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Did the Alberta NDP Overpromise in Pledge to Spend Money on Public Transit Instead of Carbon Capture?

A single mention in 25 pages — that’s how frequently “public transit” was referenced in the Alberta NDP’s recent election platform.

But the brief mention was couched in a massively ambitious plan to redirect huge subsidies from sketchy carbon capture and storage (CCS) projects to the province’s neglected public transportation system. But that plan might be more complex than the party realized due to contracts with companies nearly ready to put major CCS facilities online.

On an online forum, the NDP made this campaign pledge: “We will end the Progressive Conservative’s costly and ineffective Carbon Capture and Storage experiment and reinvest the 2015/16 component of this project into construction of public transit, which will help reduce families’ transportation costs and reduce greenhouse gases and other air pollutants.”

Transportation is hugely significant contributor to climate change. The sector expected to account for 24 per cent of Canada’s emissions by 2020 according to the most recent Environment Canada projections (second only to the oil and gas sector at 27 per cent). So the availability of public transportation, which means less individual vehicles on the road, can help municipalities deal with growing emissions.

Unfortunately, there are few details as to what the NDP’s plan actually entails.

And new Energy Minister Marg McCuaig-Boyd isn’t speaking up.

CCS Expensive, But No Sure Bet

The idea is simple in theory.

Carbon capture and storage (CCS) is a technology that collects waste carbon dioxide from industrial facilities and compresses it into a dense fuel. That fuel is used for enhanced oil and gas recovery, where it is pumped underground to force out low-pressure oil and gas, before it is sequestered in deep underground reservoirs.

Once championed as a climate solution, CCS has proven extremely costly and more risky than once thought. An alleged leakage of sequestered carbon in Saskatchewan raised serious questions about the guarantee of CCS. The leaks in particular raised concerns about the long-term certainty that once carbon has been stored in the ground that is where it will remain in perpetuity. 

A 2012 study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences found there is a “high probability” that earthquakes could break the seal of underground carbon repositories, ultimately releasing trapped emissions back into the atmosphere.

The efficacy of the process has also been called into question by Alberta’s auditor general, Merwan Saher, who said CCS has failed to live up to its promise and is only expected to reduce emissions by 10 per cent of its original goal.

Alberta initially promised $2 billion to four CCS projects in the province. Two projects, Swan Hills Synfuels and TransAlta, were eventually ditched when their proponents found them ‘uneconomic.’ That left $1.3 billion, which Alberta promised to the Shell and Alberta Carbon Trunk Line projects over the next 15 years.

The NDP argued the majority of the $315-million — $250 million in total — that would be spent this year on two CCS projects (Shell Quest and Alberta Carbon Trunk Line) could instead be invested in public transit.

“More stable funding” will be set aside for cities “in future years,” the pledge stated, “as we carefully review the existing capital plan in a transparent manner.”

It’s unclear how the NDP government views its commitment to the two remaining projects.

Kevin Jabusch — the president of Enhance Energy, the company responsible for the Alberta Carbon Trunk Line development — told the Calgary Herald his company has a binding contract with the province and is continuing with construction. The project is near complete and is expected to come online next year.

McCuaig-Boyd’s press secretary indicated to the Calgary Herald that they will make an announcement about the specifics in the coming months.

Alberta’s Lackluster Public Transit

Alberta is in a bit of a bizarre situation when it comes to public transit. On one hand, it features two of four light rail systems in the country. However, in a 2014 study, Calgary ranked nine of ten major Canadian cities with more than 500,000 residents for the “best Canadian cities for public transit” — the highest rankings were found in Toronto, Montreal and Vancouver. Edmonton ranked a single point higher than Calgary, putting it in eighth place.

Alberta’s cities receive no funding from the provincial government for operating costs; most money comes from fares and property taxes, with the small remainder coming from fines, parking tickets and advertising dollars.

Conversely, the Manitoba government is responsible for 20 per cent of Winnipeg Transit’s operating expenses, with the Ontario government providing 14 per cent of Mississauga’s budget and seven per cent of Ottawa’s budget in 2011.

Calgary Transit’s revenue-to-cost ratio has been declining over the past few years; since 2007, the average cost of providing a trip has spiked by one-quarter while the average fare had only increased by 12 per cent.

The federal government stepped up its role slightly in 2008, committing part of revenue from gas taxes to transit infrastructure. The New Building Canada Fund also lends assistance, up to one-third of project funding (with the remainder coming from the province and municipality).

However, those options aren’t stable or consistent sources of funding for year-to-year costs, meaning that many transit agencies can make short-term improvements such as new stations but have a tougher time budgeting for the long term. In 2013, the New Building Canada Fund was extended to grant $14-billion in funding over 10 years. But so much more is needed given Alberta’s rapidly growing cities and infrastructure debt.

According to the 2011 National Household Survey, 74 per cent of Canadians commute to work using a private vehicle. Only 12 per cent used public transit — almost two-thirds of those via bus, and another quarter on subway or elevated rail. Unfortunately, “cars, trucks and motorcycles” contribute by far the most CO2 to the atmosphere compared to any other transport type in Canada, a trend that is projected by Environment Canada to continue into 2020.

In late April, the federal government announced in its 2015 budget that it would be committing $750-million over two years to public transit beginning in 2017.

However, the next federal election takes place this October, meaning that the current government may not have the chance to oversee the implementation of such goals. In March, mayors from across Canada called for stable funding of $1-billion per year for public transit. Both the federal NDP and Liberals have stated that transit and infrastructure spending will be key components in their platform.

Currently, Canada is the only G7 country without a national transit funding strategy.

Image Credit: Premier of Alberta

James Wilt is a freelance journalist based in Winnipeg, Manitoba. He holds a journalism degree from Mount Royal University in…

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