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Getting rid of coal in electricity generation made Ontario Canada’s leader in reducing GHG emissions. Now that we have a remarkably climate-friendly electrical system, what about other uses of coal in Ontario? The Ontario Ministry of the Environment and Climate Change (MOECC) says it will get out of the way of coal reductions by heavy industries such as concrete, lime, iron and steel manufacturers, who are the largest users of coal in the province and account for approximately 11% of industrial GHG emissions.

Phasing out coal in electrical generation is the main reason that MOECC says it will achieve over 90% of 2014 targets for the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions (GHGs) (6% below 1990 levels by 2014) and more than 60% towards 2020 targets (15% below 1990 levels by 2020).  But Ontario’s energy-intensive manufacturing industries still use a lot of coal.

One of the big reasons is they do is that Ontario makes it very hard for industries to switch from coal to alternative, waste-based fuels. For example, Lafarge spent millions of dollars on an application to burn waste tires in its cement kiln. The MOE (as it then was) agreed the emissions would be acceptable, but an unprecedented decision by the Environmental Review Tribunal, upheld by the courts, made the application process too expensive and risky. In essence, the ERT said that “no reasonable person” could have made the decision to approve burning tires instead of coal, because it was an innovative decision. Lafarge kept on burning coal instead. It’s a sad case study of environmental rules being used to produce a result that was bad for the environment.

Now, Ontario is proposing changes to the Environmental Protection Act (EPA) to help the province’s energy-intensive manufacturing industries try again to transition from coal to some alternative fuels such as biomass (e.g., corn stover) or non-recyclable residual waste that would otherwise be disposed of as waste in landfills.

So how is Ontario encouraging the switch? As of now, the industries that want to use these alternative fuels are regulated under provincial law as waste disposal sites even though they are not in the waste management business. The change in law would mean that these facilities would still need to meet regulatory standards for air emissions and wastewater discharges; however, they would no longer require Environmental Compliance Approval (ECA) classifying the sites as “waste disposal sites,” and Environmental Assessment Act (EAA) requirements would no longer apply. The facilities would have flexibility to assess different fuels at their operations before applying for approval to use them on a long-term basis.

According to the MOECC, many jurisdictions such as Quebec, parts of the U.S. and some European countries have a well-established practice of using such alternative fuels for industrial processes, and regulatory frameworks have been updated to encourage this type of fuel switching in an environmentally responsible way. Changing Ontario’s regulations to encourage the use of alternative fuels by the cement and steel sectors will actually just keep Ontario competitive with other jurisdictions that have already gone in this direction.

Unfortunately, it’s not clear that the proposed reforms would solve the problem that stymied Lafarge’s application.

The public comment period on the latest version of these regulations is open from December 4, 2014 through February 2, 2015.

By Jennifer Kalnins Temple and Dianne Saxe

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