Last Thursday, Ontario's Minister of Energy announced that the government will hold twelve town hall meetings on Ontario's energy future, beginning February 13, 2006. The focus of those meetings is a recent report by the Ontario Power Association ("OPA"). The Ontario government commissioned the OPA to recommend the best mix of electricity generation for the province.
The OPA report sparked passion, controversy, and an intense discussion about the province's needs. Lobbyists have been arguing the case for their particular forms of power - such as nuclear, hydro, gas, etc. Energy experts (including the OPA itself) have been crying "crisis," urging the government to act quickly to ward off blackouts. Environmentalists and community groups have been pleading for a commitment to non-coal, non-nuclear options.
The response is heated because the issue is so monumental â€“ a fact that is often masked by the dry, clinical language of electricity policy. No matter what mix is chosen, Ontario's energy policy will have dramatic consequences for the province's economy, security, and environment. Industry and residents seek reassurance that our electricity supply will be dependable, even during peak summer months. At the same time, other important considerations â€“ such as the risks of various options to security and the environment â€“ factor into the decision-making process.
On the one hand, the OPA report utterly fails to capture the significance of the issue in plain language, to paint a clear picture of what the various options, or to illustrate the various ramifications. On the other hand, this is an exciting time for Ontario and the OPA report provides a starting point for a meaningful discussion about our province's energy philosophy.
In this light, Waterkeeper views the town hall meetings as an important opportunity to launch a fact-finding mission, to embark upon a precedent-setting, no-holds-barred search for the world's best energy policy. We encourage you to attend the closest town hall meeting and to go armed with your questions. These preliminary consultations should not be reduced to "coal versus nukes" arguments or ideological jousts. Rather, they should be open and honest attempts to seek the best energy philosophy possible.
In anticipation of these meetings, Waterkeeper highlighting a number of the veiled biases that heavily influenced the OPA's final recommendation. In our opinion, these biases must be challenged and refined before the Ontario government goes any further:
First and foremost, the OPA never questioned the status quo. They did not engage in a fact-finding mission. They did not challenge pre-existing notions. The result is a report in desperate need of groundtruthing. For example, the OPA did not probe the murky waters of energy regulation to explore whether or not Ontarians are truly being protected. The report boldly declares that the CNSC is an effective regulator, but fails to mention that the CNSC relies on environmental standards that are dramatically out of whack with other countries. (Drinking water standards for tritium are 70 times more protective in Europe than in Canada, for example. Background on Waterkeeper's concerns with the CNSC is on our web site.)
Second, the OPA report is rooted in the notion that increases in energy demand should be met by corresponding increases in energy generation. It's right there in the title: "Supply Mix Advice Report." The result is a series of recommendations that don't really address options such as increased efficiency (eg. capturing wasted energy from industrial activities), smarter rates (to control consumption during peak hours), or the various other aspects of a well-rounded energy policy. Since generating electricity is just one part of the puzzle, we need to see the Ministry of Energy's entire energy policy before we know what capital investments are wise.
Third, there is never a suggestion that all energy production in Ontario should be clean. It seems like an obvious requirement, given the government's commitment to protecting citizens from the impacts of coal-fired power plants. Why is the pledge of clean water and fresh air abandoned during the rest of the debate?
In fact, there is a rather clumsy effort to greenwash traditional forms of energy, making them appear cleaner than they truly are. Nuclear power, in particular, benefits from the OPA's flawed environmental analysis. SENES Consultants suggested that greenhouse gas emissions are 20 times more important than the impacts from radioactivity, land use, water, or waste. The OPA accepted this bizarre ranking system, using it to determine that nuclear power is one of the cleanest forms of energy creation. Nowhere does the OPA acknowledge that SENES Consultants is an active member of the Canadian Nuclear Association, the nation's most powerful pro-nuclear lobby organization.
Fourth, the OPA recommendations never seem to really recognize that new facilities have to be built in real communities, where they will affect the lives of real people. One of the so-called "guiding principles" of the report is "Listening." The government pledges to create a, "plan for Ontario's energy future that ... reflects the values and concerns of its citizens."
To the Minister of Energy, we say: "Great pledge, let's make it work." These town hall meetings are an important part of a fact-finding mission, but they are not a fair or effective decision-making process. First and foremost, the government needs the public's help to groundtruth the OPA's report. Then the government needs to put forward a revised plan that withstands the scrutiny of a true environmental assessment hearing.
Ontarians value diversity, so this plan should reflect the different needs and wishes of different communities. Ontarians value our natural resources, so this plan should protect the assets we have left and begin to restorate the many we have lost. Ontarians also value truth, so this plan - and all further debate - should be based on tested facts. Let's get those on the table. Starting now.