Saturday, January 27, 2007

Coal-power plans dim Liberals' green claims

VICTORIA - The people backing two proposed coal-fired power plants in B.C. should be mighty nervous.
The Liberal government has been defending the new power projects against complaints about the environmental cost. But that was before climate change crossed over as an issue. Sometime in the last few months we hit a tipping point on global warming. Most of us decided that it's a serious problem, that reducing greenhouse-gas emissions might help and governments need to lead.
Prime Minister Stephen Harper recognizes the change. The Conservatives didn't mention climate change once in their 2006. Now he's suddenly vying with Liberal leader St├ęphane Dion for green honours.
Even U.S. President George W. Bush spoke about the need to manage climate change in his state of the union address, a first.
And Premier Gordon Campbell says he came back from his China trip convinced B.C. had to lead on climate change, promising that the new energy plan would tackle the issue.
That means the Liberals' plans to allow two new coal-fired power plants are a big problem.
It's tough to claim to be serious about climate change and reducing greenhouse gases while backing new coal power.
Environmentally - and especially in terms of greenhouse gases - coal is the least desirable fuel for generating power. It's not just that emission-free projects like wind power or hydro are better. So are gas-fired plants like the ones already supplying B.C. Hydro, which emit about one-third the greenhouse gases of comparable coal plants
But the Crown corporation has agreed to buy power from two new coal-fired power plants, reflecting the government's eagerness to see more mining. Plans call for a 56-megawatt coal and wood-residue burning plant near Princeton and a 184-
megawatt plant near Tumbler Ridge.
Energy Minister Richard Neufeld, also responsible for promoting mining, has defended the plants. They'll use modern technology that reduces emissions, he says, and diversifying the power sources might help B.C. avoid future price shocks. (Neufeld notes environmental approvals are still needed, but that's something close to a formality.)
On the other side, critics say coal power is simply the wrong course for any government serious about climate change.
Environmental groups say the first two plants would produce about 180 megatonnes per year of greenhouse gases, the equivalent of putting 300,000 extra cars on the road.  As a result, B.C.'s greenhouse-gas emissions would increase three per cent when the plants came on line.
Which would be sometime around 2010, when Ontario will have finished phasing out its coal-powered generating plants because of concerns about pollution and global warming.
It's not just the usual suspects who have concerns about coal.
This month the CEOs of 10 of the largest U.S. corporations - including Duke Energy, BP American and General Electric - joined environmental groups to urge Bush to take action on climate change.
And their recommendations included a call to discourage any new coal-power plants, unless they used carbon-capture technology to trap greenhouse gases before they enter the atmosphere. That's not being even considered for the B.C. plants, which won't even use the latest pollution-control technology.
Project supporters argue that if we don't burn the coal here, it will just be shipped to China for the same purpose.
That's neither true, nor relevant. There is no guarantee the additional coal would be mined without these plants; it might be left in the ground for a time when coal gasification - a cleaner use - is cost-effective.
And in any case, China's plants will go ahead with or without or coal. The incremental increase in greenhouse gases comes from our decision to shift to coal.
The province does not need to rely on coal. B.C. Hydro's last call for proposals resulted in 27 other power supply contracts being awarded, mostly for green energy sources. There are other companies ready to step in with alternatives.
It's a problem for the Liberals.
They can go ahead with the power plants. But it's going prove to a lot of voters that they aren't serious about climate change.
Footnote: Another coal problem is rising up again. Cline Mining's plan for a mine in the Kootenays near the U.S. border is running into renewed opposition from Montana. U.S. politicians are threatening to make the project an issue in relations between both countries' federal governments.

Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Payday loans, private colleges and the case for red tape

VICTORIA - Red tape is generally portrayed as this snarled, sticky tangle that chokes and traps you.
And often, it is.
But sometimes it's more like a helpful line strung along a path to warn of real dangers, to the individual or the community. Stay on the path and you never get tangled. After all, laws are red tape and they discourage people from breaking into our homes.
The B.C. Liberals came into office with an anti-regulation bias, which is a good thing. Government's starting point should be that anything that infringes on people's freedom to make choices is bad and needs to be justified based on a greater good.
So we make people were seatbelts - even though that infringes on their right to make choices - because we all pay the costs of putting them back together after a car crash.
But on a couple of current issues we're seeing evidence that ideology, inertia or inefficiency has blinded the government to the need for regulation.
Take private colleges and language schools. The Liberals eliminated a board that regulated the colleges in 2003 and turned the task over to the industry. In 2004, it deregulated the language schools.
Private colleges would regulate themselves out of self-interest, the government reasoned. And it accepted the language schools' argument that regulation made it hard for them to compete with schools in neighbouring states and provinces.
Deregulation was, in this case, a mistake. Students - especially overseas students - were left with no effective way to assess the quality and reliability of private B.C. colleges and language schools. Complaints quickly followed.
Last year a private college owned by one of the people the government named to the industry board was ordered to close after students said they had spent thousands of dollars for worthless degrees.
And the industry's self-regulating agency, the Private Career-Training Institutes Agency, said it had penalized private colleges 86 times over the previous 18 months without any warning to the public. That's hardly in the interests of students.
Similar concerns were raised about the language schools.
It's not just a problem for students who might be ripped off.
The B.C. Progress Board warned that the lack of standards threatens B.C.'s effort to become an international destination. When a college or language school fails students, the entire province is seen as a risky place to go for an education, the board warned.
And that is what has happened. China, in part because of problems in B.C., has warned students not to enroll in Canadian private colleges until they are properly regulated.
Advanced Education Minister Murray Coell, who had maintained regulation was unnecessary, now promises action.
The government is also looking sluggardly when it comes to regulating payday loan companies.
Almost a year ago, Solicitor General John Les promised the government would act "quickly" once the federal government gave provinces the power to deal with the high-interest lenders.
But now Parliament has passed the needed legislation, Les says he might not be ready to respond until 2008.
Les has acknowledged that consumers needed protection from loans that involved effective interest rates of up to 1,000 per cent.
He even indicated general support for an approach taken in Manitoba, where the law requires companies to warn customers in clear language about the high cost of loans and allows them 48 hours to change their minds. The Public Utilities Board regulates fees and interest rates are to be capped once the federal law takes effect.
It's not that payday lenders are a bad thing. They are the only available source of short-term credit for many people. Their clients are often bad credit risks and rates need to reflect that.
But the $2-billion industry is huge, deals with unsophisticated borrowers and is almost entirely unregulated.
Yet the government, despite time to prepare and so little legislation that it cancelled the fall session, can't bring in consumer-protection rules.
Footnote: Les is at the centre of another regulatory dispute. The UBCM, consumers and home inspectors have all been calling for regulation of the industry. Anyone can claim to be a home inspector in B.C., they complain, and prospective homeowners can male a $500,000 commitment based on bad advice. Les has refused to act.