Fracking is a threat to B.C. dams

There are environmental reasons to stop fracking in B.C. There are political reasons to continue.

In addition to the environmental reasons to stop fracking, there is a risk to B.C. dams. The list continues to grow: the contamination of groundwater, the disturbance of natural environments with roads and drilling rigs, the disposal of toxic water, and now the danger of earthquakes. Especially around dams, reservoirs, and tailings ponds.

earthquake

Freedom of information documents obtained by the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives reveals the concerns of BC Hydro officials.

BC Hydro became alarmed in 2009 when drilling started on lands near Peace Canyon Dam, downstream from the W.A.C. Bennett Dam; a dam which holds the world’s seventh-largest hydro reservoir by water volume.

Ray Stewart wrote, “BC Hydro believes there are immediate and future potential risks to BC Hydro’s reservoir, dam and power-generation infrastructure as a result of this coal-bed methane project.” He warned that earthquakes caused by fracking “may be greater than the original design criteria for the dam.”

His concerns are well-founded. Fracking is taking place in the Montney Basin which underlies much of the Peace River region, an area rich in shale gas. And fracking is proven to cause earthquakes.

Stewart also warned that fracking could “reactivate” ancient faults in the region, which could potentially set the stage for earthquakes. He also warned of “hydrogeologic impacts” on hydro reservoirs from fracking. He worried that the land might sink or that dried-out coal seams might ignite.

The land could sink and the coal dry out because the cavities that result from the extraction of gas. It occurs after water under pressure fractures the shale and is pumped out. The gas follows the pumped out water. The cavities are one thing, the toxic water is another.

To get rid of the toxic water, it’s pumped back into the earth below the area that’s been fracked. The pressure created triggers earthquakes.

Regulators have been slow to react. BC Hydro would like to stop the drilling within five kilometres of dam sites but regulators have not ruled it out, citing only “understandings” with drillers.

Even BC Hydro’s deputy CEO, Chris O’Riley, seems to be in denial. “Fracking by itself cannot generate large magnitude earthquakes.” That’s not what the U.S. Geological Survey found. While B.C.’s fracking is in its infancy, the USGS has been studying the alarming rise of fracking-induced earthquakes in Texas and Oklahoma for decades.

The USGS says that magnitude 6 fracking-induced earthquakes could occur which can damage even well-built structures. “But we can’t rule out quakes of magnitude 7 and above,” says Mark Petersen, chief of the National Seismic Hazard Mapping Project (Scientific American, July, 2016).

The political reason for fracking is that it’s the only plan we have. Premier Clark campaigned on her plan to liquefy natural gas plan and won — a plan to drill and export LNG and to power it with the Site C dam.

She’s likely to campaign on the same strategy again in the upcoming B.C. election. Even though LNG markets have dried up and the power from Site C won’t be needed for decades, it’s the only game in town.

It will be interesting to see what job-creation strategies other parties have as the campaign heats up.

Alberta to overtake BC on carbon reduction

Alberta is about to take the lead in reducing greenhouse gases says the non-partisan group Canada’s Ecofiscal Commission. In a recent report, they compared the four provinces that have a carbon price and concluded that Alberta will have the most stringent policy by 2020.

Canadians support carbon pricing -poll, April, 2016

Canadians support carbon pricing -poll, April, 2016

By stringent, they mean the most effective overall plan in reducing greenhouse gases in which carbon pricing is just one of five methods. Commission chair, Professor Chris Ragan, explains:

“When comparing provincial carbon pricing policies, it is useful to use metrics that take into account the various design details, such as coverage and trade that differ from policy to policy. That way we are comparing policies on a more level playing field.”

Of the five ways, carbon pricing is still the most important. For that reason, Alberta and British Columbia both have more stringent carbon pricing than Ontario and Quebec who use the cap-and-trade approach. Supporters of this approach argue that pricing alone through taxes is a misleading; that cap-and-trade will work.

The advantage of carbon pricing is that it is simple –it’s a direct tax applied at the gas pump. The cap-and-trade system uses market forces to determine the price of carbon by first setting a cap on the amount of carbon that any industry can emit and then allowing industries to buy and sell unused allowances. If one industry gets under the cap, they can sell the remainder to those who go over.

Watch out, you provinces without carbon pricing. The federal government is holding a big stick: if you don’t implement carbon pricing, the feds will. Federal Environment Minister Catherine McKenna said all governments will have to increase the stringency of their climate policies, including carbon pricing, in order for Canada to meet its international commitments.

Provinces aren’t used to federal leadership. In the past, the feds have been notoriously negligent in reducing greenhouse gases. As a result, Canada has become a international slacker in the fight to confront the global threat of climate change. Under the Chrétien Liberals, promises were made but never kept. Under the Harper Conservatives, no promises were made and provinces did as they pleased.

Several premiers have voiced opposition to any federal price on carbon – including Saskatchewan’s Brad Wall, Quebec’s Philippe Couillard and Nova Scotia’s Stephen McNeil.

Meanwhile, the clock is ticking, reports the Globe and Mail (July 27, 2016) and the commission’s report is timely. “Its report informs talks between Ottawa, the provinces and the territories as they attempt to reach a pan-Canadian climate strategy this fall. Officials are working through the summer on a series of policy issues, including efforts to forge a minimum national carbon price.”

While B.C. can take some pride in being the first province to implement carbon pricing, that lead is in jeopardy. With a B.C. election in less than a year, Premier Clark will have to walk the line between satisfying the business community that opposes higher carbon taxes and the progressive community who wants B.C. to keep the lead in the carbon-reduction.

Bumble bees deliver fungus control

Bumblebees deliver what fungicides can’t. That’s important because the use of fungicides has led to resistant strains. One fungus, botrytis, is devastating strawberries. It destroys a crop by leaving a grey mould over the berries and costs the farmer hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Busy Bumbler

Busy Bumbler

A small Canadian company, Bee Vectoring Technologies, is employing bees to deliver a beneficial fungus that displaces the harmful one. Once the good fungus, clonostachys, sets up shop the bad one is crowded out. A trial of the technology is now underway in a strawberry crop in North Carolina as reported in the Globe and Mail (May 3, 2016).

John Sutton, a retired plant pathologist, started work on the beneficial fungus in 1988. The problem was how to get the good fungus deep into the blossom that produces the fruit. Fortunately, that’s just what bees do. “They’re really good delivery vehicles,” said Dr. Sutton, “I mean, they’re better than FedEx.”

It took years for Dr. Sutton and his colleagues to isolate the most effective variety of clonostachys and generate it in large quantities. Because it’s a natural organism, it can’t be patented but the delivery system can. Because bees don’t naturally carry fungus around, a delivery system was devised in which bees walk through trays of good fungus. It clings to the bee’s legs and then they deliver it to the blossoms.

For farmers who are used to chemical solutions to fungal problems, the system requires some getting used to. “All this sounded good on paper,” said Colorado-based consultant Greg Faust who is helping Bee Vectoring market their system. “Now we’re putting it up against the tests and it’s performing quite well.” For farmers who aren’t used to handling bees, it’s a new mindset.

It may be a new mindset for farmers but the system will resonate with consumers who want for fewer chemicals. It’s a marketer’s dream. What could be more endearing than the image of bees carrying good fungus to blossoms and kicking out the bad ones?

The system shows promise in protecting other crops as well, such as sunflowers which are attacked by another bad fungus called sclerotina for which there is no effective control.

As often happens, good Canadian ideas languish because of lack of financial support. The little Canadian company went public last year and is trying to raise capital. It hopes to have their system approved by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in the next 18 months.

“The clock is ticking now,” said Michael Collinson, CEO of Bee Vectoring. He is busy flying to sites in the U.S. Mexico, Croatia and Spain to promote the system. A European competitor is promoting a similar system so it’s important that they get to market soon.

Syria’s climate refugees

“The start of the revolution was water and land,” says Mustafa Abdul Hamid, a 30-year-old farmer from Aleppo, Syria.

603fertilecrescent_large

The Arab Spring — that promise of political reform, the failed revolution, ISIS, civilian bombing, the misery of refugees, all started forty years ago with an ambitious plan to make Syria self-sufficient in food. Until they ran out of water, Syria had been relatively stable despite the oppressive Assad family regime.

The source of Syrian grief is climate change. In the 1970s, drilling wells for irrigation water seemed like a good idea. Back then, the military regime of the current president’s father launched a program to increase crop yield. As politicians are inclined to do, he paid no attention to aquifers or climate change.

“Farmers made up for water shortages by drilling wells to tap the country’s underground water reserves. When water tables retreated, people dug deeper,” explains reports John Wendle in Scientific American (March, 2016).

Wendle went to Syria to talk to farmers and to listen to refugees. “Climatologists say Syria is a grim preview of what could be in store for the larger Middle East, the Mediterranean and other parts of the world. The drought, they maintain, was exacerbated by climate change. The Fertile Crescent—the birthplace of agriculture some 12,000 years ago—is drying out. Syria’s drought has destroyed crops, killed livestock and displaced as many as 1.5 million Syrian farmers,” reports Wendle.

Life was good before the drought, Hamid recalls. He and his family farmed three hectares of topsoil so rich it was the color of henna. They grew wheat, fava beans, tomatoes and potatoes. Hamid used to harvest three-quarters of a metric ton of wheat per hectare in the years before the drought. Then the rains failed, and his yields plunged to barely half that amount. “All I needed was water,” he says. “And I didn’t have water. So things got very bad. The government wouldn’t allow us to drill for water. You’d go to prison.”

By 2005, the problem of water shortage was so obvious that it couldn’t be ignored and Assad’s son, the new president, made it illegal to dig new wells without purchasing a license.

Syrians who had bags of cash to bribe official drilled ever deeper into the receding water table; until the money and/or the water ran out.

The drought, aggravated by climate change touched off social turmoil that burst into civil war. The source of climate change as the underpinning of Syria’s woes is confirmed not only by a study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences but by the farmers themselves that Wendle spoke to in refugee camps. “That’s exactly what happened,” they told him.

“What’s happening globally—and particularly in the Middle East—is that groundwater is going down at an alarming rate,” Colin Kelley of the University of California, told Wendle. “It’s almost as if we’re driving as fast as we can toward a cliff.”

Sand mining and fracking

Standing on a beach, the sand seems infinite but it’s being mined at an alarming rate to make concrete. Standing on the edge of an open pit sand mine used for fracking is hazardous and the pit is an ugly scar on the earth.

sand

Sand is necessary for fracking. Once the shale deposits are fractured under high pressure, sand holds the pores open to allow oil or natural gas to flow.

Fracking operations have been suspended as cheap oil floods the market. But fracking will be back and so will the need for frac sand. When that happens, the B.C. Liberals will once again be flogging international markets with our natural gas under the pretence that it’s a clean fuel.

As it is, B.C.’s frac sand must be brought in from other provinces at a cost of $250 to $300 a tonne. Since single fracked well can use 10,000 tonnes, it’s obvious that oil and gas companies would like to have frac sand closer to home.

Not any sand will do; not what you’d find on a beach says Sean Cockerham of McClatchy News:

“Rounded quartz sand is needed because it’s strong enough to handle the pressure and depths involved in fracking. Beach sand is too angular and full of impurities.”

Descriptions for frac sand take on the connoisseurs’ appreciation of the soil for fine wine: the terroir of a particular region’s climate and soils that affect the taste of wine. The “Northern White” sand of Wisconsin is excellent for fracking. The hickory, or brown, sand of Central Texas is less desirable but has the benefit of being close to the home of the best oil and gas fields in the U.S.

Unlike the making of fine wine, the landscape is destroyed in the extraction of fine frac sand. Not only have that, but the piles of sand present a health hazard that’s worsened as a result of the slowdown in fracking says Ryan Schuessler for Aljazeera. Victoria Trinko lives one-half kilometer away from one of these drifting piles of sand.

“’That particular mine started in July 2011,’ Trinko, 69, said. ‘By April of the next year, I had developed a raspy voice. I was wheezing. Sore throat.’ She said her doctor later diagnosed her with asthma resulting from her environment. Her cows have started coughing, too, she said.”

What’s blowing in the wind is c, released into the air during frac sand mining. The mining company is supposed to keep the sand piles damp to keep it from blowing away but with the slowdown, maintenance is not profitable. Silica is a carcinogen and can cause silicosis, an incurable lung disease that can lead to death.

Stikine Energy Corp. of Vancouver thinks it’s found a solution to B.C.’s frac sand problem. Stikine president Scott Broughton says his company has discovered very promising deposits, large enough to support open pit mining. Despite the slowdown, the deposits 90 kilometres north of Prince George are still listed in B.C.’s major project website, waiting to be mined.

The dangers of frac sand should be another nail in the coffin of fracking but once the price of oil soars, watch for a resurrection.

Clash of law, politics, treaty rights, and technology at Site C dam

Protests continue at the Site C dam location on the Peace River despite a court that allows building.  The Supreme Court of British Columbia ruled in September that attempts by the Prophet River and West Moberly First Nations to quash an environmental certificate issued by the government were invalid.

site c

“I am satisfied that the petitioners [first nations] were provided a meaningful opportunity to participate in the environmental assessment process,” Justice Robert Sewell wrote.

That didn’t stop Arthur Hadland from blocking construction. The long-time politician and area farmer was charged with mischief after being arrested earlier this month. “I don’t want to be a hero,” Hadland told CBC News. “Someone has to speak for the river.” He’s a Peace River Regional District director and ran as an independent in the last provincial election. Pat Pimm, who won the riding for the B.C. Liberals, is in favour of the dam.

Helen Knott of the Prophet River First Nation is occupying an historic trading post site in protest of the construction. Knott and her group are committed to defending treaty rights, even if it means being arrested.

“It’s not necessarily anybody goes into it with that idea, like, yeah, we’re going to be arrested, right? It’s that, yeah, we’re committed to saving this tract of land and to, you know, actively use our treaty rights here,” she told CBC News.

Knott’s view epitomizes a clash of cultures in B.C. This province is unique in Canada in that only two historical treaties were signed with indigenous people. As a result the question of land ownership remained unsettled for much of B.C. until the Tsilhqot’in decision of the Supreme Court of Canada. It ruled that, yes, B.C. natives had aboriginal title to a 1,750 square kilometres region.

The implications of the Supreme Court ruling are unclear. Globe and Mail reporter Jeffrey Simpson says: “The court’s ruling was complicated, which might explain the variety of interpretations. It did say that the Tsilhqot’in First Nation had aboriginal title over a portion of the land it had claimed, but by no means all of it.”

B.C.’s aboriginal leaders have a different interpretation. The Union of British Columbia Indian Chiefs and representatives of the First Nations Summit and the B.C. Assembly of First Nations argue that the ruling gives title to aboriginals over all of British Columbia, not just pieces where the courts decide title exists.

In a press release last June, First Nations affirmed that in one of four principles: “1) Acknowledgement that all our relationships are based on recognition and implementation of the existence of indigenous peoples inherent title and rights, and pre-confederation, historic and modern treaties, throughout British Columbia.”

In their view, in light of the ruling, nothing has changed from before European settlers came here.

From a technical viewpoint, there’s disagreement about the need for this dam. I argued a year ago that, while dams are an excellent complement to solar and wind, Site C will produce power that we don’t need now; especially not now that the scaled-down LNG plants won’t need the electricity. While the technology is sound, the location at site C isn’t at this time.

 

 

B.C.’s Carbon Tax not as advertised

B.C.’s carbon tax is praised nationally and internationally as achieving the best of both worlds: reducing CO2 emissions (GHG) without weakening our economy. I wish that it were true because I take pride in B.C.’s  leadership.

carbon tax

B.C.’s economy has not been hurt, but that’s because our carbon tax is small compared to other taxes.  The carbon tax is only 7 cents per litre compared to 30 cents per litre for fuel tax, excise tax, and GST.

The only way that B.C. meets its target for GHG reduction is by buying debatable carbon credits, not through the carbon tax. Marc Lee, senior economist for the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, explains the mischief:

“The B.C. government makes the dubious claim that they met their interim GHG reduction target for 2012 of 6% below 2007 levels. Even then, B.C.’s numbers showed only a 4.4% drop, which, as noted, involves a one-time drop from 2008 to 2009. The claim of 6% reduction is based on the purchase of bogus carbon credits (offsets), making it more fiction than fact.”

The trouble with the purchase of offsets is that there is no detailed reporting on how offsets were used. The whole scheme suffers from “massive credibility problems” after a scathing report by the auditor general.

The 4.4 per cent drop in GHG wasn’t because of the carbon tax. It was because of the Great Recession of 2008 when the world saw a reduction because of slowing economies. Even the U.S. reduced GHG. Between 2007 and 2009, emissions fell by 10 per cent, half of it due to less coal burned, half due to the recession. The Smithsonian magazine says:

“In effect, more than half the carbon decline was due to a drastic drop in the volume of goods consumed by the U.S. population.”

Even the claim that B.C.’s economy was not hurt by the carbon tax is suspect; all of Canada’s economy grew. From 2008 to 2013, B.C.’s economy grew by 12.6 per cent while Canada was 15.1 per cent.

“If we go to constant dollars, there is a very slight edge to B.C. over Canada, but it works out to 0.07% per year in GDP growth rates.”

Our carbon tax could be something worth bragging about if it was significant. With relatively low fuel costs, now would be the time to increase them. If the tax was increased from the current $30/tonne to $200/tonne, fuel prices would only increase to what they were last year.

And since the carbon tax is revenue neutral, there would be no net increase in taxes. Even then, a better idea would be to invest the tax in renewable energy and public transit to lower GHG further. Meanwhile, let’s get real about our carbon tax.

“We need to stop telling fairy tales about the province’s climate action policies and its carbon tax (and I say this as a general supporter of carbon taxes).”

B.C.’s Premier Clark has a lot of explaining to do. Her proposed LNG project will result in the province exceeding targets. Clark’s new plan to be released by December will tell us whether our pride in the carbon tax is warranted.