Long read: John Horgan's envoy to Wet'suwet'en hereditary chiefs needs to come clean on carbon capture and storage
(Warning: this commentary is longer than most articles on media websites.)
At the top of the B.C. government's home page are two good-news stories for the NDP's base.
Under the headline "It's About A Better Future", there's a joyful photo of a smiling Indigenous girl. Alongside this is a link to a news release about how Indigenous human rights have been enshrined in B.C. law.
The second headline simply says "CleanBC", with a gorgeous shot of Super Natural British Columbia. It includes a link to how the government is "reducing climate pollution and building a low-carbon economy".
These news releases are designed to show that the NDP government is effectively managing Indigenous and climate issues.
But if that's the case, why did Premier John Horgan announce yesterday that he's appointed former NDP MP Nathan Cullen as a liaison between the province and Wet'suwet'en hereditary chiefs?
Surely, if the NDP government were effectively managing Indigenous and climate issues, there would be no need to call in an intermediary to support a peaceful resolution to the dispute between Coastal GasLink Pipeline Ltd. and Wet'suwet'en hereditary chiefs.
It comes in the wake of a Guardian article in December reporting that Mounties were prepared to use lethal force against Indigenous protesters while enforcing a court injunction on January 7, 2019.
According to a B.C. government news release, Cullen will engage in "fact-finding, facilitation and analysis". At this point, there's no word on whether any of his advice to the premier will be made public.
"His focus will be on de-escalating the conflict surrounding the court-ordered interlocutory injunction regarding access to the Morice West Forest Service Road," the government stated.
If Cullen is truly going to be an honest broker, he would be wise to conduct fact-finding around the NDP government's claims with regard to respecting Indigenous human rights and building a low-carbon economy.
That's because the province appears to give no credence to Wet'suwet'en law that was in place for generations prior to European contact and subsequent colonization.
Moreover, the proposed LNG Canada plant and its associated infrastructure—including the $6.6-billion Coastal GasLink pipeline—will make it tremendously difficult for the government to achieve its legislated greenhouse-gas emission targets.
The chart below, produced by West Coast Environmental Law, makes that clear. However, the premier seems to think that LNG exports will reduce use of coal in Asia—amounting to climate benefits—even though that point of view is dismissed by research published in peer-reviewed journals.
That's another issue that Cullen might want to address in a public report.
Premier hopes to bury carbon emissions
Near the top of Cullen's to-do list, however, should be a serious look at the premier's claims around carbon capture and storage technology.
That's because it's a key component of the B.C. government's scheme for achieving a low-carbon economy while sharply increasing fossil-fuel production on traditional unceded Indigenous territories.
Horgan, like other oil and gas industry supporters, likes to tout a future in which planet-warming carbon emissions are stored underground.
This is prominently mentioned in the NDP government's CleanBC plan, which is being promoted on its home page.
CleanBC pledges a "regulatory framework for safe and effective underground CO2 storage and air capture". And it purports that this will reduce 580,000 tonnes of greenhouse gas emissions by 2030.
B.C.'s carbon dioxide equivalent emissions in 2017 rose by 1.2 percent, reaching 64.5 million tonnes.
A reduction of 580,000 tonnes through carbon capture and storage by the end of the decade would amount to a mere 0.8 percent of the provincial total in 2017. That falls far short of the overall increase in carbon dioxide equivalent emissions in a single year.
The CleanBC plan also highlights a Squamish-based company, Carbon Engineering Ltd., that "pulls carbon emissions out of the air".
"They can then safely store it underground or turn it into a carbon-neutral fuel that works in any engineering," CleanBC states. "By reusing existing carbon little or no additional emissions are created when this fuel is burned."
The company says it's commercializing its "Direct Air Capture" technology, with each facility being able to remove one million tons of CO2 per year from the atmosphere.
It's an exciting idea and the company says it has raised tens of millions of dollars from oil-industry investors and Bill Gates. But broad commercial development won't begin until 2021.
So it's premature for the CleanBC plan to make such bold statements until this can be demonstrated in an economically viable manner.
In addition, the CleanBC plan states that natural-gas processing plants have been pumping carbon dioxide and sulphur dioxide underground for decades. If that's such a booming success, why did emissions increase in the NDP's first year in power?
The premier is manufacturing a perception that technology will save us from Climate Armageddon. Don't worry, be happy. Horgan has everything under control.
It's right out of the oil and gas industry's playbook on the Prairies.
In furthering this message, the premier's office emphasized in a recent news release that the new minister of energy, mines and petroleum resources, Bruce Ralston, will support innovation and development in the clean technology sector.
This includes backing "renewable energy and carbon capture and storage".
But there are those in the climate-justice movement who think that these words are just a bunch of hot air designed to justify the continued promotion of more fossil-fuel projects.
This includes the $40-billion LNG project and associated Coastal GasLink pipeline that Horgan's government so eagerly supports.
EU adviser says oil and gas sector is doomed
Among the skeptics is Jeremy Rifkin, author The Green New Deal: Why the Fossil Fuel Civilization Will Collapse by 2028, and the Bold Economic Plan to Save Life on Earth.
Rifkin has advised the European Union and senior energy officials in the People's Republic of China on achieving a greener future.
In his book, he includes a section raising serious questions about the long-term economic viability of the LNG Canada proposal, which has received $6-billion in incentives from the Horgan government.
But some of Rifkin's harshest criticism is directed at those who promote carbon capture and storage as a panacea for the climate emergency.
"For both the United States and Canada, the commercial case for the continued introduction of large-scale natural gas projects no longer exists because of the ever-cheaper cost of generating solar and wind electricity," he writes. "Nonetheless, the fossil fuel industry continues to defend these investments, arguing that natural gas is at least not as onerous as coal in CO2 emissions.
"Equally egregious, the industry continues to tout the 'technology' known as 'carbon capture and storage' as a way to use the fuel without emitting harmful CO2 emissions into the atmosphere when, in reality, this technology is already a stranded asset."
Rifkin reminds readers that carbon capture and storage should not be confused with carbon farming, reforestation, and other organic processes that can absorb and store harmful carbon emissions.
He also states in his book that after the expenditure of hundreds of millions of dollars on carbon capture and storage pilot projects, the EU "threw up its hands".
"A quick Google search of every single carbon capture experiment to date and the reams of scientific reports published on their technical and commercial unviability should put the so-called promise of this technology to rest," Rifkin insists.
Prairie projects cited as success stories
Supporters of carbon capture and storage point to the Boundary Dam Power Station in Saskatchewan. There, SaskPower claims to have captured more than three million tonnes of carbon dioxide since this technology was installed in 2014.
Or they'll note that the Weyburn-Midale project in Saskatchewan captures almost three million tonnes per year. These emissions are transferred by pipeline over more than 300 kilometres from North Dakota.
More than 40 million tonnes of carbon dioxide can be stored in depleted sections of this oilfield.
Projects like these were cited by the federal Conservatives in the last election when they said Canada should be focusing on technological solutions, rather than a carbon tax, to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
But critics worry about leaks from the Weyburn-Midale project.
In 2011, Ecojustice issued a news release citing concerns from a retired farming couple about changes in surface and well water on their property, including "unusual algae growths in ponds and animal carcasses found strewn around the ponds".
This came after a study by Petro-Find Geochem detected sky-high levels of carbon dioxide in the area, seriously jeopardizing air quality.
“Carbon capture and storage—especially as carried out on the Cenovus site—is not a risk-free silver bullet solution to combating greenhouse gas emissions," Ecojustice staff lawyer Barry Robinson said at the time.
The operators of the facility, however, rejected claims that there were carbon dioxide leaks.
CleanBC promotes Richmond research facility
The same week that Ralston became the minister of energy, mines and petroleum resources, B.C. Research posted a video on its website about the "world-class Capture and Conversion Institute in Richmond".
CMC Research Institutes, which oversees two different organizations, received $2.7 million from Western Diversification Canada in September.
Its Containment and Monitoring Institute is "focused on measurement, monitoring and verification technologies for secure containment of CO2 and other subsurface fuels".
The Carbon Capture and Conversion Institute, on the other hand, accelerates the development of technologies to capture carbon in a cost-effective way and then convert it to commercially valuable products.
"Both institutes offer researchers unique facilities and access to experts who can assist solving design, engineering and other challenges," the website states.
It was initially launched in 2009 as Carbon Management Canada, a nonprofit corporation to fund university research into reducing carbon emissions.
Hosted by the University of Calgary, it was renamed CMC Research Institutes in 2013 as a nonprofit under federal statues. Then in 2016, it was also registered in B.C. as a non-share corporation.
According to its most recent annual report, it recorded nearly $3.5 million in revenue in its last fiscal year, with nearly $3 million of that from grants. The sources for these grants are not disclosed.
However, the president and CEO, Sandra Odendahl, reveals in the annual report that its field research station in Brooks, Alberta, has been sponsored by five energy giants: Total, Shell, Equinor, Petronas, and Chevron.
Nearly $400,000 in additional revenue came from fees for services.
"Researchers from nine countries and 13 universities have projects on site to refine monitoring technologies that will ensure the secure, cost-effective implementation of carbon storage operations," Odendahl wrote.
It's this work, funded in part by the oil and gas industry, that Horgan is relying on to help B.C. meet its legislated emissions targets.
Rifkin, on the other hand, cites this damning quote from energy historian Vaclav Smil: "in order to sequester just a fifth of current CO2 emissions, we would have to create an entirely new worldwide absorption-gathering-compression-transportation-storage industry whose annual throughput would have to be about 70 percent larger than the annual volume now handled by the global crude oil industry, whose immense infrastructure of wells, pipelines, compressor stations and storage took generations to build".
Usually, any concerns cited about the LNG Canada plant and the Coastal GasLink pipeline—together, part of a $40-billion investment in B.C.—revolve around the emissions that they will generate.
They're rarely condemned on economic terms in the media, notwithstanding persistently low LNG prices in Asia.
On January 21, Reuters reported that spot prices have fallen to "multi-year lows" below $4 per million British thermal units.
But the economic arguments against this megaproject reinforce the perception among some supporters of Wet'suwet'en hereditary chiefs that the NDP government is engaged in a massive con job when it comes to its CleanBC plan.
This is especially true when it comes to the premier's promotion of carbon capture and storage technology to address the climate crisis.
That's an issue that Horgan's handpicked envoy, Nathan Cullen, needs to acknowledge publicly.
Otherwise, his efforts to address why some people are so upset about the Coastal GasLink pipeline will simply come across as a sham.