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Blown away: Rural residents find consultation on wind projects a sham

Many political economists argue that environmental assessments and other regulatory regimes often fail to serve the public interest because the regulatory process tends to be “captured” by the concentrated interests – the fox ends up in charge of the henhouse.

The history of Ontario’s Green Energy Act makes their case. The renewable energy industry, which has billions at stake, can afford to spend millions making their case, while the 35 million individual Ontarians – not knowing what would be hitting them in years to come and unable to compete even if they did – become hapless victims.

The environmental assessment process put in place under the Green Energy Act to review industrial wind turbine projects located in many rural communities ignores substantial environmental costs and health risks on these communities. Rather than objectively assess the projects at hand, the environmental assessment process becomes a mockery, an instrument that perverts scientific and economic findings to meet government and industry objectives – in this case, to build wind turbines, with scant regard for either environmental or economic costs.

For starters, no renewable energy project is subject to a hearing process. While there is a right of appeal to the Environmental Review Tribunal on limited grounds, many projects initiated before the Green Energy Act came into force are governed by transitional rules that deny even this option, seriously undermining precepts of transparency and accountability.

Next, even within the Ministry of Energy, where the director and minister have statutory discretion to order elevated or individual assessments for this class of project, this discretion, to the best of my knowledge, has never been exercised in the case of wind turbine projects (despite numerous requests), suggesting that the existence of the discretion is largely a dead letter.

Third, the public consultation process as prescribed by the Environmental Assessment Act has proven to be a sham, typically consisting of a show-and-tell format where members of the public are invited to ask questions of proponents’ representatives or consultants at various display stalls in a public meeting hall, but no effort is made to elicit reactions or concerns from the public in a general public discussion.

Fourth and shockingly, the Ministry of the Environment’s Guide to Environmental Assessment Requirements for Electricity Projects states that “the environmental screening processes are a proponent-driven, self-assessment process” and “because the environmental screening process is a self-assessment process, reports that proponents prepare under the environmental screening process are not approved by the MOE.” In other words, the process is tantamount to students being invited to grade their own exam papers.

Fifth, many rural residents of Ontario are concerned about the lack of consideration of cumulative effects of multiple projects in their communities on view-sheds, flora and fauna, and the general scenic and recreational amenities and character of the community. These projects are reviewed by the Ministry of the Environment on a project-by-project, piecemeal basis, where cumulative effects of multiple projects are not considered, despite the fact that the Ministry of the Environment’s own Statement of Environmental Values requires explicit consideration of cumulative environmental effects. Having deprived municipalities of any land use planning controls over renewable energy projects in their communities, this piecemeal approach to project approvals violates core tenets of any rational land use planning process.

Sixth, the director of the approvals branch of the MOE apparently takes the view that the impact of industrial wind turbine projects on local property values of adjacent landowners is not relevant to the environmental assessment process, claiming that “concerns relating to local property values are a municipal issue and are best addressed by the municipality.” Again, this view seems to contradict the ministry’s Statement of Environmental Values, which requires consideration of the relationship among the environment, the economy and society.

Finally, considerable uncertainty surrounds the health effects of sustained exposure to low-frequency noise on residents living proximate to wind turbine projects, but these projects are proceeding despite the ministry’s acknowledgement that its existing measurement technologies and requirements are not well-equipped to measure levels and variations in low-frequency noise and seems to contradict the precautionary principle in its Statement of Environmental Values. In contrast to the province’s complacency, Health Canada appears to be taking health concerns seriously, having just announced a two-year study into the health effects of wind turbines on nearby residents.

In a recent, widely celebrated book, Regulation and Public Interests: The Possibility of Good Regulatory Government, Prof. Steven Croley argues that public-interest theories of regulation, unlike capture or cynical theories of regulation, critically depend on the observance of various procedural preconditions, including: a) political decision-making autonomy; b) autonomy from the interests being regulated; c) lack of dependence on factual information supplied from certain kinds of interest groups, and not others; d) the capacity and resources for independent collection and evaluation of complex scientific and economic information; and e) an open, inclusive and transparent process that levels the field of interest group competition by providing less powerful interests with the means to compete with more powerful interests.

The environmental process for industrial wind turbine projects in Ontario fails to meet all of these preconditions, and hence justifies, with little or no qualification, a cynical or capture view of the regulatory process.

Michael Trebilcock is professor of law and economics at the University of Toronto,
and the author of “Taking Green Seriously,” a critique of wind turbine regulations ­published by Energy Probe.