Community Open House on Coal Exports

Thursday Night, there is a Community Open House to discuss the proposed addition of a coal terminal at Surrey-Fraser Docks. This one featuring City Officials, no less than 2 (two!) Members of Parliament, a Member of the Provincial Legislature, and and array of energy, health and environment experts.

I have already opined once on this topic, but it might be time for an update.

You might have heard about this issue. Local Candidate-in-Waiting James Crosty has been characteristically outspoken, the Quayside Community Board has raised concerns, as have the NWEP, and others during a recent public rally on the topic. Now, the City of New Westminster has officially opposed the project until come concerns are addressed.

In direct opposition to the City’s elected officials and the vocal portion of their customer base (but toeing the line of the Surrey Chamber), the New Westminster Chamber of Commerce just released a presser indicating their support for “environmentally sound coal shipments” – apparently unaware of the oxymoron contained within that phrase.

Nothing about the shipment of coal is environmentally sound. Simply put, this bituminous coal from Wyoming (Montana?) represents the dirtiest energy available to mankind, and is a small piece in the Global Climate Change Problem. This is not high-grade anthracite coal used for making steel that we can beat into ploughshares, this is scrubby brown coal that will be burned in a power plant somewhere in the far east to produce electricity or steam cheaper than the same energy can be produced by more sustainable means. The annual greenhouse gas and climate change implications of burning this much coal (not including the extraction or transportation impacts) will be equivalent to 200x the annual GHG output of the entirety of New Westminster – all the homes, businesses, cars and industry combined.

Port Metro Vancouver (the only legislative oversight body involved here, and therefore the party we are talking to when discussing this project) and Fraser Surrey Docks simply brush these greenhouse gas concerns away – the coal will not be burned here, therefore it does not count in “our” greenhouse gas accounting. This is the same argument being made by proponents of the Northern Gateway Pipeline and the Kinder Morgan Pipeline expansion. This argument is also used by Christy Clark at al. when talking about LNG exports, despite the fact the most damaging GHG impacts of that project will be released right here in BC, and not at the eventual burning site. Without getting too sidetracked by that particular lie- the central argument is ethically compromised.

A simile one could apply is the street drug trade. If one does not manufacture Crack Cocaine, and one does not smoke it, there is no reason we should restrict the business growth that comes from selling it. Hey- I’m just moving this stuff offshore (or off the sidewalk) to people who want it- I’m not responsible for where it goes! Why should we stop the job-generating resale of Crack Cocaine?

Another more direct comparison is to Canada’s asbestos industry. Canada banned the domestic use of asbestos decades ago because it apparently killed people. However, Canada has refused to ban the mining and export of the material to the Third World – even going so far as to lobby the UN from officially recognizing the scientifically-established cancer-causing properties of the material. The Harper Government(tm) was even willing to subsidize the industry in a couple of important Quebec ridings, until the newly-elected Quebec government shut that shit down.

Similarly, this crappy coal from Wyoming (Montana?) would never be burned to make electricity in BC, it is actually illegal for BC Hydro to burn this stuff because of the nasty environmental impacts. Yet, we are willing to transport it through our Ports, have it do it’s environmental and social damage elsewhere, and take our skim off the top. In this case, the skim is 50 jobs. Does that sound like an ethical approach to business? Does this sound like “environmentally sound coal movement?”

Much like the oil pipeline and LNG examples, the increase in coal export flies in the face of BC’s claims to be a “carbon neutral” province, or that because it has a neutered Carbon Tax, it is a leader in Climate Change Policy. Currently, According to the Government of BC oil, gas and coal represents much less that 2% of BC’s GDP and well less than 1% of employment – it is a minuscule portion of our true economy. Yet, we are being told that unfettered support for these industries is fundamental to the future or our Province’s economic survival. Some have suggested we are betting a lot on a pipe dream.

The reality is that these activities are threatening other sectors of our economy: fisheries, farming, forestry, tourism, manufacturing, etc. The Petro-economy is impacting our dollar which challenges all other industries, while the science-stifling required to support the industry is hurting our global competitiveness and global reputation. Climate change is threatening our salmon, and has already decimated our forests. We plan to displace farmland in order to provide electricity for carbon extraction and refrigeration, while depleting and fouling the water supply we need to keep agriculture viable in our interior valleys. This will, in turn, make us more dependent on food imports, push up healthcare costs, and turn SuperNatural British Columbia into something we may not recognize.

Of course, this isn’t all on Fraser Surrey Docks, or even Port Metro Vancouver. They are just the current  active front in a larger battle for the future of our Province’s economy, and the local focus in the discussion about the future of our planet’s climate. Are we going to become a hydrocarbon-exporting Province as our main industrial activity? Are we going to continue to ignore the global implications of our unsustainable business practices? Are we going to continue the drift from a world leader in Environmental Protection to an embarrassing laggard? Who the hell is making these decisions, and why?!

That is why this little port approval process is bringing together elected leaders from Municipal, Provincial, and Federal levels to lead a public discussion on what it all means.

I’m suggesting you show up. It should be interesting.

You can even watch it live on your computer at We truly live in the future, let’s start acting like it.

Abandoned Gas Stations – Part 2

In an earlier post, I talked about why there are so many empty lots that used to be gas stations on apparently valuable urban lots. The short version: the structure of the Provincial Contaminated Sites Regulation allows it, there is little municipalities can do about it, and the business interests of a risk-adverse landowner often encourage it.

Typical White Pipe Farm. 

For Part 2, I want to talk about what can be done about it. Short version: not much, unless we can find some political will and community pressure to bring these fallow lands back into (economic) production. If those arrive, there are three potential strategies that are worth exploring.

Change the Regulations.
The Contaminated Sites Regulation is not perfect, and bureaucrats in the Land Remediation Section of the Ministry of Environment would be the first to acknowledge that. It is a complex piece of regulation, first developed (believe it or not) to provide standards for the remediation of the old Expo86 site. The regulation came to force in 1996, and has been constantly evolving, both to increase protection of human health and the environment, and to make for a more efficient application of the regulations.

I already mentioned two issues that lead to empty former gas stations: the inability to “sell the liability” along with the contaminated land, and the lack of a requirement to clean up a contaminated site in a timely manner. Both of these could be changed tomorrow (well, after the election I suppose) with a signature from the Minister, but both would have unintended consequences that are probably best avoided.

The first is obvious. Separating the liability for contamination from the person responsible for it violates one of the fundamental principles of modern environmental legislation: the “polluter pays” principle. With no threat of being held responsible for contaminating lands, there is little incentive for property owners to take preventative action to avoid polluting it. After several years of irresponsible land management, the owner could effectively avoid cleaning up by selling the land (and the liability) to a numbered company on the Caymans, who will dissolve the day after, leaving no-one owning the land. Abandoned sites like this ultimately become the property (and responsibility) of the Province, and they have better things to do with your money than running around cleaning up other people’s contamination.

As for the second, there already is a provision in the EMA to “order” a property owner to clean up their site, but in the wording of the Act there has to be a compelling reason for the Director to do this. In essence, the government isn’t all that interested in marching onto your land and telling you what to do with it- unless it is causing other people environmental problems. If there is a human health or environmental risk identified on your site, the Ministry can order you to remedy it. If your property is just sitting fallow, it is way outside of the jurisdiction of the Ministry of Environment to force you to make it productive.

Use Municipal Powers.
The problem here is that Municipalities actually have very limited powers under the Local Government Act. Forcing someone to clean up a contaminated site is not one of those powers. However, Cities can make decisions and Bylaws regarding land use, and they can charge property taxes.

In theory (and at this point, I need to make it really clear that I am a geoscientist, not a lawyer!) a Municipality could, through an amendment to the OCP, create a property class relating to gas stations and other potentially-contaminating businesses (we don’t do coal gasification much anymore, but drycleaners, metal galvanizers, and a few other industries are culprits that were historically as bad as gas stations, if not as plentiful). They could then apply a special property tax Bylaw on these properties if they are decommissioned. Note, they would probably lose in court if they tried to apply it only to the property at the corner of XXX and YYY, but if they made a broad enough category that applied to a type of landuse as opposed to a single lot, it would probably stick.

The goal here is not to be punitive (no elected official wants to be called Anti-Business), but to subtly change the business case so the “do nothing” option was no longer the most logical one for the property owner. The City could reinforce this by giving a 5-year exception from the extra tax (which should give adequate time for any investigation and remediation to a motivated landowner) if the company develops a Remedial Action Plan accepted by the Ministry of Environment, and sticks to the timelines of that plan. Or the City could keep the extra taxes in trust instead of adding them to revenue, and allow the property owner to apply them to the cost of remediation once the site is cleaned up. The cost to the City of either of these actions would, in the long run, be returned to the City in the increased land value created.

The upside of this would be incentive given to the property owner to make the site whole, while the City sees a piece of land put back into tax-generating productivity much sooner. The downside is that the owners of contaminated sites are likely to view this as a “tax-grab”, and it may significantly dis-incentivise the renewal of old buildings. Remember from Part 1, this whole process started when a property owner applied for a Permit to demolish, rezone, or develop a piece of land. If that permit application never happens, a capital-letter Contaminated Site is never identified. The only thing potentially worse for an urban area than weed-filled white pipe farms is the same number of derelict buildings where owners are afraid to knock them down.

Think outside the box
There may be other, more creative solutions to this problem that don’t actually involve cleaning the sites up. It has proven possible to actually use those vacant lots and make them part of the living neighbourhood without replacing the buildings.

The most commonly cited example of this is the Davie Village Community Garden. You have probably walked by this site at Davie and Burrard in Vancouver, one of the busiest intersections on the Downtown Peninsula. This used to be a gas station, and there were some significant challenges related to the remediation of the site.

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Sometime in 2008-2009, the developer of the site, prompted by community groups and with the assistance of the City, agreed to allow a Community Garden to be developed on a large portion of the site. The incentive to the Developer was significant property tax relief afforded by the City (by allowing the land to be classed as non-profit/ recreational instead of commercial), and an agreement that the Garden use would be temporary with a set closing date, so that their ability to develop will not be restricted once they get all their development ducks in a row.

Another hurdle was the “contaminated site” issue- not the first location you think of when you want to plant a garden! So an environmental consultant was brought in to test the soil and vapours, and assure that the residual contaminants were not going to enter the food chain at the surface, or impact the health of people using the garden space. One advantage of this site was that the contamination was not “high risk”, in that its concentration was low, and the contamination is far enough down that even the deepest-rooting vegetables were going to remain several metres away from it.

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Finally, there are some legal liability issues that the property owner would need to address- no property owner wants to be exposed to nuisance claims for everyone who stubs a toe or trips on a rake on their land, so liability insurance has to be part of the business plan for the property owner.

This is not a solution that works everywhere, but it does work surprisingly well in many locations. There is a not-for-profit organization based in Vancouver called SOLEfood Farms who are doing urban farming on numerous fallow sites, moving along as land becomes available, or is lost to eventual re-development. They have managed to string together people who have traditional work barriers, people who have little access to land or fresh food, and businesses that are looking to build community as part of their business plans. I can’t say enough good things about the success these folks have generated – you need to go there and give them a virtual high-five.

However, even if the Community Garden is not perfect for every site, there is potential at many sites to simply take down the Blue Rental Fence of Neglect and open the space, even temporarily, for parks or amenity use. In some spots, that might mean a few benches, some planters, maybe a grassy mound for picnics. In others, this may be a basketball court or bocce green, even a temporary art installation. These spots can be ideal “pocket parks” that cost the taxpayers very little while adding a bit of green, human space to busy urban areas, adding to the value of the adjacent properties instead of reducing it.

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How to make this happen? The Ministry has to agree that the proposed site use is safe. The Municipality needs to provide an incentive to the property owner, and reduced or deferred taxes is the best incentive they have. The property owner has to be reassured that this use will not cause them risk, or ultimately scuttle their plans for the site. It seems a dedicated community volunteer group to bring the partners together and shepherd the site has been the catalyst in the past. Maybe your favourite site just needs that catalyst.

What’s with abandoned Gas Stations? Part 1

One of the things I do in my professional life is deal with contaminated sites.

In the same way that whenever I tell anyone I am geologist they ask me about when the next earthquake is going to happen (short answer: I have no idea), when people find out I work with contamination, they always ask about old gas stations. Why are there all these old gas station lots with nothing on them but weeds and white pipes? Or more commonly: what is going on with the old gas station at the corner of XXX and YYY?

All of the images in this post are straight screen captures from GoogleMaps.
I spent 5 minutes scrolling around local communities looking for examples of
White Pipe Farms. I presume they are all former gas stations, but I do not actually
 know the history of most of the sites I found just by surfing. Nothing I say below
should be specifically related to the sites I took images of – every site has it’s
own history, and every owner has their own motivations.

It is a long story, and regular readers know how much I love long stories.

In British Columbia, there are two pieces of related legislation – the Environmental Management Act and the Contaminated Sites Regulation – that control how contaminated land in the Province is managed. Municipalities have very limited powers over contaminated lands, unless of course they own the lands. It is the form of the EMA and CSR that cause these valuable urban commercial lots to sit empty for years.

A contaminated site becomes a capital-letter Contaminated Site when the owner of the property applies to the City for one of 5 specific permits named in Section 40 of the EMA: Subdivison, Rezoning, Development, Demolition or Soil Removal. The City is required by the EMA to collect certain information from the owner and send that off to the Ministry of Environment prior to issuing a permit. This makes sense, when you think about it. Those 5 permit types will change the character of the site – evidence of past property uses disappear when one of those 5 permits are issued. The Province wants to take that opportunity to document whether there is any contamination before evidence of that contamination disappears. If the site is contaminated, then the Ministry will most often prevent those permits from being issued until someone deals with the contamination.

So if you have a gas station, and you want to tear it down and put in condos or a In-and-Out Burger, you need to demonstrate to the Ministry that the land is not contaminated before you change the use. If it is contaminated, you need to either clean that contamination up or demonstrate through a rigorous science-based “Risk Assessment” that the contamination is contained, isn’t impacting your neighbours, and will not cause harm to human health or the environment at any time in the future. If the contamination is not stable, or if it could possibly cause harm, then you are not getting your permit, and your condo-building or burger-schlepping dreams will have to wait.

Cleaning it up can mean a lot of things. Sometimes, you just go in there with an excavator and dig out all of the contaminated soil and throw some ORC in the hole to cause hydrocarbon-eating bacteria to bloom in the groundwater. Bob’s yer uncle.

However, if the contamination is a long way down, it can be really expensive to dig it out, especially on an urban lot. Sometimes the contamination has migrated to include the neighbouring property, and the neighbour doesn’t want their building to be excavated. Disposing of this contaminated soil can be expensive. The cost of a complicated excavation can easily exceed the value of the land.

Alternately, in most cases the contamination will not last forever. Gasoline spilled in the ground will migrate downwards until it hits groundwater, then sit on top of the groundwater like Cointreau on top of a B-52. Some of it evaporates and moves back up through the soil, some is dissolved in the groundwater and flows away- diluting with distance. Some simply breaks down chemically in to less harmful compounds, while some gets eaten up by natural hydrocarbon-metabolizing bacteria. All of these degradation processes can be helped along from the surface.

You can stick wells in the ground and blow air down into the hydrocarbons and groundwater (“air sparging”). This breaks up the hydrocarbons so they dissipate, increases the evaporation, and provides fresh oxygen that encourages bacterial decomposition of the gas. You can also stick tubes higher in the ground and suck out the vapours, accelerating the dissipation. You can stick chemicals down the wells that will accelerate the degradation (but this is tightly controlled by the Water Act – you cannot stick the kind of dispersants they used in the Deepwater Horizon spill into a well in BC- things like Milk of Magnesia are typically used to boost oxygen levels).

Regardless, this type of in-situ remediation can take years or even decades, and in the meantime we can end up with a vacant lot, surrounded by a rental fence, with white pipes sticking out of the ground everywhere. Those white pipes are monitoring wells, which are used to keep track of the groundwater conditions, or the air sparging or vapour extraction wells for in-situremediation systems.

Or, of course, the owner can do absolutely nothing. (In reporting, this is what they call “burying the lead”). You see, nothing in the Environmental Management Act or the Contaminated Sites Regulation actually forces the owner of a contaminated site to clean it up.

That’s right. The owner is limited by what (s)he can do with the contaminated land (because they can’t get those municipal permits), but unless they have a compelling business reason to do something about the contamination, there is no law or other requirement saying they need to take any action towards cleaning it up. So the weed-covered empty lot can sit there literally forever.

It is at least theoretically possible for the Director of Waste Management (the senior bureaucrat in the Land Remediation Section of the Ministry) to order an owner to clean up contamination, but that power is very, very rarely exercised. In practice, the Ministry only does this if there is an imminent risk to persons or property caused by the contamination. Not unprecedented, but very unusual. There is no sign the Ministry is interested in increasing this power. And there is nothing a City or neighbouring properties can do to compel the Ministry to take this action.

So why is it (apparently) always abandoned gas stations? Near as I can tell, there are three reasons for this:

First, pretty much every gas station built before 1980 is a contamination nightmare. The old technology of buried single-walled steel tanks almost invariably leaked after a few years in the ground. Since gas was so damn cheap before the 1970’s oil crises, it was of little concern to most station owners if they lost a few gallons a day to leaks, presuming they even noticed. It was cheaper to let it happen than to dig the tanks up and replace them. A few gallons a day can, however, add up to a hell of a lot of hydrocarbon in the ground over several years. Then there was the waste oil and solvent disposal methods from the 60s. At a time when PCBs were used to clean carburettors, let’s just say housekeeping to protect the environment was not standard practice at Cooter’s Garage. This is no longer the case, I hasten to note. Modern gas stations use double-walled vacuum-sealed plastic underground tanks with automatic leak detection systems, and are very careful to recycle their valuable waste oils and solvents, mostly due to tougher laws. The legacy of old practices still haunts us.

A second factor is that there are far fewer gas stations today than there were 40 years ago. The smaller two-pump Mom’n’Pop operations have been replaced with larger multi-bay major company franchises. This means many of the former stations from the Century of the Car have been closed in the last couple of decades, and they all probably have contamination issues.

The third factor is that the closed stations usually belong to large multi-national oil companies. These companies have a lot of assets, and are in no big rush to divest themselves of fiddly little assets like a block of City land. The minuscule cost of paying property tax on an empty lot in New Westminster disappears when these companies are making multi-billion-dollar revenues. Commonly, the cost and hassle of cleaning up the land isn’t offset by the selling price they could get for it. They can sit on it for years, maybe the contamination will get better with gradual degradation and dissipation. Or not.

One thing they do not want to do is sell it without cleaning it up first, and that is, again, because the CSR does not allow for the “persons responsible” for the contamination to sell that liability. Nothing (except for your bank’s loan officer) prevents you from buying a contaminated site, but you cannot legally “buy the contamination”.

This actually makes sense. The last thing we want is for every owner of a contaminated site to sell that liability to some numbered company registered in Belize. That company could buy up 10 contaminated sites then go insolvent and disappear, abandoning the land for the Province to clean up. No-body wants that.

So the person who caused the contamination will always own it, as long as they exist. The big oil companies plan to exist for a long time. If they sell you their contaminated land, they no longer control what you do on that land. You could go back and clean the contamination up, and send the bill to the Oil Company, but if they wanted to spend that money themselves without you being the unaccountable middle-man. You could even conceivably do something that harms yourself or others with that contamination that belongs to the oil company, and the oil company will be responsible for some of that harm. Oil companies hate risk, so they would rather just own the land, put a fence around it, say “no trespassing” and do whatever due diligence is required to keep anyone from messing with their contamination. Just to be on the safe side.

So too often, the most rational business case is to just let that white pipe farm sit there, contributing nothing to the community for perpetuity. And there is nothing the City can do about it.

Some time in the next week or two, I will write Part 2 – about what the Province, Cities and neighbourhoods can do about these sites.

What a difference a year makes

It was only a year ago, just a couple of days before Earth Day, that the Harper Government(tm) announced their progress at tearing the heart out of Canada’s strongest habitat protection legislation.

Their re-writing of major portions of the Fisheries Act (a part of the Mother of All Omnibus Bills) sent shock-waves across the community of biologists, ecologists, and environmental scientists whose job it was to assure the protections afforded by legislation were followed by industry and the general public. This was partly because they recognized the combined neutering of the Fisheries Act and the Environmental Assessment Act would result in less protection of ecological areas, but mostly because the people whose job it was to advise their clients in industry about how to follow the laws now had very little idea what the law was!

It is like Victoria announcing (as part of their budget, none the less) that they would remove all references to speed limits from the Motor Vehicle Act, without telling the Police ahead of time, giving the police a chance to comment on the changes, assessing the potential impacts of the changes, or developing any mechanism to permit safe driving with no speed limits.

In typical Harper Government(r) style, they put a lot more thought into the photo op and announcement than they did into the actual legislation. Here we see a photo of Minister of Fishy Stuff Ashfield standing beside James Brennan of Ducks Unlimited, to demonstrate how conservation groups support the changes, so therefore it must all be good.


I am going to put aside for now my own reservations about Ducks Unlimited. They are not so much an ecological protection group as a group interested in preserving areas where they can take their dogs for a walk while filling ducks with steel shot. However, they have been effective at preserving large tracts of vitally important wetlands, so I will judge them by results, not by motivations.

There they were, amongst Canada’s (well, America’s, but I guess DU is exempt Joe Oliver’s list of suspiciously-foreign-funded shit-list of environmental protection groups) most renown conservation groups lining up with the Minister of Fishiness talking about how this was going to be great, a bold step forward in fish protection rationalization and conservation management mumble mumble mumble…

At the time, it made more sense than appeared on the surface. Although the changes in the Fisheries Act were specifically requested by and delivered to large oil companies, at the time of the announcement all the talk was about how these amendments would help the poor suffering rural farmer who was tired of having to jump through regulatory hoops every time he wanted to maintain his drainage ditch.

Turns out now, the poor rural farmer got screwed, at least in BC. You see, until these changes, the farmer would simply ask his local Fisheries Officer to approve the works he needed done. The Fisheries Officer, being a local Fisheries and Oceans Canada employee with training in fish ecology would tell the farmer to follow standard fish protection practice (keep sediment out of the open stream, don’t work in the stream during windows of time critical to salmon lifecycles, don’t block the stream completely, etc.) and go for it. It was a simple straight-forward process that just paralleled good farming practice, it was completely free to the farmer (except for a week or two planning ahead), and there was lots of guidance available from the DFO. You know, government services you pay taxes for, that kind of stuff.

Now, that Fisheries Officer is no longer going to provide that approval, or that guidance. Mostly because she is likely one of the 30% of Fisheries and Oceans staff that got fired. The approval process will be centralized, so the person granting approvals will not necessarily know your local conditions, or even be a biologist. since the approvals are science-based, the poor farmer is likely going to need to hire a Qualified Professional (biologist, geoscientist or engineer) to assess whether the works constitute a threat to fish, then get that professional to help navigate through the approval process. Trust me, those professionals don’t come cheap.

Well, they are cheap in context of a multi-billion dollar pipeline project (as Big Oil Corp Inc. will already have Qualified Professionals on staff), but for a potato farmer in Chilliwack, that $200/hr consulting fee he will be paying to someone who recently got laid off from a job at DFO to complete an Aquatic Effects Assessment will not be small potatoes. These guys should be thinking about rounding up the calves and heading back downtown, because they just got royally screwed by Minister Ashfield and the Harper Government(tm).

Back to Ducks Unlimited. With the changes to the Fisheries Act being marketed last year as a big boon to long suffering farmers, it was little surprise that Ducks Unlimited, with its deep rural and agricultural support base, especially in the Prairies, were ready to line up in support of the changes. One year on, it seems they might have caught wind that the bag of ducks they were sold might contain more than one cat. Just this week, Ducks Unlimited Canada were signatories to a Joint Policy Statement with other conservation groups, which expresses significant concerns with the changes including:

“Without explicit policy support it will be unclear where the Act applies on the landscape making it difficult to implement and enforce”;

“If some forms of harm are not prohibited under the Act it is unclear how a long term trend of declining quality of recreational fisheries will be avoided due to incremental impacts”; and

“Recent reductions in staff and research facilities make it unclear how DFO intends to support implementation of the amended Act and the new fisheries protection policy”.

Makes me wonder how long until Ducks Unlimited are added to the list of foreign-funded radicals trying to destroy Canada through environmental protection.

sunday! Sunday! SUNDAY!

I wrote a bit about this Surrey Fraser Docks coal issue a couple of months ago, but the issue (mostly, I think, due to the badger-like political ferocity of one James Crosty) keeps on rolling.

Several Municipalities up and down the Fraser have now taken, or are exploring, positions on this project, and even the Metro Vancouver Parks and Environment Committee discussed the issue at their last meeting. Coal terminals seem to be in the spotlight right now, with Port Metro Vancouver once again serving as whipping boy in the political discussion.

The Port might be getting concerned, as I was one of those randomly selected folk to take part in a phone survey “to determine local opinions about transportation issues in your community”. The survey was a short one, but had a couple of themes (with a short version of my answers):

What is the most important issue in your community? (Transportation)

Do you know much about Port Metro Vancouver? (yes, more than any healthy person should)

Do you believe international trade is important to your community? (a question so ambiguous, it is hard to answer)

Do you trust communications you receive from the Port? (This was an interesting one. I had to answer “yes”, as I don’t think the Port management are dishonest or secretive – I think they are misguided and irresponsible. They have not made it a secret that they want to turn ALR land into industrial land, or that they will continue to profit from an expanding hydrocarbon export business and will consider Climate Change impacts as somebody else’s problem)

Do you know about the Surrey Fraser Docks plan to move coal? (yes, see above)

Do you agree with moving commodities like coal and oil through our ports? (problem here’s is the use of the phrase “commodities like”. I support the moving of grain through our ports, grain is a commodity, is moved in bulk, and comprises mostly hydrocarbons – is that “like” Coal? I do not support the moving of coal for the reasons I outlined in my February post, and I determined this is really a question about coal, and answered no)

Be sure to look out for the results of this survey, as I have heard through Twitter that many people who have strong opinions on this project were asked to respond.

And if you were NOT called, but want to voice your opinion about the Coal Terminal proposal in Surrey, or even about the ethics of British Columbia ramping up coal production and export at the same time that atmospheric carbon dioxide is approaching 400ppm, you have an opportunity this Sunday.

I encourage you to drop by and learn where the conversation is going on this topic:

The Wrong Tool for the Job

Yeah, the Pacific Carbon Trust is crap.

It is a poorly conceived and brutally executed waste of taxpayers’ money, invented and mismanaged by a government that is either willfully corrupt or stunningly incompetent. But that doesn’t mean Anthropogenic Global Warming caused by the burning of carbon at a rate that the planet’s biosphere cannot buffer is not an issue that Governments need to take immediate measures to address.

I was amongst those whinging about the Pacific Carbon Trust years ago, and I was frankly shocked to see how close the Auditor General report paralleled my criticism of the program. The gist, repeated ad nauseum by my strange political bedfellow at the Canadian Taxpayers Federation, is that cash-strapped cities and school districts are forced to pay money to Encana and other multi-national corporations to do things they would have done anyway, to create the illusion that Government operations were “carbon neutral”.

There was some flawed thinking from the onset, even if there were good intentions. Creating incentives to reduce the carbon impact of government operations was a good idea. Putting a price on carbon use is also a good idea. Causing government operations that cannot meet “zero carbon” goals to invest in offsetting activities may also a good idea, if well executed. Forcing every government entity to buy their carbon offsets from the same “Crown Corporation” run by entrenched kleptocrats was a terrible idea.

Giving these government entities access to a within-the-Province, one-stop-shop offset isn’t in itself a bad idea, but forcing them to purchase their offsets from that singular entity changes the game. The entity no longer has to compete on the burgeoning global carbon market. It knows it has buyers (actually, the more Government policy discouraged other carbon reductions, the more customers it will have!), it’s only problem is finding sufficient sellers to fill the need. That is not a healthy way to run any market. This is the same flawed market that makes it a bad idea to allow “free enterprise” to run a health care system: when your customer can’t say no, why provide a quality product or price your product fairly?

Well, I guess it works for the Mafia. but who wants to be their customer?

Worse, Municipalities that had their own internal carbon-reduction projects could not use their own carbon-offset money to fund them. For example, let’s imagine the New Westminster School Board decides to build one of their schools (stick with me here!) to be truly carbon neutral – ground-source geothermal with ATES, solar thermal water heating, and non-fossil electricity. That will cost more (up front, anyway) than running a gas boiler, but will result in real greenhouse gas reductions. At the same time, they are still burning carbon for their vehicle fleet and in their older buildings, so they need to buy offset credits. The School Board are not permitted, by law, to apply the cost of implementing those carbon savings from their new school to offset the carbon produced by their own legacy systems. They must instead buy those credits from the Pacific Carbon Trust.

That’s asinine.

This is nothing new, this has been going on for quite a while, and people much smarter than me have been saying for quite some time that the Pacific Carbon Trust is a piss-poor way to manage government carbon offsetting. Only now, when there is a hugely unpopular government heading for a wood-chipper election and the Auditor General report on the Pacific Carbon Trust Comes out, does the media pay any attention to the fiasco.

Unfortunately, much of this criticism from “conservative” parts of the conversation suggests that this is an example of how the entire idea of pricing carbon, from carbon taxes to offsetting schemes to the very idea of reducing emissions is a waste of time and “hard earned” taxpayers money.
Nothing could be further from the truth.

Some go so far to point out that “prominent environmentalists” like Dr. Mark Jaccard are highly critical of the Pacific Carbon Trust, without making clear that Dr. Jaccard argues vehemently that we need to be doing more, not less, to deal with our greenhouse gas output, and the Pacific Carbon trust is not a failure primarily because it cost the taxpayers money, but because it failed miserably to do the thing we were paying for it to do.

(side point – calling Dr. Jaccard a “prominent environmentalist” is about as ignorant as calling Albert Einstein a “noted physics advocate” or Rene Leveques a “well-known Nordiques Fan”. Dr. Jaccard is a highly respected Nobel Prize winning scientist whose research has global impact and whose area of study is the one topic the Canadian Taxpayers Federation is most ignorant of- Economics.)

So let’s make things clear: anthropogenic global warming is still happening. Actually, it is happening faster than we in the scientific community expected. The IPCC worst-case scenario projections for atmospheric carbon, surface temperatures, ice loss, ocean temperature and pH changes, and sea level rise have all been exceeded in the last 5 years. the economic and societal costs of this are going to be monumental unless we do something really soon to manage the issue.

The Pacific Carbon Trust may be the wrong tool for the job, but this doesn’t mean the job no longer needs to be done!

Climate keeps on changing

There have been a couple of intersecting stories recently relating to how our Federal Government is dealing with the science of Anthropogenic Global Warming.

Cynics say they are doing nothing about it, but I counter they are taking a strong, nuanced, and multi-faceted approach to the issue; one common to theocratic Petro-States the world round.

They are lying to the public, and then making sure no-one on their payroll can call them on the lie.

First the lie part.

You might remember last month when that most Orwellian of federal officials, Minister of “Environment” Peter Kent, suggested that Canada is making real progress, and is already half way to meeting our 2020 Greenhouse Gas targets as set out in Copenhagen Accord in 2009.

The Copenhagen target was based on emissions we put out in 2005. Here is the Government’s own data on GHG emissions (in Million tonnes of CO2 equivalents):

2005 (the date upon which targets are hung): 740 Mt
2010 (the most recent data provided by the government): 692 Mt
2020 (the target): 607 Mt

Now, I’m a geologist, which basically means I’m not so good at math, but I’m pretty sure 692 is NOT half-way between 740 and 607. But it gets worse.

Reading through the Ministry of Environment report, you can see that much of the reduction up to 2010 is a result of the recession that hit in 2008 (which I don’t see the Harper Government taking credit for…). Much of the rest is a result of this little nugget:

“ For the first time, the contribution of the land use, land-use change and forestry (LULUCF) sector to achieving Canada’s target is included in our projections.”

So, they have fudged the numbers going forward to include landuse changes. That may be a valid way to count net GHG impacts, but introducing it halfway through makes it look like something has changed when, in reality, nothing has!

Even with this fudging and the fortunate (in hindsight) global recession, the report does not project that Canada will meet its target of 607 Mt by 2020. See Table ES-1 where it shows emissions since 2010 have been creeping back up after the recession, and we will be putting out 720 Mt per year in 2020. This is a 2.7% decrease from 2005 numbers, but not half-way to 607 Mt. Not even close.

Of course, the problem with telling lies is that someone might call you on it. It is one thing if this is a political opponent (you can dismiss it as partisan bickering, who in Politics “owns” the truth?). It would be something different if those people work for the Government, especially if they are the people who collect this data. So in true theocratic Petro-State style, the Harper government has a three-prong attack against science:

First you stop new science from happening:
Then you stop existing scientists from talking.
Then you limit access to historic science.

Eventually, the facts hit the memory hole, and there is nothing to stop the buddies who funded your unlikely rise to power from re-writing the laws of the land for a singular, psychotic, self-destructive purpose.

How long can this go on?

Environmental Forum – debrief

In the end, it all went remarkably well!

It started as an idea in the mind of NWEP member and consciousness-raiser Virginia Ayers, and after much hand-wringing, many meetings, and an alignment of stars, last weekend’s Environmental Policy Forum turned out very well, in spite of some last-minute organizational spackle application!

 The opening phase of the event, where people were asked to present ideas, concerns, issues and post them on out tack boards went well. In hindsight we could have stretched this time out, as the interactions in front of the board were happening well ahead of our more formal discussions. It was the meeting of minds and people during this early phase that made the rest of the day successful and, “primed the pump” for greater in-depth discussion.

Although not every topic on the bard made it to the table discussions, NWEP data-cruncher Peter McMartin has already entered all of the post-it note comments into a database, and is working out how best to make a searchable or otherwise suitable display of the data. So the ideas are not lost, and may form the nucleus of future discussions. Be sure the NWEP will refer back to them when looking at future events.

Once all the ideas were up on the boards, a furious voting period ensued, when all participants were asked to vote for their “top pick topics”. The facilitators high-graded the highest-vote topics (and categories of topics) and made up 5 roundtables for discussions. The topics that rose to the top were and interesting combination of the usual New Westminster issues, and hot topics of the day:

Transportation (and dealing with traffic pressures on New West)

Food Security (GMO crops, pesticides, local and organic food)

Solid Waste (details around, and alternatives to, waste incinerators)

Green infrastructure (building codes, reducing the impact of our built environment, carbon tax)

Air Quality (especially impacts from all truck through-traffic, and the expansion of coal ports).

I was, unfortunately, running around doing other things (see below) and was not privy to all of the discussions that ensued. Word-of-mouth has some relatively benign and positive discussions where it was easy to forge a common position (i.e. food security) where other topics (I’m looking at you, Transportation) resulted in a more complex discussion, and many counter-points raised.

There were a few common themes that tied many of the topics together. Many touched on climate change, the “transportation” theme clearly interacted with “air quality” when talking about truck traffic, and “air quality” concerns were obviously related to the trash incinerator topic. This (I hope) clearly demonstrated than sustainability is a complex topic, and easy answers are hard to find, as every change in one are impacts other areas in sometime unforeseen ways. Hence the need for “systems thinking” when we approach these complex problems.

However, the one overarching theme, the one that each of the groups included in some way in their report-out, was the need for more education on every issue. This included us, as citizens, needed more education on the impacts of the various waste-to-energy technologies, and it meant more education of the general public on the hows and whys of Port approval for projects that impact the greater community, and on the impacts of vehicle exhaust on our health. As an NWEP member, this was one of my take-aways from the event- people want to be better informed on issues, and the NWEP can help with that role.

And, last but not least, the four candidates vying for our Votes in May seemed to be pleased with the event. They had ample opportunity to hear from a wide breadth of the electorate. We had a good turn-out considering it was a warm, sunny weekend day in March, and maybe they would have liked to have spent those couple of hours door-knocking, but they were all game to a rather free-form discussion. They were all provided an opportunity to interact with the discussion groups and to provide a short speech afterwards.

One bonus was that our local community web-based TV volunteer group NewWest Dot TV was there to film and live-stream the event. This provided the opportunity during the relatively dead-air time of roundtable discussion for each of the candidates to be interviewed by some clown in a cheap suit. Clearly the clown was out of his element doing interviews, having both a face and a voice more suited for newspapers, but the candidates were great, providing concise and clear answers to his rather simplistic and idiotic questioning (starting about 45 minutes into the live stream now visible on the website).

Interviewing Clown, Patient Candidate

Thanks to the folks, the reporting out of the tables discussions, and the short speeches by the candidate are also view-able, for them that couldn’t show up. The NWEP will also be “reporting out” over the next month or two on their website. I have no idea what it will look like, but stay tuned!

Personally, I had a great time at the event, and thought it went really well. Because I have a loud voice, I was asked to emcee the proceedings, which with a successful event like this, allows me to receive lots of kudos from the happy participants. Appreciated, but I really only helped a little with a few tasks them yapped loudly at the crowd. This event was the brain child of Ginny Ayers, and between her incredible idea-generation and problem solving, and Karla Olson’s boundless energy and ability to get things done, about 90% of the entire project was managed. I’d also like to thank Andrew Feltham, Reena Meijer Drees, Kathleen Somerville, Antigone Dixon-Warren, Virginia Bremner and Mary Wilson for being conversation-facilitators at the individual tables, and to Alex, Peter, Anna, and probably a few people I am forgetting, for helping with the set-up & tear down and all the other tasks that made it happen.

And especially thanks to the 40+ random New West folks from all walks of life who showed up on a sunny Saturday to make for a fun conversation.

NWEP Environmental Policy Forum

Tomorrow, the New Westminster Environmental Partners are trying a bold experiment in grassroots environmental policy development. I have been privy to some of the organizing, and have been asked to act as an MC and facilitator at the event. However, I have been amazed to watch other NWEP members put this thing together, and come up with, what I think, is a remarkable plan. 
The genesis of the idea is the upcoming (not yet officially begun!) election (even though it has not yet been called), and we already know who our local Candidates will be. The NWEP could get together in our group and come up with some policy ideas, raise holy hell about a specific issue or two, but how do we know we are representing how the Community really feels about an issue?
Was there some way we could poll the “environmentally engaged” populace and get ideas? Since our budget is too small to get Ipsos on the phone, one of our members had the idea for this forum.
The event is envisioned as an exercise in grassroots policy development, with the aim to encouraging lots of lively discussion and sharing of ideas. Fitting with the NWEP’s mission, the main theme will be “environmental sustainability”. However, the topics will be generated by the citizens who show up, not by the NWEP board.
Of course, we can anticipate what some if them will be (transportation, coal terminals, climate change?) but who knows what will come up in the early part of the event when we ask people to post their ideas and concerns?
After a short period or idea collection and a voting mechanism to choose the “hottest” topics, we will break the room up into several smaller groups. Each of the smaller groups will flesh out the idea at that station. Again, NWEP people will be there to help the conversation along, but it will be the participants doing the talking, and the NWEP will be doing the record keeping and note taking.
This will be the fun, dynamic part. I frankly have no idea where these conversations are going to go. I anticipate some topics (LNG comes to mind) will draw a wide breadth of opinions, and the goal will not be to argue and debate the merits of opposing positions, but to find the common ground – the essential underlying ideas or philosophies where agreement can be found (even if the details differ), or even where the real friction rests- the point where people cannot agree.
Either way, the discussion will no doubt create an interesting record of the community’s concerns, documentation of where the community conversation and the level of education that the community has on some of these (obviously controversial) topics.
The Candidates who have agreed to attend (listed in politically-neutral alphabetical order here: Hector Bremner, Judy Darcy, Paul Forseth and Terry Teather) will NOT be taking part in these discussions, but will instead be circulating around the room, eavesdropping, hearing the conversations, and no doubt taking notes. Because only after we do this community conversation and each group gives a very brief report out of the results of their conversation, will the Candidates be asked to comment on what they heard, what they know about the issue, what their feelings or their position is on that topic.
The hope here is that the candidates get to hear what the people are saying, then report back that they have heard the concerns of the citizens. In a perfect world, we would like to think that the candidate who is successful in May will take those ideas to Victoria, and be they in Government or Opposition, they can speak clearly with their community’s voice.
I was explaining this to a politico I ran into in town today, and he asked “why would candidates agree to show up just to listen? Can’t you give them more time to talk? ”
So to counter the cynicism of that mindset, I am glad to report we at the NWEP told the candidates what the format was, that their speaking part of the event was going to be relatively short and late in the event, but for the first hour, they were going to be listening, and all of the candidates agreed to attend. I think this speaks to the quality of local candidates we have.
So I am excited, if a little nervous. I honestly have no idea how this will turn out. If it goes great, we may have a new model that can be adopted for other policy areas (economic development? Education? Health Care?). If it goes less than great, we will at least create a written record of the conversation and have a better understanding of where the community stands on various environment and sustainability topics. As we all spend so much time in our own policy/political bubbles, staring inwards at our own ideas, we can all benefit from sharing ideas with the broader community, even if it means we have to hear ideas we don’t agree with. Actually, specifically because may hear ideas we don’t agree with.
Also, the event will be recorded by the good folks at NewWestTV, there may even be a webcast on the day of, (I have no idea if this is technically possible!). Also, the NWEP will collect the conversations and condense them into a document that will be published on our website before the election writ is dropped.
So , I hope to see you there! I’m a scientist by training, and some the funnest parts are when you don’t know what the results will be, but you just throw the switch and collect the data, and let the numbers fall where they will.What could possibly go wrong? 
Sapperton Pensioners Hall- 318 Kearey Street- Saturday, March 9, 1:00pm to 3:30 pm.

CEEPing along in New Westminster

It was love at first sight. The first time Yossarian saw the chaplain he fell madly in love with him

I felt the same way the first time I read Catch-22.Yossarian is easily my favourite character in fiction. Part of a bomber crew in Europe during the dying days of WW2, he was surrounded by absurdity, and coped with it by trying to out-absurd his surroundings, and always failing. In contrast, his friend Milo Minderbinder fully embraced the absurdity around him, and found creative ways to profit from it. Milo was the mess officer who bought eggs for 7 cents each, sold them for 5 cents each, and made a clean profit of 1.5 cents per. It was quite the scheme.

That is the trick that Norm Connolly, the Community Energy Manager for the New Westminster, might need to pull off. His task, and this is typical of all CEMs in Municipalities across BC, is to find ways to reduce energy use in the community. Not the energy used by the City itself, but by the residents and businesses of the city.

The problem in New Westminster being that unlike most cities in BC, we have our own electrical utility. The Electrical Utility buys power from BC Hydro at wholesale rates, and sells it to residents and businesses at retail rates (which are the same as retail rates BC Hydro charges residents and businesses). The difference between the two pays for the hardware that runs the system, and (in recent history) makes a little extra money for City coffers. So if Connolly is successful and reduces the amount of energy used by the community, the Utility will sell less power, and make less money, transferring less to City coffers. So why is the City so interested in reducing energy use at all?

There was a report at Council last week on the City’s Community Energy and Emissions Plan (“CEEP”). The CEEP was passed in 2011, and set out the pathway to New Westminster in 2030: a City with 20,000 more residents, but using no more electricity than we do today, and producing 15% less greenhouse gases. I’m not sure the GHG goal is aggressive enough (see my recent tirade on coal), but it is an achievable goal without significant changes in our lifestyle. So it is an easy sell for those interested in re-election.

Last week’s Council report covered a few of the initiatives that are going to arrive in the City in the next few years, to head us on the path towards that goal:

I will talk about item #3, the development of District Energy Utilities, in a later post (short version: it is a great idea, and others are doing it well, but the there are devils in details!). The other two are subjects that came up in a recent NWEP Energy Group discussion. I am glad to see that the City is taking this approach, and might even sign my house up for the program!

Item #1, the Multi-unit residential retrofits, is challenging. The challenge will be in convincing Strata Councils that the gains over the long-term will be worth the short-term hassle and investment in building improvements. The ability for the City to offer incentives, backed by BC Hydro or Fortis, and finding the right test-bed building will be vital for making this work.

One of the systemic issues that we have in the Lower Mainland of BC is that we live in a mild climate- not too hot in the summer, not to cold in the winter, and we have a (somewhat unfair) reputation for lacking bright sunlight. As a result, we build buildings with less insulation and more windows than in other parts of the world. Then, because electricity is plentiful and cheap, we have lined the walls of these inefficient buildings with electrical baseboard heaters, usually on the outside walls under a bank of windows, where they have to overcome the inefficient wall system before they provide any useful heat to the rest of the unit. Because of this, there are many “quick wins” to be found in these buildings, especially many of our older multi-family building stock. In New Westminster, with more than 75% of our residential units being in low- or high-rise multi-family dwellings, this part of the program will be where most of our CEEP gains can be found.

This doesn’t speak of the future growth in the City, however. If we are going to put 20,000 more people in the City, we are going to be increasing the proportion of multi-family dwellings, so we are going to create a whole new stock of buildings. The full CEEP contains some steps in this direction, talking about LEED standards and such, but I wonder if simply banning electric baseboard heaters would be sufficient to reach efficiency goals? I’m not ever sure the City can ban them…

Item #2 is the one that excites me the most, as a detached-home owner. Providing municipal incentives for energy efficient home re-fits is not yet common (most programs have previously been run by major utilities or by senior governments), but is becoming more so (not coincidently as senior governments become front offices for energy companies and the larger programs dry up). There are several cities in BC that have implemented these type of incentive programs, not coincidently in historic cities like Rossland and Nelson, where there is a large stock of older homes with significant heritage value.

We have done a few energy fixes in our 1940 house (including replacing all of our windows a couple of years ago), but have been slow to introduce some other obvious energy-savers. It appears our roof insulation is good, but that in our walls may be upgradable. We have a relatively efficient (if slightly old) gas furnace and gas-fired water heater. Solar water heaters (we have an expansive south-facing roof) and/or an instant-heater for water (as a friend of mine recently installed) seem like great ideas, but the impetus to install is low, even with the potential savings on my gas bill.

However, for people with electrical heat and water systems, the City is still stuck in that same old bind: If we reduce energy use in the City, does the City really gain? Can BC Hydro provide incentives to the City that will offset the “profit” the City currently makes selling electricity? If we continue to peg our rates to BC Hydro retail rates, incentives from Hydro seem the only way we can still pad the City coffers while reducing overall use.

There are good reasons fro BC Hydro to provide those incentives. Wholesale purchasers in BC pay less for electricity than any other customers. The City pays way less for electricity than BC Hydro pays for IPP power from Darth Coleman’s Run-of-the-River contracts. We also pay less than Alberta and California customers, who need to choose between buying cheap power from us or burning hydrocarbons to make their own. Even in BC, we burn hydrocarbons (at Burrard Thermal) only when we have an “emergency” supply issue, thanks to the 2010 Clean Energy Act.

Reducing electricity energy use in BC reduces the need for BC Hydro and others to burn hydrocarbons for electricity, allows Hydro to sell more power to lucrative export markets, and ultimately reduces the need to major expansion of the Hydroelectric System, saving more valley bottoms for other uses… so BC Hydro has incentive to incentivize the City to incentivize the community to reduce energy. Hence the need for our CEEP, and the need for the community of New Westminster to sign up for these programs – at every step of the way, we will be saving money and reducing our impact. We can profit from making less money, like Milo the Mayor did with eggs.