Stephen Rees's blog

Thoughts about the relationships between transport and the urban area it serves

Archive for April 8th, 2009

BC’s Clashing Shades of Green

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Colleen Kimmett in the Tyee looks at the clash between  two groups whom ought to be allies, but who are fighting. And as usual with infighting, the intensity seems greater and the impact is  nastier. If you are already following all this in the list serves you probably do not need all this rehearsed, but the reason this article is being reviewed here today is that Powerup Canada is holding a conference is Vancouver today – and the conventional media are going to be all over this issue.

“There’s a new divide, with concern to environment voters, between those more traditional, who are concerned about wilderness preservation and wildlife, and those who are more urgently concerned about climate change,” [George Hoberg, a political scientist and forestry professor at the University of British Columbia] says.

On the one side are people like Rafe Mair, the Save Our Rivers Society, the Wilderness Committee and the Council of Canadians. On the other side are Tzeporah Berman, Mark Jaccard and others pushing the line that building green power sources quickly to replace fossil fuel is essential to reduce our carbon dioxide output. (Note too the corporate spin in the Sun piece as opposed to the Tyee’s even handed approach.)

In general, my sympathies lie in the “replace fossil fuel” side as it is true that in Canada we are not doing nearly enough to reduce our carbon footprint. Unfortunately, whatever we do with electricity generation in BC is going to look like a drop in the bucket compared with the production of the Alberta tar sands. But that is not an excuse for not doing anything.

On the other hand the current rush to put “run of the river” IPP projects on BC’s rivers shows only too clearly the lesson that the devil lies in the details. In theory, run of the river means the least environmental impact. In practice in BC many of the schemes being proposed require dams and large scale stream diversions – as well as construction roads and new power lines. Which is one reason why the public were so outraged at the proposals for the Upper Pitt River in a provincial park that even the BC Liberals blinked – and cancelled the project before it had really got started. About the only recent victory for public protest in BC and I cheered for!

Possibly the most offensive part of the current BC initiative is the way the process has been “streamlined” to ensure that as many projects get built as quickly as possible. People who have concerns rightly feel that they are being ignored in a process that cannot (on the whole) say “No”.  (The Pitt River was an exception.)  There is no cumulative impact assessment – each scheme goes forward on its own merits, and the best that can happen is that some of the impacts are mitigated.

The other thing that worries people is what happens once the private sector gets control of the water resources. Because the track record of the private sector and its use of NAFTA to override Canadian’s concerns about their environment is not encouraging. (The one that comes to my mind is Ethyl Corp and MMT but I am sure others can cite recent and more apposite cases.)

I find Rafe has most of the good arguments locally: there is no shortage of power in BC, the “run of the river” schemes mostly aren’t, and only produce power part of the year – during the spring runoff when BC Hydro’s reservoirs are already full. But the killer has been the recent California decision that most of the BC projects are too large to qualify as “green power” – because it was the prospect of selling to the California market and the juicy rates offered for green power that got the private sector involved in the first place. If there is no market for this power, why do we need to be persuaded to allow these projects?

And of course the other thing that the Green Power proponents miss is that there is still a great deal that can be done by reducing our power consumption – conservation, more energy efficiency, better planning, more transit – that will have a much bigger and more profound impact than a few more generating stations. And much more of that approach is needed across North America before any coal fired power stations will be shut down.

And if that last sentence grabs your attention I suggest you head on over to the Energy Bulletin and read Bill Henderson on “The Green Power Illusion”

Written by Stephen Rees

April 8, 2009 at 9:23 am

Posted in energy, Environment

Slowing economy squeezes local port container traffic

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The Vancouver Sun this morning reports that container traffic is down sharply this year – 25% less than the same month last year. Apparently this is not so bad as other (US) Pacific coast ports.

“Relatively speaking, our losses aren’t as steep as theirs,” he said. “I understand their decline is about 30 per cent. Our container export market is always more durable than our west coast competitors. One could say that the Canadian economy is doing better [than the U.S. economy].”

This is of course not surprising – the whole world has been impacted by the decline of the US economy. This was not something that the people who planned the port expansion had factored in to their forecasts. Not that there would not be good years and bad years – traffic always fluctuates a bit. Most people now understand that the US has entered a much different phase – this is not just a cyclical decline to be followed by a rebound. The whole basis of the US economy – using financial leger de main to borrow money to buy imported goods – has now been revealed and the US will take a long time to build its way out of this mess. And will probably try to do that by import replacement where possible.

But it also reveals one of the great myths of the port expansionists. That Vancouver was going to take increasing amounts of US trade. It turns out that we did not handle much of it after all – which is why the port’s current performance seems a bit better than theirs. The idea that Vancouver can expand import container movements in a market like this is obvious nonsense. Yet so far as I am aware we have not yet heard anyone cancel the completely unnecessary new container berths at Deltaport. It would not be too late to take that step as these berths will not now be needed, and a great deal of environmental damage could be avoided. We might even ensure the sandpipers still have somewhere to stop off during their annual migrations.

Of course  that might also require a lot of provincial and federal politicians to admit they were wrong.

The piece also suggests that the market for export commodities is not as bad due to falling freight rates – but casual observation, and gossip, both suggest that there are far fewer coal trains this year too. And there are plenty of places were empty, unneeded freight cars are being stored.

Written by Stephen Rees

April 8, 2009 at 6:52 am

Posted in port expansion