Feb 1, 2011

Christy Clark’s “sustained development”


A news release from the Christy Clark camp puts its focus on energy policy in BC. While the press release reads as slickly as its candidate, let’s pause to deconstruct its key messages:

“British Columbia is in an enviable energy position and we need to take full advantage of the resources we have in the province,” says Clark. “We can create jobs, provide for families and continue to be a leader in the battle against climate change. With the right approach, this is a winning opportunity for British Columbia.”

As premier, Clark will focus on two key areas of energy development:

  • Continue to spur innovation and global leadership in renewable energy technologies and clean power generation through the government’s clean energy plan
  • Champion the responsible development and use of domestic natural gas resources

Cutting through the rhetoric, we need to point out that natural gas (methane) is a fossil fuel. While it is cleaner burning than coal, it is still an energy source that contributes to climate change. Research for the US Environmental Protection Agency finds that natural gas produces only about 25% less emissions compared to coal, because it is emissions-intensive to extract and process. Simply put, BC cannot both “be a leader in the battle against climate change” and “champion the development of natural gas”.

Apart from the legacy stock of hydroelectric power, thus far development of renewables in BC has been due to huge subsidies to private power producers for electricity that BC does not really need. That’s because our electricity requirements could be met with the existing hydro base – if accompanied by greater efficiencies in homes and businesses, and reduced industrial consumption. Indeed, industry pays only half what BC households pay for their electricity, and the big industrial consumers are also the biggest polluters, the mining and (you guessed it) oil and gas industries. Meanwhile, British Columbians are paying progressively higher prices for their electricity in order to finance this set of affairs.

New “clean energy” development is aimed at energy exports: “As premier, Clark will champion B.C.’s clean energy power generation and technologies to our trading partners and continue to work with BC Hydro and independent power producers to brand and market B.C.’s clean power.” That is, a continuation of BC’s resource extraction mentality. The environmental price to be paid may be small in GHG emissions, but large in the impact on rivers and streams around the province. That might be a price worth paying to meet BC needs, but in fact this is all being done on the promise of selling electricity to California (interestingly, California cannot actually import it under its current laws).

While the politics of renewable electric power are prone to some smoke and mirrors, it is  further development of natural gas that is the really big problem:

“Natural gas development has become a corner-stone of employment in north-eastern communities and the largest industrial revenue source to the province,” says Clark. “British Columbia has a resource of world-class size and natural gas exports through Kitimat offers the prospect for sustained development of our resource base. I support this private sector-led initiative and will work cooperatively with the proposed LNG Terminal owners to help make this project a reality.”

Actually, natural gas employment is puny in BC. In 2009, oil and gas provided about 3,000 direct jobs, plus perhaps another 2,000 in support activities for the industry. That is about 0.2% of provincial employment. Even if we double the number to account for indirect jobs in retail stores and so forth, we are left with an industry that causes huge environmental problems, in exchange for less than half of one percent of provincial employment. Profits, now that is another thing entirely …

The next part about exports is also speaks to BC’s “drill, baby, drill” mentality. Due to a technological advance called hydraulic fracturing (known as “fracking”) that cracks open rock deep below the surface to release gas, BC’s estimates of gas reserves have gone through the roof. Extracted, combusted and put into the atmosphere, BC’s reserves of natural gas represent almost two years worth of global greenhouse gas emissions.

The big difference in the announcement is that instead of the usual pipelining of gas to BC and North American homes and power plants, Clark’s dream is to get it across the sea by ship for sale in Asia. All of which makes me shake my head that “sustainable development” has morphed in “sustained development” of this industry.

None of this is to pick on Christy Clark per se. No other candidate in the BC primaries, Liberal or NDP, has made a statement that he or she would slow, much less stop oil and gas expansion in BC’s northeast. No one is willing to say no to the oil and gas industry, which is sad because the latest salvos from scientists tell us we need to radically change course. Here is quote from the summary of a new paper by Kevin Anderson and Alice Bows that looks at probabilities of global temperature increase of 2◦C, widely believed to be the point where runaway climate change takes the keys away from human decision-making on the issue:

[D]espite high-level statements to the contrary, there is now little to no chance of maintaining the global mean surface temperature at or below 2◦C. Moreover, the impacts associated with 2◦C have been revised upwards, sufficiently so that 2◦C now more appropriately represents the threshold between ‘dangerous’ and ‘extremely dangerous’ climate change.

In other words, we are in deep do-do. But no one in politics wants to rise to the challenge, for fear of losing votes, even though the technologies and know-how already exist. It would take a concerted effort by the BC government to make the big changes necessary, but that could also be a fantastic green jobs strategy. Building retrofits, public transit expansion and other aggressive climate policies would actually create far more jobs than what we currently have in oil and gas. Increasing the provincial carbon tax is an obvious and logical revenue source.

So instead of real climate and energy policies that move us towards a sustainable economy and that create thousands of new jobs, we are left with news releases posing as action and a continuation of a status quo that puts profits before the planet.

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