Discredited Pacific Carbon Trust took money from local educational institutes, hospitals

Money spent of carbon offsets are funds that could have been spent elsewhere

B.C. auditor general John Doyle's recent report discredits the government carbon offset program.

B.C. auditor general John Doyle's recent report discredits the government carbon offset program.

In 2011, the Pacific Carbon Trust (PCT), recently criticized for using money from the public sector to fund sustainability projects for private business, received more than $120,000 from the Abbotsford School District, over $80,000 from the University of the Fraser Valley (UFV) and in excess of $100,000 from the Abbotsford Regional Hospital.

Of the various green projects that the Crown corporation funded, only one was in Abbotsford – a project at Randhawa Farm’s Ltd.’s greenhouses involving the installation of insulating curtains at three locations, with the goal of reducing natural gas use.

The PCT has recently come under scrutiny after the auditor general released a report finding that the government-run carbon-neutral program, which was created to manage carbon offsets, wasn’t credible.

B.C.’s “carbon neutral government” initiative has been controversial since it was launched as part of former premier Gordon Campbell’s climate change program in 2008. Provincial and local governments, health authorities and school districts were required to buy carbon offset credits equal to the greenhouse gas emissions from their buildings and vehicles, with the money invested in carbon-reducing projects.

Auditor general John Doyle said in a press release that offsets are only credible if the revenue from their sale is the incentive to move forward on an environmental project, but in many cases, the projects that benefited from the funds would have been implemented regardless of funding.

For local institutions, it’s money that could have been spent elsewhere.

Jackie Hogan, chief financial officer for UFV, said the money spent on offsets in a year could create spaces for about 175 to 200 students, effectively opening up about 10 classes.

“It’s definitely money from our operating funds that we could be using for other things, more aligned with education.”

Hogan said when the program was implemented in 2008, they hoped the money could be used on campus for energy initiatives, but “that’s not what the carbon trust is for, so we can’t access that for those kind of projects.”

Ray Velestuk, secretary-treasurer for the Abbotsford School District, said the $100,000 they pay annually into the carbon trust is now built into the budget, but it’s money they would prefer to spend on other initiatives.

“It’s a cost in our budget that we would just as soon not have. In the same token, we are receiving some funding to do some needed work.”

The funding that the district received comes from the Carbon Neutral Capital Plan, a government grant to provide energy efficiency upgrades for school districts. The Abbotsford district has been able to receive $540,000 in capital funding for different projects, including a grant for $450,000 to put new boilers into schools. But not every school district receives funding, as it is granted based on project applications.

In response to earlier criticism, the B.C. government directed about $10 million taken from school districts in the past two years into the capital plan.

The NDP were quick to seize on the report, with environment critic Rob Fleming stating in a press release that “the audit shows that the government took funds from cash-strapped school districts and hospitals to pay an oil and gas company to do a project they were going to do anyway.”

According to the Canadian Taxpayers’ Federation, B.C. universities paid $4.46 million into the Pacific Carbon Trust in 2011. B.C.’s 60 school districts paid a total of $5.36 million the same year, and the province’s six health authorities paid $5.79 million.

The Abbotsford School District’s total offset investment was $101,195 in 2010 and $120,050 in 2011. UFV paid $76,519 in 2010 and $80,900 in 2011. The numbers for 2012 have not been publicly released yet, though Velestuk said he assumed the school district will pay around $100,000 for that year.

In 2011, the Fraser Health Authority purchased $1,098,692 in carbon offsets, with local hospitals paying into that total. Menno Hospital paid $11,054 for offsets in 2010. The Abbotsford Regional Hospital paid $101,971 for offsets in 2011, and $110,687 in 2012. The Abbotsford Regional Hospital is LEED gold certified – leadership in energy and environmental design – for reaching high sustainability standards.

Environment Minister Terry Lake said the government “fundamentally rejects” Doyle’s conclusions, and stands by the outside experts who were called on to validate the carbon offset investments.