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Ontario court strikes down move by Ford government to cancel massive wind farm project

An Ontario court has struck down a move by the provincial government to kill the partly-built Nation Rise Wind Farm southeast of Ottawa, quashing Environment Minister Jeff Yurek’s decision last year to block the project over his concerns about endangered bats.

In its ruling, the Ontario Divisional Court said Mr. Yurek’s decision last December was “not reasonable,” and did not “meet the requirements of transparency, justification, and intelligibility.” Instead of returning the matter to the minister for reconsideration, the court took the unusual step of quashing it altogether and allowing construction on the wind farm to resume.

The ruling is a rebuke for the Progressive Conservative government of Doug Ford, which has sided with the rural opponents of wind and solar energy and spent at least $230-million to cancel 750 renewable energy projects approved by its Liberal predecessors. The government has said the projects were bad deals that paid artificially high rates for power, and that cancelling them saved consumers money in the long run.

The company behind the 29-turbine Nation Rise project, EDP Renewables Canada Ltd., a subsidiary of Madrid-based EDP Renovaveis SA, took Mr. Yurek’s move to court last year. Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, a video hearing was held last month.

The project was initially approved by the previous Liberal government just before the 2018 election. A local group, Concerned Citizens of North Stormont, then challenged it before the province’s Environmental Review Tribunal, which approved it last year and concluded the project’s risk to bat populations was negligible. That group then asked Mr. Yurek for his last-ditch intervention, prompting him to overrule the ERT in December.

The company has previously said it had spent $230-million on the project. Construction began last May, seven months before Mr. Yurek’s abrupt cancellation.

In a statement, the company said it was eager amid the pandemic downturn to restart its project, which had created 230 local construction jobs. It said the wind farm would provide electricity at approximately half the price of typical residential rates, with no greenhouse gas emissions.

“This delay has resulted in unnecessary expenditures to-date, at a time when governments and businesses should be focused on reducing costs and restarting the economy,” the company said in a statement.

Andrew Buttigieg, a spokesman for Mr. Yurek, said the government was disappointed with the decision. “At this time, we are reviewing the decision and are carefully considering our next steps.”

In overrulling Mr. Yurek’s attempt to quash the project, the three-judge panel of the Divisional Court said the minister was not entitled to reconsider the issue of danger to bat populations, as the Concerned Citizens of North Stormont did not raise the issue in their appeal. The court also said the evidence in the case simply does not support his conclusion that bats are at risk.

“On the record before him, including the lack of evidence … a reasonable decision maker could not conclude that the project would cause serious and irreversible harm to bats,” the court’s decision reads.

The decision also orders the government to pay the company’s $126,500 legal costs – far less than the up-to $200-million bill critics warned Ontario could face for cancelling the project.

NDP energy and climate crisis critic Peter Tabuns on Monday said the ruling comes as no surprise, as the minister’s actions were “so outrageous that it was hard to believe that any court would back him.”

Mr. Tabuns argued the Ford government had no interest in saving bats, as it had previously “gutted” its endangered species legislation with new provisions that allow developers to pay a fee instead of implementing local mitigation strategies to protect wildlife, a move activists have labelled “pay to slay.”

“If I was the minister, I’d be embarrassed,” Mr. Tabuns said. “The argument of the minister never had any ring of truth to it at all.”

Ontario Green Party Leader Mike Schreiner, the MPP for Guelph, welcomed the court’s decision.

“The government cancelled this project when the Premier was openly musing about tearing down every wind turbine in the province,” Mr. Schreiner said. “But political vendettas do not allow the Premier to supersede the rule of law.”

The local citizens group that has been fighting the wind farm said it would ask the Ontario Court of Appeal to overturn the Divisional Court decision.

“We will very respectfully be asking the Court of Appeal to reconsider what seems to be a tremendous step backwards for environmental protection in Ontario,” Margaret Benke, of the Concerned Citizens of North Stormont, said in an e-mailed press release.