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EXCLUSIVE: ‘Wildly Optimistic’ to Expect Energy Regulator to Embrace Net-Zero, Veteran Energy Executive Warns

The Canada Energy Regulator is so closely tied to the fossil industry that it can’t be counted on to produce independent advice on the country’s path to net-zero—yet it’s considered the leading source of in-house energy modelling the Trudeau government has at its disposal, according to an independent expert commenting on the CER’s deeply flawed energy futures report released last week.

The gaps in the CER’s analysis have been under the spotlight, generating intense and sometimes caustic pushback from climate and energy experts, ever since Canada’s Energy Future 2021 projected the country’s oil and gas production growing steadily to 5.8 million barrels per day in 2032, before falling off slowly to 4.8 million barrels per day in 2050. Within days, outside analysts were pointing to the CER’s lack of any roadmap to meet Canada’s legislated climate target and contribute to the global goal of holding average global warming to 1.5°C.

While Natural Resources Minister Jonathan Wilkinson tweeted that he expects better from the Calgary-based agency, veteran energy and utility executive Marc Eliesen told The Energy Mix he doubts the regulator will get the job done.

“It’s wildly optimistic to believe there will be a fundamental change in the workings of the CER in the future,” said Eliesen, a former CEO of four provincial utilities and energy authorities and one-time board member with Suncor Energy. “The people there are entrenched in a petro-culture with industry. Most people are not aware that 90% of the funding of the CER comes from industry, which really compromises the board’s own goals and aspirations of trying to serve the public interest.”

The deep connections between the regulator and the oil and gas head offices in Calgary date back to the early 1990s, Eliesen said. That was when the Conservative government led by then-prime minister Brian Mulroney moved the head office of the CER’s predecessor, the National Energy Board (NEB), from Ottawa to the centre of the Canadian oilpatch.

“The NEB had been an effective energy regulator” that largely operated in the public interest, he recalled. But the change of location “dramatically altered the work of the Board,” while making it the only federal regulatory agency with a head office outside the nation’s capital.

“First of all, two-thirds of the staff elected not to leave Ottawa, and they were replaced at that time by largely Alberta-based employees coming directly from the oil and gas industry,” he said. “So what has developed over the years and continues to this day is a close interaction between the (NEB/CER) staff and industry representatives,” so that the “goals and aspirations of the industry become closely intertwined with those of the CER.”

Then the federal government shut down the economic analysis unit at the department that later became Natural Resources Canada. That move made Ottawa dependent on opinions that largely originate within the industries the CER is supposed to regulate, Eliesen explained.

“The NEB and now the CER replaced the resources that used to exist within the government department,” he said. That makes the regulator “the number one energy policy advisor to the government, and quite frankly, it’s not in the national interest that policy advice comes from an agency so closely tied to industry. But that’s been the fact of life.” Over a span of years, the NEB and now the CER “accept what the industry proposes or submits,” uncritically taking in economic forecasts and indicators developed by the country’s leading fossil industry lobby, the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers (CAPP).

“There isn’t any independent evaluation,” Eliesen said. “On all the projects I’ve been involved in as an intervenor, with that industry they simply accept what CAPP puts forward.” The NEB process once allowed for “hard-hitting questions to the applicant” from federal and provincial agencies, often based on input from environmental groups, he said. But that practice “disappeared completely” during Stephen Harper’s years as prime minister, while the board was reviewing Enbridge Inc.’s proposed Northern Gateway pipeline.

Eliesen’s recollections came in the wake of a comment from Ontario climate and energy specialist Steve Lapp, who followed up on The Mix’s coverage of the CER report by looking at the background of its lead author, Acting Chief Economist Darren Christie. He found an Environment Canada economist who moved to the NEB for nearly eight years before starting a four-year stint at Enbridge as director of regulatory affairs, then returned to the CER in 2019.

“What is the point of putting out a report that is not in line with the country’s net-zero targets?” Lapp asked. “His previous job for four years was with Enbridge, [so] was he afraid of the blowback from past colleagues? Maybe the feds need a regulation that all agencies reporting to them must recognize the 2050 net-zero targets and explain and justify why any projected actions/paths do not conform to that goal.”

The CER has been saying since October that next year’s edition of Canada’s Energy Future will include net-zero modelling. CER Communications Officer Karen Ryhorchuk declined a request for an interview with Christie, who shared some of his assumptions about future fossil fuel demand with CBC earlier this week.

Chris McDermott, a former Environment Canada official and Kyoto Protocol negotiator from 1998 to 2007, traced a pro-fossil tilt within the federal government that went beyond the then NEB. Within the environment department, “the economics group was very fossil biased. A lot of their analysis and their outlook reflected the lobbying positions of CAPP,” he said. “So this is not new, the fact that these economists have close linkages to the fossil fuel industry”, in jobs that give them “a surprising degree of autonomy” to work in ways that run counter to ministerial direction.

McDermott’s description of the Environment Canada economics unit differed from Eliesen’s memory of the policy shop at the Department of Energy, Mines and Resources, which was renamed Natural Resources Canada in 1993. “The old EMR had quite a strong, competent group,” he said. “That changed, of course, with the Mulroney government, and as a result the chief energy policy advisor to the government became the NEB,” a state of affairs that hasn’t changed with the arrival of the Trudeau government and the shift to the CER.

“So the knowledge and the ability to evaluate developments in the Canadian fossil fuel industry comes primarily from the regulator, which as I’ve argued is closely tied to the industry, and has an inability to define really what the public interest is,” Eliesen said. “You don’t have a really strong policy presence, particularly on the economics, coming from Natural Resources, which should be the department to house this kind of expertise.”

In the aftermath of the Canada’s Energy Future release, and the pushback on its lack of net-zero modelling, two frequent CER observers said Wilkinson can compel the agency under the Canada Energy Regulator Act to report back on specific topics.

“I think the obvious step for government to take would be to direct the CER to introduce and mainstream a net-zero scenario in its annual energy outlook,” University of Ottawa public policy professor N
icholas Rivers wrote in an email. “Minister Wilkinson stated following the most recent report that this is exactly what he intends to do,” and “I’m inclined to take the Minister at his word.”

“At this stage, I’m confident that CER will analyse Canada’s own path to net-zero, since the Minister of Natural Resources has already asked for that,” agreed University of British Columbia political science professor Kathryn Harrison. “What I am less confident about is whether CER will also analyse the implications of a global transition to net-zero. I hope that the Minister will request that as well,” because “the global transition has bigger implications for Canada’s oil and gas exports.”

But Eliesen and McDermott were less certain the CER would fully comply with Wilkinson’s mandate.

“At the present time, I would not rely on the CER for any policy advice, because by their actions they are too captured by industry and do not have a full appreciation of what it means to be in the public interest,” Eliesen told The Mix. “That’s why they’re defined in my context as a captured regulator.”

McDermott said Lapp’s suggestion of a regulation to mandate net-zero compliance by the CER “is not a bad idea. The question is why should you need it. Agencies are supposed to respond to the will of the government of the day, and it’s a pretty sad state of affairs if you need regulatory power to make an agency do what it’s otherwise supposed to be doing.”

A spokesperson for Wilkinson did not return calls seeking details on what the minister will be asking the CER to report on, and when he plans to make the request.

Help us out here! There’s more to this story than we’ve been able to confirm so far, but we’ll be pursuing it in the new year. If you have leads or details to share, please let us know. Anonymous tips are always our favourite holiday gift, and all confidences will be rigorously respected.

Fossil Emissions Cap, 75% Methane Cut Lead Guilbeault’s 39-Point Mandate Letter from Trudeau

A cap on oil and gas emissions, a 75% methane reduction this decade, a net-zero electricity grid by 2035, a mandated 50% target for electric vehicle sales by 2030, and a renewed commitment to international climate finance are among the elements of the mandate letter issued to Environment and Climate Minister Steven Guilbeault Thursday afternoon by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.

Guilbeault will have his hands full for the foreseeable future, with a total of 39 items—not including sub-bullets—and 27 mentions of “climate” in his mandate letter.

“The science is clear,” Trudeau wrote, in a boilerplate paragraph that shows up in his letters to each of the 38 Cabinet ministers. “Canadians have been clear. We must not only continue taking real climate action, we must also move faster and go further. As Canadians are increasingly experiencing across the country, climate change is an existential threat. Building a cleaner, greener future will require a sustained and collaborative effort from all of us. As Minister, I expect you to seek opportunities within your portfolio to support our whole-of-government effort to reduce emissions, create clean jobs, and address the climate-related challenges communities are already facing.”

The PM instructs Guilbeault to:

• Deliver a plan by the end of March to reduce Canada’s greenhouse emissions 40 to 45% from 2005 levels by 2030;

• Work with Natural Resources Minister Jonathan Wilkinson to cap oil and gas sector emissions at current levels and set five-year reduction targets “at a pace and on a scale needed to align with the achievement of net-zero emissions by 2050”;

• Set regulations to achieve a 75% reduction in methane emissions from oil and gas by 2030;

• Continue the government’s efforts on a 2030 coal phaseout;

• Work with International Development Minister Harjit Sajjan to mobilize financing for climate adaptation, mitigation, and resilience in developing countries, particularly vulnerable small island states;

• Develop a “regulated sales mandate that at least 50% of all new light duty vehicle sales be zero emissions vehicles in 2030”, en route to 100% by 2035;

• Work with Wilkinson on a Clean Electricity Standard to deliver a 100% net-zero power grid by 2035, including an Atlantic Loop initiative to connect surplus clean power in the country’s eastern provinces with areas that are trying to move off coal;

• Introduce Canada’s first national climate adaptation strategy in 2022;

• Speed up the country’s deadline for phasing out fossil fuel subsidies from 2025 to 2023;

• Work with Finance Minister Chrystia Freeland on climate-related financial disclosures, alongside provincial/territorial governments;

• Modernize the Canada Water Act to factor in climate change and Indigenous rights;

• Deliver on a zero plastic waste strategy by 2030, while working toward a new global agreement on plastics;

• Introduce environmental justice legislation and drive recognition of the right to a healthy environment in federal law.

(And there’s more…find Guilbeault’s full mandate letter here.)

Wilkinson’s mandate letter includes more detailed responsibilities on the net-zero electricity grid, including formation of a Pan-Canadian Grid Council and working with Indigenous communities to replace diesel generators with “clean, renewable, and reliable energy” by 2030. He also takes on duties related to the oil and gas emissions cap, ending fossil fuel subsidies, and driving a just transition for fossil fuel workers and communities alongside his predecessor in the natural resources portfolio, Labour Minister Seamus O’Regan.

Wilkinson also receives mandates on:

• A national electric vehicle charging network;

• A Net Zero Accelerator initiative for Canadian industry;

• Full implementation of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples;

• Strategies on critical minerals and battery innovation;

• A Buy Clean Strategy for Canadian infrastructure investment;

• A net-zero buildings strategy, including energy retrofit incentives and model building codes;

• The government’s continuing effort to make good on Trudeau’s 2019 promise to plant two billion trees, along with a commitment on old growth forest protection in British Columbia;

• A national flood mapping strategy to protect homes and communities threatened by climate change;

• A wildfire resilience strategy that includes training for 1,000 community-based firefighters.

The words “carbon capture” do not show up in Wilkinson’s mandate letter, despite concern over the last couple of weeks that Ottawa was poised to approve new subsidies for the controversial technology. Similarly, small modular nuclear reactors did not make the rhetorical cut in Wilkinson’s stated duties.

While the mandate letters put Guilbeault and Wilkinson at the centre of the government’s emerging climate plan, a number of other ministers and departments have roles to play. Some of those include:

Finance Minister Chrystia Freeland working with Trudeau to “champion the adoption of a global minimum standard on carbon pricing” and drive consultations on border carbon adjustments, while ensuring that “budgetary measures are consistent with the Government’s climate goals and the legislated requirement to achieve net-zero emissions by no later than 2050”;

Emergency Preparedness Minister Bill Blair with responsibility for climate resilience and response, including planning and preparedness in Indigenous communities, climate-resilient infrastructure, a climate data strategy, and an expanded focus on climate as a national security issue;

Foreign Affairs Minister Mélanie Joly positioning climate change as one of the issues at the heart of the country’s foreign policy, with formation of a Canadian-based NATO Centre of Excellence on Climate and Security;

Treasury Board President Mona Fortier carrying on the federal Greening Government Strategy and working with Guilbeault to attach a climate lens to all government decisions.

Among the notable omissions, Agriculture Minister Marie-Claude Bibeau’s mandate letter makes no mention of the government’s previous promise to cut farm producers’ nitrous oxide emissions 30% by 2030, to the consternation of the country’s fertilizer lobby. Health Minister Jean-Yves Duclos and Transport Minister Omar Alghabra receive no climate mandates at all, apart from the boilerplate paragraph sent to all ministers.