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BC's Clashing Shades of Green

How 'run of river' and global warming are splitting enviros this election.

By Colleen Kimmett, 7 Apr 2009, TheTyee.ca

Rafe Mair and Tzeporah Berman

Berman and Mair: natural foes?

The environmental movement in British Columbia has always had its internal differences, but in the past it's been able to rally around election time, raising the profile of issues like fish farming, or endangered species protection.

Proving more fractious this time for the movement is an issue that could help define next months' provincial election: renewable energy development.

Initially, a lot of enviros were open to the idea that river currents could be a source of generating renewable energy. A kind of green rush swept B.C. as private firms took advantage of B.C. government incentives to establish electricity generating projects that diverted river water for a stretch, used it to drive turbines, then returned the water to the river bed.

But a broad based movement has grown against those IPPs (independent power producers) and their "run of river" projects. Among the most high-profile opponents is long time B.C. journalist Rafe Mair, who writes a column for The Tyee and also stumps the province speaking on behalf of Save Our Rivers Society. Mair, the Wilderness Committee non-profit, the Council of Canadians and others argue that the private projects are destructive to river ecologies, cause roads and power lines to intrude on wilderness areas, and undermine public control over power supply.

But in recent months, environmentalists with different priorities, as well as the Klahoose First Nation, have thrown their weight against the anti-run-of-river brigade. Well known green activist Tzeporah Berman (who's also been published on The Tyee) and others argue that river-generated electricity is a way to reduce carbon emissions. They say the fight against it in B.C. undercuts action on a global environmental issue: climate change.

Berman's organization PowerUp Canada kicks off in Vancouver today its conference on developing a green economy. If the Save Our Rivers people attend at all, they'll hardly be reading from the same (political) program.

'New divide' in eco-voters

George Hoberg, a political scientist and forestry professor at the University of British Columbia, has been exploring the IPP issue with students in his sustainable energy policy course.

"There's a new divide, with concern to environment voters, between those more traditional, who are concerned about wilderness preservation and wildlife, and those who are more urgently concerned about climate change," he says.

Angus McAllister, of McAllister Public Research, says IPPs and run-of-river is a swing issue that could divide the environmental vote, "depending on how well each side positions itself with regard to trust in the private sector, and green jobs."

Last week the Wilderness Committee wrapped up its 10,000 Voices campaign, "to keep B.C.'s rivers wild." It urged citizens to phone the premier and ask for a moratorium on power development until they are "regionally planned, environmentally appropriate, acceptable to First Nations and publicly owned."

And Mair and the Save our Rivers Society lately has been touring the Sunshine Coast and Lower Mainland to rail against the environmental and social impacts of run-of-river development in the province, leading up to what they call British Columbia's watershed election.

Meanwhile, Berman, whose non-profit's primary focus is climate change, says the big question is "what will it take to build a green economy more generally." The PowerUp conference, she said, will not focus on the privatization debate.

"We're going to try and identify some recommendations to address public policy concerns related to environmental impacts," Berman said. "But at the same time, (we're) looking at how we can continue to expand." For example, Berman has drawn fire from run-of-river opponents for endorsing a large, 1,027 megawatt project in Bute Inlet, backed by Plutonic Power and General Electric.

Anxieties over private control

McAllister points to the collapse in private industry worldwide as a reason why British Columbians might be wary of private power expansion. And, for people in rural areas, he says, "The legacy of Alcan is probably going to resonate."

"People aren't against private power per se, but they want to know that it's regulated and that what they value is protected," says McAllister. "And I've never seen as much support for regulations as I've seen in the last 10 years."

According to public opinion research conducted last year by UBC's Collaborative for Advanced Landscape Planning, 47 per cent of 552 respondents across British Columbia strongly disagreed with the statement, "I trust government to make fair decisions about natural resources that balance species at risk protection and recovery and economic development.

A smaller majority (29 per cent) said natural resource management currently focuses too much on commercial activities, and the majority of respondents (35.8 per cent) said they strongly disagreed with the statement that there are enough checks and balances in place to ensure responsible natural resource management in B.C.

Communities want consultation

"The present situation isn't sitting well with communities," said John Bergenske, executive director of Wildsight, referring to run-of-river development in the province. "They don't feel like they're part of the discussion now. There's a total sense of both the environment and communities being run over."

Bergenske says parties could win votes by showing a willingness to properly engage communities on projects and impose stricter environmental controls.

Renewable energy could become an important election issue for people who don't necessarily consider themselves environmentalists if it is presented in terms of "what goes on in their backyard," concurs Jamie Lawson, a political science professor at the University of Victoria.

And that's in synch with what McAllister sees in a lot of polling data. Water rights trump global warming as a public concern because it's more close to the heart. But pitting one against the other is a losing game for enviros. "If the debate is turned into one of water rights versus global warming," he says, "then the green movement will all lose."

"Yes, B.C. needs to replace planet-warming fossil fuels with low-carbon energy sources," says Greenpeace co-founder Rex Weyler. But he urges fellow environmentalists to look closely at the scale of run-of-river projects when deciding whether to embrace or oppose.

"Excellent micro-hydro projects exist all over the world, many in Asia, using run-of-river, but the key is scale. These projects are village and community scale energy systems that take only a small, reasonable portion of the river-run, with low-impact technologies, and supply local power without long transmission lines."

But most of the projects slated for B.C. are much larger, and designed to export power out of the province, Weyler says. The Bute Inlet project endorsed by Berman will hook into "transmission lines down the coast to U.S. cities. This is not community micro-hydro. It is centralized industrial power," says Weyler, who claims "the Bute project is an order of magnitude too huge to even qualify for California's 'green energy' regulations, so that state has rejected it."

Berman and others on her side say B.C.'s regulations are strong enough to insure that approved run-of-river projects will be environmentally sound.

Big on voters' radar?

Does this scrap among environmentalists have the power make a difference in the B.C. election next month?

That depends who you ask. The economy still rates high on most people's minds, points out Michael Magee, a former NDP campaign manager and chief of staff for Mayor Gregor Robertson. In a recent Angus Reid Strategies poll, 36 per cent felt the economy was the most important issue facing British Columbia, and only five per cent thought the environment was.

"On the whole, I'm not sure it will have a huge amount of resonance," he says, of the IPP debate.

"I think the most salient issues, when you're just looking at top-of-mind concerns on the environment, is climate change, and closely associated with that is human health."

George Hoberg says it remains to be seen how this division amongst environmental voters -- those concerned about wildlife values, and those who rank climate change at the top of their priorities -- will play out in an election.

"We haven't really seen how that is going to work out in electoral terms," he says.

Carbon tax a bigger wedge?

Hoberg believes it's unlikely that the NDP's position against private power development would cost them support from the climate change contingent.

But he thinks their stance on Campbell's carbon tax likely will.

"That is driving traditionally NDP voters away from the party. And I think the Greens have a great opportunity to benefit from that.

But it's hard to tell... the support is very soft in terms of actually making a choice because people are more likely to make a choice for a candidate that will form the government."

Indeed, people who support third parties or independents "aren't seeing their voices heard," says Kevin Washbrook, director of Voters Taking Action on Climate Change.

That's a reason to support electoral reform, which is also on the May ballot, Washbrook notes. "A shift to a more proportional representation is gong to help them dampen down the more adversarial aspects of our electoral system," he says.

"It will decrease the dynamic where we have two parties ganging up on each other. Parties are going to have to reach out to broader range of voters. That will require more thoughtful response to policy."

What is green?

In the meantime, the green divide in B.C. is playing into the hands of big business interests, says Weyler. "After four decades in the environmental movement, it breaks my heart to see B.C. communities divided over this grab for power and local public assets."

Weyler says environmentalists, instead of figuring out new ways to meet increasing power demands, should be working on downshifting our economy and preserving nature.

"Rivers possess environmental values far beyond their ability to supply power for human consumption: salmon habitat, water cycling, filtration, forest stability, riparian small animal survival, bear food supply, local community water and power, and so forth," says Weyler. "The Earth has limits and we've reached them."

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