Coaly Green Drinks this Thursday!

For those not paying attention (and really, why would you?)…

…the proposal to convert part of Fraser Surrey Docks to a coal terminal (the one where they plan to export of low-quality US-sourced thermal coal after employing US-based BNSF Railway to ship it here through the back yards of a bunch of our South-of-the-Fraser neighbours) has entered into the Environmental Impact Assessment phase.

Some have found this assessment to be lacking.

You don’t have to take a medical health officer’s word for it, you can read the entirety of the assessment here, although you better put on some coffee, because the report is technical and I count 900+ pages with appendices.

Yes, that’s it. No, I have not read it. At least not all of it. Yet. 

While you are reading it, you might also want to take notes, as the public comment period is now open, so you, as a member of the public, are free to opine to the Port about the assessment and the project in general. You can send in comments by mail, e-mail, or FAX until 4:00pm on December 17, 2013, to the addresses available here.

Another way you can make your voice heard is to post your comments to a website a group called Voters Taking Action on Climate Change have set up. They call it “Real Port Hearings”, and they will use that site to collect feedback that the Port should be hearing. They plan to forward your feedback to the Port, however, since the Port is not compelled to make any of the feedback they receive public, VTACC will make the feedback public for them; doing the public engagement that the Port should be doing.

Also, if you want to learn more first, you could show up at Green Drinks on Thursday and hear what a couple of well-informed people have to say on the topic of Coal Exports. One of the hosts of the evening is the New Westminster Environmental Partners’ Coal Spokesperson Andrew Murray, and, well, you know who he is! Andrew will be introducing two (2!) special guests who also have a lot to say on the topic of coal and how the Port engages the community:

Laura Benson is Coal Campaigner for the Dogwood Initiative, which has been one of the leading organizations in BC fighting to protect our coasts and our atmosphere from bad decisions and short-term thinking. They are collecting petitions at their Beyond Coal site, trying to get your voice to the elected officials who have the decision making powers on this issue, but are strangely silent on exporting such a dangerous product.

Peter Hall is a Prof at SFU’s famed Urban Studies Program. He is studying the connections between shipping and logistics networks, and how they impact employment and development patterns in port cities. He is also interested in Ports as institutions, and the differing governance models that regulate them. As I’ve said before, so much of the issues that New Westminster cares about (bridges and truck traffic, railways, development of the waterfront, etc.) are Port-related issues, and the research Dr. Hall does is directly applicable to the decisions being made here today, on Coal and on these other topics.

This Thursday, in the “Back Room” of the Heritage Grill, on Columbia Street in Downtown New Westminster. The Heritage is a food-primary establishment, meaning that you do not have to be 19 to enter, and we make it as inclusive as possible. The goal of Green Drinks is to have a comfortable, informal setting where people can mix and mingle, and talk about sustainability and environment. Everyone is welcome, entry is free, and opinions are encouraged! Our speakers might give short talks, but the emphasis is always on two-way and multi-way discussions about topics of common interest – a cocktail party of green ideas, if you will.

See you there!

District Energy – a good news story.

So much complaining and winging on this blog recently, I’m glad to talk about a good news story for a change!

I’m bully about the future of District Energy Utilities, and so it is good to hear New Westminster is starting to explore the prospect more seriously. The location in lower Sapperton provides an interesting collection of geographic opportunities that might make for a very successful system. But before the details, let’s do a quick primer on District Energy Utilities.

Like any other utility, a DEU is one where a single entity supplies the source and distribution system of a vital commodity, usually as a monopoly, and therefore covered by the BC Utilities Act. That Act assures the public can benefit from the inherent efficiency of a single supplier and integrated supply network, but that the consumer does not get gouged by the lack of competition. When you think of our drinking water supply or electricity grid, it is hard to imagine how else it could be managed. When it comes to “energy”, the concept is a little less clear.

An energy utility produces heat energy (usually through a boiler or heat exchanger), and distributes it (usually in the form of hot water or steam) to a selection of customers. For a variety of reasons, efficiencies can be found in producing the energy in a central site and distributing it widely, instead of having a small boiler in every building. This efficiency can be enhanced by building a larger-scale high efficiency system, and the sustainability of the entire utility improved by choosing a sustainable energy source.

Think about your typical apartment building. New ones generally have electric baseboard heaters around the periphery of glass-walled suites. This relies on the inherent efficiency of the province-wide BC Hydro electrical grid to be affordable, but at the local level, it is not in the least bit efficient. Older buildings are more likely to have boilers in the basement that burn natural gas and heat water which in turn circulates through the building to warm the rooms. The efficiency of this type of system relies on the efficiency of the boiler and the engineering of the distribution network in the building.

A DEU is like the second example. A single water-heating facility, and a system of pipes that moves hot water to the customer buildings. In each of those buildings, a high-efficiency heat pump turns the DEU-heated water into intra-building heated water, and distributes the warmth through the building. In theory, this entire system can also be designed to take heat out of the building in the summer, like any other heat pump.

There are several examples of DEUs operating in the lower mainland, and I have toured two of them. The first, and most famous, is the Southeast False Creek DEU. This is fast becoming the model of a “medium temperature” district energy system whose main energy source is the heat of sewage water.

Diagram from City of Vancouver website. 

There happens to be a big sanitary sewer line than runs by the site, and due to the fact we heat much of the water we use before we dispose of it, and there is so much …uh…organic activity in our sewage, it tends to be warm. There is so much warm sewage in this line that stripping off a few degrees of heat (the temperature exchanger reduces the sewage temperature by less than 5 degrees centigrade) results in a huge amount of energy to run the heat pump. There is enough energy that the system provides the vast majority of the heating and hot water for the buildings being built around the utility. The utility also has an efficient gas-fired boiler to “boost” the energy demand for those few days a year when Vancouver gets really cold and an exceptional amount of energy is needed. At full build-out, the sewage heat will supply about 70% of the total energy needs of the community.

The second example I have toured recently is in the Alexandria neighbourhood of Richmond. This is a very different system, although the fundamental idea is the same. The difference is that this is a “low temperature” system that relies on geothermal energy source. This energy source is a field of 250-foot deep metal loops with a coolant running through them.

Image from City of Richmond website.

As groundwater a couple of hundred feet down is always around 12 degrees centigrade, the temperature between this temperature and heating season ambient temperatures is small (hence “low temperature”) but it still produces a surprising amount of energy. The system is also scaleable, and as the surrounding neighbourhood is built up and more energy is required, the system can be easily scaled up, using pretty much any energy source, from more geothermal to solar water heating to sewer heat (as the local waste water volume ramps up with development).

When I toured the Alexandra energy centre, it still had that New Utility Smell. 

These systems provide significant benefits for users (as energy prices become more stable – not linked to volatile gas or electricity markets), for the environment (replacing fossil fuels and inefficient baseboards with a highly efficient heating system), and for the City that builds them (once the capital costs are paid off- about 10-20 years depending on the system, these utility systems should be a revenue source for the operator).

Back here in New Westminster, it appears from the report to Council, the proposed DEU will be a “medium temperature” variety, not unlike the Southeast False Creek system. This makes sense with the intensity of energy use from a relatively compact footprint. There is also the proposal to use waste heat from a major trunk sanitary sewer that happens to run right by the spot. Clearly, there are details to work out, but we are not inventing a wheel here, we are potentially benefiting from a system that is already successfully operating in hundreds of places, and has already proven itself to be financially sound and energy efficient.

The other option floated is to use a gasification plant to burn waste wood, which is the system that powers Victoria’s groundbreaking Dockside Green development, and also happens to be the system that the Kruger paper plant in New Westminster uses to produce power and steam, significantly reducing their greenhouse gas production by reducing the need to burn gas. I cannot emphasise enough this system is very different that a trash incinerator like the one in Burnaby. First off, the emissions from a gasification plant are remarkably low (and easily cleaned), and secondly, the waste wood represents biospheric carbon, not fossil carbon, so it does not increase the net greenhouse gas budget of the planet.

Actually, since both of these heat sources can be used on the same system, as they both represent “medium temperature” energy sources, and there is not reason (except maybe the economics of scale efficiencies) that the City cannot build both systems, in a staged approach as the Hospital expansion, the final pieces in the Brewery District, and other developments in the area take place.

So this is first steps, but it is good to hear the City is taking this idea seriously.

Take Back our Port this Sunday

Long time readers (Hi Mom!) know I have been occasionally critical of Port Metro Vancouver. It is funny, because I work with people from the Port on occasion, and have healthy, respectful relationship with many Port staff. The first property upon which I ever led an environmental investigation during my consulting days was a Port property. They were great to work for because of their professionalism, straight-forward communications, and high competence of their technical staff.

So why the current hate on? Why am I taking part in, and encouraging you to participate in, a Rally on Sunday in New Westminster, with the Theme “Take Back Our Port”?



You can read about it in the Newspaper, or show up to get details, but this is about accountability.

Port Metro Vancouver is, to quote their website,

“a non-shareholder, financially self-sufficient corporation, established by the Government of Canada in January 2008, pursuant to the Canada Marine Act, and accountable to the federal Minister of Transport, Infrastructure and Communities”.

They are crown corporation who answer only to Lisa Raitt (who, like any other Conservative MP, answers only to the Prime Minister’s Office). There is no local representation of the Port, except a Board of Important Business People. They do a significant amount of public outreach, but there is no accountability to local residents in how they fulfill their mission, which is, again to quote the Website:

To lead the growth of Canada’s Pacific Gateway in a manner that enhances the well-being of Canadians

What is “Canada’s Pacific Gateway” exactly? Something to do with the Province, apparently, if you follow that link. But make no mistake, the Port doesn’t answer to the Premier, even if she leases her office space from them.

Regardless of catch phrases, the depth of the influence this unaccountable organization has on your community should concern you. A few of the hot-button issues that we talk a lot about in New Westminster point right back at the port: :

Coal: People in New West are very aware of the current proposal to introduce bulk coal exports to Surrey Fraser Docks, right across the Fraser from the Quayside. Most of you probably don’t know about the other two coal terminals in Vancouver are seeing expansion (Westshore Terminals expanded by 40% in 2012, Neptune Terminals in 2015 by 50%). With each expansion increases the number of open coal-carrying rail cars running through our neighbourhoods, increased air pollution, and increased climate impacts as we move the dirtiest fuel ever known to man. Although this expansion improves the financial bottom line of the Port, they are the agency charged with providing an “Independent” Environmental Assessment for the projects. They also make it clear that greenhouse gas impacts of their operations are not part of the assessment. GHGs are not their problem. That is the problem of the Federal Government, they say.

Trains: Train operations are dictated by Port needs. Trains are good, they are the most efficient way to move goods across land by far. If we are going to migrate our economy to a more sustainable path, trains will be a fundamental part of that economy. However, inflexibility in their operations, often dictated by Port needs, means that mitigating community impacts is difficult, and will always come in second place to logistical needs to keep things moving, as quickly as possible.

Further, impacts on the community are exacerbated by a failure to invest on rail infrastructure. The New Westminster Rail Bridge is more than 100 years old, and represents the largest goods-movement bottleneck in the region. This bridge, much like the Port, belongs to the Federal government, but there is simply no interest in replacing it. Therefore, more goods have to be moved by truck to bypass this bottleneck. Until this bottleneck is addressed, the re-alignment of the rails that run through New West cannot take place, and so we are all in a waiting pattern, hoping the rail/road conflicts will get better. Old rail infrastructure is also, like anything else, less safe infrastructure.

Trucks: Everyone in New Westminster knows we are being buried in truck traffic. The Port knows, but it frankly does not care. With the rail bottleneck, and complete disinterest from the Port in investing in short-sea shipping, containers are coming off ships at Burrard Inlet or Delta, then going on trucks, through our neighbourhoods and past our schools, to get to places like Port Kells or Port Coquitlam, to be put on trains, it’s clear moving stuff by truck is not an unfortunate consequence in our communities, it is the business plan.

This is further evidence when one looks at more recently-developed port lands, like Port-owned lands lining the north side of Queensborough and currently being filled with truck-only warehouses. Or look at the south side of Richmond, where the Port owns more than 750 Acres of waterfront land full of truck-only warehouses? These properties have something in common: no goods move on or off ships at these prime waterfront locations. Which brings us to:

Land Use: There has been an ongoing issue about the port encroaching on agricultural land, the threatening the ALR. We don’t have farmland in New Westminster, but regional food security should still concern everyone who hopes to eat for the next few decades. However, the Port is in a unique situation, where they can buy up large pieces of ALR land, which is relatively inexpensive at between $50,000 and $200,000 per acre (See Pages 28 and 29 of this report, I don’t make numbers up ) because of ALC restrictions on its use. Then, as a Federal Agency, they can, with a wave of the hand, remove the land from the ALR, and develop it for Industrial purposes. With undeveloped industrial land in the lower mainland selling for between $1,000,000 and $2,000,000 per acre, this seems like a pretty good business plan. Port puts up truck warehouses, asks the City to provide roads to service the trucks, and their financial self-sufficiency is all but assured. Good work if you can get it.

There is a strange meme being created by the current Port CEO– that an “Industrial Land Reserve” is needed to protect Port-related development. This is idiotic when viewed in the light of the equation above. Any land can be made industrial- you just need to pay the rates for that land that the market for industrial land requires. Further, once land become industrial, it can be re-purposed for other uses (see False Creek). The ALR land exists, because that is the one use that cannot be compatible with other uses- once a farm is lost to industrial development ,that land will never again be productive for traditional farming.

The current Port activity in Queensborough is a perfect model of this. High-value industrial lands were bought by the Port on the north side of Queensborough, east of the QB Bridge. Warehouses are being built to move things on and off of trucks. There is no plan whatsoever to use the waterfront location to move things on and off of boats; pier infrastructure is not even being built. The Port now owns the waterfront, and have paved it for the storage of trucks and trailers (with complete disregard to Riparian Areas protection standards or laws, which do not apply to them, because they are a Federal Agency, and with the closure of FREMP, the protection of the Fraser River riparian areas and waterfront habitat is now overseen by – you guessed it – the Port). The City’s and neighbourhood’s dreams of waterfront trails on Queensborough cannot be fulfilled because the Port will not allow a right-of-way through this same waterfront. Meanwhile, the trucks servicing these warehouses are backing up on Duncan Street and Derwent Way, creating havoc at the Howes Street intersection, and the Port is not responsible for any of the cost of improving this infrastructure. Meanwhile, the City has no say in any of this. Which brings us to…

Transportation. “Canada’s Pacific Gateway”, as mentioned above, is code for building roads and bridges. Under the guise of “goods movement”, the Port has been the main champion for spending taxpayer’s money on freeways and bridges that are out of scale for the region’s declining car use, unsustainable in their financing, and in complete contradiction to every regional transportation and land use plan created in Metro Vancouver over the last two decades. While everyone sat around for 20 years wondering where the money for Evergreen was going to come from, and while the Province floats a referendum to avoid having to make a decision about supplying enough funding the TransLink to keep the buses running, the Province has rushed ahead with $5 Billion on road expansion – from the Golden Ears Bridge (which is further crippling TransLink with debt) with the Pitt River Bridge (which is accelerating the removal of land from the ALR because of the traffic problems it has created), with the SFPR (which is a Port subsidy that destroys farm land and neighbourhoods), with the Widest Bridge in the World(tm) (which is also failing to meet its traffic targets and is looking like a long-term taxpayer pain), and now with the Tunnel Replacement to Nowhere. The Port has its fingers in every one of these decisions. They switch from consulting with the community to lobbying the Province in a flash, and then they are the agency that helps provide the Environmental Assessments for the projects. And greenhouse gasses? Someone else’s problem.

All of these issues are central to the livability of our City – of New Westminster, yet at every point, the Port’s only responsibility is to keep the money moving.

So come out to the family-friendly rally Sunday, and see how numerous people and groups feel about being kept out of the decision on how our community will develop, and how the livability of our region will be protected.

New West Doc Fest Year 3!

So you all know there is DocFest happening this week, right?

This is the 3rd Annual New West Doc Fest, and the big news is a move to the Landmark Cinemas at New Westminster Station. This was a fun event the last two years at Douglas College, but the move to a new, sleek, comfy, modern theatre will definitely raise the game a bit for the Fest.

There is a great variety of films this year – some probably not what you expect from a DocFest that is organized by the Green Ideas Network and the New Westminster Environmental Partners. Yeah, there are a couple that hit the topic of “sustainability” pretty hard, but there is also a 3D animated movie re-telling an Inuit legend, and a movie about what its like to stare at the back of famous people for a living!

However, what makes this event different from a night (or three) at the movies is the rest of the schedule. There will be live music and other performances each night. Most films will be preceded by a short film – like they used to do for every movie when we were kinds. And each night will have special hosts who can talk about the films that you are seeing, or the topics that were discussed in the film.

And unlike in previous years at the Doc Fest, this year there will be popcorn.

Films are $5 – $7 each, but the best deal is to buy a $20 Full Festival pass – you can see all 5 features, 4 shorts, live music, talks, and you can hang out at the Friday Night Post-Fest social at Spud Shack next door. Three nights entertainment and education for $20 is cheaper than sitting at home!

I haven’t seen any of the movies showing this year, and I ain’t much of a Movie Critic, but I want to mention three of the Docs I am most looking forward to:

The first is Blackfish. This is a film about a captured orca that lived/worked at SeaWorld, and was involved in the death of a trainer. However, that incident just sets the backdrop for a deeper analysis of the entertainment-aquarium industry, and the ethics of keeping large cetaceans in captivity strictly for entertainment purposes. This film opened at Sundance, and has been winning awards at festivals across Europe and North America (there is even some Oscar hype building), but perhaps the real impact is the media exposure that this film has generated, forcing Sea World to fight back and attempt to re-claim the message.

The second is 20 Feet from Stardom. This movie looks at the lives of singers whose work you have all heard, thought you didn’t know it. The film profiles several “back up singers” who worked with everyone from Bruce Springsteen to Stevie Wonder to the Rolling Stones, but were always 20 feet behind them. Clearly massive talents, these singers spent their careers under the lights, but in the “shadow of superstardom”. With remarkably good reviews from critics and fans (the words “universal acclaim” appear commonly in discussions of the film), this is a movie you want to see on the big screen with modern theatre sound.

Third is Bidder 70, a film about an American who went to extraordinary lengths to protect 22,000 acres of pristine wilderness in Utah. When oil and gas development rights were put up to auction on the lands adjacent to Canyonlands National Park, Tim DeChristopher first sought to prevent the auction from happening, then when the controversial auction began, he bid more than $1.8Million for the rights and won them. Not having $1.8 Million, the Federal Government had him charged with fraud and thrown in jail. The movie is about this action, but it is also about what persons in a free society do when the laws are wrong, when an accountable government threatens its own land and citizens, or when an injustice is being done by those sworn to preserve justice. It is also a personal tale about what makes a single person decide to risk their personal freedom for an idea. As we in Canada see hydrocarbon development rushing ahead at a pace that makes so many people uncomfortable, this might be the most important film of the fest to see.

Like I said, there is a great variety of films being shown, and the conversations before and after should make for a great event. The tickets are cheap because the event is run on shoestring – this is not a fundraiser for the NWEP or anyone else – but the movies are the best on the documentary circuit right now, and we are lucky to have them here in New West! It’s a great opportunity to see some interesting films with a distinct paucity explosions, Michael Bay edits, or comic book characters. Each will make you laugh and think. And besides, it starts the day after the Hyack meeting, so we will all be tired of fireworks by then…

See you there!

on skepticism

I listen to a lot of podcasts. With the intellectual wasteland that is talk radio in the Lower Mainland, where every conversation or idea is a reduced to either a he-says / she-says argument between two people who are too busy hitting their “message points” to hear what the other is saying, or random uncritical repeating of press releases with no time for setting context, (and don’t get me started on call-in or person-on-the-street bitching), the options are thin. Stephen Quinn is a brilliant interviewer and engaging host, but even his work is hampered by every-10-minutes traffic reports and redundant news “updates” every half hour. As the weekends on CBC 1 have basically shifted to all “Debaters”, all the time, and the commercials have arrived on Radio 2, the wasteland is only expanding.

So while I listen to quite a bit of music, there are many times when talk works better, and occupies brain space that music cannot while doing non-thinking stuff: commuting, weed-pulling in the garden, bike maintenance, ironing. So podcasts, with their flexibility of timing and ready access fit the bill.

One of my favourites is the Skeptic’s Guide to the Universe. This weekly hour of “skeptical talk” discusses science and reason in a fun and engaging way. Not a “hard science” program, but one that often delves into pretty science-heavy topics. There are several good Science podcasts (Material World, Science Talk, etc.) but the Skeptic’s Guide stands out in what can only describe as their “skeptical approach”. The hosts and guests spend less time talking about the potential meaning of the latest “groundbreaking” new scientific study or discovery (although they often cover that), and more into the process of how a discovery was made or study was performed, and what that means about the result. In other words- they view a wide variety of topics through the lens of a rigorous application of the scientific method. They are also merciless at tearing apart bad science, bad science reporting, and the preponderance of pseudo-science that fills the modern media. They don’t do this by mocking the characters involved (well, any more than deserved, and I’m talking to you Deepak Chopra), but by systematically disassembling their bad ideas.

As a result, their show is a weekly hour-long primer on how to think. It engages you to not just question “what is the evidence?”, but to question “what is evidence?” or even “what is the evidence presented actually evidence of?”. From listening to the Skeptics Guide, I have learned to better recognize sloppy thinking and weak arguments: on my part, and on the part of others. It has also taught me about common logical fallacies and rhetorical techniques that are used when someone is trying to make a point that the data do not support.

It seems funny that I am still learning this stuff after all the time I spent in school getting degrees in science. However, that is a common failure in our current post-secondary science education system. Neither UBC nor SFU (my alma matter) require a student seeking a science degree to take a serious Philosophy of Science course (although UBC has the optional SCIE 113– which is an English writing course that discusses the topic).

I was fortunate to have an undergrad Prof (who became my supervisor for the Masters) who spent part of a mandatory second-year Structural Geology course discussing the scientific method and its application to problems. We also spent much of his upper-level course time reviewing the scientific literature, with him asking us to critique the thinking in the paper – to understand what the basic assumptions are, and how to test their validity. I learned to look at the citations of a paper, the citation of the citations, to find the root of an idea. All of this was, however, in the context of teaching structural and sedimentary geology. Frankly, I probably did not appreciate it much until I got into my Grad work and realized he had equipped me with a scientifically skeptical mind. Thanks Peter, you sneaky bastard!

However, a geology Prof shouldn’t have to sneak this into students in courses that are meant to be teaching about eigenvectors, stress vs. strain, and what those Moment Tensor solutions on the USGS Earthquakes site mean. Every science student should take a course in third year (after all the wheat-and-chaff data bashing of the first two years is out of the way, and only those really interested in a field of science remain) to teach the philosophy of science. What is evidence? How is it evaluated? What is certainty, and what is consensus, in the scientific context? How do Theory, Law, and Hypothesis interact? What is a model, and how does it compare to reality? What is the Dunning-Kruger effect? What can we learn from what we don’t know? What are the major categories of Logical Fallacies, and how do you detect them?

Why should we subject students to this scientific brainwashing? Because our brains are dirty. We all have our biases, our bad ideas, our perceptual weaknesses. We cannot avoid these, but to approach even the simplest problem scientifically, we need to recognize these problems, and find a way to isolate them from careful observation of the evidence. The more complex the scientific problem, the harder this is to do. With a high level of science illiteracy today (no higher than in the past, I suspect, but more pronounced because there is just more science to be illiterate of), there are often calls to address complex problems with liberal application of “common sense”. The problem is, “common sense” is often wrong. Common sense tells us the earth is still and the sun rotates around it. Common sense tells us that you are more likely to be killed by lightning than an asteroid impact. Common sense tells us driving your kids to school is safer than letting them walk. Common sense tells us more snow is not a predictable result of global warming. The data proves all of these ideas false. Pretty much the entire subject of Quantum Mechanics belies common sense – it is still a hell of a useful model of the subatomic universe.

His Eminence, apparently one of the great Thinkers of our time, does not clarify what to do in frequent occasion when scientific findings are contrary to “experience” or “common sense”. 

The problem with common sense (especially when biased by personal experience and inherent confirmation bias) is that we all have it, and we all rely on it too often. This is reinforced by a certain anti-intellectual bias in our current discourse. The list of ways our current Federal Government ignores, muzzles, defunds, and otherwise hinders scientific discussion is well established. Knowledge gained from decades of scientific research is given “equal treatment” in reporting on scientific topics with the opinions of the scientifically illiterate or (worse) those who are willing to give up their scientific credibility for profit. And how are we, those who are curious about scientific idea, or want to apply scientific principles to planning (never mind regular folk trying to make our way through this increasingly complex world), supposed to tell the difference?

A perfect example arrived in the Surrey Newspaper this week. Read this Letter to the Editor, which was sent in support of a scientifically-questionable opinion piece by columnist Tom Fletcher on the recent IPCC report. This letter writer was apparently of the opinion that the entire Anthropogenic Climate Change argument was a result of the world’s scientists not being able to understand decimal points. I quote:

“Never have so many known so little about basic mathematics, physics, chemistry, history and so forth. To illustrate my point, consider that the Earth’s atmosphere is 77 per cent nitrogen and 21 per cent oxygen. That leaves two per cent for all the trace gases including carbon dioxide – currently .04 of one per cent. How can a reasonable person argue that carbon dioxide is the primary driver of climate change?”

This is (as far as formal Logical Fallacies go) called “the argument from personal incredulity”, which can be summarized as “I don’t believe/understand it, therefore it must not be true”. This is an argument wrapped in the same profound lack of scientific literacy or skeptical analysis that the letter writer is accusing others of.

One can easily attack the factual failures in this specific argument (If 0.04 % is not enough to impact the climate, how much do you suppose is required? 1%? 10%? Show me your math / Somehow 0.04% is enough to support the respiration of all photosynthesizing life on earth, yet it cannot impact climate? / Ozone makes up less than 0.00007% of the atmosphere, are you equally convinced of its irrelevance to life on earth?). A more skeptical analysis would lead one to wonder how the writer has discovered a critical flaw in Climate Science that tens of thousands of scientists who work in climate, physics, chemistry, and geosciences for organizations from NASA to NOAA to the Royal Society to every major national scientific body in the world, have somehow missed due to their stunning collective scientific illiteracy? That no-one in the >150 years since the greenhouse effect caused by carbon dioxide was first discovered and measured, no scientist from John Tyndall to James Hansen, ever realized that 0.04% just wasn’t enough CO2 to matter?

No, what we have here is an example of the Dunning-Kruger effect. We have the bulk of the world’s scientists, who have been plugging away at this problem for a generation, saying they are reasonably certain (now over 95%) that human-caused CO2 emissions are the leading cause of the current observed warning, and you have Francis Patrick Jordan, of White Rock, 100% sure it is not possible because he doesn’t understand small numbers.

But Mr. Jordan is not to blame, his is a failure of the education system not preparing people appropriately for an information-saturated world. We live in a time when everyone is walking around with more raw data than the Library of Congress in their hand, the problem is not getting a hold of facts, it is being able to recognize what the value of a fact is. So when I complain that the graph Tom Fletcher included in his original article  dishonestly compares mid-tropospheric temperature measurements from tropical areas with modelled global surface temperature trends (see “Stage 2 – Deny We’re the Cause” here, which two months ago pointed out the falsehood of that particular graphic, complete with references and data and such stuff that a good reporter might be interested in) and even in light of this lie, still counters Fletcher’s thesis by demonstrating a measured increase in surface temperatures on the order of 0.15C per decade during an “pause” in surface temperatures that is not only fully explained by the IPCC report, but the cause of which has been discussed openly in the scientific literature for more than a decade, people should be empowered to follow the links and recognize Fletcher for the non-skeptical, scientifically illiterate, cynical bullshitter he is.

And please, I encourage everyone to treat me with the same skepticism, but be prepared to provide the refuting data and back up your claims.

T2 or not T2?

You have to be a real transportation/Port/Environment geek to know that this is going on, but I thought it might be interesting to call attention to one of Port Metro Vancouver’s current projects. The Port plans to expand DeltaPort- the big island created out next to the Tsawwassen Ferry terminal – to double the capacity for the movement of containers.

PMV graphic, click to zoom in.

They have just applied for an environmental assessment for the so-called Roberts Bank T2 Project, but are doing their own outreach to ask the community a few questions about the current project.

By “community”, I mean people South of the Fraser, because the pubic open houses are all being held south of the middle arm, but there is lots of opportunity for on-line comments, and with a comprehensive EA very likely, there should be more opportunity to talk over the next year or so.

My initial impressions are surprisingly (for some) not all that negative. However, before I present them, I need to do one of my every-so-often caveat things:

Although the footprint of this project is well outside of the City than employs me, my employer has been identified as a potential stakeholder in the project. I am in the department of the City that would theoretically be providing technical assistance to the City’s correspondence on the matter. That said, I have no pony in this race, nor have I any decision-making power in how EA or the Port plans advance, or how my employer approaches the EA. I am not privy to any behind-the scenes information, all I know about the project comes from the publicly-available records. Everything I say here is my opinion, not that of my employer or anyone else who may work for my employer, or any rational person, for that matter. 

With that out of the way, I’ll give a quick description of the project. PMV wants to expand the container facility at DeltaPort. This is part of on-going expansion plans out there on Roberts Bank. To put the expansion in perspective, cast you mind way back to 2009, when Hannah Montana was still a thing, and the Roberts Bank Container facility had an annual capacity of 1.2 Million TEU per year (“TEU” is twenty-foot equivalent units, essentially a 20-foot long standard container. The ones you typically see on the back of trucks on Royal Ave are 40-foots, equivalent to 2 TEUs, although the 2.6 TEU 53-footers at are increasingly common).

In 2010 a third berth was opened, which boosted capacity 50%, to 1.8 Million TEU. Since then, an ongoing project to improve the rail and road connections and off-ship container handling is aiming to boost capacity by 2015 to 2.4 Million TEU. If approved and completed, the current project will boost capacity yet again, to 4.8 Million TEU. As full build-out of this project will not arrive until about 2024, the net result would be a quadrupling of container capacity over 14 years.

PMV’s own graphics Click to make bigger

Clearly, the Port is bullish on containers.

There is much to be discussed here, as the projected growth will impact every bit of our City and region. I want to concentrate on two specific issues at this early stage, both close to my heart. Transportation and the Agricultural Land Reserve.

Transportation
If you think there are too many container trucks on Royal Avenue now, what will it be like when container throughput is increased three-fold? Where are all these containers going to go?

I dug through this recent report commissioned by the Port, and used as the justification for expanded container capacity at Roberts Bank, and the existing terminals in Burrard Inlet. There are a few lessons in here.

First off, Surrey Fraser Docks will not be a significant mover of containers at the Port for the foreseeable future, regardless of the fate of the tunnel or dredging of the river. Simply put, the average every-day container ships being built today are too large to navigate within the Fraser River. At 400m long and 60m wide, their 15m draught is the least of their worries. Port facilities along the Fraser River may have many uses, but moving containers on and off of boats will not be one of them, unless the Port decides to finally start investing in the type of short-sea shipping that was recommended to them a decade ago by this other report.

Second, note from the graph above (page 36 of the aforementioned report) that the vast majority of the import containers, more than 90% from 1990 to 2010, are bound for destinations outside of Western Canada. The forecasts deeper in the report suggest this trend will continue, as most growth calculations are based on competitive advantages accessing the Mid-West and eastern parts of North America though rail. This should reinforce the question – why are we moving these things around by truck? What are the economics of moving these containers from the boat to the truck to the multi-modal yard where they eventually end up on trains?

Part of the answer might be train capacity. It has been suggested by people much smarter than me that the single most pressing goods movement choke point in the Province is the New Westminster Rail Bridge, underlying a challenged rail infrastructure throughout the region.

However, this report suggests quite the opposite- saying that there is lots of rail capacity, and that the economic advantages of direct-to-rail are clear:

… the costs associated with trucking containers from terminals to rail yards were obviously highly uncompetitive. Hence, there was a switch in favour of on-dock rail facilities, and all new container terminals on the west coast either incorporate such a facility or provide on-dock access to an adjacent rail yard.” –pg 146.

So the economics make sense, the global trend is established, and the Port is making plans to take advantage of this reality. Which makes me wonder why we are still investing heavily in the building of truck-freeways to move trucks from the Docks to the Intermodal Yards? Why are we being told we have to accept the community impacts and cost to the public purse of all these container trucks when the economics don’t make sense?

There was one shocking statement a few pages later under Conclusions:

The only possible difficulty if proposed oil exports from Alberta were to compete for rail space with coal and container trains. Clearly, the correct mode for these exports will be by pipeline. This is the only potential capacity constraint for increased container volumes via Vancouver.” -pg 150

I don’t think any of us were under any illusions about the Port being an interested partner in the building of pipelines to move bitumen from Alberta to the west coast, but this dynamic is one that shows how complex, yet strangely tenuous, our transportation network truly is. How Coal snuck into the discussion here is another point of speculation. Are plans for expanded coal movement really suited to the Port’s expansion plans for containers?

Agriculture / Land Use
The current Port Boss has been questioning the preservation of Agricultural lands. He has gone so far as to say we don’t need farmland in BC, as we can import all of our food through his port. So it is really hard to give him the benefit for the doubt about this topic…but hear me out a bit.

It is possible that the building of new land out where DeltaPort is currently located will reduce the pressure to re-purpose existing new land in the lower Fraser Valley from farm to Port servicing. If we accept that the Port’s expansion models are realistic, and we accept that expanded movement of container goods is a great thing for our economy, and Roberts Bank Terminal 2 is designed to primarily move goods on and off of boats and on and off of trains (three big “ifs”, admittedly), then of all the places for this activity to take place, perhaps Roberts Bank is the best option. Maybe this is a project that Environmentalists can somehow “get to yes” on (to borrow the parlance of the day).

The habitat loss out on Roberts bank will be small, and adjacent to already highly disturbed habitat. With some creative design, there is no reason T2 would create any harm outside of its 100 hectare footprint. It could be argued that compensatory habitat required under the Fisheries Act will be of higher quality than that lost through this project, but that is yet to be seen, and something that will come out during the EA.

PMV Graphics, Click to zoom in.

Public meetings:
There will be 5 public meetings, starting tomorrow, led by the Port, and discussing three aspects of the project: Habitat Mitigation Plans, Methods for improving Port-related truck traffic; and ideas for community legacy benefits. As I said, they are all South of the Fraser, but you might want to make the trip and check them out:

October 16 @5:00pm-8:00pm      UBC Boathouse, Richmond
October 17 @5:00pm-8:00pm      Surrey Arts Centre, Surrey
October 22 @5:00pm-8:00pm      Coast Hotel , Langley
October 24 @5:00pm-8:00pm      Delta Town & Country Inn, Delta
October 26 @10:00am-1:00pm    Coast Tsawwassen Inn, Delta

The Bridge to Nowhere.

I have already opined about the potential to replace the Massey Tunnel back when the rushed “consultations” were launched in the Spring. People with better minds than mine have already challenged the base assumptions built into the apparent need for a replacement using the Ministry of Transportation’s own numbers.

This week’s announcement that this low-priority election bauble was pushing on, full steam ahead, despite the objection of pretty much every Mayor in the region* except for the one who doesn’t want to pay for it, is still a little confounding. Our all-but silent rookie Minister of Transportation continues to dither about Transit funding models and a still-born referendum, everyone from Teachers to Nurses to Social Workers are being told there is no money in the kitty for any of their essential programs, but for some reason this multi-billion dollar boondoggle is a Provincial Priority. Depressing, but not shocking.

Since the announcement was amazingly bereft of details: size, scale, scope, costs, tolls are all things we can only speculate on. The only substantive thing we have to base our speculations upon is the fly-through animation of the proposed bridge, a fanciful piece of salesmanship no doubt created in a wet dream by the very engineering firms and Project Managers that are now engaged by the Ministry of Transportation to sell this product to a reluctant taxpayer consult on the project design and implementation on behalf of the Government, so they can eventually get paid by the same Government to build it. You know who you are.

First off, note the lane count. 10. Well, 12 if you include the “safety lanes” that appear to be full-lane width on this rendering. Plus a bike/pedestrian path. As drawn, this bridge will be wider than the Port Mann, the alleged widest bridge in the world.

Yes, two of those lanes will be “HOV” lanes. Note the HOV lane is dominated by cars and commercial vehicles, which makes them very different than the HOV lanes we know and love.

Note no substantial changes to the design of the Steveston Highway intersection as far as lanes in and lanes out, (although it looks like the overpass will be blown out to 4 lanes, which will not do much for Stevenson and No 5 Road).  Note especially how the free-flowing traffic from the new bridge disappears as it exits to the 2-lane Steveston Highway, as if by magic. The magic of road builder renderings. That traffic is distinctly “somebody else’s problem”. Or the next problem they will get paid to solve.

Nor do will see substantive changes to the Highway 99 / Highway 17A intersection. Except, of course, the current 6-lane Highways that extend through farmland away from the Bridge north and south are shown to be 10 lanes wide as far as the eye can see. Pity the Oak Street Bridge, I-5 Seattle, here we come.

Note the pedestrians on the bridge. There are a dozen pedestrians and three cyclists shown. Cyclists I’ll give you, but the bridge is 3 km long, with the north end ramp more than a kilometre from the nearest doorway of any kind, and the south end something like 5 km from any likely destination, be it residential, commercial or recreational. Where the hell are these walkers going?

Perhaps they got tired of waiting for the transit that never showed up, as the established bus stops on the Richmond side of the bridge have been removed, and the HOV lane moved to the middle of the freeway, so Transit connections have clearly not been thought out here. Probably TransLink’s problem to solve.

At least I give the rendering props for truthfully representing the types of vehicles that use the Massey tunnel route. In the animation, 83% of the vehicles shown are private cars, 14% are commercial trucks, and 3% are buses. Admittedly, they are “tour” bus types but let’s assume the animator meant for these to be ultra-luxury Transit buses that will come with expanded Transit funding to go with the new road (yes, that was sarcasm).

These stats are close to the actual current count of traffic going through the tunnel: 87% cars (including HOV, which means at least one passenger), 12% trucks, 1% transit.

Source: Massey Tunnel Replacement Consultations.

Actually, the 2% increase in trucks is almost exactly the increased number that will result from the most ambitious Port expansion plans at Terminal 2. Keep that 2% number in mind when you are told “Goods Movement” is a primary reason for spending a couple of billion of your dollars to replace the tunnel.

In contrast, the displayed tripling in transit service is clearly fanciful, as TransLink has no money to maintain the routes they currently run. This is important, because if transit use (which at 1% of vehicles, already represents 26% of the people travelling through the tube) tripled, then the numbers of cars going through the tunnel would be reduced by half. Which would end our congestion problem for a much lower cost than a $X Billion bridge.

Alas, I heard Moe Sihota speaking for the NDP on the Rick Cluff Radio Confrontation Hour (follow link to about 1:50:00) this morning, also agreeing that the tunnel needed to be replaced with a big shiny bridge, using the same incorrect data and false assumptions as Premier McSparkles(Tm). Of course, he disagreed with Colin Hansen on some arcane aspect of the funding or the opportunism of the announcement, but he was all for pissing away you tax dollars entrenching another generation of motordom.

This leaves the 100,000 daily transit users on the under-serviced Broadway Corridor and the tens of thousands in Surrey loading on stuffed and increasingly unreliable SkyTrains every morning wondering who represents them.

*note, just before writing this, I heard an unintentionally hilarious interview with Mayor Diane Watts of Surrey, where (the always-excellent) Stephen Quinn has her so confused by her own talking points, that she appears to be all for the Bridge, although it is a low priority compared to pretty much any other transportation project; for tolling the bridge, though against tolls, except for them if they are low, except not unless everyone pays; and against a Transit Referendum, except for it when important for deciding transportation alternatives, except when it isn’t. It is well worth the listen.
  

Shoreline Cleanup 2013

note: below is a guest post (a first!) penned by Karla Olson, who has been carrying much of the New Westminster Environmental Partners load on her back this year. She has also spent the last three years applying her considerable project management skills towards making the local portion of the Great Canadian Shoreline Cleanup as successful as possible. The 2013 event is coming up soon- and I hope you will take part!  
Site prep team on Queensborough’s South Dyke Road last week:
(LtoR) Karla Olson (author), Patrick Johnstone, Jaycee Clarkson,
Lisa Egan and Harry Buchholz.

Help Nature Return to Its Natural Beauty

Next Sunday, starting from 9:30AM, is the South Dyke Road Riverfront Cleanup in Queensborough. A family-friendly event, it is open to everyone who welcomes taking care of our shoreline. Volunteer to take part in a variety of activities, from active to easy.
At last year’s Shoreline Cleanup, 79 participants removed about 165 kg of litter and invasive species. People came from Surrey, Delta, and Vancouver, and included Councillor Jonathan Cote, as well as Fin Donnelly, MP.  Some of the littered items collected included an oven, a refrigerator door, a microwave, 6 tires, a barrel that was estimated to be forty years old, and bags and bags of waste produced from daily human activities.
Along with all of the garbage and invasives removed, what is equally impressive is how experienced people are getting at doing these cleanups.
Last year, one couple from Surrey removed 4 of the 6 tires, the barrel, and huge blocks of Styrofoam from the river. This year, when I took part in the Queensweep Cleanup with NWEP member Jaycee Clarkson, I was so impressed by the ingenuity of Lisa Egan and her family. They used garbage pickers to get at the litter stuck in the ditches, and the kids’ wagon was a perfect addition to help carry it all.
Besides litter, another concern for this shoreline area is the dumping of yard waste that is occurring. Most likely people think because it is organic that it doesn’t do any harm. But what they don’t realize is that they are introducing non-native species into the habitat and adding nutrients that create an imbalance to this ecosystem.
Jaycee Clarkson, NWEP member, spraying blackberry in prep for the Invasive Plant Pull Shoreline Cleanup 2013 
What Makes a Plant Invasive?
Plants are considered invasive for two reasons. One reason is because people or animals have brought them from their original natural habitat to a different one; they are non-native plants. Which non-native plants become invasive depends on their adaptability—how quickly they grow and multiply in the new habitat.
When non-native plants grow quickly, they take over and force native plants from their home. They rob them of their space, sunlight, water, and nutrients. Over time, these invasive plants change and damage the conditions of the natural habitat. For these reasons, invasive plants are carefully removed to not spread their seeds or other plant parts that can regrow from special habitats like—our Fraser River shoreline.
Patrick Johnstone tagging invasive plants for the 2013 Shoreline Cleanup
For those of us who love the taste of blackberries, it can be hard to learn that the Himalayan blackberry is considered an invasive plant (Invasive Species Council of British Columbia). But one of the best ways to stop it from spreading is to eat the berries before their seeds grow new ones! Now that berry season is over, it’s important to minimize the hazard of the plant’s long shoots, which can be hazardous to humans and animals alike.
Invasive Plant Tagging
Two site visits were done in preparation for the cleanup to target those invasives that are best to remove—morning glory, Lamium, bamboo, English ivy and Himalayan Blackberry—by tagging them with orange or white paint. The first visit with Claude Ledoux, Parks Horticulture Manager, helped to verify the success of our volunteer efforts.
Claude Ledoux, City’s Parks and Horticulture Manager, identifying morning glory.
Some invasive plants can take years to completely remove once they have been introduced. But even so, the minimal re- growth of these plants in the areas that were pulled last year was quite apparent. Our efforts are really having a positive impact.
Data Collection
In addition to the invasive pull and picking up garbage, an important activity is collecting data on the numbers and types of garbage found. By keeping track of what’s collected by members of your team, participants help shine a light on the types of litter people throw out and which types make up the most garbage. This information leads to understanding the behaviours that trigger littering and to finding ways to stop it from happening. If you would like to help out with this activity, please bring a clipboard, if you have one, and a pen.
To show how much litter was collected, a graph will be displayed at RiverFest on Saturday, Sept 28 to show just how much litter was collected.
Patrick Johnstone, NWEP member, standing on an oil drum recently washed up onto the Shoreline
And if participants find any “unexpected” litter that can be kept safely, it will be on display at RiverFest too. Hint: Expect to see a lot of cigarette butts that will be bagged to go to TerraCycle, a company that specializes in recycling previously non-recyclable items, such as pens, inkjet cartridges, and Tassimo coffee, tea, espresso, milk and hot chocolate T Discs.
Show Your Love for the Fraser River: Join the South Dyke Road Riverfront Cleanup
For us in New Westminster, this Shoreline Cleanup launches the start of RiverFest, an art and environmental festival inspired by the Fraser River that celebrates BC Rivers Day at the Fraser River Discovery Centre. It is also part of the Great Canadian Shoreline Cleanup™, an annual event that helps keep our oceans, rivers, and lakes healthy. People from all across Canada join in to remove the human-made litter and garbage that was either dumped or accidently deposited into our water systems.
This year on Sunday, Sept 22, at 9:30am, meet at the Spagnol Street Walkout on South Dyke Road to join in. To register and get more info on the Shoreline Cleanup, click on the link—Registration isn’t necessary, but does help with planning.
Attention: YOUTH, participants under 19, if you are taking part without your parents or guardians you need to bring 2 signed waivers with you and you can find them on the New Westminster Environmental Partners’ website, nwep.ca and go to the Shoreline Cleanup menu tab.
The South Dyke Road Riverfront Cleanup is organized by New Westminster Environmental Partners (NWEP) in partnership with the City of New Westminster and the Fraser River Discover Centre.
Patrick Johnstone Standing on Oil Drum Submerged in our NW Shoreline

“Getting to Yes”

Further to poorly-framed arguments supporting specific hydrocarbon-transportation projects, there was this recent opinion piece written by John Winter, who is the President and CEO of the British Columbia Chamber of Commerce. It was, frankly, disappointing. Not because I disagree with Mr. Winter, but because it was so poorly argued.

The opinion was in response to this previous piece in the same Important CanWest Newspaper of Record. In the first piece, economist Robyn Allen pointed out that the economic arguments being made by Enbridge on the Northern Gateway Pipeline proposal were “just not true”. Ms. Allen, in a tightly-argued 600 words, explained the factual misrepresentations in Enbridge’s claims, from the perspective of an economist, using Enbridge’s own numbers. No-where does she suggest the Northern Gateway, or any other project, should be stopped. Instead, she simply criticizes, point-by-point and from a position of considerable knowledge, the mis-characterization of the economic impact of the project as presented in the proposal. She then suggests:

“In the interests of transparency and accountability, British Columbians deserve better than what Enbridge seems capable of delivering.”

Mr Winter’s response to this argument does not engage in the same detailed analysis of the data presented by Enbridge, nor does he directly address any of Ms. Allen’s actual points. Instead he engages in over-the-top and largely fact-free rhetoric. He further characterizes her argument as an “intellectual exercise” to undermine the project:

“It’s disturbing to see how much British Columbian ingenuity is being channelled into our province’s alarming — and growing — ‘culture of no.’ And for what gain?”

I don’t know where I got this idea, but I suspect the gain Ms. Allen was aiming for is that the conversation be “in the interests of transparency and accountability”.

You see, Ms. Allen is a scientist who studied, spent a career working in, and teaches economics. It is her job to scrutinize economic augments and determine if they are fact-based or not. If Mr. Winters disagreed with her factual information, he might have made a counter-point. Instead he engages in a bunch of irrelevant hyperbole:

“In virtually every corner of the province, we’re seeing the same thing: Smart, highly environmentally responsible projects that can employ our children and keep our towns alive are being battered, paralyzed and stomped out.”

I’m not sure what dusty corners of the Province Mr. Winters is spending his time, but the vast majority of large industrial projects in BC are being stomped upon only by rubber stamps. If one looks at the BC Environmental Assessment Office records, one can look at the history of project proposals in BC since the Act came into force in 1995.

Completed:       128
Refused:           3
Pre-application:  69
Exempt:           22
Terminated:        6
Under Review:     10
Withdrawn:        21
Total:           259

So of 259 projects, exactly 3 have been refused permits. That is just over 1%. In contrast, 150 were either issued certificates or were found to be exempt from the process. That is 58%. If you re-calculate those numbers without including 79 that have not yet reached the decision stage, 83% of projects have achieved approvals. Where is the alleged battery occurring here?

As an aside,the Federal EA process numbers are very similar. Well, they were, until the Federal Government in one stroke of a pen in 2012 changed the Federal EA Act, such that thousands of Federal Environmental Assessments will simply not happen now. Where before there was scrutiny, proponents can now fill their boots.

But back to the Project in question: the Northern Gateway Pipeline. Mr Winters continues:

“So there’s a lot at stake here. And frankly, what’s yet to be decided has nothing to do with project economics (which, Ms. Allan, are frankly settled), but rather how we balance economic value against other B.C. priorities, as the Joint Review Panel is assessing.”

This is actually where Mr. Winters is wrongest. Ms. Allen has aptly demonstrated that the project economics are far from settled, and there still exists debate. At the very least, some clarification is required from the project proponent.

It is interesting that many of the environmental protection measures that come out of this type of Environmental Assessment are codified in the review documents as conditions of approval. For example, if the exclusive use of double-hulled tankers was promised by Enbridge, then using single-hulled tankers would be a breach of the Approval, and the certificate can be removed, shutting down the project. However, none of the “economic” commitments have the same status. Enbridge could promise to employ every adult person north of 50 degrees, then only employ three people once the assessment is done, and there would be no recourse for the Province or communities to whom the promises were made. I’m not saying they would do that, but that makes it important that any assessment of the anticipated economic impacts be as accurate, fact-based and defensible as possible- we only get one crack at that part of the project review.

“And with this project, as with any that proposes such substantial benefits for B.C., we hope that British Columbians will take a close look at what’s to gain here. We certainly don’t ask that environmental or community concerns be sidelined. But we’d ask that jobs and economic value not be sidelined as well.”

Ms. Allen is not sidelining economic values, she is assuring they are properly assessed so that we can, as British Columbians, take the close look at what’s to gain for which Mr. Winters is asking. Surely, the CEO and President of the BC Chamber of Commerce wants the public to be provided with factual information, both when they question the economic gains, and when they question the environmental impacts. That is why we have Environmental Assessments, and that is why responsible businesses engage in them.

Alas.

The entire argument presented by Mr. Winters is framed around “Getting to Yes”, which has become one of those abstract rhetorical phrases that everyone thinks they understand, but in reality it means different things to different people, and is actually completely meaningless. Mr. Winters suggests we need to “Get to Yes” on these projects. But who is it, exactly, that needs to “Get to Yes”?

Does the Provincial Government need to “Get to Yes” by bypassing (or tossing out a la Stephen Harper) their own environmental assessment laws, ignoring the environmental protections afforded by Provincial Law, Federal Law, and our constitutional responsibility to First Nations?

Does the Media need to “Get to Yes” by continuing to publish fact-free editorials that would have us believe that 3 certificate refusals out of 256 applications is some sort of war on resource development?

Does the public need to “Get to Yes” by agreeing to whatever Enbridge says, and refusing to listen to people who point out factual errors in what they promise?

No. It is Enbridge who needs to “Get to Yes”. They will get there by providing realistic data about what they have to offer BC, and what the risks to BC (economic and environmental) are. Then they need to convince us that those risks are managed and mitigated to the point that the economic development they are offering us is sufficient payment.

It is possible that Enbridge will not, with this project, ever “Get to Yes”. But that would not be from a failure of British Columbians to dream, it would be from a failure of Enbridge to convince us they are good for our future.

Getting serious about Coal

Hi folks! Great to be back. August was killer, and many stories will be told, I’m sure. Now back to your regular programming.

I wasn’t sure what to write about at first, but look what the good people at one of the local CanWest Serious Newspapers of Record dropped on my lap – like manna dropped on the desert floor of my blog…

I stumbled across a pretty hilarious “op-ed” in the Vancouver Sun yesterday. I thought maybe it was clever satire in the Colbert Report style, but when I saw the byline and noted the affiliation with Patrick Moore and his Greenwashing Cabal, I realized the writer was trying to be serious. This is and example of why I stopped lamenting the demise of dead-tree news, if this is the best they have to offer. At least the Province has a decent Sports Section.

The opinion (if I can paraphrase) is that mining and export of coal is good, right, and ethically the best thing we can do, because without us supplying them coal, the developing world is doomed to eternal poverty and we will be able to get fewer gadgets from China; climate change be damned.

However, there are deeper issues with the opinions stated, which I would like to address individually:

“First, despite the current trend away from coal to cheap gas, China and other developing countries will need coal for the foreseeable future. The morality of denying them access to it is questionable. For hundreds of millions in China and elsewhere, consuming coal for electricity and heat is not a choice.”

This is sort of true, except that it isn’t. Burning coal for electricity and heat is every bit a choice for emerging economies as it is for us in British Columbia. Just like us, it is an economic choice, made for economic reasons by economic satisficers. In British Columbia, we have decided, despite our ample coal resources, to not burn coal to generate electricity or heat, because of the negative consequences to our communities, and instead generate electricity by (in descending importance) through hydroelectricity, by burning oil and gas, wood waste, garbage, and other alternatives. Cost may or may not have been the primary driver for BC making that choice, but it was no doubt a choice we made for economic reasons. Other countries have made different choices, based on their local economic situation, but it is a choice.

“Removing North American coal supplies from the market will not reduce consumption, but will likely increase prices.”

Notice how Patrick Moore’s young apprentice has mastered the self-contradictory argument skills of his master. If we fail to provide a cheap route to get coal to market, or otherwise restrict supply, coals prices will indeed increase, if one believes in supply and demand economics. Of course, the other half of supply and demand is that if the prices go up, demand will drop, as the alternatives to coal become more economically attractive. This will, no doubt result in reduced consumption. You can’t have one without the other, as coal is a commodity with negative elasticity.

“It will also encourage coal mining in less safe jurisdictions. Is it right for us to impose such hardships on our fellow human beings while presenting no current practical alternatives?”

The thinking gets yet sketchier here. If we don’t supply coal, then the increased value of coal may, indeed, increase coal mining in other jurisdictions, some of them being “less safe” than ours. However, compare this discussion of “imposing hardships” on others by encouraging resource extraction with the rest of this op-ed (where resource extraction is seen as the ticket to prosperity by driving economic development and innovation), to find deeper self-contradiction:

“One way some pundits make such imprudence look clever is to style natural resource wealth as a handicap, as if knowledge-based sectors falter when resource extraction thrives. But this is a false argument because the extractive sectors are knowledge-based and already rich with intellectual capital. Just ask any geologist, engineer, or GIS software designer. Resource wealth drives innovation, not the opposite.

So resource extraction is good for every aspect of our economy- but we would not want to “impose that hardship” on developing nations where it might be “less safe”, would we? Which is it Grasshopper?

“Another inconvenient reality is that poverty in the developing world will worsen if we manipulate energy supplies. Industrialization reduces poverty by releasing agrarian families from mere subsistence. It creates higher paying jobs, enabling increased education for children and autonomy for women. Over the long term, this results in a more affluent, service- and knowledge-based economy. The energy driving this gradual process is coal. Blocking North American coal supplies to Asia risks driving up the cost of living for the world’s poor.”

This is an excellent example of the Bifurcation Fallacy– or more colloquially, a False Dichotomy, very popular with Dr. Moore’s writing. The writer here is suggesting that without coal, the developing world cannot possibly achieve autonomy for women or any of the other benchmarks of development. Clearly this is bullshit. There are many paths to prosperity and higher levels of development, and there are many ways a developing nation can fulfill its energy needs. The corollary argument also does not work, as ample supplies of cheap energy hardly guarantees egalitarian societies. Saudi Arabia anyone?

Also, let’s get over this illusion that the world’s poorest people rely on coal. The world’s 2.5 Billion poorest people have no access to coal at all, but instead burn wood or dung as their one and only fuel source. China (the oft-repeated example here) produces 47% of the world’s coal, but burns 47% of the world’s coal. China is not a net coal importer – any coal it does import or export is for economic trade reasons, not for the benefit of supplying energy to its poorest citizens. If you list the 10 countries that consume the most coal in the world you end up with this:

Country         Tonnes     %     Member  GDP rank
China         3,826,869   47%    G20        2
USA           1,003,066   12%    G8         1
India           721,419    9%    G20        9
Russia          256,691    3%    G8        10
Germany         256,661    3%    G8         4
South Africa    201,403    2%    G20       28
Japan           192,854    2%    G8         3
Poland          152,988    2%              24
Korea, South    139,481    2%    G20       15
Australia       131,174    2%    G20       12

So 85% of the world’s coal is consumed in only 10 countries, 4 of them in the G8 (the 8 largest economies in the world), and all the rest but Poland are in the G20. All of them are in the top 28 largest economies in the world. If you take the coal burned by the 20 member countries in the G20, the other 180+ countries in the world are left with only 11% of the coal. The vast majority of coal is being burned by the relatively well-off in developed economies, not by the poor in the Third World.

Giving the poorest nations a lump of coal is much more Grinch-like than Santa-like.

“Yes, the negative environmental, health and safety impacts of coal mining and use are significant. Poor countries are not oblivious to coal’s negative impact, but they need it at present to better the standard of living for their citizens. Why not provide these countries with North American coal that’s mined according to tough environmental and safety guidelines, creating well-paying jobs and prosperous communities on this side of the Pacific?”

Am I the only one confused by this line of reasoning? It seems to suggest we are actually helping out the poor by facilitating the introduction of negative health, environmental and safety impacts on them, while we get the well-paying jobs and prosperous communities? How does a person in India benefit from Canada’s “tough environmental and safety regulations” when a coal-fired power plant next to his house in Calcutta has no such regulations?

“And why not encourage them to use the latest coal burning and scrubber technologies to reduce air pollutants?”

Ahhh… the simple solution. Of course. Except it is untenable and contradictory to the rest of the argument. How do we “encourage” another country to install expensive scrubbing technologies? I thought this article was arguing that coal was used by poorer countries because it is affordable and they are so teetering on the edge of energy collapse that if we make it any less affordable by lowering the supply, the poor will go without energy and suffer. Now the article suggests if the poor would just get their act together and spend some money scrubbing their dirty coal, it will be just fine. His might be the paragraph that best straddles the line from ignorance to parody.

Note: you really can’t “scrub” the greenhouse gasses out of coal emissions, but I digress.

“The problem with public discourse on coal is that simplistic answers are preferred over holistic, well-reasoned and defensible solutions. Coal adds to global warming and therefore we should ban it, they say. But the truth is we can’t ban coal. Australia will be more than happy to rake in the billions we will be leaving on the table for them.”

Here we have another common Logical Fallacy known as the “Strawman”. Make a hopelessly weak version of the opposing view, then have fun flogging that weak position.

The arguments against the expansion of coal exports through BC ports are not simplistic, but remarkably complex and multi-faceted. Some raise concerns regarding the health impacts of coal dust moving through our communities, some are concerned about the implications of moving bulk coal through our sensitive ecosystems, some argue that it is unethical to mine and export a product that is simply too dirty and unsafe for us to burn domestically – If coal is too dirty for BC to burn for energy (as our Provincial Government has codified in law), why are we OK with profiteering from its use elsewhere? Others argue that the mining and export of coal without accounting for the carbon impacts violates the spirit of, if not the letter of, the Provincial Greenhouse Gas Emission laws.

Holistically speaking, coal is a disaster for the planet. It was a pollution disaster in London in the 19th Century, an acid rain disaster for the Great Lakes in the 20th Century, and is a public health disaster for China in the 21st Century. If we don’t figure out alternatives, or find some magic bullet to sequester the resulting carbon dioxide, it will continue to contribute to a Climate Change disaster in the 22nd Century.

The answer to mitigating this disaster- moving on to a post-coal economy, is not at all simplistic, nor is anyone suggesting it is simplistic It is complex and will create hardship for people in coal towns, and for aspects of the economy that rely on coal extraction and burning. But it must happen, so we need to figure out how to get there with the least possible human impact.

What is simplistic is the argument that coal is great for our economy, and if we don’t sell it, Australia will get all of our money, so Damn the Torpedoes! There are lots of things that are potentially “good for the economy” that we choose not to do – from exporting asbestos to engaging in the trade of slaves to killing sperm whales for ambergris. All were perfectly legal in the past, but the world (with notable exceptions) has moved on, as social and economic pressure was applied to those few countries that still engaged in the activities. Some of that starts with small, symbolic acts, like those taking place up and down the west coast of North America, where communities from California to British Columbia are deciding that the local and international cost of coal extraction and burning is such that they no longer want to draw their income that way.

I am glad the author made a passing reference to greenhouse gases in his Op-Ed, like it is one of those little accessory issues, and not the centre of the entire argument about promoting reliance on coal on other nations. Not mentioned is the (ahem) inconvenient fact that it is the very poor in underdeveloped nations who will suffer the most from the impacts of Climate Change. Suggesting that burning more coal will help the world’s poor is wrong; to suggest we should have some sort of economic battle with Australia to see who can sell the most coal to the world’s poor is unethical in a deep way.

“Coal is not just a much-loathed rock we can toss aside; it’s part of the fabric of our human existence. We have a complex relationship with coal built over millennia.”

Replace the word “coal” with “cancer” in that paragraph: it makes the paragraph no less true, and no less relevant.

“We can’t rashly break it off over night.”

No, but we can begin to transition our economy away from coal, and there is no need to be rash about it. Limiting our exports to current levels as opposed to unlimited expansion, is hardly rash, and what people that the author disparages are currently suggesting. Putting a moratorium on expansion of new coal mining in British Columbia until the science catches up to dealing with the environmental impacts would also be a good step. Alternately, let’s start to include the true carbon footprint of coal in the accounting of how we mine and sell it, and apply the carbon tax to this industry to remove their competitive advantage over other job-creating industries in the Province that currently pay a Carbon Tax.

Perhaps if the true cost of coal is accounted, we will discover its reputation as “cheap energy” will be proven false, and our strange love affair with it will end. Like often happens when a relationship isn’t doing us much good, our friends are often afraid to have a serious talk to us about how we are hurting ourselves and the people around us. It’s time to sit down with coal and have a serious talk.