Pembina’s Clean Energy & Climate Debate Illustrated Very “Alternate” Realities

By Roy L Hales

With the election approaching, the Pembina Institute brought together prominent candidates from B.C.’s three major political parties to debate the province’s road to a more planet friendly future. Despite the  underlying tension, everyone was polite. There was laughter. Yet Pembina’s clean energy & climate debate illustrated very “alternate” realities.

Defending Her Government’s Record

Mary Polak, BC’s Minister of the Environment and a sitting MLA since 2005 – screenshot from the debate.

Mary Polak, BC’s current Minister of the Environment, spent much of her time defending the government’s record.

“This is, I think, the place where the  practical and the idealistic comes together in politics … like it does no where else in public life. It is one of those areas where we all know what we need to do, and accomplish, and we struggle with trying to balance that against the different things that we come up against in transitioning to what will be a new economy and a new world.”

She pointed to the United States, “a very large economy vacating a significant part of the 21st century economy and leaving a vacuum that I think British Columbia is well positioned to fill.”

Vacated Opportunities Of Clean Technology

George Heyman, Opposition spokesperson for the Environment, Green Economy and Technology, Former Executive Director of the Sierra Club BC, and a sitting MLA since 2013 – screenshot from the debate

“We don’t have to look south to find a jurisdiction that has vacated the opportunities of a clean technology future or climate leadership, I think we have that here in BC since Christy Clark became Premier,” responded George Heyman, the Opposition spokesperson for the Environment, Green Economy and Technology.

The province’s emission have risen by 3.3% and, under the government’s current Climate Action Plan, will continue to rise until 2030.

Heyman continued, “I think it is important to note that a balanced Climate Leadership Team was put together. Representatives of communities, First nations, business, environmentalists, academia … made a set of 32 recommendations …”

If the province follows their suggestions, British Columbia’s emissions may fall 40%

The Green Party and, except for carbon pricing, the NDP have both    accepted those 32 recommendations ; The BC Liberal Government has not.

Politicians Say One Thing & Do Another

Andrew Weaver, Leader of the BC Green Party, climate scientist, professor, lead author in the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change 2nd, 3rd, 4th and 5th scientific assessments and a Sitting MLA since 2013- screenshot from the debate

“The reason why I got into politics, was precisely because of this issue. As those of you who know my career will know, I served as the lead author of the (United Nations) 2nd, 3rd, 4th and 5th scientific reports done by the intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. I served on Gordon Campbell’s Climate Leadership Team, a time when policy measures were brought into the province of British Columbia to put climate policy first. I watched when the BC NDP  initiated its’ cynical campaign of 2009 … and then I watched as the BC Liberal Government under Christy Clark dismantle the innovative policies that were brought in one by one and it started with the weakening of the Clean Energy Act for LNG,” said Andrew Weaver, Leader of the Green Party.

He added, “I could not stand by and talk to my students about the important of being engaged. … They would … say all of the politicians are in it for themselves, ‘they were not in it for the intergenerational equity’ and I would them, ‘maybe you should run.’ At one point I had to look in the mirror and say … okay I will run.  And I ran because, frankly, I’m sick and tired of politicians saying one thing and doing another in the area of climate leadership.”

Carbon Pricing

Premier Gordon Campbell signing an autograph in 2010 – by kris krüg via Flickr (CC BY SA, 2.0 License)

The three parties disagree about carbon pricing. When the province’s much-lauded carbon tax was introduced, in 2008, the rate was meant to increase every year. This came to a halt after Christy Clark became Premier.  She recently stated, “We will consider raising the carbon tax as other provinces catch up.” The NDP are in favour of a national carbon pricing strategy. Weaver says neither of these approaches are adequate.

He explained, “We would put in place a plan that would increase the carbon price $10 a year, taking it to $70 a ton, which would be $20 above the amount Trudeau has mandated. …. The reason we would o that is that leaders lead. They don’t wait for others to follow. When Gordon Campbell introduced the carbon price at $30 a ton, he brought it $30 above everyone else … The BC NDP are saying we’ll bring it to the same as everyone else, losing that leadership position, and the BC Liberals do not have a plan.”

A 1950’s Megaproject

BC Hydro contractors mulching merchantable timber along the highway realignment section at Bear Flat/Cache Creek, as they prepare for the Site C Dam. The hoe pushes the trees over and lines them up on the ground and then the mulcher mulches it – photo courtesy Don Hoffman

The controversial Site C Dam project, which Heyman called ‘a 1950’s megaproject,’ was another focus of dispute.

Ms Polak described a future of rising electricity demand.

“We want to make  sure that ratepayers are not hit with a higher bill. The advantage of legacy power, hydro power and indeed power from Site C, is that it means our electricity rates are extremely low.”

To which both Weaver and Heyman responded that BC’s electrical demand has been flat for most of the past decade.

“A report from the University of British Columbia, released in the past couple of days, crashed through the economics … We don’t know if it is going to come in on budget, but many people are convinced it is going to go significantly over. The report said there will be no demand for Site C’s power for ten years and we know it will cost $200 million a year if we have power that we don’t need and try to sell it on the spot market at a loss,” said Heyman.

“Site C is being constructed for an industry that does not exist, the LNG industry, and so desperate are the BC Liberals to actually land LNG that they sign contracts to subsidize LNG … to the tune of 6 cents a kilowatt hour,” said Weaver.

Killing The Clean Energy Sector

Shannon Phillips, Minister Responsible for the Climate Change Office, tours the Canadian Wind Energy Association (CANWEA) tradeshow in Calgary (2016) – photography by Chris Schwarz/Government of Alberta via Flickr (CC BY SA, 2.0 License)

One of the debate’s panelists, Judith Sayers, pointed out that  there are currently 249 First Nation’s clean energy projects on hold because Site C is coming online. There is no place to sell the energy.

Ms Polak claimed it is difficult for renewables to compete with hydro, on a cost basis, but the provincial government funded 100  clean energy projects.

“We know that bringing Site C on has essentially killed the clean energy sector here in British Columbia. … The Canadian Wind Energy Association has essentially left B.C. and moved to Alberta. The Canadian Geothermal Association is crying foul, as they can’t get going here,” said Weaver.

“The cost of renewables has dropped, on average, 50% in the past six years. So which direction should we choose to go in? We should go in the direction of renewable energy, with an emphasis on the tremendous economic opportunities for First Nations, wind solar and some cases, carefully managed for environmental impacts, small hydro. Those are the kind of opportunities that will create jobs … in every part of British Columbia,” said Heyman.

Top Photo credit: Catalyst’s paper and pulp mill at Crofton, BC – Roy L Hales photo

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