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Archive for January 2012

A Mexican parallel to the Gateway pipeline fight

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Grey whale in Laguna San Ignacio

The fight over the Northern Gateway pipeline isn’t the first one to bring about calls of “foreign radicals hijacking the agenda.”  The struggle to save Laguna San Ignacio, in the late 90s, has interesting parallels – and a happy ending.  It is chronicled in A Force for Nature, the 2010 history of the Natural Resources Defence Council, by John and Patricia Adams, a very inspiring read.

Laguna San Ignacio is a bay in the Sea of California, by the Baja coast in Mexico, used as calving grounds by grey whales.  In 1995 the Mitsubishi Corporation chose this area to build what was to be the largest salt producing facility in the world – despite the fact that it would be smack in the middle of the El Vizcaino Biosphere established in 1988 by the Mexican government.  Mitsubishi promised local people jobs, schools, roads – the usual progress and modernity.

The facility, to be located in a mangrove forests and tidal flats, would have sucked up 6600 gallons of sea water per second to produce salt by evaporation, rejecting a concentrated toxic brine effluent into the bay.

Alarmed Mexican environmentalists, scientists, and local fishermen called the NRDC, one of the largest and best connected environmental groups in the US.  Several members of the executive flew down, as well as Pierce Brosnan and Glenn Close, and other celebrities.  Footage of the Brosnan and Close children, frolicking near the whales on little skiffs made the media.  NRDC coordinated a letter writing campaign, deluging Mitsubishi and the Mexican government with over a million letters and emails.

NRDC also found that consultation with the locals had been non-existent, and local fishermen were worried about their lobster and abalone fisheries.

Mitsubishi, of course, countered that its salt works were environmentally safe, “a partnership with nature”.  But as if on cue, the start of their campaign coincided with news of a toxic brine release from another Mitsubishi salt plant at Ojo de Liebre, which killed nearly one hundred sea turtles.  Of course, through all this was whispered the complaint that this decision should be left to Mexicans – wealthy Americans and movie stars should just butt out.

Sounds familiar?  A large and powerful corporation is promising jobs to the locals and proffering assurances that the new technology is safe and spills very unlikely.  The project is located in a priceless environment and fisheries are threatened. But news of spills give the lie to the message; In the Enbridge case, spills keep happening, from the mega spill in Minnesota or the smaller one in Abbotsford.  Meanwhile, a large, modern, supposedly safe and unsinkable cruise ship runs aground, sinking off the coast of Italy, reminding everyone about the potential for human error in difficult waters (Can one not think of the Exxon Valdez or the Queen of the North in that context?).  Of course, the fight is portrayed as driven by “foreign interests trying to harm the Canadian economy”, “radicals enemies of Canada”, and “Americans trying to turn Canada into a giant natural park” – outdoing any of the rhetoric in the Mexican case.

How did the Laguna San Ignacio story end?  The Mexican president at the time, Ernesto Zedillo, went to see for himself and fell in love with the bay and the whales.  The project was cancelled as a result.  Work is still needed to ensure the ongoing protection of the bay, as described in the NDRC newsletter, but overall it’s a success story.

I don’t see quite the same scenario here – I have yet to see any indication that Harper has a heart.  But the opposition to the project is also quite different: a coalition of environmentalists, labour groups, and – most important – well organised First Nations.  But the lessons of San Ignacio are clear: when what is threatened is of global significance, local environmental groups must and do ask for help from their international counterparts.  NRDC is indeed involved in this fight, as are several other US groups.  Despite claims by the Tories, this is as should be; the northern BC coast is a natural treasure that belongs to all of humanity.

Another lesson is the need for awareness and response.  If Laguna San Ignacio was saved, it is in large part due to the millions of ordinary people who bothered to write letters and emails to whoever they could think of.  We are facing the same situation here on the coast.  And thankfully, the very attitude of the Harper government is producing an amazing groundswell of true grassroots resistance: ordinary pissed-off people, bless them all, making themselves heard.

This fight is far from over.  But there are plenty of reasons for optimism.

The demise of the Quebec cornichon.

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Rick, a good friend recently moved to Quebec, emailed me an article from La Presse bemoaning the demise of the Quebec pickle.  It’s worth a snort, if not a guffaw, in part because the word cornichon is used, in French, to mean somewhat dim-witted.  And I suppose he sent it to me because, well, it shows Quebec must be a distinct society if the fate of the humble cornichon deserves a full page article.

But the article is quite serious.  Last year, only 5000 tonnes of pickling cucumber were produced in Quebec, a mere 20% of the production in 2000.  The reason for this reflects the problems of food production anywhere:  cucumbers, like most produce, are expensive to grow and particularly expensive to harvest.  As a result, most pickle jars contain cucumbers that have been harvested in India, where labour costs are low (like the Crespo brand), or in the US, where industrial-scale agriculture saves some costs (like Bick’s pickles, owned by Smuckers).  Bick’s are particularly galling, since in Quebec they market their pickles under the brand Habitant – a name that means “traditional Quebec farmer” to most locals.  The last Canadian Bick’s plant, in Dunnville, Ontario, closed last November.

Of the pickles sold in Quebec, only the brands Whyte’s and Potter’s used Quebec grown cucumbers.  I don’t know what the situation is in BC, but I assume that none of the store brand pickles are home grown; BC has little field cucumber production, only the greenhouse production is significant.  And you don’t pickle long English cucumbers.

This is a bit annoying to those of us who like to promote local agriculture (and maybe Rick emailed the article just to get me annoyed).  Local agriculture, at least in BC, tends to be less chemical intensive, and it produces local jobs.  All good things, from the standpoint of healthier environment and social justice.  (OK, nitpickers, there are a lot of foreign farm workers picking BC’s field crops, meaning that the 100 mile diet comes from 3000 mile workers – that’s besides the point!)

Be that as it may.  What I find really galling is the predicament of these two pickling companies find themselves in.  Neither of them can advertise that their pickles are Quebec bred, never mind “product of Canada”.  Why?  Because the law says that a maximum of 2% of a “product of Canada” can be of foreign origin.  But for these pickles, the vinegar, the salt, and the sugar are imported.  And they’re more than two percent of the total.  Aha!

This is a case of a well-meaning regulation that ends up being completely self-defeating, and absolutely ridiculous.  We care about where the produce was grown – not where the salt was mined.

I know that there are a lot of more urgent problems in the world than the demise of the Quebec pickle.  But this little issue is symptomatic of a much bigger problem: food labeling.  If I purchase pickles, I have no way to know where the vegetables in the jar have been grown.  Neither could I know whether any of them have been genetically modified.  I’d just like to know, and I can’t.  And that’s true of pretty much any food that comes in a jar or a box.

Part of the problem, of course, is the industrial food-ag complex, where everything is considered a commodity.  According to this model, corn is just corn, a cucumber is just a cucumber, doesn’t matter  where it’s from.  How sad.  I’m sure there are remarkable terroir qualities to pickling cucumbers that labeling laws just disregard.  Somehow, Europeans have managed to get around that: it’s not any blue cheese, it’s a Roquefort.  It’s not a red wine, it’s a Nuits-Saint-Georges.  It’s not ham, it’s Westphalia.  But pickling cucumbers?

Ok, maybe it’s a stretch.  But I still prefer to get my pickles from the lady at the market.  At least, I can ask her where the damn things come from.

Written by enviropaul

January 26, 2012 at 9:51 pm

Have a say on the Enbridge pipeline!

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Poster designed by Roy Vickers against the Enbridge pipeline

There’s still plenty of time to submit letters of comment to the Enbridge Northern Gateway joint review panel.  I just submitted mine – easy as pie.  Letters can be submitted electronically here.

The website also provides access to all the letters of comment submitted (there are 581 as of now).  I opened a few, at random; those I read are all in opposition to the pipeline.  There are also 4507 requests to make a presentation – wow!

Will it make a difference?  If it’s just up to the review panel, probably not.  MP Nathan Cullen refers to the process as a farce (it’s worth watching the full videoclip).  The only project that the National Energy Board has ever vetoed, to my knowledge, was the Sumas II energy project (that was easy; the benefits were all to the US proponents, the costs were to Canadians).  But even then, what prompted the veto was the level of public opposition.

Which is why it is important, in my opinion, to bother with sending a letter.  It doesn’t have to be eloquent – mine isn’t particularly pretty, for instance – but it has to be there.  Numbers matters to politicians.

I am pretty optimistic about the final result: the pipeline won’t be built.  It’s much too risky, and makes little economic sense, but that likely won’t matter.  What will matter is the formidable array of formidable opponents: CEP, the biggest union in Fort McMurray, sees it as a net export of Canadian jobs, as does the former premier of Alberta, Peter Lougheed; the Union of BC Municipalities is against; fisheries and tourism workers are against; and, most importantly, Enbridge has managed to unite against it every relevant First Nation, because of its bullying.  And these folks have clout, and know how to use the law.

But opposition from the general public is also key – which is why it is important to make your voice heard.    And submitting a letter is an easy way to do so, if Kitimat, where the hearings are held, isn’t in your neighbourhood.  It takes just a few minutes.  Copy my letter, if it helps!  I’m not proud.

Here’s the letter:

I wish to register my opposition to the construction of the Enbridge Northern Gateway project.  As a private citizen, and as an environmental scientist and chair of a university program in environmental protection, I oppose this project.

I oppose this project because of I believe that this proposal would produce considerable damages to our environment but also to the economy and to society.

I am concerned for the environment of the northern coast of British Columbia as well as for the terrestrial and aquatic environment along the proposed route of the pipeline.  I believe that the likelihood of a spill may be higher than for a pipeline carrying conventional hydrocarbons, because of the nature of the material.  Mostly, I am concerned that should such a spill occur, its consequences would be serious.  This is because of a combination of factors:  the fluid transported is bitumen diluted with proprietary fluids, the combination of which is likely to produce important toxicity problems (as was the case with dispersants used in the Gulf of Mexico spill) and, because of reluctance to divulge information about proprietary diluants, hinder information flow; the terrain is difficult, characterised by sheltered fjords on the coast and narrow valleys, which would hinder dispersion and clean-up operations should a spill occur; and the terrain is of high ecological importance (particularly in and around the Great Bear rainforest), as well as rich in spiritual and cultural values, worsening the impact.

I also believe that the construction itself would impact the environment negatively.

I am concerned that the development of the pipeline would lock the Canadian energy policy towards hydrocarbon production and combustion at the expense of renewable energy.  At best, this is a wasted investment; at worst, pursuing a fossil-fuel economy not only continues to worsen our role in causing climate change, it exposes Canada to international shame and eventual trade sanctions.  The consequences of rapid climate change on wilderness need no description; I will simply mention its impact on our economy, from increased frequency of crop failure from drought, flooding problems for harbours, roads, and airports along the BC Coast, to structural damage due to permafrost melting.

I am concerned for the economic well-being of the country.  An economy focussed on fossil fuels neglects the development of alternate energy programs.  Canada is endowed with a high potential for wind, tidal, solar, and geothermal energy development, but is lagging other nations in developing these resources, depriving the Canadian economy of exportable equipment and expertise.  Further, an economy based of fossil fuels extraction is highly vulnerable to the so-called Dutch Disease: our currency becomes an over-valued petro-dollar, making uncompetitive other sectors of our economy such as manufacturing and forestry.  Further, very few direct and indirect jobs would be created for such a large investment, compared to renewable energy projects.  Finally, the environmental risks themselves would negatively impact current employment in the fisheries and tourism sector.

Finally, I am very concerned for the state of our democracy.  Canada is not immune to the so-called Curse of Oil, whereby the wealth that should result from oil resources instead undermines democracy and fosters social inequality.  The recent declarations of public figures and politicians branding opponents of the pipeline as radicals at the pay of foreign interests illustrate how vulnerable respectful debate and fair decision making have become.  That such outburst, best characterised as bullying, could originate from members of the government shows how strong the curse of oil is, and how fragile our democracy has become.

For these reasons: the dangers posed to our local environment, our climate, our economy, and our democracy, I submit that the Enbridge Northern Gateway proposal must be rejected.