Pipelines bad business, plain and simple

(February 24, 2020)

There is no doubt building a pipeline in Canada is a “wicked problem.” A “wicked problem” is one that is difficult or impossible to solve, because of its interwoven social, cultural, economic and political factors.

I have opposed the construction of pipelines in these pages before (cue the chorus of internet trolls), so it will be no surprise to hear that I think the federal and British Columbia governments are making a hash of things once again. Deployment of the RCMP tactical squads certainly did not help. If someone aims a weapon at me, my first thought is not that they’re just looking at me through the rifle scope because it is such a hassle to get their binoculars out instead.

That there have been no casualties — yet — is a tribute both to the protesters and to the self-control of the police officers on site, despite the increasing stress on both sides. For the federal government to claim it has no influence on the situation is disingenuous, but the bugle charge that Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer tried to sound last week is downright dangerous and irresponsible.

Politicians playing their games makes wicked problems even worse. Using the “We’re tough on these bad guys” attitude to shill for money for Manitoba’s Progressive Conservative Party, while the embers at the blockade west of Headingley were still warm, was both seedy and disrespectful. If further actions don’t end so quickly or peacefully in our province, Premier Brian Pallister can take some of the responsibility for such an escalation.

Once again, I oppose what is being done, but for reasons other than you might at first expect. Yes, we have to keep fossil fuels in the ground, because if we don’t, the planet will warm to a point that life will be difficult — or impossible — for billions of people, including our children and grandchildren. Yes, reconciliation means taking a path other than the destructive, colonial exercise of power that has in the past been used against First Nations and Indigenous peoples in Canada.

Yet both these serious and vitally important concerns are being swamped by economic arguments about jobs and the national interest. New pipelines, however, especially the ones causing trouble today, are actually bad business for almost everyone concerned.

I usually get trolled with sneers like: “You use oil, don’t you? Drive a car? Heat your house?” — as though environmentalists can only be credible if they are running around naked in the bush, eating berries.

It is an ignorant (though expected) ad hominem attack — attack the person, not the argument.

Of course, I live in a fossil-fuel culture — I’m as much a part of it as you are. But that culture, unchecked, will take my children and grandchildren — all the children of Earth — off an ecological cliff. For climate catastrophe to happen, we just have to keep doing little or nothing different than right now. The systems are in place, and accelerating, to turn hell on Earth into a daily reality — and easily within my lifetime.

I was pleased, therefore, to see Tom Rand’s recent book, The Case for Climate Capitalism: Economic Solutions for a Planet in Crisis. We need to find some middle course between the fingers-in-the-ears, heads-in-the-sand, business-as-usual attitude that guarantees catastrophe, and its opposite, the overturn-the-world-economic-order logic that he associates with the radical left.

Rand makes some excellent points about the need for pragmatism in business and politics. Ideology, left or right, will mean the end of everything we value about our global civilization. While we clearly can’t continue as to do business as before, we still need to do business, or the remedy could be as catastrophic as the disease.

So, why are pipelines bad business?

First, none of these pipelines reduces Eastern Canada’s dependency on oil and gas from elsewhere. Most of what the pipelines would carry will never be used by Canadians. They also don’t reduce the current rail traffic through our cities or across the country.

Second, expecting an increased global market “somewhere” is delusional. The growth in renewables, and the increasing antipathy to fossil fuels, brand fossil fuels as yesterday’s (bad) answer. Oilsands products are also dirtier and lower-quality, and therefore always a last option for offshore purchase.

Third, these pipelines have already been a colossal waste of money. Canada will never recoup its investment in the Trans-Mountain pipeline, paying too much for it and then being on the hook for billions of dollars of inevitable delays. Money spent on pipelines is unavailable for the alternative energy development we really need.

Finally, a project in the national interest must mean for all Canadians, present and future, not just a few. These pipelines — all of them — aren’t.

Someone certainly benefits in the short term, however.

I wonder who?

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Farmers need a sustainable future, too

(February 12, 2020)

FEBRUARY is “I Love to Read” month, which is good for the farmers who are finally able to take a breather before the spring thaw arrives — probably in early March, this year.

To offer them (and you) some food for thought, I want to look at sustainability issues for agricultural producers, in the midst of a climate crisis fueled by a warming atmosphere and rising levels of greenhouse gases.

To begin, you can’t expect the provincial government to help. By action (and inaction), Premier Brian Pallister has repeatedly indicated the agricultural sector is exempt from initiatives to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Most recently, it was news that grain-drying operations will not be subject to his Manitoba version of a carbon tax. This was coupled with a promise (without specifics) to increase the amount of ethanol in gasoline and biofuel in diesel.

If I were an agricultural producer concerned about the direction in which the planet was headed, with its implications for my farm as well as my family, these kinds of political armwaves would be trivial to the point of being insulting.

Unless farmers live in an alternate universe, they share the planet with the rest of us, and therefore share the same responsibility for changing how we live together. In fact, any farmer who has inherited the family farm or who intends to pass it along to the next generation is likely more invested in sustainability than the city person who has never seen a live chicken.

Right now, it seems the Manitoba government is ignoring sustainability issues in the agricultural sector, in the apparent belief that Progressive Conservative votes in rural areas can bought like (dry) beans, for a bit of purple gas and a boot shine.

The PC party may have a firm base in rural areas it will never have in the city of Winnipeg, but if that’s true, then those rural areas should use their clout to at least get the current government to do something constructive for everyone.

For example, when Greyhound went out of service in western Canada, Manitoba (alone, I think, compared to all the other provinces where it operated) did nothing. So all those rural voters now have to drive, if they can, everywhere – and given how much secondary and tertiary health care is delivered only in Winnipeg or Brandon – they need to do it when they are sick, too.

To be fair, the provincial government does not seem to care much about public transportation in Winnipeg, either, despite the fact the largest source of Manitoba’s greenhouse gases, by sector, is transportation — in other words, those vehicles that burn the ethanol and biodiesel additives Pallister was intending to increase.

Cuts to subsidies for transit in Winnipeg mean New Flyer is now making electric buses for other places, when they could be making them to be used here, running on Manitoba’s hydroelectric power and providing more jobs to Manitobans.

Anyway, back to the farm. Expect no help from the provincial government, and likely little more from the feds, who prefer to play big-picture games. Look to your rural municipality for the kind of co-operative assistance you need to figure out what climate change is going to mean for your own area — not the lines drawn on the map, but according to the watershed in which you operate. Floods affect everyone — and so does drought. Plan together for both.

Sustainability literally begins at home. A sustainable future for your farm depends on you doing what is greenest for your own situation. There are various carbon-counting tools available on the internet – figure out what parts of your operation produce the most greenhouse gases, and see what can be done to reduce your outputs. It could be as simple as not burning stubble, for example. Every gallon of purple gas, even cheaper, produces GHGs. Find ways of burning less – better for the planet, and for the bottom line.

New equipment? Share it with a neighbour – or figure out how to borrow or loan it instead of purchasing.

On the other side of the ledger, figure out how much carbon is sequestered or put down in the soil by different kinds of crops or farming operations. Perhaps plant trees, to balance off carbon-intensive farming. Create your own carbon budget, aiming for a negative number at the end of the year.

If the provincial government wanted to help, it could both provide incentives for doing this, and assess penalties for ignoring GHG emissions (anyone listening?).

One other suggestion: sell local. Relying on markets elsewhere for your main income is unsustainable in the long run, and makes you vulnerable to geopolitics, pandemics and other things entirely beyond your control.

Successful farmers today have to be smart. It makes sense to use that aptitude for green, because sustainable farming is a large part of a sustainable future for everyone.

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Pallister slighting environmental groups

(November 8, 2019)

In the political history of Manitoba, the late premier Duff Roblin towers over his peers, especially in the Progressive Conservative party. He was a progressive in more than name, as his governments led Manitoba into the second half of the 20th century with a long list of major achievements and changes.

His biggest legacy, however, was a hole in the ground — “Duff’s Ditch” — on which he expended a large amount of his political capital as well as provincial cash. Against the ridicule of colleagues and opponents alike, he personally insisted that Winnipeg needed the floodway to protect its citizens from environmental disaster the next time the Red River rose.

He did what common sense, as well as environmental science, told him that future Manitobans would need, overriding the objections that dismissed the flood of 1950 as a rare, ­once-in-300-years event.

That is the kind of political leadership on environmental issues we need in Manitoba today. But at the moment, our current premier’s legacy is falling far short.

Premier Brian Pallister’s first government began by dismantling Green Manitoba, the agency that co-ordinated environmental engagement with the public across all government departments. The new department of sustainable development was supposed to be able to do “more with less” — so he appointed a rookie MLA, Cathy Cox, as its first minister.

After 18 months, little enough time to get a handle on all her new responsibilities, she was replaced by Rochelle Squires. Of course, 18 months later, there was an early provincial election.

One might think that, if the right decisions had been made at the start, then Squires would continue — having learned what needed to be done on such an important file. Instead, another reorganization — stripping out a series of areas relating to natural resources (handed to agriculture) and a new ministry, conservation and climate — with another new minister, Sarah Guillemard. New to cabinet, having served her rookie MLA term as legislative assistant elsewhere, Guillemard is awaiting her new mandate letter from the premier.

As Pallister fiddles, the world burns. We need strong leadership, and instead get reorganization — leaving the clear impression that Pallister makes all the decisions, himself, for his own reasons.

So what will be his legacy? No one, even now, sees him as a hero for reducing the provincial sales tax — and on the environmental front, his legacy will make Duff’s Ditch look like a monumental achievement.

Unless something changes, and quickly, Pallister will be responsible for eliminating the non-governmental, not-for-profit, environmental advocacy and leadership organizations in Manitoba. And so far, no one has complained publicly, perhaps for fear of reprisal.

After multi-year funding agreements, environmental organizations have been waiting for responses to their applications for new grants under various government programs — and hearing nothing. These grants and agreements were supposed to begin April 1, the start of the new fiscal year.

It is now November, and organizations that depend on these grants — to do the work, cheaply and efficiently, that the government wants done — haven’t received a nickel, nor even been told if they are going to get any money at all.

You can choose your own rationale here. Incompetence? Indifference? Administrative confusion? Perhaps spite?

I don’t know what your household budget is like, but could you survive for eight months without a paycheque? Or your business — could you continue operations as usual for eight months without any revenue?

Somehow, these organizations — generating their own income, or getting some federal money to keep their doors open — have managed to continue until now.

They are more efficient than any government department, with staff committed to what they do, not just for the paycheque, but because they are dedicated to making a difference — and yet those efforts, right now, are apparently considered unimportant by Pallister’s government.

This past week, 11,000 scientists from 153 countries signed a letter saying that there will be untold suffering for millions, if serious and radical efforts are not made to change the way we live together.

In Manitoba, instead of climate action, we get restructuring and another rookie minister, who is trying to figure out what goes where in her own office, as the very organizations we depend on for community education and leadership on sustainable living quietly plan to lay off staff or close their doors.

Pallister could make things right tomorrow, if he wanted to.

Or, unlike Roblin, will Pallister be remembered by future generations as the premier who could have done something to make life in Manitoba better, but didn’t care enough to try?

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