Biogas belches from political swamps

When federal Liberal leader Stéphane Dion made his recent swing through southern B.C., he promised that as prime minister he would be “a strong partner” for a new sewage treatment system in the provincial capital that recovers biogas for energy use.

“It’s the kind of very very constructive project that would be possible if I have my plan implemented for Kyoto, for climate change,” Dion told reporters after a breakfast meeting with Victoria’s mayor. “There is a way to bring the environment and the economy together, we have seen it, and there is a classic Liberal way to put social issues and the economy together.”

That classic way was soon on display in the House of Commons, where Dion led an opposition effort to force the Conservative government to somehow meet the original Kyoto commitment to slash Canada’s greenhouse gas emissions to below 1990 levels by 2012.

Of course Dion has produced no such plan, a fact that the Conservatives were so anxious to underscore that they unveiled their election ads early to highlight his sad admission in last year’s leadership debate.

Canada’s pie-in-the-sky Kyoto targets were far ahead of most countries, improbable then and impossible now, without shutting down a third of the national economy. The whole thing is gesture politics, as they say. Biogas indeed.

While the posturing continues in Ottawa, B.C. is poised to make its next move. And if B.C. Energy Minister Richard Neufeld is any guide, I wouldn’t anticipate anything revolutionary.

While the world’s climate scientists huddled over their latest findings last week, Neufeld was at a big prospectors’ forum in Houston, Texas, pitching the vast “new frontier” of oil and gas exploration in northern B.C. A gruff, Dick Cheney-like character from our own oilpatch heartland of Fort St. John, Neufeld makes no apologies for keeping the pedal to the metal to increase petroleum production.

Neufeld sees about a 10-year deadline to diversify the economies of north Interior forestry towns, or watch them die along with their beetle-killed forests. That means mining or oil and gas or agriculture has to bridge an 80-year industrial gap.

Ironically, as the world faces the greenhouse gas threat, Neufeld’s biggest problem is that the industry’s investment billions are flooding into the Alberta oilsands, by far a greater source of emissions than B.C.’s untapped natural gas.

And it’s not as if saving Vanderhoof and Houston (B.C.) is going to destroy the world. Climate change is such a big problem that only big solutions will help.

Building a nuclear plant to process oilsands instead of burning natural gas to do it will accomplish more than all the hybrid cars and trolley buses in B.C. will ever do.

You could have knocked me over with a feather when federal Natural Resources Minister Gary Lunn said he “absolutely” supports nuclear for Alberta, using the world’s biggest source of uranium, Saskatchewan. With this sort of realism breaking out, one dares to hope that a new post-Kyoto climate deal will emerge that actually includes the largest emitters, the U.S., China and India.

Before B.C. tosses away the plan to construct a couple of modest coal and wood plants to keep up with demand for stable electricity supply, here’s one more big-picture thought to keep in mind.

Whether the big Cascadia subduction zone earthquake hits B.C. this week, as deep seismic activity suggests it might, or some time later, it’s not a bad idea to have well distributed and independent power sources. If that quake hits in the winter and seniors start freezing to death in their homes, the questions for B.C. politicians won’t be about Kyoto.

n Tom Fletcher reports on provincial affairs for Black Press.

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