Estimates Debate: Environment and Climate Change Strategy Ministry

MLA Sonia Furstenau

Transcript 8CSC:1450-1610

S. Furstenau: Delighted to be here. It's great that we're having to really hone our organizational skills to make estimates work by Zoom, but I appreciate the work that the opposition caucus has done with our staff to get these arrangements in place so it works for everybody. Glad to be here today with the minister to ask him some questions.

I think I'll start where, in some ways, in his opening comments, he talked about the role of the Ministry of Environment and the role it can play in the future. I think one of the things particularly connected to COVID-19 is the very wide-ranging, global conversation around, really, a green recovery from COVID-19. I would expect the Minister of Environment would, hopefully, want to be playing a significant role in that.

We point to some of the other jurisdictions around the world. The EU has put $750 billion towards a package that will prioritize rebuilding the European economy around renewable energy, less-emission-intensive buildings like schools, social housing and hospitals, and clean transport. Spain has committed to legislation that requires achieving net-zero carbon emissions by 2050. The U.K. launched a $44 billion clean growth fund for research and development in green technology for power, transport, waste and building energy efficiency.

My question to the Minister of Environment is really a little bit of a big question, and I hope he has some big ideas for us. What role does he see his ministry playing in developing a green recovery for B.C.'s economy? What sectors of the economy does he see being prioritized for that economic recovery? And what role will CleanBC play, specifically, in guiding the provincial economic recovery?

Hon. G. Heyman: Thank you to the member for the question. I think the member knows, and I think people who have been listening to our government talk about CleanBC over the last year and a half know, that we've always maintained that CleanBC was both an emissions-reduction plan and an economic plan — an economic plan based on diversification, on lowering carbon emissions and on advancing measures that both provided jobs and lowered emissions, ensuring that we transition to a clean economy and that we take advantage of technology.

In some ways, the COVID crisis has made that more apparent than ever. It has made us repeat — the Finance Minister, the Premier, myself, other ministers — our commitment to CleanBC, our belief that, as we consider economic recovery, it's more important than ever to reinforce and amplify the range of measures that were already outlined in CleanBC, as well as continue to develop the phase 2 measures that we've committed to announcing.

The climate action secretariat and my ministry have been working since mid- to late March, actually, on developing proposals that we could bring to cabinet for economic recovery that would be associated with the funding that has been set aside for one-time economic recovery, as well as thinking about the kinds of investments that we will want to make in budgets going forward. We've worked with other ministries. We want this to be, and know that this must be, a cross-government initiative.

We have been looking, in the short term, at those existing programs in CleanBC that could be amplified and we know can work because they're already up and running. We already have the infrastructure to put them in place that can provide jobs, that can provide an economic recovery that is distributed across the province, that we target Indigenous people, women, young people and others who have been most impacted by the losses in employment and the economic impacts of the COVID pandemic.

We're looking at initiatives that will involve training young people and others to develop new skills that we know we will need for years and decades to come. Without going into exhaustive detail, we see CleanBC — the CleanBC programs — and the kind of programs that we know we need to develop in the coming years to further advance the diversification of a clean, low-carbon economy as being central to economic recovery.

We look forward to working with all members of the Legislature to take your ideas as well as to bring forward solid economic recovery plans that are consistent with what is being recognized globally — whether it's from central bankers, the broad finance industry, the International Energy Agency and economic commentators — that now is the time not to repeat the mistake of 2008, where the recovery resulted in increased GHG emissions, but to understand that we face, in the midst of this COVID crisis, the ongoing climate crisis. Let's seize the opportunity to make our investments count on every front, especially in the fight against climate change.

S. Furstenau: I appreciate the minister's intentions and the recognition that we absolutely do have a very serious responsibility to recognize that the COVID crisis is not the only crisis we're facing. We have a climate crisis, and we have a crisis of ecological and biological breakdown on our planet.

I'm going to go to something a bit more specific. This comes back to CleanBC and the efforts to reduce our overall emissions and, as the minister pointed out, the accountability act, the sectoral and interim targets that we're now looking at. Yesterday in estimates, the Minister of Energy, Mines, and Petroleum Resources confirmed that B.C. is a net importer of energy and that the carbon intensity of our trading partners is significantly higher than B.C. in all cases. The weight of CO2 equivalent is at least double for energy sources coming from Alberta and the United States.

As we know, carbon emissions do not know borders. Effective action on climate change requires a multi-jurisdictional approach. My question to the minister is how does he justify importing carbon-intensive energy into B.C. while promoting CleanBC and the need to reduce our emissions?

Hon. G. Heyman: Thank you again to the member for the question. If I understand the question correctly, and she will tell me if I don't, this question relates to the legislation that is currently before the House with respect to changing B.C.'s self-sufficiency standard.

It is legislation before the House, and it is not, frankly, from my ministry, but my understanding of the legislation is that it replaces the self-sufficiency standard with the requirement that all energy purchased for use in B.C. must be 100 percent clean energy.

S. Furstenau: The question, of course, has some relation to the bill that's in front of the House, but it's stemming more from the fact that the Minister of Energy, Mines and Petroleum Resources yesterday, and the previous minister, last year, indicated that we are net importers of energy in British Columbia and that the CO2 of the energy we're importing has a higher intensity than the energy we produce here in B.C. There's a disconnect around our intentions of being clean energy producers and users and the fact that we are indeed importing energy from non-clean sources at this time.

I will follow up on that. I'm not sure, given the minister's response, but I'd like to know if the minister knows whether the emissions from our energy imports are included in our annual greenhouse gas inventory. And does the carbon tax apply to our energy imports?

Hon. G. Heyman: I'd like to ask a question of clarification from the member for Cowichan Valley. Is she referring to electricity imports, or is she referring to fossil fuel imports?

S. Furstenau: This would be imports to our electrical grid. This is electricity imports. As indicated by the minister yesterday, it's not necessarily clean energy that's being imported — imports of energy, of electricity, that come from sources that have a higher carbon intensity than the carbon intensity levels in British Columbia.

Hon. G. Heyman: To the member: no. Emissions that occur in other jurisdictions, in accordance with the UNCCC framework, are not counted. They're counted in the jurisdiction in which they take place. And in that sense, they also know no borders because they're counted in terms of the overall global framework.

We certainly hope that the global meetings with respect to climate change, addressing climate change, reaching agreement on mechanisms to meet the commitments that were made at the UN conferences, proceed and get more robust. But whether or not those emissions are counted in British Columbia, we certainly recognize that they are important and that we want to take every step possible to ensure that our CleanBC framework reduces emissions for which British Columbia is directly or indirectly responsible.

That's exactly why we now have legislation from a different ministry, Energy, Mines, and Petroleum Resources, before the House. That no longer requires that we're self-sufficient but does require that all electricity used in B.C. be clean and renewable. That is the point of the legislation.

S. Furstenau: Further to that, the Minister of Energy and Mines also was asked about LNG generally and his position on the LNG industry. He indicated that he believes the LNG industry is a good one for this province and did not indicate that he thought that we should be focusing on something other than LNG or that…. He was open to more LNG projects in British Columbia.

I guess my question to the minister is around this. Knowing that the LNG Canada project is already going to be the biggest emitter of carbon emissions and that all of the other sectors of industry, in order for us to meet the targets that have been legislated, will need to significantly decrease their emissions, does the minister think that it is possible to further accommodate more LNG projects in B.C. and still meet our targets?

Hon. G. Heyman: What I'd like to start off with is that since the day we formed government, since the day I received my mandate letter, and going back before that to our commitments in the platform on which we ran, we have been committed to legislate and meet emission reduction targets. We formulated a CleanBC plan, in cooperation with the Third Party, to meet those targets. We outlined how we're going to do that, and we outlined how we're going to do that including the approved final investment decision for LNG Canada phase 1.

I think the question the member asks is, in some ways, not the correct one. I'm not in a position to judge what technologies or methodologies to reduce emissions from any particular LNG project may come down the pike in the future — or, in fact, in any other industry.

What we are committed to is ensuring that we meet our legislated emission reduction targets and that we put forward to British Columbians a clearly modelled pathway to do that. And, that we report annually, through the Climate Change Accountability Act, on what we are planning to do and spend money on in the three years to come, how successful we were in the previous year, and include the advice and commentary of the independent advisory committee, now called the Climate Solutions Council.

That commitment remains steadfast. And, of course, we have to look at all the aspects of both emissions and emission reductions in British Columbia to see how we're doing in that regard.

S. Furstenau: Following up on that, I guess I'll start with asking…. I'm going to get back to this question. For the minister, have our emissions gone down at any point in the last several years? What is the current trajectory for emissions?

Further to his point about the LNG industry, I think that what's important to point out is that…. This is something I asked the minister about in question period last year. When the industry is given back 100 percent of its carbon tax over $30 a tonne as part of the CleanBC industrial incentive program, which was meant to incentivize industries that already existed as opposed to providing this kind of space for a new industry — particularly, in fact, our most carbon-intensive industry — does the minister see that as, I guess, putting fingers on the scale? This, in our minds, is very much a subsidy of the oil and gas industry.

It goes beyond saying that we're going to meet our targets. Where government puts its money has a huge effect on the kinds of industries that thrive and survive. While we are one of the lowest provinces, for example, in supporting the high-tech industry, we have massively increased how much government money is flowing, whether its through tax credits or subsidies, to the oil and gas industry at a time when the world is coming to terms with the fact that this the wrong trajectory.

Even when it comes down to producing jobs and economic opportunity, the statistics and the data are pretty clear that money invested by government into renewable energy and renewable technology produces more jobs than money invested into oil and gas.

I guess I'll come back to my questions: (1) what has the trajectory of our emissions been over the last five years; and (2) does the minister consider that CleanBC industrial incentive program, the 100 percent back of anything over $30 in carbon tax for LNG Canada, to be a subsidy, and how does he square that with saying that we want to be climate leaders?

Hon. G. Heyman: Well, let me deal with the emissions question first. I would say that emissions have been largely flat. The last year for which we have verified figures is 2017, and 2018 will be coming out shortly. But as the member knows, we didn't even announce CleanBC until the end of 2018, and we're still implementing measures through CleanBC.

But what I can say is that emissions per capita are down, so the emissions intensity of our life in British Columbia is down. But that, of course, is not good enough, because we also need to, in absolute terms, reduce emissions, which is what CleanBC and the various measures, regulations, carbon taxes, etc., are all about.

So going to the question of the CleanBC industrial incentive program, which is a program…. For those who may be viewing who aren't familiar with the details, it's meant to protect emission-intensive industries from carbon leakage where jobs disappear in British Columbia and they, perhaps, end up in more carbon-intensive jurisdictions without a carbon tax. But it's also meant to incent industry to reduce emissions further.

It was never part of the plan for the CleanBC industrial incentive to only apply it to existing industries and not to new industries. In fact, it makes a lot of sense to have a uniform platform that applies to industry in British Columbia. Currently, high-emitting industries, but perhaps, at some point, more broadly to ensure that the incentives to approach and, ultimately, be world-leading in terms of low carbon intensity and, therefore, lower emissions, is met throughout all industries in B.C.

The member suggests, whether intentionally or not, that LNG Canada is permanently exempted from the carbon tax over $30 a tonne. The fact is that under the CleanBC industrial incentive program, the benchmarks are set, rates of rebate are qualified, and every five years, those are reviewed. All B.C. industry has an incentive to either get better and get to the 100 percent rebate if they're not already there or to continue to be world-leading in order to maintain that 100 percent rebate. That's the incentive that's built in, in addition to the incentive, of course, for the under $30 a tonne carbon tax.

S. Furstenau: I'll leave that there, that particular line, just because we have limited time. But I think that, increasingly, it's pretty hard to argue that LNG, in any way, is world-leading in terms of its emissions, in that a lot of research has suggested that if you take into account the methane at source and the extraction — the emissions from that — LNG has the intensity of coal.

I'll leave that discussion for another day, but I do want to speak specifically, again, to something related to this project. There was an article that came out a few days ago about the Coastal GasLink pipeline construction and that inspection officers from the Ministry of Environment had determined that "the company’s wetlands management plan had not been followed in any of the wetlands along the route designated ecologically and socioeconomically important" — wetlands that were ecologically and socioeconomically important.

There were two non-compliance orders issued. The Ministry of Environment put out a statement saying that 42 wetlands are affected. Unist'ot'en Dark House says that there are nearly 300 protected wetlands along the pipeline route, and Coastal GasLink hasn't developed site-specific mitigation plans for any of them.

I guess I'd like the minister to let us know what the next steps are, from his point of view, on ensuring that these wetlands are protected. Who will be responsible for the oversight of that? Will it be Ministry of Environment staff that ensure that not only is the plan created, but it is properly implemented? What will be the consequences for that not happening?

Hon. G. Heyman: Well, to the member: thank you for the question. The outcome to which she refers, with respect to Coastal GasLink, both the compliance orders — to cease work until the environmental assessment office is satisfied that compliance measures are in place — are legally binding conditions of the environmental assessment certificate.

I think it's important to point out that while the environmental assessment office is under the purview of the Ministry of Environment, it operates somewhat independently of the Ministry of Environment, under its statute, so environmental assessment office compliance and enforcement officers identified the non-compliance issues. They will make independent decisions to ensure that the company comes into compliance. The measures they have at their disposal to ensure that are administrative and monetary penalties, as well as continuing orders preventing the company from proceeding with construction activity in those areas where the non-compliance was identified.

S. Furstenau: Thanks to the minister for that. I guess I'll just leave it with this. Given the very serious concerns that have been raised by the Wet'suwet'en about this project, to see already that there has been this kind of non-compliance with the environmental protection efforts that they were supposed to have put into place is, from our point of view, quite worrying. I am relieved that the ministry has been monitoring, has sent their compliance officers and has put these orders in place.

However, it speaks to what I see as a wider culture across the province, when it comes to environmental protection, with any of these big projects. From things I hear about from communities all around the province, the protection of the ecological systems of streams, wetlands, riparian areas and drinking water tend to be falling by the wayside far more often than they should be. I think it's something that should be causing all of us some concern.

I'm going to switch to salmon and steelhead. In his opening remarks, the minister spoke about species at risk. Steelhead are certainly one of the species that we are most concerned about in British Columbia. However, the number of species that we are worried about is significant.

There was a recommendation from the B.C. forest board recently, in a report documenting how salmon populations are at risk due to sediment buildup from road construction. The recommendation was that legislation be introduced to "ensure a clear and enforceable requirement to minimize the sediment entering streams during road construction, maintenance and deactivation and that updated guidance and standards for road construction and maintenance be provided to industry."

My question for the minister is: will the ministry be following up on these recommendations and taking any other steps to ensure the health of B.C.'s salmon population and, in particular, the steelhead, which are at such significant risk right now?

Hon. G. Heyman: The specific issues to which the member refers — steelhead, in particular, and forestry practices that impact it — are the jurisdiction of the Ministry of Forests, Lands, Natural Resource Operations and Rural Development. They are the Ministry of Forests; the report the member references was made to them.

The role of our Ministry of Environment is to provide policy advice with respect to the federal Species At Risk Act, evolving measures that we are considering, and knowledge that we have with respect to species-at-risk actions in British Columbia, as well as scientific expertise. We offer that where it's appropriate.

Just to conclude: a more detailed answer, about what the next steps would be, would be more appropriately addressed to the ministry responsible.

S. Furstenau: I guess that sort of speaks to some of the confusion that people have. I'm going to actually move this right to the bigger question of the Ministry of Environment's role when it does come to species at risk. It was in the minister's mandate letter, at the beginning of his mandate, to bring in species-at-risk legislation. We haven't seen it yet. The protection of habitat would seem to fall under the Ministry of Environment; maybe I'm wrong.

I would like an update from the minister on where things are at with this legislation. Are there funds in the budget for producing this legislation? What are the barriers for why this legislation hasn't come forward? Given that we are in a global biodiversity collapse, it would seem that we have a very serious reason to be quite proactive on species at risk and biodiversity protection in this province.

I'd like to hear from the minister. Why haven't we seen that legislation yet, and will we be seeing it soon?

Hon. G. Heyman: To the member, we engaged shortly after I received the mandate to create species-at-risk legislation. We did extensive consultation with industry, stakeholders, the public, environmental organizations and Indigenous nations. We found, as would be expected, a lot of complexity. Particularly, one of the things that we took note of was the strongly expressed desire by Indigenous nations — which takes on even great import with the recent passing of the B.C. Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples Act — to ensure that they were fully involved in both the legislation and in the processes established by the legislation, particularly the application of Indigenous knowledge. They said to us that they wanted to be sure that we took the time to get it right.

So we are doing some things in the meantime. We are currently reviewing our listing criteria for endangered species, as well as our approach to mitigation and offset measures as both building blocks for ultimate legislation and things that we can do now.

We're also aware that the mandate letter for the new Minister of Environment and Climate Change Canada includes reviewing their federal Species At Risk Act. I've spoken with Minister Wilkinson about that review and suggested — to which I received a positive response — that we ensure that the end result of their amended act and our new act is one in which the two acts work synergistically rather than in opposition to each other. We talked further about the possibility of identifying a couple of pilot projects in British Columbia where we could try different approaches to inform, ultimately, legislation. Clearly, pilot projects that make sense would be ones that are addressing real, current and live species issues.

The member also asked whether we have money budgeted for legislation for the work that we're currently doing in the ministry. We have capacity in the current budget. When we complete a legislative proposal, when we get to that point, it will include a business case and identify if additional funds are needed for both legislation development and implementation. And that, of course, would be considered by Treasury Board.

S. Furstenau: Just to my colleagues in the opposition, it's my last ten minutes here, and I'll just bring it home to Shawnigan Lake.

As the minister knows, the closure plan of the Cobble Hill Holdings site, of the contaminated landfill in our watershed, is underway. There remain, obviously, many, many concerns in the community about not only how this is unfolding now, but how we've gotten here. Last we checked in, the company had not paid its property taxes, and the land was in the process of forfeiture to the provincial government. I expect that that's still the same, but maybe there's an update on that. The company has been importing clean fill to its site as capping fill, which would generate revenue for the company, and I'm wondering if there's any kind of payment plan in place to start paying those taxes that are owed.

A couple of other things. On February 18, there was an advisory letter from the Ministry of Environment to Cobble Hill Holdings indicating that records of volumes of leachate…. This would be the leachate, the liquid, being collected from the site that is needed, as according to the spill prevention order, to be collected, measured, and then taken to a proper facility for disposal. According to the advisory letter of February 18, there were no records of this happening.

I went through the documents that are available online, and there does not seem to have been any indication that that's been remedied. I'm curious to know whether the minister has any further information on the missing records and whether that requirement under the spill protection order is being met right now, that the company is providing records of the leachate volume as well as where it's being transported to.

Finally, I note that the company is supposed to put up reports every two weeks. The last report that was up was April 30, and it did not include water sampling data. We've had no reports from May or June, and so that's obviously a concern to the community, as has this entire process been.

Those are my questions for the minister. I hope he got them all down, and I'm happy to clarify.

The Chair: Members, I just want to say that we'll take a five-minute recess while we undertake cleaning and safety protocols in preparation for a new committee Chair. Stay tuned for another five minutes.

The committee recessed from 4:00 p.m. to 4:09 p.m.

[S. Chandra Herbert in the chair.]

Hon. G. Heyman: Thank you to the member and others for their patience while I wanted to make sure that I fully understood the process before I gave the answer to the question. Let me start with…. One part of the question had to do with the taxes that are owing on the property, and with respect, there is no relationship between the responsibility of the named parties and their requirement to comply with the orders given by the ministry and the fact that there are taxes owing.

The status of what is happening with the taxes owing, with respect to the owner, is a question that needs to go to the Ministry of Finance. I don't have the answer. They will.

The process with respect to testing, the submission of test results to the ministry and the posting of the test results, is something like this. There's a range of testing and reporting that takes place every two weeks. Those reports come to the ministry. They're reviewed by the ministry prior to posting. In some cases, there are questions that the ministry staff have of the qualified professional who is working on the testing. Those get asked; they get answered. The report is reviewed and posted when the ministry is satisfied that it's ready to do so.

With respect to the issue of the letter from February 18 with respect to leachate, the letter noted that the tanks had been emptied and leachate had been transported. What was missing in the report was the volume of leachate, as well as the destination of the leachate. That information has subsequently been provided in the report that will be posted shortly.

We have had a delay, for a variety of reasons, in posting the reports, although we have them. I'm advised that we'll be ready to post them imminently, within the next week.

S. Furstenau: I'll leave it at that. That was my allotted time. I turn it over to the official opposition at this time. I thank the minister for his answers, and we'll be following up on some of those issues.