By Frank Dabbs, Brantford Expositor
There is no way to sugarcoat this pill. The McGuinty government is damaging wind power development in Ontario by allowing public consultation practices that are arbitrary, unfair and out of date.
In the shadow of new turbines, broken relationships are discrediting, thwarting and wrecking a perfectly reasonable idea. These public consultation practices are not the creation so much as the default position of a government incompetent in energy policy and using the rhetoric of green power to cover its ineptitude.
Liberal politicians, their political capital exhausted, treat the province outside a narrow urban bubble along the shores of lakes Ontario and Erie and the St. Lawrence River as inconsequential geographical padding.
The first bulldozer that reluctant rural residents see at the start of a wind power project is the relentless and overbearing process for community relations blessed by political and regulatory bosses.
It is known by the paternalistic acronym DAD.
Decide. Announce. Defend. It pits neighbour against neighbor and ratepayers against municipal counselors.
To add insult to injury, Uncle Dalton gives lavish subsidies to wind power developers that guarantee profits, paid for by the same taxpayers divided against each other by the impacts of development.
There is another way.
Ironically it comes from the Wild West, from free enterprise, conservative Alberta, the tax and regulatory haven for energy producers of all types -oil, gas, coal, hydro, wind and other renewables.
Under the Alberta Utilities Board’s Rule 107, wind power developers must comply with a demanding public process that asks them to involve their neighbours as participants in the project.
Concerns about impacts -noise, health, local traffic, compensation, whatever -must be addressed, and usually redressed, before a project application will be approved.
Property and homeowners within two kilometres of a wind power facility fenceline must, without exception, be included in the formal consultation process.
Project developers are expected to use common sense and include a wider constituency where appropriate.
The Alberta process deals in the nitty gritty details.
For instance, there are tough, measurable noise guidelines that protect families living near the projects, and health impacts are considered even though determining them is not as advanced as measuring noise.
The project developer is not allowed to be the judge of what is a reasonable demand, nor is the government.
A competent quasi-judicial authority makes the determination, and a formal public hearing is held when necessary to resolve issues.
An independent and respected activist non-government organization, the Pembina Institute, provides copies of the 95-page Land Owners Guide to Wind Energy in Alberta to assist residents, farm operators and businesses surrounding a proposed project to participate in public consultations and negotiate with a project developer.
The guide says, “Widespread consultation and engagement with communities, experts and other stakeholders remains the key to choosing appropriate locations for future wind projects.”
In the case of a proposed coal-fired electricity generation project near the southeast Alberta town of Brooks, consultations have been going on for four years even though financing is not yet arranged, engineering is not yet finished and even the partners have yet to be settled on.
In Alberta terms, this is as it should be because the neighbours should be involved as soon as the project is sketched out on a napkin.
The Bow City Landowners’ Protection Committee, the vehicle for this consultation, is funded by the developer and costs incurred by the participants, including out-of-pocket expenses, are paid.
In spite of these tough public consultation rules, and a generally more stringent regulatory system than Ontario’s, Alberta attracts its share of wind power developers and new project proposals.
The rules for relations between energy project developers and their neighbors and communities are grounded in three elements of Alberta’s conservative political philosophy.
One: Government rarely knows what is best.
Two: Corporations have social responsibilities that must be paid for as a cost of doing business.
Three: Property rights trump most other considerations.
As in other modern western democracies, Alberta’s provincial and municipal governments have expropriation rights for public purposes and energy producers can gain access to land by claiming eminent domain.
However, these powers are used carefully and are preceded almost without exception by consultations.
Alberta’s transparent public consultations are the result of bitter conflicts over coal plants, garbage dumps, gravel pits, poisonous sour gas wells and other oil and gas operations that, unless properly conducted, have inconvenient, unpleasant and even severe impacts on the neighbours.
It would be false to say they invariably work, but they are far better for neighbours, the community and ultimately wind power project developers than what is on offer in Ontario.
It is proudly claimed by the political establishment that Ontario’s setback requirements for wind turbines are more stringent than in eight European countries and were created in response to public pressure.
That’s green wash.
It is also a sorry start on what is needed to make wind power welcome in rural Ontario.
Here’s a campaign slogan for either Tim Hudak or Andrea Horwath.
First come, first served, no charge.
“Ontario wind power consultation like Alberta.”