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BC Politics

The BC Government Tapes: Climate, Energy and Site C

How do we triple our electricity? And other thorny political questions. Last in a series based on hours of insider interviews.

Arno Kopecky 16 Feb

Arno Kopecky is an environmental journalist and author based in Vancouver. His latest book is The Environmentalist’s Dilemma: Promise and Peril in an Age of Climate Crisis.

Addressing both ecological health and social justice involves some excruciating tradeoffs, as the previous two pieces in this series show. That’s because we live in a society whose prosperity rests on resource extraction. It doesn’t have to be this way; in fact, it can’t. We either learn to live within our limits or perish. The B.C. government is aware of this. But as Old Growth Review Panel member Garry Merkel said in part one, it’s the getting from here to there that’s the hard part.

There’s room for both government and environmental activists to be a little more up front about the sacrifices they’re demanding. For governments, whose primary duty will always be to maintain human quality of life, that means a greater acknowledgement of the damage B.C.’s industry continues to wreak on things like biodiversity and water quality; for the environmental community, that means being open about the fact that we’re asking government to forego some of its greatest revenue sources at precisely the time that public services like health care and education are under immense strain, after two years of a pandemic that has forced record levels of public debt.

If we had another century to ease out of the crisis, these dilemmas wouldn’t cut so deep. But we don’t. Time is of the essence. And so: tradeoffs.

Nothing illuminates this awful dilemma like climate change. Most fundamentally, climate change is about energy. We got here by burning fossil fuels for power. This has already warmed the planet up by 1.2 degrees. Stopping at 1.5 degrees would require civilization to cut emissions in half by 2030. Instead, we’re burning more than ever. Last year saw the second-highest rise in CO2 emissions in history, driven by increased consumption of coal and oil in the developing world.

That rise in emissions is directly related to a rise in well-being, above all in Asia, where billions of people are finally exiting a century of grinding poverty to enter the middle class. B.C. is deeply enmeshed in this quagmire, with all its moral, ecological and geopolitical dimensions: We are both an exporter and a major consumer of fossil fuel, and also a region that is starting to get walloped by climate disasters. Disentangling ourselves from this web is not impossible, but pretending it can be painless doesn’t help.

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‘Reduce the amount of energy we need by 50 per cent, we still need two brand-new BC Hydro systems.’

— Andy Wright

Consider this essential fact: B.C., a province famous for emissions-free power, gets less than 18 per cent of its raw energy from hydroelectricity.

By comparison, fossil fuels provide almost 70 per cent of this province’s energy needs. That’s primarily the gasoline and diesel in our cars and trucks, plus the natural gas that heats our homes and commercial buildings and fuels many industries. (The remainder comes from biomass — mostly scraps from forestry, burned for heat and power.)

This means that in order to decarbonize B.C.’s economy we’re going to have to electrify that 70 per cent of things that currently run on fossil fuel.

“The scale of the change is massively beyond peoples’ appreciation,” Andy Wright, a member of Simon Fraser University’s Clean Energy Research Group told me. “You have a century’s worth of infrastructure that you’re looking to rip out and replace.”

Wright and his team at CERG study pathways to transition from fossil fuels to carbon-free energy, both globally and in B.C. To illustrate the magnitude of the task at hand, Wright ran me through a thought experiment.

It began by recognizing that fossil fuel currently supplies this province with four times more power than all of BC Hydro’s dams combined. Thankfully, displacing all that oil and gas doesn’t require quadrupling BC Hydro’s generating capacity, because efficiency gains can do a lot of heavy lifting.

One example of energy efficiency is inherent to electricity itself: internal combustion engines convert about 30 per cent of gasoline’s energy into motion (the rest escapes as heat), whereas electric vehicles convert almost 100 per cent of their battery’s power into motion. Retrofitting homes and commercial buildings to install heat pumps and improve insulation are other ways to lower overall energy consumption.

“Let’s say all these things reduce the amount of energy we need by 50 per cent,” Wright said. “Back of the envelope, we still need two brand-new BC Hydro systems” to get the province off fossil fuel.

Wright acknowledged that’s not a precise calculation. Wild cards include the home-heating potential of bio-methane, which captures “natural gas” from sources like farm waste and human sewage and reroutes it into existing pipes (this is both controversial and already starting to happen). On the other hand, B.C.’s population is projected to increase by 1.4 million people by 2040, all of whom are going to use a lot of juice.

No matter how you slice it, decarbonizing British Columbia will require far more electricity than most people acknowledge. That includes both the environmental community and the institution that provides our electricity, BC Hydro.

Last summer, the Crown corporation published a first draft of its Integrated Resource Plan spelling out BC Hydro’s 20-year forecast for electricity demand. The utility predicts no growth in overall electricity demand before 2030, and no need for new production capacity before 2037. Essentially, BC Hydro’s entire plan is to complete Site C and improve energy efficiency.

This amounts to a bet that fossil fuels will retain their dominance in B.C. for the next 20 years.

That’s directly at odds with the vision spelled out in the NDP’s climate plan, the CleanBC Roadmap to 2030, which sets aggressive goals for electrifying the province’s transportation, building and industrial sectors.

“BC Hydro’s draft plan assumes that B.C. will miss its climate targets,” Merran Smith, the Victoria-based executive director of of Clean Energy Canada, told me. “This means we won’t have the electricity to electrify cars, trucks, buses, homes and industries.”

And because BC Hydro doesn’t just produce electricity but controls the entire provincial grid, its predictions have the power to become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

“There is no incentive for anybody to build any kind of largescale new renewables in B.C. at this point, because BC Hydro is not going to commit to buy it,” Smith said. In other words, BC Hydro — together with its boss, the BC Utilities Commission — are effectively quashing the development of any major wind, solar or geothermal projects in this province.

Last August, soon after BC Hydro released its forecast, Clean Energy BC (not to be confused with its national counterpart) published its own blistering analysis. The authors accused BC Hydro of “failing to plan for [B.C.’s] looming electrification,” for fear of producing more power than it can sell. “At the same time, it is underemphasizing the corollary risk: an inability to meet emerging electrification demand. It is the latter risk that B.C. will regret.”

All of which brings us to another thing I and many other environmentalists have assumed B.C. would regret: Site C.

The epitome of everything that’s wrong about megaprojects, Site C will irrevocably fracture one of North America’s last contiguous stretches of wilderness, the Y2Y corridor from the Yukon to Yellowstone; it violates both the letter and the spirit of reconciliation; it’s a geotechnical nightmare; it will cost at least $16 billion, almost triple the initial budget; and it will submerge some of B.C.’s most productive farmland at precisely the moment we’re realizing the vulnerability of international supply chains.

The one thing it won’t do, though, is provide more energy than we need.

At 1,100 megawatts, Site C’s generating capacity will add a mere 1/16th to BC Hydro’s total current generation capacity of 18,286 megawatts. That’s a drop in the bucket of our electrification needs, assuming we want to aggressively lower emissions.

As Merran Smith put it, “B.C. needs probably double the amount of electricity we have right now to meet our net-zero goals by 2050, and Site C is not going to suffice.”

This contradicts a core argument of many Site C critics, who claim B.C. could meet its future electrical needs solely through a combination of efficiency measures, halting exports to the U.S., and the widespread deployment of wind, geothermal and solar power. Unfortunately, a hard look at the numbers strongly suggests it isn’t a question of one or the other. We’re going to need all of the above.

Yet BC Hydro won’t allow it. Aside from a tiny handful of micro-wind and solar projects, almost none of which sell power back to the grid, the Crown corporation is squashing every attempt by the renewable energy industry to gain a foothold in B.C.

When I asked Environment Minister George Heyman for his response to this analysis, he described it as “fundamentally wrong.” According to Heyman, any near-term gaps between BC Hydro’s supply and provincial demand can be met by acquiring clean electricity from existing markets — essentially, reversing B.C.’s electricity exports to the U.S. so as to feed the domestic appetite. (B.C. does export more electricity than it imports, but not by much, and there are many months when we import more than we sell.) Over the longer term, Heyman insisted that BC Hydro’s commitment to update its forecast every five years “provides flexibility to ensure that our electricity demands will be met if demand grows more quickly, which it will, to meet CleanBC emission targets… that of course will open tremendous opportunities for both employment and development in British Columbia, particularly for First Nations.”

But these “tremendous opportunities” have mostly been squandered to date. Despite the vast array of renewable energy projects that Heyman correctly noted First Nations are clamouring to develop, almost none are getting any government support. In 2021, the province spent a paltry $3.8 million, divided amongst 27 nations, via the province’s First Nations Clean Energy Business Fund. B.C. taxpayers spend that much before noon at Site C every day. It’s about half what RCMP spends each year to protect the Coastal GasLink pipeline.

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‘Even in a 1.5-degree compatible world, the use of natural gas is going to increase for some time before it goes down.’

— Arvind Ravikumar

This province’s natural gas industry reveals an even more devilish calculus, for it involves not just our own energy use but also the developing world’s (the region from which most current and future emissions are coming, and to which our LNG exports are directed).

B.C. produces one third of the natural gas in Canada, a proportion that is set to rise dramatically with LNG Canada and a handful of smaller LNG terminals like Squamish’s Woodfibre LNG — altogether, these new projects are expected to raise gas production 40 per cent by 2028.

Almost all of that increase is bound for Asia. But B.C. already exports most of the gas we produce, primarily to Alberta and the U.S. Less than ten per cent of the gas we produce is consumed in B.C.

That’s still about 1.2 million homes and commercial buildings that rely on gas for heat and hot water, plus a number of industries that use gas for both power and heat. All in, natural gas accounts for 30 per cent of this province’s emissions.

And thanks primarily to LNG Canada, those emissions are set to rise even while the government pulls every lever it can to reduce our domestic consumption of the gas. This is the fundamental flaw in the CleanBC Roadmap to 2030.

Whether it amounts to a contradiction in terms depends on who you ask. Most of the policy analysts I spoke to agreed that the roadmap is in fact quite a good climate plan — “the best in North America,” was a refrain I heard more than once, invariably followed by “but still not good enough.” (This Narwhal piece by Ainslie Cruickshank provides an excellent breakdown, with many experts who say just that). All agreed that the plan’s biggest weakness is our natural gas industry. Most grudgingly allowed LNG’s elephantine emissions won’t necessarily prevent the province from reaching its target of reducing emissions (the roadmap explicitly accounts for LNG Canada by making up for it elsewhere). It just eliminates absolutely any room for error.

We have to hit every other target, from building 10,000 new EV-charging stations by 2030 to lowering the fracking industry’s methane emissions by 45 per cent in the next three years. And given that neither B.C., nor anywhere else in Canada, has ever managed to reduce emissions at all, let alone make them plummet 40 per cent below 2007 levels in the next eight years (as this plan aims for), expecting every single thing to go right this time involves quite a leap of faith.

So why place everything in jeopardy for the sake of one industry? Money, obviously. The NDP has never hid their financial motive for supporting natural gas. If anything, it’s their environmental critics who have been dishonest on this front. For a long time we’ve been hearing that the NDP is giving billions away in subsidies to oil and gas, actually spending more to keep the industry alive than we’re spending on meeting our climate targets. But that’s a highly misleading claim. What the NDP is really doing is letting industry keep a few billion out of the many more billions that they’re still pumping into our coffers — $23 billion in royalties and taxes over the project’s lifetime, according to the government. That’s roughly $500 million a year.

One can disagree on how astute that bargain is. One can argue that the environmental impacts of the LNG industry are so disastrous that no amount of money can justify the loss. But it’s simply untrue to say there’s no revenue at stake.

Here's how Heyman explained it to me: “I understand that for many people it is simply a binary decision, that you can’t have a serious climate plan if you’re allowing any oil and gas to go ahead at all. But there are people continuing to use gas, who will for the foreseeable future use gas as we transition into other forms of energy-efficient heating, primarily electrification, as well as for instance in transportation moving away from fossil-based fuels, and there is, in the world, people continuing to burn natural gas. I think we all know that no serious climate plan is predicated on the ongoing, continued, unlimited use of fossil fuels. The use of fossil fuels clearly needs to be phased out, not just in British Columbia but around the world, in order for us to meet targets and avoid an intensification of the impacts that we’ve seen. I hope that answers your question.”

In fact it raised a new one: Does the NDP claim, as their predecessors did, that natural gas can lower global emissions by displacing coal in the developing world?

“We don’t claim that in our government,” said Heyman.

He’s wise to say so. For a long time, natural gas was regarded as a “bridge fuel,” in part because of its role in the U.S.’ dramatic reduction of coal production. But in recent years that narrative has shifted dramatically, due almost entirely to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s 2018 report on the horrifying difference between 1.5 and 2 degrees of warming; staying within 1.5 degrees of warming, the IPCC warns, means no new oil or gas pipelines, a message the entire environmental community has taken to heart.

The problem here is that very few of North America’s climate hawks have spent much time in the developing world, where the tradeoffs between energy poverty and climate activism are laid bare. To put it bluntly: Keeping the world below 1.5 degrees would stave off a looming calamity, but it might also prolong another disaster that’s already a daily reality for billions of people on Earth.

To get a better grasp of this conundrum, I called someone who’s spent his whole life studying it. Arvind Ravikumar is a specialist in sustainable energy transitions at the University of Texas in Austin. In 2020, he co-authored a study, published in the Journal of Cleaner Production, which found that swapping coal for Canadian LNG in Chinese power plants reduced those plants’ lifecycle emissions by 34 to 62 per cent. That’s a potentially huge contribution to global emissions reductions, given that over a third of the world’s electricity is currently produced by coal; China leads the world in this regard, and continues to dramatically ramp up its coal consumption.

Ravikumar began our conversation by flipping my premise on its head.

“The question is not, will LNG from Canada replace coal in China,” he said. What we should be asking instead is, “if not LNG from Canada, what is China going to do to meet its LNG demand?” In other words, if a country like China wants LNG, it’s going to find someplace to get it.

I’ve heard Albertan politicians use this argument to sell bitumen, and always recoiled from it as the logic of a drug dealer. But Ravikumar saw my stance as a high-minded “bit of hubris, to pretend that if you end up cancelling an [LNG] export project in Canada then demand will suddenly vanish and China or India will magically switch to much lower-carbon sources.”

Forget magic, I said — don’t affluent nations like Canada have a responsibility to help the developing world leapfrog fossil fuels entirely? Instead of selling them a product that’s only half as dirty as bitumen, shouldn’t we be helping them develop 100 per cent clean power?

Ravikumar replied by asking me why I thought the developing world wasn’t already doing everything it could to develop clean energy. By way of example, he noted that India is already adding 500 gigawatts of renewable power to their national grid. That’s more than double their current capacity. “They are literally building a second entire national grid that currently doesn’t exist,” he said. The same is true for China, which lags slightly behind India in proportional terms, but in absolute terms is the world leader in clean energy growth. The problem is, that still won’t be anywhere near enough.

“It’s very hard for someone who has never set foot outside of North America to understand not just the challenges of the energy transition, but of life in the developing world,” Ravikumar said. Noting that tens, if not hundreds of millions of rural Indians rely on firewood for indoor cooking, he described a recent government program that distributes liquefied petroleum gas cylinders to those households. That program has improved the health of millions of children and liberated millions more women from the daily burden of collecting firewood.

“If you just looked at it from an emissions perspective, they have increased, because traditional biomass has been replaced with LPG at a national scale,” he said. “But if you look at the outcomes of what that did, it is an unallayed positive for the people of that country. We cannot say that is something they should not do — what is your solution then? Are they supposed to wait 20 years until you can develop solar cookers and things that can be done at scale? No of course not. This is just one example of where fossil fuels have significantly developed outcomes in the developing world.”

Ravikumar emphasized that he wasn’t arguing for or against B.C.’s LNG industry. His point was that all nations should be free to pursue their own needs on their own terms; in doing so, climate impacts — which the developing world is keenly aware of — are not the only issue in play. And in this regard, he felt that western climate activists often have a myopic view of what’s best for the world. “Even in a 1.5-degree compatible world,” he insisted, “the use of natural gas is going to increase for some time before it goes down. The scale of the problem is much larger than you assume.”

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‘There will be protests on the other side.’

— BC NDP government senior official

“Is there a solution to climate change that doesn’t involve authoritarian measures?” That was the question, rhetorical but earnest, one senior official posed to me in December. “Because there will be protests on the other side. This province has operated under emergency measures now for two years with COVID, and people are pretty compliant. But they’re not there yet with measures that have been proposed around climate change. Measures like we stop having revenue from oil and gas — they’re big deals. And so the question is, should there be consent for that? Or should it just be imposed?”

That might have sounded like an excuse in 2021. But if the last three weeks of Canadian history have taught us anything, it’s that left-wing activists aren’t the only ones capable of civil disobedience.

Still, one could argue that this moment in history requires not a despot, but skilled democratic leadership that harnesses conviction to imagination. A leadership capable of combining vision with persuasion. If Horgan really wanted to impress the electorate with his business acumen, he could encourage industries that profit off B.C.’s sustainability targets instead of contradicting them. That may sound like a utopian ideal. But it’s fast become reality in Quebec.

The NDP have now been in power for four and a half years. John Horgan has proven he can run the business. He’s got a majority government. He has two more years before the next election. On top of that, the political calculus around aggressive environmental action has surely changed in the wake of our recent catastrophes. If this isn’t a time for bold leaps of imagination, when is?

We live in a political system designed to run on opposition, debate and disagreement. Conflict plays a central role in that, but when the anger boils past a certain point then conflict ceases to be creative. People stop listening. The gears jam up. Progress grinds to a halt, right when we need it more than ever.

Winning elections with a progressive mandate has never been easy. What the voices in these B.C. government tapes say is that it hasn’t gotten easier just because crises are starting to pile up. If anything, the opposite is true. That’s not only a problem for government; those of us working to shape policy from outside the walls of the legislature need to keep it in mind, too.

Photo credits: Site C dam construction via BC Hydro; gas flame via Wikimedia; B.C. legislature via B.C. government.

Read the first two pieces in this series: Part One: Old Growth and Part Two: Pipelines and Reconciliation.  [Tyee]

Read more: Energy, BC Politics

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