Tuesday, January 29, 2008

In Bed With Coalbed Methane

Methane is close to twenty-five times more potent a greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide. However, when methane is burned it releases less carbon dioxide than burning oil. It's a cleaner fuel than gasoline but the problem is that certain ways of extracting it are very dirty and contribute too much greenhouse gases. Coalbed methane extraction involves drilling wells into coal seams. It involves a lot of wells, many more than for conventional oil and gas drilling. And when it's extracted this way, 70 to 80% of the methane escapes into the atmosphere where it contributes to global warming.

They told people in Wyoming, in the Powder River Basin, that there would be only 200 coalbed methane wells. Then they built fourteen thousand more. Now they plan to drill a total of fifty-one thousand in the next few years. This issue is the one thing that has united environmentalists and bedrock republican ranchers in Wyoming.

In order to free the methane from the coal seams water has to be pumped out from deep underground. This water is often saline and there is a lot of it. Each pumping station pumps about fifteen thousand gallons of waste water a day. Multiply that by the number of wells and you begin to see a problem. It can ruin a lot of farmland.

Then there's that other problem – our legal rights or lack thereof. In the United States and Canada landowners have no right to refuse drilling, construction, or extraction of oil and gas on their lands. It's not like the Beverly Hillbillies - our rights to surface land don't extend to subsurface mineral rights. A great nuisance for property owners in oil fields but a disaster for property owners who live near coalbed methane wells, where the constant roar of pumps and compression stations drowns out any peace and quiet.

There are very few coalbed methane wells in BC but there are proposals to drill in three of the far corners: on Vancouver Island, in the southeastern corner, and in the Peace River Country. Royal- Dutch Shell would like to drill a lot of wells right here in the northwest corner in a place they call the Sacred Headwaters. Royal-Dutch Shell plans a modest 14 wells to start, but if they drill productive wells there could be as many as ten thousand in the near future.

The Sacred Headwaters are the headwaters of the Skeena, the Nass, and the Stikine Rivers. This is a pristine Wilderness with Moose and Caribou , where chinook salmon spawn. This is the traditional hunting grounds of the Tahltan first nations people. For three years the Tahltan have been setting up blockades, and sitins to try and stop Royal-Dutch Shell from building roads into their territory. It's gotten to the point that Amnesty International has set-up a campaign to help the Tahltan's fight off big oil.

The BC government has consistantly denied their rights to be consulted. Concerns about the ill effects of drilling of coalbed methane have to be brought to an official sounding body called the BC Oil and Gas Commision which was created by the Campbell government as a front for fossil fuel companies. Ask the Mayor of Fernie whether they were properly consulted before coalbed methane wells were drilled nearby.

Regulations for coalbed methane are so streamlined that there is no requirement for environmental assessment. After all each one of these wells takes up only about a football field worth of land so how much environmental impact can it make? But that conveniently overlooks the sheer number of these wells and the invasiveness of the huge network of roads, wells, pipelines, and compression stations that will be required.

The people in Smithers and Telkwa raised such a ruckus about coalbed methane that the company proposing to drill in their area withdrew their plans. The Tahltans are not so lucky but the Canadian Constitution is on their side. They have a right to be consulted if this development impacts their rights to hunting and fishing. But what about everyone who lives downstream? Shouldn't we be concerned about the risks to water, fish habitat and private property also? The Skeena is our lifeblood. Northwest residents should have a say in how this land is developed. We owe it to our descendants.
If you would like your voice to be heard please write or e-mail Premier Campbell or checkout the active campaign at www.skeenawatershed.com.

Monday, January 21, 2008

Bowling Alone

My wife tells me not to write a book review if I haven't finished reading the book. Ordinarily, that's good advice. But after reading about a third of Bowling Alone by Robert Putnam, I want to tell everyone about the issue that this book discusses. Why do more people bowl alone now, when thirty years ago they would have bowled in leagues? Why has membership in service clubs, like Lions and Rotary, been declining since their heyday in the fifties and sixties? A large part of his book is devoted to describing and understanding this trend of decreasing civic involvement in the last half of the twentieth century.

Americans have lost what Putnam calls "social capital" in the last fifty years, as less and less people volunteer to serve in community organizations, less people get out to vote, and less people run for office. Think of how a community benefits when people pitch in to help. And the more that people get involved in community activities the higher the level of mutual trust there is.

Trust is a product of social capital. Just as we need physical capital - (land and things) - and human capital - (education and experience) - we need social capital in order for society to work, because it is mutual trust that lubricates social life.

A society characterized by generalized reciprocity is a society where people volunteer to help others without the aim of immediate reward. I do something for you today, trusting that eventually you or someone else will return the favour.

Without reciprocity people act strictly in their own self-interest. We trust our neighbours less and less. When people are more distrustful they are less likely to cooperate with others. Society does not work as efficiently and we end up hiring more lawyers, more police, and more private security.

What caused the peak in civic engagement in the mid-sixties, and what caused it's subsequent decline? Putnam examines the usual suspects: broken families, greedy corporations, and decline in church attendance, but finds that they don't account for much of the change. The two factors that really make the difference are TV and the passing of a generation.

It's obvious why TV has contributed to the decline in social capital. People nowadays watch a lot more TV than they used to. Time spent watching TV is time that is not spent volunteering or attending PTA meetings.

It was my parent's generation, the generation that grew up during the depression and fought in the Second World War, that had the highest rates of civic involvement, trust in others, voting, and volunteering. Growing up in the depression, they learned that people could not get by without help from others. Then World War II gave them a chance to work together for a common cause. Those two momentous events made my parent's generation the most involved in civic society in history.

My generation, the baby boomers were much less engaged in civic society. We distrusted authority. Some of us wanted to drop out of society, most of us wanted to "do our own thing". The next generation, the one we call generation X, was even more disconnected and inward looking than the baby boomers. And so it goes. Now my parent's generation is in their seventies and eighties so they have gradually wound down their engagement in social activities and organizations. Hence the continued decline in social capital.

Is there any way that we can reverse this decline? The part of Bowling Alone that covers possible remedies is the part I haven't read yet. But I would venture to say that Global Warming could be this coming generation's Depression and World War II combined. The reality of climate change requires a tremendous outpouring of effort and coordination from all the people of the world.

It took time for the Americans to enter the Second World War. Not everyone realized the danger Adolf Hitler held for humanity. While Americans entered the war late, they still managed to pull together with the Russians and the rest of the Allies and defeat the Nazis. It won't be long before the United States and Canada join the rest of the world and work together to stop runaway global warming.

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Let's encourage alternatives to cars

Prince Rupert could become the greenest port city in North America but we've got a long way to go. Last september city council signed on to the BC Climate Action Charter, an agreement between BC municipalities and the BC government to commit to lower greenhouse gas emissions (GHG's).

So how do we get there? One of the cheapest and easiest ways to lower GHG's is to make alternatives to automobiles more attractive. Prince Rupert's compact size has a lot going in its favour because it makes walking and cycling much more practical. But a town's layout can also inhibit alternatives. Rupert has a lot of hills, which means that people who might considering cycling don't bother.

If Prince Rupert had a designated bicycle path along the waterfront, where it is relatively flat it would go a long way towards encouraging cycling. When cycling is perceived as easier and safer more people are willing to try it.

Our town's compact size also makes people drive more responsibly. I'm impressed by the courtesy and safety of Prince Rupert's drivers. This city is relatively safe for cyclists and pedestrians, especially compared to bigger places like Prince George and Vancouver.

We can't change our topography or the weather so that probably puts a limit to how many people are into travelling by bicycle, but it should be less of a factor for walking. The city ought to make walking more attractive and convenient. Besides lowering GHG's, walking and cycling make a city safer and quieter and the more people that do it the better the general fitness of our population.

We could start by requiring that all new developments and subdivisions have sidewalks on both sides of the road. Over the longer term, sidewalks could be widened and put on both sides of all of our streets. I admit I enjoy walking on the irregular surfaces of some of the city's older sidewalks but I imagine it makes it very difficult for seniors to walk without the risk of falling.

lThe new winding sidewalk on the north side of George Hills Way has made walking a more positive experience for local pedestrians and given people walking their dogs a bit more leeway as well. It would make a difference to tourists coming off the cruise ships if there was a sidewalk on the other side of third Ave. east of McBride.

Street lighting could be improved, making walking and cycling after dark easier and safer. Perhaps the city can get a grant to help defray the cost of installing more energy efficient and maintenance free LED type streetlights.

We could narrow some of our residential streets and put in traffic circles to slow car traffic making residential areas quieter, safer and more attractive for walking. Just like on 4th Ave. E. Even without the view walking along 4th Ave. is much more pleasant than walking on 5th Ave. because of the lighter traffic.

As for that other alternative to cars - a city bus, utlized to capacity, can take the place of up to forty automobiles. The city ought to do a survey in order to find out how we could make taking the bus more convenient and attractive. Our compact size and higher per-capita density is one of the main reasons that our bus system works so well here. Our bus system is great but it could be made even better if we could find out how to increase ridership. A good public survey could tell us whether extended hours, extended routes, or some other factor could significantly increase bus ridership.

City businesses could support alternatives to cars by rewarding employees for not using company parking spaces. There are probably many more things that our businesses and municipality could do to foster alternatives to cars. And they would eventually pay off in a greener healthier city.

If anyone else has ideas about how we could encourage alternatives to cars please step forward. Write letters to the editor, go to city council meetings and speak up. Join a climate action group. If you would like to use the buses but don't, let us know why. The city might be able to do something about it.

Prince Rupert could become the greenest port. It wouldn't cost a lot. All it would take is good planning and the active encouragement of alternatives to burning fossil fuels.

Monday, January 7, 2008

slavery and fossil fuels

The nineteenth century global economy was a like a small scale version of today's global economy. Trade in slaves, sugar, coffee, tobacco, and cotton were the drivers of global economic growth. But the growing trade in the above mentioned non-human commodities was first made possible by slave labour in plantations in the tropics and the American South.

In our modern global economy, cheap fossil fuels have taken the place of slaves. Industrial farming, convenient travel by automobile, and the transportation of commodities by trucks and tankers is all made possible by fossil fuels.

The nineteenth century movement to abolish slavery, called “Abolitionism” was entirely based on the moral inhumanity of slavery. Slowly but surely, the idea of buying and selling human beings, of separating members of slave families, of punishing slaves with whippings and other forms of torture, came to be seen as morally unjustifiable.

The twenty-first Century movement to stop runaway global warming is based more on science than on morals. Science tells us that the unchecked growth in fossil fuel consumption is leading to accelerating global warming. Science also tells us that this warming has catastrophic potential for all humans because of the increased probability of drought, forest fires, flooding and destruction of biodiversity.

Because the case for preventing global warming is largely based on science it has a much better potential for gaining widespread agreement among the world's nations. It took fifty years for the British abolitionist movement to halt slavery in the British colonies, where it finally ended in 1833. But it took closer to a hundred years and a wrenching civil war for the United States to abolish it.

It's instructive to examine the difference between British and American abolitionism. In both countries slave owners and slave traders stood to lose profits from abolition. But in Great Britain slaveholders were a small society of men who owned plantations in the British colonies, mostly in the Caribbean. In the United States slavery was the basis of the Southern states' economy. When American abolitionists first aimed a direct mail campaign at the South in the 1830's, the Southern reaction was swift and decisive. The entire white population of the South rallied around the cause of slavery, intimidating and physically expelling anyone who dared to disagree.

As a voting block, the South was able to stalemate and paralyse all three branches of the federal government whenever attempts to deal with the issues of slavery were made. It took the election of the first Republican president, Abraham Lincoln in 1860, to end the stalemate, but the Southerners refused to accept the result and quickly declared war on the Northern states.

There is no doubt that the economies of Great Britain and the United States were harmed by abolition. Slavery, was, after all, profitable. But the majority of English and Americans were persuaded that the moral result was worth the cost.

In our modern global economy, it is the richest corporations – the oil corporations like Exxon and Shell that stand to lose the most from our taking action to stop runaway global warming. The fact that they are so profitable is relevant here because their huge profits are being used to subvert political systems all over the world.

Some of the worst examples of this are Canada and the United States where so much oil money is flowing into the coffers of the Republican and Conservative parties that President George W. Bush and Prime Minister Harper have made it their policies to block the kind of national and international action necessary to lower greenhouse gas emissions.

Bush has one more year to make mischief, and there's a chance that Harper's Conservatives could be defeated in a spring election. One of our priorities going in to the next federal election should be to put a stop to the undue influence of corporate money on politics. We don't even have ten years to turn things around, let alone fifty. There is no justification for putting the human race at risk for the sake of oil company profits.