B.C. Climate Change Leadership Has Gone Up In Smoke

Smoke from Wildfires in Vancouver

August is here and already it’s been a summer for the record books, with 2015 looking like it’s going to blow away the 2014 record for the world’s warmest year on record.

We’ve been feeling the heat here on Canada’s west coast: escalating drought, water restrictions and raging wildfires that cast an eerie smoky pall over the cities of Vancouver and Victoria.

The smoke was thick in the air when we held the Victoria premiere of Running On Climate on 6th July. This was the second public screening of the film and the first we’ve organised ourselves so there was a little muddling along on the night. We weren’t sure what the turn-out would be on a muggy, midsummer Monday evening. Happily, we were rushed off our feet and afterwards we had some great feedback and requests for more screenings.

A fortnight or so after the screening, MLAs and political journos broke off their summer sojourns for a rare sitting of the provincial legislature.

In the provincial election, Premier Christy Clark made some pretty wild promises including the creation of a billion dollar liquid natural gas (LNG) industry that would make the province “debt-free” and secure the financial stability “for generations of British Columbians”. Half-way through their term the BC Liberals are desperately scrambling to follow through on that promise.

Even as the economics and the climate conspire against them, the BC Liberals have become more entrenched in their LNG mindset.

Carbon Tracker Initiative, the thinktank that I feature in Running On Climate, recently released its natural gas report (following on from influential analysis of uneconomic or “stranded” assets in the oil and coal sectors) in which it forecast a $10/mmBtu break-even for LNG projects. BC’s LNG projects fall slightly above that $10 threshold. The report concludes that 97% of Canada’s proposed LNG assets are “not needed” if governments act on climate change (PP. 19/20).

Faced with a global gas glut, the BC Liberals response has been to pass LNG enabling laws that offered unprecedented tax breaks, fixed for 25 years, to would-be LNG producers. Effectively, the Liberals are racing other jurisdictions to the bottom.

Andrew Weaver, on the 2013 campaign trail, dismissed the Liberals LNG ambitions as a “pipe dream” and “economic suicide”. There has been no lack of commentators since pointing out the utter insanity of taxpayers being forced to underwrite a risky, carbon-intensive industry as the world moves off fossil fuels.

Perhaps the most scathing critic has been one of the BC Liberals own: Martyn Brown, who was the Chief of Staff to former BC Premier Gordon Campbell. He summed up the situation in a series of lengthy articles in The Georgia Straight:

“Dupes are dime a dozen, as the oil and gas industry knows so well. But the best ones are those who are so utterly compromised before they even sit down to negotiate, that the thing they fear the most is their dealer walking away from the table.
No one feared that more than Christy Clark.”

Brown paints a picture of a naive and self-serving administration foisting a “terrible precedent” on the province for “partisan advantage”.

“If you welcome global warming, you will be thrilled by this deal that will make it effectively impossible for the province to properly price LNG-specific carbon emissions.

The fine print of that deal will commit our province to a course that is environmentally reckless, fiscally foolhardy, and socially irresponsible.”

Christy Clark continues to trade on BC’s climate leadership, even though she has undermined most of the initiatives her party brought in under Gordon Campbell. The carbon tax was frozen in 2012 and is withering on the vine, she redefined natural gas as “clean” under BC’s Clean Energy Act, facilitated the expansion of US thermal coal exports through BC ports, and remains open to more diluted bitumen pipelines.

Clark happily dons the mantle of climate change leader at any opportunity, but for all the talk, her administration has done a big, fat U-turn on climate policy.

Martyn Brown in his third outpouring on the travesty of the LNG enabling legislation sounded a note of regret:

“We should be moving Heaven and Earth to promote clean, renewable energy. We should not be setting in stone a framework that economically obliges companies to mostly power their LNG plants by burning one-quarter of all the gas they produce to liquefy and export.

If the LNG industry is to proceed, it should be primarily powered with electricity created from clean, renewable sources—solar, wind, run-of-river, geothermal, and other sustainable alternative power sources.

That was the clean energy plan that I worked so hard to help bring about in my role as Premier Gordon Campbell’s chief of staff—a plan that so many of Premier Clark’s ministers claimed they supported, yet have now mostly abandoned, along with the climate action strategy that is also now in ruins.”

Like MLAs in the summer debate, I find myself quoting Martyn Brown at length. But other commentators have been striking a similar note of exasperation at the direction that B.C. is heading.

Of course, Andrew Weaver has been the most stalwart critic of LNG from the get go. The NDP voted against the Liberal bill, but remain supportive of the LNG industry. The Vancouver Sun’s legislative reporter Vaughn Palmer (who is also in the film) went as far as to say that while Weaver remained “flatly opposed” to LNG, the Opposition NDP left the impression they were “almost as keen as the B.C. Liberals to put the matter behind them”. Not surprising then that the NDP didn’t support Weaver’s call for a one-hour emergency debate on the climate change impacts for BC.

It was one of those global warming ironies, that as soon as the foundation was set for this unnecessary expansion of BC's fossil fuel footprint, Christy Clark was dropping in on her flaming riding with PM Harper for a photo op with firefighters battling the wildfires.

Pete McMartin writing in The Vancouver Sun pointed out the growing absurdity of the Clark government’s climate leadership claims, particularly given its reluctance to address the problem of Metro Vancouver’s groaning and underfunded transit system.

“I would say that the province has completely lost its way. An LNG-fuelled future and increases in oil and coal exports and greater congestion on our roads is not rational thinking. It’s insanity.
And the Premier isn’t bringing aid to her Kelowna constituents to help fight the fires. She’s bringing fuel.”

So here we are in August. The dirty LNG deal is done, the drought and wildfires continue, and today the writ dropped on the longest federal election campaign in recent history.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper, loathed by climate voters everywhere, clearly believes that a 78-day campaign will give him his best chance of winning a majority. Hopefully, a long election campaign will have the impact of getting people - especially those who haven’t voted before - engaged in the political process, rather than tuned out.

The talk is of a minority government, but a week is a long time in politics and this campaign period has 11 of them. Anything can happen.