New Brunswick

Irving Oil makes rare public comment on carbon pricing, offers support with a catch

The owner of New Brunswick's single biggest emitter of carbon dioxide says it supports the idea of carbon pricing — as long as it doesn't harm the company's competitiveness.

Irving Oil is the province's single biggest emitter of carbon dioxide

An Irving Oil storage facility and crude rail cars are photographed at the edge of Courtenay Bay on in Saint John, New Brunswick. (Devaan Ingraham/Reuters)

The owner of New Brunswick's single biggest emitter of carbon dioxide says it supports the idea of carbon pricing — as long as it doesn't harm the company's competitiveness.

But officials with Irving Oil did not offer a precise idea of where that threshold is during rare public comments earlier this week.

"We think that there's a role for us to play," Andy Carson, the company's director of growth and strategy, told a committee of senators during a hearing in Saint John. "There should be a price that we pay in connection with the carbon that we emit as part of our production."

But when pressed for more details, Carson and another Irving executive would only say that too high a carbon tax could shut down the company and its efforts to reduce emissions.

"We wouldn't want to find ourselves in a position where we've taxed our industry out of business," said Jeff Matthews, chief financial officer. He said that would shift more refining to countries with less stringent environmental regulations.

Federal data show Irving Oil's Saint John refinery emitted three million tonnes of greenhouse gases in 2016, the highest level of any single facility in the province.

Jeff Matthews, Irving Oil's chief financial officer, speaks during the senate hearing on Bill C-69 in Saint John on Thursday. (Roger Cosman/CBC)

Irving Oil has not responded to recent requests for comment from CBC News on the ongoing political debate on carbon taxes.

The previous Liberal government of Brian Gallant adopted the federal government's industrial "backstop" for large emitters in the province.

It would require large facilities to reduce emissions to below the average in their sector — known as a "performance standard" — or be forced to purchase credits.

Company says climate change 'important issue'

Carson and Matthews were put on the spot Thursday by Quebec Senator Paul Massicotte, a member of a Senate committee that held hearings in Saint John on federal Bill C-69.

The bill would overhaul how major energy projects are reviewed and regulated. When two members of the Council of Canadians warned of a looming environmental crisis caused by climate change, Massicotte asked the Irving officials to respond.

Andy Carson, Irving Oil's director of growth and strategy, said the company believes climate change is an 'important issue.' (Roger Cosman/CBC)

Carson called climate change "a very, very significant and important issue" and said the company has worked with federal officials developing the current system.

"Our position has never been 'we disagree with this fundamentally.' It's been much more constructive," he said.

But Carson didn't comment specifically on the current federal system. Instead he told the committee that electric-vehicle charging stations are now available at several Irving gas stations throughout New Brunswick.

The charging stations may seem "surprising," he said, but it's part of the company's strategy to "position ourselves to serve the customers of the future."

Massicotte invited the Council of Canadians activists to respond, and one of them, Ann Pohl, said while Carson had uttered "fine words," the existing carbon price isn't going to be enough to reduce emissions.

Ann Pohl of the Council of Canadians speaks during the senate hearing on Bill C-69 in Saint John on Thursday. (Roger Cosman/CBC)

"So can you tell exactly what your position was, or Irving's position was, on carbon pricing?" she asked Carson.

Carson and Matthews both said that whatever price is in place has to allow Canadian companies to compete against their counterparts elsewhere, including in countries where there is no carbon tax.

After Matthews warned that a high tax would shift refining to countries with weaker environmental rules, Massicotte accused him of using "an element of fear" in his comments.

Province crafting own price on carbon

New Brunswick's Progessive Conservative government is drafting its own alternate carbon-pricing system for industry, though it's not clear if Ottawa will accept it.

Environment Minister Jeff Carr has said its weaker standard for measuring emissions "would lead to industry being on a fair playing field with our neighbours and exporters in other jurisdictions around." Carr said large emitters would "still pay a small amount."

Pohl said Friday she was disappointed that Irving Oil didn't offer any specific comments on the current federal carbon tax.

"If he'd been on a witness stand, a lawyer would have gotten up and said, 'the witness is not answering the question,'" she said.

"What I heard was, 'We don't want to appear to be opposed to carbon pricing.' But it sounds like they are."

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