By Roy L Hales
Are the drought conditions spreading throughout the West Coast connected to climate transformation? States of emergency have been declared in California, Washington and parts of Oregon. Though British Columbia has not experienced this, a recent computer simulation predicted 80% of its glaciers could disappear over the next decade. This entire region responded by joining with eight other states, on three continents, in a pact to tackle Climate Change. Yet the development of fossil fuel continues, so what has the Under 2 MOU changed on the West Coast?
The Under 2 Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) takes its name from the need to limit the rise in average global temperatures to less than two degrees Celsius by the end of this century. Member states intend to do this by reducing their greenhouse gas emissions 80% to 95% below the 1990 benchmark by 2050, or achieve a per capita annual emission target of less than 2 metric tons by 2050.
The European Union
The strongest steps have been taken in the European Union, where fossil fuels are gradually being replaced with renewable energy. Emissions were already 19% below the benchmark in 2013. Baden-Württemberg, in Germany, and Catalonia, in Spain, have set Under2 goals of at least 25% below 1990 levels by 2020. Wales is more ambitious and intends to reach 40%. It has been steadily reducing, in the areas under its control, by at least 3% a year. All these goals seem attainable.
Ontario Cracked the 1990 Barrier
None of the Under2 members in the Americas can claim anywhere near this level of achievement.
Ontario is the only North American Under2 signatory to have passed the 1990 barrier and was 5.9% below in 2012. Last summer Environmental Commissioner Gord Miller issued a press release in which he stated this was “largely because of the shutdown of the province’s coal plants.” Premier Kathleen Wynne points out that her province is a major exporter of emissions free electricity and the #1 destination for direct foreign investment. Yet Miller said Ontario is “not going to meet its 2020 target,” of 15% below “because it has taken very little additional action to implement the Climate Change Action Plan it released seven years ago.”
Oregon Could Take The Lead
Though Oregon could take the lead if it meets its’ 2020 goal of 10% below the benchmark, the state has a number of massive proposed fossil fuel projects that may prevent this. The Jordan Cove LNG terminal is expected to emit over 200 million tons of CO2 emissions a year and would require a 230-mile long pipeline.
“This huge fossil fuel infrastructure will produce nothing for the state of Oregon. It’s just being built here, emitting greenhouse gases here, but the facility will ship Canadian gas to China,” said Francis Eatherington, of Cascadia Wildlands.
She also mentioned proposed coal and propane terminals, all of which could negatively effect the state’s ability to meet its’ emissions goals.
“We don’t feel this is in the public’s interest. We’re looking at catastrophic Climate Change and should not be in the business of building massive fossil fuel infrastructures,” said Eatherington.
A Very Big Deal For Two States
“This is a very big deal for two states (Washington and Oregon) in a region where there are no new coal plants and we are shutting down our last operating coal plant. We are trying to get a handle on climate emissions. Oregon just adopted a low carbon fuel standard. Washington is talking about doing the same thing. We are really trying to do our fair share, but we could become an export hub for coal and crude,” said Patty Goldman, Managing Attorney at Earthjustice’s Seattle office.
“There are a lot of new terminals being proposed for coal and oil export, oil by rail, then by barge. There are attempts to get rid of the export ban, which limits our ability to export (other than to Canada). If it is for our own use and the refineries don’t increase capacity, I don’t this it would increase our emissions,” she said.
The Most Ambitious Emissions Target
California set the most ambitious emissions target on the continent, 40% below by 2030. The state was 5.9% above in 2012 and has a more immediate goal of reaching parity by 2020. According to Michelle Kinman, of the citizen-based environmental advocacy organization Environment California, the state is “on pace” and “over 54,000 Californians” are “employed by the solar industry alone.”
This does not take into account the enormous amount of hydraulic fracturing that has been occurring. Statistics on the industry website FracFocus indicate 1,045 oil wells were fractured between January 1, 2011, and August 2, 2013. California officials told Reuters that oil producers used 70 millions gallons of water for fracking in 2014.
According to Brian Nowicki, California Climate Policy Director with the Center for Biological Diversity, the vast majority of this development is taking place in Western Kern County. This is one of the most drought plagued counties in the state, whose situation would be much better if its’ water were not being used for fracking.
“This is an issue that has many different aspects of our health and environment in California. There are threats to water, migration into our drinking aquifers and irrigation water, and air impacts to communities and folks that live where fracking is taking place,” said Nowicki.
He added, “We simply cannot continue opening up new wells and oil fields, using the most energy intensive and dangerous techniques for oil, and still achieve critical climate goals. A large proportion of identified oil reserve are going to have to stay in the ground.”
BC’s Claim To Be A Climate Leader
The same observation could be made in British Columbia, where the provincial government promotes LNG development and claims to be a climate leader. Canadian government data shows the province’s emissions rose 2.4% in 2013. They were 13% above the benchmark. The province is not on track to reach its’ intermediate goal, of 33% below 2007 levels by 2020, and developing a fossil fuel based economy may conflict with climate goals.
To Premier Christy Clark’s credit, she has assembled a Climate Leadership Team that includes leaders from the environmental, business, First Nations, community and government sectors.
A spokesperson for the province’s Ministry of Environment said, “It will be a challenge to achieve the targets, but that is why we are asking the Climate Leadership Team to help us develop new actions to reduce emissions across all sectors.”
One of the members is Matt Horne of the Pembina Institute, which has been critical of BC’s plans for large scale development of natural gas. Horne said it “might be possible” to develop LNG on a much smaller scale and still meet emissions targets.
Jens Wieting of the BC Sierra Club, who is not a member, conceded that this is at least theoretically possible, but “we have a very limited carbon budget available and we must reduce our emissions very quickly.”
He added, “It is particularly important for the BC Government to do the math on LNG. The math and science are clear that we cannot build LNG terminals and reduce emissions. If we were to build three LNG terminals, the goal the BC government still pursues, we will increase our emissions by approximately 50%.”
British Columbia does not need most of this natural gas. It is intended for Asian markets.
The province has also been expanding its coal terminals so that BC can become the export hub that Washington and Oregon do not want to be.
By what seems more a universally accepted bookkeeper’s trick than science, the emissions this creates are credited to the nation where the coal is refined. So people who are hospitalized in BC, and possibly die, because of the effect coal dust has on their sensitive lungs will either be overlooked, or added to China’s tab.
The day after the Under2 MOU was announced, Premier Christy Clark signed a memorandum of understanding for a proposed LNG facility on Lelu Island.
“Today’s agreement is the product of tremendous effort right across government and among many partners to recognize a generational opportunity and ensure that we are ready to seize it, for the benefit of British Columbians today and those who are to come,” she announced.
The Ministry of Environment spokesperson said, “We have established an innovative GHG benchmark for LNG operations in B.C. that will ensure that B.C.’s LNG facilities are the cleanest in the world. We remain committed to achieving our legislated greenhouse gas reduction targets, even while developing the LNG industry in B.C.”
What Has the Under2 MOU Changed?
So what has the Under2 MOU changed? Jerry Brown undoubtedly perceives himself as the Governor of an oil producing state. Premier Christy Clark proclaims the virtues of clean LNG. They may both be deceased before 2050, when their regions are supposed to achieve the goals set by the Under2 MOU.
“These are good goals. I completely commend Governor Brown for pushing them in the face of the rest of the American political leadership, showing them how ridiculous the current inaction is. On the National level, this seems like a very good way of pushing this message in front of parties that have either rejected or failed to pick it up,” said Nowicki.
“At the same time if this MOU is to achieve anything, it will mean a departure from the way we have been doing things in California. It is going to mean harder choices, braver projects and directions in how we get those emissions down. I’m not certain that I’m not the only one who sees it that way, but I certainly hope that is the thought in the Brown administration and others who work in these issues.”
Top Photo Credit: A crude oil train near the City of Richmond railyard passes a busy freeway in California’s Bay Area by Chris Jordan-Bloch / Earthjustice