Earthquake rocks BC Legislature

Throne speech marks a tectonic shift in BC politics

Scientists were premature in retracting their prediction that an earthquake would occur in BC. On February 13th, , 2007 at approximately 2 PM in the afternoon the earth shook in Victoria. With the throne speech, the BC government finally acknowledged that global warming is real and that seismic changes are needed. However, further tremors are expected as significant questions remain about how to achieve the promised targets.

Thone Speech photo

The throne speech marked a tectonic shift in direction for Mr. Campbell’s government, a colossal shake up from his previous anti-Kyoto rhetoric. His commitments on carbon caps are ambitious, but ambiguous. And the list of new initiatives certainly is long.

The commitment to “reduce greenhouse gas emissions by at least 33 per cent below current levels by 2020” should be applauded. But many questions are left unanswered. And some of the commitments, which sound bite well, are misleading.

As we learned from Jean Chrtien, making carbon-related promises is easy, implementation is hard.  The devil is in the details. Unfortunately, there aren’t many specifics available yet.  
The big questions about Mr Campbell’s commitments involve how the contradictions with longstanding BC government policy will be resolved.

The BC Liberals have balanced their budget and produced a surplus on the back of skyrocketing oil and gas revenues, principally from selling rights to drill in northern BC. This fossil fuel feeding frenzy has been the main reason carbon emissions have spiked in BC under the BC Liberals.

Despite rhetoric about “tackl[ing] the challenges of global warming” with “action not procrastination,” little in the throne speech indicates this reliance on subsidized carbon intensive oil and gas will change. 

But wait, didn’t Mr. Campbell promise to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from the oil and gas industry “to 2000 levels by 2016”?  Yes he did. But it means nothing.

Why? With rapid expansion of oil and gas exploration over the next few years, production will peak somewhere between 2007 and 2012 and drop steeply by the 2016 target date.

Thus this nice-sounding commitment means nothing. The massive expansion of oil and gas exploration will continue unabated and move out of the Peace region as supplies reach their peak and drop because of aggressive production has drained the fields in just a few short years. The fossil fuel corporations will not have to change their carbon-intensive exploration and production techniques. And the BC government will continue to subsidize fossil fuel and get rich doing so. 

The contractions in the government’s promises are illustrated by its recent actions. Energy Minister Richard Neufeld recently declared that the BC government was considering a “net-profit” royalty scheme for fossil fuel companies that would allow them to use publicly-owned gas and avoid paying B.C. taxpayers until their capital costs are paid off. Neufeld also indicated the government is considering new “incentives” (read subsidies) to oil and gas companies to drill in the Nechako Basin of northwestern BC and continues to aggressively promote coalbed methane, among the most carbon-intensive forms of natural gas.

This sounds like the same old same old, not a government that has gotten the climate change religion.

It also raises further questions: Why are British Columbian taxpayers giving hugely-profitable fossil fuel companies subsidies to help pay for intensive carbon producing projects that will make our climate problems worse?  Shouldn’t taxpayer money be directed to innovative renewable energy production? Or to health care, child care and education?

Two tangible commitments stood out in the speech.  The best news was the pledge to immediately become “the first jurisdiction … to require 100 per cent carbon sequestration for any coal-fired electricity project.” It deflects the growing problem the two proposed coal-fired power projects in BC’s interior where becoming. And it appears to be a clever way to effectively kill the Princeton and Tumbler Ridge coal -fired proposals without facing massive lawsuits.

Less tangible, but also noteworthy was the commitment to reduce carbon emissions 10 per cent below 1990 levels by 2020. Hard carbon caps are now a subject of legitimate political discourse and all governments and parties can be judged on their actions or in-action.

Mr. Campbell should be praised for his ambitious caps. They are steeper reductions than Arnold Schwarzenegger legislated for California. However, before we applaud too hard we should remind ourselves of how little progress occurred on Jean Chrtien’s Kyoto commitments. 

Mr. Campbell will be long gone by 2020. Scientists and economists emphasize that immediate action is needed. Delays will greatly increase the problem and the cost of mitigation. And therein lays the main problem.

Most of the targets are set for 2012, 2016 or 2020 well after Mr. Campbell is expected to leave office. As we learned from Mr. Chrtien, it’s easy to oblige your successor to take action. But it’s much harder to override recalcitrant corporations (especially if they are big donors to your party) and others getting fat and happy on the status quo. 

Nothing in the announcement indicates that Mr. Campbell’s government is prepared to address the corporations and donors profiting off the status quo.

In fact, three omissions were noticeable by their absence in the throne speech. The first was any mention of taxing carbon emissions. A carbon tax would create a market incentive for reducing emissions. Now, there is no cost for dumping climate altering emissions into the air. Imposing a carbon tax on emissions would encourage innovation, create incentives for conservation and creative solutions and provide funds for transitioning to alternatives.

Secondly, the speech didn’t mention Kyoto. Previously Gordon Campbell joined Alberta’s Ralph Klien and Mr. Harper’s Conservatives as vocal Kyoto opponents. His apparent flip-flop, and ambitious promises were weakened by his failure to address a plan to achieve reductions by 2012 as mandated by Kyoto.

Finally, the failure to address the plethora of perverse subsidies being given to the oil and gas industry raises questions about the sincerity of the promises and implementing emission reductions.
That said, the speech marks an important day in BC history. The long-predicted earthquake did occur, but in the political arena, not on Vancouver Island. It will take awhile to determine whether this is as promised the big shake-up or just a tremor.

However, the political ground in BC has clearly shifted and is unlikely to go back to its previous state. The shift enlarges the debate and acknowledges the difficult challenges we face as a province, a country and a species. It also moves us closer to linking the environment and the economy as drivers of policy. Ignoring global warming and the need to reduce our footprint is no longer an option.

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