OFC Scoop 4: March 2015

Throne Speech and Budget 2015: “Continue economy jobs growth”

Wordle - Throne Speech 2015

The word map above, or Wordle, was generated from the 2015 Speech from the Throne. After eliminating some repetitive but low-information words (“B.C.”, “British”, “Columbia”, “also”, “year”, etc.) what you get is a map of words sized to indicate how often they appear in a given text. It’s not rocket-science by any means but it can give you a high-level sense of the message they’re trying to convey. Having sat through the speech, “continue economy jobs growth” is not a bad way to sum it up, if you can get past the grammar. It’s also probably a good message for those who think the current track is working for them and the things they care about.

For contrast, see the Wordle for 2007 (“health energy public school reduce emissions first nations”) and Wordle for 2008 (“health care help children public services communities carbon”), admittedly chosen for their interest from a climate significance (BC’s climate action plan was announced in 2007, and introduced, including the carbon tax, in 2008).

2007

“health energy public school reduce emissions first nations”

Wordle - Throne Speech 2007

2008

“health care help children public services communities carbon”

Wordle - Throne Speech 2008

 

It’s interesting to note that while you can find “economy” and “economic” in both of those, they’re dominant in neither. Throne speeches used to have a lot more of a programmatic focus which would have pundits reading the entrails for many column inches.

Far slimmer pickings these days with the almost tunnel-vision focus on the economy and jobs, which is why some environmental groups were pleased to see several statements on BC’s intention to remain a climate action leader going into the Paris climate negotiations late this year:

“We will continue to provide a positive example to the world that there is no need to choose between economic growth and fighting climate change…. Protecting the environment means setting world-leading standards – but it also means making change when needed. British Columbia will continue to lead.”

While not an outright commitment to further action we are hopeful this sets the stage for BC to move forward with the next phase of climate action planning, building on the first one from 2008. As the Pembina Institute points out, BC will have to if it wants to stay at the forefront of global climate action and be seen as a leader in Paris.

Budget 2015/16

While less amenable to the Wordle generator, the budget largely kept to the “continue economy jobs growth” vision. The biggest surprise was an $879 million surplus for the current year, more than double what even the Finance Minister was predicting the week before. Perhaps keeping expectations low reduces the pressure on the Finance Minister from his Cabinet colleagues and allows him to squirrel most of that off to debt reduction. Smaller surpluses are predicted for the next three fiscal years covered by this budget.

Environmentally there were a few highlights, though for the most part the core environmental, forests and natural resource budgets remained unchanged – no big cuts but it also means these flatlined budgets get eroded by inflation over time. It also means that chronic underfunding for BC Parks, conservation officers, forest inventories and the like persists. To get a sense of the shortfall, comparing the current budget for BC’s world-class protected area system (about $30 million) to others of similar significance (Canada, US, Australia, etc.) indicate it’s only about a third of what it should be to get similar services, management, visitor experiences (interpretation programs!) and capital investment.

Water Sustainability Act (WSA) implementation: the government committed to allocating new revenues from the recent increase in water licence prices to the implementation of the new WSA, and it appears they’ve done that. $25 million over three years, mostly to Forests, Lands & Natural Resource Operations as the ministry responsible for implementation. This is to cover development of new regulations under the Act, new licensing systems, First Nations engagement, research on aquifers as part of licensing groundwater, setting environmental flows for fish and other habitat, etc. Whether this is enough remains to be seen. As many have noted, BC’s water rates remain the lowest in Canada so there’s plenty of room for more price increases, should government choose to go there, to ensure we get the water policies and management necessary to meet the challenges of the future.

Climate-related actions: It’s apparent from the prediction of increasing revenues from the carbon tax over the next three years (despite a freeze in its 2012 rate at $30/tonne) that the impacts of the original Climate Action Plan are plateauing. Two programs were announced that could help, but a lot more is needed if BC is going to meet its next interim reduction target (18% by 2016).

Cement industry incentives: $9 million will be made available to BC’s cement industry this year ($27 million over the next five years total) to help those producers transition to lower emission technologies. A back-of-the-envelope estimate is that this is about 25% of the carbon taxes they pay, but getting the rebate is linked to changing to technologies that reduce emissions. If government is going to provide any breaks for the carbon tax this is a preferred way to do it as it maintains the incentive to lower emissions. When they gave a break to the greenhouse industry last year it was a straight rebate of whatever they paid, virtually eliminating the incentive to change.
Low-emission vehicle incentives: it looks like government will be reintroducing the incentive program from a couple of years ago, providing up to $7.5 million in vehicle incentives over the next three years. There will also be a small amount for electric vehicle charging infrastructure as well. Details are being announced on March 23rd.
And what about liquid natural gas (LNG)? At this point no LNG revenues are being counted on in the three year period covered by this budget. This is prudent given that not a single “Final Investment Decision” has been made by any of the project proponents yet. And Minister de Jong is nothing if not prudent.

 

Priority Spotlight: Defend the Flathead!

B.C.’s Flathead River Valley is a nursery for wildlife in the southern Rocky Mountains. The valley is recognized globally for its great biodiversity and is home to rare and vulnerable species, including grizzly bear, wolverine, bighorn sheep, tailed frog and bull trout. The adjacent Elk Valley provides vital connections for wildlife moving between the Flathead and Banff National Park. Together, the Flathead and the Elk are critical links in a wildlife corridor that stretches through one of the planet’s last intact mountain ecosystems, the Yellowstone to Yukon region.

We need you to be part of the groundswell that will defend these irreplaceable habitats and help protect them for the future!

Right now, five proposals for new or expanded open pit coal mines in the Elk Valley threaten to sever these critical wildlife connections and further pollute the Elk River with selenium. Selenium levels in the Elk are already so high that they exceed government-set thresholds for human and environmental health. New extensive industrial logging in the Elk also poses a threat to wildlife connectivity and the region’s abundant recreation opportunities.

We have a choice: We can continue to prioritize industrial development above all other values in B.C.’s southern Rockies, destroying scenic and recreational values and fracturing wildlife connections that ensure genetic diversity and the long-term survival of species like grizzly bears. Or, we can choose to strike a balance between industrial development and conservation in B.C.’s southern Rockies.

The Flathead Wild team is calling for a National Park in the southeastern one-third of the Flathead, to fill in the missing piece of the adjacent Waterton-Glacier International Peace Park. Alberta and Montana took action almost 100 years ago to protect their share of an ecosystem that still contains the entire rich suite of wildlife found here after the last Ice Age. Alberta took further steps to protect its southern Rockies in September 2014 when it created the new Castle Wildland Provincial Park adjoining B.C.’s unprotected Flathead. It’s time for B.C. to do its part.

We are also calling for a Wildlife Management Area in the rest of the Flathead and adjoining habitat in the Elk and other valleys to maintain these vital connections and protect wildlife populations while still allowing development that is compatible with wildlife values. See the map here.

Sign up to be a Friend of the Flathead and we’ll alert you to opportunities to have your say during environmental assessment public comment periods for the proposal Elk Valley coal mines, and to help protect the Flathead permanently.

 

Legislation Round Up

With the formalities of the Throne Speech behind them and the budget working its way through the estimates process, our elected representatives are getting on with the legislative work of government. More than 14 government bills are already introduced and several have already passed (received third reading). Below is a brief run through of key ones with environmental angles, with links to the bills themselves, the Minister responsible, and discussion of bills in the legislature.

Bill 3: Building Act – to promote or hamstring innovation, that is the question

The long-awaited, much-discussed modernization of BC’s building regulatory system was passed on March 5th. Its aim is to overcome the wide variation in local interpretations of the BC Building Code (BCBC) across municipalities by making the province the sole authority to create building requirements (except for in Vancouver, which has a separate authority). The province will also establish qualification requirements for inspectors.

While the bill doesn’t address energy efficiency or other environmental impact issues for buildings directly, given that buildings account for about 10% of BC’s greenhouse gas emissions (GHGs) the standards set by the province in the BCBC will, over time, influence our progress towards our GHG reduction targets.

Local governments throughout the province have been testing and establishing various approaches to lowering emissions from buildings in their communities for many years and are watching this legislation closely

to see how much leeway they’ll continue to have to do so. Under the new Act they will have to harmonize their approaches to the BCBC over a couple of years, or apply for exemptions if they want to do something differently. Local governments would have to pay for the review process, including whatever expert consultants the province deems necessary, whether they get the exemption or not. That alone seems to be an extra barrier to innovation or progress towards energy efficiency.

Like much new legislation, this one is mainly “enabling”: it gives the Minister or Cabinet very broad powers to set regulations which is where the actual standards and processes will be. Local governments and the Union of BC Municipalities have already worked with the province to set up “opt-in regs” that are standardized but optional for communities that want to see more efficiencies (for example, on solar hot water). They’re hoping this approach and others won’t be lost in the push for one-size-fits-all and that innovators will be encouraged, not penalized. Watch for the devil in these details in the regulation development process.

Proponent: Hon. Rich Coleman, Minister Responsible for Housing
Debate: Second Reading, February 26th (Hansard)

Bill 12: Federal Port Development Act – big change in small package?

It seems so innocuous: a very short bill that appears to be the provincial counterpart to a new piece of federal law, sec. 64.6 of the Canadian Marine Act. It allows the provincial Cabinet (“Lieutenant Governor in Council”) to enter into agreements about ports in BC, and to implement those agreements. Reading the bill itself you get no sense of what it’s trying to achieve.

It’s only when read in conjunction with the changes to the Canadian Marine Act buried deep in the last monstrous federal omnibus bill, Bill C-43, and with the assistance of legal interpretation, that it may start to become clear. Independent MLA Dr. Andrew Weaver did just that and became quite alarmed at what he sees as its implications. In particular, the combination of these two bills means federal ports may be sold off or otherwise transferred to provincial or private (port authorities) entities in which case federal laws like the Canadian Environmental Assessment Act (CEAA) or Species At Risk Act (SARA) may no longer apply. As well, there is a puzzling clause in the federal bill enabling regulations that would allow the destruction of documents regarding port activities. Why destruction of records regarding activities of a port would ever be in the public interest is not clear.

The provincial government says the purpose of the bill is to allow the province to apply and enforce provincial laws over specific ports, with a near-term interest in those that may be involved in the export of liquid natural gas (LNG). From the discussion in committee it sounds like a set of regulations related to the Prince Rupert port may come out as early as this spring. It remains to be seen what happens to the federal laws that currently apply: will CEAA and SARA still be part of the mix, or will it be a clearer path for LNG proponents?

Proponent: Hon. Rich Coleman, Minister of Natural Gas
Debate: Second Reading, March 3rd (Hansard)

Bill 8: Protected Areas of BC Amendment Act – spring cleaning

This one seems to be a pretty straight-forward “house-cleaning” exercise. As parks get official plans finalized their boundaries get more accurately described in a legal fashion. This is a process which can sometimes take years to do, especially with the significant expansion of BC’s park system in last decade and the reduction in resources available to do the planning for them. None the less, a few more have threaded the needle, with minor increases or decreases in their size. Scan the (relatively short) short bill to see if any parks near and dear to your heart are affected.

As well, the bill renames two parks to reflect their local First Nations names. Welcome, SẀIẀS PARK [a.k.a. Haynes Point Park] and Okanagan Falls park PARK [a.k.a. Okanagan Falls Park].

Proponent: Hon. Mary Polak, Minister of Environment
Debate: Second Reading, March 4th (Hansard)

Legislative Reform Package – improving the way our democratic process works

In February Opposition MLAs Gary Holman and Rob Fleming introduced a package of reforms aimed at improving how our legislative process functions:

Bill M 202: Parliamentary Calendar Act – make fall sessions mandatory.
Bill M 203: Legislative Standing Committee Reform Act – expand the number and power of legislative standing committees.
Bill M 204: Fixed Fall Election Amendment Act – move the election date from mid-May to early October, to allow for more thorough scrutiny of the province’s finance and budget prior to an election.
Bill M 205: Youth Voter Registration Act – allow people to register to vote beginning at age 16, though they still wouldn’t vote until 18. The intent is that this would increase the number of registered voters which would hopefully translate into more youth casting votes once they’re able to.
There are interesting merits to each of these proposals which the Opposition describes on their site. Expanding the use of legislative committees is particularly noteworthy as it would provide more opportunities for the public to address their government, or sub-committees of the government, on a range of topics that otherwise rarely get discussed in detail in the legislature unless there is legislation pending. It was also one of several proposals made in a democratic reform package put together by Vicki Huntington and two other independent MLAs in 2013 which makes the case that it would better use the skills and expertise of “under utilized legislators” (backbenchers in particular) to influence policy and governance and make the legislative process more accountable overall.

However, as with most non-government bills, these proposals are unlikely to get any real discussion in the legislature beyond their introduction, much less pass. Our winner-take-all electoral system means that a majority government alone determines what gets passed or not. It sounds like the Opposition is also keen to address that short-coming, recently stating their preference for a switch to proportional representation.

Proponents: Gary Holman, Critic for Democratic Reform; Rob Fleming, Critic for Education
Debate: Introduction, February 19th (Hansard)

 

Heads Up