Recent Media Coverage

MNR report reveals true cost of industry permits

Queen's Park Briefing, the Toronto Star

By Andrew Reeves

February 6, 2013

The Ministry of Natural Resources invests an average of 500 staff hours and roughly $24,000 over four years into the development of a single industry permit under the Endangered Species Act, according to an internal report prepared for the ministry.

Documents shared with QP Briefing reveal that on average the permitting process can consume anywhere from 74 hours and $3,491 for low-complexity permits to 2,068 hours and $97,546 per permit for high-complexity cases such as wind developments or highway construction.

Through a Freedom of Information Act request, environmental charity Ontario Nature obtained an October 2011 report from Deloitte & Touche LLP that the ministry commissioned to better understand the full cost of the permitting process under the act.

While Deloitte emphasizes the results of its 12-project survey are “directional rather than exhaustive,” it says the “data analysis provides a good initial starting point for conceptualizing the timelines and costs of issues permits.”

The Hwy. 69-400 project, the largest in terms of staff hours, involved 3,056 hours of ministry staff labour, almost 100 times more hours than the smallest project examined in Norfolk County, and almost triple the number of hours spent on a Prince Edward County wind project.

Costs for the 12 projects studied indicate a wide range of staff hours needed for permitting. While $1,665 was needed in Norfolk County, $144,178 was spent on permitting alone for the Hwy. 69-400 project because of cross-ministry coordination, scale and the complexity of the job.

The ministry receives approximately 4,000 inquiries annually about permissible activities under the Endangered Species Act, spokeswoman Jolanta Kowalski told QP Briefing. Since 2007, the ministry has issued more than 500 permits for a “wide range of activities,” she said.

But the latest proposed changes to the Endangered Species Act have been driven, to some degree, by the often heavy toll the permitting process takes on the ministry in terms of labour and funding, said Anne Bell, conservation director with Ontario Nature.

“[The ministry] wants to reduce their involvement in permitting by cutting back on workload for staff and eventually cutting staff to meet their budget reduction targets,” Bell told QP Briefing.

She said the current permitting process is not a rubber stamp for industry, nor does it render off-limits areas that are home to some of the province’s 190 species at risk.

Provided that adequate measures are taken to limit the harm done to species and the proper permits awarded, industry has long been allowed to develop forestry, mining or aggregate projects in ecologically sensitive areas, according to Bell.

But the solution is not to cut back on permitting but find a better way of paying for it. “What we’re saying to government … is that they cannot abandon environmental protection: they just need to better recover the costs from permitting because we have industry players making millions from projects that impact species at risk and they should be paying for it,” Bell said.

The idea was also raised in the services review from economist Don Drummond in February 2012, when he said “the cost burden of providing these services should be placed on the beneficiary’s shoulders rather than the public.”

Bell agrees. “Companies can get around [harming species at risk] through permits and meeting high standards: they might have to do work and it might cost them, but they’re making money doing their work,” she said. “And we’re talking about destroying a public good so a private company can make a profit.”

The latest cuts to the ministry – projected during the March 2012 budget talks to be close to $50 million, though some estimates suggest that figure could be closer to $70 million, or 10 per cent of its total budget – are simply the latest in a long line of deep gouges to the coffers of Natural Resources and the Environment ministry.

Environmental Commissioner Gord Miller said in his 2010-11 annual report that the combined budgets of these two ministries has dropped 64 per cent since 1992-93, when they received 2.15 per cent of the total provincial budget. By 2010, that figure had fallen to 0.76 per cent, leaving MNR and MOE as the two most poorly funded ministries in the Ontario government.

“The evidence is strong that long years of ‘streamlining’ and ‘realigning’ at MNR and MOE, coupled with steadily growing responsibilities, have brought about a crisis of capacity in those ministries,” Miller said.

“Capacity is stretched too thin on core responsibilities [and] MOE and MNR have repeatedly been expected to deliver ambitious programs by realigning existing resources [while they] struggle to find efficiencies.”

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