By JONATHAN SHER, The London Free Press
With lakeshore residents up in arms over proposals to build wind farms in Lake Huron, Free Press reporter Jonathan Sher interviewed Huron-Bruce MPP Carol Mitchell. Here is the transcript from Friday’s interview:
Sher: The Ontario Ministry of Environment has a proposal to create a 5 km buffer along the lakeshore. In Michigan, on the other side of the lake, there’s some thought they’d go twice as far to protect the tourism trade.
How far a buffer do you think we need?
Mitchell: When the Green Energy Act was developed there’s always a scan of all of areas that have similar activity happening in their jurisdiction so that will happen again. One always has to make the decisions based upon on science and obviously we have to take into consideration the use of the lake right now. So the combination of all of that, the scan of what’s happening in other areas, the science and the uses and because Lake Huron is also . . . there’s use of water that people draw .. the city of London draws its water from Lake Huron. So all of that has to be taken into consideration.
Sher: Have you come to any conclusion yet on how big the buffer should be?
Mitchell: No, I have not come to any conclusion yet. One of t he things I want to encourage people to do is to become engaged, submit what your thoughts are, look to what is being recommended. I have asked for an extension by the MOE to give a longer period for people to provide their input with regard to the five km. We see what the MNR is bring forward so give us your thoughts. What are you thinking? All of that will be taken into consideration and this is just one part of it. There’s still the consultation process, public consultation process will begin as well.
Sher: There’s been concern raised by quite a few people in the community about their inability to find out which companies have applied to develop offshore in Lake Huron. We’ve been told there are three companies, 12 proposals in total, one as close as 50 meters from the shoreline. Shouldn’t people have a right to know
Mitchell: (Interrupting) Let’s just talk about process for a minute. So the applications that were received were in 2008 so the regulatory framework attached to offshore had not been developed. If there is to be a development offshore, MNR is just one piece. There’s the MNR regulatory framework.
There’s the MOE regulatory framework. They then have to go into the OPA, right, so there’s the three layers so when they get to the stage of where a contract has even been accepted by the OPA, that’s when the next process begins. But until they have a contract that has been accepted, they’ve been successful in feed-in-tariff with OPA, it’s just a beginning, right?
Sher: But don’t people want to know who the company is and what they plan before the government decides whether to offer a contract?
Mitchell: I think when you look at what, who the company is, what matters is what is the regulatory framework attached to that decision-making so they want to know all companies are treated the same, they want to know that their interests have been covered off in the regulatory framework. Then there’s also a process, right, you then get into the process of the development or of that project if it was successful, then there’s public consultation, so then another process begins.
Sher: How is the public to give meaningful input about that all-important regulatory framework if they aren’t told what plans specific companies have for specific developments in Lake Huron?
Mitchell: But if there was a specific development going forward, they would be a part of the public consultation. What we’re talking about today is the regulatory framework attached in order for any development to go forward.
All development has been stopped to deal with the regulatory framework.
Sher: We only know the vaguest outlines of what has been submitted as application for Lake Huron. We were told by the MNR that at least one of the application should call for a wind farm as close as 50 meters from the shoreline. Is that too close?
Mitchell: Cleary. What has been recommended is 5 km. When those applications were received there was not the overlay the same as the Green Energy Act had been applied to on-shore. This is the framework that the people have said they want to see attached to any to any offshore development.
Sher: Have you made up in your mind whether there should be some offshore development and it’s only a matter of creating the right regulations to have the right balance between those environmental and economic interests and the public’s interests? Do you think there should be some level of offshore wind turbines?
Mitchell: What I will be looking for in the regulations is to make sure the concerns are addressed the sensitivity of the lake and if all of that can be addressed, we’ll look to some offshore development.
Sher: In your own mind do you think all of those concerns can be addressed?
Mitchell: I think it’s in the preliminary stages so let’s hear what the public has to say. I was pleased and I support MNR bringing forward their attachments so .. I find, as a politician, when you’re in the throes of the public consultation, let’s hear what the public has to say.
Sher: So whether or not wind power in the lakes can be accommodated, depends in part by what the public expectation is, and in your mind, we have yet to fully hear on the public on that.
Sher: How important is the tourism business to your communities and how much should that weigh into any decision about offshore wind turbines?
Mitchell: Tourism in my riding is the second largest industry. Agriculture is number one, well energy. Agriculture, energy is number one, tourism is number two, So it’s a consideration. But also look at when we think about our drinking source, we rely on Lake Huron but we also rely on Lake Huron — it’s a major marine transporter as well, so let’s look at all of that.
Sher: There’s a lot of interests to be balanced.
Mitchell: Yes there are, as in all things and one has to find the balance.
Sher: You said you were waiting to get more information, hear more evidence, before you decide what buffer might be appropriate. Do you see any circumstance in which you would want to go less than five kilometers?
Mitchell: (pause) If I’m only speaking.. I would have to, I mean it’s five kilometers, it’s not five kilometers or less, right?
Sher: It’s five kilometers or more. Do you see any circumstance in which you would want a development less than five kilometers from the shore?
Mitchell: Uhh. I would have to be very sure that everything was covered off but quite frankly five KM is what MOE is proposing, greater then, so it’s not an option and quite frankly I’m sure they’ve done enough work that there shouldn’t be (development)
Sher: So in your mind the question isn’t whether the buffer should be less than five kilometers, the question is five kilometers sufficient or do we have to consider something a bit more – is that fair?
Mitchell: Well five, greater than, but there might be situations where five does. I’m not only speaking to my area.
Sher: I’ve also hear from people who don’t live along the shoreline. While they share concerns about offshore wind, they are probably much more concerned about wind farms that have already gone up on land and specifically they are upset, that while the government is considering a five km buffer offshore, the buffer on land is only 550 meters and that’s less half of the buffer that their townships had created before the Green Energy Act took force and took precedent. What do you make of their concerns?
Mitchell: When we brought the green energy act forward there was extensive consultation, travel throughout the province of Ontario, but you know what, let’s go backwards for a minute, let’s talk about why the green energy act and any wind development is so important. We are doing this to address climate change and we know that eliminating coal is the single most important thing that we can do to address climate change. Quite frankly, that part of the equation isn’t talked about enough. It is significant. When we look at the direct health effects caused by climate change, this is a significant shift. When the green energy act was developed, the science, all the bodies of work went into the decisions that were made.
Sher: I was talking to homeowner in your riding yesterday who invested $30,000 of her their own dollars to eco-fit their century-old farmhouse, so they share your concerns about the environment and about climate change but they also have something they don’t share with you or a lot of people in the province who will benefit from the reduction of use of coal — they are being surrounded by 350 foot wind turbine, that’s just the hub height, that they say are going to blot out their view of the landscape, of the sunset, really damage the property value of their home. They want to know why was the buffer for them so small and why should they be the sacrificial lamb for the rest of the province.
Mitchell: They’re not the sacrificial lamb. All of this is taken into consideration when the green energy act was developed, so we have to look at energy. I think one of the things that isn’t talked about is how the green energy act will benefit rural Ontario. We haven’t seen investment in rural Ontario like this since, quite frankly, the railway came through. My farmers have the opportunity to harvest the wind, harvest their crops and the community behind wind development. They see it as an opportunity to provide further opportunities for them on the farm.
Sher: What percentage of farmers in your communities have wind turbines on their properties and are benefiting directly from their use?
Mitchell: There are a number of farmers that are benefiting directly by the wind turbines but let’s back up for a minute.
Sher: Do you know what percentage it is?
Mitchell: But let’s back up for a minute.
Sher: Before we do, before we back up, let’s deal with this question: Do you know what percentage of your farmers . . .
Mitchell: I do not know what percentage. I do know that the farmers that do have a contract entered into the contract through discussions with the wind developers, so if they chose not to have them on their land, they are not on their land.
Sher: What about if a farmer wants to chose them not to have them on their neighbour’s property.
Mitchell: Well then there are buffers and all that has to be taken into consideration and we’d be more than happy to send you information on the green energy act. I have to go. We committed to, I think I already extended past the time I committed to.
Sher: I appreciate, obviously, all your time but I didn’t commit to a specific time.
Mitchell: I thought my staff instructed that there was only 15 minutes that I could give to you. They did not do that?
Sher: They did not. They gave a start time but they didn’t give an end time.
But really I have one basic question. You were quite involved with the Green Energy Act, correct?
Mitchell: Yes, I did the public consultations throughout the province.
Sher: So what was the rationale to go from what had been a local buffer of over one kilometer to one of 550 meters?
Mitchell: Some were much less than (500). Some were 250, some were 200. It depends on their was certainly a scan on what all the municipalities had.
You used one example, I could use other examples, but all of that was taken into consideration
Sher: In your jurisdiction were people in favour of reducing the buffer?
Mitchell: That was not the case across all of my municipalities. In my riding there were some that were at 250, some were 300, some were at 200, it varied. What we needed throughout the province was decisions based upon science, decisions based upon the environment, decision based upon a collective thought throughout the province. That’s why the green energy act came forward.
Sher: How do you measure scientifically the loss of value of a view of a sunset.
Mitchell: Jonathan, I have to go, I have to apologize. I have given more time than what my staff had allocated. If my staff did not tell you that I only had 15 minutes, I do apologize for it, but that’s all the time I can.
Sher: I do appreciate your time. Do you want to say last thing about the MNR’s proposed policy.
Mitchell: I want to say one more thing about how important the green energy act is. This is about addressing climate change and we really have a wonderful opportunity in the province of Ontario, with our resources. When we look at piece of legislation, all of that is taken into consideration.
The green energy act is strongly supported by the majority of the people and the action that we have brought forward.
Sher: Thank you very much for your time today.