Portlands Energy Centre

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In August 2006, two applicants requested a review of the Certificate of Approval (C of A) issued to the Portlands Energy Centre (referred to, hereafter, as the “Centre” or “PEC”), an electricity generating station under construction on the eastern lakeshore of the City of Toronto. The C of A was issued under section 9 (Air) of the Environmental Protection Act (EPA). The applicants called for the review for two reasons:

  1. The PEC’s planned design was modified after the Centre’s C of A was issued. The applicants noted that the C of A was issued for a “combined cycle” facility but, in May 2006, the Centre’s president expressed the intention to operate the Centre initially as a “simple cycle” facility, for the 10-month period between June 2008 and February 2009. A combined cycle facility uses the residual heat from the natural gas-fired turbines to generate steam that drives a second set of turbines to generate electricity, making greater use of the fossil fuel-derived thermal energy. A simple cycle facility generates electricity only from the initial combustion energy, and has no second cycle.
  2. The applicants also believed that MOE did not adequately take into account the cumulative effect of air pollutants (i.e., the emissions generated from the Centre, plus background concentrations of contaminants) when approving this C of A. The air emissions of principal concern to the applicants were smog precursors. The applicants felt that this particular approval process demonstrates that Ontario's C of A process fails to adequately consider cumulative effects and, therefore, it does not sufficiently protect the health of Ontario communities: “Ontario’s system for evaluating and approving potential new emitters does not holistically consider an individual’s total exposure from on-site and off-site sources plus background concentrations. Therefore a facility, for example the PEC, may meet Ontario’s minimum requirements for approval while potentially contributing to health impacts associated with air quality.”

ECO Comment

The ECO believes MOE had limited justification for denying this application for review. MOE relied extensively on the proponents’ Environmental Screening Process (ESP) as evidence of EBR-equivalent public participation when the original C of A was issued. (The ESP was created by O. Reg. 116/01 under the Environmental Assessment Act.) Also, MOE relied on the EBR provision that the ministry can deny the request to review a decision, if it was made within five years of the application. However, the EBR also allows the ministry to conduct the review if the applicants provided new evidence, which they did (i.e., the short-term operation of the Centre on a simple cycle basis).

To operate the Centre on a simple cycle basis for the 10-month period, the proponents submitted an application to amend the Centre’s C of A in mid-November 2006. Before applying for the amendment, the proponents were required to determine whether there would be any negative effects from the operational change. The proponents detailed that the maximum predicted off-property point-of-impingement (POI) concentrations for smog-related contaminants would be below MOE’s POI criteria. On this basis, the proponents concluded that the Centre’s modification would have no negative effects. Because this C of A was issued and amended under the ESP it did not undergo EBR scrutiny at any time.

In the past, the ECO has expressed concern that most instruments issued under EAA processes, such as O. Reg. 116/01, are not receiving treatment equivalent to those subject to the EBR. For example, mandatory notification, the right to comment and the right to seek leave to appeal for many types of instruments are rights under the EBR, but are not available for most instruments issued under most EAA processes. The ECO feels that ministry staff should have the discretion to post proposal notices on the Registry for most of these instruments.

The ECO believes the applicants had grounds to call for a review, and that MOE acted on narrow technical grounds to deny this application. The application also raised valid, broader concerns about the need to consider cumulative effects assessments as a regular part of reviewing applications for Cs of A (air), especially for those facilities proposed for placement within already burdened airsheds.

Cumulative Effects Assessment

The applicants argued that the C of A approval process should require a cumulative effects assessment. The ECO considers this to be a valid point. MOE noted that a cumulative effects assessment was conducted through the Environmental Screening Process under O. Reg. 116/01 but, rather than describe the outcome, merely indicated that the assessment supports the proponents’ opinion that cumulative impacts for the PEC have been addressed.

The ECO recognizes the difficulty of siting new emitting facilities in areas with degraded air quality. Currently in Ontario, proponents of projects are not required to take into account ambient air quality when undertaking dispersion modelling for the purposes of applying for Cs of A. If O. Reg. 419/05 required proponents to incorporate ambient air quality considerations into dispersion modelling then many of these projects might not be approved or, if improved, would require the installation of very costly pollution control equipment. Such a requirement could place a large financial burden on the proponent of the next facility proposing to operate in certain airsheds. Further, proponents might contest such requirements, since they have no ability to control the receiving quality of the air into which they intend to release their plant’s emissions.

MOE informed the applicants that including cumulative effects assessment in the C of A review process is beyond the scope of the C of A review process; the ECO finds this disappointing. Taking into account the background concentrations of contaminants when modelling the emissions of a proposed facility is key to predicting the future state of local air quality should the facility be built. MOE has acknowledged that O. Reg. 419/05 does not adequately address background concentrations, cumulative or synergistic effects, or the persistence and bioaccumulation of contaminants. It is important from an environmental and human health perspective that MOE find some means of incorporating these considerations into the modelling of new facilities on a routine, program basis.

Throughout Ontario, many facilities are operating under outdated Cs of A. As a result, there are inequities between more recently licenced facilities – which generally need to meet the most modern and stringent standards – and older permitted facilities, which often continue to operate under outdated standards and models. MOE has begun to address this problem by phasing in tougher rules for most existing facilities between 2010 and 2020. Nevertheless, it is likely that many existing sources of air emissions in the City of Toronto are greater emitters of contaminants (per unit of fossil fuel combusted) than the PEC will be when operating. New approaches will be needed to bring about improvements in air quality while still accommodating new facilities in pollutant-burdened airsheds.

The ECO agrees that where air quality is of concern, options should be considered to reduce further burdening the local airshed. Since new facilities are apt to use the newest technology and be less emission-intensive than older facilities, MOE could focus on updating outdated Cs of A in airsheds where new facilities are seeking entry. Also, some jurisdictions have required proponents to seek emission offsets; these could be considered under this circumstance. For example, in San Diego County, California, a new natural gas-powered generating station was accommodated in a burdened airshed by way of offsets. The proponent replaced a fleet of 120 diesel-fuelled trucks with newer natural gas-burning vehicles to help meet air emission limits for the airshed once the station’s operation commenced.

Recommendation 10:

The ECO recommends that, where new emitters are seeking entry into heavily burdened airsheds, MOE implement measures to minimize cumulative effects; for example, by obtaining emission offsets and speeding up the process of updating older Cs of A in that airshed.

This is an article from the 2006/07 Annual Report to the Legislature from the Environmental Commissioner of Ontario.

Citing This Article:
Environmental Commissioner of Ontario. 2007. "Portlands Energy Centre." Reconciling our Priorities, ECO Annual Report, 2006-07. Toronto, ON : Environmental Commissioner of Ontario. 150-152.