How B.C.’s Climate Plan is Being Co-opted by Big Oil: Martyn Brown

This is the second of a four-part series on B.C.’s climate action plan. Part One addresses B.C.’s GHG reduction targets. Part Two addresses how that plan is at risk of being co-opted by Big Oil. Part Three takes a closer look at the B.C. Climate Leadership Team’s recommendations for the carbon tax. And Part Four focuses on how the oil and gas industry stands to profit from that advisory team’s proposed climate action plan.

In accepting its mission as defined by the government, the Climate Leadership Team (CLT) also implicitly accepted the government’s plan for increased emissions from LNG and from other carbon-intensive development.

As laudable as the CLT’s climate action plan is in most respects, it is wrongly predicated on accommodating the oil industry’s vision for increased fossil fuel extraction.

Which is to say, it is innately co-opted by its mandate, which is wedded to the acceptance of an overriding economic plan for carbon-fuelled growth.

That is not to suggest that all, or even a majority, of the CLT members support that economic vision. Far from it.

But in accepting their mandate, they were all obliged to respect the Clark government’s four Cornerstone Objectives as their starting point for climate action.

Those objectives basically obliged the CLT to recommend measures for meeting B.C.’s 2050 GHG reduction target, while also allowing for the added emissions that will flow from the government’s LNG Strategy and from its carbon-intensive B.C. Jobs Plan.

As the CLT noted, if that (or any) Cornerstone Objective “were to be deemed not a priority, the substance of the recommendations of the Climate Leadership Team may well be different.”

Therein lies the fatal flaw of the proposed plan.

Mission Impossible

It rests on an economic foundation that purports to dramatically increase greenhouse gas emissions that, in turn, will make the task of reducing those and all provincial emissions by some 80 per cent below 2007 levels vastly more difficult and more costly to achieve.

Accepting that foundation as our starting point for climate action turns B.C.’s “mission improbable” into “mission impossible,” regardless of any theoretical assurances offered to the contrary from any private consulting firm specializing in climate and energy modeling.

I have had enough experience with such environmental and econometric modeling to know how readily compliant with their client’s wishes their statistical outputs tend to be. I am certainly not suggesting they fudge the figures or in any way act unprofessionally; but they are always mindful of the unspoken “truths” their clients hope to prove.

In my experience, it was never too challenging for the government to obtain “proof” that its policies, plans and “business cases” made sense, typically from thoroughly respected and utterly professional firms.

Only history typically makes of an ass of those econometrically-sound leaps of science, faith and mathematically-inspired feats of assumption.

From the economic benefits of the Olympics, to the rosy picture painted by the properly qualified findings of the quantitative analysis of British Columbia’s initial climate action plan, history tends to discredit even the most credible economists’ “crystal-balling.”

Their seemingly “firm” findings are always carefully qualified in the fine print that their clients usually are not so keen to talk about.

They are always based on the quicksand of often-dubious reference scenarios, economic and other assumptions, and interpretations of loosely worded policy statements, strategic directions and unspecified actions.

Push on any of those analyses hard enough and you will be happy enough to bury them, lest someone else shows how magically they rest upon their mucky postulations and presumptions.

With few exceptions, there is simply nowhere near enough detail or specificity in the Climate Leadership Team’s plan to make any credible forecasts about its potential GHG reduction impacts.

The truth is, it is fundamentally impossible to quantify the impacts of so many open-ended and interacting variables. It is a qualitative art, in the first instance, to try to interpret the mostly aspirational strategies to develop strategies, “best practices” and actual mitigation measures that are suggested in the CLT’s plan.

Nor can any such modeling account for the political will — or lack of it — in interpreting and actioning the CLT’s suggested strategies over some 34 years.

All of which is to flag the obvious: we should take any modeling that says we can meet our 2050 GHG reduction targets by exponentially adding to our emissions pressures with a grain of salt.

At a minimum, that can only make the challenge more difficult and more costly to achieve.

That incremental emissions pressure from incremental fossil fuel extraction, shipping and processing can only make their attendant environmental risks, financial costs and behavioural burdens more onerous, especially for individuals, families and those who can least afford them.

The best chance we have at meeting B.C.’s 2050 GHG targets is to minimize its emissions baseline, instead of the opposite.

The last thing we should be doing is planning for a future that is intentionally predicated on potentially doubling our emissions pressures, in pursuit of the economic lure being dangled out by the LNG consortiums and large oil companies.

Rush to Increase Oil and Gas Development

As B.C.’s chief cheerleader for LNG, and as the oil industry’s passive accomplice in “getting to green” in moving Alberta’s bitumen to Pacific tidewater, our premier is both a friend in deed and a friend in need to the barons of Big Oil who so generously fund her party.

Indeed, her government has been thoroughly co-opted by those who want us to stake our economic future on their increased exploitation of fossil fuels for their profit, global warming be damned.

It is content to suck and blow at the same time on climate action by dramatically expanding oil and gas development while simultaneously trying to eradicate its unwanted and entirely avoidable incremental emissions.

That wrong-headed approach will oblige us all to pay a much heavier price to reduce the added emissions that will result from the government’s rush to yield export-driven profits for the mostly foreign multinationals that want to increase Canada’s oil and gas development.

The largely state-owned oil companies from China, Malaysia, India, Brunei and elsewhere that are driving B.C.’s slavish devotion to LNG development couldn’t be happier.

Whether or not they eventually move forward with their potential investment plans in B.C., they are thrilled with the B.C. Liberals’ penchant for prostrating themselves to their industry’s “competitive demands.”

Ditto for the mega-rich private oil companies from the USA, the UK, Japan and Canada.

After all, they have already successfully suckered the Clark government into granting them unbelievably irresponsible tax breaks, subsidies and taxpayer-backed giveaways, through the ill-conceived Petronas precedent. (See related stories in the Georgia Straight, here, here, here and here.)

If nothing else, the premier’s unqualified support for their projects, through long-term tax concessions, tax credits and environmental risk transfers, increases their leverage with other governments that are equally starry-eyed about the zero sum global game of LNG development.

Now they stand to gain from an updated provincial climate action plan that they hope and expect will be anything but that.

It will amount to a contradiction in terms, if the Kinder Morgan Trans Mountain pipeline project, the Pacific Northwest LNG project, and the premier’s broader vision for export-driven fossil fuel development is allowed to proceed.

A Defeatist Strategy

The Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency’s Pacific NorthWest LNG Draft Environmental Assessment Report found that that project’s liquefaction plant alone would increase provincial greenhouse gas emissions by 8.5 per cent.

Upstream greenhouse gas emissions associated with the project would represent 10-14 per cent of provincial emissions, based on 2013 levels.

And that is only one of 20 proposed LNG projects on the drawing board in British Columbia, including 18 that have already been granted export licenses by the National Energy Board (NEB).

If only a handful of them ever come to fruition, it will not be long until B.C.’s LNG-related emissions are vying with Alberta’s oil sands emissions for the dubious title of being Canada’s worst king of carbon pollution.

As for the so-called Kinder Morgan project, the NEB did not even consider either the upstream (e.g. oil production) or downstream emissions (e.g. end use of the oil) associated with Trans Mountain’s plan to pipe oilsands bitumen from northern Alberta to Burnaby, for shipping to Asia and elsewhere from Metro Vancouver’s Burrard Inlet.

We have no idea what the added impact of those unquantified extra greenhouse gas emissions will be from the associated increased oilsands extraction and processing activities.

We haven’t a clue what the emissions impact will be from the seven-fold increase in supertanker traffic that that project will impose upon the Salish Sea; or from the shipping of that “liberated” dirty cargo across the world; or from the refining of that bitumen into useable energy in China, America or elsewhere; or from the reshipping of that refined oil to wherever it gets burned; or from the combustion and other end use of that product.

Some might call that progress. I say it’s insanity.

The NEB’s requirement that Trans Mountain must offset the direct GHG emissions generated from the project’s construction, without any consideration of the emission increases that will actually result from what will flow through that new pipeline, is hardly cause to celebrate.

It is rather a bad joke that makes us the punch line: Knock, knock. Who’s there? Kinder. Kinder who? Kinder surprise! We get to pollute, you get to pay, and we get to profit.

Who says the NEB doesn’t have a sense of humour?

Founding a new climate action plan on a prevailing vision to exponentially increase the very thing that we ostensibly hope to decrease — carbon emissions — is patently absurd.

It is tantamount to trying to bail ourselves out of a leaky life raft while poking new holes in its rapidly deflating life support system, and pretending it doesn’t matter.

It is a defeatist “strategy” that essentially assumes we are probably already sunk anyway, so we might as well drink ourselves drunk on the stuff that’s in the barrels and enjoy the ride while it lasts.

We can and must do better.

The High Cost of Low Standards

Those oil companies and consortiums essentially want us to abandon our climate action imperatives in exchange for the benefits they promise from the increased extraction, processing and shipping of natural gas and heavy oil across our precious, pristine and sensitive ecosystems.

Never mind that the main argument for exporting those non-renewable resources is supposedly to increase their value — meaning the oil industries’ profits — in ways that it must be admitted will also make those products more expensive for Canadian consumers.

They want us to further lower their taxes, cut their costs and reduce our environmental standards, to help them compete with their own companies and with each other, in other parts of the world that place no price on carbon and that see no problem with carbon pollution.

They want us to do all that, so that they can sell more Canadian fossil fuel to China and to other less developed countries, which are already literally choking to death on the combustion of those dirty energy resources.

Such is the “gift” to humanity being held out as a fleeting “opportunity” by the only dinosaurs left on Earth.

Their idea of “responsible” and “sustainable” development is Orwellian newspeak of the worst order.

They are trying to persuade us that the “responsible” choice is to act irresponsibly. That “sustainable” development is its opposite.

In what world is it either “responsible” or “sustainable” to blast the earth apart with chemically polluted water, sand and steam, to “free” its geologically trapped hydrocarbons, so that they can be burned at the expense of our warming planet, and by extension, the life it supports?

If that is our idea of “adding value,” we are indeed morally bankrupt.

In what perverse “sustainable” and “responsible” society could it ever make sense to intentionally so debase the environment?

And worse, to fuel its dependency on non-renewable, climate-polluting energy that also threatens its aquifers, aquatic life and human drinking water?

Least of all, when the world is already awash in those petrochemicals. When it is slowly suffocating from its use of them. And when it has so many other clean, renewable and economically rewarding options to meet its incremental energy needs, as the International Energy Agency has so extensively documented.

In B.C. premier Christy Clark’s brave new world, apparently.

She too has bought into the fallacy that we must aspire to compete with those who are already adding to the planet’s atmospheric burdens by sending more of our worst polluting forms of energy to China and elsewhere.

It is a logic that defies logic, except for those who hope to profit from increasing emissions that will escalate global warming.

It flies in the face of the commitment made by 95 countries in Paris last December to cut their emissions, so as to limit global warming to “well below 2°C.”

It makes a mockery of Canada’s lofty appeals to further restrict global warming to just 1.5 Celsius.

It makes the federal government’s improbable commitment to reduce Canada’s carbon emissions by 30 percent below 2005 levels by 2030 virtually impossible to achieve.

And it runs utterly counter to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s recent agreement with U.S. President Barack Obama to reduce methane emissions by 40-45 per cent below 2012 levels by 2025 from the oil and gas sector.

As such, it is incumbent on B.C.’s provincial New Democratic Party to stand with the Green Party in fundamentally opposing the acceptance of the LNG pipe dream as a starting point for serious climate action.

In the first installment of this series, I suggested that an independent Auditor General for Climate Action should be appointed by the legislature to annually monitor the government’s progress on climate action.

That individual might also be asked to annually audit and report on the true cost of climate action subsidies and less obvious “tax expenditures” that are today completely invisible.

Taxpayers should know how much more they are being taxed through all manner of taxes, fees, utility rates and other hidden charges that directly relate to measures taken to reduce and offset the added emissions from each sector.

They should also know how much of their money is being devoted to investments and subsidies offered to businesses, to help them remain “competitive” in the new world of carbon pricing.

Indeed, government should be obliged to report on those costs in every provincial budget, just as it does today on its most obvious forms of tax expenditures (i.e. reductions in revenue from delivering government programs or benefits through the tax system, such as special tax rates, exemptions, or tax credits.)

And each year, the legislature should vote on all of those tax expenditures and newly identified “carbon pricing mitigation measures,” just as they do on each ministry’s annual Estimates appropriations for operating programs.

B.C. taxpayers and families should not be obliged to pay more than need be for cutting British Columbia’s carbon emissions. More on that subject in the next two installments of this series.

Martyn Brown was former B.C. premier Gordon Campbell’s long-serving chief of staff and a key architect of B.C.’s climate action plan and clean energy plan. He was the top strategic advisor to three provincial party leaders, and a former deputy minister of tourism, trade, and investment in British Columbia. A frequent contributor to the Georgia Straight, Brown is also the author of the ebook Towards a New Government in British Columbia. Contact Brown at

Image: Christy Clark/Flickr

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