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

Archive for July 2014

Oil, gas, and governance

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Trans-Alaska Pipeline - Atigun Pass

A few bits of news yesterday generated comments on Facebook, which made me wonder about how exactly governments make decisions on energy policy in general, and hydrocarbons in particular.

Tzeporah Berman made a couple of comments that are well worth repeating. She posted a story from the Mike De Souza at the Toronto Star that has since gone viral (at least in environmental circles). The basic tenet is that the federal government tried to cover up the problem of an on-going spill in the oil sands and make the story go away. Comments Berman:

It is sad, scandalous and disturbing to see our government treating this ongoing oil spill as a PR problem to be covered up. Remember when we thought Environment Canada was actually there to regulate industry and protect the environment and our health? Is transparency too much to ask?

Four hours later, she posted this article from the Post, with the following comment:

In a lot of ways this is an unbelievable story that gives a window into the world of oil politics. Here is a Conservative Party insider who has been an advisor to Harper and now CEO of Hill and Knowlton saying that Harper is simply designing policies that the oil and gas industry ask for, “All politicians do is respond to the pressure they are put under”.

At about the same time, someone from the Green Energy Futures group posted this comment regarding a Calgary Herald article:

I’ve wondered for a long time whether the biggest problem for solar energy is that it is NOT taxed… and so the government doesn’t see any revenue from it. Coal, oil, methane and bitumen (COMB) are taxed and so when the government puts in its incentive programmes, (such as the newly announced one here) the govt does not see the incentives as subsidies, but rather sees them as “investments” where there is a return on investment… the govt in effect is in the business of being a business (contrary to what right wing politics likes to think). Any support for solar though then starts to rob the govt of its income from COMB, effectively having a negative ROI!
What do you think about this? Should the government tax solar energy? Should the government continue to provide incentives for COMB?

Mmmh…I think Green Energy Futures is on to something. Our governments are addicted to fossil fuel revenues, and anything that leads to a reduction in fossil fuel use cuts into their finances. Yet we know we need to de-carbonize our economy, or eventually perish from climate-driven catastrophes. How do we cut the addiction?  Or, another way to ask this, what do we expect from our government?  Should they act as a business?  And if not, how does that mindset changes?

Written by enviropaul

July 30, 2014 at 6:38 pm

The Veva car show

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The VEVA electric vehicle show at Concord Pacific

The VEVA electric vehicle show at Concord Pacific

Yesterday, going on a bike ride along the seawall, Dinah and I took a look at the electric car show, the annual event organised by VEVA, the Vancouver Electric Vehicle Association.

The hobbyists at work: electric Porsches and Minis

The hobbyists at work: electric Porsches and Minis

I’d first seen it maybe ten years ago. What a change! Then, it was mostly hobbyists: self-made wild and wonky wires sticking from under the hoods of old cars, and drivers who looked like crazy engineers. Now, if a few hobbyists are still there, it’s mostly assembly-line shiny cars (and bikes) and proud car owners.

We saw a whole herd of Nissan Leafs, a gaggle of Smart Electric, a Mitsubishi MiEv, as well as an electric truck from Canada Post (I’m guessing the post office is keen to show that there at least some things they can do right),a BMW, a Ford, and, of course, Teslas.

I spoke with a lady showing her Beamer, a nice i3 that she drives for commute between Maple Ridge and Surrey. No, she doesn’t have any range anxiety any more. Yes, it’s the most comfortable and fun car she’s ever driven. She made me realize that the main savings from these cars, though, is not what you save on gas; it’s the maintenance. There are very few moving parts; a check-up at the dealer consists of a fifteen minute hook-up to the computer. No oil change, no air filter, no timing chain…

All eyes were on the Teslas, but I talked to the lady with the Ford Focus. A fun car, she said; it may look unassuming, but it will leave a Camaro in the dust at a streelight, because the torque at low speed on elctric motors is so strong. (Few electric vehicle drivers ever do that, though; everyone drives so as to save power and extent the driving range.) But she wanted to make a statement, she said. Nobody ever brings a Focus to these events, she wanted to be the one. But that was an eye-opener, she said; all dealers wanted to show her regular models and steer her away from the electric model, which wasn’t in stock anyways. She eventually managed to track one down – but should we be surprised if the Big Three get left in the dust? More than one exhibitor said the same thing: there is a great reluctance to embrace the new technology among American manufacturers, who make their money on antiquated technology – pick-up trucks – and on after-sales service.

Two of the Teslas

A pair of Teslas

I asked the Ford owner whether she thought the range was a real limitation. “Oh, not a problem”, she said; “when we want to travel out of town, we take the other car. The Tesla over there.” “A Tesla? Really?” “Absolutely; once you’re used to an electric car, there’s no going back. It takes a bit of planning, sure; when we went down to San Diego, we checked in advance where the fast charging stations were. The Tesla S covers 400 kms easily, and who wants to drive much more than that distance in one shot, anyways.” Wow. But not everyone can do that; the Tesla retails at over $80K. She agreed, but with a sly smile added: “well, we did well. We were early believers in the technology, so we bought shares in the company when they came out. The profit we made on them paid for the car.” Wow, again.

Too late for me to do that, I suppose. But there was a leaf owner who had bought his on-line, second hand. Really? “Yup. I gave my specifications, this model comes from Utah, I saved maybe $10k. And I love the car; it’s barely two years old.”
It was difficult to leave the site without a renewed sense of optimism. Dinah is convinced that we’ll have our own electric car within five years; the Vancouver-Langley commute is something that they can all manage easily.

Looking at the BMW

Looking at the BMW

We finished our bike ride around Kits. There was an aggressive souped-up black Ram truck, all shiny and full of chrome and accessories, loudly belching diesel smoke. There were four young guys in there, all looking macho, bad-ass angry, but mostly tense because they couldn’t find parking (it was the afternoon before the fireworks). I hate to admit but the first word that came to mind was “douchebags.” Or, more charitably, poor naïve folks who go for chrome baubles and noisy toys, when the real value – and the superior way to impress chicks – was parked across English Bay in the form of electric cars. Ferrari? Pah. Tesla? Now you’re talking…

Written by enviropaul

July 27, 2014 at 6:02 pm

Garbage news

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trash cans

For whatever reason today there was a spate of news about garbage; here’s a summary.

Metro Vancouver is proceeding with its long-expected ban on organics for all sectors. Until now, only single-family residences were affected by the (poorly enforced) ban, put in place two years ago. Now garbage from residential towers will also be subject to the ban, as well as businesses and institutions. This should make a big reduction in the amount of rottable material now dumped in the landfills – material that generates the greenhouse gas methane, which even the best designed landfills can never completely catch. Very good news, overall – but the devil will be in the details, including enforcement. The Vancouver Sun has details on the initiative, as well as a sidebar on how environmentally-minded residents of a tower have already devised a plan to remove organics from their waste.

Also in today’s Sun, a very interesting article on how binners (aka, unlicensed recyclers) make a living out of recovering what others mindlessly throw out in the trash: clothes, video games, tools; there was even an ultrasound machine recovered once. Organisers of the market (in Pigeon Park) estimate that about $10,000 of revenue is generated every week.

The Sun also reported on the problems created by waste “leakage” out of Metro: haulers that take trash out of the jurisdiction to save on tipping fees (hello, Abbotsford!). As a result, Metro needs to compensate its private partner for the lack of potential. This may become a bigger problem as recycling improves, putting a dent in the amount that needs ultimate disposal; Metro is aiming for a full 80% recycling rate (as opposed to about 50% currently).

Still about garbage (in a way), and still in today’s Sun, a very compelling article on the Brazilian artist Vik Muniz, who creates large installations, including some famous ones out of garbage. There is a viewing of two movies that feature his work this evening at the Rio.

The Vancouver Observer has a nice recap of a presentation on incineration and recycling hosted by Metro earlier today. Dutch expert Herman Huisman mentioned that the European countries that have the highest rates of recycling (Belgium, Switzerland and Germany) all rely on incineration for what is left as garbage, recovering energy along the way.

“Waste-to-energy and recycling go hand to hand,” Huisman said. “Those countries that have no incineration have no recycling.”

Capping the news is a Slate article about incineration in Sweden (contrasting the easy going acceptance of waste-to-energy scheme by the Swedes, in contrast to American attitudes. The environmental e-zine Grist featured a profile of the article, well worth reading for its humorous slant.

What’s to conclude from all this?  Who knows – except that it shows that garbage is big news, and that it is more and more recognized as the resource it is – and that’s good news.

Written by enviropaul

July 23, 2014 at 7:56 pm

What I shoulda said…

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What a load of garbage! (about to get burned...)

What a load of garbage! (about to get burned…)

Don’t you hate it when, just after leaving a meeting or a party, you replay a conversation in your head and come up with the punchy retort, the perfect repartee? You realize, after the fact, that you had a great opening – and flubbed it. D’oh. I had one of those moments recently.

Last month I was invited to be a speaker in one of SFU’s Carbon Talks. Sitting next to me was Douw Steyn, a UBC expert on air pollution. The topic of our talk was “Waste-to-Energy, low carbon future?

You can watch the whole thing here , but it’s a full hour long, so here’s the gist (I spoke first, then Douw, then questions):

Paul: air pollution from incinerators is well controlled, and anything that displaces fossil fuels for heat or electricity is positive.
Douw: air pollution in the Lower Mainland (ozone in particular) is getting worse, and anything that adds air pollutants is not good, including incinerators.

Now Douw is a fine speaker and debater (watch him here), and he managed to keep much of the talk focussed on conventional air pollution rather than climate change. Air pollution is certainly a very valid concern. In my understanding, a modern incinerator produces very little of the nitrogen oxides and volatile organics that produce ozone and the grey or brown haze that we see in the valley; but any extra amount adds to the problem. And the problem is important, from increased asthma to reduced crop yields. Douw, cleverly, didn’t talk about what really scares people about incinerators: toxic smoke full of dioxins and heavy metals. That’s because he knows full well that it’s a non-issue: modern incinerators don’t emit those.

(Of course, if garbage is taken to a landfill, impacts on air pollution and greenhouse gases are much worse than if it went to an incinerator; see here and here, for instance. But we didn’t talk much about that; instead, we talked about recycling. My bad: I should know better how to frame an issue.)

But here’s what I should have said: global warming trumps any other concern. Any progress you make on controlling air pollution is undone by global warming. That is because ozone, the air pollutant of concern, is created by a chemical reaction in the air, and the warmer the air, the faster the reaction, so the more ozone (there’s hardly any ozone in winter, for instance). So, with climate change, there would be more days with high ozone, everything else being equal.

Except that everything else wouldn’t remain equal – they would get worse. The main effect of climate change, which we’re already experiencing, is more common extreme weather events. More rain and floods, and also longer, hotter droughts. And this means a lot for air quality: during a long spell of hot dry weather, ther is no rain to wash away the pollutants; there is much more dust; and of course there is more ozone. To say nothing of the higher risk of forest fires.

Don’t take my word for it: these are the conclusions of a recent study published in the journal Nature (Air Quality to Suffer with Global Warming, June 22 2014).

Bottom line: say no to incineration, and you’ll get worse air pollution, not better. Incinerators prevent methane from seeping out of garbage, and the garbage they burn creates electricity and heat that doesn’t need to come from burning coal or natural gas – so incinerators fight climate change. Ignore global warming, and the things that fight it, and ordinary air pollution gets worse.

In an aside to me before the talk, Douw had said that “surely you don’t want to sacrifice air quality on the altar of climate change concern.” But in fact, it is climate change that will make air quality much worse – and our current concerns about incineration may seem to us, later, quaint niceties.

But that’s in hindsight. And that’s what, in hindsight, I should have said. Would it have clinched the argument? Nah, who am I kidding; I’m sure Douw would have found a good rebuttal. But, at least, the point would have been out there. Oh well.



Written by enviropaul

July 13, 2014 at 9:38 am