COLUMN: Corral carbon tax in big cities

When Alberta Premier Ed Stelmach rode out of town early to escape from the B.C.-led climate change talks in Vancouver last week, he appeared to leave the barn door open, all hope of meaningful emission controls in Western Canada escaping with him like methane from a manure pile.

Alberta will get its soaring greenhouse gas emissions to level off by 2020, says the Stelmach government’s latest plan, as soon as they’re done tripling the output from their heavy oil mines, which are already visible from space. That expansion on its own would be enough to cancel out B.C.’s own plan to cut a third of its emissions by the same year, several times over.

Premier Gordon Campbell didn’t wrinkle his nose at the aroma left behind by Stelmach’s quick departure. The new Alberta premier, known as Special Ed to his detractors, is seen as a rustic rural fellow whose vision doesn’t extend much past the bill of his ball cap. Campbell has emerged as the lead hand among premiers, especially on the environment.

Here at home, we’ll soon find out whether Campbell is all hat and no cattle when it comes to climate change. One problem he shares with Stelmach is that both provinces’ greenhouse gas reduction targets depend on methods that are not yet clearly identified. (Or in the case of Stelmach, not yet invented, since most of Alberta’s reductions, when they finally start after 2020, are to come from capturing oil-industry carbon dioxide and storing it underground.)

The B.C. budget is due on Feb. 19, and NDP environment critic Shane Simpson is convinced it will contain a carbon tax. B.C. Green Party leader Jane Sterk met with Campbell and came away concerned that he might be chickening out on a carbon tax, a key Green policy objective that would land on gasoline just as the price starts to soar this spring.

That would be poisonous in B.C. resource towns, but there’s a way around that. As Finance Minister Carole Taylor has hinted, a carbon tax on fuel could be dedicated to transit improvements, and so it could be simply an extension of the existing transit tax that varies from place to place.

B.C. now collects a fixed 14.5-cent tax on a litre of gasoline across the province, compared to nine cents in Alberta. In B.C. this finances whatever bus services exist outside of Greater Victoria, where drivers pay an extra 2.5 cents a litre, and Metro Vancouver, where they cough up an extra 12 cents a litre.

I expect to see the same pattern for Taylor’s budget, exempting all but the largest urban centres from a new carbon tax on the grounds that big cities can at least offer alternatives to driving. There will still be a major pile of cash collected, and I’m guessing not all of it will be returned by way of income tax cuts, where the Campbell government has already used up most of its room.

It didn’t get much attention, but last week Campbell and Energy Minister Richard Neufeld unveiled a new bioenergy strategy that points to where some of this green money will be directed. There’s a new $25 million fund to subsidize development of things like “cellulosic ethanol,” a kind of holy grail for the province’s energy needs. It’s liquid fuel from things like waste wood or straw, and there is already experimental production of it in Ontario.

Pine beetle wood, or fast-growing switchgrass can be a feedstock that replaces fossil fuels. It’s a climate change solution the government hopes will find a home on the range.


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