What defines our ‘national interest”?

(April 12, 2018)

Natural Resources Minister Jim Carr again took the microphone this past week as “Minister of Pipelines,” promoting Kinder Morgan on behalf of his boss, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.

We were told, emphatically, that against all common sense, ecological wisdom, economic prudence and foresight, the Trans Mountain pipeline “is in the national interest.”

Given that the protests in British Columbia against the pipeline will only become louder and more sustained after such an inflammatory statement — and that Carr has said all options remain open to the federal government — we now have to wonder whether the Canadian military might even be deployed against Canadian citizens on behalf of a foreign multinational corporation to ensure “the pipeline will be built.”

After all, the prime minister has tweeted it:

“Canada is a country of the rule of law, and the federal government will act in the national interest. Access to world markets for Canadian resources is a core national interest. The Trans Mountain expansion will be built.”

There was grim irony in the timing of Carr’s announcement. His news conference took place 101 years to the hour that Canadian troops were preparing in the darkness for their assault on Vimy Ridge in 1917. They did not choose that hill to die on — the government of the day decided that it was in the national interest to attack a stronghold no one else had been able to capture — but we would like to think they died believing they were fighting for freedom.

Afterward, we created the mythology that their sacrifice helped define our nation and have since proudly proclaimed, “The world needs more Canada.”

Not this kind of Canada, it doesn’t. “The true North strong and free” should not be for sale to oil companies, whatever their apparent influence on our politicians. The credibility of the federal government is on the line, but for entirely other reasons than Carr, Trudeau and Alberta Premier Rachel Notley might claim.

When such dubious claims about the national interest are able to trump ecological concerns, the land rights of First Nations people, negotiated commitments to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and the safety of local communities — all while threatening environmental defenders — Canada hardly looks like a country others should emulate.

If, as Manitoba’s senior minister, Carr wants to do something useful, there are a few things closer to home he should consider: the port of Churchill continues to languish, rail lines unrepaired; meanwhile, Russia seeks to take control of an undefended and inaccessible North even as China buys into the Arctic Council because it sees cross-Arctic shipping as part of its global “belt and road” initiative.

Canada needs a fully functional deep-water port in Churchill, connected to a continent-wide rail system, but Carr and the federal government have done nothing about that for two years.

Similarly, moving last year’s bumper crop of Canadian grain to market would also be in the national interest, but the Canadian rail system continues to deteriorate and decline and (again) nothing has been done about it.

We hear excuse after excuse about the lack of funds, in order to justify not doing these and many other things that are in the national interest, but when it comes to jamming a pipeline through to the B.C. coast for Kinder Morgan, there is money and energy and commitment, well, to burn.

And burning is the issue. The Alberta oilsands are a made-in-Canada carbon time bomb. We can effectively render futile the rest of the planet’s efforts to avoid catastrophic temperature rise if we dig up that dirty Alberta crude and ship it out.

What is more, the government refuses to admit that we do not need this pipeline for the transportation to market of current fossil-fuel supplies. The whole project is predicated on an expanded future global demand for oil, at high prices, with markets willing to take this low-quality crude and spend the extra money required to refine it into something usable.

This Liberal pipeline policy is dangerously delusional at every level. We need to consume fewer fossil fuels, not more, if we want to have a chance to limit global warming. Smart money for years now has been aimed at alternative energy development instead.

If the pipeline is built regardless of opposition, as the prime minister has threatened to do, the Liberals will lose every seat in British Columbia, forever — and so they should.

When the ocean levels rise, it won’t be Alberta that floods.

Besides, will today’s Canadian Armed Forces, related by profession and self-sacrifice to those who went over the top at Vimy Ridge, follow orders to do to their fellow citizens whatever it takes to get that pipeline built?

Somehow, I doubt it. I don’t believe that’s their idea of Canada, either.

Peter Denton is a Winnipeg-based writer, environmental activist and scholar.

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Is Manitoba prepared for a water crisis?

(February 5, 2018)

When you step out of a nice, hot shower, flush the toilet and sit down to a nice, hot cup of coffee over breakfast, the city of Cape Town, South Africa, seems a world away.

And it is, not just in terms of geography. As your day gets underway, they will be piling supper dishes in the sink, wondering if there is enough water to wash them.

No showers, no toilets flushing and even coffee is only a hope.

Day Zero approaches. Perhaps as early as April 12, the municipal water system will be turned off. After three years without rain, the wells are running dry.

Severe rationing — if everyone co-operates — will stave off Day Zero for a while.

But some residents of Cape Town feel the responsibilities of citizenship apply to everyone but themselves. While some go without showers (in the heat) for days, others still wash their cars in the driveway.

It would be nice if Cape Town could just blame all the car-washers for the problem, the people who have wasted the water that otherwise would be flowing through the taps, but they can’t.

There are more complicated reasons for drought. While water wasted on non-essentials is highlighted in an emergency, you have to drill deeper to get a better idea of what is going on.

Around the world, water resources tend to be poorly managed — not just drinking water, but fresh water in general. As cities grow — many without much in the way of urban planning — local watershed resources are depleted, or polluted past recovery.

Drinking water from nearby lakes or rivers flowing through the cities is problematic, because both sources of water become convenient dumping grounds for the chemical and human waste that cities produce.

Water can be pumped from underground, but it is never a good long-term solution. Fossil aquifers (water locked underground a long time ago) can be drained, but never refilled.

Other aquifers can be refilled, slowly, as excess surface water trickles down into them through the ground.

The residents of Swan River, Man., got a taste of water-crisis worries last week when the town’s well unexpectedly stopped pumping. It turned out to be a repairable problem, but it drove home the dire consequences a sudden water shortage can bring.

Worldwide, groundwater is disappearing. As it is pumped out, cities and entire regions are literally sinking into the ground. In North America, California’s long-standing drought is causing agricultural areas to sink as the wells are pumped dry, and the main aquifer under the central United States, the Ogallala Aquifer, is rapidly depleting.

Elsewhere, the problem is worse. Jakarta, Mexico City, Bangkok, Manila, Ho Chi Minh City, and a growing list of cities — many close to the sea — are sinking, some below sea level, raising concerns about flooding, too.

Add the extreme storm activity we saw in 2017, which will only increase thanks to global warming, and urban disaster is no longer just a B-movie plot.

When it comes to getting the water we need, where we need it and when, it is clear Mother Nature is not getting the memo. It is either drought or flood, with too little in between.

There is no water for Table Mountain in Cape Town, but several thousand kilometres to the north, as the more famous Seine River continues to rise, Parisians are planning to boat on the Champs-Élysées and provide underwater tours of the Louvre.

Add changing weather to poor watershed management, the increasing stress on local ecosystems makes floods and droughts harder (or impossible) to manage.

Cape Town may be a world away, but neither its problems — nor the high-water perils of Paris — should be far from our minds.

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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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