Keep it in the ground

(October 12, 2017)

The sudden announcement by TransCanada Pipelines to scuttle its Energy East project landed with a clang amid the environmental activist community.

Good news, to be sure, but after a year of struggles, temporary victories and then imperious Trump-issued executive orders that paved the way for completion of the Dakota Access Pipeline, it was unexpected.

It’s like pushing hard to keep the door from opening, only to have it slam shut when the person on the other side gives up and lets go.

It would be nice to think that the cancellation was a sign of corporate social responsibility, that TransCanada realized the harms (real and anticipated) of the Energy East pipeline were not worth the risk to future generations. One can always hope for such enlightenment, but no doubt this played a minor role compared to the fact that someone, finally, did the math.

Investing in pipelines these days is like investing in new whaling vessels in the late 19th century. People did not stop using whale oil lamps because we ran out of sperm whales, but because there was a smarter (and eventually cheaper) alternative.

In the same way, I recall Saudi oil minister Sheikh Ahmed Zaki Yamani’s famous 1973 line about how the Stone Age did not end because people ran out of stones. The age of oil will not end when people run out of oil, but when people realize there are smarter, eventually cheaper, and more ecologically sustainable alternatives.

Pipelines need both a source of oil and customers to buy the finished product. One without the other is pointless. The current systems (leaks and all) are managing current levels of supply and demand. New pipelines are a huge investment in a future in which oil prices will be high enough to justify collecting and refining the tar sands crude — something that implies an increasing demand.

Apart from inconvenient truths — such as that there is enough carbon buried in the tar sands to guarantee extinction by global warming of much of the life on Earth, including our own — the idea of an oil-needy future is seriously delusionary.

Simply put, it is bad business. I would love some forensic accounting of who is invested in these operations right now, because I suspect the money of those in charge of the fossil-fuel industry is invested elsewhere. Mutual funds, pension plans and other things that are supposed to guarantee our personal economic future, are likely the shills still paying for obsolete fossil-fuel technological infrastructure.

Pull the direct and indirect government subsidies out of the fossil fuel industry and that investment becomes even more dubious. In a warming world in which increasing greenhouse gas emissions are the harbinger of disasters, from droughts to forest fires and to hurricanes, even General Motors is making a major shift to electric vehicles. Proposing expanded investment in the fossil-fuel industry would be as popular with shareholders these days as trying to corner the market on whale oil.

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Politics more absurd every day

(October 5, 2017)

Political discourse has become more like theatre of the absurd. Every day, inane behaviour and baffling comments from politicians crowd out more important issues in the news.

To even call it discourse is a stretch, because discourse requires rationality and respect that is usually absent from the chaos that politics at all levels seems to reflect.

Political analysis has become the job of late-night comedians, because no one else has the skill set to handle its absurdities.

Those absurdities also disguise what else is going on, as the attention of viewers (and voters) is focused on the daily spectacle, where charge and counter-charge have to be more and more outlandish to attract a crowd.

Combine this general distraction with a major drop in news reporting and politicians rarely face the kind of media scrum or the tough questions that used to be a significant feature of the political landscape. There are not enough reporters, enough news programs or enough newspapers, to offer the challenges to power that the Fourth Estate has traditionally provided for nearly 200 years.

In other words, politicians are close to operating with impunity, able to brush off television questions with a 10-second soundbite that says less than a tweet and rarely pushed to explain themselves in any depth.

Canadian politicians are luckiest of all because even at their most reckless, neither the vitriol nor the inanity of their comments come anywhere close to what Americans seem to expect. They may look good by comparison, but unfortunately that doesn’t mean much.

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U.S. water ruling bodes ill for Manitoba

(August 18, 2017)

I have grown up with the story of the Garrison Diversion Project.

Since the 1970s, everyone this side of the border who understands ecosystems — and anyone with a shred of common sense — knows this project is a disaster for the waterways in Manitoba that are fed by the Red River.

Junior high-school biology students still have no trouble understanding the science — I was one, when construction first began, and nothing has changed since. We have even more evidence of the problems of invasive species, along with the northward migration of new species of flora and fauna, thanks to a warming climate. (Check out the pictures of flying Asian carp in the Mississippi River, for example.)

Without environmental approvals or acceptance by the International Joint Commission that resulted from the Boundary Waters Act of 1909, it has been built in fits and starts over the past 50 years anyway. The Garrison Diversion Project/Northwest Area Water Supply is as much of a monument to self-serving American pork-barrel politics as the disappearance of the Aral Sea in Kazakhstan is a monument to Soviet economic planning from the same time period. Avoidable ecological catastrophes, both.

Budget after budget, representatives from North Dakota managed to get money for this (unapproved) project to supply water to Minot and other communities by tacking some funding onto whatever federal legislation they could, as the price of their support for tightly contested bills.

Which brings us to today, as all that was needed for the metaphorical switch to be flicked and the diversion opened is the kind of legal decision finally delivered in Washington, D.C., by an American judge last Thursday.

U.S. District Judge Rosemary Collyer ruled the Northwest Area Water Supply project complies with federal environmental law, dismissing the objections of Manitoba and the State of Missouri.

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