March 7, 2005

Ministries should model environmental value statements on corporate best reporting practices, says EBR review

Ontario ministries should update and reinforce the importance of their Statements of Environmental Values (SEVs), modelling them on the best environmental reporting practices used by responsible corporations.

This is the leading recommendation arising from an arm's-length review of the province's Environmental Bill of Rights (EBR), launched last year by Gord Miller, Environmental Commissioner of Ontario (ECO), to mark the tenth anniversary of the EBR. He presented a Special Report to the Legislature last week containing proposals for strengthening the legislation.

"There's no question the EBR has been an extremely important legal tool for protecting the environment in this province," Miller said. "But the tenth anniversary of the EBR seemed a good milestone for evaluating the effectiveness of the Act during the past ten years, and also a chance to look forward to ways in which it might be improved."

SEVs, which the 13 ministries designated under the Act are required to prepare, describe how each ministry applies the EBR when making decisions that affect the environment. As a model for updating these documents, review participants pointed to the guidance documents used by responsible corporations to help them incorporate environmental considerations into their business decision-making process. These documents set specific environmental goals, and corporations measure their progress toward these goals against set benchmarks, report on their progress to shareholders.

Similarly, the reviewers said, ministry SEVs should also contain clear goals and measurable targets regarding how the purposes of the EBR will be applied and integrated with other considerations when ministries make environmentally significant decisions. In addition, they said senior government officials should reinforce their importance to ministry staff, for example by posting the SEV in the workplace with the endorsing signatures of the current minister and deputy minister.

The report has recommended that SEVs be subject to a regular periodic review to ensure that they reflect the government's current environmental priorities and policies. As well, the report proposes amending the EBR to set out more detailed requirements for SEVs and to clarify the expectation that they be considered in making environmentally significant decisions, whether on a policy, act, regulation or instrument.

Miller also recommended that the purposes of the EBR be reviewed to give consideration to the inclusion of new environmental concepts which have evolved over the past decade, citing as examples the precautionary principle, the polluter-pays principle, and the principle of intergenerational equity.

A number of recommendations relate to improving the EBR environmental registry, in particular emphasizing the need for longer comment periods for significant proposals. To keep such longer comment periods from causing delays in the approval process, proposals for instruments, policies, acts or regulations could be posted earlier in the process, says the report.

All significant environmental decisions, including all prescribed instruments, should be traceable on the registry, whether as regular notices or exception notices filed promptly, it adds. Also, ministries should be encouraged to make more use of the EBR's enhanced public participation provisions for proposals which are controversial or are of broad public interest. Another recommendation called for lengthening the deadline from 15 to 20 days for filing requests with the Environmental Review Tribunal for leave to appeal a decision.

Participants in the ECO review further proposed that legislative changes be made to ensure the public is informed of all significant government decisions affecting the environment, and that the Legislature establish a standing committee on the environment so that MPPs can engage fully in the complex nature of environmental decision-making.

The EBR review was undertaken to evaluate whether the Act had fully achieved the purposes intended for it by the task force that originally designed the legislation ten years ago. During the course of the review, the Environmental Commissioner heard from more than 70 stakeholders and individuals, in addition to hosting a law reform workshop where leading experts on environmental law discussed and made suggestions concerning aspects of the EBR they believed were working-and those that were not.

"I truly hope this whole exercise will inspire positive changes to the EBR and the procedures used to implement it," Miller concluded. "More effective use of the EBR by the public can only result in better environmental decision-making, and in the end, a better environment in Ontario for generations to come."

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