Tuesday, October 30, 2007

How the Tar Sands Industry is Sticking it to Us.

The Exxon Valdez was not the biggest oil spill but it is the most well known. Prince William Sound in Alaska has a similar tidal marine habitat to BC's Northern Coast. In cold water, oil takes a long time to degrade, so it literally sticks around under the rocks and sand for years. In the first year after the spill more than one hundred thousand sea birds died. Killer whales and sea otters were decimated. Nineteen years later neither the once abundant herring nor pink salmon have recovered.

Exxon gave generously for the big clean-up. It was good for PR. But even though they lost a class action suit brought by the fishermen to compensate their losses, not one Alaskan has received a dime in compensation from the world's largest corporation.

As visiting speaker Richard Steiner from the University of Alaska said, oil spills happen, and once they do their is very little that can be done. Even the best clean-ups only contain about ten percent of the spill. Therefore the emphasis has to be on prevention.

And what is the easiest way to prevent oil tanker spills? Don't allow oil tankers on our coast. As Oonagh O'Connor, energy campaigner for Living Oceans Society (www.livingoceans.org) points out, the government of Canada imposed a moratorium banning oil tankers from BC's north and central coast in 1972 because of concerns about the marine environment. These concerns were born out in 1989 when the Exxon Valdez ran aground on Bligh Reef, spilling two million litres of oil into the waters of Prince William Sound.

But a year ago, without publicizing it, the Harper Conservative government let Condensate Oil tankers come to Kitimat through Douglas Channel. Condensate is a type of petroleum that is used to thin the tar sands. It is being unloaded in Kitimat and shipped to Alberta by CN Rail.

Now here's my thought on this. Our federal government is allowing and encouraging the Alberta Tar Sands Industry to ship oil by supertankers through Douglas Channel, putting our marine environment at risk so that Alberta can make more oil out of the oil sands. There's a boondoggle if I've ever seen one. Use oil to make oil. Does this make any sense?

Now that we've heard how Alberta oil companies are not happy about the increase in royalties that Premier Ed Stelmach is planning on imposing, one has to wonder, with the price of oil at more than ninety dollars a barrel aren't these oil companies rolling in dough? Apparently not. Remember that in Alberta they are using oil to make oil, so as the price of oil goes up their costs may rise faster than their profits.

That explains why the Harper government has never even brought up the subject of eliminating subsidies to the Tar Sands Industry. If they eliminated the subsidies, maybe there would be no industry. And that means that all of us Canadian citizens are subsidizing oil consumption by the biggest consumer of tar sands oil – the Americans.

That might explain why Harper has such cold feet about doing anything serious to lower greenhouse gases. If we were to get serious about reducing GHG's it would put the Tar Sands Industry in jeopardy. A boondoggle only has the appearance of producing on its own. In fact it has to be constantly fuelled by government largess in order to remain viable.

What I'd like to know is why don't these tar sands companies invest in North American oil refineries to make the condensate so they don't have to ship it across the ocean and risk major oil spills? Why are they willing to invest billions in pipelines to Kitimat and not willing to invest in making the condensate here on this Continent?

Or to put it simply – why do they need to buy oil from across the ocean when they are producing plenty of it here? The whole thing smells of a colossal boondoggle – a huge welfare scam for oil executives. What really gets me is the fact that we are putting our coast at risk for this monumentally stupid make work project.

Monday, October 22, 2007

whats all the fuss about?

Something interesting happened last week, after Al Gore won the Nobel Peace Prize. The right wing went apoplectic. We even had a letter in Friday's paper condemning Gore from some guy in Mission, BC. Mission to Prince Rupert - am I missing something here?

Sometimes, its the reaction to an event that shows just how close to home it's hit. Paul Krugman, New York Times columnist calls it the “Gore Derangement Syndrome”. “What is it about Mr Gore that drives the right wing insane?”, he asks. Two main things: “partly it's a reaction to what happened when the American people chose Mr Gore but his opponent somehow ended up in the White House.” and”..He's taken everything that they could throw at him and emerged more respectable and more credible than ever.”

Thomas Friedman, another nyt columnist writes: “It is impossible not to note the contrast in his leadership and that of George W. Bush.” Al Gore stuck with his campaign against climate change, starting small and eventually building it into the center of a global consensus. President Bush took the unity that was given to him after 9/11 and squandered it by starting an ill-conceived war against Iraq.

Bush has done more than any other person I can think of to bolster Arab support for Osama Bin Laden and Al Queda. Right now he has approval ratings under thirty percent in his own country, about the same as Nixon had after the Watergate scandal.

Al Gore won an oscar for his movie, “An Inconvenient Truth”. Now he has won the Nobel Peace Prize for his work in publicizing human-induced climate change. The reason he got the Peace Prize is because the Nobel committee understood that climate change has the potential to be the greatest threat to world peace in history.

It's only in the last month (is that a coincidence or what?) that the majority of Republican contenders in the presidential race have admitted that human caused climate change is a major problem. For years Republicans have been denying the existence of global warming because their supporters in big oil and big coal wanted it that way. And besides – Gore was trying to raise awareness about it, so it must be a hoax.

Meanwhile George W. and his cronies are laying the groundwork for a war with Iran that is rumoured to involve nuclear weapons. “Iraq didn't give us all the goodies we expected, so let's nuke the next axis of evil country before they can build their own. They've got a “bad”leader just like Iraq's bad leader. It is conceivable that Iran will be able to build nuclear weapons in five years so let's nuke them before that happens. Too bad we didn't do that with the third axis of evil country, North Korea. Iran, Armeggedon, World War III here we come.”

Here in Canada we have a Prime Minister who wants to follow as close as possible in W's footsteps and, like his mentor, he's running as far away from doing anything about global warming as he can. Imagine, we have someone in charge of Canada who sees George W. Bush as a model.

A poor leader ducks from the big challenges and leaves his country with a bigger mess than he inherited from his predeccesor. Bush may have started the Iraq war, and made it even more of a quagmire through sheer incompetence, but he'd rather see someone else deal with the messy consequences. And the same thing goes for global warming.

A true leader, like Al Gore, will meet the big challenges and galvinize public support for decisively dealing with them. When his time is up he leaves his country better able to deal with the most important problems facing them.

Harper wants to keep us in a futile war in Afghanistan that's doomed to failure because the Americans bailed out when they invaded Iraq. Like Bush, he'd rather delay decisive action on global warming until he is out of office. Like Bush he got to be a leader without a majority of votes. Unfortunately for the people of Canada, Harper took the wrong U.S. leader as his model.

Monday, October 15, 2007

Lessons From October's Kayaking Tragedy

The recent kayaking tragedy off Anvil Island in Howe Sound gives pause for thought. Eight kayakers were in four double kayaks, two of which capsized. Two kayakers survived immersion but had to be taken to hospital. Two kayakers died.

In calm seas they could easily have made the crossing between Anvil Island and the mainland. But the seas were not calm. The wind had come up and the eight kayakers had collectively decided to make the crossing anyways. Why not? After all, they were in top physical shape, all extreme sports enthusiasts. They had just paddled over to Anvil Island, ran up the steep slope to the top and back down and were intending to paddle to the mainland and bicycle one hundred kilometers to Whistler over logging roads the same day.

We need to respect the power of the sea at all times. And that means always err on the side of caution. Being a strong experienced paddler can give one a false sense of security. It didn't keep two men from drowning.

We can have a false sense of security in numbers too. It's obviously safer to paddle in a group but paddling in a group of eight still didn't stop two of those eight paddlers from dying.

I notice that fishermen deeply mistrust kayaks because they have little “freeboard”. The distance between the water-line and the top of the deck is measured in inches on a kayak. In reality, kayaks are very sea-worthy because they have covered decks and the kayaker wears a “sprayskirt” that attaches around the cockpit and forms a waterproof seal that keeps rough seas from entering the boat. However kayaks, being fairly light and narrow, are tippy. They are especially vulnerable in steep breaking seas. Unless the kayaker knows how to execute the proper brace against a breaking wave the kayak can potentially capsize.

We can draw some lessons from this tragedy:

1.Know the area you are kayaking in – the prevailing winds, waves and the local hazards. The steep slope of the coast of Howe Sound and of Anvil Island and their close proximity to each other probably contributed to the high winds through a funnelling effect. If they had known of this effect beforehand they could have made a more accurate assessment of the dangers.
2.Dress appropriately for exposed crossings. The eight kayakers were all wearing life jackets but they weren't wearing wet suits or foul weather gear. Three of the kayakers were in the water for about an hour before they were picked up. They were all hypothermic. The two who died could have survived an hour in cold water if they had been wearing wet suits or dry suits. Ever since I capsized off Tugwell Island on a cold December day fifteen years ago I always wear a wet suit when I am paddling in exposed waters. Even if the weather is fair, always bring a paddling jacket that can keep you warm and dry in rain and high seas, and stow it in your cockpit where you have easy access.
3.Use an appropriate type of kayak for the waters you will be paddling in. The first kayak that capsized was a racing kayak. Racing kayaks sacrifice stability for speed – not a good trade-off when you are paddling in strong winds and high waves.
4.Anticipate the worst and be ready to back out if conditions deteriorate too far. If nothing else, this alone could have prevented the tragedy. If the kayakers had turned back once they encountered the wind and waves they could have gone back to Anvil Island and waited until conditions improved or radioed for help.

The deaths of two kayakers was a terrible tragedy but it could have been avoided.

Thursday, October 4, 2007

Jeremiah - prophet of doom or prophet of hope?

Some Fundamentalist preachers call a natural disaster, such as a hurricane or drought “punishment from God”. They use the fear induced by a disaster to divide people . The impending destruction from global warming is going to be fertile ground for religious innovators. During a prolonged crisis people tend to get religion. Just look at Iraq, which used to be a secular country but is now threatened with civil wars based on the religious divide between Sunni and Shia Moslems. Instead of spreading apocalyptic doom, we could profit by seeing global warming as a challenge for each and every one of us to behave responsibly, in order to increase our ability to survive.


The ancient Hebrew prophet Jeremiah is a prime example of someone who profited, in the right sense from a disaster, because by his writings he managed to reinforce the survival of the Jewish people at a time when they were threatened with extinction.

Jeremiah prophecized the destruction of Jerusalem, the capital of Judea 2500 years ago. At the time, the Jewish kingdom of Judea was threatened by the Babylonian Empire, centered in what today is called Iraq. A hundred years earlier, the Assyrian Empire had crushed the adjoining Jewish kingdom, Israel, and scattered its inhabitants to the winds. That was a wake up call for the Judeans.

Josiah, the king of Judea, got religion. He instituted religious reforms and executed all the foreign priests in Judea and Israel. He had apparently discovered a “forgotten” scroll while renovating the Jewish temple. Jeremiah was a contemporary of Josiah's and probably was an advisor to the King. There's a credible theory that Jeremiah is actually the author of this scroll. Most Biblical scholars think that the scroll was what we now call the book of Deuteronomy, or “second law”. It was called that in a later Greek translation because it referred to Moses' second telling of the Ten Commandments.

Why does the Bible have Moses recite the Ten Commandments twice, each time in a seperate book in the Old Testament? The book of Exodus tells the dramatic story about how the Hebrew slaves in Egypt were given their freedom, new laws and a new land through God's intervention. But surely pronouncing the laws a second time takes away from that dramatic story line.

Meanwhile, back in Judea, King Josiah gets killed and so do his religious reforms. Jeremiah is thrown in jail for warning everybody that Jerusalem is about to be destroyed. Unfortunately he's proven right after the Babylonians lay seige to Jerusalem, take it and the Jewish temple and break it up into rubble. Then for the coup-de -grace, they round up all the upper and middle class and march them into slavery to Babylon. You may have heard the song: “From the Rivers of Babylon” which refers to this event.

Jeremiah is spared exile because he advised the people of Jerusalem to surrender before the seige. Half of his people, the people of Israel, were lost to history after they were conquered by the Assyrians. What can he do to save the other half when they've just been enslaved and exiled to Babylon? It doesn't look good. But Jeremiah, who predicted this would happen, has been thinking about this eventuality for a long time. He's learned from the example of King Josiah that instituting religious reforms from the top down lasts only as long as the King lasts. If Judaism is to survive in exile than it must come from the heart. And it must reflect a people's humble origins, not the rich and the powerful.

The “Shema” is by far, the most important Jewish prayer. It is singled out by Jesus as the “Great Commandment”, the one that sums up all the rest of them. The name “Shema” comes from the first two words of the prayer: “Hear oh Israel”. The words of the Shema, especially the words: “...you shall love your Lord God with all your heart...” are not in the book of Exodus when Moses first recites the commandments. But they are there when Moses recites the commandments the second time in the book of Deuteronomy. Could Jeremiah have inserted the Shema into Deuteronomy? He may not have created it, but it's a prayer that sums up his life's work.

Deuteronomy is a more subdued book than Exodus. Moses is preparing the Hebrews for their life in the promised land but he doesn't get to go there himself. He keeps telling them “Remember you were slaves in the land of Egypt.” Kind of a strange way to prepare people to live in a promised land don't you think? But not if the people that you are adressing are slaves in exile, as was the situation when Jeremiah adressed the Judeans. Remember your humble origins and keep religion in your hearts. This is the message of Jeremiah and Deuteronomy.

Jeremiah's “rediscovered” scroll that fizzled when King Josiah's rein ended, got a second lease on life with the Babylonian exile. Jeremiah had profited from the destruction of Jerusalem because he had learned to use the story of Moses to inspire the exiles from their hearts. He had discovered a way to keep Judaism alive in an age when the Jews were going to be under the thumb of empires for a long time.

To this day, in Jewish homes everywhere, the Shema is recited at sunup and sundown and at other significant times as well. That's the mark of a great prophet. Someone who can turn a catastrophe into an opportunity for people to keep the world alive.