Stephen Rees's blog

Thoughts about the relationships between transport and the urban area it serves

Making the wrong choices

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“No matter what they say, no country is going to take actions that are going to deliberately destroy jobs and growth in their country.”

Stephen Harper (source: CBC)

This post is inspired by an email from David Suzuki “Here’s to a radical Canada Day!”

Stephen Harper’s statement is willfully misleading.

Many countries are taking actions to tackle climate change. The record to date is that they are performing better in terms of jobs and growth than the very few (like Canada and Australia) who have decided to destroy the environment on which all life depends. Countries like Germany, that have far less sunshine than we do but make half of their electricity from it now. Solar power is now cheaper than electricity made from fossil fuels.

The tar sands have long presented a possible source of energy, but for a very long time they remained untapped simply because there were so many other sources which were easier to extract. Usable fuel from tar sands was simply too expensive to make. What changed that was the willingness of the Canadian government to pour billions of tax dollars into its extraction and processing. The subsidies to the fossil fuel industries are unconscionable. If these were cut – in the same way that so many other public expenditures that Canadians actually need and care about have been cut – then other sources would have been much more competitive much sooner. We have been burning money mining a nonrenewable resource that is causing widespread carnage in terms of its impact on local water and air quality as well the long term effect of increasing carbon and methane emissions at a time when all sorts of tipping points in climate change were passing. The only reaction to the melting of the polar ice cap seems to be a willingness to immediately seize this as an opportunity to open up yet more oil and gas exploration.

Canada has huge untapped reserves of energy – sunlight, wind, waves, tides, geothermal – which are not going to be utilized in time to save life as we know it, because our governments are obsessed with oil and gas. Yet we get very little from oil and gas in terms of jobs, or revenues or even economic activity. Unless you are the sort of economist who seriously advances the notion that cleaning up oil spills is good for economic growth.

Norway continues to  extract oil from underneath the North Sea. This was also regarded as a very expensive, risky option at one time. Yet Norway did not respond with tax breaks and subsidies. On the contrary it has some of the highest royalty revenue stream per barrel of any oil economy. And the money did not go to income tax reductions for the rich but into a wealth building fund  that will continue to serve the best interests of Norwegians in general long after their oil reserves are exhausted. BC, of course, is currently pursuing a highly risky fracking and LNG export path based on reducing royalty payments that are already low.

The other day I was in Squamish. I once again heard that the name comes from the First Nations term for “place of the winds”. It is apparently a world class sailboarding destination due to the strength and reliability of the winds. I could just about hear what the guide was saying over the roar of the diesel generator. He was telling us about how the new Sea to Sky Gondola is taking care of the environment.

Of course, wind and solar are not “reliable” in the sense that power is not available all the time. But this energy storage problem is close to being resolved. There always has been the option of pumped hydraulic storage (used in North Wales to store otherwise useless electricity produced by a nuclear power station which cannot be shut off at times of low demand). Now there are promising new battery storage technologies like vanadium and sulphuric acid, readily scalable and with very long life, and ideal for solar and wind power storage.

We sit on huge reserves of geothermal energy – but the only use we make of them is for a few hot baths, here and there.

We could have already replaced thousands of gasoline powered passenger trips by existing electric transport technologies – trams, trolleybuses, trains – but we chose instead to invest in highways, despite evidence of declining car use! There are many more potential jobs operating public transport than there are in freeway maintenance!

When I first got into greenhouse gas action plans, I decided that we should not be concerned about climate change as a selling point. There was already a cognitive dissonance in the message: the planet is heating up, so you should check your tire pressures more often. We simply concentrated on the economic/financial message. Twenty years ago, when hydro was still cheap and even gas prices looked reasonable, basic energy efficiency measures were still attractive with two to three years payback on projects which had potentially much longer lives. I still adhere to the notion that it is utterly pointless to argue with climate change deniers. But even they cannot argue that something isn’t happening that is – increasing wildfires, floods, tornadoes – and that remediation and essential protection for the future is costing us a fortune. The basic cost benefit calculations can be assessed in real dollars – without getting into any arguments about the value of life or time. The economy and job effect of energy efficiency by itself is worth having. Switching to renewable energy is even better in terms of rate of return on capital employed.

The carbon tax is working. It would have worked even better if it had not been frittered away on being “revenue neutral” but invested in sensible activities like increasing transit supply where there is already excess demand. Better still if the amounts had continued to increase and not been foolishly frozen.

Canada’s Economic Action Plan, on the other hand, manifestly is NOT working. Throwing money at billionaires is a very silly idea indeed. It does not trickle down nor are they any more willing to pay low taxes than they were to pay high taxes. Employing people to chase fugitive income and capital gains is a lot more productive than attacking the poor for trivial sums.

The actions we need to take will not destroy jobs or growth. What they will do is heavily impact the fortunes of the fossil fuel companies and those who remain invested in them. Stephen Harper does not actually care very much about Canada, or Canadian values. He does care very much indeed about holding on to power. And to do that he needs a steady flow of cash from the oil companies. And he is very unlikely indeed to insist that they leave their reserves in the ground. But if we are to stay below the 2℃ target that is what has to happen. The costs of missing that target are horrendous, no matter how you count them.


In a comment below I am (quite properly) chided for the lack of data in this opinion piece. Here are some routes where those who are curious can follow up on my assertions – points to an IMF study

Tackling Climate Change while growing the economy – “Over 50 percent of the country’s energy was generated from photovoltaic panels” for a short period recently

But the there is also this:

investments in renewable energy and energy efficiency would create more jobs than the same amount of investment in fossil fuels. source: – compares Norway to Canada and Alberta

See also

Written by Stephen Rees

June 27, 2014 at 10:04 am

11 Responses

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  1. Hi Stephen,
    I share your frustration at the lack of progress on getting ourselves off of oil, both from a “peak oil” and a “global warming” perspective. It really seems as though we are continuing to dig an ever-deeper hole for ourselves.
    That said, there are real reasons for why so little progress has been made. And it is NOT all due to political intransigence, or to the conspiracy of Big Oil. The reasons lie with physics, with economics, and with the inherent inertia in our society’s infrastructure (physical as well as political). I’ve been thinking and blogging about these problems for a couple of years and I really try to “go to the data”. You might be interested in the following posts:
    1. the german “success story”:
    2. changing over to renewables is a long, slow process:
    3. the scale of the problem, here in BC: and

    I guess my conclusion is not positive.

    By the way, we are past the 2C threshold. We are guaranteed 2C now – those choices were made 20 years ago. We are by now talking about trying to avoid 4C and things are not looking good.


    June 27, 2014 at 11:42 am

  2. You mean we are NOT subsidizing the oil sands? That without federal government subsidies (and, by the way, relaxation of environmental regulations, something I chose not to mention) the current processes would have produced economically/financial viable streams of fuel? That the oil and gas companies (and the people who invest in them) are not significant supporters of conservatives in general and the Conservative Party of Canada in particular. Sorry that my post is so devoid of figures – and indeed source references. I needed to get something off my chest, and what Stephen Harper said is indefensible. None of the links you gave seem to deal with key point – and the German stuff is two years old. The 2C point comes from a new source today and refers to statements made recently by POTUS: is he wrong too?

    Stephen Rees

    June 27, 2014 at 11:56 am

  3. No, I did NOT mean that we are not subsidizing the oil companies. Note the word “all” in : “…not ALL due to…”
    It’s a bit complicated (as all these things are), but I looked into it here:
    It’s very hard to find sources, as I’m sure you can imagine. I’d be overjoyed if one of your readers could point me to better or additional sources of info…

    There are of course other “subsidies” other than tax breaks, as you point out:
    – political donations to ensure favorable legislation (although if another party were in power the $ would flow to them, for the same reason)
    – media ownership concentration that skews reporting and hence public support
    – unaccounted-for “externalities”: the fact that Big Oil doesn’t have to pay for cleanups etc.

    These are very hard to cost out and I have not attempted to.

    My “german analysis” that I reference above is 2 years old, but from what I have read, the situation has not changed much. The Germans have kept heading in the same direction – very high subsidies to a very inefficient energy source. This is starting to have economic effects.

    I don’t like Harper or his government either. They are only digging us further into the hole. Same with the provincial government and their focus on LNG. NOT HELPING! I suppose I would feel a lot better if we had some kind of strategy where the money generated by our mining activities could be put to use trying to get us off of oil…but instead, all I see is more pavement and more inflated rhetoric.

    That said, I am not sure of what strategies would be required. I do not have solutions. This is not an easy problem to solve, but what’s really disconcerting as that our governments are not even trying.

    That’s my only point.


    June 27, 2014 at 1:37 pm

  4. It’s the way I write. And these days I don’t do that so often as I used to. I was going to simply cut and paste David Suzuki’s post – but then I have done that recently, and I think I am making a somewhat different point. I do read a lot – but I don’t keep track of what I read and cannot always find what I read again to reference it. And putting in sources and links and data all get in the way of the writing. I often go back and add links, make corrections or do edits. Sometimes many weeks pass between the two processes.

    Transition is not easy or fast – but the governments of Canada and BC are no longer even pretending to try to transition. But other things that I have read suggest that maybe change is on the way – and inevitable. For instance this and this

    Stephen Rees

    June 27, 2014 at 2:46 pm

  5. I wonder what this decision means for the lower mainland where land claims are still outstanding. Perhaps an end to gravel pits, stone quarries, and real estate developments in the Fraser Valley and Howe Sound?


    June 28, 2014 at 8:12 am

  6. By “this decision” you mean that of the Supreme Court of Canada on Tsilhqot’in land title. Which is very much Off Topic and outside my sphere of knowledge.

    Stephen Rees

    June 28, 2014 at 8:55 am

  7. “Leadership on climate disruption would boost the global economy by up to $2.6 trillion per year by 2030, according to a major World Bank report published this week.” James Glave, Clean Energy Review

    Stephen Rees

    June 30, 2014 at 7:18 am

  8. And some more recent. objective, information on German power generation:

    The first half of 2014 was marked by mild temperatures and high electricity production from wind and solar energy. Solar power plants have increased their production compared to the first half of 2013 by 28%, while wind power grew about 19%. In June solar systems have produced twice as much electricity as wind turbines. In the first half of the year solar and wind power plants together produced more than 45 TWh or approximately 17% of the total electricity generation. The renewable energy sources solar, wind, hydro and biomass produced a total of about 81 TWh and accounted for approximately 31% of the electricity production.”

    Wednesday, July 2, 2014
    Half-year report for 2014

    Stephen Rees

    July 3, 2014 at 11:31 am

  9. Yup, many things are possible, especially if you can charge households $0.36/kWh (, converted to Canadian $ of course). This is 4.8 times higher than what you and I pay ($0.075 kWh).

    I think if BCHydro were to have leeway to charge such prices for electrons, we would see quite some behaviour shifts in electricity consumption. The market would shift and renewable sources would have a much easier time competing. Because renewable energy sources, at the end of the day, cannot survive even with $0.10/kWh (which is the – subsidized – net meter rate for smaller producers Our hydro electricity is very, very cheap.

    But really, what do we want to achieve here? Surely not what Germany’s doing? Unlike Germany, we don’t have a “dirty electricity” problem. We have a “dirty transportation system” problem that has totally different solutions. Right?


    July 3, 2014 at 3:39 pm

  10. The original, Suzuki article had a Canadian context. BC and Quebec have plentiful existing hydro and in ghg terms you cannot get much cleaner than that. Carbon – and nukes – are still an issue for other provinces like Alberta and Ontario. BC could have had a much cleaner transportation system by now if we had not expanded highways but built electric trains/trams/trolleybuses for our pressing urban passenger transport problems, and at the same time made significant steps towards sustainable urban land use. People are already showing they are willing to walk and cycle more – and the facilities to make those modes more attractive are really cheap and easy to do yet the opposition to things like bike lanes and increased residential density is stentorian.

    Building freeways and new highway bridges took us in the wrong direction but at least part of that is due to the way we distribute seats in our legislature. The current push for LNG makes no sense financially, economically or environmentally. Site C isn’t necessary with sane, rational policy making either. We get distracted by the shiny object syndrome – hydrogen highways, Ballard buses for Whistler, LNG ferries. It makes for pretty window dressing but has no impact on the real issues.

    Canada needs a national energy policy and a government that is not in the pockets of CAPP.

    Stephen Rees

    July 4, 2014 at 7:25 am

  11. An excellent discussion. I’m a bit late here, but there may be a few new or expanded points to consider.

    I believe the original quote on “LNG ferries” was a mis-speak. It will ever be in the cards because NG would be liquefied at great cost to foreign markets that are willing to pay that premium, a presumption our premier must surely see is now eroding with cheaper gas overseas and her fave petroleum corporate donors backing out of NE BC. Under the LNG hype the domestic market is ignored. Of course, geological constraints, the high depletion rates per well and the well-known ecological ramifications (not to mention public resistance) of fracking will impose their own constraints and illustrate the temporary nature of petroleum. Liquification adds yet another expensive step.

    But running ferries on compressed natural gas (CNG) is possible and would decrease particulate pollution caused by marine diesel. Establishing a mainland-island passenger ferry system directly connected to a decent commuter rail system at the terminals is an idea whose time surely has come in my view. The vessels would be over a thousand tonnes lighter and hugely fuel and time-efficient (no sitting in a parking lot for hours during peak travel times) and much cheaper because you are not building an accompanying massive vessel and land-based infrastructure for cars. There is already a significant percentage of walk-on passengers who would naturally gravitate to a more efficient and diverse passenger service. Setting a target to initially capture another 15%-25% of the 12.7 million passengers who currently ride the main routes would be an admirable goal, and ultimately the majority as the price at the pump closes on and sales past $2 within the next decade. Direct downtown-to-downtown regular public harbour service coupled with land rail would be immediately attractive because most destinations would be directly accessible, something not previously offered by past and much smaller private passenger ferry schemes. The vast majority of the Vancouver Island population resides within a couple of kilometres of the E&N railway corridor which is still largely intact. Imagine LRT and electric bus networks attached to a reinvigourated commuter rail corridor and passenger ferry services, and the possibilities to create a revolution in 21st Century urbanism in this province as the result. “Dynamic” is one word that comes to mind. This post is about energy, and the above would go along ways to making our use of it more efficient and cleaner.

    I’m unable to provide a link from my laptop to a report I copied onto another computer about the recent success in Iceland with an experimental “hot” geothermal test drill, but the results were very promising. They accidently drilled right into a lava dome instead of beside it yet produced steam continuously for two years before shutting it down. There are many ways to configure geothermal, but we in BC have an advantage with our relatively shallow hot sites, as Stephen articulated above. Our seismic events will dictate more expensive mitigation )(e.g. turbine rooms isolated with dampers, extra pipe liners, repair costs, higher insurance rates …) but there is one fact petro-minders cannot refute: fuel is not required in the long-term operations. This is one area that should be getting a lot R&D attention, but isn’t. That is a shameful abrogation of responsibility.

    I believe that we not only need to replace carbon – based energy with cleaner energy but to strike policies to address our industrial capacity to remediate the changes ahead. Why should we only look at replacing dirty energy that supports transportation and cities? Why not look at developing renewables to support concentrated new industrial activity? Electric arc furnaces and induction kilns could envigourate making raw steel and concrete with low emission rates. So what if Ontario’s manufacturing sector took a nose dive when car sales dropped? We could excel in building trains, buses and telecom equipment.

    Just a thought.


    August 3, 2014 at 3:18 pm

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