As the British Columbia government rides the wave of opposition to the controversial Northern Gateway pipeline, the province gets to burnish its green credentials, but is B.C. actually Alberta with a better public relations campaign?
When you think of a province most likely to win runner-up in an Alberta contest, Saskatchewan comes to mind. It does have the highest per capita greenhouse gas emissions thanks to generating 41 per cent of its electricity from coal-fired power plants and from producing the most oil next to Alberta. Saskatchewan Premier Brad Wall opposes a carbon tax and is a vocal supporter of pipelines.
B.C. on the other hand is right now the only province where oil pipelines from Alberta aren't either supported or met with feigned indifference. B.C. also boasts one the greenest cities in North America, low per-capital carbon emissions and North America's only serious carbon tax. The province has also recently stopped fossil fuel development in two iconic natural spaces, the Flathead Valley and the Sacred Headwaters.
On the major issues of the day Saskatchewan along with Alberta did win an environmental laggard contest. But arguably, British Columbia could give Saskatchewan a run for its money in a Next Top Fossil competition.
In B.C. thanks to a 2005 reform, you can stake a mining claim on the land traditionally belonging to First Nations online and with a credit card. There are number of hurdles to jump before a claim becomes a mine but B.C.'s environmental review process did approve draining Fish Lake -- a culturally significant body of water for First Nations -- to turn it into a tailings pond for a mine.
British Columbia invites the world to experience Super Natural B.C., but tourists looking for breathtaking vistas might find a gravel pit instead. That's what happened to B.C.'s Forest Practices Board auditors when they went to inspect a seedling farm and found a pit instead. Overall, auditors found the province has no idea about the cumulative impact of all its approved logging, mining, and drilling.
Within days of the board's report, B.C.'s auditor general found the province was also failing badly to protect its rich biodiversity, letting threatened species go unprotected, while failing to measure and report on its conservation efforts. With its unwatched forests ravaged by the mountain pine beetle, the province recently cut its resource stewardship budget by a third.
B.C.'s system of parks is no better; they are falling apart: trails are overgrown, parks are understaffed and there's no money to buy toilet paper. B.C. and Mississippi are the only jurisdictions in North America without nature interpretive programs.
Coal extraction, both used in power plants and for making steel, is big business in the province. B.C. collected $129 million in mineral taxes in 2011 and 90 per cent of that came from coal. Expansion plans have prompted the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to threaten to take Canada to the International Joint Commission unless the cumulative impacts of current and proposed projects were studied. Meanwhile, Vancouver, one of North America's greenest cities, is set to become the coal exporting capital of North America.
The greatest producer of natural gas in Canada is B.C. next to Alberta, producing 20 per cent of Canada's gas. The expanding production over the last decade in B.C. has been primarily from shale gas and tight gas plays in the northeast corner of the province. In 2012, 86 per cent of the 476 wells drilled in the province were fracked.
In the U.S. the common narrative is cheap natural gas is in part helping take coal-fired plants offline reducing carbon emissions, but new research questions that narrative.
A Cornell University scientist found the methane-rich shale gas is worse than coal when total lifecycle emissions are calculated. In B.C., methane cannot be as freely vented as the U.S., but without solid data on B.C.'s methane in shale gas, a true accounting of emissions from B.C.'s shale gas industry is not easily achieved. Nevertheless a growing body of research is showing unconventional natural gas is generally not a clean source of energy.
B.C.'s shale dreams will become a climate nightmare when that not-so-clean gas gets compressed in B.C.'s five proposed liquefied natural gas plants. The power required to turn gas into a shippable LNG product for Asian markets is tremendous -- the five plants would need about 50 per cent of B.C.'s current energy supply. It is likely a number of plants won't get built and some say renewable power can help reduce emissions, but B.C.'s proposed and controversial Site C dam would only create enough energy to power one LNG plant. The Sierra Club estimates B.C.'s LNG plans will double carbon emissions and cause the province to contravene its legally mandated greenhouse gas reduction target of 33 per cent below 2007 levels by 2020.
CANADA'S NEXT TOP FOSSIL
When you add up B.C.'s story: the province's online mining, lake draining, forest blundering, coal living and LNG dreaming compared to its carbon taxing Vancouverism, the scale starts to feels pretty heavy on one side.
And the award for Canada's Next Top Fossil goes to ... sorry Saskatchewan, maybe next year.
Follow Raphael Lopoukhine on Twitter: www.twitter.com/thecaendotca