Fossil fuel peddling impedes BC's progress toward a green future

July 20, 2010

Based primarily on the creation of a carbon tax two years ago, the BC government has been propelled into the position of North American climate action leader. While there was much to applaud as first steps on climate action in BC's 2008 "green" budget, two years later there remain some glaring contradictions between climate action and BC’s transportation and industrial policies.

In particular, British Columbians need to have a frank conversation about the province's fossil fuel industries. We are all addicted to the energy provided by cheap and abundant fossil fuels, and so have reshaped our economy and society in fundamentally unsustainable ways.

But BC is more than just another addict; it is also a dealer. When it comes to law and order, we have learned not to crack down on the users of drugs, but instead focus our efforts on the dealers. So what if it turns out that beautiful BC is running the resource economics equivalent of a meth lab?

The extraction and processing of fossil fuels (oil, natural gas and coal) was responsible for one-fifth of BC's emissions in 2007. But the footprint of BC's fossil fuel production is actually much larger because official inventories only count emissions released within the borders of a jurisdiction. The combustion of coal, oil and gas outside BC in export markets is not counted. As a result, the emissions attributable to BC’s fossil fuel industries in the province's official inventory are vastly understated.

In 2008, natural gas and coal together hit a record $8.5 billion in BC exports (with the recession, this fell to $6 billion in 2009). While BC has become a more diversified and service-oriented economy, resource extraction remains a major part of the provincial economy and a large source of export revenues, and as a result continues to dominate thinking in Victoria.

Converted to tonnes of carbon dioxide exported, BC natural gas and coal exports combined for 104 million tonnes of carbon dioxide elsewhere – more than double the emissions from fossil fuel combustion within BC, and 7.6 times BC's own emissions from the extraction and processing of those fossil fuels.

More troubling are plans for expansion. The BC government is putting oil and gas at the top of its industrial policy priority list, highlighted by a recent $404 million auction of land for exploration of shale gas in the Northeast. BC has extensive stockpiles of CO2 awaiting release into the atmosphere – if extracted. In fact, BC's fossil fuel reserves represent more than three years of global CO2 emissions.

A reality check comes from estimates of the world’s carbon budget – the total stock of emissions that can be emitted between now and 2050 by everyone worldwide, consistent with a reasonable probability of keeping global temperature increase under 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels. Above 2 degrees Celsius, it is widely believed that humans lose the ability to stop climate change, and runaway global warming could be the result. This global carbon budget is estimated to be just over 1 trillion tonnes of CO2.

BC's fossil fuel reserves are equivalent to nearly one-tenth of the world's remaining carbon budget. It seems clear that the status quo of extracting and exporting fossil fuels cannot continue. BC's fossil fuel resources are not going anywhere, and will only be worth more as time goes on. Given the sheer urgency of getting over our addiction to fossil fuels, this inevitably means a moratorium on new oil and gas development is needed – unless 100% of the emissions can be captured and stored underground. Forever.

An important social justice concern in taking an aggressive approach to fossil fuel extraction is the negative impact on many workers in those industries, and the communities they live in. While there is a strong case to be made for new green jobs in renewable energy, the promise of green jobs in the future is not the same as a good job today. The BC should therefore make serious commitments to a "green social contract" for affected workers, including income supports, retraining provisions and mobility allowances.

Confronting GHG emissions from the oil and gas sector, and emissions from fossil fuel exports that are combusted in other jurisdictions, is perhaps the biggest challenge BC faces, and the most glaring contradiction when it comes to climate policy. This challenge, and its social justice transitional issues, must be acknowledged if BC is to be a real climate action leader.

Marc Lee is Senior Economist with the BC Office of the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives and the Co-Director of the Climate Justice Project, a five-year partnership with the University of British Columbia looking at the social justice aspects of climate action policies. His recently released brief, Peddling GHGs: What is the Carbon Footprint of BC’s Fossil Fuel Exports? is available for download at