Canadian Consulting Engineer

Is Ontario’s environmental assessment process too complex?

November 8, 2011
By Canadian Consulting Engineer

"Making the Most of Ontario's Environmental Assessment Process," was the theme of a conference held at the Ontario Science Centre in Toronto on October 27-28. The event was held by the Ontario Association for Impact Assessment, and participants...

“Making the Most of Ontario’s Environmental Assessment Process,” was the theme of a conference held at the Ontario Science Centre in Toronto on October 27-28. The event was held by the Ontario Association for Impact Assessment, and participants included lawyers, academics and government officials, but also an equal share of consulting engineers.

The Ontario Environmental Assessment Act is 35 years old this year, so the conference was charged to take stock of how effective the legislation has become. At the same time, participants were reminded that Ontario’s population is expected to increase from 13 million today to 18 million in 2036, with the big question of how effectively will the EA process work given all the environmental pressures a growing population will bring.

The first session was about how to establish the right frameworks for evaluating environmental assessments. The presenter, Kevin Hanna of Wilfrid Laurier University, is leading a government funded multi-university research project into the topic. The results of a research study they have done will be published soon at

Consultant and planner Steven Rowe followed with a history of the 1976 Environmental Act and how the rules have evolved over the years. He explained that there are now environmental approvals, environmental impact assessments, technical reviews and environmental screening processes. On top of that there are other pieces of legislation that have to be taken into consideration, such as the Green Belt Act. Pictures are worth a thousand words, and Rowe’s organizational diagram for how the process works in just one sector was such a dizzying web of departments and procedures that it was clear that the assessment process has become far too complicated for its own good.


Rowe then outlined his thoughts on what the environmental process could be doing better. He said with all this procedural “crowding” it was “hard to find what we’re trying to do.” Among his suggestions were the need to clarify the relationship between environmental effects and process requirements — for example, we need to have a universal set of screening criteria. He suggested we need to clarify base principles i.e. the relationship between environmental assessments and provincial policy, technical approvals, and other processes. He also recommended a registry  for streamlining the process, improved access to technical reviews, and the need for consistent comparisons.

The discussions that followed focused on whether the assessment process’s requirements to look at alternative solutions were working well. Rowe and others suggested that considering alternatives is still useful for large scale projects, but there needs to be a more rational approach.

One participant pointed out that the B.C. Auditor General had recently issued a scathing report on that province’s environmental assessment process, pointing out that it had only said No to a project once.

There was also discussion on how the environmental assessment process is affected by a “culture of engagement.” A participant noted that “there is a bit of feeling at the end of the day that it doesn’t really matter. For example the Mackenzie Valley Pipeline assessment was a good process, with good questions, but it was all ignored by the decision-makers at the end of the day.”


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