Adrift At Sea On Melting Ice

Why the Sask. Party’s sad, soggy climate strategy sucks

Election 2020 by Gregory Beatty

If you were grading the Saskatchewan Party’s performance this term, climate change and the environment wouldn’t be the only fail [see sidebar]. But it would be the most grievous. And with the federal government endorsing a “green recovery” in its Sept. 23 throne speech, the Sask. Party is rapidly running out of cards to play in its fight to promote fossil fuels (and deny climate change).

In a perfect world, that would raise alarm among Saskatchewan voters. But polls show support for the party remains as strong as Scott Moe’s empty election slogan.

Unfortunately, that doesn’t alter the stark reality we’re facing, says the Saskatchewan Environmental Society’s Peter Prebble.

Every year, evidence mounts that climate change is not only real, but — thanks to decades of inaction — it’s actually happening faster than scientists predicted.

And in the global battle against climate change, says Prebble, Saskatchewan is an outlier.

“Our per capita GHG emissions are nine times the global average — which is seven tons per person. As a province, Saskatchewan emits 76.4 million tons of GHGs, so that works out to roughly 68 tons per person.”

It’s to the point, says Prebble, that Saskatchewan’s annual GHG emissions are larger than Sweden (pop: 10.3 million). Sweden is a winter country, remember, so that negates the “cold climate” excuse pro-fossil fuelers like use to justify our shameful record.

Prairie Resilience

The centrepiece of the Sask. Party’s climate plan is Prairie Resilience, which was released in 2017. Critics say the plan focuses too much on adapting to climate change and not enough on cutting emissions.

But some elements, such as a 40 to 45 per cent reduction in methane emissions in the oil and gas sector by 2025, have merit, says Prebble.

Admittedly, that commitment only came after some arm-twisting from the federal government, which said it would impose its own plan if Saskatchewan didn’t act.

“The only difficulty the government may face is that methane emissions have been underestimated,” says Prebble. “Whenever detailed analysis is done from the air, they almost always find that emissions are significantly higher than what the company was reporting. And I fear we’re going to have that problem here.”

Two other positives in Prairie Resilience are a building code to promote energy efficiency and a commitment to invest in wind power.

Separate from Prairie Resilience, Ottawa recently gave Saskatchewan $400 million to clean up abandoned wells. Ideally, the oil industry would do that. But because the Sask. Party refuses to demand accountability from oil companies, Canadian taxpayers are picking up the tab.

Ottawa also gave Saskatchewan $18.7 million to build a transmission line to deliver green hydroelectric power from Manitoba.

“The province has signalled an interest in purchasing 100 megawatts,” says Prebble. “I think they should go further and import 1,000 megawatts and phase out our coal-fired power plants which produce about 1,500 megawatts. That would be a major step in reducing our GHG emissions.”

Now, on to the bad news. And there’s plenty of it.

To begin with, the Sask. Party’s emission reduction target is ludicrously low.

“The government website says they’re aiming for a 12 million tonne reduction by 2030,” says Prebble. “That works out to a 15 per cent cut, which doesn’t align with Canada’s Paris commitment of a 30 per cent reduction from 2005 levels by 2030, let alone what the United Nations is now urging which is a 45 per cent reduction.”

Given the Sask. Party’s sorry track record on emission reductions, even a 15 per cent cut seems like mission impossible. And it doesn’t help that the party consistently uses climate change as a cudgel to attack the federal Liberals and the NDP Opposition here at home.

“That’s been very discouraging,” says Prebble. “If you go to the government website, there isn’t any real reference to the climate crisis. Neither do you ever hear cabinet ministers discussing the grave threat to humanity that climate change poses. That’s been a real shortcoming of the government. It’s simply not being honest with the people of Saskatchewan.”

Prairie Resilience also calls for investment in solar energy. So far, though, that’s primarily been at utility-scale. In fact, last October the government kneecapped small-scale solar projects when it axed a net-metering rebate for homeowners and businesses that contribute power to the grid.

If the Sask. Party was serious about emission reductions, you’d think they would want to scale back oil production. Instead, as part of their economic growth strategy, they plan to increase production by 20 per cent.

Prebble calls that “ill-advised”. He doesn’t think much of the Sask. Party’s Hail Mary solution to climate change either — modular nuclear reactors, which may (or may not) be available by the 2030s.

“Those will never be ready to deal with emission reductions in the next decade, which is urgently needed,” he says. “The reactors also rely on highly enriched uranium or plutonium, so the waste is likely to be even more dangerous than from conventional reactors. And the waste will be scattered, because they’re talking about having a bunch of reactors around the province.

“I just think we have much better options to meet our electricity needs,” Prebble adds. “Nuclear power has always proven to be more costly in addition to the safety risks. Meanwhile, the cost of renewables drops every year.”

Green Recovery

In advance of the Sept. 23 throne speech, the federal government had signalled a willingness to invest in climate friendly policies.

Prebble thought the Liberals largely delivered.

“Some components were reiterations of what they promised in the 2019 election,” he says. “But the government did commit to working over the next five years to protect 25 per cent of Canada’s lands and oceans. That’s really significant, as in Saskatchewan the commitment is currently 10 per cent, and that includes national parks. So I hope the province will cooperate, as without that cooperation it’s really hard for Ottawa to achieve its targets.”

The federal government also announced an energy efficiency retrofit program for homes and commercial buildings, along with a clean power fund to help connect regions of Canada that have surplus green power with those that want to transition away from coal.

And the government promised to boost its Paris commitment to a 45 per cent emission cut by 2030.

“I was surprised to see that as Canada has been struggling to reduce emissions,” says Prebble. “We’re sitting at 2005 levels now, so even achieving a 30 per cent reduction in the next decade is a big task. But I’m sure the UN will be pleased as they are begging countries to aim for 45 per cent to avoid catastrophic climate change.”

To put it bluntly, the main stumbling block Canada faces in meeting its revised target is Saskatchewan and Alberta.

Both have sky-high GHG emissions. That needs to change, says Prebble.

“At the very least, Saskatchewan needs to align its GHG target with Canada’s. If we don’t, what we’re really asking is for other provinces to pick up the slack. Several provinces have reduced their emissions [but] the increase in Saskatchewan and Alberta is offsetting that. So overall, Canada ends up achieving no reduction from 2005 levels.”   


Sidebar

Failures, Flubs And Flops

Thirteen years in the Sask. Party’s dud decisions are adding up

If climate and the environment is the Sask. Party government’s biggest fail over its 13 years in power, relations with Indigenous people is probably its second biggest. A recent federal provincial commitment to support improved mental health and wellness for Indigenous youth is a positive step, but much more work needs to be done.

And while the Sask. Party loves to boast about our growing population, funding cuts to education have resulted in crowded classrooms and aging infrastructure.

“I’ve heard time and again from teachers that as their classes have got larger and more complex, and their resources have become fewer, that time spent on actual instruction has shrunk,” NDP education critic Carla Beck said in a February interview. “If the government doesn’t repair and improve the relationship with teachers, ultimately those who will be harmed are the students in our classrooms.”

Throw in significant cuts at the post-secondary level, which is experiencing similar student population pressure, and education definitely qualifies as another fail.

P3s and related land scandals should concern voters as well. The biggest debacle is the $407 million Saskatchewan Hospital in North Battleford. Since opening in March 2019, it’s been plagued by problems, including a leaking roof and sewage contamination, and a recent audit revealed over 200 construction deficiencies.

Then there’s the Regina bypass and related Global Transportation Hub fiasco. While the cost of the former ballooned from $400 million to $1.88 billion, the latter has been hindered by mismanagement and shady dealings.

The same can be said for the Sask. Party decision to allow private development in Wascana Centre, which drew a sharp rebuke from the auditor general last December.

In may have slipped under the radar because of COVID-19, but on Canada Day in Regina six people died of overdoses. While shocking, it’s indicative of a much larger addiction crisis. Yet the Sask. Party remains frustratingly resistant to proactive measures to address the problem — to the point of denying $1.3 million to AIDS Saskatoon for a safe injection site while simultaneously spending $120 million to add 430 beds to the Saskatoon remand centre.

Oil prices have been soft for six years now, yet visions of another oil boom still dance like sugar plum fairies in Sask. Party heads. With the world awash in oil, though, that’s strictly a pipe dream. And with a record $2.4 billion “pandemic deficit” in the offing, and wounds from the 2017 “austerity budget” still fresh, voters must wonder how much more austerity lies in our future.

The Sask. Party might wish to count its pandemic management as a plus. But voters may not agree, says Simon Enoch, Saskatchewan head of Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives.

“Saskatchewan has done some good things, the hospitals haven’t been overwhelmed, and I think we’re all happy about that,” says Enoch. “But we know we’re not out of the woods yet. And with the government, there’s almost hostility to planning ahead.”

The Sask. Party hasn’t exactly stepped up to the plate with Covid relief either, says Enoch.

“It’s ironic considering how much the Sask. Party badmouths the federal government, but they’ve pretty much let them take the reins on this.

“They did have a few transitional programs like an eviction moratorium, unpaid sick leave and measures to protect jobs,” says Enoch. “But there were no dollars behind any of that. So it was the least they could do, and they left all the heavy lifting to Ottawa.” /Gregory Beatty