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Originally published March 19, 2007 at 12:00 AM | Page modified March 19, 2007 at 2:01 AM

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B.C. premier stuns critics with plans to go green

Proposals include teaming with California's Schwarzenegger to build hydrogen-fueling stations from San Diego to Whistler, B.C.

The Washington Post

VANCOUVER, B.C. — The premier of British Columbia wanted to bring coal-burning plants and offshore oil rigs to this lush province, so environmental groups were ready for a fight as he prepared his government's annual policy speech last month.

They were stunned when Premier Gordon Campbell delivered a list of green promises that surpassed their most ambitious dreams.

He would not only stop the growth in greenhouse gases in the province, he said, but also slash them by one-third. He would gut the coal-plant plans. Embrace wind power. Lease hybrid cars for the government. Squelch environmental pollution by the powerful oil and gas industry. Toughen car-emission regulations.

His plans would make British Columbia what The Globe and Mail newspaper called "the continent's greenest spot." Campbell also proposed an enterprising alliance with California to create a Pacific Coast bloc of states and provinces to tackle climate change without waiting for action from their federal governments.

"If you wait for a whole continent to come together, sometimes it takes too long," Campbell said Friday in Santa Monica, Calif., where he met with Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger to plot joint action.

The two leaders announced plans to build a series of futuristic hydrogen-fueling stations from San Diego to Whistler, B.C., to encourage the use of hydrogen vehicles. Campbell said he hopes to bring all the coastal governors to a global-warming planning summit this spring.

"We want to get started on acting on climate change. I think it's what the public wants and what the planet needs," Campbell said.

The premier's embrace of global-warming action reflects the growing political potency of the issue and illustrates how some local governments are shunning the go-slow approach of federal administrations in Washington and Ottawa.

Climate change is at the top of the list of public concerns in Canada, zooming ahead of traditional worry about the health-care system, according to opinion polls.

In British Columbia, Campbell's plan to build two coal-fired electric plants in a province that depends almost entirely on clean hydropower produced a powerful backlash.

"The coal plants really got people fired up," said Ian Bruce, an analyst for the David Suzuki Foundation, an environmental group based in Vancouver. "The perception is that British Columbia is an environmentally conscious place. But suddenly, British Columbians realized their government was headed in the wrong direction. It was an embarrassment, and it put a lot of pressure on the B.C. government."

Late last year, Campbell sought advice from Schwarzenegger, who had reversed his own sagging political fortunes by championing some of the toughest environmental regulations in the United States.

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Schwarzenegger dispatched his chief environmental adviser, Terry Tamminen, to Victoria, B.C., where he worked quietly with Campbell's staff to draft a far-reaching plan. On Feb. 13, Campbell unveiled the proposal in a traditional "throne speech" that sets out government policy.

"We were in disbelief. This seemed to come right out of the blue," said Lisa Matthaus, a campaign director for the Sierra Club's British Columbia chapter. Not only were Campbell's greenhouse-gas pledges ambitious with concrete goals, she said, but "they have been made in a very public way. B.C. is leading North America right now."

Campbell denied that his was a recent conversion; he had put forward environmental goals since he was elected in 2001, he said. But "there is no question that both the public and the government are seized by the urgency of this issue," he acknowledged.

Working together to create a unified regional attack on the problem can create "continental momentum," he said.

"California has a population of 36 million. British Columbia has a population of 4 million," Campbell said. "If we looked at tailpipe emission [regulations] by ourselves in British Columbia, we wouldn't get very far. But when you start to create a marketplace with our two jurisdictions, add other states and some of the Western provinces ... you are up to 60 million people driving this agenda forward."

Campbell is "a very smart politician. He's reading the tea leaves very carefully," said Michael Magee, a political consultant in Vancouver. "There is a huge, green tidal wave in public opinion. No one wants to be swept away by that. They want to be on the crest of it."

Magee noted that Campbell's party receives substantial contributions from the mining and oil and gas industries and said that taking a strident environmental position is "perilous" for him.

The provincial budget that followed Campbell's throne speech devoted only $4 million to the environmental agenda he had outlined, which disappointed some. "We called it the 'inconsistent truth,' " Matthaus said.

A major energy plan that followed stuck to the ambitious goals for promoting clean production of electricity but also continued government subsidies to the oil and gas industry and a major highway-construction plan.

"The throne speech laid out an exciting new direction for B.C. But it was just a speech," said Bruce, the environmental-group analyst.

Some of Campbell's plans for cutting greenhouse-gas emissions 33 percent by 2020 count on still-uncertain technology, critics say.

Still, "the genie is out of the bottle. It can't be put back," Matthaus said. "The debate over the science of whether or not there is global warming is over. Now the debate is what we do about it."

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