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'Boring' budget delays climate action

The provincial budget announced yesterday doesn’t do enough for climate action, according to many environmental organizations.

Billed as a “status quo” plan, the budget is intended to leave flexibility for the incoming premier. Whoever that is may want to use some of the allowances on climate action if they hope to regain support from the province’s leading environmental groups.

Many were critical of the budget for not continuing B.C.’s progress towards cleaner energy production and long-term environmental sustainability.

“The environment and climate action have been put on hold, and any investments and clear direction have been put off until a new premier is chosen,” said Ian Bruce of the David Suzuki Foundation.

“That’s obviously very concerning in the sense that we had quite a bit of momentum in the province in generating new jobs in the clean energy sector, in starting to see the importance of having better public transit service, reducing air pollution, and creating more livable communities for us all.”

Ben West of the Wilderness Committee was equally critical of the government’s lack of progress on the environment.

“I worry that not only are we seeing business as usual but we might actually be seeing a step in the wrong direction,” he said.

“We have these commitments to reach CO2 reduction targets and whoever becomes the next Premier has nine years to reduce emissions by 33 per cent," West said. “The clock is ticking and here we are with another budget that looks just like last year’s, and it looks like whoever gets elected might even take us in the wrong direction.”

West would like to see increases in the carbon tax and reductions in spending on highways. Expanded highways mean more urban sprawl and increased CO2 emissions. West suggested the government should instead focus on increased funding to public transportation.

George Heyman, Executive Director Sierra Club BC, said he was frustrated with what he saw in the budget. He said there has been a green shine laid over the government announcements the last few years, but the follow up has been pretty thin.

“There was about an 11 per cent cut to the budget for the Climate Action Secretariat, and there’s no commitment to continue to raise the carbon tax, which is necessary if you’re going to make it an effective market mechanism to dissuade people from carbon emissions.”

Speaking directly to changes he’d like to see to the carbon tax, Heyman said, “I’d rather see the notion of revenue neutrality replaced with a targeted investment of carbon tax revenue to assist lower income British Columbians who are negatively impacted, to assist in home retrofits, and to ramp-up investment in public transit.”

The environment budget was cut from $136 million to $130 million, but the government maintained its commitments to expanding natural gas development, increasing investment by an estimated $2 million, despite a huge decline in revenue from royalties.

Natural gas revenues for the 2010-2011 fiscal year dropped from a budgeted $698 million to $365 million, according to the updated forecast. These numbers are a result of the declining price of natural gas due to the over supply caused by increasing shale gas production.

Mismanagement of the supply side could indicate a problem with current government policy.

Finance Minister Colin Hansen acknowledged that this was one of the most interesting parts of the budget, and that price volatility made forecasting very difficult. Despite the problem this poses for the government, Hansen quickly defended natural gas expansion in the province.

“It’s tremendously volatile, but I think the shale gas in North Eastern British Columbia and the Central Interior are huge opportunities,” Hansen said. “As much as a finance minister I could complain about the volatility the up-side potential in the medium and long-term is very significant.”

West didn’t agree with Hansen’s assessment.

“We’re really betting the bank on natural gas,” he said. “If the price goes up as the government is predicting perhaps it will help with the revenue for the province, but it really locks us into increasing emissions.”

“As the world changes and people demand action on climate change I think it will really leave us behind and make us part of the economy of yesterday.”

Heyman was also critical of the province’s dedication to natural gas extraction.

“Natural gas revenue to the province rises and falls with natural gas prices, but natural gas revenue to the province per unit of natural gas has been falling steadily as the government continues to subsidize the industry."

An industry, Heyman said he believes is dedicated to making massive profits off a B.C. resources.

“That resource isn’t going anywhere, there’s no point in us giving it away or allowing it to be liquidated quickly so the government can deal with a short-term deficit problem,” he said.

Heyman also noted that while natural gas is a cleaner fossil fuel, it is still a fossil fuel that should be used in a limited basis.

“There’s a range of things that could be done with this government’s policy around natural gas that would change it from a liquidation strategy to the kind of heritage strategy that builds up resources in British Columbia to use for investment in a green economy.”

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