Regional impacts of the low-carbon transition, as well as the overall pace of change and the scope of Ottawa’s investments in carbon capture and storage (CCS), emerged as key discussion points at a meeting of the Senate Energy, Environment and Natural Resources Committee earlier this month.
With the November 2 meeting taking place just hours before the close of the formal consultation period for the government’s proposed Clean Electricity Regulations, Sen. Karen Sorensen (ISG-Alberta) asked about federal programs for assisting with the energy transition and addressing “the roadblocks” that could accompany them. Sorensen asked how much interest Canadians had shown in the consultations, and queried the time frame for finalizing the regulations.
John Moffat, assistant deputy minister at Environment and Climate Change Canada (ECCC), who fielded most of the day’s questions, responded that the consultation had received tremendous interest, including “some rhetoric” but also “a lot of very practical feedback.” There seems to be widespread support for the transition to a clean grid, he added, but achieving that will mean expanding the grid to accommodate increased electrification.
“We need to make sure that the grid is clean, and we need to do that well for 2050,” Moffat said. “Why? Because in order for the rest of the economy to get to net-zero by 2050, the many parts of the rest of the economy are going to need to rely on clean electricity.”
Sen. Paul Massicotte (ISG-Quebec) questioned funds directed to carbon capture and storage (CCS) technology, which he described as ineffective. The amount is expected to be between C$1 and $2 billion, and the oil and gas sector could gain access to more funds through the Canada Growth Fund.
Massicotte pointed to negotiations between the federal government and the Pathways Alliance—a whose six members account for almost all of Canada’s oil sands production—for financial support for CCS, and asked for an update on those talks.
Moffat said a decision on Pathways is expected within months, but he did not indicate whether an agreement is likely. Though there is consensus that the technology reduces emissions to some extent, he said, it doesn’t necessarily reach the 80% to 90% reductions that proponents claim. [A week before the committee hearing, the industry admitted as much—Ed.]
“The bigger issue though, is what we hear about CCS that it is a very costly way to continue to produce oil and gas,” Moffat added. “And fundamentally, in order to address climate change, at some point the world needs to stop using oil and gas. So, is this the right thing to do?”
In response to questions about the pace of emission reductions in Canada, Moffat clarified that, while national emissions intensity has fallen thanks to government policies and industry investment, absolute emissions continue to rise as overall oil and gas production keeps increasing.
Furthermore, while federal policies to cut emissions have emphasized reducing national demand for fossil fuel use, production itself is driven by global markets and companies will be unlikely to reduce production as long as they can continue selling their product outside Canada. So national policy must focus on emissions linked to production processes, Moffat said.
As the hearing turned to efforts to cut fossil fuel demand, some senators warned that some regions might face disproportionate impacts.
“How is Canada addressing the challenges the three territories face with some of the proposed movements to decreasing reliance on heavy fuels, and new greenhouse gas alternatives that will not work within the North’s infrastructure, climate, high costs of implementation, and challenges that we face with advanced climate change impacts,” asked Sen. Margaret Dawn Anderson (PSG-Northwest Territories).
Anderson said plans to expand EV adoption will not work in northern territories due to geographic and climatic impediments to installing EV charging infrastructure, and because EV battery performance wanes in colder temperatures. Plans to electrify heating by deploying heat pumps may also fail in the north, where temperatures drop far below the -15°C mark where heat pump ability begins to diminish.
One recent research commentary found that heat pumps out-perform fossil fuel and baseboard electric heating at winter temperatures as low as -10°C, and according to some data as low as -30°C.
Moffat said Anderson’s concerns are being addressed in a number of ways, primarily by working with northern communities to reduce their reliance on diesel generators and expand electrification. The process will be challenging and take a long time, he said, but the government usually adds flexibility associated to program rollouts in the North. Government policies also anticipate that technological advancements will help overcome some challenges.
Sen. Denise Batters (CPC-Saskatchewan) said heat pumps are problematic for households that face extreme cold temperatures. She referred to the recent pause on carbon pricing for home heating oil, contending that the limited scope of the carveout plus the limitations of heat pumps would put people in her province at the mercy of what she cast as a “discriminatory” carbon pricing system.
Batters asked Moffat, who works at ECCC, to explain and justify that Natural Resources Canada (NRCan) policy. “Our department isn’t responsible for the heat pump program,” he replied. “I think you’re making a political point. Which is perfectly legitimate, but not one for officials to answer.”
Later in the hearing, Moffat added that the NRCan website more accurately says heat pumps operating in very cold temperatures require supplemental heating sources. While there are known limits to heat pump performance, he added, there is also technology to ensure that “the house just doesn’t become cold all of a sudden.”
The issue of regional differences came up once again when Sen. Dr. Mary Jane McCallum (ISG-Manitoba) questioned whether impacts of the low-carbon transition on specific regions have been fully explored, and whether there has been adequate Indigenous representation in policy planning.
“My First Nations continue to be marginalized in many areas, including decision-making, consultation, lack of economic opportunity,” she said. “How do we ensure that economic reconciliation becomes a reality for them in a just transition?”
McCallum said the shift off carbon would rely on technologies that may not be adaptable to her region, adding that alternative energy sources themselves can be problematic.
“‘Clean’ is not a word that we use with [hydropower] because of the devastation that occurs when hydro dispossesses people of their land, and because the devastation it causes is continuous,” she said. “So how do you ensure that there will be a just transition and that there will be economic reconciliation at this time of transition?”