Illegal dams –another BC Liberal legacy

The NDP government has inherited a number of issues from the BC Liberals; some anticipated and some a complete surprise.

One expected problem was B.C.’s medical services premium. B.C. was the only province to collect the unfair tax in which the rich and poor paid the same flat rate. Now the MSP will be collected from businesses with a payroll over $500,000.

For employers who previously paid their employee’s MSP, there will be no difference. For employers who didn’t pay, like the City of Kamloops, it means an extra cost. Kamloops Mayor Ken Christian is crying foul. The B.C. government gets credit for eliminating the MSP and the city will get blamed for adding about three-quarters of a per cent to taxes. Maybe so, but low-income Kamloopsians will see the MSP tax eliminated. Why not see it as a benefit for citizens?

More of a surprise was the money-laundering that went on under the noses of the BC Liberals. Dirty money was being washed to obscure its rotten roots through gambling at B.C. Lotteries. The practice had been known as early as 2015 when investigations “had been looking for a ‘minnow’ and found ‘a whale,’” according to the RCMP.

Then there is the looming problem of illegal dams in B.C. that went unregulated under the BC Liberals. The Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives has uncovered at least 92 unauthorized dams. CCPA researcher Ben Parfitt has been digging into the problem for over a year. He first found out about the illegal dams last year through a Freedom of Information request. Initially, 51 dams were identified. Of those, one-third were found to have structural problems that posed serious risks to human health and safety and the environment.

The dams were built to supply water for fracking natural gas, part of former Premier Christy Clark’s grand plans for exporting liquefied natural gas.

Swamp Donkey Dam by Vicky Husband

After the election of the NDP government, the Ministry of Forests, Lands, Natural Resource Operations and Rural Development (FLNRO) reported the additional dams. The report labelled some of the unauthorized dams as potential “time bombs” and said a top priority must be “to find the high consequence dams and make sure they are properly constructed and operated and maintained in an appropriate manner before any of them fail.”

An example of a potentially catastrophic failure was the collapse of Testalinden dam near Oliver in 2010. A portion of the dam’s wall gave way, releasing 20,000 cubic metres of water. Fortunately, no one was killed but the resulting mudslide wiped out five houses and blocked a portion of Highway 97 for five days.

The BC Liberals failed to tell residents about the poor condition of the Testalinden dam. Elizabeth Denham, former Information and Privacy Commissioner, wrote a report in which she found that the province knew the dam was at the end of its lifespan, yet failed to alert the public.

The NDP government, perhaps because it already has enough on its plate, has been relatively silent about the dams.

“Instead,” says Parfitt, “the province has taken the softer approach of coaxing companies to ‘come into compliance’ after-the-fact. Time will tell whether or not that approach safeguards the public interest and proves a sufficient deterrent.”

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Homophobia contributes to loneliness

Men haven’t always avoided open displays of affection for each other. Rachel Giese author of Boys: What It Means To Become A Man says:

“Our squeamishness about male friendship is a historical anomaly: connections between men have been idealized throughout Western history and understood as foundational to society, culture, and art. The veneration of men’s friendships can be charted as far back as ancient Greece (Walrus magazine, May 2018).”

  image: Mental Floss

Before the mid-1800s, society was structured around organizations of men –guilds, religious orders, service clubs, sports teams and the military. Displays of affection and confessions of love between men were common and unremarkable. In his essay “On Friendship,” French philosopher Michel de Montaigne describes his relationship with deceased friend as one with “souls mingling and blending with each other so completely that they efface the seam that joined them.”

Such gushes of emotion would be suspect in today’s society. Even the innocuous term “bromance” carries a certain discomfort. “It celebrates same-sex fondness,” says Giese, “but does it with a smirk—as if two men caring for another needs to be explained or justified.”

Culture changed at the start of the twentieth century as women became more integrated into public life. Schools, places of work, and politics were no longer the exclusive domain of men. Marriage shifted from an arrangement between families to one based on romance and love. The nuclear family replaced the male-dominated associations as the centre of culture and society.

Victorian values made homosexuality a perversion and a threat to social order: platonic friendships became suspect. These values resist change. Men are defined as the opposite of women, the head and provider of the family -and heterosexual. In this context, homosexuals are seen to be the opposite of a “real man.”

Homophobia has a toxic effect on boys. Professor Niobe Way has studied the emotional landscape as boys mature. The common notion is that boys are less communicative, invulnerable and less capable of intimacy, than girls. However, Professor Way found genuine affection among boys. One fifteen-year old told her of his feelings for another boy: “[My best friend and I] love each other…. I guess in life, sometimes two people can really, really, understand each other and really have a trust, respect and love for each other. It just happens, it’s human nature.”

As adolescent straight boys approach manhood, the fear of being perceived as a homosexual grows. They leave behind friends as they explore the uncertain terrain of romantic relationships of women. They are vulnerable as they no longer have a foot in either world.

Professor Way believes that young men are suffering from a “crisis if connection” as a result of being told that real men can’t be close to each other. Men can end up lonely at a cost to their health. Former U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy speaks of loneliness, isolation and weak social connections:

“[They] are associated with a reduction in lifespan similar to that caused by smoking fifteen cigarettes a day and even greater than that associated with obesity. Loneliness is also associated with a greater risk of cardiovascular disease, dementia, depression, and anxiety.”

New Zealand’s experience with electoral reform

I sat down with Helen Clark, Prime Minister of New Zealand from 1999 to 2008, to talk about her country’s experience with electoral reform. She was in Kamloops on June 21 at a reception held at a local pub where about 70 people had gathered.

   image: Wikipedia

“You have five minutes for the interview,” the organizer of the event told us. We made our way to a quiet table.

Two referenda were held in New Zealand, she told me. The first in 1992 was non-binding. It asked whether voters wanted to retain the present first-past-the-post (FPTP) system or if they wanted a change. And if they wanted a change, which of four systems of proportional representation did they prefer?

The results were overwhelming with 85 per cent in favour of a change. Of the four systems, Mixed Member Proportional (MMP), was a clear favourite.

A second referendum was held a year later. This time the referendum was binding and the results closer with 54 per cent choosing MMP over FPTP.

I wondered how proportional representation had changed the culture of political parties. MMP leads to minority governments, Ms. Clark told me, which means that parties need to get along, not only after election but before. “Be sure to make friends”, she said, “you never know when you’ll need them later.”

After 20 minutes, I had asked all my prepared questions and we just chatted. “I thought the interview was only going to be five minutes,” the organizer scolded when he found us. Ms. Clark returned to the group where photos were taken and she gave a speech.

Afterward, I thought about the similarly of our upcoming mail-in referendum this fall to the one in New Zealand.

Two questions make sense to me: Do you want a change? If so, want kind do you want?  However, a B.C. lobby group called Fair Referendum disagrees. In a robocall call, they said that there should be just one question. I had to chuckle. The Fair Referendum proposal illustrates what’s wrong with our voting system. They want a single question with four choices, three of which are a type proportional representation and one being the existing FPTP. Those in favour of change will have their vote split three ways and those who don’t want change will have one choice. The ballot is rigged so that even if, say 60 per cent want change, 40 per cent will make sure it doesn’t happen. It seems obvious that’s what Fair Referendum hopes for.

The referendum, to be held from October 22 to November 30 by mail-in ballot, is shaping up along party lines. The Greens and NDP favour proportional representation and the BC Liberals oppose it.

Kamloops-South Thompson MLA Todd Stone says the referendum would be biased in favour of the NDP and that’s probably true –but only because the BC Liberals choose not to cooperate with other parties.

The Greens and NDP have made an extraordinary effort to be nice to each other because, as Ms. Clark suggests, it’s the only way that future governments under proportional representation will work. It’s a shift in party culture that the BC Liberals have yet to realize.

 

B.C. firm extracts fuel from air

It may sound like alchemy but Carbon Engineering Ltd based in Squamish captures carbon from the atmosphere and turns it back into automotive fuel.

Carbon Engineering,
Squamish, BC. Image: Google maps

It’s not just wishful thinking. Investors with deep pockets are putting money into the project, such as Microsoft’s Bill Gates.

Co-owner of Carbon Engineering David Keith describes the technology as “direct air capture” (DAC). They’ve been running a pilot plant since 2015 and hope to build a commercial-scale operation soon. The plant has been producing a variety of fuels, such as diesel, gasoline, and Jet-A since 2017.

Carbon capture technology is not new but the price barrier has been too high to make it feasible. Previous processes have cost US$600 a tonne. Professor Keith says they have broken the price barrier:

“At Carbon Engineering, we now have the data and engineering to prove that DAC can achieve costs below US$100 (Globe and Mail, June 8, 2018).”

Former processes haven’t worked, as Saskatchewan found out. At higher cost and lower reliability, they extract CO2 and store it into the ground. Former Premier of Brad Wall had high hopes that his province could avoid a federal carbon tax by carbon capture. However, these plants are only operational 45 per cent of the time. The old technology has been tried globally and abandoned; China cancelled theirs.

Professor Keith researched his DAC technology at the University of Calgary. The process is relatively simple in theory. First CO2 is extracted from the air. Then hydrogen is created from water through electrolysis using any energy source, preferably renewable. Solar cells, for example, could create hydrogen by breaking water into its component parts. In the final stage, hydrogen and CO2 are combined to produce hydrocarbon fuels.

The novelty of Professor Keith’s technology is that it solves three problems: rising levels of CO2 in the atmosphere, drilling for fossil fuels, and the storage of renewable energy sources such as wind and solar.

Of course, if you are going to extract CO2 from the air only to convert it back into fuels that will put the CO2 back in the air, that hardly seems like a solution. But at least it is not producing any more CO2. And mining the air for fuels is certainly better than fracking shale deposits.

Using renewable energy sources such as wind and solar to produce automotive fuel seems counterintuitive at first. The problem with renewable energy sources that they produce energy when it’s not needed and none when is -it has to be stored somehow.  The surplus electricity could be stored in batteries for use later. Or it could be used in conjunction with other renewable sources such as hydroelectricity.

Storing renewable energy as fuel is a good idea because the engines to burn the hydrocarbons already exist. There is no need to build new vehicles with electric motors.

The fuel produced is expected to cost 25 per cent more than traditional gasoline but it would fetch premium prices.

“It’s not a magic bullet, it’s not too cheap to meter,” says Professor Keith, “but it’s something that really we think could be built out, and could be built out at relatively low technical risk. So we hope it is really a turning point.”

 

Four more years of Trump?

Improbable as it may seem, President Trump could be re-elected in 2020.

Photo by Anthony Behar

He’s been vilified by many, including those who know him personally such as former FBI director James Comey.

“He has a craving for affirmation that I’ve never seen in an adult before,” Comey told a conference in Ottawa. “It’s all, ‘What will fill this hole inside me?’ (Globe and Mail, June 5, 2018)”

Author Thomas Frank’s assessment is less psychological:

“He is deeply unpopular, the biggest buffoon any of us has ever seen in the White House. He manages to disgrace the office nearly every single day. He insults our intelligence with his blustering rhetoric. He endorses racial stereotypes and makes common cause with bigots. He has succeeded in offending countless foreign governments [!]. He has no idea what a president is supposed to be or do and (perhaps luckily) he has no clue how to govern (Harper’s magazine, April, 2018).”

However, Trump seems to vaguely understand the connection between trade deals and wage stagnation.

Trump withdrew from one such deal, the Trans-Pacific Partnership, which would have strengthened U.S. corporate power at the expense of Canada.

If he pulls out of NAFTA, it will hurt all three countries in the short term. But trade will not stop. We will continue to trade with the U.S. under rules of the World Trade Organization. Tariffs under the WTO would add only 1.5 per cent to Canadian exports.

Trade deals have been a bad deal for many U.S. workers. Jobs have been sent elsewhere. Wages have been stagnant. The threat of moving jobs offshore looms over those workers who complain.

Candidate Trump characteristically expressed his disdain for NAFTA on a visit to Flint, Michigan, where hundreds of thousands had been poisoned by lead in the water. In a caustic manner, he said “It used to be that cars were made in Flint and you couldn’t drink the water in Mexico. And now the cars are made in Mexico and you can’t drink the water in Flint.” Funny, and a telling display of Trump’s lack of sympathy.

The American economy is on a roll and that could put Trump back in office for another four years. The U.S. unemployment rate was 3.9 per cent in April, 2018, a seventeen-year low. Under trade deals, corporate America is currently sending some of those jobs offshore. If trade deals are cancelled that will create a worker shortage that will drive wages up.

Of course, cancelling trade deals will also drive up the cost of goods for Americans but voters may not care, or will be unable to make the connection. The pain of unintended consequences has never been a problem for Trump says Thomas Frank:

“The president, always a fan of burning down the village in order to save it, is currently threatening to scuttle the whole agreement: ‘A lot of people don’t realize how good it would be to terminate NAFTA, because the way you’re going to make the best deal is to terminate NAFTA.’”

What matters for American workers is that they are back at work. No matter that the sparks for the economic recovery were ignited by former President Obama and chair of the Federal Reserve Janet Yellen.

In the 2020 campaign, the slogan could be “it’s the jobs, stupid.” And Trump could win.

Empty pipelines spill no oil

The Kinder Morgan pipeline should be built for the same reason as the pyramids –as a national monument.

The pyramids employed workers but served no practical purpose other than an grand burial site for the pharaohs. The humble graves of the workers would have served the pharaohs just as well.

   Composite: David Charbonneau

Construction of the People’s pipeline will employ well-paid union workers. It’s supposed to carry crude oil to Asia but that market doesn’t exist. Therefore, it will serve as a wonderful monument to the “National Interest.”

The pipeline should be built because it serves political interests. Premier Notley’s hopes to be re-elected depend on completion of the pipeline. In her letter to Maclean’s, she said:

“And together, we are building this pipeline — with B.C. workers, using steel made in Saskatchewan, from ore mined in Quebec. Now, it’s time to pick those tools back up, folks. We’ve got a pipeline to build.”

While I’m less optimistic about the future of fossil fuels than Notley, I would rather see her re-elected than Jason Kenney, leader of United Conservative party of Alberta. A progressive premier with delusions about the future of oil sands is better than a retrograde one with similar delusions.

The People’s pipeline will bring the feuding NDP family members back into the fold where they can return to civility. This spat has been an embarrassment for the NDP for the new leader Jagmeet Singh.  Until recently, the NDP was one big happy family; unlike other parties, there is only one party provincially and federally.

The pipeline should be built to strengthen our federation. Prime Minister Trudeau is correct in asserting the nation’s right to move goods to market over the objections of provinces. One province should not have the ability to stop the national transport of commodities.

While the symbolism of the pipeline is strong, the financial rationale for the pipeline hinges on flawed logic. Finance Minister Morneau claims the pipeline is required to get oil to “tidewater” so it can be sold at higher prices than in the U.S.  Economist Robyn Allan is not so sure:

“The facts don’t support the argument. The economics aren’t there. This project is financially compromised and not commercially viable (Globe and Mail, June 2, 2018).”

The fantasy is that Asia will pay more for the goop than it could be sold for in North America. However, in recent years, heavy crude has consistently sold for significantly less in Asia than the U.S.  Refineries in Texas, Louisiana and Mississippi are ready; they have been re-engineered to process the heavy crude of the oil sands.

Just one per cent of the oil in the existing pipeline flows to Asia. Another pipeline won’t change that fraction. Most oil goes to California and Washington State where it is refined and sold back to Canada as expensive automotive fuel.

The financial reality is that TransCanada’s Keystone XL pipeline to the U.S. is a better bet in getting crude oil to market. The off again/on again pipeline is breathing new life under the Trump administration.

The pipeline should be built and remain empty. Everyone will be happy, workers and environmentalists alike.

More reasons for reduced guilt while flying

I feel less guilty flying on vacation now that I’ve compared flying with driving by car. Both contribute to global warming about the same.

image: alternet

Comparisons between the two are tricky because there are many factors like the efficiency of the car and how many are traveling. And the distance the plane flies: more fuel is used on takeoff so longer flights are more efficient. The University of Oslo has weighed these factors and concludes: “With only one passenger in the car, corresponding to 20-25% occupancy, the climate impact is at the level of an average air trip (Yale Climate Connections).”

My burden of guilt might be reduced even further. Canadian airlines are looking at using renewable energy rather than fossil fuels. (Globe and Mail, July 25, 2107)”.

Air Canada has flown eight times on biofuels, most recently from Edmonton to San Francisco on May 2, 2018. The flight reduced carbon emissions by over ten tonnes, a 20% reduction in net carbon emissions. This is equivalent to taking 26 cars off the road for a month according to Air Canada. They are careful to say that the growth of biofuels can’t come at the expense of food crops. That should be easy because some land that is unsuitable for food may be fine for biofuels.

Even more arable land will come available because of global warming caused by people (gulp) going on vacation and spewing CO2 into the atmosphere.

Air Canada has also improved fuel efficiency by 43 per cent since 1990 and they hope to be carbon-neutral by 2020. “These efforts and other green initiatives to increase efficiency and reduce waste were recognized by Air Transport World which earlier this year named Air Canada the Eco-Airline of the Year for 2018,” they say.

Planes are becoming more efficient. That, combined with cleaner burning biofuels can reduce air pollution. According to NASA, a mixture of 50% aviation biofuel can cut air pollution caused up to 70%.

If I flew on a plane that used solar, electric or hydrogen fuels, that would be even better. But for now those sources don’t have the power necessary to launch commercial airplanes.

I could also buy carbon offsets to pay for my sins of emissions. WestJet has teamed up with Carbon Zero. Their calculator shows that my return trip to Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, generates 0.65 Tonnes of CO2. For an additional $14.69 I can contribute to an equal reduction of greenhouse gases. They offer two projects. One is diversion of organic waste from a Toronto landfill which prevents methane from escaping into the atmosphere. That’s good: methane is an even worse greenhouse gas than CO2.

However, while I may feel a little better, carbon offsets are a drop in the bucket. Offsets nowhere match the amount of carbon going into the atmosphere.

In addition, carbon offsets only appeal to people who worry about such things. For those who don’t think that humans contribute to global warming, offsets may look like a scam.

No guilt would better than reduced guilt but I can console myself, somewhat, by comparing myself with those who don’t give it a fleeting second thought.