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The Ontario government has exempted itself from a law requiring a full environmental assessment for its plan to spend up to $83-billion on nuclear plants and fixing the province's aging electricity system.

The action, which wasn't announced this week when Energy Minister Dwight Duncan said the government intends to proceed with the Ontario Power Authority's 20-year electricity supply plan, is a sign the provincial Liberals are playing hardball with their environmental opponents by fast-tracking approvals.

It means that one of the biggest energy expansions undertaken in Canada will occur without in-depth scrutiny because there will be no independent review by outside experts of the government's overall electricity program.

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Such a review would have added years to the approval process for new nuclear reactors, and allowed environmentalists and others to try to persuade the review panel that the government's plans should be modified or rejected, or that there are other, less costly ways to meet the province's power needs.

The province will submit portions of its plan dealing with individual nuclear generating stations to review under a less rigorous federal environmental assessment.

A spokeswoman for Mr. Duncan said the government believes its electricity plan isn't covered by Ontario's Environmental Assessment Act. To make sure this interpretation was clear and would withstand a legal challenge, it issued a regulation explicitly exempting the plan from scrutiny.

"It's always been our position that this type of planning . . . is not captured by the [environmental assessment], but we wanted to make sure that wasn't misinterpreted," said Carmelina Macario, a spokeswoman for the minister.

The government signalled its intention to exempt itself from a review yesterday on an obscure website covering Ontario statutes and regulations.

Environmentalists and opposition politicians immediately reacted with anger.

"The whole integrated plan needs to be examined from a health perspective, from an alternatives perspective, from a financial perspective," said Sarah Miller, a spokeswoman for the Canadian Environmental Law Association. In a legal opinion, the group concluded that a full assessment is necessary to comply with the province's laws, and Ms. Miller called the exemption "profoundly" wrong.

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"This is completely sneaky," NDP Leader Howard Hampton said in an interview. "Here they are in the back room, secretly exempting it, trying to escape any kind of public scrutiny."

Premier Dalton McGuinty called the expansion the lesser of two evils yesterday and said critics will have plenty of time to debate it before the next election.

"I think you've got to pick your poison here," Mr. McGuinty said. "People say: 'I don't like nuclear.' Well, I don't like nuclear either, but at least when it comes to waste you can put it in a box and you can contain it."

The last big Ontario electricity expansion, also introduced by a Liberal government, was subjected to a review.

That $100-billion proposal called for a raft of new generating facilities and led to assessment hearings that began in 1989.

It was similar in cost and scope to the current plan and called for the construction of up to three nuclear plants and two coal-fired stations, among other facilities. It was abandoned in 1993 after the power shortages predicted in 1989 turned into gluts.

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A full assessment of the new project would likely cost tens of millions of dollars and take about five years because of the enormous scale of the government's plans. The expansion would double the amount of energy saved through conservation, revamp the transmission grid and double the amount of electricity from renewable sources.

The government will seek a less rigorous federal environmental assessment for its plan to build new reactors and to refurbish four existing ones at the provincially owned Ontario Power Generation's Pickering B station outside of Toronto.

The federal assessments typically investigate technical aspects of a project, such as whether a site is suitable because it has no earthquake risk or that workers' cars won't cause undue air pollution. They do not allow opponents to question whether the facilities are needed, or whether other sources would be cheaper.

Even so, the province says it believes a federal assessment is the best way to evaluate its projects.

"The government thinks it is better to assess the environmental issues associated with specific sites and facilities and not broad government policy," Ms. Macario said.

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