Stephen Rees's blog

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

The National Interest

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“It is the national interest to move forward with the Kinder Morgan pipeline, and we will be moving forward with the Kinder Morgan pipeline.”
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, today, in Nanaimo

The national interest requires that we adhere to our international commitments. The rest of the world (with the notable exception of the United States) is committed to reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Canada signed on to the Paris agreement – which I thought meant that we shared that commitment.

“We don’t have a plan to meet Paris target, and reduction shortfall is about same as GHG growth from tar sands, which account for vast majority of national emissions growth”
Kathryn Harrison, Professor of Political Science UBC via Twitter (By the way, Jason MacLean of USaskLaw also chipped in to the Twitter conversation with this paper – but it is in draft and warns “do not cite or quote”)

To be clear, that idea that we can avoid a 2℃ increase in the global average temperature seems to be shrinking in the rear view mirror. If we were reducing emissions then perhaps that would not be the case but since we have now passed 400ppm it seems to me very unlikely. It is the “tipping point” that catches us. It really was a deadline, because once past that the permafrost starts melting and that releases more carbon than we have released since the industrial revolution. It is not clear if that can be stopped. We talk about this being a threat to human civilisation, but it is an existential threat to life itself as we know it. The planet will survive, and adapt. In aeons of time. But we won’t be around to see it and much of the life with which we share so much of our DNA will be gone. So will many low lying islands in the Pacific, and much of the current coastline. Because the methane from our fracking was ignored, our emissions weren’t getting better as we thought, but very much worse. And what has already been emitted is now the problem. And “carbon capture and storage” is mostly a pipedream. And the carbon contribution from oil sands extraction is not trivial even if we do not count burning the stuff we manage to export.

Digging up bitumen for export to Asia is an unlikely economic venture, since the market is currently awash in better, cheaper, easier to deal with oil. And other sources of energy have now proved to be cheaper than fossil fuels in many applications. But we are convinced, against all evidence to the contrary, that somehow expanding extraction of the oil sands is necessary for Canada’s well being. The current extraction is uneconomic. It would not be happening without billions in subsidies from us, the hard pressed citizens. Somehow, the profits of a few corporations are far more important than the well being of ordinary Canadians.

In the more immediate future, the local resident orcas will be gone. Even if we actually manage to stop the pipeline, the lack of salmon that they feed on is already an issue. I do recall when we were campaigning against freeway expansion that we lamented the lack of charismatic megafauna to feature in our arguments. (The Nooksack Dace didn’t quite fit the bill despite the “don’t diss de dace” plea.) Well, if the most intelligent mammals on the planet don’t fit that description, I don’t know what does. But apparently the survival of the resident orcas isn’t in the National Interest, even though tourism is one of the most economically significant issues of the Pacific coast – along with fishing – and the people who depend on the health of its ecosystem.

There will be a spill. There has already been one, but that was at the terminal, so that was actually cleaned up. Quite what happens when the spill is out in more open waters, in worse weather isn’t clear. The idea that somehow the diluent (condensate from natural gas) is going to hang around long enough so the rescuers can scoop up the bitumen seems far fetched to me. It wasn’t the case in the Kalamazoo River. And “world class spill response” that we have seen so far for other kinds of spills has been less than impressive.  Which is why the province is saying that we need to get that right before the spill happens, which seems only reasonable to me. Because, once again, once the bitumen hits the bottom of the sea it is almost impossible to recover and the long term impacts, while we cannot be precise, are not going to be good.

The pipeline crosses the traditional lands of several First Nations. Prime Minister Trudeau has made a large number of speeches about reconciliation. Apparently that too is a National Interest only for as long as it does not butt up against some generous contributor to party funds.

Justin Trudeau, Rachel Notley and John Horgan all share in the same ethos. They were elected because they represented change from former conservative governments. The conservatives were wrong about nearly everything. None of the outcomes they predicted for their policies have come about. Instead we have seen an increase in the wealth of very few at the expense of the many. Wealth did not trickle down from tax cuts. Wages remain stubbornly low – except for CEOs. Housing remains unaffordable for many. In too many places there are still totally unacceptable threats to clean air, clean water and edible food. We keep being told we cannot afford essential services like health, education and childcare. All three of these politicians, elected to bring about change, are stuck in the past, clinging to outdated ideas and technologies. The National Interest is that we join the leaders in clean energy and renewable resources. We can no longer simply cut down more trees or dig up more minerals when we need more money. We have a huge legacy from these outdated industries – asbestos, tailing ponds, poisoned land and water are problems in nearly every part of the country. Trains blow up in the middle of towns, cars continue to kill thousands every year, schools cannot withstand expected earthquakes – the list is long and daunting. Keeping jobs in the oil sands does not seem to be one of the best ways forward – especially in a week when one of the largest operators announces that it is laying people off and buying self driving trucks. Given these problems, clinging stubbornly to a failed philosophy seems to me to be indefensible.

It is really sad that the people who went to Nanaimo to bring these problems to the Prime Minister’s attention failed miserably – and are now charged with the worst imaginable Canadian sin. Being impolite.

For more about the National Interest and how NEB defends its decisions you should really read this oped by Elizabeth May  



Written by Stephen Rees

February 2, 2018 at 3:52 pm

One Response

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  1. I too wonder about all this talk about the “national” interest on a project that is clearly only in Alberta’s interest. Premier Notley stated that the Trans Mountain pipeline is worth $1.5 billion a year to the treasury, which is only 38% of the wealth generated annually by the Metro Vancouver film and cruise ship industries, entities among a plethora of other industries that will arguably be greatly impacted by a significant oil spill. Nationally, Trans Mountain amounts to less than a hill of beans. Even if the total project worth was $20 billion a year, that’s still a tiny 1/100,000,000,000th of Canada’s two trillion dollar economy. In a good year the oil sands comprise only 8% of the nation’s GDP, says Stats Can.

    Still, you have to give Notley credit for Chutzpah, even though her facts and figures are suspect. For example, he dramatically stated on camera that she pulled out of the ongoing negotiations to purchase power from BC Hydro, valued at $500 million a year, after the BC NDP announced its study on Trans Mountain a few days ago, and place a limit on additional volumes of diluted bitumen until the research on spill behaviour is completed. The BC minister responsible for Hydro was “perplexed” to hear this news because in actual fact Alberta withdrew from negotiations weeks ago well before John Horgan’s study on bitumen, and with the electricity valued much lower, between $100 million and $200 million.

    There is clearly an undertone of desperation emanating from Alberta politicos. When commenters in various news stories cite Alberta’s $400+ billion contribution to the nation over the past decade or so, I immediately think that’s just four years of Metro Vancouver’s GDP contribution. Alberta’s $400+ billion is the Boom in the Boom & Bust resource extraction cycle. The past three years are the Bust. Meanwhile BC’s contribution has been in a steady state of stability by comparison due to its diverse economy, even with an affordability crisis in housing with the blame see sawing between foreign money in real estate and record cheap credit pumping demand and debt to dangerous levels.

    The talk about “national” interest concerning a single pipeline is so much rhetoric that doesn’t stand up to mathematical scrutiny or the regional sniff test when you consider Quebec’s rejection of the Energy East pipeline project with barely a whisper from Trudeau, who seems to be more easily swayed by Rachel Notley into issuing biased and misinformed statements directed at BC. Energy East was not killed by environmentalists, as conservatives would have us believe, but by economics. Kinder Morgan received solid prelease orders from Alberta-based oil companies block-booking future capacity in the Keystone pipeline immediately after Trump approved it (source: Globe and Mail Report on Business analysis), and that was a lot easier than spending years and billions reconfiguring East for dilbit that Quebec, to its credit, rejected. There are also a lot more potential federal Liberal seats there than in BC, so Trudeau was unconsciously goading the BC electorate to go after all 18 of them with his pipeline proclamations in Nanaimo the other day. Perhaps they will.

    Then there are the conniptions over the Constitution. Historically, the Constitution was repatriated by Trudeau senior in 1982 and was accompanied by the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. The Constitution unambiguously grants provinces a tremendous amount of power, and that power includes mandating cities to enact their own bylaws. In addition, Indigenous rights are guaranteed under the Constitution, and those rights are inalienable and have withstood three major Supreme Court challenges, which ruled in favour of Aboriginal people in 1997 (Delgamuukw), 2014 (Tsilhqot’in) and just last month in a case involving the land the town of Williams Lake rests on, presumably including both public and private land. These rights include full or defined title to land that was never ceded and the right to full consultation over major projects within First Nation’s territories.

    The recent reality goes something like this. The quasi-judicial body known as the NEB ruled that a branch of a foreign-owned private corporation has the right to override constitutionally-mandated municipal bylaws (Burnaby) for a project that questionably attained national interest status. This was after statements were issued to the media (which faithfully provided an echo chamber) saying Burnaby delayed the project by not approving the necessary permits. That is demonstrably false. Burnaby was called before the NEB last November, probably as an intimidation tactic, but surprised the panel and their lawyers by supplying a detailed and forceful rebuttal in an affidavit stating that in fact it was Trans Mountain who held up the works by failing to supply adequate documentation (plans, surveys, technical data …) that is required in all permit applications. Burnaby staff in fact put in thousands of hours working in good faith to process the permit applications that even a resident building a garage is required to follow. Trans Mountain’s motive was obviously to stall while going over the heads of municipalities, and approval by a board consisting of oil industry types was inevitable despite the facts.

    Burnaby’s response is located in the link below. The 32-page PDF is hyperlinked to the last word. It’s a fascinating read that absolves Burnaby of any blame about so-called permit delays and places it squarely at the feet of Kinder Morgan / Trans Mountain. The clauses on the Constitution are very interesting. Unfortunately the city does poor communications and the delay media myth prevails. However, Burnaby is a big city with a billion dollars in reserves and good lawyers, and is actively considering issuing court challenges of its own right up the chain to the BC Supreme Court and farther.

    Burnaby staff was again called before the board a couple of weeks ago for pipeline routing hearings through prime habitat. Trans Mountain could not supply accurate or adequate survey and site plans for this multi-billion dollar project. It seemed their technical response has been pathetic, even though the route is slated to pierce the heart of Class A streams and Riparian habitat. The pipe will be lain adjacent to the Brunette River which drains Burnaby Lake and leads directly into the Fraser River, one of the best salmon rivers in the world, and one that already faces serious environmental challenges. Staff faced a wall of demanding Trans Mountain lawyers, and one walked away feeling that the NEB is a kangaroo court.

    Now the Constitution is being bandied about to degrade BC’s right to conduct an environmental review on lands and shoreline within its own jurisdiction, and to diminish its right to express concern and act on a project that is not a net benefit to BC given the risk, one that is imposed from another jurisdiction using first “national” interest rhetoric, and then bullying tactics, condescension and arrogant responses to BC’s expressed concerns. Notley has threatened to take BC to court because its right to conduct environmental studies is “unconstitutional.” However, what she has yet to acknowledge is that at least three First Nations have issued a court challenge to this pipeline already over lack of consultation for one thing, something previously guaranteed by the Supreme Court of Canada on Constitutional grounds. Burnaby and Vancouver have joined that suit. But this project has already received federal approval, so in effect Trudeau owns it and any repercussions that result, social or legal, when Indigenous rights enter the ring. Personally, I don’t see the highest court in the land ruling against First Nations given three previous legal precedents.

    I have to wonder just how many contortions the Constitution has to endure to have projects like this approved.

    I give Horgan a lot of credit for staying out of the trade war fray and for challenging Notley to resolve this in court, the higher the better. She has imposed a ban on BC wines which could very well blow up in her face with the response by British Columbians and by organizations in Quebec and Ontario to buy a lot more BC wines. Alberta’s share amounts to 10%-15% overall on average, so recouping a big chunk of that share may just be possible. I bought two bottles of Hester Creek Pinot Gris yesterday and intend to do that every week as long as necessary. Two neighbours have already bought one case each.

    There are the major concerns over climate change, as you articulated Stephen. In my view we as a society now has to move into serious adaptation measures. How on Earth can Trudeau and Notley seriously suggest that building pipelines fights climate change, or “balances” economy with environment? Don’t they read the data? That discussion is completely ignored in the media. Economics is part of the solution, but that must revolve around clean energy and deep conservation, which may actually contract the economy, at least inasmuch as oil and automobile dependency go. Doug Saunders wrote about this in his book ‘Maximum Canada’ where he tied urbanizing the suburbs using electric rail and switching out fossil fuel-based building heating and cooling with renewables and conservation. All that while upping immigration a bit to arrive at a critical, self-supporting mass of around 100 million people by century’s end with extraordinarily low per capita emissions. Programs to foster more equality and family support like adequate daycare and immigrant family reunification will be necessary to create future taxpayers. He suggests that funding these initiatives in our largest five cities within their existing boundaries (while preserving farm land at the periphery) will generate far more walkable and healthier neighbourhoods with more per capita wealth and a much lower ecological footprint than today’s Autotopia. Saunders’ message is distinctly hopeful and optimistic.

    It’s a fascinating read in part because Saunders also debunks the myths surrounding Canada’s background as an extractive economy and provides reams of documentation on how that has damaged us even today. This rings so true with the promotion of Kinder Morgan and selling raw toxic sludge while what we really need to be doing is rebuilding our cities for greater efficacy and preparing for the inevitable changes to the planet’s climate.

    Maybe we should build a solar powered ark.

    Alex Botta

    February 9, 2018 at 4:26 pm

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