Jump to content

Russ Francis

Writers
  • Content Count

    22
  • Joined

  • Last visited

About Russ Francis

  • Rank
    Member

Recent Profile Visitors

The recent visitors block is disabled and is not being shown to other users.

  1. Posted June 20, 2020 The movement to reduce the work week from 5 to 4 days has supporters and detractors in BC. Go to story
  2. Thousands of BC Government employees are already halfway to a 4-day work week. NOT EVERYONE IS WILDLY ENTHUSIASTIC about chopping the normal work week to four days from five, as recently promoted by New Zealand Labour Prime Minister Jacinda Adern. While not rejecting it outright, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau was decidedly non-committal when asked about the idea on May 27. Other priorities, etc. Former BC Green Party leader Andrew Weaver, now an independent MLA, pulled fewer punches than Trudeau, calling it on Twitter “an absolutely kooky idea.” His exclamation was in response to comments supporting the four-day week from current Green house leader Sonia Furstenau and acting leader Adam Olsen. Weaver’s comments were in part just the surfacing of long-simmering tensions within the formerly Weaver-led Green caucus. The right-leaning Fraser Institute released a June 3 statement that prima facie supported the four-day work week. Well, kind of. First, it would take till 2030. Second, it would require workers to work harder, or to use the popular euphemism, increase “productivity.” The release didn’t discuss the fact that, as previously observed by the Fraser Institute itself, labour productivity is highly dependent on companies’ investments in machinery, equipment and intellectual property. And that investment has declined in Canada in recent years, as company after company used their spare cash to buy back their own shares—boosting the share price—rather than invest in anything that would help their staff. Premier John Horgan, asked June 4 by a Global News reporter about the Fraser Institute release, was at best lukewarm, saying only that “nothing should be off the table.” BC Labour Minister Harry Bains also managed to restrain his excitement at the prospect, in a statement sent to Focus June 19. His government “fully supports creative ideas about how to ensure workers can balance work with other obligations,” he said in the statement. In fact, there’s nothing to stop employers and workers voluntarily switching to a four-day week. To claim the government is “supporting creative ideas” may be a way of saying: “No, we will not change the Employment Standards Act or its regulations, to make compulsory this work-life balance that the government ‘fully supports.’” In the case of New Zealand, a principal motivation was to boost domestic tourism. Having to all intents and purposes defeated COVID-19, the country is carefully but persistently re-opening its economy. As of June 15, overseas tourists remained banned. However, Australia and New Zealand are cautiously considering a proposal to create a “trans-Tasman COVID-safe travel zone,” which would permit back and forth travel between the two countries. How could a four-day week help domestic tourism? On a five-day week, too often Saturday is spent catching up with chores, shopping, etc. And Sundays can easily be taken up in preparing for the next work week or visiting in-town family. No time to travel far. In pre-COVID-19 days, it was not uncommon for New Zealanders to travel overseas, known as getting “OE” (overseas experience), before seeing more than a handful of their own country’s sights. The hope is that a four-day week will restore interest in Kiwis seeing more of their own country—which after all, is a few steps above the moonscape of New Jersey in aesthetic qualities. As well, some research indicates four-day weeks provide for a better work-life balance, will likely create more jobs, and reduce worker stress, while increasing productivity. Kooky or not, it’s now in effect at several Canadian workplaces. On June 15, the municipality of Guysborough, Nova Scotia, began a nine-month pilot project that put its staff on a four-day week, partly as a way of reducing commuting time and partly to boost morale. Closer to home, administrative staff in the offices of the BC Government and Service Employees’ Union (BCGEU) already have it, says union president Stephanie Smith. When the staff requested a four-day work week, the BCGEU promptly agreed and implemented it. BC Government and Service Employees’ Union President Stephanie Smith What about a four-day week for the union’s 31,000 members who work for the Province? Smith said in an interview that if government workers asked for it, the union would back them, noting that in her experience the arrangement boosts morale and productivity. “We take our direction from the members,” Smith says, adding that no such request has come forward to date. In one sense, however, thousands of BC government employees are already halfway there: They get every second Friday or Monday off at full pay, under a longstanding arrangement between the government and the BCGEU. Known informally as providing for “flex days,” the nine-day fortnight is highly popular. So entrenched is it in government culture that the intransitive verb flex has been awarded a new sui generis meaning. This neologism, not yet in the Oxford Canadian Dictionary, is a commonplace in government lunch rooms, as in: “I flex this Friday.” In exchange for the biweekly day off, on each of the other nine days employees are required to work an extra 47 minutes longer than the standard seven-hour government work day. The total time worked each week still averages 35 hours. However, as one longtime government worker explained about the extra-time requirement for the other nine days: “Nobody’s counting.” Though widespread in the BC government, the flextime arrangement is not guaranteed. It is only upon agreement between the union and employer; management at some ministries, divisions and worksites do not permit it. Flexing was never intended for managers—the so-called “excluded” staff. Unionized workers, offered a promotion to a non-union management job, have been known to turn down the promotion on the grounds that they would no longer receive flex days. In one large ministry, many managers did in fact receive flex days, a special perk that was not widely known outside the ministry. When the word finally did reach the higher echelons about 10 years ago, a new deputy minister was brought in to end the practice and other questionable parts of that ministry’s culture. Nice try: In unison, the flexing managers rebelled. The new deputy was forced to back down, and before long, he was shipped out to another ministry. It is plain that the central government has at best mixed feelings about the flex-day arrangement, which does not bode well for the chances of a regular four-day week. During the last bargaining round, which ultimately led to the current 2019-2022 collective agreement, government representatives wanted to end flextime for staff in the Ministry of Social Development and Poverty Reduction. Came the reply from staff negotiators: No way. The government dropped it. Businessman and researcher Andrew Barnes, based in both the UK and New Zealand, is an energetic advocate of the four-day week, and funded 4 Day Week Global Foundation to promote it throughout the world. In 2018 Barnes used the 240 staff of New Zealand’s Perpetual Guardian estate planning company—which he heads—as research subjects for a study of the four-day week. Though Barnes formerly believed that longer work hours meant better business outcomes, his research found otherwise. Working fewer hours resulted in more work getting done, in part by cutting meetings, eliminating open plan offices (BC Government: take note), and reducing social media use. The employees benefitted in numerous ways. The gender gap shrunk, staff were happier, and commuted less frequently. Yet productivity jumped 20 percent and company profits grew. The BC government’s apparent hesitancy about even the flex-day agreement is likely due in part to the fact that it makes arranging meetings more challenging. Managers know full well that two days every week are off-limits when it comes to organizing most meetings or teleconferences. Since on any given Friday or Monday many staff may be taking flex days, only Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays are available. Less opportunity for mostly useless meetings, primarily taken up with reminiscing about the previous meeting, anticipating the next one, idle chat, and socializing? Quelle horreur! Russ Francis, who worked for 10 years in the provincial government, appreciates BCGEU president Stephanie Smith’s sardonic suggestions to hold a meeting to examine why there are so many meetings, and to set up a committee to study the large number of committees.
  3. ON APRIL 21, the BC government organized a “virtual townhall” on the COVID-19 virus for the Island Health region. Given the extreme financial challenges that the virus poses for the government, I couldn’t help but wonder whether the vast sums in public funds being doled out to LNG Canada—through royalty tax credits, reduced hydro rates, a provincial sales tax holiday, a carbon tax ceiling, and cancelled LNG income tax—might be in jeopardy. Or might the handouts even be switched to support renewable energy? Sadly, the esteemed panel was unable to get to my question: “Given the likelihood that the climate crisis will kill even more people than the virus, should the $6-billion taxpayer handout to LNG Canada be diverted to renewable energy projects?” Fortunately, eight days later, the government’s PR wing did answer my question. Well, sort of. The following is the verbatim emailed response I got from the Citizen Engagement Team. You be the judge. There is no handout. The provincial government developed a framework to ensure natural gas development had a level playing field with other industries in B.C., allowing investment to move forward so jobs could be created. This framework aligns with our climate commitments, as described in CleanBC. That plan has put us on a path to a cleaner, better future where we can continue to balance environmental protection with economic competitiveness and job creation. The LNG Canada project fits into the climate goals of CleanBC and allows B.C. to build a strong economy—that is even more important today as we grapple with the economic challenges created by the COID-19 [sic] pandemic. More details about the natural gas framework and the opportunity created as a result of LNG Canada’s investment can be found here. Thanks, Citizen Engagement Team. That clears up everything! Russ Francis worked as a political columnist and reporter for many years before becoming a BC government analyst. During his 10 years with the government, he worked in strategic policy, legislation and performance management for a number of ministries. He’s happy to be writing again from his home in the Southern Gulf islands.
  4. NOT EVEN THE CURRENT VIRUS PANDEMIC can sway the fossil fuel multinationals from their chosen path. On February 10, 2020—just four days after Provincial Health Officer Dr. Bonnie Henry announced the BC’s fourth COVID-19 case—Peter Zebedee took action. The chief executive officer of the LNG Canada joint venture registered to lobby the BC government, according to the BC Office of the Registrar of Lobbyists. To help out, seven other LNG Canada staff also signed up to lobby the premier, the BC Oil and Gas Commission, and numerous ministries. The topics? For one, LNG’s “fiscal framework”—possibly a euphemism for the incredible level of exemptions, tax cancellation, credits and reduced BC Hydro rate initially extracted from taxpayers following earlier lobbying efforts by Andy Calitz, Zebedee’s predecessor and Calitz’s colleagues. Another topic: “Development, establishment, amendment or termination of any program, policy or decision.” [Emphasis added.] Hmmm . . . . Did those eight LNG Canada lobbyists actually contact government and public service officials? We don’t know. Under the current BC lobbyist rules, only the registration of lobbyists is publicly reported. Fortunately, that will soon change, as the 2018 Lobbyist Transparency Act finally takes effect this fall. After that, BC lobbyists will have to report each phone call, email or visit with an official—just as is now required of federal lobbyists. One other minor detail. Among the requirements when registering is to reveal any funding “received or requested” from government agencies in the previous 12 months. LNG Canada dutifully reported that it has received big bucks from Innovation, Science and Economic Development Canada. The amount reported is $46.3 million. But I wonder if that isn’t a typo. For on October 2, 2018, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced that LNG Canada would actually receive $220 million from the Strategic Innovation Fund, as well as a further $55 million from Western Economic Diversification Canada to replace the Haisla Bridge in the District of Kitimat, needed as a result of increased area traffic. Not only that, Trudeau promised that “trade barriers would not get in the way of this generational project.” Translation: The feds plan to exempt LNG Canada from tariffs—worth an estimated $1 billion—when importing the Chinese-made modules for the LNG facility. I have asked the powers that be to check on LNG Canada’s reported amount from federal handouts. What about the hit on BC taxpayers? Fortunately, the Province’s $6 billion worth of giveaways to LNG Canada are in the form of credits, reduced hydro rates and tax exemptions. While those look very much like smash-and-grab raids on the treasury, the lobbying rules explicitly exclude tax credits. The total tab for taxpayers? Assuming that the Chinese modules do eventually make it to Kitimat, Ottawa and Victoria together are chipping in $7.275 billion. As the much lamented chair of the BC Public Accounts Committee, the late Fred Gingell, might have said: $7.275 billion here, $7.275 billion there—and pretty soon it adds up to real money. Russ Francis worked as a political columnist and reporter for many years before becoming a BC government analyst. During his 10 years with the government, he worked in strategic policy, legislation and performance management for a number of ministries. He’s happy to be writing again from his home in the Southern Gulf islands.
  5. May 6, 2020 BC loves to boast about its climate initiatives, but our emissions keep shooting up. IN THE FIRST YEAR of BC’s NDP-led government, the province’s emissions headed skywards. In 2018, BC’s greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions grew faster than the rest of Canada, according to a federal report issued April 20. The three-volume report, comprising 573 pages, forms Canada’s 2020 submission to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. When the NDP took control of the government in 2017, it didn’t bode well for the planet. After all, it was the NDP that had campaigned against BC’s continent-leading carbon tax in the 2009 election, with its “axe the tax” platform plank. As well, after winning the 2017 election the New Democrats eliminated tolls on the Port Mann and Golden Ears bridges, making cars—already heavily subsidized—cheaper still. What next, some might ask? Free gasoline for all? And what to make of the New Democrats’ “make BC a leader in climate action” 2017 campaign promise when the following spring the government tried to convince us that the only path forward for the Province was to develop and subsidize liquefied natural gas (LNG) projects? Don Wright, Premier John Horgan’s deputy minister, had the nerve to put his name to a March 22, 2018 “Update and Technical Briefing” that pushed LNG as the Province’s saving grace. The briefing claimed that climate action, First Nations reconciliation and LNG-driven economic development were “parallel and mutually dependent priorities,” a non sequitur if ever there was one. In 2007, Gordon Campbell’s Liberal government had promised to reduce BC’s emissions 33 percent by 2020, though progress disappeared long before the deadline. Never one to let the impending annihilation of life as we know it stand in his way, in May 2018 Horgan extended the Campbell government’s deadline to 2030, though he did boost the target reduction to 40 percent beneath 2007 levels. The NDP’s CleanBC plan of December 2018 specified measures projected to cut the 2030 emissions by 18.9 million tonnes of CO2 equivalent (Mt). This is just 73 percent of the cuts the Campbell government had promised for this year. The NDP measures include subsidizing electric car purchases and home energy renovations, reducing the carbon intensity of transportation fuels, and incenting industry to lower emissions. Then there was the bizarre November 7, 2019 cabinet order exempting LNG projects from all carbon taxes above $30 per tonne. Hardly a step forward. And as if to give the proverbial finger to the climate crisis, this spring the NDP government even cancelled the $5 per tonne increase in the carbon tax scheduled for April 1, 2020—an increase specified by CleanBC. The move was purportedly in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, despite the fact that global heating may well end up killing many more people than the virus. The carbon tax is now stuck at $40, a tiny fraction of what it should be. However, not all subsequent moves have been retrograde. In February this year the government released a detailed update of CleanBC, using revised emissions modelling. Backed by a technical report commissioned from Vancouver’s highly-respected Navius Research, the Environment and Climate Change Strategy Ministry now says it is closer to meeting its 2030 GHG reductions, in part because the updated modelling projects that BC’s total emissions under a “business as usual” scenario—without CleanBC measures—would be 2.5 Mt less than estimated in 2018. The main reason for this reduction is that natural gas wells are not quite as dirty, from an emissions viewpoint, as previously believed. (Navius reports that this information was provided by the Energy, Mines and Petroleum Resources Ministry.) The upshot is that the Province now has a smaller gap (5.5 Mt) to meet its goal of a 40 percent reduction by 2030. That’s assuming the reductions estimated to result from the CleanBC initiatives actually come to pass. And since the Navius report was completed before the government cancelled the scheduled April 1 carbon tax increase, the situation may be a little less rosy than suggested. Navius explicitly relied on the government’s then-current policy to continue increasing the tax annually till it reached $50 in 2021. Revenue from the tax is supposed to help fund further reductions in industrial emissions, meaning that there are several pathways by which a lower carbon tax could affect GHG levels. Let’s not forget that 2020—this year—is the deadline from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) deadline to begin reducing emissions if we are to avoid making Earth uninhabitable. And we’re going the wrong way. In 2018, the first full year under the NDP, BC’s emissions grew at a much faster rate than Canada’s as a whole. BC’s emissions jumped 2.2 Mt between 2017 and 2018, according to the new federal report, which offers the latest data available. In 2018 they reached 65.5 Mt, up from 2017’s 63.3 Mt. (For comparison, had the Campbell Liberal government managed to survive and hit its original 2020 targets, BC’s emissions this year would be no more than 39.6 Mt, far beneath 2018’s actual figure of 65.5 Mt.) At the same time, Canada’s emissions reached 729 Mt, a 2.1 percent increase from 2017, compared with BC’s 3.5 percent. Put another way, BC’s emissions increased 1.7 times faster than did Canada’s. The Province’s 2018 emissions continue a trend: Since 2015, they have steadily increased each year, and things are not expected to improve in the near future, IPCC warning or not. According to the February update, the government now expects emissions to continue increasing “over the next couple of years,” before beginning a downward trend. By 2021, says the report, emissions would be approximately 3.5 Mt less than in 2018. In short: BC has yet to do its share in preventing runaway global heating even without LNG, a fortiori with it. Canada’s GHG emissions by jurisdiction. Source: Environment and Climate Change Canada Among the untested measures in CleanBC is “carbon capture and storage” (CCS), involving collecting CO2 from the air and storing it underground. The plan projects that CCS will reduce annual emissions by 0.7 Mt. But despite considerable effort expended on various demonstration CCS technologies, there is only one method yet proven to work on a large-enough scale: Planting trees. The biggest single fossil fuel subsidy in recent memory is BC’s $6 billion dole-out to LNG Canada, not to mention the foreign consortium’s royalty tax credits, and a further $275 million from the federal government. The only bright light on the horizon is that the project may now be at risk from various obstacles, including COVID-19, the related disruption of the chain supplying the Chinese-built modules for the Kitimat plant, and economic turmoil—combined with the growing use of renewable energy—that could slash future worldwide fossil fuel demand. BC Green House Leader Sonia Furstenau and her Green caucus colleagues have said for years that LNG Canada is neither fiscally worthwhile nor feasible. “I don't anticipate that the COVID-19 crisis will work in its favour,” Furstenau said in a perhaps understated, emailed response to Focus queries. Furstenau and the two other Green MLAs voted in the legislature no fewer than 14 times against subsidizing LNG Canada. “I don’t think they should have received the benefit to begin with, and argued as hard as I could to make that case to the BC NDP,” she said. “But they felt differently and voted to go ahead.” (Note: This article relies on the latest emissions data from the federal government. BC’s own emissions inventory does not yet include those for 2018; the updated version is due to be published later this year.) Russ Francis was shocked to learn that hundreds of staff at Alberta’s Cargill abattoir were infected with COVID-19. Careful, or there could be death in the slaughterhouse.
  6. April 7, 2020 It didn't take long for the novel corona virus to spread from humans to BC’s liquefied natural gas (LNG) projects. ON APRIL 2, LNG Canada chief executive officer Peter Zebedee announced that in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, the foreign consortium had cut its 1,800-strong Kitimat workforce by 65 percent, continuing with only “essential” work. (Wonder what those 1,200 non-essential workers were doing.) LNG Canada CEO Peter Zebedee says 65 percent of workers have been sent home Despite this, LNG Canada is persisting with its GHG-laden future. Zebedee said in his letter that “we have every intention to deliver.” Zebedee is a former vice-president of Shell, which, as the largest partner, owns 40 percent of the project. However, I can’t help but ask whether Zebedee has spoken recently to his own head office. For on March 23, the multinational fossil fuel giant announced it is slashing spending world-wide. Without revealing details, Shell said it is cutting annual operating costs by $3 - $4 billion US, and capital spending by $5 billion US this year. A week later, on March 30 Shell said it is pulling out of the Lake Charles LNG project, a partnership with Texas-based Energy Transfer to convert the existing Louisiana LNG import facility to one that would export 16.45 million tonnes per annum (MPTA) of LNG. This compares with LNG Canada’s 14 MPTA for its first phase. Why did Shell withdraw? To “preserve cash and reinforce the resilience of our business,” said Shell’s Maarten Wetselaar, adding that “the time is not right for Shell to invest.” Where have we heard that sort of language before? Last fall, Kitimat LNG partner Woodside Energy said it wanted to reduce its 50 percent share of the project, joined in December by the other partner, Chevron, which wants to exit completely. Both companies said the reasons were risk and cost. The virus is also affecting other Woodside projects. In March, Woodside cut its spending in half, and delayed decisions on three planned LNG projects in its native Australia. It blamed COVID-19,as well as the oversupply of crude oil and LNG. A much smaller BC LNG project has also been infected by the virus. Woodfibre LNG, which planned to produce 2.1 MPTA on the shores of Howe Sound, said in March it was delaying its start date from summer 2020 to the end of 2021, in part because of the virus. Like LNG Canada, Woodfibre LNG—owned by Asia-based Pacific Oil & Gas—is building much of its plant in Chinese fabrication yards. Woodfibre LNG delays Howe Sound project in part due to COVID-19 Texas-based Fluor is building the LNG Canada facility in partnership with Japan’s JGC. Asked about the project during a February 18 analyst conference call, Fluor chief Carlos Hernandez said “at this point, we don’t see any delays, but obviously we’ll wait and see when we wrap up completely.” Marc Lee, senior economist with the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, said in an interview the fact that much of the LNG Canada plant’s construction work is being done at the Chinese fabrication yard may be a hiccup for the project: “The supply chain may be severely disrupted.” Economist Marc Lee: LNG Canada’s Chinese-built modules may be delayed due to supply-chain disruption. At a time of severe financial stress on BC’s economy, the growing possibility that LNG Canada may not proceed cannot be good news for Premier John Horgan, who has claimed that the $40 billion project would bring the government $23 billion in new revenue. Then there is LNG Canada’s contribution to increasing GHG emissions, at a time when the entire planet is supposed to be drastically cutting them. According to BC government data, the first phase of the project will add 3.45 MPTA of GHG emissions, though the figures have been widely criticized as considerably under-estimating fugitive emissions (those released before the fracked gas arrives at the facility.) If fully built, LNG Canada would result in 6.9 MTPA in emissions—more than one-third of the 18.9 MTPA in GHG reductions under specific programs of BC’s CleanBC plan. Green MP Elizabeth May is confident that neither LNG Canada nor Woodfibre LNG will go ahead. “The whole notion that they’re going to proceed with any of these is fanciful,” May said in an interview. “The economics of these projects are absolutely not on.” The Green Party has proposed a detailed plan to reassign fossil fuel workers to cleaning up orphan wells, while transforming to renewable energy. Neither Shell nor LNG Canada had responded to Focus requests for comment by the time of publication. Russ Francis is not sad about some effects of COVID-19: the suspension of Hockey Fight in Canada, the estimated 5 percent drop in 2020 GHG emissions, and the expected cancellation of the Calgary Stampede.
  7. March 5, 2020 Pensions of BC teachers, public servants, and municipal workers include huge fossilized investments. IN THE BAD OLD DAYS, those wanting to earn a reasonable return in the stock market might have been well-advised to look for what amounted to climate-hostile companies. Sure, there were “ethical investors” who may have had little more than feelings of moral superiority to show for putting their money into the likes of renewable energy producers or makers of vegan bicycles. But many investors were reliably collecting vast payouts from big frackers, tar sands developers, and pipeline companies. That’s where the money was. That was then. These days, financial heavyweights ranging from outgoing Bank of England Governor Mark Carney, the International Monetary Fund (IMF), and the European Union have a warning: firms that do not properly account for and reduce their GHG emissions are headed for financial trouble. The IMF is by definition a conservative organization: its primary mission is to ensure the stability of the international monetary system. But its last World Economic Outlook update, issued in January 2020—the hottest January on record—warned of financial risks posed by the climate crisis, as a result of greater frequency and intensity of weather-related disasters like tropical storms, floods, heatwaves, and wildfires. “Climate change…already endangers health and economic outcomes, and not only in the directly affected areas,” says the report. “It could pose challenges to other areas that may not yet feel the direct effects, including by contributing to cross-border migration or financial stress (for instance, in the insurance sector).” Mark Carney Among internationally recognized financial experts, few have stronger establishment pedigrees than Carney. A 13-year veteran of Goldman Sachs—one of the world’s largest investment bankers—in 2008 he began a five-year stint as governor of the Bank of Canada. Currently, Carney is playing the same role at the Bank of England until March 15, when he becomes the United Nations special envoy on climate change. “[A]ll financial decisions need to take into account the risks from climate change and the opportunities from the transition to a net zero economy,” he said in a January Bank of England statement. Carney warns that it’s not just the fossil fuel industry itself that will be hit hard by the climate crisis: those investing in them should also prepare for losses. Calling the climate crisis a “tragedy on the horizon” in a December 30, 2019 BBC interview, Carney warned pension funds that their fossil investments could eventually become worthless. Carney’s admonitions—which he has been espousing since 2015—may be prescient. The Boston Consulting Group reported this past December that from 2014 through 2018, the oil and gas sector had the worst total return of all 33 industries it tracks. (Total return is the sum of capital gains and dividends.) Despite this, British Columbia Investment Management Corporation (BCI) retains significant investments in fossil fuels. BCI manages the pensions of 598,000 British Columbians, including school and college teachers, BC public servants, municipal staff, and some BC Hydro employees. With managed assets worth $153.4 billion, BCI is one of Canada’s largest institutional investors. (All figures refer to March 31, 2019.) Of those assets, 40.5 percent are in the stock market. The corporation does not break down its share holdings by industry; however, a quick glance at its investment inventory shows that BCI does not discriminate against fossil fuel companies. According to an October 2019 report by the Colorado-based Climate Accountability Institute, 20 fossil fuel companies were responsible for 480 billion tonnes of CO2-equivalent emissions in the modern period of 1965 to 2017. This amounts to 35 percent of total global emissions in that time. Of the 20 companies, 8 are investor-owned and traded on stock markets. (The other 12 are owned by various governments.) BCI has investments totalling $690.14 million in 7 of those 8 investor-owned fossil fuel firms. As another example of its do-not-discriminate-on-the-grounds-of-emissions policy, BCI is invested in all five LNG Canada partners: Royal Dutch Shell ($219.17 million), Mitsubishi ($59.57 million), Petronas ($5.97 million), PetroChina ($34.31 million) and Korea Gas ($0.68 million). It also holds shares in the two companies that are building LNG Canada’s Kitimat facility, Fluor ($6.51 million) and JGC ($0.56 million.) Asked about the fossil-fuel investments, BCI spokesperson Ben O’Hara-Byrne said in an email that the corporation is part of the Climate Action 100+ plan, which works with more than 450 other investors to convince companies to reduce their greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. “BCI invests in companies and sectors that generate reliable returns—this includes the oil and gas industry, a significant part of the Canadian and global economy,” O’Hara-Byrne said. Divestment is the wrong approach, he added: “We believe divestment eliminates our rights as a shareholder to engage with management and raise awareness of long-term risks and encourage change of practices.” In the last few days of that hottest-ever January, UVic’s board of governors voted to adopt a similar approach for its $225 million short-term investment fund. The university’s investments will move slowly away from fossil fuels, even withdrawing from some, but will not eliminate them, according to a January 28 statement. Instead it will engage with those companies to “encourage” a reduction in carbon emissions of 45 percent by 2030. James Rowe, who teaches in UVic’s environmental studies department, calls this attitude a copout. In an email, Rowe said that oil, gas and coal are high-risk investments. “As energy generation shifts away from fossil fuels, investors who do not respond could be left with stranded assets—investments that are no longer profitable,” Rowe said. “Shareholder engagement with fossil fuel companies in the context of a climate emergency is our Neville Chamberlain moment; it’s a form of appeasement that makes us feel like we’ve addressed the problem, while the threat only grows more severe.” (On September 30, 1938, British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain boasted that he had signed an agreement with Hitler for “peace for our time.” Eleven months later, the Nazis invaded Poland, leading to the Second World War.) James Rowe Rowe added that for non-fuel industries, engaging companies might help reduce emissions, but for fossil fuel firms, that approach will not work if we are to keep global heating below 1.5 degrees Celsius, as required under the Paris Agreement. “To avoid blowing past our carbon budget, fossil fuel companies need to keep significant amounts of their reserves in the ground, and no company will willingly strand their own assets.” In December, the UVic faculty association voted to support the university withdrawing entirely from fossil fuel stocks. In doing so, it joined a worldwide trend. A growing number of central banks, investment companies, and governments are casting a skeptical eye at fossil fuel investments, often due in part to outside pressure. But their financial risks are also an accelerating worry. In June 2019, Norway’s parliament voted unanimously to order its $1.5 trillion sovereign wealth fund—ironically consisting of income from petroleum—to sell off its $10.6 billion investment in 134 oil and gas exploration firms, though it will retain its holdings in companies such as BP and Shell, which have renewable energy divisions. Last November, Riksbank, Sweden’s central bank, said it had sold off its Alberta government bonds because that province’s GHG emissions were too high. The same month, the European Union’s financing department, the European Investment Bank, said it would stop funding oil, gas, and coal projects by the end of 2021. In December 2019, Carney’s alma mater, Goldman Sachs, announced it would not finance new oil projects in the Arctic. And in January this year, the world’s largest asset manager took its first steps towards decarbonizing the $2.4 trillion it holds in actively-managed portfolios. BlackRock chairman Larry Fink told chief executive officers in a letter that climate change is now a defining factor in companies’ long-term prospects. “[W]e are on the edge of a fundamental reshaping of finance,” Fink said in the letter. To begin, BlackRock will divest all its holdings in thermal coal, due to its high sustainability-related risk. Despite Fink’s inspiring words, the change may not have been entirely altruistic. According to an August 2019 report by the Ohio-based Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis, BlackRock lost an estimated $120 billion over the previous decade, most of it resulting from its investments in just four companies: Royal Dutch Shell, ExxonMobil, BP, and Chevron. To be sure, there may be some fossil fuel stocks continuing to provide strong returns in the short term. But these days, it is a lot easier to be ethical about where to invest and still make good returns. In always-reliable hindsight, there is a way one could have made money from LNG. On October 1, 2018, when LNG Canada awarded Texas-based multinational Fluor Corp the contract to build its Kitimat plant (along with its Japanese partner JGC), its shares traded at $77.95, when converted to 2020 Canadian dollars. A little over a year later, on December 9, 2019, they closed at $21.41—a 73 percent drop. In early February, the stock rebounded slightly, trading in the $25 to $27 range. This hints at how the BC government might have been able to recoup its $6 billion-and-counting donation to LNG Canada: by short-selling, say, $9 billion worth of Fluor; even after borrowing and transaction costs, the government could have picked up enough to cover its multi-billion LNG giveaway gamble. Short-sellers could have made even more money had they waited till February 18, 2020, when the company announced that the US Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) is investigating Fluor’s past accounting and reporting. By late morning Victoria time, Fluor’s shares were trading heavily at $19.31. This amounts to a 75 percent drop from October 1, 2018. Who says you can’t make money from fossil fuels? Russ Francis is increasingly convinced that there is more wisdom in the Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs than in all the BC Liberal and NDP MLAs put together.
  8. January 5, 2020 While political leaders exude enthusiasm, some large firms involved seem to be looking for the exits. TO HEAR OUR POLITICAL LEADERS TELL IT, liquefied natural gas (LNG) is the solution to all that ails us. For instance, in December 2019 federal Finance Minister Bill Morneau called Canadian LNG a “very positive opportunity.” Premier John Horgan promises $23 billion in new government revenue from the LNG Canada project, where construction is underway on the shores of Douglas Channel, south of Kitimat. Several other LNG projects are in the wings. By far the largest of these is Kitimat LNG, projected for Bish Cove, also on the Douglas Channel, not far from the LNG Canada site. Continuing the tradition of zero Canadian content, Kitimat LNG is a partnership between wholly-owned subsidiaries of California-based Chevron and Australia’s Woodside Energy. The plant would be supplied with fracked fossil gas via the proposed 471-kilometre Pacific Trail Pipeline. While there has yet to be a final go-ahead, things have been churning along. Artist's rendering of proposed Kitimat Lng facility that would be located at Bish Cove. (Image by Chevron) The BC Oil and Gas Commission has issued Kitimat LNG 26 permits for roads, water and site use. The plant site is on Haisla Nation Reserve Land, and Kitimat LNG has signed a benefits agreement with the Haisla Nation. It also has an agreement with 16 First Nations along the route of the pipeline, via the First Nations Limited Partnership (though the Unist’ot’en are still protesting it running through their territory). Construction is due to start in 2022/23. Kitimat LNG’s ambitions are growing. On April 1, 2019, it asked the National Energy Board to approve boosting production from the originally planned 10 million tonnes per annum (MTPA) of LNG to 18 MTPA, and to double the term of its export licence from 20 years to 40, starting when the plant expects to begin operations in 2029. In a December 4, 2019 letter, the National Energy Regulator (which has superseded the National Energy Board) granted the increases. This would make Kitimat LNG nearly as big a player as LNG Canada, which plans on exporting 14 MTPA to start, expected to double to 28 MTPA. Despite the project’s apparent progress, both partners now appear to have cold feet. Woodside Chief Executive Officer Peter Coleman announced he wanted to reduce the company’s 50 percent stake in Kitimat LNG “from a capital management and risk management point of view,” according to a September 11, 2019 report in LNG World News. That’s corporate-speak for: “This costs too much and is too risky.” The other partner is Chevron, one of the world’s largest fossil fuel companies, with 2018 sales of $159 billion US. Less than a week after the National Energy Regulator approval, Chevron announced that it, too, wants out of Kitimat LNG. And—unlike Woodside—it is hoping to unload its entire 50 percent holding. Why? Said Chevron Chief Executive Officer Michael Wirth in a December 10, 2019 statement: “We are positioning Chevron to win in any environment by ratably investing in the highest return, lowest risk projects in our portfolio.” So now both owners of Kitimat LNG believe it is too expensive and too risky compared with other projects. Not helping prospects is the fact that Chevron had previously committed to not only build, but also operate the Bish Cove facility. THE PENDING DEPARTURES of these corporate players are in spite of the BC government’s giveaways to the liquefied fossil fuel companies, including tax cuts and reduced hydro rates. And let’s not forget the royalty credits, which provide huge discounts to the payments that companies make for taking Crown-owned oil and gas. For reasons unknown, until now there has been no way to discover which companies get how much in credits. Even a recent report from the International Institute for Sustainable Development (IISD) could only provide totals—$830 million for all fossil fuel production in 2017-18, with “at least CAD 2.6 billion to 3.1 billion in outstanding royalty credits from fossil fuel producers…[E]ach year, fossil fuel producers claim millions of dollars in credits to reduce the amounts of royalties they pay…These billions in outstanding credits is money that fossil fuel producers will not have to pay in future years and that BC’s citizens will not see put toward social services.” The IISD report, Locked In and Losing Out, says such subsidies are undermining BC’s efforts on climate change. Besides phasing out fossil fuels, it recommends “BC should publicly release all data related to government spending on fossil fuel subsidies each year since currently very little data is available.” Thanks to a two-year battle by Ben Parfitt, resource policy analyst with the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, we now have at least some of that information. After the government rejected his Freedom of Information requests for the data, he filed a number of requests for review with the Office of the Information and Privacy Commissioner, ultimately succeeding. Commenting on the government’s initial refusals, Parfitt said: “To refuse to release information on oil and gas royalty credits is troubling.” Having finally received the deep-well credit royalty data, Parfitt shared it with Focus. These credits earned Woodside Energy and Chevron $3.2 million in the 2016 to 2018 period. The amount handed to all companies in that period totalled $2.1 billion. And while Parfitt was successful in obtaining the data on royalty credits, in December, 2019 he was still trying to learn the amounts that fracked-gas producers actually did pay after the credits were deducted. The government’s usual practice is to publish details of all financial spending and revenue. Royalty credits, like other tax credits, are a type of public spending, known as “tax expenditures.” The data Parfitt obtained shows that when it comes to royalty credits, LNG Canada has handily outdone its would-be competitor down the channel. From 2016 to 2018, the consortium’s five partners and their wholly-owned subsidiaries collected $266.5 million from taxpayers in deep-well royalty credits. A further $167.3 million was shared by Encana, Cutbank Dawson Gas Resources Ltd—wholly owned by LNG Canada partner Mitsubishi—and other unspecified companies. Then there are two infrastructure royalty credit programs, which earned LNG Canada partners Petronas and Shell (and their subsidiaries) more credits worth $23.9 million in 2016- 2018. Plus a further $27.5 million to Mitsubishi’s partly-owned Cutbank. A further handout to entice liquefied, fracked gas comes in the form of carbon tax rebates. A November 7, 2019 cabinet order brings LNG under the government’s CleanBC industrial incentive program. It ensures that producers of LNG will likely never pay more than $30 per tonne in carbon tax, which, for the rest of us, is now at $40 and due to stop increasing at $50 in 2021. Sonia Furstenau, the BC Green house leader, said in an interview that this is an abuse of the industrial incentive program, which was meant to help large, established GHG polluters reduce their emissions. “It was never intended to provide incentives to new fossil fuel industries,” she said. “It’s Orwellian to apply it in this way.” BC Green Party House Leader Sonia Furstenau During the last Question Period before the legislature rose on November 28, a determined Furstenau wanted details of the refunds. In response, Minister of Environment and Climate Change George Heyman confirmed that all present and future qualifying LNG players are eligible for the program, in perpetuity. What is the cost of this additional subsidy? To use government figures, once LNG Canada is up and running with all four trains (production units), the facility alone will emit 4.2 megatonnes (Mt) of GHGs each year. By that time, with the carbon tax at $50 per tonne, LNG Canada’s rebates will cost taxpayers 4.2 million x ($50 minus $30) = $84 million annually. Even $50 is far too low, according to a November 27, 2019 report from Canada’s Ecofiscal Commission. Rather, it needs to be at least $210 if we are to meet the 2030 Paris targets. At $210, BC’s carbon tax refunds to LNG Canada would amount to $180 per tonne, for a total of $756 million annually. Even that is peanuts to the company, but it’s on top of the growing list of other subsidies. The carbon tax refund program is subject to several conditions, including the facilities in question meeting emissions “benchmarks,” according to a detailed response to questions asked of the Environment and Climate Change Strategy Ministry. If it’s any comfort to taxpayers, the rebate program ends if the world carbon tax ever reaches the BC price. As of Focus’s deadline, there were no takers to buy Chevron and Woodside out of Kitimat LNG. What about the Province? That’s not likely, as BC’s finances are no longer in such great shape. On September 27, 2019 Finance Minister Carole James called on the public service to cut $300 million, and the Insurance Corporation of BC may stick us with an additional $400 million charge in the 2019/20 fiscal year. Why not ask the feds? After all, in 2018 they coughed up $4.4 billion for Kinder Morgan, netting Kinder Morgan Canada—which is approximately 70 percent owned by Texas-based Kinder Morgan—a $2.7 billion profit. A Canadian government purchase of Kitimat LNG might even soothe some of Alberta’s hostility towards the rest of us. What’s to lose—besides the end of life as we know it? Russ Francis taught sessions for more than a decade at UVic’s Environmental Law Centre.
  9. Posted April 7, 2020 Photo: Artist's rendering of the LNG Canada plant under construction near Kitimat. It didn't take long for the novel corona virus to spread from humans to BC’s liquefied natural gas (LNG) projects. Go to story
  10. It didn't take long for the novel corona virus to spread from humans to BC’s liquefied natural gas (LNG) projects. ON APRIL 2, LNG Canada chief executive officer Peter Zebedee announced that in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, the foreign consortium had cut its 1,800-strong Kitimat workforce by 65 percent, continuing with only “essential” work. (Wonder what those 1,200 non-essential workers were doing.) LNG Canada CEO Peter Zebedee says 65 percent of workers have been sent home Despite this, LNG Canada is persisting with its GHG-laden future. Zebedee said in his letter that “we have every intention to deliver.” Zebedee is a former vice-president of Shell, which, as the largest partner, owns 40 percent of the project. However, I can’t help but ask whether Zebedee has spoken recently to his own head office. For on March 23, the multinational fossil fuel giant announced it is slashing spending world-wide. Without revealing details, Shell said it is cutting annual operating costs by $3 - $4 billion US, and capital spending by $5 billion US this year. A week later, on March 30 Shell said it is pulling out of the Lake Charles LNG project, a partnership with Texas-based Energy Transfer to convert the existing Louisiana LNG import facility to one that would export 16.45 million tonnes per annum (MPTA) of LNG. This compares with LNG Canada’s 14 MPTA for its first phase. Why did Shell withdraw? To “preserve cash and reinforce the resilience of our business,” said Shell’s Maarten Wetselaar, adding that “the time is not right for Shell to invest.” Where have we heard that sort of language before? Last fall, Kitimat LNG partner Woodside Energy said it wanted to reduce its 50 percent share of the project, joined in December by the other partner, Chevron, which wants to exit completely. Both companies said the reasons were risk and cost. The virus is also affecting other Woodside projects. In March, Woodside cut its spending in half, and delayed decisions on three planned LNG projects in its native Australia. It blamed COVID-19,as well as the oversupply of crude oil and LNG. A much smaller BC LNG project has also been infected by the virus. Woodfibre LNG, which planned to produce 2.1 MPTA on the shores of Howe Sound, said in March it was delaying its start date from summer 2020 to the end of 2021, in part because of the virus. Like LNG Canada, Woodfibre LNG—owned by Asia-based Pacific Oil & Gas—is building much of its plant in Chinese fabrication yards. Woodfibre LNG delays Howe Sound project in part due to COVID-19 Texas-based Fluor is building the LNG Canada facility in partnership with Japan’s JGC. Asked about the project during a February 18 analyst conference call, Fluor chief Carlos Hernandez said “at this point, we don’t see any delays, but obviously we’ll wait and see when we wrap up completely.” Marc Lee, senior economist with the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, said in an interview the fact that much of the LNG Canada plant’s construction work is being done at the Chinese fabrication yard may be a hiccup for the project: “The supply chain may be severely disrupted.” Economist Marc Lee: LNG Canada’s Chinese-built modules may be delayed due to supply-chain disruption. At a time of severe financial stress on BC’s economy, the growing possibility that LNG Canada may not proceed cannot be good news for Premier John Horgan, who has claimed that the $40 billion project would bring the government $23 billion in new revenue. Then there is LNG Canada’s contribution to increasing GHG emissions, at a time when the entire planet is supposed to be drastically cutting them. According to BC government data, the first phase of the project will add 3.45 MPTA of GHG emissions, though the figures have been widely criticized as considerably under-estimating fugitive emissions (those released before the fracked gas arrives at the facility.) If fully built, LNG Canada would result in 6.9 MTPA in emissions—more than one-third of the 18.9 MTPA in GHG reductions under specific programs of BC’s CleanBC plan. Green MP Elizabeth May is confident that neither LNG Canada nor Woodfibre LNG will go ahead. “The whole notion that they’re going to proceed with any of these is fanciful,” May said in an interview. “The economics of these projects are absolutely not on.” The Green Party has proposed a detailed plan to reassign fossil fuel workers to cleaning up orphan wells, while transforming to renewable energy. Neither Shell nor LNG Canada had responded to Focus requests for comment by the time of publication. Russ Francis is not sad about some effects of COVID-19: the suspension of Hockey Fight in Canada, the estimated 5 percent drop in 2020 GHG emissions, and the expected cancellation of the Calgary Stampede.
  11. Pensions of BC teachers, public servants, and municipal workers include huge fossilized investments. IN THE BAD OLD DAYS, those wanting to earn a reasonable return in the stock market might have been well-advised to look for what amounted to climate-hostile companies. Sure, there were “ethical investors” who may have had little more than feelings of moral superiority to show for putting their money into the likes of renewable energy producers or makers of vegan bicycles. But many investors were reliably collecting vast payouts from big frackers, tar sands developers, and pipeline companies. That’s where the money was. That was then. These days, financial heavyweights ranging from outgoing Bank of England Governor Mark Carney, the International Monetary Fund (IMF), and the European Union have a warning: firms that do not properly account for and reduce their GHG emissions are headed for financial trouble. The IMF is by definition a conservative organization: its primary mission is to ensure the stability of the international monetary system. But its last World Economic Outlook update, issued in January 2020—the hottest January on record—warned of financial risks posed by the climate crisis, as a result of greater frequency and intensity of weather-related disasters like tropical storms, floods, heatwaves, and wildfires. “Climate change…already endangers health and economic outcomes, and not only in the directly affected areas,” says the report. “It could pose challenges to other areas that may not yet feel the direct effects, including by contributing to cross-border migration or financial stress (for instance, in the insurance sector).” Mark Carney Among internationally recognized financial experts, few have stronger establishment pedigrees than Carney. A 13-year veteran of Goldman Sachs—one of the world’s largest investment bankers—in 2008 he began a five-year stint as governor of the Bank of Canada. Currently, Carney is playing the same role at the Bank of England until March 15, when he becomes the United Nations special envoy on climate change. “[A]ll financial decisions need to take into account the risks from climate change and the opportunities from the transition to a net zero economy,” he said in a January Bank of England statement. Carney warns that it’s not just the fossil fuel industry itself that will be hit hard by the climate crisis: those investing in them should also prepare for losses. Calling the climate crisis a “tragedy on the horizon” in a December 30, 2019 BBC interview, Carney warned pension funds that their fossil investments could eventually become worthless. Carney’s admonitions—which he has been espousing since 2015—may be prescient. The Boston Consulting Group reported this past December that from 2014 through 2018, the oil and gas sector had the worst total return of all 33 industries it tracks. (Total return is the sum of capital gains and dividends.) Despite this, British Columbia Investment Management Corporation (BCI) retains significant investments in fossil fuels. BCI manages the pensions of 598,000 British Columbians, including school and college teachers, BC public servants, municipal staff, and some BC Hydro employees. With managed assets worth $153.4 billion, BCI is one of Canada’s largest institutional investors. (All figures refer to March 31, 2019.) Of those assets, 40.5 percent are in the stock market. The corporation does not break down its share holdings by industry; however, a quick glance at its investment inventory shows that BCI does not discriminate against fossil fuel companies. According to an October 2019 report by the Colorado-based Climate Accountability Institute, 20 fossil fuel companies were responsible for 480 billion tonnes of CO2-equivalent emissions in the modern period of 1965 to 2017. This amounts to 35 percent of total global emissions in that time. Of the 20 companies, 8 are investor-owned and traded on stock markets. (The other 12 are owned by various governments.) BCI has investments totalling $690.14 million in 7 of those 8 investor-owned fossil fuel firms. As another example of its do-not-discriminate-on-the-grounds-of-emissions policy, BCI is invested in all five LNG Canada partners: Royal Dutch Shell ($219.17 million), Mitsubishi ($59.57 million), Petronas ($5.97 million), PetroChina ($34.31 million) and Korea Gas ($0.68 million). It also holds shares in the two companies that are building LNG Canada’s Kitimat facility, Fluor ($6.51 million) and JGC ($0.56 million.) Asked about the fossil-fuel investments, BCI spokesperson Ben O’Hara-Byrne said in an email that the corporation is part of the Climate Action 100+ plan, which works with more than 450 other investors to convince companies to reduce their greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. “BCI invests in companies and sectors that generate reliable returns—this includes the oil and gas industry, a significant part of the Canadian and global economy,” O’Hara-Byrne said. Divestment is the wrong approach, he added: “We believe divestment eliminates our rights as a shareholder to engage with management and raise awareness of long-term risks and encourage change of practices.” In the last few days of that hottest-ever January, UVic’s board of governors voted to adopt a similar approach for its $225 million short-term investment fund. The university’s investments will move slowly away from fossil fuels, even withdrawing from some, but will not eliminate them, according to a January 28 statement. Instead it will engage with those companies to “encourage” a reduction in carbon emissions of 45 percent by 2030. James Rowe, who teaches in UVic’s environmental studies department, calls this attitude a copout. In an email, Rowe said that oil, gas and coal are high-risk investments. “As energy generation shifts away from fossil fuels, investors who do not respond could be left with stranded assets—investments that are no longer profitable,” Rowe said. “Shareholder engagement with fossil fuel companies in the context of a climate emergency is our Neville Chamberlain moment; it’s a form of appeasement that makes us feel like we’ve addressed the problem, while the threat only grows more severe.” (On September 30, 1938, British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain boasted that he had signed an agreement with Hitler for “peace for our time.” Eleven months later, the Nazis invaded Poland, leading to the Second World War.) James Rowe Rowe added that for non-fuel industries, engaging companies might help reduce emissions, but for fossil fuel firms, that approach will not work if we are to keep global heating below 1.5 degrees Celsius, as required under the Paris Agreement. “To avoid blowing past our carbon budget, fossil fuel companies need to keep significant amounts of their reserves in the ground, and no company will willingly strand their own assets.” In December, the UVic faculty association voted to support the university withdrawing entirely from fossil fuel stocks. In doing so, it joined a worldwide trend. A growing number of central banks, investment companies, and governments are casting a skeptical eye at fossil fuel investments, often due in part to outside pressure. But their financial risks are also an accelerating worry. In June 2019, Norway’s parliament voted unanimously to order its $1.5 trillion sovereign wealth fund—ironically consisting of income from petroleum—to sell off its $10.6 billion investment in 134 oil and gas exploration firms, though it will retain its holdings in companies such as BP and Shell, which have renewable energy divisions. Last November, Riksbank, Sweden’s central bank, said it had sold off its Alberta government bonds because that province’s GHG emissions were too high. The same month, the European Union’s financing department, the European Investment Bank, said it would stop funding oil, gas, and coal projects by the end of 2021. In December 2019, Carney’s alma mater, Goldman Sachs, announced it would not finance new oil projects in the Arctic. And in January this year, the world’s largest asset manager took its first steps towards decarbonizing the $2.4 trillion it holds in actively-managed portfolios. BlackRock chairman Larry Fink told chief executive officers in a letter that climate change is now a defining factor in companies’ long-term prospects. “[W]e are on the edge of a fundamental reshaping of finance,” Fink said in the letter. To begin, BlackRock will divest all its holdings in thermal coal, due to its high sustainability-related risk. Despite Fink’s inspiring words, the change may not have been entirely altruistic. According to an August 2019 report by the Ohio-based Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis, BlackRock lost an estimated $120 billion over the previous decade, most of it resulting from its investments in just four companies: Royal Dutch Shell, ExxonMobil, BP, and Chevron. To be sure, there may be some fossil fuel stocks continuing to provide strong returns in the short term. But these days, it is a lot easier to be ethical about where to invest and still make good returns. In always-reliable hindsight, there is a way one could have made money from LNG. On October 1, 2018, when LNG Canada awarded Texas-based multinational Fluor Corp the contract to build its Kitimat plant (along with its Japanese partner JGC), its shares traded at $77.95, when converted to 2020 Canadian dollars. A little over a year later, on December 9, 2019, they closed at $21.41—a 73 percent drop. In early February, the stock rebounded slightly, trading in the $25 to $27 range. This hints at how the BC government might have been able to recoup its $6 billion-and-counting donation to LNG Canada: by short-selling, say, $9 billion worth of Fluor; even after borrowing and transaction costs, the government could have picked up enough to cover its multi-billion LNG giveaway gamble. Short-sellers could have made even more money had they waited till February 18, 2020, when the company announced that the US Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) is investigating Fluor’s past accounting and reporting. By late morning Victoria time, Fluor’s shares were trading heavily at $19.31. This amounts to a 75 percent drop from October 1, 2018. Who says you can’t make money from fossil fuels? Russ Francis is increasingly convinced that there is more wisdom in the Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs than in all the BC Liberal and NDP MLAs put together.
  12. While political leaders exude enthusiasm, some large firms involved seem to be looking for the exits. TO HEAR OUR POLITICAL LEADERS TELL IT, liquefied natural gas (LNG) is the solution to all that ails us. For instance, in December 2019 federal Finance Minister Bill Morneau called Canadian LNG a “very positive opportunity.” Premier John Horgan promises $23 billion in new government revenue from the LNG Canada project, where construction is underway on the shores of Douglas Channel, south of Kitimat. Several other LNG projects are in the wings. By far the largest of these is Kitimat LNG, projected for Bish Cove, also on the Douglas Channel, not far from the LNG Canada site. Continuing the tradition of zero Canadian content, Kitimat LNG is a partnership between wholly-owned subsidiaries of California-based Chevron and Australia’s Woodside Energy. The plant would be supplied with fracked fossil gas via the proposed 471-kilometre Pacific Trail Pipeline. While there has yet to be a final go-ahead, things have been churning along. Artist's rendering of proposed Kitimat Lng facility that would be located at Bish Cove. (Image by Chevron) The BC Oil and Gas Commission has issued Kitimat LNG 26 permits for roads, water and site use. The plant site is on Haisla Nation Reserve Land, and Kitimat LNG has signed a benefits agreement with the Haisla Nation. It also has an agreement with 16 First Nations along the route of the pipeline, via the First Nations Limited Partnership (though the Unist’ot’en are still protesting it running through their territory). Construction is due to start in 2022/23. Kitimat LNG’s ambitions are growing. On April 1, 2019, it asked the National Energy Board to approve boosting production from the originally planned 10 million tonnes per annum (MTPA) of LNG to 18 MTPA, and to double the term of its export licence from 20 years to 40, starting when the plant expects to begin operations in 2029. In a December 4, 2019 letter, the National Energy Regulator (which has superseded the National Energy Board) granted the increases. This would make Kitimat LNG nearly as big a player as LNG Canada, which plans on exporting 14 MTPA to start, expected to double to 28 MTPA. Despite the project’s apparent progress, both partners now appear to have cold feet. Woodside Chief Executive Officer Peter Coleman announced he wanted to reduce the company’s 50 percent stake in Kitimat LNG “from a capital management and risk management point of view,” according to a September 11, 2019 report in LNG World News. That’s corporate-speak for: “This costs too much and is too risky.” The other partner is Chevron, one of the world’s largest fossil fuel companies, with 2018 sales of $159 billion US. Less than a week after the National Energy Regulator approval, Chevron announced that it, too, wants out of Kitimat LNG. And—unlike Woodside—it is hoping to unload its entire 50 percent holding. Why? Said Chevron Chief Executive Officer Michael Wirth in a December 10, 2019 statement: “We are positioning Chevron to win in any environment by ratably investing in the highest return, lowest risk projects in our portfolio.” So now both owners of Kitimat LNG believe it is too expensive and too risky compared with other projects. Not helping prospects is the fact that Chevron had previously committed to not only build, but also operate the Bish Cove facility. THE PENDING DEPARTURES of these corporate players are in spite of the BC government’s giveaways to the liquefied fossil fuel companies, including tax cuts and reduced hydro rates. And let’s not forget the royalty credits, which provide huge discounts to the payments that companies make for taking Crown-owned oil and gas. For reasons unknown, until now there has been no way to discover which companies get how much in credits. Even a recent report from the International Institute for Sustainable Development (IISD) could only provide totals—$830 million for all fossil fuel production in 2017-18, with “at least CAD 2.6 billion to 3.1 billion in outstanding royalty credits from fossil fuel producers…[E]ach year, fossil fuel producers claim millions of dollars in credits to reduce the amounts of royalties they pay…These billions in outstanding credits is money that fossil fuel producers will not have to pay in future years and that BC’s citizens will not see put toward social services.” The IISD report, Locked In and Losing Out, says such subsidies are undermining BC’s efforts on climate change. Besides phasing out fossil fuels, it recommends “BC should publicly release all data related to government spending on fossil fuel subsidies each year since currently very little data is available.” Thanks to a two-year battle by Ben Parfitt, resource policy analyst with the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, we now have at least some of that information. After the government rejected his Freedom of Information requests for the data, he filed a number of requests for review with the Office of the Information and Privacy Commissioner, ultimately succeeding. Commenting on the government’s initial refusals, Parfitt said: “To refuse to release information on oil and gas royalty credits is troubling.” Having finally received the deep-well credit royalty data, Parfitt shared it with Focus. These credits earned Woodside Energy and Chevron $3.2 million in the 2016 to 2018 period. The amount handed to all companies in that period totalled $2.1 billion. And while Parfitt was successful in obtaining the data on royalty credits, in December, 2019 he was still trying to learn the amounts that fracked-gas producers actually did pay after the credits were deducted. The government’s usual practice is to publish details of all financial spending and revenue. Royalty credits, like other tax credits, are a type of public spending, known as “tax expenditures.” The data Parfitt obtained shows that when it comes to royalty credits, LNG Canada has handily outdone its would-be competitor down the channel. From 2016 to 2018, the consortium’s five partners and their wholly-owned subsidiaries collected $266.5 million from taxpayers in deep-well royalty credits. A further $167.3 million was shared by Encana, Cutbank Dawson Gas Resources Ltd—wholly owned by LNG Canada partner Mitsubishi—and other unspecified companies. Then there are two infrastructure royalty credit programs, which earned LNG Canada partners Petronas and Shell (and their subsidiaries) more credits worth $23.9 million in 2016- 2018. Plus a further $27.5 million to Mitsubishi’s partly-owned Cutbank. A further handout to entice liquefied, fracked gas comes in the form of carbon tax rebates. A November 7, 2019 cabinet order brings LNG under the government’s CleanBC industrial incentive program. It ensures that producers of LNG will likely never pay more than $30 per tonne in carbon tax, which, for the rest of us, is now at $40 and due to stop increasing at $50 in 2021. Sonia Furstenau, the BC Green house leader, said in an interview that this is an abuse of the industrial incentive program, which was meant to help large, established GHG polluters reduce their emissions. “It was never intended to provide incentives to new fossil fuel industries,” she said. “It’s Orwellian to apply it in this way.” BC Green Party House Leader Sonia Furstenau During the last Question Period before the legislature rose on November 28, a determined Furstenau wanted details of the refunds. In response, Minister of Environment and Climate Change George Heyman confirmed that all present and future qualifying LNG players are eligible for the program, in perpetuity. What is the cost of this additional subsidy? To use government figures, once LNG Canada is up and running with all four trains (production units), the facility alone will emit 4.2 megatonnes (Mt) of GHGs each year. By that time, with the carbon tax at $50 per tonne, LNG Canada’s rebates will cost taxpayers 4.2 million x ($50 minus $30) = $84 million annually. Even $50 is far too low, according to a November 27, 2019 report from Canada’s Ecofiscal Commission. Rather, it needs to be at least $210 if we are to meet the 2030 Paris targets. At $210, BC’s carbon tax refunds to LNG Canada would amount to $180 per tonne, for a total of $756 million annually. Even that is peanuts to the company, but it’s on top of the growing list of other subsidies. The carbon tax refund program is subject to several conditions, including the facilities in question meeting emissions “benchmarks,” according to a detailed response to questions asked of the Environment and Climate Change Strategy Ministry. If it’s any comfort to taxpayers, the rebate program ends if the world carbon tax ever reaches the BC price. As of Focus’s deadline, there were no takers to buy Chevron and Woodside out of Kitimat LNG. What about the Province? That’s not likely, as BC’s finances are no longer in such great shape. On September 27, 2019 Finance Minister Carole James called on the public service to cut $300 million, and the Insurance Corporation of BC may stick us with an additional $400 million charge in the 2019/20 fiscal year. Why not ask the feds? After all, in 2018 they coughed up $4.4 billion for Kinder Morgan, netting Kinder Morgan Canada—which is approximately 70 percent owned by Texas-based Kinder Morgan—a $2.7 billion profit. A Canadian government purchase of Kitimat LNG might even soothe some of Alberta’s hostility towards the rest of us. What’s to lose—besides the end of life as we know it? Russ Francis taught sessions for more than a decade at UVic’s Environmental Law Centre.
  13. Some elephants in the LNG-room. DOUBTLESS INSPIRED BY GRETA THUNBERG'S electrifying September 23 United Nations speech, Premier John Horgan sprung into action. Before you could say “Climate crisis? What climate crisis?” on October 3, a mere 11 days later, the premier left the country. In Seattle, Horgan and Washington Governor Jay Inslee announced—wait for it!—a “Clean Grid” summit in 2020. No time, date or place mentioned. In case some ill-mannered cynics questioned the value of the October meeting, the pair also “reaffirmed” their commitment to collaborate on the economy, environmental protection, and transportation. It’s a little like a long-married couple reaffirming their marriage vows: A pleasant gesture, but having no legal or practical impact whatsoever. BC Premier John Horgan chats with Washington Governor Jay Inslee The meeting was billed as part of the Pacific Coast Collaborative (PCC), an initiative launched in 2008 under Premier Gordon Campbell, linking BC with Washington State, Oregon and California—along with the cities of San Francisco, Seattle, Los Angeles, Portland, Oakland and Vancouver. The goal is to work together on the climate crisis. Besides some cute graphics of electric cars and wind turbines, PCC’s website currently boasts that since 2008, the region’s greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions have fallen by 6 percent. While that’s better than two kicks in the bum, it’s hardly enough to start fixing the planet by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s deadline of the end of 2020. But that decrease is for the entire region. And guess what happened to BC’s emissions in the same period? According to the most recent GHG inventory, our emissions have recently been growing. In fact, though they did drop marginally over the nine-year period from 2008 to 2017, BC’s 2017 GHG emissions, at 64.5 megatonnes (Mt) of CO2 equivalent, were higher than in any year since that baseline year of 2008. BC spewed out 4.3 percent more GHGs in 2017 than in 2009, our carbon tax notwithstanding. Meanwhile, California and Oregon managed to cut their 2017 emissions by 13.0 percent and 5.5 percent respectively from 2008. (Washington has yet to report its 2016 or 2017 GHGs, though, like BC’s, they grew in recent years.) No wonder BC loves the PCC: Thanks mostly to California, the region’s overall emissions are headed in the right direction. BC, meanwhile, is that nasty cousin the others wish would fall into line or disappear. The PCC’s US members are going to have to do even better in the near future if they are to counter the highly toxic levels of GHGs that will result from LNG Canada’s operations, estimated to begin in 2025. For example, at the October meeting, Inslee and Horgan each trotted out what they’d been up to recently. In Horgan’s case, it was CleanBC, the December 2018 plan to reduce BC’s GHG emissions. Even if fully implemented as proposed, CleanBC would reduce the province’s annual emissions by a mere 18.9 Mt, with an additional 6.5 Mt reduction yet to come via unspecified methods. Using the BC government’s own figures, GHG emissions from the plant alone will be 4.2 Mt, annually. Then there are the so-called upstream and midstream emissions, amounting to 2.7 Mt, for a total of 6.9 Mt of GHG emissions annually in BC as a result of LNG Canada. So to reach CleanBC's goals, BC will have to find an additional 13.4 Mt per year of GHG reductions from unknown sources, rather than just 6.5 Mt. Not an easy task, given that the province's emissions have been trending upwards. And these BC government estimates have been widely criticized as being far too low. Governor Inslee parts ways with Horgan in several notable respects. For one, Washington has legislated a state-wide ban on fracking for oil and gas—the method currently used to produce virtually all of BC’s natural gas, and the way that the extra gas to supply LNG Canada will be extracted. For another, in May 2019, Inslee announced he is opposed to a small Tacoma LNG plant, proposed by Puget Sound Energy. The project is tiny: It is intended only to supply trucks and boats, as well as provide extra natural gas supply during periods of peak demand. Not a drop for export. But Inslee, quite rightly, rejects the silly claims that LNG is a preferred replacement for other fossil fuels. With close neighbours disagreeing so fundamentally about the seriousness of the climate crisis, surely discussions between the two concerning LNG must have been, well, interesting. In fact, the topic did not even arise, according to Inslee’s acting communications director, Tara Lee, in an email. It didn’t? It’s not credible that neither leader knew of the other’s position. But this meeting was plainly intended as a way of deflecting us plebes from the attention paid to Thunberg and subsequent actions of those she inspires. It wouldn’t surprise me if Horgan’s Chief of Staff, Geoff Meggs (who sat beside the premier during the meeting), discussed acceptable topics in advance with Inslee’s Chief of Staff, David Postman (who likewise sat beside his boss). Perhaps inspired by Basil Fawlty, the pair may have mutually advised their respective leaders: Don’t mention LNG! DESPITE THE APPARENTLY DELIBERATE OMISSION of the topic from the Inslee-Horgan meeting, there is no shortage of developments at LNG Canada. The traditional way of erecting a structure is to ship all the parts to the site, where they are assembled—a method known as “stick-built.” But, as reported in the last Focus, the joint partners on the construction contract, Fluor (Texas-based) and JGC Holdings Corp (Japan-based), had a better idea: They are instead building much of LNG Canada’s Kitimat plant at a huge fabrication yard in Zhuhai, China. The yard belongs to a joint venture between Fluor and a subsidiary of China National Offshore Oil Corporation, entirely owned by the Chinese state. Why use the yard? JGC handily summed up its motivation in a November 8, 2018 earnings release conference: “The use of modular construction for the entire facility and the use of larger modules are expected to cut the amount of on-site construction work by around 70 percent compared to conventional stick-built construction.” In JGC’s 2018/19 annual report released October 4, 2019, the company provided more details on the supposed benefits of modular construction. Referring to the LNG Canada project, JGC Chief Operating Officer Tadashi Ishizuka said “our policy was to minimize local construction work, which we considered the greatest safeguard [against risk].” I wonder if JGC first ran that inspired goal past Horgan, a labour-friendly politician who pushed the project in part by claiming it would create 10,000 construction jobs. Kitimat area residents would be given first dibs, followed by other British Columbians, then Canadians elsewhere. No mention of cheap Chinese labour. Must not have been room in the government’s press releases. If Horgan didn’t want to talk about LNG in Seattle, one national leader does have something to say about the unloading of $7 billion-and-counting in BC and federal taxpayer funds on LNG Canada to create Chinese jobs. “They are just lining their pockets,” says United Steelworkers national director Ken Neumann, speaking in an interview about the owners of the fabrication yard. As for donating public money to the Chinese cause: “That’s just plain wrong.” he added. Neumann is adamant that the facility could be built here. “These products can be made in Canada, using Canadian workers and fairly-traded, market-priced steel, without jeopardizing the project’s viability.” Sadly, Fluor’s brilliant idea to use much cheaper Chinese labour is turning out to be less than a raging success. Fluor invested vast sums in the Zhuhai fabrication yard, but now stands to lose much of it, according to an early-morning conference call with investors on September 24, 2019. During the call, Fluor’s recently-appointed Chief Financial Officer Michael Steuert warned about the yard’s problems: “A significant portion of the $355 million [US] investment in the fabrication yard is at risk due to lower than expected performance.” Oops. Fluor’s investors might also be wondering whether LNG is such a brilliant idea after all, since the same day Fluor told them about the fabrication yard mess, the company slashed its dividend by 50 percent. When the New York Stock Exchange opened soon after the announcement, Fluor’s stock price fell 11 percent. Washington Governor Inslee formerly supported the Tacoma LNG project, but, as noted above, he’s now dead opposed to it. Why did he change his mind? In fact, it was that much-maligned factor: evidence. “[T]he urgency of climate change and the environmental impacts of natural gas make clear the state’s efforts and future investments in energy infrastructure should focus on clean, renewable sources rather than fossil fuels,” Inslee said in a May 8, 2019 statement. “I am no longer convinced that locking in [this] multi-decadal infrastructure [project is] sufficient to accomplishing what’s necessary.” See Mr Premier? A leader can change his mind when there is good reason. You can do it too. Russ Francis recently adopted a five-year-old Alaskan Malamute, his fourth successive one from the SPCA. Like his predecessors, the new adoptee eats really weird stuff: Chopped-up dead animals.
  14. Your tax dollars at work: LNG Canada is creating much-needed employment in Zhuhai, China. AN OFT-TOUTED HIGHLIGHT of the liquefied natural gas (LNG) cult is the vast number of jobs it will bring to BC Liberal-voting regions in northern British Columbia. As recently as June 9, 2019, LNG Canada said in a statement that its Kitimat project “will bring 10,000 jobs during construction.” In case any doubting Thomases were still unclear, the federal government enhanced the number in a June 25, 2019 news release, claiming that the LNG Canada facility “will ultimately create over 10,000 jobs.” Alas, it is not to be. According to the latest company overview on the LNG Canada website, the number working at the Kitimat site will peak at “4,500 people.” So where are the other 5,500? The Texas company leading the construction offers a clue as to where at least some of the 5,500 are hiding. Fluor Corporation—which holds the construction contract in a joint venture with Japan-based JGC Corporation—boasted to investors on August 2, 2018 that it had cut on-site jobs by “over 35 percent,” in part due to its use of “fabrication capabilities” to perform much of the LNG Canada work. So where are these wonderful fabrication capabilities? In Prince Rupert? Terrace? Burns Lake? Smithers? Surely in BC? Well, er, not as such. Not even in North America. The site is in Zhuhai, China. The “fabrication yard,” in Guangdong province, not far from Hong Kong, is huge: more than 200 hectares—roughly three times the size of Beacon Hill Park. It’s another Fluor joint venture, this time with the Offshore Oil Engineering Company—controlled by the Beijing-based China National Offshore Oil Corporation. That’s where the LNG “modules” that form the guts of the facility are being built. Well done, BC and federal governments: The $7.3 billion-and-counting handouts to LNG Canada are boosting employment in the world’s second-largest economy—in a country that is not exactly on Canada’s Christmas list these days. Artist rendering of the LNG Canada project at Kitimat Meanwhile, on August 1, 2019, Fluor revealed what executive chairman Alan Boeckmann called “serious” issues with the company’s performance, saying he was “extremely disappointed” in its results. In the three months ending June 30, the company lost $555 million US. It canned both its chief executive officer and its chief financial officer, and to bring in cash, it is selling off real estate and cashing in some insurance policies. Among Fluor’s worries are fixed-price contracts; it will no longer bid on some of them. In a fixed-price contract signed last year, Fluor and JGC agreed to build the Kitimat plant for $14 billion US, even though Fluor has never before constructed an LNG export facility. Fluor’s shares have continued to fall—plummeting from $58.61 when LNG Canada gave the final go-ahead on October 1, 2018 to $17.38 on August 16, 2019—a 70 percent drop in less than 11 months. Newly hired chief financial officer Carlos Hernandez told investors in a conference call August 1 that although the LNG Canada project is in its early stages, it was “on schedule and on budget.” However, Fluor plainly had some concerns about the Kitimat contract. “We brought up a number of expats to augment our critical activity there,” Hernandez said in the call. Apart from all the jobs that the LNG fustercluck is not creating in Canada, what about a much larger worry: How much damage will the LNG facility do to the planet? In June 2019, the San Francisco-based Global Energy Monitor published The New Gas Boom, a report on the 166 LNG export plants now being developed worldwide. The report includes detailed estimates of emissions from LNG production, transport and combustion—and they are a lot higher than what the BC government and LNG Canada would have us believe. For instance, the BC government claims that the LNG facility itself will produce 4.2 million tonnes (Mt) of GHGs per year once the plant is operating at its full capacity, 28 million tonnes of LNG annually. (GHGs are measured in carbon dioxide equivalents, or CO2e.) That’s just the plant itself, not counting the emissions from fracking the gas out of the ground, from sending it through the 670 km Coastal GasLink pipeline to Kitimat, from transporting the LNG to Asia, and from burning it. Using data from the Global Energy Monitor report, LNG Canada’s Kitimat facility alone will, in fact, produce 8.7 Mt of GHGs annually—more than twice the BC government’s claim. And including emissions from all the other parts of the chain, LNG Canada will be adding no less than 124.9 Mt annually to the world’s planet-wrecking emissions. That is roughly one-sixth of Canada’s total GHG emissions (716 Mt) in 2017. Ted Nace is the executive director of Global Energy Monitor, and a co-author of the report. In an interview, Nace pointed to the quickly-dropping total costs of renewable energy, taking into account capital costs, estimated lifetime, the discount rate, and maintenance costs, among other factors. A November 2018 Lazard Bank report found that wind power is now cheaper or comparable in cost to the most efficient gas turbines in all six economies studied. As well, solar electricity and other renewable energy sources are cheaper than many other fossil fuel types. Said Nace: “In terms of displacing coal, economically LNG is not competitive with renewable power in Asian markets.” As for the purported high-efficiency gas turbines that LNG Canada says it will use to compress natural gas into liquid form, GHG emissions from the actual turbines are negligible, resulting in only around seven percent of LNG’s life-cycle emissions. “It’s not going to change much,” Nace said. “It’s shocking that the Canadian and British Columbia governments would shell out billions of dollars for this—it’s crazy.” Not content in doling out $1 billion in tariff waivers for the imported modules, on June 24, 2019, federal Minister of Finance Bill Morneau hiked it up to Kitimat to re-announce Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s October 2, 2018 $220 million gift to the foreign consortium, purportedly to “help fund highly energy-efficient gas turbines minimizing both greenhouse gases and fuel use.” Reduce GHGs? By how much? The announcement didn’t say, and when I asked Innovation, Science and Economic Development Canada, a spokesman referred me to LNG Canada. Did the feds have no idea of the impact on GHG emissions before doling out their $220 million gift to Royal Dutch Shell and its four equally foreign partners? Still interested in learning by how much the $220 million would cut emissions, I dutifully asked LNG Canada. In response, I received a statement attributed to Susannah Pierce, LNG Canada’s director of external relations. After insisting that the facility is expected to have a GHG intensity 30 percent lower than the best currently operating LNG plants, the statement included this gem: “The grant will not be used for further GHG reductions.” The feds turned over $220 million to LNG Canada to help it buy turbines they were going to buy anyway? It sounds an awful lot like the old “get the money out the door” syndrome that afflicts governments worldwide. Despite all the babble about minding the public purse, etc, etc, in practice, the worst possible outcome for a government agency is to underspend its budget. Why? Because then looms the mortal terror that the agency would get that much less in next year’s budget. The increasing corporate welfare payments that support boosting GHG emissions might be less worrisome if we had another decade or two to start cutting emissions. We do not. According to last year’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report, if we want to keep the global temperature rise to 1.5 degrees Celsius, we have until the end of 2020 to start cutting GHG emissions. If the Earth is to remain habitable, GHG emissions must peak in a little over one year from now. Here’s a much more effective and much cheaper suggestion to reduce GHGs resulting from the plant: Stop building it—now. With most of the fabrication jobs going to China, the rest of the LNG plant-building ones are a short-term prospect, comparable to hula hoop manufacturing. Still, jobs are needed in those northern BC communities. Federal Green Party leader Elizabeth May has worked out a potential solution: On August 7, she proposed a plan to help workers transfer from fossil fuels to renewable energy, to retrofit buildings for higher energy standards, and to clean up the environmental mess left at wells abandoned by oil and gas companies. Supposing that it finally sees the light, can the BC government get out of the horrendous LNG Canada mess? Of course. In case any carbon-head isn’t convinced, paragraph 15.12 in the March 2019 Operating Performance Payments Agreement between BC and LNG Canada spells it out: “Proponent [LNG Canada] expressly acknowledges and agrees that nothing in this Agreement will be construed as an agreement by the Province to restrict, limit or otherwise fetter in any manner the Province’s ability to introduce, pass, amend, modify, replace, revoke or otherwise exercise any rights or authority regarding legislation, regulations, policies or any other authority of the Province.” Or, as former NDP forests minister David Zirnhelt put it more succinctly in September, 1996: “Don’t forget that government can do anything.” Of course, should BC shut down LNG Canada, corporate lawyers would promptly roll up their sleeves, put down payments on luxury yachts, and see how much more they could extract from the Province for interfering with their natural-born right to help make Earth unlivable. It is entirely possible that they might settle for a lot less than $6 billion. After all, even the most fossilized litigants might come to realize that there are no corporate lawyers on a dead planet. Russ Francis, a former BC government analyst, now wonders whether the climate crisis may soon necessitate a modification of Heraclitus’s maxim: Before long, we may not be able to step into the same river once.
  15. Taxpayer dollars are wasted doing things that are unnecessary or wrong—while important records management tasks are routinely ignored. UPON JOINING THE BC PUBLIC SERVICE, new employees gather in a Downtown auditorium, listen to a few hackneyed words of wisdom from the deputy attorney general, sign the public service oath—and never think of it again. A high-level document, the oath is seen less as something to consult for guidance on how to behave and more as a chance to get a couple of hours’ paid time away from the office—or as yet another annoying little bit of bureaucracy needed to keep the higher-ups content. I don’t recall ever seeing a copy posted in a government elevator, on an employee bulletin board, or stuck onto a lunchroom fridge beside posters advertising yet another dreaded, compulsory, day-long “team building” clambake. For the most part, public servants go about their business serving their respective ministers appropriately, without needing a reminder of what they can and cannot do. But there are also others among the 31,350 full-time equivalent workers in the BC public service (this estimate doesn’t include those in Crown corporations and other arms-length organizations); there are miscreants whose memories could do with more than an occasional jog as to how to keep disrepute out of the public service. One of the more concerning situations I encountered in my 10 years in government involved a fellow employee. Or perhaps “seat warmer” would be more accurate, for he spent most of his days openly running his own business from his government desk. One day, his manager came over to the employee’s cubicle and began describing a new assignment for him. Less than a minute into the manager’s request, however, the employee’s taxpayer-paid desk phone rang. To my astonishment, ignoring his manager, the employee answered the phone, and launched into a conversation with what sounded an awful lot like negotiating with a client of his personal business. Meanwhile, interrupted in mid-sentence, his manager stood there, waiting till the phone conversation ended, some minutes later. And I suspect this wasn’t the first time. There is little more depressing in a workplace than to see a co-worker blatantly act in his own interest rather than for the good of the government (covered by another clause in the oath); even more so to do it in full knowledge of management and get away with it. In my view, he should have been fired, along with his manager—for acquiescing in the employee’s behaviour. The manager’s supervisor, and likely several further up the chain, also knew about the employee, but did nothing. All of them should have been fired too. Yet none were. Another category of public service behaviour, while not as flagrant, is no less worrisome and far more widespread. And it costs taxpayers a small fortune: the abuse of meetings. In one ministry, our assistant deputy minister (ADM) became concerned that a team of about 10 people had been meeting weekly to complete just one task: produce a single, short, relatively simple document. But after more than a year of one-hour meetings, the team—which included several directors and managers—had yet to finish the task. Knowing that I had experience working on tight daily newspaper deadlines, the ADM asked me to step in and wrap up the project. Easier said than done. The team members rebelled, initially even refusing to allow me into the room for the next meeting. Following a direct order from the ADM, they relented, if somewhat reluctantly. The reason for their reticence soon became plain. The endlessly repeating meetings were primarily social gatherings. The well-paid, senior drones began the meeting by discussing not the supposed task at hand, but the “pretty colours” appearing in the latest draft of the document—a result of Microsoft Word’s “track changes” feature, in which each edit appears in a different colour. That afternoon, I completed my own edits of the document, and shipped what I assumed would be the final version of the document back to the team leader. There it sat. Not to be upset by the ADM’s “interference,” the team resumed its regular social gatherings. Attendees at such meetings can spend much of their time trying to look busy to others in the meeting—who are also trying to look busy. Your tax dollars at play. That ADM resigned shortly afterwards, to “pursue other interests.” She obviously did not fit the ministry’s meeting-centric culture. I expect that every single one of those socializing team members knew deep down that what they were doing was of no value to either the ministry or society. That view may be widespread. As London School of Economics anthropologist David Graeber vividly explains in his 2018 book Bullshit Jobs, “Huge swaths of people…spend their entire working lives performing tasks they believe to be unnecessary.” He estimates that up to 50 percent of workers privately believe their jobs accomplish nothing of value. Though his interview-based research primarily deals with the worlds of corporations and academe, his conclusions may apply even more strongly to government. Of course, not all meetings waste time and money. There are some circumstances that call for numerous lengthy meetings. For instance, last year it must have taken an inordinate number of BC government person-hours to spin a new greenhouse-gas-spewing liquefied natural gas project into a planet-saving plan to improve the environment. If the number and length of meetings were to be substantially reduced, what would public servants do with their newfound time? In fact, there is no shortage of important work now left undone. For example, it is current government policy that public servants document significant phone calls, instant messages and the like—the so-called “duty to document.” This rarely happens. The result: There is no complete record concerning the development of many policies. So a freedom of information (FOI) request would draw a blank: “No records exist.” Arguably, not documenting such important interactions brings the public service into disrepute. A few senior government officials are well-informed about the requirements of FOI, and do their best to ensure that appropriate documents are retained—subject, of course, to the political requirements of the government. The same cannot be said of all lower-level staff, including managers. All public servants are required to take an online FOI course. Yet much of its generally welcome content is forgotten or conveniently ignored. For instance, an FOI manager told a ministry meeting that drafts of documents did not need to be retained, so she routinely deleted them. That’s not correct, I said. I was immediately overruled by the meeting chair. After all, I was not the FOI manager. It’s difficult to hold ordinary public servants to account for paying minimal attention to the duty-to-document requirement, since two successive governments have essentially told them not to bother. A March 8, 2017 finance ministry press release—following the BC Liberals’ 2015 “triple delete” scandal—claimed that the government was legislating a duty to document by introducing Bill 6, the Information Management (Documenting Government Decisions) Amendment Act. And as recently as March 31, 2019, NDP Citizens’ Services Minister Jenny Sims said in a statement that new amendments “respond” to recommendations from two former information and privacy commissioners, David Loukidelis and Elizabeth Denham, to legislate the duty to document. But in each case, information activists were quick to denounce both claims. The problem with both the Liberal and NDP announcements is that compliance is left to a public servant, the Chief Records Officer. How is that working out? Darrell Evans, executive director of the Canadian Institute for Information and Privacy Studies, told Focus in June: “As far as I know, there’s never been any enforcement.” The lack of penalties is akin to a bank ditching its locks, cameras and other security measures, and replacing them with a sign imploring customers: “Please do not steal the money. Thank you for your cooperation.” The BC Freedom of Information and Privacy Association’s executive director, Sara Neuert, said in an interview that not only should there be penalties for failing to document, but that those penalties should be enforced by the independent Office of the Information and Privacy Commissioner. “We’d really like to see external oversight,” Neuert said. So it’s little wonder that public servants while away their idle hours looking busy in useless meetings, instead of dutifully documenting. One government lawyer once told me that the government’s internal instant message system—which does not keep records of exchanges—was desirable, because “it’s not subject to FOI.” Of course, he is wrong: under the Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act, instant messages are records just as much as a hard-copy briefing note or a video recording. I rarely heard someone explicitly state: “In order to avoid FOI, do not send an email. Instead, phone, or meet in person.” But it is universally understood that for sensitive issues, personal meetings or phone calls are desirable, precisely as a mechanism—legal or not—to dodge FOI. This is not a great way to improve the public’s view of the government. At least, that’s if anyone knows about the practice. Please don’t tell anyone: it might bring the public service into disrepute. During his time with the government, Russ Francis did his best to follow advice, in the spirit of the Westminster system, from a deputy minister: “What interests the minister, absolutely fascinates me.”
×
×
  • Create New...