Nov 4, 2013

Annotated Pacific Coast Action Plan on Climate and Energy

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BC recently signed on to a new Pacific Coast Action Plan on Climate and Energy, which includes California, Oregon and Washington states. On the surface it seems like the province is recommitting to climate policy, but don’t believe the hype: it was just a few years ago that BC was in negotiations with those same governments on the Western Climate Initiative, which would have created a regional cap-and-trade system for carbon emissions. The final WCI text was a massive political compromise, with a weak regional GHG reduction target and a carbon offset loophole you could drive a coal train through. But BC still could not find the political will to sign it.

The other major piece of the storyline is that BC is approving expanded fossil fuel infrastructure. A new gas plant in the Northeast was recently approved, and will add 2.4 millions of tonnes of carbon dioxide per year to the province’s GHG inventory. Moreover, the overarching aim of the BC government is to launch a new LNG industry that is the equivalent of adding 24 million cars (or more) to the roads of the world.

So what’s in the PCAP? Below I have pasted the text of the agreement (without the preamble to save space) with some commentary along the way. Bottom line: this new agreement is more spin than substance, commits the province to no more than vague directions, and in any event has no binding authority.

I. Lead national and international policy on climate change with actions to:

Direct our relevant agencies and officials to work together to:

1) Account for the costs of carbon pollution in each jurisdiction.

Oregon will build on existing programs to set a price on carbon emissions. Washington will set binding limits on carbon emissions and deploy market mechanisms to meet those limits. British Columbia and California will maintain their existing carbon-pricing programs. Where possible, California, British Columbia, Oregon and Washington will link programs for consistency and predictability and to expand opportunities to grow the region’s low-carbon economy.

2) Harmonize 2050 targets for greenhouse gas reductions and develop mid-term targets needed to support long-term reduction goals.

Climate scientists have identified the scale of greenhouse gas reductions that must be achieved globally to stabilize the climate. Where they have not already done so, California, British Columbia, Oregon and Washington will establish long-term reduction targets that reflect these scientific findings. To advance long-term reductions, Washington already has in place a mid-term 2035 target. California and Oregon will establish their own mid-term targets. British Columbia has already legislated 2020 and 2050 targets and will explore whether setting a mid-term target will aid their achievement.

3) Affirm the need to inform policy with findings from climate science.

Leaders of California, British Columbia, Oregon and Washington affirm the scientific consensus on the human causes of climate change and its very real impacts, most recently documented by scientists around the world in the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s Fifth Assessment Report released in September 2013, as well as other reports such as the Scientific Consensus on Maintaining Humanity’s life Support Systems in the 21st Century. Governmental actions should be grounded in this scientific understanding of climate change.

4) Cooperate with national and sub-national governments around the world to press for an international agreement on climate change in 2015.

The governments of California, British Columbia, Oregon and Washington will join with other governments to build a coalition of support for national and international climate action, including securing an international agreement at the Conference of Parties in Paris in 2015. The governments of California, British Columbia, Oregon and Washington will coordinate the activities they undertake with other sub-national governments and combine these efforts where appropriate.

5) Enlist support for research on ocean acidification and take action to combat it.

Ocean health underpins our coastal shellfish and fisheries economies. The governments of California, British Columbia, Oregon and Washington will urge the American and Canadian federal governments to take action on ocean acidification, including crucial research, modeling and monitoring to understand its causes and impacts.

This first section contains no new commitments from BC government, save for asking the federal government to push for a new international climate agreement and to fund some adaptation. The reference to “inform policy with findings from climate science” is contrary to BC’s LNG ambitions. The province cannot have it both ways: it can commit to climate action OR to seeking LNG riches but not both at the same time.

II. Transition the West Coast to clean modes of transportation and reduce the large share of greenhouse gas emissions from this sector with actions to:

1) Adopt and maintain low-carbon fuel standards in each jurisdiction.

Oregon and Washington will adopt low-carbon fuels standards, and California and British Columbia will maintain their existing standards. Over time, the governments of California, British Columbia, Oregon and Washington will work together to build an integrated West Coast market for low-carbon fuels that keeps energy dollars in the region, creates economic development opportunities for regional fuel production, and ensures predictability and consistency in the market.

2) Take actions to expand the use of zero-emission vehicles, aiming for 10 percent of new vehicle purchases by 2016.

The Pacific Coast already has the highest penetration of electric cars in North America. The governments of California, British Columbia, Oregon and Washington will work together towards this ambitious new target by supporting public and private fleet managers to shift their procurement investments to catalyze toward electric car purchases and by continuing to invest in necessary infrastructure to enable low-carbon electric transportation.

This is an ambitious and noteworthy target; in fact, perhaps the only real target in the PCAP. But you have to wonder: since 2014 models are already out, is this really going to happen? It could, if there were sufficient financial sweeteners in place, but that would cost money that the BC government is not likely to spend.

UPDATE (Nov. 14): I’m told that there has been some mis-interpretation on this one. The revised agreement now states: “Take actions to expand the use of zero-emission vehicles, aiming for 10 percent of new vehicle purchases in public and private fleets by 2016.” [emphasis added] That’s a pretty major change in interpretation, and obviously a much weaker target.

3) Continue deployment of high-speed rail across the region.

Providing high-speed passenger rail service is an important part of the solution to expand regional clean transportation, improve quality of life and advance economic growth. The governments of California, British Columbia, Oregon and Washington continue to support the Pacific Coast Collaborative’s Vision for high speed rail in the region, and will continue to seek opportunities to invest in rail infrastructure that moves people quickly, safely and efficiently, and encourages innovation in rail technology manufactured in the region.

OK, I’m a sucker for high-speed rail so I like this one, especially since maps for high-speed rail in the US have shown Vancouver as a northern terminus. That said, this is an easy political promise as it will be a long, long time before someone in Vancouver will be able to get a high-speed rail ride down to California. Only California appears to be (slowly) getting started on rail construction, with a plan to connect San Francisco to Los Angeles by 2029, and then San Diego and Sacramento “eventually”. The Portland-Seattle corridor received US federal stimulus funding, but Washington state has capped train speeds at 79 mph, far slower than “high speed”; Oregon has stated a similar top speed. Neither the BC not Canadian federal governments have made any capital plans to make the connection happen, however, while

4) Support emerging markets and innovation for alternative fuels in commercial trucks, buses, rail, ports and marine transportation.

The Pacific Coast of North America is emerging as a center of private sector innovation and investment in cleaner fuels and engine technologies for heavy-duty trucks and buses, rail, ports and marine transportation. The governments of California, British Columbia, Oregon and Washington will develop targets and action plans to accelerate public and private investment in low-carbon commercial fleets and support the market transition to biofuels, electricity, natural gas and other low-carbon fuels in local and export markets.

III. Invest in clean energy and climate-resilient infrastructure with actions to:

1) Transform the market for energy efficiency and lead the way to “net-zero” buildings.

Energy efficiency is the lowest cost way to reduce greenhouse gas emissions while creating good local jobs. The governments of California, British Columbia, Oregon and Washington will work to harmonize appliance standards, increase access to affordable financing products, and support policy that ensures that energy efficiency is valued when buildings are bought and sold. Our efforts intend to build a vibrant, growing regional market for energy efficiency products and services.

BC had a funded program for residential energy retrofits called LiveSmart. It ran out of money at the end of the 2011/12 fiscal year and has not been replaced. Requiring all new buildings (after, say, 2020) to be net zero would be a positive step, but there is no such commitment here.

2) Support strong federal policy on greenhouse gas emissions from power plants.

The governments of California, British Columbia, Oregon and Washington will support the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s initiative to regulate greenhouse gas emissions from power plants and emphasize the importance of allowing state flexibility to design ambitious reduction programs within this regulation. Our jurisdictions will also coordinate and provide joint testimony in federal proceedings on greenhouse gas emissions when appropriate.

The big missing piece here is the BC government’s push to define burning gas as “clean energy” for the purposes of LNG development. Large new power demand for fracking and processing of natural gas is also ignored in this statement.

3) Make infrastructure climate-smart and investment-ready.

The West Coast Infrastructure Exchange (WCX) is demonstrating how to attract private capital for infrastructure projects while increasing climate resilience through best practices and certification standards. To scale up these efforts, the governments of California, Oregon and Washington will sponsor pilot projects with local governments, state agencies and the WCX. WCX also works closely with Partnerships BC, a center of infrastructure financing expertise established by the government of British Columbia that has helped to secure financing for over 40 projects worth more than C$17 billion.

The call for P3 arrangements flies in the face of evidence that they are more expensive, and still leave taxpayers on the hook should anything go wrong. In the case of the P3 Golden Ears Bridge lower-than-projected tolling revenues have meant that Metro Vancouver’s Translink authority is paying millions a year to cover the shortfall. Governments the size of BC, Washington, Oregon and California can all borrow more cheaply that the private sector. This is just bad policy, plain and simple.

4) Streamline permitting of renewable energy infrastructure.

Meeting ambitious carbon-reduction goals will require scaling up wind, solar and other forms of renewable energy and effectively bringing clean power to customers in California, Oregon and Washington. Drawing on emerging models in California and the Pacific Northwest, the governments of California, Oregon and Washington will work with permitting agencies to streamline approval of renewables projects to increase predictability, encourage investment and drive innovation.

5) Support integration of the region’s electricity grids.

Connecting the markets for buying and selling wholesale electricity in our region can increase local utilities’ flexibility and reliability and provide consumer savings by enabling use of a wide variety of energy sources across the region. Integrating our region’s electricity markets also expands energy users’ access to renewable energy sources, such as solar and wind power.

BC already trades in electricity, and historically at a profit, because its major hydro dams act as batteries. BC Hydro can buy when electricity prices are low, and sell when prices are higher. A recent problem has come about in the $50 billion of renewable electricity purchase contracts BC Hydro has, which have higher cost per MWh than the market price, and can result in electricity being sold at a loss.

IV. Interpretation

This Action Plan is intended to spur finding new, smart ways for our governments, agencies and staff to work together, and with other governments and non-government partners, as appropriate, to add value, efficiency and effectiveness to existing and future initiatives, and to reduce overlap and duplication of effort, with the objective of reducing, not increasing, resource demands to achieve objectives that are shared.

V. Limitations

This Action Plan shall have no legal effect; impose no legally binding obligation enforceable in any court of law or other tribunal of any sort, nor create any funding expectation; nor shall our jurisdictions be responsible for the actions of third parties or associates.

These are pretty severe limitations that nullify the effect and the modest steps proposed in the PCAP.

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