The BC government’s concerted efforts at message control nearly overwhelm its new climate plan.
THE GOOD NEWS IS that the BC government has now stated publicly that it really, really cares about climate change. While jurisdictions from Ontario to Brazil are thumbing their respective noses at the looming annihilation of life as we know it, the BC government released plans to move towards a low-carbon economy.
While there are numerous holes in the plan, the “CleanBC” document, released December 5, 2018, is substantial. It lays out a road map as to how the Province will attain its legislated target of a 40 percent cut in GHG emissions from 2007 levels by 2030. Despite the government’s unfathomable decision in 2018 to bend over backwards for the liquefied natural gas (LNG) industry, considerable credit is due for pulling together so many parts of the climate puzzle.
CleanBC is “aimed at” reducing greenhouse gases (GHGs) while creating more jobs and economic opportunities, according to the news release’s opening blurb. It is now standard government jargon for policies to aim at doing something, rather than to actually do it. If a plan merely aims at a reduced GHG emissions target but ends up missing it, the government can still say it carried out the plan: it tried.
Under 2018’s Climate Change and Accountability Act, BC set a reduction of 25.4 megatonnes (Mt) in annual GHG emissions by 2030, compared with 2007. CleanBC—if implemented according to projections—is expected to take us to an 18.9 Mt reduction, leaving another 6.5 Mt yet to be found.
That’s far from the only big “if” in the plan. For instance, the plan claims that taking carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere and storing it, known as “carbon capture and storage” (CCS), will help reduce annual GHG emissions to the targeted levels in 12 years. It’s a great idea, but one that has yet to work, other than in small demonstration projects. As British author George Monbiot put it in a November column in The Guardian Weekly, the only proven CCS process that works on the required scale is allowing trees to return to deforested land. And that means some big changes in the way most people live, of which the most important, globally, is eliminating meat and dairy from our diets—a suggestion that rates not even a passing mention in CleanBC.
Rapid deforestation, as in the Johnson Strait area (above), continues in BC despite the provincial NDP government's good intentions to reduce carbon emissions.
Given the immediacy and seriousness of climate change, one has to wonder why natural gas remains in the CleanBC picture for the foreseeable future. After all, methane, the prime component of natural gas, is one of the very worst of all GHGs, between 25 and 36 times worse than carbon dioxide in its global warming potential, according to the US Environmental Protection Agency. Making the indefinite continuation of the huge natural gas industry even more troublesome are fugitive emissions: those from the production, processing, transmission, storage and delivery of methane not used to generate useful energy. They include leaks, deliberate venting into the atmosphere, line cleaning, and other emissions that do not make it to the other end of the pipeline.
How big are such fugitive emissions? According to government figures, BC’s oil and gas industry released 3.47 Mt of fugitive emissions in 2016, a figure that even the government suggests is unreliable.
A group of scientists from the David Suzuki Foundation and St Francis Xavier University used a “sniffer truck” to measure actual emissions at more than 1,600 well pads and facilities in the huge Montney gas field in northeastern BC, which is planned to supply LNG Canada’s Kitimat plant. The scientists’ results, published in the January 2018 issue of the journal Atmospheric Chemistry and Physics, point to actual methane emissions that are at least 2.5 times higher than what the BC government reports.
Doubtless stung by the Suzuki work, the Province realizes it may have drastically under-reported fugitive emissions. According to the CleanBC report, the government is now working on ways to more accurately gauge fugitive methane releases, relying on—you guessed it—actual field measurements with sniffers. Speaking in an interview, Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives senior economist Marc Lee said of the volume of fugitive emissions: “We have no idea what they really are.”
A large part of the CleanBC exercise appears to have involved branding. The very name, “CleanBC,” with no space between Clean and BC, along with a multi-hued green and blue stylized logo at the top of every page in the CleanBC documents, suggest that it is indeed intended as a brand. Answering questions from Focus, an environment ministry spokeswoman said that while the reports themselves were produced in-house, “strategic brand development and initial creative development and production” cost approximately $65,000. Following a competitive bidding process, the contract was let to NOW Communications Inc, whose clients include mostly trade unions and the NDP in BC and other provinces. (During the 1990s, NOW attracted news media attention after the then-NDP government paid it $4.5 million from 1991 till March 31, 1995 for communications work. However, then-Auditor General George Morfitt found that the government appropriately managed NOW contracts, apart from “a limited number of significant exceptions.”)
The December 5 news release itself indicates just how much message control went into the issuance of the strategy. Of the six-page release, a scant one-and-a-half pages were devoted to the actual plan. The last four pages contained nothing more than effusive reactions to the plan from just about every segment of society, beginning with comments from three Americans-—the governors of California, Oregon and Washington. This unusual release was doubtless pushed by the all-powerful Government Communications and Public Engagement (GCPE) unit.
Why go to so much effort to collect comments on the plan? Isn’t that what news outlets would do anyway? Not any more. These days, nearly all major news outlets have little more than skeleton crews, following repeated layoffs and buyouts. Beat reporters are few and far between. But newspapers still have to fill the space between the ads, and if copy is provided, ready to cut and paste into stories, publications can retain the appearance of distributing actual content.
The obvious benefit for the government in this arrangement is that it gets to control the message and the reactions. Should California governor Jerry Brown, for example, have stuck in a snarky comment about the insanity of the BC government’s recent push for LNG, the control freaks at the communications unit would have edited it out. My suspicion is that rather than sending pre-release drafts of the 66-page CleanBC report to the busy governor of a state with more than eight times BC’s population, GCPE concocted a two-sentence comment and asked Governor Brown’s communications staff if it could attribute the “quote” to him. Brown himself may not have even seen his “quote.” Repeat for the other 22 CleanBC quotees.
Besides the usual environmentalists, among the 23 reverential authors were representatives of giant mining company Teck Resources Ltd and the Business Council of British Columbia, which represents around 250 of the province’s largest corporations.
In her statement distributed with the news release, Teck senior vice-president Marcia Smith called CleanBC “a tremendous economic opportunity.” Meanwhile, Teck is doing its bit for climate change, if in the wrong direction. As Judith Lavoie reported in the July/August 2018 Focus, the company is developing the $21-billion Frontier Oil Sands project near Wood Buffalo National Park in northeastern Alberta. Expected to begin operations in 2026, the reputedly largest-ever open-pit tar sands mine is expected to produce 260,000 barrels of bitumen every day. And as if to rub it in the noses of the NDP-Green government, Teck plans to be a client of the BC government-opposed Trans Mountain pipeline expansion. According to a report in the May 5, 2017 Globe and Mail, Teck has booked capacity on the expanded pipeline, which the federal government bought from Kinder Morgan in 2018.
In his message fronting the full CleanBC report, Premier John Horgan credits the government’s own Climate Solutions and Clean Growth Advisory Council. And guess who is one of the council’s two co-chairs? Teck’s Marcia Smith, no less. Yet if it weren’t for Teck and innumerable other similar players, Earth would not now be in what writer Monbiot calls a “death spiral,” requiring not gradual changes in our way of life, but a complete and immediate upheaval of the current economic system. Fossil fuels don’t belong in the new world. “At the end of the day, this is carbon, safely ensconced underground for eternity,” said the CCPA’s Marc Lee. Instead: “We are putting that out into the atmosphere.”
The professionally produced CleanBC documents are studded with lovely colour photographs of mostly young people staring at a waterfall, wearing hardhats and looking busy, or riding bikes along a trail through a springtime meadow. Nary a burned tree, nor sky darkened by forest fire smoke, nor flooding river in sight. Not one of the smiling models in the photographs displays the slightest concern for the catastrophe that is about to hit us unless we move much faster than the CleanBC requirements. We need to switch very quickly onto something like a war footing. Increasing the proportion of zero-emission new car purchases by 2030 is a step forward, but a minuscule one: a drop in BC’s annual emissions by 1.6 Mt—or six percent of BC’s legislated cuts.
Happy sailors dancing on a sinking ship.
For more on CleanBC, see: https://cleanbc.gov.bc.ca
For details on carbon capture and storage, see: https://www.carbontracker.org/ccs-important-but-not-a-get-out-of-jail-free-card
Russ Francis is a former BC government analyst. In his spare time, he takes care of an aging Alaskan Malamute, a yearling banana slug (free range), and a contrabass rackett.
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