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Musings about the environment and all it touches, from education to city planning

Archive for August 2011

Protesting the tar sands pipeline(s)

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This morning the Vancouver Sun treated its readers to a condescending guest editorial from the Calgary Herald: pipeline protesters ignore some inconvenient truths, it said.

Let’s put aside, for a moment, the smirking “inconvenient truth” reference.

The editorial’s main point is that the tar sands are unfairly targetted by protestors.  In this case, the writer is referring to the current protest in Washington DC against the proposed XL pipeline designed to bring tar sands oils to US refineries.  Scores of people, led by Bill McKibben, have already been arrested, including a few Canadians.   But the same point could be made about the Northern Gateway pipeline, also proposed for conveying tar sands crude to markets (Asian, in this case).  In both cases environmentalists are pointing out the dangers inherent in such pipelines, especially oil spills, given the less than stellar record of the industry.  In the BC case, a specific concern is spills on the coastline and in, or near, the protected habitats of the Spirit Bear rainforest; in the XL case, it is the contamination of the giant Ogallala aquifer.

But apart from these concerns (nicely omitted in the editorial), there is a more fundamental worry: large scale invesments into the further development of the Tar Sands will lead to huge increases in carbon emissions, to the point where NASA scientist James Hansen warns that we may as well forget any attempts at control.

The editorial claims that this is misguided; protesters should instead target coal, because it has a much larger footprint:

In 2007, greenhouse gas emissions from the oilsands were 37 megatons. Emissions from U.S. coal-fired electricity the same year were 1,987 megatons.

Never mind the either-or fallacy: environmentalists are protesting the coal industry as well, thank you very much.  And never mind the apples-and-oranges nature of the comparison: the footprint of the tar sands, as calculated, only includes the delivered product (crude), ignoring the footprint from refining and combustion.  By contrast, the full footprint is considered for coal-based electricity.  And never mind the fact that the tar sands are but one source of oil among many – it just happens to be the dirtiest – against the whole thermal coal sector.

For the record, I include myself among those opposed to either pipelines.  I think, though, that the tar sands have a role to play in our energy portfolio; but a much reduced one from what its proponents would like to see.  In particular, I don’t understand the rush to develop: hydrocarbon prices will continue to climb in the long term, and we will continue to need hydrocarbons as a feedstock, if not a fuel, for a very long term.  The tars sands are like money in the bank – why spend it all in one generation or two?  Where does that leave Alberta’s great-grandchildren? With a mess to clean up, and very little to show for.  If at least decent royalties were obtained, Norway-style!  But the resource is developed as if by a drunken sailor.

No, what is really obnoxious about the editorial is not that it is wrong – that can be argued, or disagreed with.  It is the patronizing tone it uses: these activists, willing to risk jail for their civil disobedience stand, are “spunky but naive”, and make their protest in a case where “hysteria outweighs reason”.  They are portrayed as being lazy since the tar sands, as opposed to the coal industry, are “a big fat bull’s-eye”.  I don’t whether the Herald’s writer has ever contemplated risking jail for civil disobedience, but I doubt it.  Otherwise, I think the thoughts of “naive” and “lazy” would have been struck out.  It may be plain fun to participate in an environmental protest, to be sure, but the decision to risk jail is never done lightly.

The editorialist might as well have just patted the readers on their collective heads, and said “there, there…don’t worry about the environment, Uncle Oil is here to look after you.”  Equally unconvincing, equally infuriating.

Poor tar sands officials.  They complain about being unfairly targeted, from their dead ducks to their Athabaska Lake cancer rates.  Grow up, I say.  Engage with the public, lay it all out, let us – Albertans, Canadians, environmentalists, whatever community is appropriate – see and decide.  Make your case; stop hiding behind smoke and mirrors.  Talk to the public as if the public were adults: that is the essence of democracy.

Currently, not only do you have a black eye in terms of public relations, but you are giving Canadians a black eye on the world stage.  It’s not just ennoying, but it is also demoralizing.  And this has consequences.  The Ontario feebate program, modeled after successful European programs, is in jeopardy because many think “what’s the point; any progress we make is negated by tar sands expansion”.  Activists in Quebec are bringing up the specter of separatism (again): “if we were a separate country, we would be found to abide by the Kyoto protocol.  Alberta’s the monkey on our backs”.  Ditto for all environmental or energy conservation program; even the remarkable “ride the wind” light rail system in Calgary (fully wind electricity powered) is tainted by association, as if it were a mere PR gesture.

No, tar sands: talk to us.  Straight.  No talking down, please.

Written by enviropaul

August 26, 2011 at 10:18 am

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Car free Robson street

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Pedestrian malls are so cool.  Ask any traveller: there’s nothing like strolling down a street in a foreign city, watch people, sit down with a coffee or a beer.  You can do that in Paris, Berlin, Munich, Madrid, Barcelona, Copenhagen, all the large European cities.  Small ones too: Freiburg, Angers, Colmar…it’s actually difficult to find a city that doesn’t have at least some streets closed to cars.

That didn’t come without a struggle, of course.  Starting with Copenhagen, merchants complained that City Hall’s decision would ruin them, talked of tyranny…now you can’t find a empty store space to lease in these malls, so popular and prosperous have they become.

People object that this only fits a European lifestyle.  Okay, how about Hong Kong?  Cairo?  Sydney?  Bogota?  Mexico City?  Or, for that matter, New York City, or San Francisco?  Yeah, sure, but those are big places, and they don’t have to put up with Canadian weather.

Well, then, what about rue Prince Arthur in Montreal? Sparks street in Ottawa?  Granville Mall in Halifax? Others in Toronto, Regina, Calgary…the list goes on.  (And honestly, Vancouver doesn`t have to contend with real Canadian weather, either.)

So why is it so difficult to have a pedestrian street in Vancouver?  There are none.  Zilch.  Lately the city took advantage of construction on a small segment of Robson street, between Howe and Hornby.  Stephen Quinn wrote that

the closed-to-traffic Robson Square is pretty sweet. The undulating gold-carpeted “Picnurbia” installation is original, eye-catching, and well-used. The hawkers are hawking, the buskers are busking. For brief moments you can trick yourself into believing that you live in a much cooler city.

The picture above shows what it looks like – early Saturday morning, on the warmest day of the summer so far.  A much cooler city, right?

The street is due to re-open to traffic after labour day, but there is an on-line petition circulating to make the change to car-free permanent, thanks to the good folks of Vancouver Public Space Network. 

Maybe Stephen Quinn is right, and the petition doesn`t have any hope in the current political context.  Maybe not?  But even so, it`s a step in the right direction – and I really believe we`ll get our car-free streets in Vancouver eventually.  Enough people want it – after all, we are the political context; we just need to shake this very Canadian defeatist attitude.

And this would finally bring Vancouver to where cities all around the world are becoming: liveable places.  Or, to put it differently, grown-up cities.

Written by enviropaul

August 21, 2011 at 10:14 am

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All alone in the dark

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Yesterday the Vancouver Sun featured an article about rising sea levels.  Kitsilano and False Creek may flood, it said.

What would that be like?

Books about Katrina give an idea of what may be experienced – especially if it happens catastrophically, like a dike failing following a combination of storm, spring tide, and freshet.

No power, no drinking water, overcrowded shelters, no way out: a city alone in the dark, as depicted by Douglas Brinkley’s The Great Deluge.  Hard to read, hard to put down: an unflinching look at the magnitude of the disaster, the incompetence that lead to it, and the sheer absurdity of the response.  There are depictions of kindness and of people helping one another, but this isn’t a feel-good book about the human spirit: the stupidity of an incompetent emergnecy response program, and the selfishness of the authorities are unbearable to read at time.

Zeitoun, by Dave Eggers, gives a very different view of the drama: the non-fictional account of what happened to Abdulrahman Zeitoun, long time New Orleans resident, painting contractor, and American of Lebanese origins.  Zeitoun uses a old canoe to rescue people in his neighbourhood, as well as bringing food to a famished dog stranded on the second floor of a flooded house.  But, as a resident of Arab origins, he gets picked up under suspicions of – terrorism? looting?  It is never made clear, and Zeitoun ends up in a Kafkaesque nightmare.  The absurdity and cruelty of the nightmare becomes clear as he realizes that the dog he has been feeding will slowly starve, as he tries to unravel his situation with the authorities.

But even if Zeitoun is a true story about a real character, it is difficult to really know who he is.  This is why some realities are best depicted by fiction. Tom Piazza`s City of Refuge is a fictitious account of two families, one black, one white, as they struggle with surviving Katrina and rebuilding their lives. A wonderful book full of complex characters by an author who has himself lived through it.  Written a few years after Katrina, it benefits from hindsight and is a more hopeful book than the other two.

What should Vancouver do?  Abandon False Creek or Richmond?  It`s good to read these books before answering.  Vancouver is not New Orleans, it doesn`t have its history – but it still home to a lot of people, and growing.  Maybe it needs to find where its soul lives.

Blues artist Ray Bonneville wrote a song shortly after Katrina, his paean to the city.  ”But I got soul, I got heart  / All alone, I’m coming out of the dark”.  Enjoy.


Re-reading this post, I’ve been wondering why the story of Katrina affects me so.  I remember where I was: on a road trip to California, in a motel in Crescent City, a bland, soulless town on the Norther California coast.  Funny, nearby towns like Brookings or Arcata have a lot of character, but not Crescent City.  Turns out that the town was completely destroyed by a Tsunami back in 1964.  It felt a bit surreal, watching the destruction of a city on TV, while spending the night in a destroyed city.  This is when you get overwhelmed by a sense of irreplacable loss.

I also discovered another song, Mary Chapin Carpenter’s Houston.  If Bonneville’s is a musical rendition of The Great Deluge, Carpenter is closer to City of Refuge: a personal viewpoint, where the overriding feeling is disorientation, where nothing makes sense anymore – your home, your city, it’s all gone.

Written by enviropaul

August 19, 2011 at 4:45 pm

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Narrow houses

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A colleague recently told me of a discussion with a student who scoffed at the idea that houses can be built on lots that are narrower than normal – 33 feet (10 meters) in Vancouver.  But these houses do exist, and some are quite cute and look very welcoming.  Here’s a sample, from the east side.

This one above is south facing, two story, with no side windows.

This one, north facing, also has no side windows.  In a way, this could be a good model for a townhouse, and it seems a shame that the opportunity for energy conservation has been wasted.  One could easily imagine three or four of those strung together – with no heat loss from the sides.  The problem, I suppose, is that one has to make do with one’s lot.  But if a developper bought two or three adjacent lots, would zoning allow for townhome-like development?

Note the open plan, too – light from the south side shines through.

Below are two others – different approach (one is on a lane, has side windows), but they are all very Vancouver-like, meaning that they fit nicely with heritage values – nothing jarring there, just small.  Still, they look like they all have at least 50 square meters (500 sq ft) on each floor – how much room does one need, really?



I just found out why there are no townhouses in Vancouver (nor anywhere in BC for that matter): They are against the law!  The BC Land Title Act does not allow for freehold townhouses, that is, homes that one owns just like an ordinary house – except that walls are shared.  As a result, the few buildings around that look like townhouses are actually strata titled – and that has its own set of complications; most people, in my experience, put up with strata, rather than actively seeking it.

What a shame.  Bob Ransford makes a good case that reforming the Act would ease up some of the housing pressure and increase (somewhat) home ownership affordability.  I’ll add that townhomes are also much more energy efficient to heat (or cool), because of the reduction of surface area; in the buildings above, the largest surface area consists of the two side walls, followed by the roof.  In such a narrow house, insulating up to modern standards (6″ of insulation) takes away a lot of habitable space.  A minor sound barrier in an adjacent wall betwen townhomes would be much thinner than that combined width of insulation in the two walls – not to mention, much cheaper to put up.

All that because of ill-designed law.  Tsk!

Written by enviropaul

August 17, 2011 at 2:18 pm

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Oil rich states

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There was an interesting op-ed piece by Paul Krugman today about the performance of Texas governor Rick Perry.

Perry, from oil-rich Texas, is hailed as a model by the Republicans, and seems to be a serious candidate for the Presidential race.  Krugman rightly points out that the Texas economy is benefiting from the oil revenues and Perry’s governance has little to do with its success.  Or is it purported success?  The state’s GDP is high, there is investment, but unemployment remains high. Krugman also points out that what the Texas economy is really about is lax regulations and cheap labour:

What Texas shows is that a state offering cheap labor and, less important, weak regulation can attract jobs from other states. I believe that the appropriate response to this insight is “Well, duh.” The point is that arguing from this experience that depressing wages and dismantling regulation in America as a whole would create more jobs — which is, whatever Perry may say, what Perrynomics amounts to in practice — involves a fallacy of composition: Every state can’t lure jobs away from every other state.

In fact, at a national level lower wages would almost certainly lead to fewer jobs — because they would leave working Americans even less able to cope with the overhang of debt left behind by the housing bubble, an overhang that is at the heart of our economic problem.

So when Perry presents himself as the candidate who knows how to create jobs, don’t believe him. His prescriptions for job creation would work about as well in practice as his prayer-based attempt to end Texas’ crippling drought.

This doesn’t bode well for our southern neighbour, should Perry win the ticket.  It also echoes what is often said here about Alberta: with oil royalties coming in, a monkey could run the place.  I’ve always been curious about this saying.  Would Alberta have been better off with a real monkey (say, a macaque) as Premier?  Meaning, someone who doesn’t actively court the oil industry and offers neither subsidies nor tax breaks – would Albertans be wealthier?  A comparison with Norway may be interesting in this respect.

Be that as it may – it is easy to believe that someone has talent for governing when the going is easy.  Texas has population growth and high oil prices – but some of the lowest level of health care in the US.   And this sort of belief is influential, from the US to Alberta and the Harper conservatives, that see Canada through their oil lenses.  But, unfortunately for us, it is magical thinking.

Written by enviropaul

August 16, 2011 at 10:49 pm

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