and then,” reports CBC.

Kruger takes his lead from Exxon Mobil CEO Rex Tillerson who recently told shareholders his firm hadn’t invested in renewable energy because, "We choose not to lose money on purpose."

Thankfully, many other oil and gas companies see the light and are investing heavily in green energy projects throughout the world. But as long as environmental tyrants like Ford and Trump are in office, the needed partnership between government and industry to prepare for the inevitable transition to renewables will flounder.

Ironically, the coronavirus pandemic lockdown has led to a reduction in worldwide carbon dioxide emissions, but that won’t last once travel resumes. Airlines, auto giants and the oil industry that fuels them are itching to get people back in the air and on the road. Wouldn’t it be nice if instead they were using this downtime to work on cleaner ways to operate?

Pressed to excel, research can succeed, spectacularly. The COVID vaccine endeavour proves it. The climate crisis deserves every bit as much urgency.

Ian Pattison is retired as editorial page editor of The Chronicle-Journal, but still shares his thoughts on current affairs.

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