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Environmental oversight weakened: critics

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TORONTO—Ontario is weakening environmental oversight at a time when the province is changing gears on fighting climate change, advocacy groups said yesterday as they urged the government to cancel proposed changes to the environmental watchdog.

Critics denounced the Progressive Conservatives' decision to merge Ontario's environmental commissioner with the auditor general, saying it will reduce government accountability on environmental issues, including the province's new climate change plan, which replaces the cap-and-trade system.

Environmental advocates said only some of the commissioner's duties will be transferred to the auditor general but others—like the ability to issue special reports on matters such as climate change—will fall by the wayside.

“The government's proposal to abolish the environmental commissioner's office is an unjustified rollback of existing legal requirements that will result in far less transparency, far less oversight, far less accountability for environmental decision-making in Ontario,” said Richard Lindgren, a lawyer with the Canadian Environmental Law Association.

The organization's executive director and counsel, Theresa McClenaghan, said the change will mean less scrutiny of the climate change plan announced last week, which includes a promise to impose standards on the province's largest emitters and a plan to use taxypayer dollars to spur private investment in clean technologies.

“Down the road, an independent environmental commissioner would go back to that plan, look at what the government had said they were going to do, ask for evidence about whether they did those things, and report to the legislature and the public about those things,” she noted.

What's more, the commissioner was given statutory mandates to provide annual reports to the legislature on climate change and energy conservation, McClenaghan added.

“Those special reports are now being eliminated so one of the biggest issues of the day, climate change, is now something that isn't being singled out for that spotlight,” she argued.

The association, along with the Friends of the Porcupine River Watershed and a retired deputy environmental commissioner, said they are asking the government to call off combining the two offices.

The change was announced last month in the fall economic statement, which also saw the child advocate and the French-language services commissioner's offices rolled into the ombudsman's.

The government has said the moves were among the so-called efficiencies required to tackle the province's deficit but has not yet laid out how much will be saved.

The environment minister did not immediately respond to a request for comment yesterday.

Opposition parties, meanwhile, said the government has eroded the environmental safeguards that were in place.

“The teeth are gone," said NDP environment critic Ian Arthur. "The ability for the future position to critique this government has been significantly curtailed.”

Ontario Green Party leader Mike Schreiner said the environmental commissioner must remain a stand-alone, independent office.

“This is not a cost-saving move," he charged. "It is a power grab to reduce oversight and accountability, and to remove independent criticism of government policy.”

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