Editor's note: This article originally appeared on The Trillium, a new Village Media website devoted exclusively to covering provincial politics at Queen’s Park.
A short new bill tabled by Ontario's infrastructure minister to allow the government to speed up environmentally sensitive development projects is concerning opposition parties at Queen's Park.
Infrastructure Minister Kinga Surma introduced Bill 69, the Reducing Inefficiencies Act, in the Ontario legislature on Monday. The main changes in the seven-page bill are to the Environmental Assessment Act, Ontario's law setting out the planning and decision-making processes for potentially environmentally sensitive development projects like provincial and municipal roads, highways and transit projects.
If passed, Surma's bill would allow Ontario's environment minister to change or waive the 30-day period between when comments are given during a class environmental assessment on a project and when it can proceed.
Although the government described these 30 days as a "waiting period" in its press release announcing the bill, Environmental Defence's Phil Pothen, the environmental advocacy organization's Ontario program manager, said it's a time when the "minister is supposed to be considering, and the public is supposed to be debating, whether to refer a project for a more detailed assessment."
Class environmental assessments apply to routine projects that have "predictable environmental effects that can be readily managed," the government's website says, and lay out a standardized planning process. Certain GO Transit, municipal infrastructure and provincial transportation projects undergo this type of environmental assessment.
The Trillium emailed the infrastructure minister's spokespeople requesting a short interview with Surma on Tuesday but did not hear back from them before this article was published.
After this story was first published, a member in Environment Minister David Piccini's office emailed The Trillium to stress that because the changes only apply to class environmental assessments that large transit projects "would likely" still be subject to a full environment assessment. He also noted that it would only allow waiting periods to be waived in certain circumstances.
"To clarify, the proposed amendment to the Environmental Assessment Act would permit the minister to make an order to waive the 30-day waiting period for Class EA projects that have completed all the relevant Class EA requirements, have no outstanding issues, and are ready to move forward to implementation," wrote Robert Dodd, Piccini's director of issues management and legislative affairs. "Furthermore, an order to waive the 30-day waiting period can only be made following the end of the comment period under the relevant Class EA for the project."
"The government is modernizing its almost 50-year-old environmental assessment process that is too slow, too costly, and too burdensome," a government press release announcing the bill on Monday said. "The proposed changes will help projects get built faster, without compromising environmental standards and protections."
The bill would also change the Ministry of Infrastructure Act would to give the infrastructure minister authority over real estate that's currently controlled by eight other ministries, allowing Surma to oversee and manage these properties. Nine other acts would be tweaked to allow for the authority of these properties to be brought into the infrastructure minister's portfolio.
The leaders of Ontario's New Democratic, Liberal and Green parties each said they were concerned about the possible impacts of the legislation on Tuesday after it was introduced without much fanfare on Monday.
"I'm deeply concerned about changes to the Environmental Assessment Act because since day one, this government has systematically been dismantling environmental protections," Green Leader Mike Schreiner said.
NDP Leader Marit Stiles said her party is still reviewing the bill but has "grave concerns" about the government making it easier to bypass certain environmental assessments.
"We don't trust them (the Ford government) to protect the environment," Stiles said.
Interim Liberal leader John Fraser added that he too is concerned that the government will bypass environmental protections, saying "it's pretty consistent with what the (Ford) government's done."
This story was updated at 7:40 p.m. after Environment Minister David Piccini's office provided more information about Bill 69.