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On September 19, 2016, the Saskatchewan Ministry of Environment refused to approve the development of a proposed wind energy project near the Village of Chaplin, Saskatchewan (the “Chaplin Project”). Environmental concerns – predominantly the concern that the proposed location was too close to a migratory bird flight path – led to the Ministry’s refusal of the environmental permit for the Chaplin Project.
The Chaplin Project was Saskatchewan’s first Environmental Impact Assessment (as defined in the Environmental Assessment Act) for a utility-scale IPP wind energy project in Saskatchewan. Not coincidentally, the same day as the Chaplin Project permit was refused, the Wildlife Siting Guidelines for Saskatchewan Wind Energy Projects were released (the “Siting Guidelines”).
Given that wind energy is relatively new to Saskatchewan, any guidance that may inform what constitutes the site of a viable wind energy project is beneficial to wind energy developers overall.
Implementation of the Siting Guidelines
The new Siting Guidelines have been designed to enhance environmental protection, provide certainty to future wind energy projects and promote responsible development of utility-scale wind energy in Saskatchewan.
Pursuant to the Siting Guidelines, all proposed wind energy projects must undergo the preliminary environmental assessment screening process to determine whether the project is a “development” under The Environmental Assessment Act (the “Act”). The Act defines a “development” as any project that may have prescribed significant effects on the environment or cause widespread public concern because of potential environmental changes. If a project falls under the definition of a “development”, it may not proceed until the requisite ministerial approval has been received. A development must undergo an Environmental Impact Assessment intended to inform the Minister of Environment of the potential impacts of the development prior to making a decision, at which time the Minister can either approve the development to proceed or refuse to approve the development.
The Siting Guidelines are a form of planning tool for wind energy developers that set out ministry standards, expectations and advice to support siting locations in the hopes of fast tracking the Environmental Impact Assessment process. The new Siting Guidelines provide appropriate locations in Saskatchewan for wind energy projects. In doing so, the Siting Guidelines identify avoidance zones where the risk of ecological impacts or public concerns related to wind energy projects is high. Pursuant to the Guidelines, a five kilometre buffer zone has been established around designated environmentally-sensitive avoidance areas such as national and provincial parks, ecological reserves, important bird areas and key Saskatchewan rivers and lakes. Areas outside of the avoidance zones are believed to be lower risk sites better suited for wind energy development. Avoidance zones are also depicted in a map appended to the Siting Guidelines.
Impact for Wind Energy Projects in Saskatchewan
Most obviously as a result of the Siting Guidelines, the trial and error approach for wind energy development in Saskatchewan has been replaced with guidelines set out in the Siting Guidelines. The Siting Guidelines will provide wind energy developers some much needed clarity on how their proposed projects might fare in the environmental regulatory review process.
Given that the Siting Guidelines place a great emphasis on the potential risks to wildlife – particularly, bird and bat populations – wind energy developers may wish to examine their proposed projects closely to evaluate how their respective projects impact migratory corridors or whether there are features of their projects that attract or disrupt flying species.
That being said, with the new Siting Guidelines comes more extensive pre-project planning, approval, and operational, environmental assessment and compliance costs, all borne by wind energy developers. Further, higher standards for low environmental impact sites will likely ensue, for which associated costs to implement such sites will also be absorbed by developers.
In practice, since the Siting Guidelines suggest where and how wind energy development should be done, they will likely become the criteria for regulatory permitting decisions. There is an inference that projects that are inconsistent with the Siting Guidelines will be rejected. Though potentially costly to wind energy developers, this information provided directly by the Minister of Environment, the deciding body itself, is a valuable asset for those parties.