Do free drivers' licences reduce emissions? P.E.I.'s environment minister says no

The P.E.I. government has budgeted $20,000 in grants this year to make it cheaper for Islanders to register hybrid and electric vehicles — and more than 100 times that much ($2.2 million) to offset the cost to register every other gas- and diesel-powered vehicle on Island roads.

The province has also earmarked $1,080,000 in grants from the Department of Environment to provide Islanders with free drivers' licences in the current fiscal year — all spending being questioned this week by the very minister whose department is allocating the money.

"How does that actually help with climate change? You know it's a really good question," Minister of Environment, Water and Climate Change Brad Trivers said, posing the question to himself.

"If you get a free licence it doesn't help you drive less. It doesn't help you burn less fossil fuels. It doesn't decrease your carbon emissions.

"Is it actually achieving the purpose of either helping with adaptation to climate change or mitigation of climate change? The answer is probably 'no.'"

Measures brought in by Liberals

It was the previous Liberal government that introduced the measures, including free drivers' licences for all Island residents, free registration of electric vehicles and a 20 per cent reduction in registration costs for gas and diesel vehicles.

CBC

At the time, the province's finance minister Heath MacDonald — now part of the Liberal third-party caucus in the legislature — said the province was returning proceeds to drivers from the carbon levy Ottawa forced the province to implement.

The Liberals also committed some of the revenue to provide rebates for users of the province's existing public transit system. That funding amounts to $70,000 in the current budget.

Encouraging more emissions, say Greens

"We're using the funds that are supposed to be reducing our emissions to actually encourage more emissions," said Green Party energy critic Stephen Howard. "So it's kind of self-defeating."

As an example of where the funding should be applied, Howard suggested the province provide more incentives to encourage Islanders to collect their own solar energy.

I would say there's a very, very good chance we'll see changes in the future. — Brad Trivers

"The only form of energy we seem to not subsidize is actual clean energy," he commented during question period.

Trivers' environment budget received a 35 per cent increase compared to last year, but most of the increase is accounted for in programs — like the free drivers' licences introduced by the Liberals, which were only funded for part of the last fiscal and are now receiving a full year of funding.

Energy rebates questioned

Another one of those items being questioned by both Trivers and Howard is $9 million in rebates for household electric bills, along with another million dollars in rebates for propane, firewood and wood pellets.

Those rebates were meant to level the playing field for households that heat with a source other than home heating oil, which since 2013 has been exempt from the provincial portion of HST on P.E.I. Heating oil is also exempt from P.E.I.'s carbon levy.

Al MacCormick/CBC

Howard said the province shouldn't be spending money from the federal government's Low Carbon Economy Fund to make all those energy sources cheaper.

"The price signalling that we have in place with these millions of dollars that are supposed to be used to reduce greenhouse gas emissions are signaling to use even more energy," he said.

"Whether it's electricity, whether it's oil, whether it's wood all of those things have emissions related to them."

Howard said there are "far more targeted and effective ways" to reduce energy costs for low-income Islanders while removing the energy discounts for the rest.

Must consult with Islanders, says minister

When asked why his departmental budget includes millions in spending that he doesn't support, Trivers said there was limited time to make changes to the budget following the Apr. 23 provincial election.

"If we're going to remove [the funding] first of all we want to consult with Islanders to make sure they're on board, and we also want to make sure we do the right thing with that money," Trivers said.

On Tuesday night, a bill introduced by the Greens passed second reading which would set a more ambitious target for P.E.I. to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions.

As part of debate on that bill, the Greens proposed the legislature strike a special committee to map out how the province will reduce its emissions.

Trivers said that committee could be tasked with deciding how to allocate the province's environmental funding.

"It didn't make it in this budget but I would say there's a very, very good chance we'll see changes in the future."

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