Manitoba’s [missed?] Carbon Tax Opportunities

Retweeting the CBC article, Manitoba government wants legal opinion on federal carbon plan, Manitoba PC Caucus quotes, “MB gets 98% of its power from renewable hydroelectricity and accounts for less than 3% of Canada’s total carbon emissions”, a sentence that isn’t itself found in the article. The Government of Manitoba’s newly updated website claims under “Quick Facts” that 98% of Manitoba is powered by hydroelectricity and wind, but a Manitoba Hydro report from 2016 states that there are 276,858 natural gas customers in Manitoba. Burning natural gas produces methane, a greenhouse gas far more potent than carbon dioxide.
Emissions, populations, rankManitoba’s greenhouse gas emissions do account for only 2.88% of Canada’s total emissions, but that’s largely due to its comparatively small population. When looking at the lowest emissions per capita, Manitoba ranks 6th after Yukon, Quebec, Ontario, P.E.I., and British Colombia, respectively.

Update: Nova Scotia and New Brunswick are the only provinces, along with Yukon, to reduce emissions 30% below 2005 emissions (source).

In the face of the looming global climate change crisis absolutely every measure must be geared towards the reduction of anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions, no matter the rank or portion of a region’s contribution to the total emissions. If Manitoba’s Progressive Conservatives believe that a carbon tax won’t cause the desired reductions, they should propose something more effective, but instead of tabling more effective emission reducing policies, the Progressive Conservatives are suggesting that Manitoba doesn’t need to do anything to reduce its emissions.

Premier Pallister insists, “Manitobans have invested billions of dollars in clean energy for decades and deserve credit for that early action to reduce emissions”. This clean energy is mainly hydroelectricity and the credit due to Manitobans is either some form of payback, exemption from the federal carbon tax mandate, or perhaps a public pat on the back. Other than “Do you agree with Brian?” the meaning behind the message isn’t elaborated.

Hydroelectricity may not be the beacon of clean energy the Government of Manitoba and Manitoba Hydro promise it to be. On the contrary dams are ecologically, and often socially, destructive. Here I look at some of the environmental concerns associated with hydroelectricity.

According to the EPA, between 900 and 1100 kilograms of carbon dioxide are emitted for every 1000 kilograms of Portland-type cement produced. The concrete used to build Limestone Generating Station, Manitoba’s largest dam, likely produced around 2,900,000 tonnes of CO2. Manitoba Hydro operates fifteen generating stations within the province and every dam is made mainly from cement.

Calculating other hydroelectricity emissions isn’t as straightforward as calculating cement emissions. A Scientific America article states, “Organic materials from within and outside the river that would normally wash downstream get built up behind dams and start to consume a large amount of oxygen as they decompose. In some cases this triggers algae blooms which, in turn, create oxygen-starved ‘dead zones’ incapable of supporting river life of any kind.” The amount of methane produced by a dam depends on how much organic material gets built up behind it. A 2016 article estimates that hydroelectricity produces “a combined average carbon footprint of 273 kg CO2e/MWh when using the global warming potential over a time horizon of 100 years (GWP100)”, a figure lower than fossil fuels, the authors state, but unneeded greenhouse gas emissions nonetheless.

Dams also interfere with the natural flow of nutrients needed further downstream. The removal of the Elwha River dam in Washington state saw the river and its delta transform from nearly dead to teeming with renewed life. I wasn’t able to find any recent studies on the health of Manitoba’s Nelson River. It’s possible that the ecological impact of the Nelson River’s five dams isn’t monitored.

Due to the remote locations of Manitoba Hydro’s dams, lengthy transmission lines are required to transport electricity to customers. Such transmission lines threaten the integrity of the world’s few remaining intact forests located in Manitoba. The BiPole III transmission line, for example, is planned to go through a large section of boreal forest in eastern Manitoba that, if kept intact, may eventually receive UNESCO world heritage nomination. These transmission lines require ongoing maintenance, too. Brush bulls, mulchers, chainsaws, and various herbicides are used to prevent the growth of vegetation along the lines. Not exactly what I’d call “clean” and something localized energy production and storage would avoid entirely.

If having hydroelectric dams were enough to exempt provinces from a federally mandated carbon tax then Manitoba wouldn’t be alone in its exemption. For example, Hydro-Québec meets most of Québec’s energy demand with its 36,908-megawatt hydroelectric capacity. Still the Québec government states, “The Government of Québec views the fight against climate change as a fundamental and top priority issue for Québec’s future”. 91% of Newfoundland and Labrador’s energy comes from hydro and wind. This hasn’t kept the Newfoundland and Labrador government from creating climate action plans. BC Hydro claims to produce 93% of its energy from clean and renewable sources and still Vancouver is working towards becoming the greenest city in the world by 2020.

It is misleading for a government to center its conversations about greenhouse gas emissions and climate change around energy production. Emissions come from several other areas. Information from a 2014 report by Climate Change Connection on Manitoba’s carbon footprint states that 39% of Manitoba’s greenhouse gas emissions come from transportation; 29% from agriculture, mainly from livestock; 20% from stationary combustion, for example residential and commercial heating, the oil and gas industry, manufacturing, and construction; 5% for waste disposal and 4% for industrial processes. The remaining 2%, the report claims, comes from “fugitive” sources such as the “the production, processing, transmission, storage, and use of fossil fuels (e.g. flaring)”. Transportation, agriculture, heating, industry, waste water, and waste disposal are the areas that need emission reductions in Manitoba, but if the emissions from hydroelectricity aren’t included or measured, it’s possible other emitters have also been left from the equation as well.

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Koch Fertilizer Plant in Brandon. Image from Google Maps.

A carbon tax alone won’t transition Manitoba to carbon neutrality. Businesses need to be held accountable for the damage their business practices inflict on the environment, but the province also needs to draw up a plan on how it will proceed on emissions reduction. Without an emissions reduction plan, a carbon tax is extremely unappealing, and the Progressive Conservatives are using their own lack of a plan to make the prospects of a carbon tax as ugly as possible. The Progressive Conservatives campaigned on a promise to lower the PST and the message on one of Pallister’s campaign podiums read, “Lower Taxes“. The introduction of a new taxes is not what the party’s support base ordered, especially since the PST remains unchanged.

It’s common in the carbon tax debate to focus on what a carbon tax might cost the average consumer. But what if the carbon tax was designed to target only the major emitters and the big businesses that make a killing on poisoning the planet? The Koch Fertilizer plant in Brandon is the largest emitter of greenhouse gases in Manitoba. In 2015 alone it emitted 744,564 tonnes CO2e. Koch Industries had sales revenue of $100 billion that year. A $10 per tonne carbon tax would cost Koch Industries only 0.0007% of its 2015 revenue. While 0.0007% isn’t much for America’s second largest privately owned business, that money could go a long way reducing Manitoba’s emissions. One might argue that a carbon tax on Koch industries will increase the price of food. It might, but it would have no effect on the price of produce not grown with Koch’s unsustainable synthetic fertilizers.

Koch Industries have the financial resources to switch to sustainable practices. People with little to no disposable income clearly do not. Farmers need to transition to sustainable practices and not only for climate reasons. For example, massive algae blooms caused by fertilizer runoff have severely impaired the Lake Winnipeg ecosystem. The fertilizer inputs need to be controlled before Lake Winnipeg and other bodies of water can begin to recover. Urban and rural Manitobans need better access to effective and affordable public transportation and cities need safe active transportation infrastructure. Hydrogen or solar-powered regional express trains could bring people from Brandon to Winnipeg in little over an hour, connecting the two cities and everyone in between without fossil fuels. The tracks already exist (more on this later). Funds are needed to improve heating and industrial efficiency; and, perhaps most of all, to take advantage of Manitoba’s natural abundance of sun (more on this later, too) and wind to give Manitobans localized control and location of energy production. A carbon tax on Manitoba’s biggest emitters, such as Koch Industries, TransCanada Pipelines, Graymount Western Canada Inc., et cetera, seems more than reasonable to fund these green initiatives, and if the Manitoba Government is truly concerned that a carbon tax will hurt the poorest the most, it should perhaps table policies that address poverty, like a guaranteed basic income plan.

Manitoba has the opportunity to receive up to $1 billion over five years from the federal government to lay the foundation for a greener Manitoba, but Brian Pallister must sign on to the federal carbon tax agreement to receive it. Instead of seeing this as an opportunity to fund the carbon neutral transition Manitoba needs, Manitoba’s premier is seeking legal advice on the constitutionality of a carbon tax. If he succeeds, Manitobans and the environment will lose.