After decades in limbo, 2020 could be a critical year for the Pickering Airport

There’s hope in Durham Region that 2020 could bring some long-awaited answers about the proposed airport in Pickering, an update that is poised to renew the simmering battle over the fate of the land.

Durham Region calling on Ottawa to release updated report, begin work quickly

Local group Land Over Landings says the airport would contribute to rapidly growing emissions from air travel. (Jonathan Castell)

There's hope in Durham Region that 2020 could bring some long-awaited answers about the proposed airport in Pickering, an update that is poised to renew the simmering battle over the fate of the land.

The federal government is believed to be sitting on an updated report by the consulting firm KPMG about the feasibility or need for an additional airport to serve the Greater Toronto Area (GTA).

And while local politicians are expecting findings that could finally jump start construction of the airport, others in the community are digging in their heels and calling on Ottawa to protect the land and kill the airport once and for all.

"The threat of an airport on these lands has to be lifted and the lands have to be protected in perpetuity," said Mary Delaney, chair of the volunteer group Land over Landings.

She says the proposed airport would be environmentally disastrous and believes the land should instead be preserved for agriculture and farming.

"The overwhelming push, and it's aggressive, has been from our local municipal and regional government," Delaney added.

Mary Delaney, a founder of Land Over Landings, said paving the land would be environomentally damaging and 'economic folly.' (Jonathan Castell)

The federal government acquired 18,600 acres of land in Pickering under Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau in 1972 for the construction of a future airport. However, the project has remained in limbo since and much of the land has been leased for farming.

But now, some politicians in Durham Region are renewing their push to have the airport built as soon as possible. 

They see the airport as a needed project that could relieve congestion at Toronto's Pearson International Airport and replace the shuttered General Motors assembly plant as Durham's economic engine.

A new airport, Durham Region Chair John Henry said, could support around 150,000 direct and indirect jobs.

"We have a tremendous opportunity here to do something that really has never been done before," he told CBC Toronto. "It's time that we get on with this and the government finally makes a decision."

Durham Region has asked Ottawa to release the findings and commit to the airport, though the federal government has not committed to do either.

The previous Conservative government signalled a plan to develop the airport in 2013, but the Liberal government has not made any similar commitments.

Building airports in a 'climate crisis'

A collection of local groups has been resisting the airport development since the land was first sold 48 years ago.

But in an age when climate change is becoming increasingly dire, people opposing the airport say it's irresponsible to promote air traffic at the expense of farmland.

Air travel currently contributes around 900 million tonnes, or 2.5 per cent, of global emissions, but those figures are expected to triple by 2050 according to the United Nations. By that time, some reports suggest that air travel could account for a full quarter of global carbon emissions.

"In the age of climate crisis, we just can't afford business as usual," Delaney said.

Much of the Pickering airport land is also considered Class 1 soil, the highest grade of farmland.

Durham Region Chair John Henry has asked the federal government to release the KPMG report and commit to building the airport. (Nick Boisvert/CBC)

"Protecting the land would be the best decision they could make," added Matt Rock, who operates Joyfully Organic Farm. His business has a plot of land inside the proposed airport area and another one directly on the perimeter.

Rock said the land in Pickering is among the best growing soil anywhere in the world.

Can an airport and farm land coexist?

However, Henry says an airport in Pickering doesn't have to come at the expense of the environment or farming. 

A new airport could incorporate the latest in green technologies, he said. Creative uses of land such as vertical farming also mean both agriculture and air traffic could coexist.

"There's no reason why we can't have all of that on those lands," Henry said.

He adds that increasing air traffic at Pearson airport will make a secondary hub a necessity in the near future. A 2011 federal study projected the need for a second GTA airport sometime between 2027 and 2037.

Without a second airport, Henry said congestion around Pearson could reach critical levels, which he sees as a source of additional "climate challenges."

Delaney called that "greenwashing," an unsubstantiated claim around environmental benefits.

"I could go further, I could call it lies," she said of Henry's pitch. "It just isn't true."