STOP: Stop Tar Sands Operations Permanently

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Why $4 Billion Doesn’t Mean Much

Posted by mhudema on July 18, 2008

Issues – 2 + 2 = 5

Why Alberta’s $4 billion greenwash doesn’t add up to much of anything

RICARDO ACUÑA / ualberta.ca/parkland

It seems lately that the role of government in Alberta has become more and more about image and spin than about actually doing anything concrete and positive in the public interest. The attitude seems to be that it doesn’t really matter if you are actually doing anything positive, as long as you can convince people that you are.
Given this priority set, the Alberta government is currently facing two significant image problems that it has to deal with. The first is the fact that a growing number of people and jurisdictions around the world are concerned about the environmental costs associated with extracting Alberta’s bituminous sands.
In particular, there is a growing outcry in response to the government’s unwillingness to take concrete actions to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from the industry. In other words, people are starting to see through the government’s efforts to fix Alberta’s environmental image without fixing the environmental practice. It has reached a point where it has the potential to jeopardize future sales of Alberta oil and bitumen to areas of the United States.
The second public relations challenge being faced by Alberta is its growing image—both within the province and across Canada—that it is a spoiled brat rolling in money with no long-term plan or vision. Albertans are beginning to demand an end to whimsical spending and a focus on saving for the future, and other Canadians are starting to wonder why the same economic circumstances that are making Alberta stinking rich are making it harder for them pay rent, buy groceries and find work.
This image of Alberta was further reinforced recently when CIBC World Markets predicted that, given current oil and gas prices, Alberta’s surplus for this year would be in the range of $12 billion. This coincided with the premier and his cabinet giving themselves a 30 per cent pay raise, and then letting four senior public health officers go, ostensibly because they wanted too much money.
In keeping with its focus on image over substance, the Alberta government last week found a way to “deal” with all these issues at once—they announced an environmental initiative which will put $2 billion towards public transit for municipalities in the province and put another $2 billion towards subsidizing the development of carbon capture and sequestration in Alberta.
By announcing this program now, before the first quarter financial update comes out at the end of August, the government is essentially able to hide $4 billion out of its revised projected surplus and bypass the call for increased savings. It also means the projected surplus which is reported to the rest of the country will be $4 billion less than it would otherwise have been.
This is not new. It is entirely in keeping with former Premier Klein’s well-established practice of low-balling projected surpluses in the provincial budget so that he would have wads of cash to spend on high-profile image and public relations exercises over the summer months.
Instead of spending this money $400 at a time like his predecessor did, however, Mr Selmach decided to kill two birds with one stone and spend the money on greenwashing Alberta’s image.
Despite a news release full of information about Alberta’s leadership and proven commitment to reducing greenhouse gases, the reality of what will be done with the $4 billion is very different.
There is no question that the $2 billion for public transit in the province is needed. Municipalities in Alberta have been screaming for infrastructure and transit funding from the province since before the current boom. But they have also been asking for a funding plan which looks at the long-term needs and funding issues of municipalities. Two billion dollars will help Alberta’s municipalities pay for some of their backlogged public transit needs, but is nowhere near enough to help them meet the pressures that the current boom has brought.
Effective and usable public transit systems require long-term planning, vision and funding. Surprise nickel-and-dime announcements at the whim of the provincial government make this an impossibility. What happens to the municipality that uses this money to embark on a major expansion and redevelopment of its transit system, only to find out in two years that the province won’t provide money for the rest of it?
The remaining $2 billion will go toward funding the government’s carbon capture and sequestration (CCS) pipe dream. This government has based its entire climate change plan (as inadequate as it is) on the development and implementation of CCS. The theory is that if CO2 can be captured instead of being released into the atmosphere then it can be transported to big underground formations where it can be stored forever. Furthermore, oil and gas companies can buy this CO2 and inject it into their old wells to help them get more oil and gas out. The Alberta government loves to talk about how everyone wins in this scenario: we reduce CO2 emissions, large CO2 producers actually make more money and oil companies can extract more oil and gas, allowing them to make more money.
The problem is that CCS is not about reducing emissions; it’s ultimately about taking emissions and hiding them. There is no guarantee or evidence that the CO2 can be held underground over the long term, and we do not know what impact the CO2 will have on the environment and ecosystem once it is underground.
The biggest problem, however, is that industry is only interested in CCS to the extent that the government is willing to fund its development and implementation. Because the government is unwilling to regulate industry or enforce emissions cuts, they apparently have no option but to pay for it. So this $2 billion greenwash is nothing more than a government subsidy to an industry rolling in record profits to implement technology that will help them make even more money. What ever happened to the long-standing principle of polluter pays? Why is the government paying to clean up industry emissions?
And the actual difference it will make in terms of the environment will be negligible and meaningless. Once fully implemented, the government’s CCS plan would be capturing and storing some five million tonnes of CO2 annually by 2015. That represents about two per cent of present total emissions. But under Alberta’s emissions reductions plans, our total emissions by 2015 will actually be some 20 per cent higher than they are today, so the actual impact of this $2 billion will be next to nothing for the environment. Only industry wins.
When it comes to substance and the long-term impact from this announcement, the whole thing is an absolute joke. It’s not about the environment or controlling emissions, it’s a $4 billion public relations campaign—a greenwash—and hopefully Albertans will be able to see through it. V

Ricardo Acuña is executive director of the Parkland Institute, a non-partisan public policy research institute housed at the University of Alberta.

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