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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Close-to-home roots make small business sustainable

(August 4, 2017)

Small business is small for a reason.

It could be a new business, starting to grow. It could have been a larger business, one that failed to thrive and was forced to shrink its operations.

Most likely, however, it is small because it is intended to be that way. The goal of small business is sustainability, which means expansion can be the enemy of survival. Health and growth are not two sides of the same fish.

Of course, many of the headlines these days are grabbed by Skip The Dishes, the small business that grew. Yet anyone with a memory for headlines also will remember Loewen Group, a funeral home conglomerate that started small in Steinbach — and how quickly the dream imploded after a few years.

We need to see past the headlines to understand the importance of small businesses for a sustainable future.

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Time to take action on the north is now

(July 20, 2017)

As the weeks spin on, there are still no solutions in sight for that growing swarm of problems facing communities in northern Manitoba.

Problems such as closing the port in Churchill, cutting back and then suspending the rail service, a shrinking time frame for winter ice roads and limited local access to healthy food, medical care and quality education — even just having clean drinking water — are like the insects that make life miserable, but not impossible, for northern residents who live far from the Golden Boy.

News of some upgrades to cellphone service or access to the internet seem like public-relations maneuvers, leaving the main swarm untouched.

Foot-dragging on the problems of northern communities is inexcusable. Further, whatever the competing federal responsibilities might be, First Nations communities are equally part of our life together in Manitoba, and the provincial government should also address their basic needs.

First, the north is warmer than it was, and that trend is going to continue — likely even faster than has been predicted, because people are not transitioning to a lower-carbon lifestyle. We can blame that on other people, elsewhere, but in fact we are doing no better ourselves. The Manitoba government is not only shirking its responsibility to provide leadership on greenhouse gas emissions, but through cuts to public transit subsidies it is actually making things worse. Something constructive and substantial must be done, immediately.

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