Yesterday, Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne released her mandate letters. These set priorities for her ministers and ministries as part of her commitment to open government. While letters are always issued by a new government, this is the first time these letters have been made public.

We applaud the premier for following through on her commitment to openness. And we are heartened by much of what we see within the letters themselves.

Not surprisingly, the letter we’re most interested in is the one directed to the Minister of the Environment and Climate Change, Glen Murray. Among other things, the letter directs Minister Murray to “Lead the development of a new long term climate change strategy for Ontario.”

Ontario is a North American leader on climate. We shut down our coal plants and are among the leaders in renewable energy. As a result, we’re on track to meet our 2014 GHG reduction targets.

But, without a mandate to continue on this path, this early lead could be squandered. We don’t have a plan nor are we on track to meet our 2020 targets at present. So it’s great to see the government recognize this and to commit to build on the progress that has been made.

The mandate letter also says the ministry, working with the Treasury Board and other ministries, must “ensure climate change is taken into account in the government decision-making process.”

This is also a very significant development. Too often, government decisions don’t account for climate change. For example, the National Energy Board will not even allow people to present evidence on climate change at its hearings on pipelines. That Ontario would explicitly commit to accounting for climate is, in contrast, very encouraging.

One further note on climate: It’s great to see the province taking a leadership role in the national conversation about energy by directing the ministry to work on “the development of a Canadian Energy Strategy that includes co-ordinated efforts to reduce GHG emissions.” Ontario is a leader on climate. But in order to sustain leadership, it’s critical to persuade others to follow. Ontario now seems prepared to play that role.

Climate is, of course, not the exclusive direction given in the letter. There is also a requirement to re-introduce “a strengthened Great Lakes Protection Act.” And the letter includes commitments to ratifying other agreements, like the Canada Ontario Agreement, which is critical in the fight against algal blooms in the Great Lakes.

On toxics, the ministry is also directed to “provide Ontarians with better information about chemicals linked with cancer” which we interpret to mean carrying through on the promise to label carcinogens in consumer products.

And the letter directs the ministry to “put greater emphasis on prevention and on the “polluter pays” principle” which holds polluters accountable for costs associated with their pollution.

However, while there are many important commitments, there are some serious omissions.

Most critical of all, we don’t see any direction to protect Ontarians from the climate impacts and risks of an oil spill from tar sands pipeline projects, such as the proposed Energy East pipeline. Clearly the massive expansion of the tar sands that such a pipeline would facilitate would wipe out much or all of the positive emission reduction efforts that Ontario has made (and will make).

Stay tuned as in the next day or two, we’ll be taking a close look at the mandate letters for other ministries to see how they will impact efforts to make Ontario’s economy and environment cleaner and more innovative.

As for the letter to the Minister of Environment and Climate Change, while it doesn’t contain everything we’d like to see, it does set out a clear mandate to better protect the environment, which is good news for all Ontarians.

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