sunday! Sunday! SUNDAY!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Wrong Tool for the Job

Yeah, the Pacific Carbon Trust is crap.

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

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

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

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

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

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

That’s asinine.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Envision 2032 Survey

Some of you may remember the Envision2032 event that took place last November.

It was a two day event where Day 1 included a collection of inspiring and informative talks on the topic of Sustainability, and one random blovator rambling on about Richard Nixon or something.

Day 2 was a more interactive event, where people talked in round-tables about a variety of topic areas, and described how a sustainable community looked to them. This was the first step in a longer process being run by the City’s Planning Department to develop a community sustainability framework.

As described by Mark Allison, Senior Planner for the City, the sustainability framework that will result from this process, “Envision 2032”, will create a “lens” through which future plans, policies, practices and projects will be viewed. This will become a major guiding document that will impact, potentially, every decision made in the City for the decades to come, so it is, uh, kind of important that we get it right.

Coming out of that initial kick-off and early consultations, the City has now developed some draft “Description of Success” (DoS) statements. These are broad, visioning statements the essentially answer the question: what are the characteristics of a sustainable community?

The City is now asking stakeholders (and if you live or work in New Westminster, that means you) to review and comment upon those DoS statements. And to do so, they have set up a Survey Monkey survey, which you can access here:

You only have until March 31st to fill those surveys in, so please go to it soon!

Note the survey is broken up into 11 policy areas, some will no doubt be more interesting and important to you than others, so don’t feel you need to delve too deeply into every single one. If you are a wonk like me, you might want to spend a few hours deliberating over this stuff, but if you just want to be heard, pick and choose the parts where you think you can contribute. As you will see, you could spend hours doing this survey, or be out of there in 10 minutes. It’s up to you.

Rather like people who say “If you don’t vote, you can’t complain about who wins”, I say if you do not take a bit of time early on in a processes like this, you have lost some of your argument when you then whinge about the results of the process. Blanket disagreement with the statements is a valid form of comment, but it might be more useful if you actually take the time to describe better statements, or point out where the statements are flawed. Of course, if you agree with them, then also say so! Remember, democracy is when decisions by people who bother to show up.

Rarely, for me, I am going to reserve my comments until the survey period is over, so as to not poison the well. I suspect if you bother to read my blog (Hi Mom!) you either agree with me, or strongly disagree with me on these topics, so why would I try to change your mind, or give you fuel for the fire (respectively) prior to your going over to the survey and completing it yourself?

In the meantime, I have already done my survey, but will provide a bit of more informed opinion here after the 31st, and after I do a bit more research:

Environmental Forum – debrief

In the end, it all went remarkably well!

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

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

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

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

Transportation (and dealing with traffic pressures on New West)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Interviewing Clown, Patient Candidate

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

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

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

NWEP Environmental Policy Forum

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

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.

The Return of Green Drinks

Sorry I haven’t rapped at ya recently, but I have been busy. Work is crazy, a few volunteer things are coming to a head right now, spent a few days trapped outside of New Westminster, attended a massively fun Pecha Kucha event, and am generally enjoying the hell out of life.

I do want to make a quick point, though: GreenDrinks is coming back to New Westminster!

For those out of the loop, GreenDrinks is an international local event. The idea is that people interested in Environmental and Sustainability issues get together once a month or so, and have a casual social and networking event. There isn’t an agenda, there isn’t a formal meeting, or any real formal structure: the idea is to just bring people together and see what arises!

Although lacking that formal structure, this isn’t completely anarchy. GreenDrinks is part of a great international tradition. There are GreenDrinks events everywhere from Argentina to Vietnam, from Perth to Vancouver. All are related in name, spirit, and “The Code”.

It is sometimes amazing what arises. Many of the things the NWEP have done in the past have grown from tossed-around ideas at GreenDrinks, and new friendships and partnerships have grown from these events. For a variety of reasons, monthly GreenDrinks stopped in New West a little more than a year ago, but a crew of people have stepped up to get the event operating again, and the first draft (so to speak) is next week!

There is no charge, no stress, all we ask is that you are willing to get into a conversation, meet someone new, bring your ideas and opinions, and bring a sense of humour. We’ll put name tags on you to make introductions easy, and we will have a conversation starter around the break any ice that might develop. People will start arriving around 6:30, and it will continue until the last person leaves (but hey, it’s a school night – so don’t wait until midnight, you might miss the best stuff!)

New West has the perfect location: the Back Room at The Heritage Grill allows semi-privacy, a great menu, drinks for those who would like them, while being open and inviting to people who don’t want to drink (or are not yet 19 – it is a Restaurant, not a Pub!). Oh, and cool tunes out front later in the night.

So if you need an excuse to be social, are interested in environment and sustainability issues, or think you might have an idea that people should hear about, come by GreenDrinks. Who knows what will develop?

Annus horribilis

It is the time of year when the media take their annual look back at the year in review. As I am enjoying a short vacation (notably in a place a healthy distance south of New Westminster), I am less immersed in every day life and find myself looking back as well, but I’m afraid looking back doesn’t fill me with joy. Instead, I find myself thinking of 2012 as annus horribilis for the issue I am most concerned about: environmental sustainability.

Nationally, that began with Bill C-38. The least open and accountable government in Canadian History (and that is saying something coming out of the Chretien years) created a 425 page “Budget Bill” that featured a dozen pages on budget issues wrapped in a lengthy, complicated, and harmful disassembly of decades of environmental law.

How bad was it?

They ripped the bottom out of the Fisheries Act: the single strongest piece of environmental protection law the country had. This is (was) the law around which all other laws protecting the quality of Canada’s water were structured. The CCME Water Quality Guidelines, the Provincial Fish Protection Act, the Provincial Environmental Management Act, Municipal Riparian Areas Regulations, (and more) are all structured around the basic protections of water quality and habitat protection afforded by the Fisheries Act. The Harper Government(tm) ripped this fundamental law apart so suddenly and inexplicably that even the Government’s own scientists have yet to understand what the loss of habitat protection means. They left the professionals tasked with applying the laws completely in the dark about what the changes mean, while concurrently firing all of the Government staff who might provide the guidance. They did this just before the report from the Cohen Commission was released, knowing full well it was going to suggest that the Fisheries Act needed to strengthen, not weaken, fish protection.

That was bad enough, but they did the same thing (again completely without consulting the public, their own scientists, or the practicing professionals working with the regulations) with the Canadian Environmental Assessment Act (reducing by 90% the number of major projects requiring any environmental planning at all). They scuppered the law that made it illegal for them to break an international agreement (The Kyoto Protocol); they opened up the coincidently ice-free arctic to oil and gas drilling while giving the National Energy Board the only power of oversight over this monumental policy change and not actually asking any of the locals; they also gave the National Energy Board the power to deem which species qualify for protection under the Species at Risk Act; disbanded the National Roundtable on Environment and the Economy (because god forbid we have a rational discussion between environmental professionals and industry about developing business responsibly); specifically exempted pipelines from the Navigable Waters Protections Act; along with several other goodies.

All this under the guise of a “Budget”, and all without any public discussion. One might argue the Act went to committee and there was discussion in Parliament before it was passed, and that constitutes “discussion”. However, not a single amendment was made to the original bill as written – 425 pages modifying a dozen other pieces of legislation that fundamentally changed how the environment is protected across the nation, and it was apparently perfect on the first draft, at least according to the Harper Government(tm).

Then, after all the negative press (even the National Post, the Conservative house paper, called the Omnibus Bill “Illegitimate” and spoke of “fundamental issues of Parliamentary government”), after the outcry from the opposition, former Parliamentarians from both sides of the aisle, and the public, the Harper Government(tm) doubled down with Bill C-45, which further reduced protection of lakes and rivers in Canada, causing the government to shirk it’s constitutionally-mandated responsibility (in other words, Provinces cannot even legallly step in an provide the protection the Feds have stripped).

Aside from Omnibus nuke-the-environment bills, the Federal government has also made some dubious decisions regarding our nation’s ability to protectant exploit its non-renewable resources. They continue to float the idea of signing a free trade agreement with China which doesn’t specifically permit Chinese-owned companies to operate in Canada without following Canadian environmental laws, but it may allow them to sue the Canadian Taxpayers for lost profit caused by following those laws. The race to the bottom has never been so clear.

I’m not as concerned as some about the Nexen takeover by CNOOC, but when you combine that takeover with the increasing interest in Canadian hydrocarbons from state-owned oil companies from Japan to Korea to Malaysia, one has to wonder if Canada is the only nation that is specifically exempt from owning Canadian Oil and Gas. Yes, I am going there: It is time for National Energy Program 2. If all of our customer countries are doing it on our own soil, it is getting tough to argue it will make us uncompetitive…

However, the Harper Government(tm) doesn’t want to openly discuss these important issues any more than they want to discuss changes in the Fisheries Act.

“In spite of all the very important deals and the billions of dollars of contracts we signed this week, more people in Canada will notice the pandas than anything else.” Stephen Harper to Bo Xilai during a trip to China.

The 2012 story was not much better locally in New Westminster.

The opening of the replacement Port Mann Bridge produced the centre-piece for the $5 Billion subsidy to unsustainable urban planning that is the Gateway Program. Assuring that car-oriented development, traffic quagmires, air pollution, and erosion of livability will continue South of the Fraser of another generation. The minor damage done to a couple of dozen cars by falling ice is an irrelevant distraction compared to the long-term damage that bridge will do to our City.

Especially when put into the context of the ongoing standoff over TransLink funding, where our idiotic-looking Provincial Government is battling the moronic-acting Mayors’ Council over 0.6% of that amount of money to keep our Regional Transit System operating at it’s current level of service. The idea of growing the Transit System to meet the needs of the growing community, and the growing number of people actually using the already inadequate system, is apparently off the table for now. Instead of addressing this issue, the Mayors of our biggest communities bitch and grumble over which rapid transit line should be built next, while ignoring the fact that the one promised to the Northeast Sector almost 20 years ago has still not been built! We can build three freeways at the same time in BC, but ask the same people to build two transit lines at the same time, and that is apparently beyond our engineering capacity.

Meanwhile, the Left Coast of Canada is quickly becoming the new Persian Gulf, as the only industry our Governments deem worthy of investment is the putting of hydrocarbons (be they coal, bitumen, or methane) onto boats to ply the stormy seas of volatile international energy markets. Considering what our planned contributions to Greenhouse Gas Emissions are from these projects alone, I hope they’re building those ports well up the hill from today’s tidewater.


Despite all of this, there was some good news. Despite the Harper Government(tm) attempts to derail all environmental oversight, the push-back over the Enbridge Northern Gateway and Kinder Morgan Pipelines are aligning disparate citizens’ groups toward a common cause: assuring their is environmental oversight and public discussion of major projects, even if the Government doesn’t want it. As a result, the ongoing coordinated media blitz between the Oil and Gas Industry, the Provincial and Federal Governments, is being seen for what it is: a cheap sales job paid for by taxpayers to sell them an idea that might be a bad one for them (even if it is a good one for the oil companies eking the last bit of profit out of their 20th Century business models).

These projects, and the failure of the Federal Government in its constitutional responsibilities, are leading to what may turn out to be the most important national political action by First Nations since Elijah Harper held a feather up to Meech Lake. The epicentre may be Attawapiskat, but the real battle will be in Ottawa and Kitimat, and it refreshes me to know that the one group in Canada that has so consistently been marginalized by official proclamation will be Idle No More.

Locally, things are also looking up. TransLink’s rush to expand the Pattullo Bridge has slowed down as they seek more consultation from New Westminster and Surrey, and they re-assess their budget and the alleged need for more bridge capacity connecting King George to McBride. Meanwhile, New Westminster’s Master Transportation Plan consultations showed the people in New Westminster want the City to set aggressive goals towards reducing traffic load on our City, and with EnVision2032, City Hall is taking steps to integrate Sustainability into all future City planning and activities.

however, if There was one dominant “Good News” story for the Environment in this annus horribilis, it was the emergence of Elizabeth May, Parliamentarian. Every day she was in the House (and she was there every day it sat), she demonstrated what a Member in a parliamentary representative democracy should be. She proved that a lone member from a fringe party can represent, and that perhaps it is time for us to stop relying on the “established” parties to represent us, when they really only represent their party, when instead we should be choosing the individual who will fight the good fight in the House.

You should read the speech excerpted in that link above. It is a compelling plea for democracy and the traditions of parliament that once made Canada a model for the world, a place where rule of law, honest discussion and diplomacy was the way to solve problems. Where people didn’t need to fight for our freedoms, but negotiated them like civilized people. People often forget our nation confederated over a table, we didn’t fight a bloody revolution. We did all of our fighting for freedoms in other countries, like France and the Netherlands and Korea and Cyprus and Bosnia, hoping that others would enjoy the freedoms we won through peaceful negotiation. Here at home, compromise and understanding were not evils to be avoided, but were the way we got things done. And I’m proud of the country that approach built…

…but I may be getting ahead of myself a bit here. We lost some things in 2012, I’m not sure if we will know their impact for years to come, but Canada is still here, and BC is still here, and New Westminster is still here, and they are still the best places to live (in my sometimes-humble opinion).

So for the environment, 2012 was annus horribilis. As a proud Canadian, that only renews my energy and drive to do better in 2013.

Happy New Year.

Defining your terms

I’m going a little more philosophical than I usually do here, but I have been attending some, for lack of a better term, “political” events recently, and they got me to thinking.
I am (I think) in a fortunate position that I don’t belong to a political party and don’t have strong political allegiances. I like the work that is done by our two local MPs, and I think they represent our community well, but that has little to do with the Party they belong to. I suspect Diana Dilworth would have also been a great representative, given the opportunity to do that. I also think we have two (sorry Mr. Forseth) very good candidates for MLA in the upcoming elections here in New West (although I have yet to challenge each of them on their weaknesses… and that’s between me and them and the ballot).
I have said it before, the issues I care the most about right now (environmental sustainability, municipal infrastructure and transportation, social responsibility, science-based policy development) are issues that every party should address in their platforms, and issues no single party “owns”. I also believe in pre-Chrétien/Harper representative democracy, where the local elected official represents the region to the  House of Commons, not where the local official stands only to bring missives from the PMO to their electorate. So I am kind of a socially-progressive, economically-moderate, environmentalist, policy-wonk rationalist Preston Manning style democrat, if that makes any sense.
With that extended caveat, I want to address two terms I have been hearing a lot recently. They were prominent during the recent USelection, and seem to be featured in assigned talking points for the upcoming BC Election. Both are so poorly defined as to be meaningless, and I cringe whenever I hear them used in discussion. So I am going to throw them out there right now and now you will hear them in every speech you hear between now and May. I may set up a drinking game around them.
They are “Free Enterprise” and “Socialism”.
Some people would have you believe that these are two separate things: two ends of a spectrum so far distant that we must choose which we to abolish and which we must embrace to summon forth a new land of prosperity. I call bullshit on the whole lot of it, starting with the lack of definition of the terms.
They both have definitions, of course, but the definitions you might find in the dictionary are far from the way they are bring applied in rhetoric in 2012.
As the BC Liberals and BC Conservatives clamour over each other to prove themselves the more “Free Enterprise” party, I’m not even sure what that means, and who (other than the Marxist-Leninist Party, I guess) is against “Free Enterprise”. We all believe that businesses should be free to operate within a fair and accountable regulatory regime. We also agree that business operates best when there are regulations around how they operate. As an extreme example, no-one wants a “Heroin-R-Us” store to open up next door, or for weapons to be sold in unregulated booths on street corners. Less extreme examples are the (relatively tight) regulations that protected Canada’s banks from making the risky bets that caused the recent global economic collapse.
“Free Enterprise” does not mean a complete lack or regulations. Actually, there can be no such thing as business unless there is something called “property”, and “property” is defined by the law – we need laws for business to prosper. What we don’t need are unfair or non-transparent laws.
Every Party (again, I might except the Marxist-Leninists and their pals the Libertarians) wants to have well regulated business regime where entrepreneurs can prosper and employ people. To not want that is not rational. We only differ about the process to get there.
“Socialist” has the opposite problem: every Party (again, possibly excepting Libertarians, who limit their socialist leanings to the armed forces) is socialist. I look out at that shiny new $3.3 Billion Port Mann bridge, at the $2 Billion South Fraser Perimeter Road under it, at every single school I pass on my bike ride to work, at the bike lane I ride that bike on, the cop pulling me over for running a stop sign on my bike and the court system where I could defend myself and I see socialism. They are all examples of citizens being forced through law and taxation to pool their “heard earned” money to set up a state-run enterprise for the greater good.
There is no front-line party now arguing that socialism will end under their rule: none are talking about dismantling the public school system, ending the collecting of royalties for natural resource extraction, privatizing the hospitals and fire departments, or turning the police department and the armed forces over to Haliburton. If someone runs “against the socialists” that is someone you should fear – they want to disassemble the very structure of society that separates Canadafrom place without a functioning government, like (alas) Mali.
But that’s not what they mean. They define “socialism” as some sort of vague combination of taxes and labour unions. I know that “Special interests groups” are involved as well, but I’m not sure if that includes the Chamber of Commerce.
Or maybe I just don’t get politics.

So as we enter the election season, (yes, it will be a painfully long campaign leading up to May 2013, such if fixed election dates) I hope that more people, when a candidate uses a term like “Free Enterprise”, “Socialist”, or even “Special Interest Group” or “Big Business”, you ask them to define their terms*. You might be thinking something different than they are.

*My favourite retort when someone asks “Do you believe in God?” is “You will have to define at least two of those words”. It usually allows me to avoid a conversation that will satisfy no-one. .    

on the Shark Fin Soup Bylaw

This Monday New Westminster City Council is going to attack one of the great environmental issues of the day: the unsustainable harvesting of sharks for their fins.

These fins, when boiled long enough to get the urea stink out, dried, powdered, and added to soup, provide a certain gelatinous texture that apparently proves your wealth and success in some cultures. Their harvest from depleted shark populations is one of those long-standing environmental concerns that has only come to popular knowledge due to recent video-recorded cruelty to charismatic megafauna, and it is a certain cause celebre these days. I really have no problem with that.

One only has to look at the long list of animals endangered or made extinct because someone claimed eating bits of them will give you an erection to see just how asinine humans are in the collective, and how easy it is for a protected cultural belief to result in the decimation of an ecosystem. Sharks are important animals in the ocean, and just as banning the global ivory trade is an important step in protecting the elephants, banning shark fin may play a role in protecting endangered sharks. So ending the popularity of shark fin soup is probably a good thing.

In fact, a professional organization I work with, the Environmental Managers Association of BC awarded a grant a few months ago to a grass-roots organization called SharkTruth, who work to raise awareness at the consumer level about shark fin soup and the associated unsustainable harvesting of sharks. I fully supported this choice for a grant recipient, because I agree with their cause and the approach that group takes (if you care about this issue, please think about helping them out!).

So why am I against a Shark Fin Bylaw?

Ultimately, it is the Federal Government who (through a document called the Constitution Act of 1982) has the mandate and the responsibility to protect the oceans around Canada and the fishes within. It is also the sole level of government empowered to negotiate and sign international agreements like the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna. It is also empowered to prevent the import and sale of things like ivory, rhino horn, tiger gall bladders, or whatever is getting sick old men up these days.

This is not a job that municipalities should, or even can, do. Do we imagine Bylaw officers inspecting the backs of restaurants for signs of shark fin? De we expect that offending soup is confiscated by a Bylaw officer, taken to a lab for analysis to determine if it indeed contained shark fin and not the much cheaper alternative (gelatin, which is kind of gross when you know what it is, but at least it is a by-product of meat possessing and can be sourced sustainably), then spend 6 months putting the case together to take the Restaurant Owner to court to recover a $1000 fine? Is this how you want your property tax dollars spent?

Of course it will never happen. The Restaurants will take Shark Fin off their menu (talk on the street is that the Starlight Casino hosts the only restaurant in town that sells shark fin soup) and, if they are unscrupulous, will continue to sell it in a hush-hush kind of way for special events only, and no money will be spent on enforcement at all.

So what purpose the Bylaw? To “shame” the restaurants into hiding their shark fins? To show support for a noble cause? I hate to be the guy who says this: but doesn’t the City have bigger environmental responsibility fights to put their energy into – ones they actually have the jurisdiction to do something about?

It has taken only a couple of months for this idea to come to the City, and for a Bylaw to see third reading. Meanwhile, it has been 18 months – a year and a half- since I went to Council to remind them that we are one of the few municipalities in the Lower Mainland that does not have a Tree Protection Bylaw. In June of 2011, Council resolved the following:

“WHEREAS trees are essential to air quality, esthetics and quality of life;
BE IT RESOLVED THAT New Westminster develop a Tree Retention / Removal Bylaw for both public and private property.”

…and we have not had a single update on progress towards that Bylaw in a year anda half.

Protecting the trees in our neighbourhoods is something our City Council has the power and the jurisdiction to do. Saving sharks in the East China Sea is both outside of their jurisdiction and beyond their powers. So, why is there a rush to do the second and no interest in doing the first?

Yes, the worldwide decimation of shark populations and the trade in shark fins is a legitimate concern. The City can (without a Bylaw) express their support for the banning of shark fin imports- it can even choose to publicly shame businesses that choose to serve it, or refuse them a business licence (as they threatened to do recently with a legal medical marijuana dispensary). But to what end?
For the Feds to deal with this issue domestically, it would only require an update of the Species List under the CITES Act to include those species of sharks that are used for fin trade: it wouldn’t even require a new piece of legislation. No debate, no committee work, just a feat of Ministerial signature would get it done. The necessary inspection and enforcement procedures are already in place, and it would allow Canada to be one of the leaders internationally in the protection of sharks in the world’s oceans (wouldn’t it be nice to once again be the leader in something positive?).

My MP has already been outspoken on this issue, the Minister of Fisheries isn’t really interested in dealing with the issue, nor is the Federal Minister of (cough) Environment. This, however, is the only place where useful action on this issue can happen. Supporting Fin Donnelly to get action at the Federal Level and, in turn, the International Level is the appropriate way to address this issue under the Constitution of Canada.

Then City Council and Staff can stop wasting their time, and get on with that 18-month old resolution to start protecting trees in the City.