It’s been a day since the National Energy Board recommended approval of the Northern Gateway pipeline, and some of the people who otherwise distrust government, want it out of the economy, and hate quasi-judicial independent appointed bla bla bla — are lining up to praise the probity and wisdom of the Joint Review Panel. Some of these folks are your friends and relatives. Some have a wider audience.

The words of the pro-pipeline press are worth reading today, because they point to both the true debate and the false debates that we will face going forward. Indeed, some of these conversations might come up over the holidays. If so, let’s make sure we don’t get lost in rhetorical cul-de-sacs.

For example, in a Toronto Sun editorial titled “Northern Gateway? Get on with it” we are told the “job of government” (executed to applause here by the JRP) is “to stand up to political pressure from green luddites, whose real agenda is to sell us on the idiotic idea of sabotaging our own economy. And to get us to buy their snake-oil claims that wind and solar power are capable of powering a modern, industrialized economy, which is nonsense.”

Fin. Mic drop.

Except:

1. The pipeline debate has nothing to do with where Canadians get their energy. That’s a completely separate conversation. Nobody is talking here about wind or solar — or burning snake-oil, which would be an interesting, if labour-intensive, bio-fuel. The bitumen in these pipelines will never heat your home or end up in your gas tank. These projects are purely for export.

2. The whole point is for bitumen producers to sell their product at higher prices. Right now the only customers for Alberta heavy crude are in the US, which is in the middle of its own oil-drilling boom and has no interest in our low-grade stuff unless it’s cheap. Refineries in Asia are in a different position. Supply is tighter (for now) and demand is higher (for now) so they’re willing to pay more (for now), if someone can get the product to them.

3. We can’t really say who stands to benefit. In the case of Northern Gateway, we don’t even know who all the investors are. We know China’s three giant state-owned oil companies are involved: Sinopec is a partner, PetroChina is bidding on construction, and CNOOC bought Nexen, which owns a 10% chunk of shipping capacity. Other confirmed shippers include France’s Total SA and Calgary-based Cenovus, Suncor, and MEG Energy. But four of the 10 shippers remain a mystery.

It’s worth keeping in mind that oil sands operations are 71% foreign-owned. Certainly the pipelines would generate a certain amount of revenue for government. And hopefully some of the profits would be reinvested in economic development that would benefit all Canadians. But nowhere is that guaranteed. This brings us to the real debate, which is about risk versus reward. Here I’ll quote Peter Foster, a columnist in the Financial Post, because he hits the nail right on the head:

“All wealth- and job-creating development involves risks. The point is that they should be acceptable, and accepted by those who might have to bear the consequences.”

Did you hear that, BC? A guy says you should accept the risk and bear the consequences. After all, this is what the Joint Review Panel said yesterday: “After weighing the evidence, we concluded that Canada and Canadians would be better off with the Enbridge Northern Gateway project”. And you know, in a way they’re right. If you set aside certain evidence and limit the scope of your inquiry, you could always find the nation-wide risk/reward ratio to be favourable, especially if a project mostly jeopardizes one province’s jobs, communities, and ecosystems.

You know what else? You could argue that Canada and Canadians, on average, would be better off if people in Quebec would just speak English. Or if people on PEI would give up on their tiny, ridiculous province. You could say it would make life easier if people on reserves would just move to the city and assimilate. But that’s not how our country works.

If British Columbians and First Nations along the path of these pipelines decide that for us, the risks outweigh the rewards, then too bad. The decision is not up to newspaper columnists in Calgary or Toronto.

4. Where you are, and who you are, will determine whether those risks are acceptable. Some people face more risk. Some people anticipate greater rewards. If you’re a company that has signed a shipping agreement with a pipeline that will let you sell every $60 barrel of oil for $90, then heck yes, the reward outweighs the risk. If you live east of the Rockies, any benefit is going to sound better than zero risk. If you’re the BC government, Enbridge promises to pay $1.2 billion in taxes over the next 30 years. So, forty million bucks a year, which adds up to $9.09 per person. Which starts to sound pathetic. And if your home, culture, food, job, health or climate is on the line, there might not be a price at which the monetary rewards outweigh the risks. You’re allowed to say that.

5. These pipelines are not charity projects. Even if your land straddles a pipeline route and you’re being offered straight cash, that amount of money is still less than it would cost them to go around you. Benefits offered by the proponent only increase their potential profit. If you’re a member of a First Nations band and your community is offered equity, great. If you’re a citizen of Canada and your government will receive taxes, royalties, and spinoffs, great. They might misplace or misspend the money, but hopefully some of it makes your life better. Just know that whatever numbers they flash, those of us standing between the producers and the customers will never be the big winners.

6. Each proposal will die the day it is no longer profitable. There are three ways this could happen: markets, laws, or physical opposition. This is where we come to a discussion of tactics. If you don’t think the risks of Northern Gateway or the Trans Mountain pipeline are worth the reward, then you have some options as a citizen. You can mutter darkly about bulldozers and tear gas. That’s certainly your right. You could also look at global energy markets and transport proposals and prices and timelines, then read up on economics and think about how those logical constraints might be leveraged and when. Or you could look at what those sex workers accomplished today in Ottawa, then read up on Supreme Court jurisprudence and think about how previous challenges and decisions might apply to this situation.

Whatever you do, I hope you don’t give up on representative democracy and the idea that we elect people to stand up for our local interests, even if sometimes we have to work pretty hard to hold them to it. Some politicians are already saying the right things. A few need reminding.

Let’s set aside the JRP decision and the pipeline ads and the national newspapers for a minute. What would you want to say to your local representative about risk and reward, and what questions would you have for them? Feel free to practice over turkey.

Advertisements

It’s a big news day. Yesterday, Vancouver City Council unanimously adopted a strongly-worded motion to seek intervenor status with the National Energy Board, in order to oppose Kinder Morgan’s new bitumen pipeline. 35 Vancouverites showed up to speak at City Hall before the vote, and 742 of us submitted letters to mayor & council. Incredibly, 100% of those citizens were opposed to the pipeline.

This afternoon, the NEB will release its recommendation on another proposed pipeline — the Enbridge Northern Gateway project. The panel is supposed to be independent and its decision secret, but high-level government spokespeople are predicting “approval, with conditions”. Regardless of today’s JRP report, the final decision is up to federal cabinet cabinet ministers.

Or is it?

What if B.C. citizens said no, through a unique piece of direct-democracy legislation available only in our province? That’s a question that’s been floated by the Victoria-based Dogwood Initiative. I look at the pros and cons of launching an HST-style Citizens’ Initiative in today’s Vancouver Sun:

Imagine: no more pipeline ads, opinion polls, or rallies. What if our province’s voters could simply say yes or no to new oil tanker projects — and move on? As Premier Christy Clark said back in October of 2012, “if British Columbia doesn’t give its consent to (the proposed Northern Gateway pipeline), there is no way the federal government or anyone else in the country is going to be able to force it through.”

What if B.C. citizens themselves delivered a clear and final decision?

Click here to read more from Fight HST strategist Bill Tieleman, Nak’azdli First Nation Chief Fred Sam, and Dogwood Executive Director Will Horter.

There are several problems with Bitcoin, but for a minute let’s just look at the real-world environmental cost of all that digital wealth. Other people have written about this in the recent past, but energy consumption from Bitcoin mining is growing so rapidly that it’s worth updating the numbers.

According to Blockchain, over the last 24 hours Bitcoin miners used an estimated 135,950.77 megawatt hours of electricity.

(SEE UPDATE BELOW)

The US Environmental Protection Agency estimates that every megawatt hour delivered in that country generates 1,307.2 lbs of carbon dioxide, or 593 kilos. That’s based on an energy mix that includes 37% coal, 30% gas, and 19% nuclear. Mind you, if your computers are running in China, where the grid relies more heavily on coal, this consultancy estimates a carbon cost of 960 kilos per megawatt hour.

As a conservative estimate, let’s round it off and say bitcoin mining generates 600 kilos of CO2 per MWh.

That means in the last 24 hours alone, Bitcoin miners have added 81,570 metric tons of CO2 to the atmosphere.

Again, going back to the EPA’s estimates, the average passenger vehicle in the US generates 5.1 metric tons of CO2 every year, or 13.97 kilos a day.

That means in the last 24 hours, bitcoin mining operations generated as much CO2 as 5,838,940 passenger vehicles.

And that’s just the CO2 emissions — we’re not counting the environmental or social impacts of real-world mining, which is where all that gas and coal and uranium comes from.

As the equations required to generate new Bitcoins become necessarily more complex, these real-world costs will only continue to rise. Not that I expect the people doing the mining to care. They burned $20 million worth of electricity in the last 24 hours for total commissions worth $3.6 million. Clearly that’s not where they make their money.

Here’s what I see: A few speculators getting rich off a currency bubble, at the expense of public energy providers and the rest of us who are trying to mitigate and adapt to climate change. Is that really the future?

UPDATE: Okay, I’ve clearly wandered down a rabbit hole with this Bitcoin post. I believe my original point stands, but first I have to address some questions of methodology. 

It’s been brought to my attention on Twitter that the energy use estimates on Blockchain.info are based on the assumption that computers tasked with mining are using traditional processors. However, this fall a series of mining-specific ASIC chips hit the market, delivering up to 10 times more energy efficiency.

The release of that new hardware has coincided with a sharp increase in the number of calculations being performed across the network, as illustrated by this chart. It seems fair to say that much of this new activity is happening on more efficient hardware. I haven’t yet found an accurate estimate of how many people use the new chips and what the overall network efficiency would be.

Another wrinkle: Police in Germany arrested three suspects earlier this month on fraud charges. They’re accused of using malware to, in effect, enslave unsuspecting peoples’ computers to mine bitcoin for the benefit of the hackers. I doubt the victims have ASIC chips in their PCs. And you can also participate in this kind of outsourced mining voluntarily, again with a regular computer. So a certain proportion of overall calculations are being done by ordinary internet users, whether willing or unwilling. Again, I don’t have an accurate estimate.

It looks like the complexity of Bitcoin verification will increase, and at the same time so will hardware efficiency. Clearly there’s an arms race underway.

The reason I created this post is to point out that wealth accumulation of any kind requires that you submit to a formula that creates certain externalities. That’s true of the existing global financial system, and it’s true of online currencies. For now, the “value” of Bitcoin does not take into account the real-world consequences of digging coal out of the ground and burning it. The question is, can that continue forever?

Residents of Vancouver have a rare chance on Wednesday to set the tone for the coming conversation around the Kinder Morgan expansion. If you can make 5 minutes to speak on the record at City Hall, it would go a long way toward empowering our local representatives to stick to their guns and stop this thing.

On Monday the Texas-based energy giant finally filed its application to expand the Trans Mountain pipeline. We’re talking about 890,000 barrels of diluted bitumen, every single day, onto oil tankers and out through the Vancouver harbour. (Or, as the filmmaker Damien Gillis would say, “Port McMurray”.)

Wednesday at 9:30AM, Vancouver City Council is voting on a motion that would direct city staff to apply for intervenor status at the upcoming National Energy Board hearings. (That’s right, the same Joint Review Panel process that Enbridge went through last year with the Northern Gateway Pipeline proposal.) Intervenor status is a big deal: it would give the city the right to cross-examine witnesses, as well as a platform to represent citizens’ concerns all the way through the process. It would make the conversation very different from the one around Northern Gateway, because the City of Vancouver is clear where it stands on this project.

Wednesday’s motion contains some pretty refreshing language:

“THAT Council direct staff to apply for intervenor status for the City of Vancouver in the National Energy Board (NEB) hearings on the anticipated Kinder Morgan pipeline expansion proposal to advance the following points:

1. The expansion of the pipeline through the Metro Vancouver region and associated increases in tanker traffic pose an unacceptable risk to the City of Vancouver, residents and businesses including, but not limited to, risks to Vancouver and the region’s vibrant economy, local environment and parks, infrastructure, financial and legal liability, public health, and our international brand as one of the world’s most liveable cities.

2. The City of Vancouver does not agree with the NEB’s position that harms caused by the eventual combustion of the fossil fuels carried by the pipeline not be considered as part of the review of impacts on the public interest. Further that the City of Vancouver views an increase in the extraction of fossil fuels intended for combustion, and the increase in greenhouse gases associated with this extraction and combustion, as posing a direct risk to the city as a result of sea-level rise and extreme weather impacts associated with anthropogenic climate change.

3. The City of Vancouver has grave concerns on the following points:

  • that no appropriate emergency response plan is in place from appropriate provincial and federal government agencies; in fact capacity has been reduced in recent years;
  • that the City of Vancouver, its residents and businesses are not indemnified against all financial loss associated with a spill from current or proposed shipments;
  • that full recovery funding is not guaranteed for all affected parties; and
  • that Kinder Morgan and other responsible agencies have not invested in appropriate mitigation efforts to avoid a spill of current shipments.”

Again, when’s the last time you heard something like that from a level of government? With the motion going to a vote on Wednesday, I think we owe it to councillors to tell them — if this is the kind of language they’re going to use, they have our support as citizens. And if city staff are prepared to go to bat for us at the NEB, we’ll back them up all the way.

If you can speak for 5 minutes Wednesday morning, it’s easy to sign up: just call Lori Isfeld, City of Vancouver Meeting Coordinator, at 604-871-6355 — or e-mail lori.isfeld@vancouver.ca.

As a backup, you can also send a letter to mayorandcouncil@vancouver.ca and your message will be forwarded to them before the vote. However, nobody reads the letters aloud and they don’t form part of the public record. It’s probably more powerful to show up and tell your story.

Here’s the letter I sent today, in case I can’t make it Wednesday:

Dear Adriane, Andrea, Elizabeth, Geoff, George, Gregor, Heather, Kerry, Raymond, Tim and Tony:

Thank you for taking the time to consider a motion that would ask city staff to apply for intervenor status for the City of Vancouver in the National Energy Board (NEB) hearings on the proposed Kinder Morgan pipeline and tanker terminal expansion. If you’ll permit me, I’d like to explain why your decision on this motion is so important to me as a citizen of Vancouver.

My family has lived around Burrard Inlet and on the shores of the Salish Sea continuously since 1905. My great-grandfather Kumazo Nagata grew tomatoes and cucumbers on Mayne Island. My great-grandfather Asataro Yoshida was a fisherman and kept a small shop not far from the chambers where you now sit. His daughter Miyuki tells stories about rowing across Burrard Inlet for church picnics, back when the North Shore was carpeted in salal bushes and the water was so clear you could see crabs running on the bottom. My grandmother laughs about taking the streetcar home from English Bay with burlap sacks full of cockles and smelts, caught right there on the beach. She’s 90 now and lives in North Burnaby. (You’ll find her on your payroll records — she worked as a translator at City Hall.)

I grew up in East Van, and still live there. I took French at Hastings Elementary, played baseball next to the PNE, swam and picked blackberries at New Brighton. My friends and I still bike the seawall around Stanley Park, swim in English Bay, and watch the fireworks there in the summer. I still teach workshops at Templeton Secondary, my old high school. I bike to work from Commercial Drive to my office in Chinatown. And I’m writing to you from the kitchen table in the cottage my grandfather built on Mayne Island, just down the road from where he grew up. In fact, I can see the beach where I skipped rocks and chased crabs as a kid, and the wharf where my dad took me to fish. I’m 27 now. Is it naive to want to do the same things with my own kids one day?

You can probably guess why I’d mention each of these places by name. Depending on the location and size of a spill, as well as weather and currents, each could be placed at risk by the proposed project. Even areas not directly along the shore would be subject to off-gassing of solvents used to dilute bitumen for transport. It already makes me uneasy to know that a handful of tankers transit our busy harbour every month, carrying a proprietary blend of carcinogenic, flammable petroleum products. To ramp that up on the scale Kinder Morgan is suggesting only amplifies the probability of an accident.

Nowhere else on earth can I think of a city that’s been asked to take on this type and magnitude of risk. Partly that’s because the product to be shipped, diluted bitumen, was not considered a viable export commodity until recently. Partly that’s because most tanker ports are not situated in the heart of such a valuable residential area. As both city staff and the BC premier have made clear, our existing understanding of the dangers, and capacity to respond, are woefully inadequate. As it stands, an oil tanker leaving the Westridge terminal has approximately a 20-minute window during which the high tide buoys its hull enough to clear the sea floor under the Second Narrows rail bridge. Any disruption to that routine — whether due to human error, engine failure, bridge failure, tugboat failure, an earthquake, a terrorist attack — would start the clock ticking on a spill.

As far as I can tell, most of the monetary benefits of this project would accrue in Dallas and Calgary and Beijing, not Vancouver. Becoming an intervenor in the federal Joint Review Panel hearings would allow the city to ask some key questions: How would we be compensated, as residents and taxpayers, for shouldering this daily risk over the decades to come? Are the benefits of exporting raw bitumen so far-reaching as to offset lower property values or increased insurance premiums, even before a spill? How do we put a dollar value on the ecosystems these tankers would sail through, and the services they provide us already? What price should we place on the contradiction of the “World’s Greenest City” serving as a corridor for nearly a million barrels a day of the “world’s dirtiest oil”?

Let’s be plain: we’re being asked to risk our city’s tax base and global reputation — and the health of our communities — so that bitumen producers can get a slightly higher price for their product. We’re being asked to help load the atmosphere with all that carbon at a time when, as a city, we’re spending money, effort and political capital to reduce our per-capita emissions and adapt to climate change. This is a fundamental contradiction, one that threatens to overshadow and cancel out much of the work done so far by your administration.

Some people will tell you that this decision will be made by global markets and federal cabinet ministers — that municipal officials should keep their heads down and concentrate on playgrounds and trash collection. Unfortunately we saw in Lac-Mégantic this summer the consequences of leaving our safety in the hands of industry and federal regulators. Now that it’s our homes and livelihoods on the line, Vancouverites deserve full understanding of the project and a say in how it’s carried out — if at all.

The upcoming National Energy Board hearings will give the proponent the opportunity to demonstrate whether the benefits of this project outweigh the risks. Citizens and decision-makers will have months to debate those arguments on their merits. For now, all I’m asking is that you vote yes to a strong voice for Vancouver at that table.

Sincerely,

Kai Nagata

I’ve got an op-ed in the Vancouver Sun today where I poke fun at the Fairmont Waterfront’s recent job posting for an internship as a “busperson”, then argue the following:

  • Economic growth is ending.
  • We’re gonna be OK.
  • As we transition, our societies should take inspiration from hipsters.

Now, I know that’s a controversial term. I don’t mean it as a pejorative. Most of the arguments over who’s a hipster have focused on aesthetics, which I think misses the point.

I’m really just using it as shorthand for young people who:

  • Have abandoned the dream of endless growth
  • Have no interest in taking on debt to join the consumer economy
  • Instead pursue quaint, old-fashioned hobbies.

Those activities — especially the ones related to saving money, reducing waste and increasing food security — are built on underlying economic ideas that I think we should scale up in a big way.

Anyway, please click here and check out the article, if only to vote for more discussion of the post-growth economy in the pages of the Vancouver Sun.

On a related note, do you have any 16 to 25-year-olds I can borrow this Saturday? I’m moderating a free all-day youth forum at SFU Surrey, about the future of the BC economy. I think young peoples’ voices are important in this conversation and luckily three local elected officials agree, so we get to have a live panel discussion and grill some politicians and eat free sandwiches.

Call me nerdy, but that’s my definition of a fun Saturday. You can read more about the forum and sign up by clicking here. We’ve got about 160 people signed up so far but the fire marshal says we can bring in another 40. If you’re a bit younger than 16 or older than 25, no sweat. No one is going to whisk you off to Carrousel. I’d love to see you there.

 

 

 

These guys have taken the crowdfunding pitch video and elevated it to an art form. There’s something about the music, the mesmerizing voices … it just makes me want to give them money:

_

When Aiden and Ronan came by a few weeks ago to borrow my home-made slider, I didn’t realize they were making a fake cult recruitment video for a film about people accidentally forming a cult. I think it’s hilarious.

In all sincerity, I’ve known these guys since before they were in high school. They’ve been making very good short films this entire time. I know some of their crew members and if anyone can make a feature film for 10 grand, it’s these kids.

Why support the project? I’m kind of a non-fiction guy, but sometimes fiction is the best vehicle to explore complex social questions. With this film they appear intent on tackling the alienation, ironic detachment, and search for authenticity particular to our generation. Anyone who thinks that’s a frivolous pursuit should look at voter participation rates.

Sure, sometimes it takes a bit of irony to get the ball rolling. But I think their desire to understand themselves and their peers — and make a really good movie in the process — is sincere. They’ve already rallied a talented creative community around the project, meaning the gear is donated and the crew is working for free. Still, they need to feed and transport people.

They’ve just put up an Indiegogo campaign page: http://www.indiegogo.com/projects/crusade-pt-1-good-news

Please consider chipping in a few bucks!

Trust is a hard thing to win back once lost. If Stephen Harper calculates that electoral fraud and corruption allegations stand to damage the Conservative brand with its own supporters, might he gamble on a fresh mandate?

The timing might not get better.

Perhaps the safe option would be to dig in and ride out the next two years. But I see two long-term risks to that plan.

– One is Elections Canada’s ongoing investigation into misleading robocalls during the 2011 campaign. With this week’s federal court ruling that fraud did indeed take place across the country — and that the perpetrators had access to the Conservative Party’s CIMS database — the case for by-elections in tainted ridings will grow. The Conservatives need lose only 10 seats to put them in minority territory.

– Compounding the danger is the growing disgust within the party over perceived hypocrisy. After being elected on promises of fiscal transparency and moral probity, two more years of scandal could discourage longtime Conservative supporters enough to stay home. Or, in the worst-case scenario for Harper, the vaunted “big blue tent” could split — for example, if socially-conservative Western MPs decide that rot has taken over the party’s core.

One way to head off both possibilities would be to dissolve parliament, ask voters for a renewed mandate, promise to put the economy first, and in so doing wipe the slate (mostly) clean. Consider the following:

– The NDP was utterly humiliated in the recent BC election. That was supposed to be the Western stronghold from which a second Orange Wave would sweep. Instead, imported federal campaign gurus Brian Topp and Brad Lavigne managed to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory. The earlier the next federal election, the less time the NDP will have to regain confidence in its “positive” campaign philosophy — and convince its troops that 2011 was more than a lucky high-water mark.

– Liberal leader Justin Trudeau is counting on the next two years to prove himself in Parliament and rebuild his party’s electoral infrastructure, riding by riding. The earlier the next federal election, the less comfortable voters will be handing power to Trudeau.

– Both the Liberals and the NDP have rejected calls for electoral cooperation — too recently to change their position, and too recently to have made much progress, even in secret talks.

– Third-party advocacy groups are only starting to implement the campaign lessons and new strategies that might make them a factor in defeating the Conservatives. The earlier the next federal election, the less time environmental groups and pro-democracy groups have to organize.

– The Conservative Party tends to perform well in an environment of low overall voter engagement. Summer elections are usually known for reduced turnout.

– The job market still appears to be growing, but consumer confidence is quietly slipping. The earlier the next federal election, the less chance of dramatic economic setbacks that might contradict Conservative branding.

Again, the timing might not get better for Harper.

Another majority win would provide a stable timeframe to push through energy project approvals and continue cutbacks to government regulators and data-gathering departments. It would also set up an orderly transfer of power, letting Harper hand the reins gradually to his political heir. Jason Kenney is the name that comes up most often.

What do you think? Will Harper call an early election?