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British Columbia was once a leader in fighting climate change. Now, it's embracing fossil fuels

British Columbia promotes itself as “Super, Natural,” and for many years it was praised for walking that talk.

Nearly a decade ago, the province enacted North America’s first tax on carbon emissions, putting it on the cutting edge of government efforts to fight climate change. The economy grew even as emissions declined. Climate activists around the world admired the move, but so did conservatives like former Secretary of State George P. Shultz, who sought market-driven solutions.

Now, however, Canada’s West Coast is striving toward a very different kind of cutting edge: British Columbia is positioning itself to become a global leader in exporting fossil fuels, with plans to nearly triple crude oil exports through a controversial new pipeline and vastly expand production of liquefied natural gas to be sold in Asia.

And although the revenue-neutral carbon tax is still in place, the province’s current political leadership has halted the annual rate increases built into the original plan. Emissions, meanwhile, are rising again.

“They definitely have horses on either side of the wagon,” Tarika Powell, who studies fossil fuel exports for Sightline Institute, a Seattle think tank, said of the British Columbia government. “And they are going in opposite directions.”

In a province that has been influential in shaping environmental policy in Canada and beyond, the question is which horse will prevail — and one clue to the answer is expected to come next month, when Premier Christy Clark faces reelection.

Clark, who took office in 2011, leads the conservative but incongruously named BC Liberal Party. Her predecessor, Gordon Campbell, was also a member of that party, yet while Campbell pushed the carbon tax to approval in 2008 and still takes pride in it, Clark has shown little interest in climate leadership.

She instead has championed liquefied natural gas, which involves cooling natural gas into a dense liquid to make it easier and cheaper to ship.

If all 19 of the current LNG proposals in the province were built, according to Powell’s research, British Columbia would become the world’s largest LNG exporter many times over, dwarfing the current leaders, Qatar and Australia. Emissions from LNG terminals and refineries could drastically increase the level of greenhouse gas emissions within the province — and much of those emissions would be exempt from the carbon tax, according to analyses of Clark’s plans.

It was Clark who froze the carbon tax in 2012 and has refused to raise it since then, essentially ignoring the advice of a special task force she created to make recommendations. Although Clark does highlight the province’s leadership on the carbon tax, she has cited concerns among some business groups and others that increasing it would hurt the economy.

Her closest challenger next month, John Horgan of the New Democratic Party, has said he supports raising the carbon tax because “it’s the right thing to do,” and he has lashed out at Clark for accepting millions in campaign donations from fossil fuel companies and other industry groups.

Yet a New Democratic Party strategy document obtained and leaked by the BC Liberals made it clear that even Horgan’s party is wary of being cast as supporting tax increases, regardless of the benefits. It also expressed concerns that the province’s Green Party would peel away votes if it took no action.

“The BC Liberals will call it a tax increase — and they’ll holler from the rooftops in rural B.C.,” the leaked document said.

“We must holler back with: ‘Our plan puts more money in the pocket for a majority of B.C. families. Hers doesn’t. Our plan actually accomplishes the goals of a carbon tax — reducing carbon pollution. Hers doesn’t. Our plan creates good jobs that last in a more sustainable economy with more opportunities for the future. Hers doesn’t.’”

The political sensitivity over the carbon tax within the province is striking given its influence outside it.

In December, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau established his national climate plan, which requires all provinces and territories to put in place either a tax or a cap-and-trade plan by 2022.

Instead of using the moment to boast of British Columbia’s early leadership on pricing carbon, Clark made a show of insisting before she agreed to it that the province would lead no further, that it would not increase its tax without other provinces making firm commitments to meet the 2022 goal.

Clark also did not put up a fight when Trudeau made what was widely viewed as a counterintuitive bargain to get the industry support he needed for his national plan: His administration approved two major pipelines that would transport crude from the vast tar sands in Alberta, next door to British Columbia. The larger of the two pipelines, called Trans Mountain, is the one that would nearly triple oil exports from British Columbia.

Like the proposed LNG projects, the Trans Mountain pipeline is intended to help Canadian fossil fuels reach markets in Asia, as well as the West Coast of the United States. It would transport nearly 900,000 barrels a day, creating as much as a sevenfold increase in the number of ships navigating Vancouver’s spectacular but fragile waterfront.

The ships would gather in front of the sunsets in English Bay, pass close to Stanley Park, travel under the graceful Lions Gate Bridge and ply the shallow and narrow Burrard Inlet on their way inland to the town of Burnaby, the terminus of the pipeline and the site of what would be a greatly expanded tank farm near the entrance to Simon Fraser University.

“There’s a lot of opportunity for bad things to happen in a confined area,” said Derek Corrigan, the mayor of Burnaby, which is fighting the pipeline along with the city of Vancouver, many First Nations and environmental groups.

Vessel traffic also could be much worse if many of the LNG projects are built.

Yet whether they will be is unclear. The price of natural gas has plummeted, leaving the viability of the British Columbia projects uncertain. The Trans Mountain pipeline also faces challenges.

Last month, Kinder Morgan, the American company planning the pipeline, increased its estimate of the project’s cost to $5.5 billion, substantially more than its initial $3.7-billion estimate. Still, it said, now that it has federal and provincial approval in hand, construction will begin this fall and the pipeline is expected to be operational late in 2019.

Eugene Kung, a lawyer at an advocacy firm here, West Coast Environmental Law, noted that another proposed pipeline in a more rural part of the province, known as the Northern Gateway pipeline, had received government approvals and made similar pronouncements before it was ultimately rejected in a court challenge from First Nations and later by Trudeau.

The Trans Mountain pipeline, reaching its terminus in one of the West Coast’s most environmentally minded cities, is expected to face far more opposition than the Northern Gateway if construction actually starts, Kung said. He said more than 100 First Nations are along the pipeline’s route from Edmonton, and only about a third have signaled they will not oppose it.

“A third of a pipeline,” Kung said, “is a pretty terrible pipeline.”

Campbell, the former premier, who recently returned to Canada after serving as its high commissioner to the United Kingdom, said that he supports developing “an array” of energy sources, including LNG, but that he opposes exemptions to the carbon tax.

“That changes the way people think about energy,” he said.

Looking back on his time as premier, he said he regrets not putting the carbon tax on a mandatory 10-year schedule of increases, one that could have endured through the leadership of Clark.

“They still say that they take pride in having a revenue-neutral carbon tax,” Campbell said. “If you do, then what are the next steps you take? The journey’s not done. We started it with some good, strong policies that I would have liked to see carry on. But it’s up to the current elected leaders. There are leaders and there are followers. Right now, British Columbia has a policy that’s leading, but they haven’t really done much to advance it.”

william.yardley@latimes.com

@yardleyLAT

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