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

Archive for May 2013

Random Australia

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floating forest on coal ship, Sydney

Floating forest on coal ship, Sydney (from Treehugger)

Australia is really quite intriguing.  After all, it is a country where wild cockatoos can swear at you in proper English (they learn it from escaped parrots), unless they stagger and fall down in drunken stupor; where sharks groove on heavy metal (a particular fondness for AC/DC was reported) in the world’s largest marine reserve; and where lady snails sport penises on their heads (okay, I’m not exactly sure what that latter fact says about Australia, but I find the idea somehow unsettling).  Even their natural catastrophes can be pretty unique: combine a tornado with a forest fire, and you get a fire devil (check the video!).

Australia took me completely by surprise.  I wasn’t sure about taking holidays there.  My concept of Sydney was as a kind of Toronto with kangaroos.  As it turns out, there is lots happening in Australia right now.

Sydney itself has a few marvels that I only learned about too late (a tip: check out the wonderful treehugger website before you go traveling, not afterwards, as I did).  There is a wreck of an old coal ship that has turned into a lush floating mangrove island, in Homebush Bay.  Whether it is an apt omen for the future of the coal industry, in Australia and elsewhere, it sure attests to the power of nature to assert herself.

Sydney also has a number of interesting installations of environmental art: an auditory recreation of native bird songs once common but now rare or extinct, in a downtown alley; the world’s largest interactive light display in the Darlington area, all solar powered; and the world’s largest pallet garden.

But it is where energy and climate change issues interact that things get really interesting.  Australia may lead the world, or may tip backwards in the next few months.   Elections are coming and with them, a potential whole new set of policies.

On the plus side, Australia could completely power itself with renewable energy in a couple of decades.  The potential for solar and wind energy is staggering, and after a slow start the country is making great strides, shaving off peak power, and outcompeting coal.  And in the process, demonstrating that the carbon tax that set all of this in motion is actually generating wealth (and, of course, green jobs).  And, of course, a whole new renewable energy industry ready to assert itself.

On the minus side, Australia is cursed with an abundance of coal, and miners who insist on shipping it through the Great Barrier Reef, threatening not only the climate but the most amazing cathedral of marine life for good measure.  And Australia has its own home-grown billionaires who buy news media to convince the public that taxes are bad (especially for rich people) and that there is no such thing as global warming.  Their rise on the political scene is causing uncertainty in the energy sector, chilling the market and killing some promising projects.

Move over Koch brothers; meet Gina Rinehart, Australia’s very own evil queen.  Ms Rinehart, a coal mining heiress and the richest Australian, scoffs at global warming, funds deniers like Ian Plimer and Chris Monckton, and buys newspapers to spread the word.  Oh, and she thinks the Australian government should not look at the mining industry as if it were an ATM.  Instead of creating local jobs, she favours importing cheap Asian labour (sounds familiar, BC?). And, of course, a strong supporter of the conservative contender Tony Abbott, no friend of the solar energy industry.  As in BC, it’s all steam ahead for fossil fuel exports, even while the Chinese are reducing their importation of coal and gas.

Australia is showing us what climate change looks like (aside from experiencing extremes of floods and fires, the country has been so hot that the weather office has had to create a new colour for its temperature map).  It may hold a roadmap to a renewable energy future world.  Or it could simply just bake and burn.

Written by enviropaul

May 28, 2013 at 8:35 pm

The March against Monsanto, in Vancouver BC

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“Say no to gee-emm-owe’s!”  “Monsanto’s gotta go!”

What a demonstration!  And, yes, I have to specify “Vancouver BC”.  This was a march happening truly everywhere, Australia, Europe, Africa, etc.  To me, it felt a bit exhilarating to participate in a truly global event, a historical one at that: this was the first time that a event like this was organised globally, quickly, a true demonstration of the age of social media.  I checked: there was no early notice in the regular media, print or otherwise.

And yet people came. And came.  And came.  When the march finally left the grounds of the Art Gallery, there were marchers stretched over blocks.  Felt good, it restored my hope in people and in the health of our democracy.  On the heels of the Occupy movement, the voice of the people is starting to crowd out that of corporations.  (And I think, even though these aren’t related struggles, it bodes well for the pipeline fights, too – as long as people make their voices heard, persistently, ain’t gonna happen.)

Here’s my little contribution with a few photos.

People kept streaming in, despite the rain

People kept streaming in, despite the rain

Many, many moms and kids participated.  Our food is a primal motivator.

Many, many moms and kids participated. Our food is a primal motivator.

As the march started, people kept coming...

As the march started, people kept coming…

...and coming...

…and coming…

...and coming...

…and coming…

...and coming some more.

…and coming some more.  There must have been at least 1500 people there.

Written by enviropaul

May 26, 2013 at 10:51 am

I’ve been movin’ oil by railroad…

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With all the fuss and fret over the tar sands pipelines to move tar sands, it is easy to overlook the fact that there is a ready alternative for moving oil: rail. This week Premier Harper went out of his way to attack the idea.  Since Harper’s dislikes are usually a good guide to what is good and progressive, I thought that it would be worth investigating the idea.

Of course, there is a lot of contradictory information, depending whether your source is a pipeline or a railroad company.  Still, overall there seem to be a clear conclusion: railroad transport is better for the environment than pipeline, when it comes to tar sands.

Huh?  That would seem totally counter-intuitive.  Just think of all the smoke-belching locomotives, to say nothing of derailments (wasn’t it a CN train that derailed over the Cheakamus River a few years back and killed all the fish?).  Yes, indeed.  But consider this:

  • Moving a barrel of bitumen by rail produces less than half the emissions of greenhouse gases than by pipeline;
  • Spills from ruptured pipelines are worse than spills from derailments;
  • The rail infrastructure is already in place.

It takes much less energy to move bitumen by rail than by pipeline, and therefore there are fewer greenhouse gas emissions.  That’s because heavy crude (bitumen) is thicker than molasses.  It just can’t be pumped by itself.  It is therefore diluted with light hydrocarbons into dilbit (short for diluted bitumen).  But even when diluted, the stuff requires massive pumps to overcome the friction of moving a ketchup-like substance through a pipe.  There is also the energy expenditure of moving more material, since the diluent makes up about 30% of the total product.  But once the dilbit reaches its destination, the diluent must be pumped back to its origin, which means not only more energy-intensive pumping, but also a complete other parallel pipeline.  Estimates vary, but a figure of 2.9 grams of CO2 per barrel per kilometer by rail, against 7.7 grams by pipeline, seem reasonable.  Putting it another way, for every barrel moved by pipeline, you can move three barrels by rail for the same emissions.

Spills are also not as bad, even though there’s no such thing as a benign spill. Part of the reason for that is because rail cars carry undiluted bitumen.  The stuff is so viscous that it just doesn’t spread, so containment is easier.   Dilbit, by contrast, readily spews out of a ruptured pipeline.  Further, in a pipeline spill, a very large volume of dilbit may be released before a spill is noticed, let alone controlled; the disastrous Enbridge spill in the Kalamazoo River took hours to be noticed, releasing over four million litres before being brought under control.  Finally, the diluents in dilbit (such as benzene and toluene) are toxic and carcinogenic, which mean that a spill of dilbit has worse consequences than a spill of raw bitumen.

There is also the issue of infrastructure.  There is a lot of energy imbedded in building a pipeline, all of which contributes to greenhouse gas emissions throughout the process.  And, of course, there are the land use impacts during the construction of the line, which include not only significant disruptions but also pollution risks.  In contrast, there are rail beds criss-crossing the continent.  Some tracks may need upgrading, and tanker cars with heating jackets may be required, but that is still a far cry from the impact of building a large pipeline.

The idea of shipping bitumen by rail has been dismissed as unrealistic because of its alleged low capacity.  Yet, enormous amounts of another fossil fuel, coal, are shipped by rail (that’s a whole other issue), and even the residue from refining bitumen, petroleum coke, is shipped by rail – so what’s going on there?

The truth is, oil companies (and Harperites) love pipelines because of the certainty they afford.  Once a pipeline is built, there is a commitment to use it.  There is also a sense of control: once linked to a pipeline, always linked to a pipeline – there are no viable alternatives.  Once a pipeline is built between points A and B, rail costs are no longer competitive – especially if federal subsidies (incentives, tax holidays, etc) were used to build the damn thing in the first place.

This is exactly why I prefer rail.  Railroad transport uses little energy and can be very efficient, but its main virtue is flexibility.  Once the rails are in, any kind of merchandise can be moved in response to a changing market.  Rail is resilient: railroad companies have weathered the onslaught of just-in-time truck deliveries despite the enormous government subsidy that highway building program and cheap fuel represent.  In a changing era of carbon taxes, climate change, and new markets, a healthy rail network represents the ability to adapt to a changing future: rail is energy efficient.

And, let’s not forget: rail also create more jobs per barrel.

Does that mean that we should be encouraging the export of bitumen via rail?  No, not at all.  But decarbonizing an economy is an enormous, time consuming task.  The very first step is to stop investing into long-lasting fossil fuel infrastructure such as dilbit-carrying pipelines (especially if, as in this case, it also carries an enormous risk of environmental disasters).  Rail export is a lesser evil, so to speak: it gives time to the industry to adjust, remain profitable, keep its employees.  The money that would have been sunk in building a pipeline is now freed to invest in newer, greener technologies.  After all, Enbridge is also the owner of the largest solar power plant in Canada!

Eventually, inevitably, we will need to create a green economy, or perish.  Moving away from pipeline projects is a necessity – for the sake of our economy as well as our environment – and rail has the potential to make the adjustment more palatable to the oil industry.

Even if Harper doesn’t like it.  Especially if Harper doesn’t like it!


Postscript: just a day after posting, a train decides to lose it load of crude.  Oh dear.  Doesn’t take away from my argument, and I’d much rather see far fewer hydrocarbons move about.  And it’s interesting to see how the spill is now generating spin on both sides of the rail/pipe divide. Still, great timing, guys!

Written by enviropaul

May 20, 2013 at 3:47 pm

BC elections: we didn’t vote?!

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Another unpleasant finding from the election: low turn-out.  Few people bothered to vote: about 52%.  Much of the low turn-out was blamed on young voters.  I don’t have the final count, but in 2009 only 39% of eligible twenty four years old and younger voted.  And only 69% are registered on the voters list.

Little many people, I’m baffled by this.  I know my students voted – we had a chance to discuss the environmental issues at stake, and they were well informed.

Events and decisions combined into a perfect storm for the NDP: a demobilising over-confidence; a failure to attack the record of the incumbent government; a focused Green vote; and very successful messaging by the Liberals.  But the main factor may have been a failure to get the vote out.

Several pundits have focused on the youth vote in particular. Political scientist Paul Kershaw noted that there was relatively little in either liberal or NDP platforms to attract the young vote; according to his analysis, both parties aimed the bulk of their promises at the older voter.  One can forgive a young person for tuning out to repeated promises on both sides about fixing health care and helping families.  Young voters care about jobs, above all, and many across the political spectrum share the belief that governments ignore them – and who could blame them?  They are stuck in a world of high tuition for college, dead-end job prospects (education or not), unaffordable housing, inadequate public transit.

But I think it’s much too easy to lay the blame on young voters.  After all, the same study reported that when all voters younger than 45 years old are included, the voting rate is still only 42%.  So I don’t believe it’s only about young voters, for the NDP.  But it’s still paradoxical: the NDP should be the party of change, of inclusion of the ones trying to get in, but that failed to resonate.  Somehow, a message didn’t get through.

This is not completely fair, no doubt.  But where was the bold vision that would mobilize voters, young and otherwise?  Never mind affordable (why not free?) education and buses that show up – how about jobs?  Lots of them, green jobs?  Good, well paying, not-soul-destroying entry level green jobs?  Where was that message? The NDP promoted co-op education, making it easier to hire students, and truly that’s great!  But let’s be realistic, you will not get folks to demonstrate in the streets in support of prosaic measures like that.

Ultimately, it’s about jobs.  The irony is that good green jobs are right here, under our nose, waiting to get created.  Waiting to make us wealthy.

Here’s what I pledge to do: I’m going to talk to whoever listens, I’m going to write all over this blog, until I convince people that green jobs is where it’s at.  Right now, we keep missing golden opportunities in this province, but it’s not too late.  Somehow, somebody has convinced the electorate that the only good jobs out there are digging trenches for pipelines.  That is not only untrue, that is a swindle.  This is not where the jobs are.

So please stay tuned, folks.  I promise, I’ll show where the green jobs are.  And maybe we can get the ball rolling.

Written by enviropaul

May 20, 2013 at 3:41 pm

BC election: we split the vote?!

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Everybody was stunned after the BC vote last week, needless to say.  We, the environmental community, were hoping for an NDP government (the NDP ran a solid environmental platform and candidates with great enviro creds) and to elect at least one Green.  We didn’t want the liberals, with their gas pipelines, Site-C dam, and run-of-river projects.

Result : We got Andrew Weaver, fantastic!  But as for the rest…

There were twelve ridings where the combined vote of the Greens and NDP was higher than the Liberals.  Had the Green votes gone to the NDP, we would have an NDP majority government.   So, did the Greens split the vote?

Sure they did.   

The Tyee’s Tom Barrett claims that this is a simplistic take (can you really assume that all Greenies, absent the Green Party, would be voting NDP?).  Green party leader Jane Sterk, other candidates like Stuart McKinnon, of course deny that this is the case: a Green vote is a Green vote, period.  Andrew Weaver, the candidate who created history by winning his riding, quipped: “We didn’t split the vote.  In Oak Bay Gordon head, we are the vote.”  

Weaver’s bang-on comment notwithstanding, the denials ring hollow.  During election night there was this feeling of deja-vu, like a replay of the last federal elections.  You’ll recall that the combined vote of Liberals, NDP, and Green, had there been a coalition, would have been more than enough to defeat the Neanderthal – I mean Destructive – I mean Conservative – Party.  

I voted Green, though I expected and wanted the NDP to win.  Indeed, the NDP’s Shane Simpson got re-elected.  So why did I vote Green, if I wanted Shane and the NDP to win?

Well, that’s because I am conflicted: I like both parties.  I particularly liked that the 2013 NDP platform was quite progressive on the environment.  But since I wasn’t sure how solid the environmental commitment of the NDP really is, I wanted to send a message, here in a NDP stronghold.  And I’m probably not the only one feeling the same way: over 2200 people, combined, voted Green in Hastings and Mount Pleasant.  Don’t take the environmental vote for granted, borrow from the Green Party platform, we wanted to say to our good old NDP.

At least that’s how I voted.  There are many reasons to choose a party, and I don’t deny that some greenies may never ever vote NDP.  But I believe they are a minority.

Across Boundary, the outcome was quite different:  the Green vote may well have contributed to the election of Liberal Richard Lee in Burnaby North; same in Fraserview, Port Moody, and so on.  I would imagine, all niceties aside, that there were a good number people who, like me, were convinced that the NDP was going to win, and voted Green as a message.  Maybe not – who knows, but I see it as a likely scenario.

A few days before the elections, I accessed the Compass Vote site on CBC.  I found that my preferences and values coincided nicely with the NDP’s.  And with the Greens.  No wonder: on the graph of economic and social values, both NDP and Green are on almost exactly the same spot, in the top left quadrant, indicating that their values – socially liberal, economically left – match also identically.  I couldn’t copy the graph in this post, but the site is still up: go and give it a try.

If that’s not splitting the vote – a choice between two parties with identical values – I don’t know what is.

So, what to do?  I certainly don’t know, and that decision paralysis has also prevented me from joining either party.  I keep waiting for electoral reform, and I am encouraged by the fact that federal NDP is serious about electoral reform, endorsing a mixed proportion system. (You can read about it and other environmental positions in this great interview of Thomas Mulcair in

In federal politics, both Nathan Cullen of the NDP and Joyce Murray of the Liberals promoted the idea of cooperation between the opposition parties in targeted ridings.  How about that, provincial NDP and Greens?  You’re even closer than your federal counterparts.

But let’s not mince words: the vote got split.  Let’s fix that.  Committed environmentalists and common-sense folks like David Eby, George Heyman, and Andrew Weaver got elected.  Surely, they can find a way to get along, before the province get all tied up in pipelines and coal ports.

Written by enviropaul

May 20, 2013 at 3:38 pm

Premier runs red light, and other car troubles…

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Back from holidays…sigh.  And since my employer has seen fit to move my program from Richmond to Langley, and I live in Vancouver, no more Skytrain or bike-to-work for me – I’m stuck driving over the Port Mann bridge.  Re-sigh.

Don’t get me wrong: I think the new bridge is a marvel of engineering.  But, precisely because I think as an engineer, I despise car commuting as wasteful, inefficient and illogical: an unproductive use of time and resources, a worrisome source of pollution, a blemish on human ingenuity.  But there are, yet, other reasons I hate car commuting.

Take a look at the dude in the HOV lane next to me, for instance.  Sleek black Mercedes coupe, sleek sun shades, white open neck shirt and black suit.  I notice all that because he’s stuck besides me, going no faster: ahead of him, in the HOV lane, is a car going no faster than the speed limit (the nerve of some drivers!).  And another thing: he’s by himself, alone in his car, in the HOV lane.  

Here’s the puzzle: why does the single act of driving cause people to behave like complete sociopaths, exhibit the most shameless disregard for laws without even a hint of remorse, whether it is abusing the HOV lane, cruising through red lights, or chucking off litter and cigarettes?  Even our premier, the ultimate lawmaker, drove through a red light with giggling abandon.  Some have turned felony into a fine art, for instance using the HOV lane just long enough to avoid the single driver fee but not enough to get caught at the other end.

This is my main beef with driving: by providing that bubble with its illusion of safety, it turns otherwise decent folks into selfish, arrogant scofflaws.  Sure, there is a mystique around motorized rebels, carefully nurtured by movies and games from Easy Rider to Grand Theft Auto.  That’s fine for entertainment.  But when it comes to real life, it is generating a destructive, selfish behaviour that is anti-social, anti-community, and erosive of democracy.

George Monbiot, the British essayist, said it best:

When you drive, society becomes an obstacle.  Pedestrians, bicycles, traffic calming, speed limits, the law: all become a nuisance to be wished away.  The more you drive, the more bloody-minded and individualistic you become.  The car is slowly turning us, like the Americans and the Australians, into a nation that recognizes only the freedom to act, and not the freedom from the consequences of other people’s actions.

Sigh.  Stuck in a jam again.  For the very same amount – my bridge crossing fee, plus my contribution as a taxpayer – I could have been riding a light rail system to Langley.  I’d be reading a book or preparing a report or daydreaming.  Whatever, that’s water under the bridge.  But please, please, let’s not repeat this mistake, building a bridge at the expense of transit.  Let’s not, for instance, put all our resources into a new bridge to replace the Massey Tunnel, as advocated by our red-light running Premier.  Let’s move on to this century, please.  And avoid turning into sociopaths.

And you idiot in the car ahead of me, learn to drive or I’ll rear-end you so fast you’ll never know what happened!  Er, oops, sorry.  Nobody heard that, right? 

Written by enviropaul

May 12, 2013 at 3:02 pm