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Campbell's Green-Speak Double Talk

Oil and gas subsidies belie throne speech talk, enviros say.

Tom Barrett 20 Mar

Veteran reporter Tom Barrett is a contributing editor at The Tyee.

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Off-shore oil still in B.C.'s plans

Any time you get religion, there's always the danger of backsliding.

Take the Gordon Campbell government, which saw the light last month and declared a crusade against global warming, and displayed all the zeal of the recently converted.

But then came the budget and a new provincial energy plan, which preached the green gospel but showed signs of returning to the government's wicked old ways.

Visions of an expanding oil and gas industry, including offshore drilling. A dusted-off Site C project. Is the new green Campbell drifting back to the dark side?

Particularly worrisome, environmentalists say, is talk in the government's energy plan of boosting the oil and gas sector.

The energy plan does talk about making the sector greener -- there's a call for the elimination of all routine gas flaring by 2016, for example.

But the plan also renews the B.C. government's pledge to work to overturn the federal moratorium on offshore oil and gas. And it vows to make B.C. among the most competitive oil and gas jurisdictions in North America.

The plan talks about the potential for achieving "significant growth" in natural gas production by opening up new areas of the province for drilling. And it commits the government to "pursue regulatory and fiscal competitiveness" in the oil and gas sector.

That, environmentalists say, means increasing subsidies and increasing overall emissions.

(The government offers a variety of subsidies to the industry, including tax breaks for machinery, cash for building roads to well sites, and royalty credits for pursuing marginally economic types of production.)

And while it is a major contributor to the B.C. economy, the oil and gas sector is also a major contributor to the province's greenhouse gas emissions -- 18 per cent of B.C.'s total emissions come from this industry, according to the energy plan.

So the talk of expanding oil and gas production raises a couple of large questions:

At this point, it appears, no one has answers to these questions.

(Energy Minister Richard Neufeld did not respond to a Tyee request for an interview for this story.)

The provincial budget forecasts substantially increased subsidies for the oil and gas industry, something that the Dogwood Initiative's Will Horter says raises serious questions about the sincerity of Premier Campbell's green promises.

"Giveaways to corporations for fossil fuel drilling increased by $74 million, 40 per cent above last year's record subsidy level," Horter said in a recent press release.

"Compare the numbers," he said. "Climate change gets $4 million, oil and gas corporations (setting records for profits) get $263 million, or 6,500 per cent more. And these inflated subsidy levels are projected to continue through 2010."

Increased emissions from the industry could wipe out progress in other areas, the Sierra Club of B.C.'s Lisa Matthaus added in a recent interview.

"The concern of course is that British Columbians are going to be asked to be making significant changes in their lives to reduce their carbon emissions, which we all need to do," she said. "But are we going to see those gains lost to an expanding oil and gas sector?"

Ian Bruce of the David Suzuki Foundation said in an interview that if B.C. really wants to send an economic signal that it is serious about switching to clean energy, it would eliminate oil and gas subsidies.

Environmentalists, most of whom cheered Campbell's original throne speech promises, are worried about what Bruce calls "a lot of mixed messages coming out of the government right now."

"These mixed messages create a real problem for British Columbians, investors and entrepreneurs in general," Bruce said. "Where is B.C. really headed? Are we truly going to be a leader in the new energy economy, or are we simply making promises we're not following through on?"

It's difficult, Bruce said, to reconcile the green message of the throne speech with some of the elements of the energy plan.

While the energy plan contains some worthwhile pledges concerning topics such as electricity conservation, Bruce said, it's worth keeping in mind that electricity accounts for only three per cent of B.C.'s greenhouse gas emissions.

One area that has drawn some environmentalists' attention is the government's talk of burning wood as an energy source. Forests Minister Rich Coleman has talked enthusiastically about torching 800 million cubic metres of pine-beetle-killed wood as a fuel alternative.

This plan is often said to be carbon neutral because the beetle-killed trees would release CO2 into the atmosphere whether they were burned or left in the forest to rot.

But that argument doesn't take into account the greenhouse gases released during logging. It's one thing to burn pellets made from wood waste that's produced at a sawmill; it's another thing altogether to go into the woods with logging trucks and other fossil-fuel burning machinery to cut down trees for the sole purpose of turning them into fuel.

A full analysis of the process is needed to see if harvesting pine-beetle-killed timber is truly carbon-neutral, Bruce said.

The Suzuki Foundation supports the use of such biomass energy sources as long as the fuel is a waste by-product of a sustainably harvested forest, Bruce said. But a full analysis would have to look at the impact of logging on wildlife and salmon habitat, keeping in mind that a dying beetle-killed forest provides the nutrients for a new forest to grow.

Research shows that natural forests are the most resistant to fire, disease and insects, he added. "We want to make sure we don't create another problem by clear-cutting pine-beetle-wood forests."

Environmentalists are also worried about a surprising reference in the energy plan to the on-again, off-again Site C dam proposal. This massive and controversial hydro project, on the Peace River near Fort St. John, would involve flooding thousands of hectares. Opponents argue it would cause serious social and environmental harm.

"It's far too early to be talking about Site C or other destructive forms of energy when we haven't fully explored renewable energy and energy conservation," said Matthaus. "That's where we need to be putting our efforts and our investments before we start thinking about any more destructive energy sources.

"British Columbians didn't want that 20 years ago, and I'm not convinced they're going to want it now."

Another example of a project that looks green on its face but may have an environmental downside was reported on Sean Holman's Public Eye online journal. The planned electrification of Highway 37 in northern B.C., trumpeted by Campbell and Prime Minister Stephen Harper, will, in Holman's words "also benefit mining projects in the northwestern corner of the province -- projects like the Mount mine."

When the energy plan was released last month, many environmentalists were hoping for a broad discussion of the environmental impact of the government's transportation policies. Because transportation, broadly defined, is responsible for 40 per cent of B.C.'s greenhouse gas emissions, it's bound to be a huge part of any reduction plan.

Many were disappointed, therefore, to see the plan portray the government's controversial road building projects as "Environmental Leadership in Action" without any discussion of their impact on emissions.

The chief offender in many critics' eyes is the Gateway Program for the Lower Mainland, which includes the twinning of the Port Mann Bridge and construction of major "perimeter roads" on both sides of the Fraser River.

The government has argued that the project will be environmentally friendly because it will reduce traffic congestion -- less time spent idling in traffic jams will equal less pollution, the argument goes.

Nonsense, say critics.

"From our perspective, Gateway has no place in any sort of climate change strategy," said David Fields, a campaigner for SPEC, the Society Promoting Environmental Conservation. "It has no place in a regional transportation strategy, either.

"We know it won't work to solve traffic congestion because freeway expansion has never worked to solve congestion in any major city."

The problem, critics argue, is that building more roads means more people will drive, which means more emissions.

"We know from the province's own figures that the Gateway Project will increase greenhouse gas emissions in the transportation sector," Fields said.

The problem with expanding highways is that they're permanent, said the Suzuki Foundation's Ian Bruce.

If you have energy-inefficient light bulbs in your house, it's easy to change them for more efficient bulbs. But if you build a network of freeways and bridges, you're stuck with them -- and the traffic they carry -- for a long time.

"Although the province has talked about putting in California emissions standards [for cars], which is an excellent policy, all of that progress will be completely negated by having more cars on the road and driving longer distances," Bruce said.

"We're going to be making the Lower Mainland more car dependent for our transportation. And that's a real problem."

Fields and Bruce both said it would be better to redirect the Gateway money -- estimated at between $2.5 billion and $3 billion -- into expanding the transit system.

Bruce said the government may be sending mixed signals because some ministries are still catching up with the throne speech's green emphasis.

If B.C. is to meet its goal of becoming a world leader in emissions reductions, the government needs a comprehensive plan that takes in all parts of government, he said.

"British Columbians need to know that right now we're not on track to meet that goal."

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