In which Coal gets the best of me.

I have a sneaking suspicion I might be very bad at politics.

I just don’t see the issue with the coal terminal proposal in Surrey. Worse: I see a big issue with the coal terminal proposal in Surrey  but I don’t see that issue being meaningfully addressed in the current debate about the coal terminal proposal in Surrey, because I seem to care about the one issue few others seem to be concerned about.

For those who don’t leaf through the back pages of the Record or the NewsLeader, or don’t spend their evenings reading through reams of the reports attached to Council minutes (…which makes me curious about why such a person would be reading this… ehrm… Hi Mom!), the story thus far is thus:

Right across the river from New Westminster are Fraser Surrey Docks, you can see the ships and large blue cranes operating from the Quayside boardwalk. They move containers, logs, bulk agricultural products, steel, and assorted cargo on and off of boats and on and off of trucks and trains. Now they want to move coal off of trains onto barges. And apparently, some people are concerned about this for a variety of wrong reasons.

There is a lot of info about this proposed operation available here , including maps, diagrams, and the answers to most of the questions you might have. This will not be a situation like the Delta Port or Neptune Terminals in North Van, where there are large piles of coal being shuffled around. The plan is to move the coal directly from the trains to the barge, and ship it to a deep-sea transfer facility up on Texada Island, then to China. The on-site stockpile will (it appears) be small, and be under one of those big plastic Quonset hut style shelters.

From the looks of the Council Report and the newspaper stories, the local and regional concerns can be summed up as: the health effects of coal dust; increased diesel emissions from boats and trains; the risk related to coal spills into the river; and the general noise and view impacts for Quayside residents.

Most of these issues seem well addressed by the application. The plan is to do all the coal movement with covered conveyors and to use dust abatement measures that are industry practice in urbanized areas. These measures are notably more stringent than those currently used for the bulk agricultural products they move now- that yellow dust sometimes visible from the New West side of the river. Also, this new coal transfer activity will take place at the west end of the terminal, more across from the gi-normous Annacis Island Car Terminal where they unload thousands of cars from those gi-normous car carrier ships than across from the Quayside. The barges, during loading, will be more than 2 km downstream from the Quayside residents who have expressed the most vocal alarm about the project.

The risk of significant spill from the dock or the barges is small, but obviously not nil. That said, compared to moving many other cargoes (especially liquid fuels), coal is relatively stable and fairly easy to contain and clean up in the event of a spill. It would be a very bad day for the salmon in the river if that happened, no doubt, so there is some area to explore here for the local municipalities and agencies like FREMP, clearly an area for more discussion.

The elephant in the room, however, is hardly mentioned in these discussions. According to the Council Report, this coal facility is being planned to move up to 8 Million Tonnes of coal a year that (when burned) will generate about 48 Million Tonnes of CO2 annually. To put this in perspective the same Council meeting had a presentation on the City’s Community Energy and Emission Plan, which would see New Westminster’s 82,000 residents in the year 2030 producing less that 240,000 Tonnes of CO2 annually.

Not to put too fine a point on it: if both of these plans see the light of day this single port terminal will be directly responsible for 200 times the greenhouse gas emissions of the entire community of New Westminster!

So all of our energy conservation actions in the City, all of our appropriate, responsible, intelligent changes we are taking in the City – the sacrifices we are facing, investments we are making, even a few hard choices we may need to take, for all the right economic, ethical, and environmental reasons, will be meaningless in light of the impacts of that coal terminal.

This all arrived at the same time that this month’s Walrus Magazine arrived in my mailbox, with a remarkable piece written by New Westminster’s own Dr. Marc Jaccard that talks about his personal arc from academic to IPCC member to policy adviser to Stephen Harper’s minority government to Nobel Prize winner to being placed in the back of a paddy wagon by the RCMP for protesting the movement of coal through Canada’s ports. It is a great read, as Dr. Jaccard asks himself (and causes us to ask ourselves) what he was doing about the single most important environmental issue of our generation.  This from a guy who has dedicated his life to studying the problem, understanding the science and the economics, and bent the ear of some of the most powerful people in the world. Yet in the end, he felt he was not doing enough, and direct action was the only way he was going to be able to live with himself, or answer to his grandchildren for what we are doing now.

Yeah, I am contradicting myself again. I recently complained that unsustainable shark harvesting as not really being a City issue. This is not strictly a municipal issue, and the Port seems to think the “big issue” of Climate Change impacts is not even Port jurisdiction. This issue, I think, its too important for every single jurisdiction to not take it on. A 450ppm world will not be comfortable for those people living on the Quayside.

The Port is wrong. They are profiting in the trade of a commodity that is causing global catastrophe  It is killing people, and they are part of that supply chain that supports that. For them to say “Hey, we just move the stuff, not up to us to question what we move – none of our business!” is morally bankrupt. We don’t burn Coal in BC, for good reasons, but we are comfortable exporting it to places that do. How is this different than our unethical asbestos trade?

Much more than a few people concerned about how the noise of an operating port 2 km from their waterfront home will impact their property values, I think we need to be asking ourselves why we are supporting the rapid extraction and combustion of coal in the year 2012? And if burning that coal is OK with us, if folks profiting from its burning is OK with us, if the biggest concerns we have about this is the noise of distant conveyors or dust on the horizon, why the fuck are we even bothering with a Community Energy and Emission Plan!?

Sorry for the potty mouth, Mom, but it had to be said.

On the trash fires of our future.

The expansion of Waste-to-Energy plants is creeping back into the news again, and people in New Westminster had better pay attention. I almost forgot all about it, but yesterday I got a letter in the mail from MetroVancouver telling me about the ongoing selection process for new garbage burners:

This is probably because I was involved actively in the long drawn-out public engagement process for Metro Vancouver’s Integrated Solid Waste Resource Management Plan, where the public across the region were vocally opposed to increased trash incineration. MetroVancouver nonetheless barged ahead, and got the plan through the Minister of Environment with waste-to-energy a major component in the plan.

Notably, it took a change in Provincial Ministers of Environment to get it through. The folks in the Fraser Valley are strongly opposed to those of us upwind burning our trash and dumping the air pollution into their air quality index, and the ever-awesome Barry Penner couldn’t sign off on the plan for fear of pitchforks at his Chilliwack office. So when Terry Lake (who, as best I can tell, is a smart, well considered guy – one of the few very bright lights in the current BC Liberal caucus) took over the Environment file, he was far enough removed from the Valley to sign it off.

During the earlier consultations, and pretty much ever since whenever anyone is unwise enough to ask me, I have made my position on Trash Incinerators very clear: they are an unsustainable way to manage solid waste, and an unsustainable way to generate electricity. Importing hydrocarbons from China to burn for electricity is no different if those hydrocarbons are in the form of coal or in the form of plastic bits that happened to have travelled through a WalMart before we burn them. The atmosphere can’t see the difference: fossil carbon is fossil carbon. This shouldn’t be a NIMBY issue- I don’t want a trash incinerator in New Westminster, and I don’t want one in Surrey, or Langley or Gold River.

However, not all WTE plants are trash incinerators. There is one operation currently ramping up just across the river in Richmond that is a better example of how we can more sustainably manage a large portion of our waste stream. The system is just starting to come on-stream, but represents what is (in my opinion) a much more sustainable path for WTE.

Harvest Power takes the organic wastes that people across the Lower Mainland put into our curb-side “green bins”, plus a fair amount of commercial food waste, and turns it into electrical power. This is a multi-step process:

  • Organic wastes are ground up to reduce size of the stinky bits; 
  • The resultant muck is placed in percolator cells, where warm water is dripped through in a low-oxygen setting, drawing a hydrocarbon-rich “tea” out the bottom;
  • After about 10 days, the volume of solids in the percolator cells are significantly reduced and the decomposition slows right down, so these solids can be mixed with woody waste and sand to make a rich organic compost for farms, gardens, municipal lands;.
  • The “tea” is directed to digester vessels, where specialized bacteria is used to further decompose the tea of longer-chain hydrocarbons down to methane;
  • The methane can then be burned to spin a turbine and create electricity;
  • The resultant by-products are the biosolids in the compost, CO2 from the burnt methane, and water vapour.

There are several ways this differs from the Burnaby Trash Incinerator. The most significant difference is that the carbon going into the system is biospheric carbon- that is carbon that has been very recently removed from the atmosphere and trapped in organic compounds by plants, and not fossil carbon. So no plastics or fossil carbon are going through this process. The CO2 emissions are 100% non-fossil fuel.

A second bonus of this process is that it relies on the separation of plastics from organics. This should be the first goal of any modern Solid Waste plan, because plastics are generally recyclable unless they are too contaminated with organics. Even for the plastics we cannot recycle, landfilling is much more sustainable and safe if the putrescible wastes and liquids are removed before burying the wastes. Dry, clean plastic going into a landfill will remain stable for centuries- it won’t leach metals, it won’t generate methane or nasty volatiles, it actually represents the only proven, demonstrable, and practical form of long-term carbon sequestration that engineering has yet provided to us.

However, to make landfills effective carbon sinks, we need to get the greasy, wet, “stinky” organics out of the landfill. They make the landfill less sustainable, and cause otherwise stable plastics to break down into less inert materials. That there are better things to be done with organics that do not involve the unsustainable burning of fossil fuels is really just a bonus.

Unfortunately, much of the discussion of waste-to-energy that Metro is running these days is less public than the Integrated Solid Waste Resource Management Plan was (despite the letter I got in the mail). The media reports are also unclear, as demonstrated in these two quotes came from the same story I linked to above:

“Ross said a key question is whether a new incinerator is built in Metro Vancouver or at an out-of-region site.”


“Meanwhile, Metro is currently calling for prospective partners to table their credentials and what type of waste-to-energy technology they’d use.”

So is the debate currently only “location of an incinerator”, or are other technologies aside from incinerators being considered?

I sure hope it is the latter, because that will make the difference whether many of us will support WTE in our community, or even the idea of shipping our waste to other communities to be made into energy.

Smoke on the Plaza

You know what’s gross? Smoking.

This will shock many of my readers (but not one: hi Mom!) who think “NWimby” and “Clean Living” are synonymous, but I was once a smoker, Off and on for most of my teenage years and early 20s. I started in High School, the same as my siblings and my parents. Strangely, I would quit during the summer to bike race, start again in the winter. I did this pretty much until I met a girl who meant more to me than the MacDonald Lassie; a few years after high school.

I was lucky, in that I just don’t have addictive tendencies. It was just as easy for me to quit cold turkey as it was to pick up a pack of smokes and start again. Once I got old enough and smart enough to think about it, smoking was a bad idea- socially, economically, health-wise. I just stopped, and it was easy for me to do. I was lucky.

So, like many former smokers, I am a bit of a militant anti-smoker. The stuff isn’t good for you, and it really stinks up any environment where it is introduced. Funny how I used to sit in a car and smoke, now I am offended if the guy in front of me in traffic smokes and I have to smell that distant scent from the little bit that works its way to my car’s vents. I’m like a bloodhound for the stuff.

Then there’s the trash. We are, in British Columbia, in 2012, pretty much a post-litter society. Someone opening up a candy wrapper and tossing it on the ground is a rare enough event that it would turn heads and elicit comment from adjacent people. We don’t throw our used fast food containers out the window of our car. But it is still normal to see someone take that last, satisfying puff of a cancer stick, and flick it to the ground on the sidewalk, or toss it from the car window, like it is someone else’s problem to clean up.

The Shoreline Cleanups count cigarette butts as the single most common piece of litter, by far. There were no less than three fires last summer along Stewardson Way related to discarded butts, and all you need to do is look in any storm drain or along any poorly maintained roadside, and you will see that 90% of the gunk accumulating along the curb is cigarette filters.Gross.

Stricken from restaurants and bars, from pubic buildings and most homes, smokers are stuck on the street, smoking outside doorways (but not within 3 m!). I can only think of two bars in New West that still have a place where you can sit (outside), have a beer and a smoke. And I sit inside whenever I am at either of them. But you can’t escape the smell. There has been much Twitter space complaining about the smokers in the underground bus mall at Plaza88 The Shops at New Westminster Station (I have seen the bus loop referred to as the most expensive and dankest smoking lounge in the City).

And then there is the gauntlet of smokers you need to run to get into the London Drugs in Uptown New West.

There was a recent letter to the editor of the Record suggesting BC is the only province that still allows the sale of cigarettes in Pharmacies, and this should change. The thinking is that Pharmacies are “health care businesses”, and the sales of cigarettes are a violation of whatever the Pharmacy version of the Hippocratic Oath is.

Even the Premier was asked about this by The Tyee in a recent interview. And I have to give Premier McSparklestm credit: she makes a good point regarding the role of Pharmacies as some special type of retailer in the world of the London Drugs Electronics section and Walmart prescription counters.

That said, I would argue the exact opposite of the letter writer. I am starting to think Pharmacies are the only place that should sell cigarettes. The entire purpose of the Pharmacist is to distribute potentially-harmful drugs in a regulated way to prevent their misapplication, misuse or abuse. I offer the opinion that cigarettes are little more than harmful drug delivery systems. Nicotine is a powerful, addictive neurotoxin. For the vast majority, smoking is not a habit, it is a chemical addiction, little different than alcoholism or heroin. Perhaps we can start treating it like an addiction.

The BCLiberals, again to their credit, have made a few positive steps in this direction: the Province supports smoking cessation programs as part of its health plan, which is a pretty progressive position to take. This seems a rational approach to health-care policy, which I suspect has a strong business case behind it (lung cancer and emphysema are really expensive to manage, and cost the health care system a lot of money).

The next logical step may be to start selling cigarettes over the counter like other lethal drugs. No prescription needed, but only sold to adults, up to a carton at a time, and every package includes smoking cessation information and important information about use and contra-indications, just like any dangerous and addictive drug. It is part of moving smoking further from the mainstream, and more like the fringe activity it really has become.

In the meantime, back to London Drugs in Uptown; the one you cannot currently get into without second-hand smoking a Dunhill or two. I was at an open house a couple of weeks ago put on the Uptown Property Group. They were showing plans to re-invent that plaza space at 555 Sixth Street. Apparently, the owners of the complex recognize the loitering smoker problem there, the impact on their customers, and have not been able to fix it.

They have put up No Smoking signs (ignored), have their own security guys go out there regularly (similarly ignored). As this a problem impacting is both private and public property, they have found no relief from Bylaw Officers or the Police (unfortunately, Provincial smoking laws are enforced by the Health Department- when’s the last time you met a Health Department cop?) It seems an unmanageable situation.

So UPG decided to apply some CPTED principles, and do a re-design of the plaza. Looking over the drawings included with the Report to Council (the same drawings were shown at the Open House), the plan is to remove the planters and seating under cover in front of the entrance of London Drugs, and retain seating only on the patio in front of Starbucks – and that only accessible from within the Starbucks (making the non-smoking rule much more likely to be respected). Besides opening up the court yard, they wanted to expand the surface out towards the street and add some feature lighting, a couple of trees, and tile designs in order to make it a nice open space.

The Plan from the Council Report (click to zoom)

I thought of comparisons to Plaza88 The Shops at New Westminster Station. The proposed patio is like the new north entrance to Plaza88 TS@NWS between the Tim Horton’s and the Old Spaghetti Factory. I can only hope the newly-fenced-in Starbucks seating will not look like the Plaza88 TS@NWS Safeway Starbucks, which is currently the best-defended deck space in the City. Plans for the opened-up space include introduction of public art, with the bonus that it would provide another stage space for Uptown Live and the Hyack Parade. It would be a half-covered, open, well-lit, modern and inviting space for humans, without being the unofficial smoking zone it is now.

I was surprised to hear Council discussing this at Committee in the Whole last week, and watching the video of the exchange, the surprise began to turn to dismay when it was clear how negative the reaction was from Council (why weren’t UPG there to defend their reasoning?). You can see the video here, by choosing the December 10 Committee of the Whole meeting. The conversation on this topic starts at 1:00:50.

I want to make a couple of points based on that discussion:

• Parking spots? We are worried about 3 parking spots? Look at the picture on Page 2 of the report to Council I linked to above – does that look like a spot where the loss of three (3) parking spots is going to hurt business? There are a thousand parking spots insdie and out within a block. Not ot mention it is, after all, the most prominent business looking to remove them;

• The topic of the length of the bus stop across the street is not relevant to the discussion. Whether this project happens or not has no effect on the bus stops across the street;

• Opening up and modernizing a public plaza is not an assault on the poor. People “having a cup of coffee smoking a cigarette, whatever they are doing” is NOT  “entirely appropriate” when they are sitting in front a no smoking sign two metres from the entrance to a business. It is illegal, and does not make the space more livable;

• Assuming that the City’s “progressive laws” will fix the problems at the site ignores that those same laws have not yet solved the issues at the site, nor are they solving the problem at the Plaza88 bus loop or other places where smokers are impacting people. If panhandling is an issue here, if smokers ignore the signs, the business requests to butt out, then how does that square with the need for our “aging population” to feel safe?

• This is not public space being turned over to a private owner, and it clearly is NOT a “private benefit” by any reasonable definition. We are talking about converting space dedicated to public parking into space dedicated to public walking and standing… how does that make it a private benefit? Is every parking space, bicycle rack, bus stop in front of a business a private benefit?

• There is no “pedestrian safety” concern at the crosswalk at the location. If cars are sometimes forced to wait for people to cross the street, sometimes for tens of seconds, that is not a “safety issue”. To me, it is effective use of pedestrian space, and one of the safest crosswalks in the City. The only safety issue is the parking spot across the street that is clearly a violation of section 400.13 of the City’s Street Traffic Bylaw 6027 (go ahead, look it up!)

As usual, I offer my usual caveat that I am working from public info and a short conversation with UPG coming out of the Open House, and maybe there is stuff going on here behind the scenes of which I am not aware, but I take what people say at face value. I was initially hoping that UPG would come to Council and provide a little more guidance towards their thinking here, and how these changes will address a real problem, while adding a public asset. However, talk around the knitting circle suggests the plans have been withdrawn due to resistance from Council. It seems to be there is a lost opportunity here. UPG may do some similar improvements on their own property (the City may bit be able to stop them), but any plans to make the 500 Block of 6th Street a more open, public, friendly and open space, without the need for non-smokers to hold their breath through it.

Alas, before they take the smokes out of the Pharmacy, they can find a way to get the Pharmacy out from behind a wall of smoke, and that’s really all I want.

Shoreline Cleanup – a good news story.

I noticed this blog has been full of bummers and whinging lately (“lately?”), so I wanted to give a shout-out to a good news story here in New West.

The Great Canadian Shoreline Cleanup is an annual nation-wide event, where various volunteer groups adopt a stretch of shoreline near their homes and (as the name suggests) clean them up. There have been off-and-on shoreline cleanups in New West, mostly organized by Scouts or Businesses, but last year was the first NWEP-sponsored “public” clean-up. You didn’t need to belong to a club or a business, or even the NWEP:  it was just a drop-in on a Saturday. It was organized with remarkable fervour by NWEP member Karla Olson.

The stretch of shoreline chosen for cleanup was the recently-refurbished stretch of South Dyke Road between the Boundary Road and Derwent Way, in sunny Queensborough. The stretch of shore has a combination of multi-use paths, dock features, and walking trails that make the most of the waterfront, so keeping it clean seemed like a great community-building idea for the relatively new neighbourhoods in southern Queensborough.

Last year, there was a bit of a panic, as it seemed there wasn’t really all that much trash – so Karla was a little concerned her volunteers would make the effort to show up, and have little to do – so she added a small invasive plant pull at the same time. A patch of Japanese Knotweed was crowding out native plantings by one of seating areas, and a patch of English Ivy was threatening to choke out a Douglas Fir right on the waterfront. With some help from the City on New Westminster and a volunteer expert on invasive plant management (who happens to be married to the new Royal City Farmers Market Operations Manager), a plant pull and disposal was organized.

Turns out, litter is the kind of thing that surprises you once you start collecting it. Karla’s fear (optimism? ) was unrealized and the volunteers who showed up collected an ample amount of trash. They also took a real bite out of the Japanese Knotweed patch and the English Ivy climbing the tree. Karla’s organization skills came to the fore, the 30-odd volunteers had a great time, and made a difference in the local community.

This year, the Shoreline Cleanup is back for more on September 23rd. With more people using the waterfront trails, and lots of jetsam brought to shore by the high freshet this spring, the (now annual) event will probably see more trash this year than last. They are also hoping to see more volunteers as well – which is why the “Invasive Plant Pull” part of the program is expanded this year.

If you haven’t been involved in a plant pull before, here is the quick background. There are several species of plants considered “invasive” in BC- not just because they come from other continents, but because they are safe from their natural emnemies (predators, insects, weather) and without these controls, they can take off – even displacing the native plants and threaten the native habitats of plants, bugs, birds and other animals. Most are bought as ornamental plants, and go “feral” when someone throws yardwaste or plant pots into the woods – to “give the plants their freedom”.

A “Feral Potted Plant” found on South Syke Road during plant tagging.

During last week’s invasive tagging event, we found lots of morning glory , some wrapping itself around and choking out native snowberry plantings; a couple of Scotch Broom plants; resdiual English Ivy from last year’s pull; and English Holly, which is merry at Christmas, but invasive in the wild, displacing the similar but native Oregon Grape. All of these will be targeted during the plant pull part ofthe Shoreline Cleanup.

The Japanese Knotweed that was knocked back last year has started to come back, but now that it its weakened, the City can come back and do stem injection to kill off the remainders, before the roots undermine the dike. And then there is the Himalayan Blackberry, a nasty (but tasty!) invasive that has become so ubiquitous, that eradication seems a distant dream. It is also a mean, spikey plant that is probably best managed by people wearing thick clothing and safety glasses.

So if you want to help out for an hour or two, you can collect trash, or you can get a little bit more involved taking out some invasive plants – you might even learn a bit about what plants are native and which are invasive – once you can identify a few species, you start seeing them in other places. Most importantly, you can meet some people in the community interested in protecting the shoreline, and be part of a nation-wide campaign.

No pressure, no long-term commitment, just a family-friendly day helping out in the community.

It’s best if you sign up ahead of time, by clicking here. you can also just show up, but if you bring the kids or are under 19 yourself, you need a waiver signed by a Parent or Guardian, which you might want to get done ahead of time (you can get the waiver on the website, and bring it with you).

The shoreline is muddy at low tide, so you might want to wear boots or rugged footwear. Long sleeves and pants are a good idea for pulling invasives and for picking up trash (the City of New West will provide gloves for voulunteers – but you can bring your own), and there will be a few tools available, but feel free to bring your own clippers, loppers, garbage pickers, etc. Bring some water and snacks, as the event will probably go on for a couple of hours – just remember to pack out your wrappers!

The Event is on September 23 , starting at 9:30 AM. Folks will meet on South Dyke Road, near where Suzuki Street meets it – you should see the tents there, a couple of blocks east of Boundary Road, as far south-west in New Westminster as you can be!

He’s a Fletcher, but he’s no Fletch

I loved Fletch – the books and the movies. The books were darker and more cynical than the Chevy Chase vehicle, but I thought Chevy did his best work in the first Fletch. So please accept that my fandom may colour comparison of the investigative reporting skills of the fictional Irwin M. Fletcher with the hackneyed opinion making of BC’s own Tom Fletcher.

The columnist for Black Newspapers is predictably right-of-centre and comes from a free-enterprise-uber-alles all-government-are-clowns viewpoint. No problem with that, people have opinions, and I don’t expect everyone to agree (look at some of the crap I write – if you don’t disagree with me sometimes you just aren’t thinking!), but I’m a local blogger, he is a regionally syndicated Professional Journalist.

His recent column in the print version of the NewsLeader (and syndicated Province-wide) shows that he isn’t a very good one. I wanted to go through line-by-line and talk about the hundred types of wrong in this column (“Robert Redford!?”), but it just got too deep and too boring, even for me. So this long post is a few thousand words short of where it should be. You get what you pay for.

In this column, the estimable Mr. Fletcher attempts to fix some of the “ignorance” he has seen and heard in discussions questioning merits of Oil Pipelines. These misconceptions are being “exploited by some opponents”, and he wants to set the record straight.

Fact checking is an important part of the profession of Journalism, so we should thank him for his efforts.

Except that he gets pretty much everything from that point forward wrong. Not just the facts, but the part about being a professional Journalist.

Again, I don’t want to go through this line-by-line, but let’s take the major premise of the first half of his column – oil pollution ain’t so bad – and do a little fact-checking.

“A global study by the Smithsonian Institution in 1995 calculated the amount of oil making its way into oceans this way: Big tanker spills accounted for 37 million gallons a year, about five per cent of the total marine oil pollution identified.

“By far the largest source was oil runoff from land into drains, from oil changes, municipal and industrial wastes and other sources: 363 million gallons. Bilge cleaning and other routine ship maintenance added 137 million gallons, four times the tanker spill average.

“Air pollution from vehicles and industry deposited hydrocarbon particles equal to another 97 million gallons; natural seeps added 62 million gallons; offshore drilling discharges accounted for 15 million gallons.”

It’s nice that Fletcher gave us a reference, a global study by the Smithsonian Institution published in 1995 should be easy to find. It also tells us where he might have got the information from. Presuming Tom gets his “information” from the Internets, he might have picked it up from here or here. Or, even more likely, he got it directly from his buddies inside the BC Government.

Notably, that’s not where the actual data came from. The citation the BC Government provides does not link to any Global Study, as no such study was performed by the Smithsonian. Or anyone else in 1995 for that matter. The numbers come from a 1995 travelling science exhibit put together by the Smithsonian to teach about Ocean Ecology.

I’m not sure how many oil-industry spin cycles this dataset went through before Tom pulled it out and hung it on the line (and, problematically, neither does Tom), but hey, he’s a Professional Journalist – and it would have required a few more Google clicks to look for the original Smithsonian display text, and follow their citation

“National Research Council (2002) Oil in the Sea: Inputs, Fates and Effects. Washington, D.C: National Academy Press, May.”

Now we are getting somewhere. The National Research Council is a public research body, so the source of the data is available on-line, and we can assess the quality of the data (you know, Tom, like real reporters do). We find that there is no actual report that fits the above citation perfectly. There is a 2003 report by the NRC called “Oil in the Sea III: Inputs Fates and Effects”, which is pretty close:

“Oil in the Sea III: Inputs Fates and Effects, 2003”

It would be hard for a 1995 travelling science show to cite a 2003 paper, even with the Smithsonian’s money, so we need to go back to the older report “Oil in the Sea: Inputs Fates and Effects” done in 1985, which is also available here:

“Oil in the Sea: Inputs Fates and Effects” 1985

You can read the whole thing (it is interesting!) but maybe for the purposes of this post, just skip to the table on page 82, which lists estimates of Global input of hydrocarbons into the oceans. This looks good.

Also notice the text around the report about the meanings of each of the inputs, you really need to spend a few minutes putting this study into context. Then look at the similar table in the 2003 report I linked to above (the table is on page 69) – and note the long discussion about how far off the 1985 estimates were, and for what reasons. I put together this handy table so you can compare the numbers Tom chose to hinge his entire argument on, with actual data from which he allegedly got his numbers.

“Fletcher” are the numbers Tom regurgitated uncritically
“1985” are the best estimates from the 1983 report, converted from million tonnes to kilotonnes.
“2003” are the “best estimates” for global inputs from that report.

It doesn’t matter that the figures are in different units (Millions of Gallons versus kilotonnes), because his argument hinges on comparisons of oil spills with other inputs, so I decided not to do the conversions so I won’t be accused of misquoting the tables or cookingthe books. You can still compare the three sets of numbers on piecharts:

You can see there are three very different datasets. Which do you have the most faith in? The most recent study that built on the older study while acknowledging the flaws, or the random numbers presented by well-meaning science educators in 1995 from an flawed at-that-time 10-year old study? Which set of numbers did Tom run with? If you were a Professional Journalist, which would you use in order to address “misconceptions” that are creeping in to the Pipeline debate?

You may ask “So what? Who cares if his data is shit?”

I would say that even if it weren’t built on crappy data – his argument is flawed! The data is almost 30 years old, so the “oil runoff from land into drains” in the 1985 report included industrial waste runoff – primarily from petrochemical industries – and other waste streams from operations that are clearly not done by “you and me”. These are coming from things like oil terminals and refineries similar to the one his boss wants to build. I’m not sure how making statements like “Bilge cleaning and other routine ship maintenance added 137 million gallons, four times the tanker spill average” is supposed to endear us to having a tanker terminal on BC’s Northwest coast – why worry about a spill if bilge cleaning will cause more oil pollution!?!

This is also built on the premise that a little bit of oil spilled into a thousand small streams will have the same impact as millions of litres of oil spilled into one estuary. This is simply false. The impact of a single spill event can be catastrophic, and the minuscule amount of hydrocarbons in street run-off is less than optimal, but is generally metabolized and dissipated on the ocean before it can have harmful effects on the ecosystem.

I’m not minimizing the problem – Municipal runoff is generally bad stuff with trace levels of metals and hydrocarbons – but through significant changes since that 1985 report (oil and oil filter recycling programs, oil-water separator systems in storm drains, AirCare and similar emissions testing programs that remove unburned hydrocarbons from exhaust, standardization of dry-clean-up methods in the automotive repair industry, Laws regulating the handling and disposal of dry-cleaning solvents, etc. etc.) the situation in 2012 is way better than it was. I digress.

Admittedly, this is not an Investigative Journalism piece- it is an opinion column. So maybe I expect too much of a Professional Journalist writing an opinion piece to spend 5 minutes on Google to see if his data is correct (because that is how long it took me to collect the data above and demonstrate that his data is crap).

I fear somewhat that it is the data being used in a technical memorandum prepared by the BC Government, but that’s an entire other blog post.

I am going to give Fletcher the benefit of Hanlons Razor, and assume he is an incompetent and lazy journalist, and not intentionally using crappy data because it better makes the point of his “opinion”. Incompetent or lying, it hardly makes a difference, I’m not sure why Fletcher’s opinion is something anyone would find worth reading.

PS: By the way, “Cambridge Energy Research Associates” is not associated with Cambridge: the university or any of the universities based in Cambridge, Mass. It is the “energy market consulting” wing of the publicly traded industry publishing corporation “Information Handling Services”, or “IHS Inc”. It doesn’t take long on their website to see who butters their toast. And the study to which he refers “Oil Sands, Greenhouse Gases, and European Supply: Getting the Numbers Right” does not actually agree with the numbers Tom provides in his column. Those numbers are actually from page 6 of a recent Shell Oil pamphlet talking about how great Bitumen Sands are, which in turn cites the CERA… Yep, he did it again.

Hanlon’s Razor is looking pretty dull these days.

Apparently, Pipelines have two ends.

We are still a full human gestation from a Provincial Election, but the campaign season is in full swing. The BCLiberals are dropping hints of more landmines they are going to leave for the NDP to deal with next year, the cracks are starting to show in the spackle that is the BC Conservative Party, and the NDP seem to have decided it is time to stop watching Premier McSparkles(tm) bail water onto her own sinking ship, and are starting to speak up on specific topics.

At least the BCliberals are getting over their six months of mock outrage that Adrian Dix had not provided a campaign platform for them to critique, fully a year before the election. It wasn’t fair, they whinged, for him to criticize us and not give us anything with which to criticize him back. This seems a fundamental misunderstanding of the role of the Opposition, as there’s no compelling reason for the NDP to offer a platform if they are not the Government, have no power to implement their mandate, and are not even going to the voters asking to be made Government. If the Premier wants to see the NDP platform, then she is free to drop the writ.

However, sometimes the opposition has to strike when the iron is hot, and the iron is very, very hot around the Enbridge Northern Gateway Pipeline right now. The Federal Conservatives keep bouncing between unabashed support and calling for careful scientific review (while concurrently laying off the very scientists who would do that review), the Premier of Alberta sees any pipeline anywhere as her Constitutional Right, and the Premier of BC is rattling something she must think are sabres: trying to look tough, pragmatic and “leaderish” around the issue.

It was a good time, apparently, for Adrian Dix to make his alternate viewpoint on the Pipeline clear.

So John Rustad (who?) responded with vigour. According to Google, the pipeline runs through his backyard, and he is one of the few BCLiberal MLAs who has confirmed he will return to contest his seat in May, so I guess he is a logical voice for the Government on this issue, I just wish his criticism contained more logic. You can read his statement here, and it is an incredible pile of wrong. Either Rustad is unfamiliar with the BC Environmental Assessment Act that he is talking about, or he is purposely misleading people about what it means. Hanlon’s Razor suggests the former, so let’s stick to that.

The BC Environmental Assessment process is not a “unilateral” hearing, nor would the Premier’s expressed opinion about the project mean the project could be “killed” by applying a Provincial Process. In contrast, since the recent Federal omnibus budget bill C-38, the Federal Environmental Assessment process is much less informed by science, as the Prime Minister’s Office or the Minister of Raping and Pillaging can now override any recommendation coming out of the review; including the recommendation of the specific Ministry running the scientific review or the scientists providing the data. The BC EA process does not include any such provision. Simply put, the BC EA process is now the much less political, more science-based process cmpared to the “sham process” (to borrow Rustad’s words) the Federal Government has created.

Here, let me pick one of his paragraphs apart:

“By prejudging the project and the federal environmental review process, the NDP have sent a dangerous message to investors. The NDP are, in essence, saying future resource development should be determined by popular opinion – not scientific review. This begs the question, what other resource projects would they try to halt prior to diligent review processes?”

It is clear that the Federal Government (who are running the current EA) have pre-judged the process; is Mr. Rustad assuming the Feds can run a fair, scientific process despite the bias they have already expressed, the specific language in new Federal EA Act that provides political override of the scientific conclusion of the EA process, and the ongoing gutting of the very scientific jobs that would provide the understanding of the environmental impacts – yet (breath) – the Province under Dix can’t, where there is no legislated ability to subvert the Provincial process? Read the BC EA legislation, does that look like the aforementioned “public opinion” poll? Not at all.

Aren’t the Federal Government and the Government of Alberta saying that all resource development should be approved, regardless of the present or future environmental impacts? what does that say to resource industries hoping to set up shop in BC? Come, pollute our streams, as long as we get a few jobs or royalties as crumbs, not need to assess the cost-benefit!

Finally, could someone in the BC Liberals communication department, the people writing these speeches for Rustad and other announcements, look up what the expression “begging the question” means? Or is it being used ironically here, as he is rather begging the question (in the logical fallacy sense)…

If Rustad had bothered to read Adrian Dix’s actual statement, he might have taken the hint and actually read (or had his communications staff read) the cited parts of the BC Environmental Assessment Act and the changed Canadian Envrionmental Assessment Act before he commented on it. The “new” Federal Act is no longer independent, science-based, or accountable, and therefore no longer in the same spirit as the Federal Act that was part of the 2010 Environmental Assessment Equivalency Agreement (which brought he two acts into harmony). If BC wants to have a legitimate Environmental Assessment of the Enbridge pipeline, it will have to hold its own.

The approach outline by Dix is clear, and completely within the spirit and the letter of the Act while representing BCs interests before the interests of Enbridge, unlike the silly approach proffered so far by the BC Government. Rustad trots out BC’s strange “five minimum requirements” approach for any proposed “heavy oil” projects in BC (that term poorly defined, but clearly not including liquified natural gas or refined oil products) to receive “potential” provincial support, although not outright approval. If the remarkable glut of weasel words in the preamble is not enough to reassure you, just review what those 5 conditions are, the 5-headed hydra of Premier McSparkles’(tm) “principled” position:

1. Successful completion of the environmental review process. This “condition” is actually required by Federal Law, and no-one is expecting the pipeline to go forward without this approval – which raises (but doesn’t beg) the question of just what the hell the Premier thought we have been talking about for the last 2 years!?

2. World-leading marine oil spill response, prevention and recovery systems for B.C.’s coastline and ocean to manage and mitigate the risks and costs of heavy oil pipelines and shipments; A completely nonsensical and unmeasurable requirement. What does “World-Leading” mean? Does every aspect need to be better than everyone else’s? Or just a cumulative? Does she require an insurance scheme and on-board navigation systems more comprehensive than International Law? Would any tanker company agree to that? Why? Who will measure, if it was even measurable?

3. World-leading practices for land oil spill prevention, response and recovery systems to manage and mitigate the risks and costs of heavy oil pipelines; Again, completely unmeasurable. A standard that is not measurable is not standard at all (see the recent Auditor General’s report on the BC Environmental Assessment Office, and assuring conditions are attainable and measurable with rational metrics). Perhaps we can have a spill-response Olympics, to prove our systems are better than those in Azerbaijan and Zaire…

4. Legal requirements regarding Aboriginal and treaty rights are addressed, and First Nations are provided with the opportunities, information and resources necessary to participate in and benefit from a heavy-oil project; OH, Ok, we are making compliance with the CONSTITUTION a condition of approval? Wow, that’s bold. Why again is no-one taking this person seriously?

5. British Columbia receives a fair share of the fiscal and economic benefits of a proposed heavy oil project that reflects the level, degree and nature of the risk borne by the province, the environment and taxpayers. Translate: show me the money. Here is the heart of the “principled stand”. Act tough, hold out for more cash, a mob-style security shakedown.

The BCLiberal approach to the Enbridge Pipeline has been confused, self-contradictory, tone-deaf, a day late and a dollar short. It has lacked in both vision and in understanding of law, from Provincial and Federal EA statutes to the Constitution Act of 1982. It has been an embarrassment for the Premier, and she has, in turn, has been and embarrassment to the Province.In contrast, Adrian Dix has make a clear, definitive statement, citing the specific existing legislation he would invoke, and how he would invoke it. The BC Liberal response is to have some junior MLA ridicule him, avoiding any points of fact, or any specific flaw in his statement, just suggesting he might be “scary” to Enbridge.

Suddenly, the NDP are looking like a Government, the BCLiberals are looking like a desperate opposition.

The Air Care Landmine

I work in Richmond, but do most of my actual living in New Westminster, so I am reluctant to get too involved in the politics on the downstream end of Lulu Island.

However, when I read a recent Editorial Piece in the Richmond Review (sister paper to our own NewsLeader and the Peace Arch News, where there is a electronic version available), I had to react. I wrote a longer piece on AirCare way back when the current public relations campaign to get rid of it started up, as part of a longer rant about the myopic old-school viewpoint of one Harvey Enchin.

Long and short, AirCare is a successful program that is cost-effective and will be until at least 2020. The only argument against it is that it is inconvenient – in that once every two years, less than 50% of drivers have to take 15 minutes out of their day and pay $45 to demonstrate that their car has an operating emissions control system. Boo freaking hoo.

So here was my response letter to the Richmond Review Editor.

I recognize the Editorial section is where opinions are expressed, but isn’t journalistic opinion supposed to rest on a foundation of fact?

In your editorial, you make statements that sound like fact, such as “Air Care hasn’t really been necessary for some time” or “There simply aren’t enough older vehicles on the road to make the expensive and bureaucratic program necessary”, or “random enforcement is best”, but indicate what these opinions are based upon. As a multi-agency program review of AirCare completed less than two years ago concluded the system was effective, efficient, and would continue to provide measureable air-quality benefits to the region until at least 2020, it seems the facts available are the opposite of your assertions.

When you characterise AirCare as “nothing more than a cash-grab from the government”, it is at odds with the fact AirCare is self-supporting, uses no tax dollars to operate, and transfers no money to its lead agency (TransLink). Compare that to the “random enforcement” strategy you propose, which will require taxpayer-funded officers to issue tickets, enforceable through the taxpayer-funded courts, to collect fines that will go to General Revenue.

Cancelling AirCare is a bad decision based not on good policy, but election-time pandering, because protecting our airshed is “inconvenient” to a portion of the population. I am, of course, editorializing; but I would love to see some facts to change my mind.

The fact that AirCare will not be cancelled until 2014, and that the proposed commercial vehicle “replacement program” has not been described in any detail suggest to me this is, in fact, a landmine being dropped by the BC Liberals. It has a bit of curb appeal, might get them a few votes, but in reality, it just puts the winner of the next election in a difficult situation. They will need to dismantle the system (which will be costly, and result in worsening air quality) or try to keep it running against public outcry (because the current government has poisoned the well, despite AirCare being good policy). This is, in many ways, no different than the recently announced limit to BC Hydro rate increases that bypassed the Utilities Commission.

What other landmines lie in waiting before we get to May, 2013?