by Krystyn Tully, Waterkeeper.ca Weekly
There will be no off-shore wind projects in Ontario any time soon. Off-shore wind farms are built in the water – in Ontario, this generally means in the Great Lakes and especially in Lake Ontario. Before the decision to halt off-shore wind development, you could have expected to see as many as 400 wind turbines dotting the shoreline from Toronto to Kingston. The Ontario government has changed its mind about off-shore wind and has decided to do more research on the environmental effects of the turbines. We know this will make us unpopular with the environmental crowd, but we need to say this: the decision is the right one.
On February 11, 2011, the government announced that “Ontario is not proceeding with any development of offshore wind projects until the necessary scientific research is completed and an adequately informed policy framework can be developed.” There are many off-shore wind projects in saltwater environments, but mass development in freshwater environments such as the Great Lakes is unprecedented.
It is not clear how the construction and operation of the wind turbines would affect fish habitat, water quality, or navigation. It is not clear, because off-shore wind on the Great Lakes has never been properly studied. Given the major weakness with Ontario’s environmental regulation practices, it was highly unlikely that the impacts would be studied in any meaningful way before off-shore wind projects were approved. (Ontario eliminated meaningful environmental assessments in the 1990s, and the Green Energy Act eliminated effective licencing processes last year.) The absence of EAs and licencing reviews left the government with two options: do the research now and come up with a blanket policy that will apply to all off-shore wind projects, or let off-shore wind projects move forward and hope for the best.
This month, the government decided that hoping for the best was not the wisest course of action. It cancelled off-shore wind projects province-wide. Critics of the decision to halt off-shore wind projects have called it a “political decision” that is a result of pressure from “anti-wind” groups.
Seemingly without irony, such critics trumpeted projects such as the Wolfe Island Wind Project and other land-based wind developments that were highly politicized. Wolfe Island Wind, for example, was approved by the Ontario and Canadian governments through processes that by-passed traditional public scrutiny. Kington Mayor Mark Gerretsen even described how his father, then Environment Minister John Gerretsen, “was also a staunch defender” of the Wolfe Island Wind project – a position that was entirely inappropriate in his role as the primary regulator.
Maybe the Ontario government did make its decision for political reasons. That does not mean that it is the wrong decision. The modest regulatory approvals processes that would have guided off-shore wind were not enough to protect Lake Ontario. They could not assess the cumulative impacts of 400 separate turbines from half-a-dozen different Ontario projects, let alone cumulative impacts of 1,400 turbines going up on the Canadian and U.S. sides of Lake Ontario at the same time. There was not enough scientific research to help us evaluate best practices and make helpful suggestions to decision-makers. Lake Ontario Waterkeeper has been at a loss for the last six months trying to figure out how we can best protect the lake with so many different projects and no real science to guide us.
Industry lobbyists figured they could learn from their mistakes – launch projects like the Wolfe Island off-shore project and make improvements in other places in the future. This is out of the question for anyone who seriously wants to protect Lake Ontario. Waterkeeper would never promote sacrificing one community in the name of a “pilot project” on the premise that the “lessons learned” might help another community.
We like the Ontario government’s decision because we see it as the only real way to solve the research gap problem and to make wise, science-based decisions in the future. We also know that off-shore wind is likely to return, once the Ontario government has done some more work on the research and policy front. Meanwhile, there are still 1,000 or so turbines planned for the U.S. side of Lake Ontario – six separate state counties have voted against off-shore wind, but the state power planning authority continues to push forward.
Footnote: Off-shore wind is just one of the many energy issues that Lake Ontario Waterkeeper studies in an effort to protect our watershed. In the last year alone, we have reviewed and commented on a variety of energy issues, including hydro dams, nuclear new build, nuclear operations, fuel manufacturing, and energy waste management. We have also commented extensively on Ontario’s energy policies.