An Open Letter to Barack Obama and John Kerry

Dear President Barack Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry:

As a concerned Canadian, I am writing to urge you to reject TransCanada’s application to build the Keystone XL pipeline for purposes of transporting dirty oil from Alberta’s tar sands to refineries in the United States.

I assure you that not all Canadians are quite as eager to export climate-busting bitumen as our federal government seems to be. Many of us recognize that the high energy demands required to exploit this unconventional resource give it a dangerously large carbon footprint. For this reason, we consistently oppose similar projects, such as proposed pipelines to the Canadian West Coast by Enbridge and Kinder Morgan.

According to estimates of greenhouse gas trajectories needed to avert runaway climate change, global emissions need to be peaking right about now (if not earlier). That means that we as a planet need to start drastically decreasing our use of coal, oil, and natural gas. At a bare minimum, we must not engage in further expansion of existing fossil fuel infrastructure — especially when it involves something so exceptionally dirty as tar sands bitumen.

Many Americans seem to recognize this too. Barely a week ago, tens of thousands gathered in Washington for the country’s largest ever climate rally. Earlier this year, the Sierra Club agreed for the first time in its 120-year history to adopt the use of civil disobedience. Any jobs that may or may not temporarily be gained from the proliferation of pipelines are more than outweighed by the jeopardization of the climate system upon which agriculture, forestry, and our very ways of life depend.

So please reject TransCanada’s application once and for all. To do so would benefit both of our countries, as well as the world at large.


David Taub Bancroft

Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada

Some Thoughts on the BC Budget

budgetFive months ago, I predicted that the Liberal government of British Columbia would fail in its effort to balance the 2013 budget. Notwithstanding this week’s boastful headlines to the contrary, the jury is still out.

I will not assert, as many others have done, that the surplus is purely fictional, but rather that, for the time being, we just don’t know. So many variables are at play, and the projected surplus is so razor-thin — $197 million in a $44 billion operational budget — that we will have to wait until well after the May election before we can be sure whether or not the government was massaging the numbers. (This in itself is good reason to take seriously the proposal by three independent MLAs to change BC’s fixed election date from the spring to the fall starting in 2017.)

But such uncertainty over the ontological status of the surplus does not mean that I am at a loss for words. Yesterday’s budget contains many features both good and bad (okay, mostly bad), so let’s take a look-see.

First of all, there is the accounting trickery. About $150 million dollars in program spending that would normally find itself in this year’s budget has instead been moved to last year’s. That’s most of the surplus right there. While malfeasance of this kind might not warrant such grown-up terminology as “fraudulent” (or perhaps even “malfeasance”), I think “fishy” is more than appropriate. Furthermore, the wiggle room offered for the forecast allowance and contingencies is considerably lower than what some would call prudent, and revenue from natural resources is alleged to be exaggerated.

Then there are the asset sales — the magnitude of which veteran columnist Vaughn Palmer cannot recall ever having seen before. Sales of government assets obviously do not provide a sustainable route to fiscal responsibility. They are one-time only.

What this indicates is that the Liberals are so desperate to show off a balanced budget merit badge in an election year that they will do just about anything. That includes some major spending cuts on environmental and other initiatives (no surprise there) and increases to regressive taxes like MSP premiums (par for the course).

Somewhat unexpectedly, however, the Liberals are also looking to steal the NDP’s thunder by marginally increasing personal income taxes on the rich and nudging up the corporate tax rate.

Well well, look who finally joined the Comintern!

Could it be that demanding a tiny little bit more from those who can most afford to pay does not violate the laws of nature after all, that even a party so business-beholden as our glorious Liberals suffers the occasional impulse to offer policies people actually want? They had better be careful! Election year or no, this could set a dangerous precedent.

In conclusion, this will likely be the BC Liberal Party’s last budget for at least four years — hopefully more — and they have mostly squandered the opportunity for an honourable legacy by tabling a pretty bad one. But it’s not all bad. Credit where credit’s due and all that.

As for the surplus, time will tell.

Vancouver Sun Letter

LetterPlease see today’s Vancouver Sun — or click here — for my latest letter to the editor. This one is about BC Premier Christy Clark’s efforts to raise government revenue via liquefied natural gas production. As regular readers might expect, I am not exactly on board.

Carrots and Sticks: How to Fund Public Transit

TransitIf we as a planet are going to avoid passing over the two-degree threshold to runaway climate change, we are going to have to start rationing greenhouse gas emissions. Efficiency gains in transportation will inevitably need to be part of that project. Put another way, emissions per person per kilometre will have to go down, which means a dramatic expansion in public transit infrastructure.

Unfortunately, as is so often the case in the unchanging climate of public sector cost-cutting, the chief obstacle is the issue of funding. But noble attempts to solve this quandary abound. Here in the Metro Vancouver region, the Mayors’ Council on Regional Transportation, one of the governing bodies of TransLink, has written BC Transportation Minister Mary Polak with a series of proposals.

Of the five options put forward, the one generating the most news coverage is the suggestion of a 0.5 percent regional sales tax. I do not usually like sales taxes, as they are notoriously regressive, but considering the relatively small size of the tax, the estimated yield of $250 million per year, and the undeniable progressiveness of what it would go to fund, I have to admit the idea is tempting.

Its major problem, or at least limitation, is the fact that due to the urgency of the fight against climate change, the best policies are those which provide not just carrots, but also sticks. We cannot afford simply to make public transit (not to mention cycling and walking) easier and then idly contemplate our achievements. Driving must be made more costly as well.

A regional sales tax fails to consider this angle, as does one of the other five mayors’ proposals, leveraging land value along transit corridors, netting $30 million annually. The other three suggestions, however, may be onto something.

These include a vehicle registration fee worth $50 million per year and some kind of long-term road pricing scheme of undetermined (but potentially high) value. In principle, these are much better ideas, for the carrot-and-stick reasons outlined above, but they are still not perfect. While they would impose costs on drivers, these costs would not vary by fuel efficiency or distance, or if they did, would do so rather imprecisely.

No, the best of the five proposals put forward by the Mayors’ Council is a regional $5-per-tonne carbon tax, expected to generate an annual $90 million in revenue. Such a tax would provide funding for public transit while at the same time (in concert with our provincial carbon tax) discouraging greenhouse gas emissions.

Of course, even this idea comes with some downsides. Carbon taxes on their own, like sales taxes, are regressive, which is why, as I have written before, all the best carbon tax proposals offer to return a significant portion of the revenue generated to low- and middle-income households. The mayors’ letter makes no mention of such a corrective mechanism, perhaps because it would diminish the amount of revenue available for transit.

But while I would prefer a carbon tax that is as progressively designed as possible, part of me is willing to look past the mayors’ apparent oversight. After all, public transit — the project which the carbon tax is meant to fund — tends to benefit those with low incomes. I do not mean to claim that all transit users are poor or that all car owners are rich; the real world is never so simple. But one of the impacts of a carbon tax of the kind suggested by the Mayors’ Council would be a shift in wealth, on average, from the slightly-more-well-off to the slightly-less-well-off.

In other words, what we have here — or at least can have — is something that is both good for the poor and good for the environment. In my own peculiar little red-green world, this is known as “two birds with one stone.”

So I hope that Mary Polak will respond to the mayors’ letter with an open mind (or more realistically, that her successor will do so after the May election). And I hope that TransLink and the various municipal governments of Metro Vancouver take a close look at the idea of a regional carbon tax. Perhaps it can be used in combination with some of the other options put forward. Perhaps decision makers will agree to raise the tax beyond $5 per tonne or include some kind of additional compensation for people with low incomes.

In any case, increased funding to public transit is urgently important — and so is a reduction in fares.