Capital Daily

The Bold Idea From Comox Valley: Preventing Gas Station Infrastructure

Episode Summary

A politician from Comox Valley is proposing a change to zoning laws that would end new petroleum station infrastructure in favour of more environmentally friendly alternatives. For Municipal Monday, we speak to him to learn more about the idea and why he's taking such a bold stance on climate policy.

Episode Notes

A politician from Comox Valley is proposing a change to zoning laws that would end new petroleum station infrastructure in favour of more environmentally friendly alternatives. For Municipal Monday, we speak to him to learn more about the idea and why he's taking such a bold stance on climate policy.  

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Episode Transcription

Disclaimer: This interview has been edited for clarity and length. 


Jackie: Hi, my name is Jackie Lamport. Today is Monday, August 23. Welcome to the Capital Daily Podcast. Today on the show, for Municipal Monday, the impacts of climate change continue to become more prevalent and more worrisome climate policy is beginning to show signs of bold action. One such bold policy is happening right here on Vancouver Island. 

Daniel Arbour is the director of the Comox Valley Regional District. His new climate policy proposal is more than anything controversial. He is proposing a change in the zoning laws in Comox Valley that would make it illegal to build new petroleum stations or add additions to existing ones. Instead, the zoning would allow for electric vehicle charging stations and hydrogen fuel stations. Daniel joins us today to talk about how it would work, what his inspirations were, and why he is willing to take such a firm stance on climate policy, despite how controversial it may be. 

Daniel, welcome to the show. 

Daniel: Hey, it's nice to see you and talk to you. 

Jackie: Let's start with the basic overview of what exactly your idea is. 

Daniel: Well, basically a couple of weeks ago, I put forward a resolution that our local government in the Comox Valley that aims to stop the growth of gas stations and also to provide a path for their phase-out and to allow new uses and encourage hydrogen and electric energy as a replacement. 

Jackie: How would that work?

Daniel: In my case, at my local government, I propose a change in the definition of what an automotive service station is. So when people own property or have property, they have all the permissible uses that they can do on their land. So, we can build a house or two houses or whatnot. So with automotive service stations, what I'm proposing is that we remove the right to sell petroleum fuels at automotive service stations. 

Jackie: But as I understand, this doesn't mean that gas stations would disappear overnight. If this were to be passed, there would be a period where some would be allowed to exist technically, illegally, right? 

Daniel: All of them, they would become what's called legally non-conforming. So if they ever see the use, then that use could not return. So it's grandfathered for now, but it couldn't pass on forever. 

Jackie: Okay, and then they also wouldn't be allowed to add any new pumps, correct? 

Daniel: Yeah, and then there's also a question that has arisen around the tank replacements. Most of them have to do tank replacements every 20 years or so. That's a question mark right now, whether that would trigger not being able to do it. So there are still a few things we definitely need to confirm or discuss with both industry stakeholders and the rest of it. 

Jackie: What was your inspiration for this?

Daniel: The idea popped into my mind a couple of years ago at a local government meeting. We were debating whether to declare a climate emergency. At the time, I was concerned with the climate emergency, and I advocated for the climate crisis. I said an emergency is usually short-term and requires drastic action. Now, I said to myself that climate is more of a crisis. It's long-term and complex, but then I said to my colleagues because some of them were pushing really hard for a climate emergency. And I said, "Okay if we do have a climate emergency, we should pull the business license for gas stations tomorrow." After I made that argument, they agreed to call it a climate crisis. 

Two years later, that idea stayed with me, and I'm like, "There has to be a way that we are more proactive about suppressing what we don't want because it's so expensive to build what we want." At the local government, we keep pouring money into all these active transportation, trails, transit, and all these different initiatives. We haven't moved most of the population to those modes; everybody's still in the gas car. 

The second thing I would say that triggered me is the federal government and the province just passed a mandate that in 14 years, all cars have to be zero-emission. And I'm like, "Oh, that sounds like another great promise that we're going to break, so why don't we start organizing. If we only have 14 years, I think that depressing gas stations isn't going to help us.  

Jackie: Comox Valley isn't exactly super walkable, and it's not as transit-friendly as Victoria. And there are a lot of people who rely on their cars. Do you think it's realistic right now with how transit and the city's walkability currently are?

Daniel: My proposal would help move the shift for cars to hydrogen and electric energy, which is already going to happen. So it's not huge on mode shift, and it's also very slow. A lot of people, as you said, I'm glad you said at the start, it's not pulling gas stations tomorrow; it just provides a pathway and prevents the building of new ones for sure and then provides a pathway for them to phase out over time and allow the new uses to come in. So you're right, it's a very small, rural area. In fact, I don't even represent the rural areas around the Comox Valley along with their two colleagues. One of my colleagues suggested we relax the bylaws and put a gas station on Mount Washington so people from Victoria can have more convenience. And I'm like, "Wow, we don't see the issue from the same perspective at all." So it's a small jurisdiction. 

What's happening right now is I'm getting calls from other elected officials and in local government, and they're looking at it. Apparently, this summer, in Sonoma County in California, they banned gas stations. So it's about getting that conversation going, and for different local governments, it's going to look different. My main message is, let's stop being scared to look at petroleum fuel in our cars. The climate experts in the province said that what you're doing hasn't been done because it usually leads to the politician not being reelected because you're attacking guest culture. The backlash that I've received the last week or two has been impressive. I mean, there's been a 90% negative response to the proposal and people just saying, "Leave my car alone." 

Jackie: Yeah, I can imagine. Anytime there's conversations even in Victoria about adding bike lanes, and that's a city where a lot of people bike, you still get that argument of, "This is a war on cars." 

Daniel: Totally. Politicians are very reluctant to take it head-on. But I'm like, "You know what, that's a giant in the room." It's literally the main source of our emissions, and if we haven't tackled trying to suppress that infrastructure, local government officials say, "Oh, don't build a pipeline." Let's talk with our population. "Do you guys want to do this? Do we want to transition? Or do we not?" And if we do, we need to gear up all these other things quickly, and we need to peel back on the gas infrastructure. 

Jackie: I know that this is federal; as you said, 14 years to get all of the cars sold to zero-emission is quite ambitious. Do you think it's realistic for people to be able to afford those types of vehicles right now? Obviously, the market could change immensely but right now, if you were to say to Comox Valley, "Hey, everybody, let's all start doing our part and shift to EV." Is that even realistically possible? 

Daniel: No, not right now on a price basis, but you have to realize that we're competing with a very well-established industry around gas cars; that industry is changing. They're moving quickly. And I believe that the industry is going to meet those targets. Everybody is terrified of Tesla, all that stuff. They're seeing all these mandates. So the industry will change. Can people make the shift right away? No. Is it going to be comparable in cost over time? Absolutely. Right now, the cost at the point of purchase is a little bit higher, depending on the types of models you're looking at. However, the maintenance of the vehicle over a lifetime is far less than a gas car. So for those who can afford that, it's great. That's why the rich are buying it because they have the capital to invest now, and they know they're saving over time. 

Jackie: Sorry, you said for gas cars, so you mean for an electric car, the maintenance is less. 

Daniel: Yeah, thank you. The maintenance is less. It doesn't cost much to run, and it's got way fewer parts. So it's got a lot of natural advantages, but it's just right now because it doesn't have the scale of infrastructure and production and all the rest of it is still expensive. I've catalogued about 14 to 18 counterarguments of proposals so far, and you've already hit on two or three of them. The thing is, people who are in this industry, you understand the trend. People know that 83% of cars sold in Norway are electric, so it is possible to rapidly change society if you have the desire and start implementing policies towards it. 

Jackie: As you said, oil and gas is a very large industry and a very powerful industry in the country. Do you predict there being a backlash if there were to go through? 

Daniel: There's been some effort from everybody so far, except the petroleum industry. So if I was a petroleum lobbyist, the way I would look at that is to let the public crush this idea. The public is not ready for this. We don't even need to engage in this debate. If you're a gas station or whatnot, you're like, "Okay, whatever, this will blow over." I think over time, as we saw with other things, whether it was the cigarette industry in the valley, we've had this huge debate around wood stoves. Eventually, they have to show up if they feel that their business model is threatened. We're not there yet. It would take my resolution to pass, which is not a given. It would take other local governments to suggest similar initiatives. At that time, I believe we'll start to hear from the petroleum industry. Right now, I think it's best if they stay quiet. 

Jackie: Have you spoken to any other municipalities on the island or in the province since this came out? 

Daniel: Yeah, that was my week. I've had so many cool conversations, both with elected officials, with people in government and with elected people in the province. So those have been cool because people are asking the right questions because my proposal may not be the ultimate solution, here or elsewhere. But the questions we're raising around how are we going to facilitate that massive transition in 15 years? And what kind of policies can we do at local government? What do we need to push the province and federal government on? Or are we going to bear the cost of it all? If the private sector is not putting up charging stations in hydrogen, does that mean the province and local government have to pay for it all? There's a lot of great questions I'm having with local government officials. I think, if anything, it's started the conversation in a good way. 

Jackie: Would you mind naming any specific municipalities that might be interested? 

Daniel: I would love to, and my better self says not to because what happens is with the folks I'm talking to; some of them are considering it in their local government. As local governments, we're heading into an election year for ourselves. So there's many other things at play if people want to look at putting something like that forward. I'm quite hopeful that a couple of colleagues have talked about moving. Second, I challenged local government officials to give me a call, talk about what that can look like and some of the risks that I've learned so far. I think Greater Victoria would be a natural place for these types of ideas to be tabled for sure for discussion.

Jackie: You said that you first had this idea two years ago, and it was obvious that that's not going to happen now where we're seeing very intense climate disasters, and we've seen this report that says, "Okay, this is it, we're here." Do you think this will be easier to push than it would have been even a year ago? 

Daniel: I wouldn't do it. I wouldn't have done it a year ago, and I wouldn't have done it before COVID because the other thing that I saw with COVID is a societal response to an emerging issue and a transformation of how we live in such a rapid time. We treated that health crisis as a true emergency and broadened policies. Some of them were very scary, to be honest, in terms of democratic rights and freedom but also effective in getting ourselves, so we don't all die. If you think about climate, and you're right, I tabled my resolution before the IPCC report came out, and like three days before and when it came out, thinking to myself, "Where else is this going to happen?" I've got my two kids here, and they're very climate-conscious. They're 10 and 12 years old. And I'm like, "We're on the West Coast of BC. This is where people have the most care for the environment and the most concern about climate change." This type of proposal is likely not to merge in Alberta, so you might as well put yourself out there. What are you in politics for? People are demanding more radical solutions to the climate crisis and throwing something that I'm fully confident is in the ballpark of the kind of things that we should be looking at. 

Jackie: Do you see any other challenges with the idea?

Daniel: I don't feel that strongly about that because a lot of my constituents know that I'm actually on all the issues I deal with. I'm a very careful manager. I'm a centrist politician, and I had to warn them that on climate issues, I really feel that's an existential threat, as most people do to society as a whole. So no, I'm probably joking about that partly because I've probably gotten 1000 social media comments, most of them negative with people saying. "We're going to organize to try to get you out of office." So that does make you a little nervous. At the same time, I'm really proud. My son said, "Dad, I'm so proud of you and even if you have to find another job after, it's the right thing to do." Then in the elected official world, people are like, "What do we do next?." I think it's worthwhile so far; I think the conversation itself is worth it. Whether this passes or not, I think we've started a conversation. It's hard to return from it. 

Jackie: Well, like you said, we're at a point where we have to do something, and we have to be bold, and somebody's got to be bold, so it's great that you are.


Daniel: I'll say another thing, too, there's a climate expert in BC who's influenced provincial policy for a long time. I've had an exchange with him, both through the CBC, but then we ended up having a little bit of back and forth. It was really humbling. He said, "Your policy doesn't go far enough for a greenhouse gas impact, and I would be more impressed if you were suggesting a date that gas stations close. Then he said, "But then for sure, you would lose it. He said it's very logical what you're proposing, but it also leaves it open-ended how long existing gas stations can stay open. He was challenging me and criticizing the proposal. So I'm getting all this backlash. At the same time, we got this other guy saying it's a logical step, but it's not going to move as much as we need to move.

 Most of my climate policies are a little more obscure to the public. The big move was to pass the mandate that all cars sold would be net-zero. That was a provincial move in any federal move. The problem that I have with that is sometimes with those big mandates; all you need is a change of government to scratch it. We saw it in the Harper years; those federal mandates are not written into law. So you can see just with a snap of a government, you know, entire Ministry of Environment departments being discarded. So for me, there's still value as the more we layer our climate action across all levels of society, the more the chances will be effective. That was my counterargument to his hits.

Jackie: Do you have any more bold climate policies that you want to implement?

Daniel: Not for this. This one is definitely going to consume me for the next few months. As I there's tons of stuff that I'm working on. I'm on the board of the Allen quarter foundation. So the end of the railway. I'm working on something I started a few months ago. A lot of what I'm working on is all the other politicians are working on, which is how to build transit and the new infrastructure of the future. I proposed linking with BC Transit from Campbell River to Victoria. So we have a proposal, we'll have discussions with the normal district. So there's a lot of smaller initiatives that make a difference. I'm not tackling the one that I told my 10-year-old son that's for him, and when he's in office later, it’ll be agriculture and veganism and all those issues around agriculture emissions. He's vegan himself, and he's almost convinced our family to do it. We don't want to cook two meals and he's got all the right arguments. For climate, you have to look at those big places where you can have an impact. Fossil fuel is the biggest one. Agriculture is probably the next building—our lifestyle consumerism. I mean, I don't need to talk to you about that. We all know it. For now, I'm happy to support initiatives and all those sectors. I think I have my hands full in the climate fund with this proposal.

Jackie: Well, Daniel, I wish you luck. Thank you so much for joining us. 

Daniel: Thank you so much, have a great day. 

Jackie: That was Daniel Arbor, the Director of the Comox Valley Regional District. 

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Thanks so much for joining us today. If you enjoyed the podcast, please leave a rating and review and also subscribe so that you don't miss any episodes going forward. We post new shows every Monday to Friday. My name is Jackie Lamport. This is the Capital Daily Podcast. We'll talk to you tomorrow.