It’s hard not to cheer for an economic downturn

Photo by Dave Cournoyer

Photo by Dave Cournoyer

The prospect of a housing market collapse makes me giddy. Low oil prices? It warms my heart. Higher interest rates? Ooh, baby.

I would be willing to bet there are a lot of you reading that and nodding your head in agreement. Yes, you think, that could be great. It might even mean that one day I’ll be able to buy a house, or afford my rent.

If you don’t have crushing debt levels that would be affected by higher interest rates, you might have a point. I feel that way. I’m excited by the prospect of an economy in distress, and that’s problematic.

We have ended up in a situation, in this city more than any other jurisdiction in Canada, where too many are being suffocated by a system geared towards rewarding the already successful. It’s been said many times, and it bears repeating, that it is difficult to thrive in this town if you don’t have the “right” kind of job. That not only breeds resentment, it also sets things up so that people like me, and probably people like you, cheer for a downfall that will bring many down with it.

Not only are we suffering from a bigger wealth gap in this city and in this province than other areas of Canada (and of the U.S. as a whole), we are mercilessly tied to the type of oil and gas commodity swings that recently wiped out $7 billion from provincial coffers virtually overnight, or that bring incredible wealth to a few, while driving up costs for the many.

And so some of us cheer when we see bitumen drop from $100 per barrel to $40. We envision foreclosed houses in inner-city communities that we could actually get our hands on. But of course it’s nothing to be happy about.

We (and I use that term to mean those of us without bursting bank accounts) are just as desperately tied to the swings of the market and the price of oil as the next guy. Sure, the effects of a major disruption will hit those in the downtown towers harder and faster, and may even open up some opportunities, but if that market trauma lasts for too long, it brings almost everybody down with it.

Here we’ve gotten to the meat of the matter. We are hopelessly unable to untether ourselves from the almighty market and its total indifference to our lives and our circumstances. We have a provincial government that is unwilling to even consider how to alleviate the nauseating swings by bringing in corrections like a provincial sales tax, or a progressive income tax, or a living wage policy, or increased corporate taxes, or increased royalties, or real environmental regulations, or a carbon tax, or reliable money transfers to municipalities for things like affordable housing and increased transit.

We have a city council that can’t even pass basic measures to allow for more secondary suites in a city that is years into a housing crisis, not to mention some form of rent control to alleviate gouging by some landlords.

What we get instead of all of these things is a circling of the conservative wagons in Alberta in order to impose austerity measures that will undoubtedly wreak havoc on the lives of the poor while barely touching those in the higher wage brackets. Already the unions are fighting back the first wave of attacks and there are certain to be more. On a city level, we have at least one councillor who would rather fine distracted pedestrians than consider affordable housing measures (no, seriously, you can’t make this up).

It all points to a sick system, and profoundly blinded provincial and federal governments and civic politicians. It’s a system where my automatic reaction to a downturn is to cheer the negative consequences for others in the hopes that I can get a share of the pie, even if I might be hurt as well. It’s a system where those who win, continue to win, without looking after others who fall through the cracks. It’s a system where we destroy in order to accumulate without regard to the future or any semblance of dependability and consistency.

The only hope is that during the coming financial storm, our governments remember the mistakes of the past and the continuing social deficit left over from Ralph Klein’s destructive reign, and realize that in order to build a province, you can’t keep hacking at the legs of the majority of its citizens.

This post originally appeared in Fast Forward Weekly.

Out(road)rageous: $5 billion could go a long way

Microsoft Word - Final Report 090218.doc

We seem destined to always talk about transportation. Public transit, including the long-sought southeast LRT line and the nuances of where to put the north-central line; the mess that is Calgary’s taxi system; bike lanes; pedestrian safety improvements; two-way roads through the Beltline; and now the revelation that the southwest portion of the ring road will cost somewhere in the neighbourhood of $5 billion.

It’s been about 50 years since the first studies were done on a ring road for Calgary, and the southwest portion has always been a contentious issue. There’s the Weaselhead natural area and the Elbow River as well as the Tsuu T’ina reserve to deal with. Negotiations with the Tsuu T’ina Nation stopped and started until a deal was finally inked last year as the rest of the ring road neared completion.

This is the kind of thing that makes all the other transportation debates seem kind of quaint.

First there is debate as to the efficacy of building ring roads. It’s been proven over and over again that building roads only invites more traffic rather than doing anything to effectively relieve congestion. It contributes to sprawl, pushing people ever further to the margins. Does Calgary need a better way for people to get from one end of the city to the other? Probably, but there’s no indication that this will serve that purpose in any meaningful way. It will benefit those trying to escape to the mountains from the south, and will provide a trucking route through the southwest, but aside from a bit of relief on some central roadways, this will just invite more traffic and more sprawl.

But let’s say for the sake of argument that we need the ring road and that it will speed up cars travelling across our sprawling city.

What we don’t need is another major thoroughfare crossing over our water supply and tainting the Weaselhead natural area. If you haven’t been lucky enough to ride your bike or walk through this natural park at the end of the reservoir, you’re missing out. Pathways and walking trails wind their way through trees and scrub along the Elbow River — it feels miles away from the city at its doorstep. What’s not missing from the idyllic scene is a highway bypass roaring over the river and the reservoir wetlands.

But it seems like it’s going to happen anyway. The debates about protecting the headwaters of our drinking supply are over, the land deals have been made, the plans largely put in place. So let’s talk about the price tag. You can get a lot for that kind of money.

The $5 billion is for the remaining 41 kilometres of the ring road, from Highway 22X near Spruce Meadows to Highway 1 near Canada Olympic Park. We’ve already built 63 kilometres for the relatively paltry sum of $1.9 billion.

As has been noted elsewhere, the $5-billion price tag just happens to be the same figure that’s tossed around for the entire north-central/southeast LRT line — from Panorama Hills all the way to the South Health Campus. Heck, you could cut the ring road cost in half and still be able to build the southeast portion of the LRT route.

The city’s Route Ahead plan calls for a $13-billion investment in transit over 30 years to keep up with Calgary’s growing population. Five billion gets us a long way there.

Of course there’s been another transportation option that has been whipping critics into a frenzy: the Centre City cycle track network, a plan calling for protected bike lanes through downtown and the Beltline. Hands have been wrung, tears have been shed and prophecies of doom have been prophesied by those how don’t even blink when major interchanges are built.

If we were to take the cost of the southwest portion of the ring road and apply it to protected bike lanes, we could build 1,786 lanes equivalent to the proposed First Street S.E. lane, or approximately 5,000 kilometres worth of cycle tracks based on the estimate of $1 million per kilometre. We’d basically blanket the entire city in protected bike lanes. Hell, we might even have enough left over to install in-pathway heating to keep the ice away.

In other words, there are far more effective ways to utilize $5 billion if what we’re really interested in is easing congestion and providing transportation options for the citizens of Calgary — improved pedestrian safety, separated and marked bike lanes, transition to two-way streets in the Beltline and investment in bus rapid transit and LRT lines, to name a few. But those options would be considered social engineering, right?

A two-pronged attack on creativity

If you want to see the kind of mind that supports closing arts programs, in this case at Mount Royal University, have a look at two recent opinion articles. One by the Calgary Sun ’s Ian Robinson is a barely coherent demonstration of ignorance and simple-mindedness. The other, by the Calgary Herald ’s Karin Klassen, is an intellectually inconsistent, logically faulty and evidence-averse column that should make her editor blush with embarrassment. Those are the kinds of intellects that celebrate such things. That should scare you.

Although maybe you should be more frightened by the intellects in charge of the province, seeing as they actually make these kinds of decisions. Okay, so Advanced Education Minister Thomas Lukaszuk and Premier Alison Redford didn’t order Mount Royal to close its jazz program, its theatre arts program or even reduce its engineering and nursing programs, but they did slash the budgets of Alberta’s post-secondaries to the bone, dropping the blame for the government’s incompetence on the doorstep of higher learning. That should scare you.

I’m almost at a loss for words that a case needs to be made for why we should have robust post-secondary schools with a diversity of programs, including ones that aren’t “commercially viable.” Have we really reached the point where I have to argue for the inherent value of things like philosophy, literature, theatre and music? Do I really have to highlight how important these supposed economic laggards are to our society? That should scare you.

It seems like the government is hell-bent on establishing a bland monoculture of a society, one focused on destruction for profit, rather than creativity and critical thinking for purpose. When a government decides that it wants to start lecturing schools on the types of programs offered, we’re in trouble. The fact that Mount Royal decided to pluck the low-hanging fruit of arts programs is shameful, particularly when it could probably find savings that would prevent any programs from being cancelled altogether. Is this a strategic move on behalf of the school to highlight the true costs of the Conservative cuts? That’s the only palatable theory.

When the provincial budget landed with a thud in March, Alberta’s cultural organizations and workers let out a collective, though quiet, sigh. At least arts and culture wasn’t decimated like in the Klein years. Sure, Epcor Centre operational funding is up in the air, the Student Temporary Employment Program that many organizations rely on for summer help was cut, and so too were the Community Spirit grants, but it could have been worse, right? Well, it is. First we have the Mount Royal cuts, then what? What will the Alberta College of Art and Design do to get its budget under control? What of the University of Calgary? It seems to be fine for the time being, but what if Redford and co. carry on cutting? There’s an arts department at the U of C that doesn’t get enough respect from the administration….

So while the government occasionally offers some meek statement on the need for economic diversification, we see their true colours in this short-sighted budgetary decision and its outcomes. While they continue to dole out hefty subsidies to the oil and gas industry, including lax royalty rates while those companies shatter what’s left of our ecosystems, they cut the very institutions that can contribute to a complete society, one where arts and critical thinking attract great minds, build a better city and retain workers, including those in the soaring energy towers downtown.

If all we’re left with at the end of the day are the kinds of intellects that pen missives celebrating a loss of culture, that should really scare us all.

You are a slave owner: Andrew Nikiforuk on energy consumption

COVER-Nikiforuk-2012-11-11T16-39-21-940511

As the oilsands continue to expand — clearing forest, digging earth and pooling effluent — there’s more than just nature that is being shunted aside. According to journalist Andrew Nikiforuk, we’re also burying debates about what it all means in the process. And so, in his new book, The Energy of Slaves , he revives some old ideas that remain fresh and takes them to an exhaustively researched new starting point.

“If there’s any place in Canada where we should be having wide-open debates about energy — its character, its nature and its development — it should be here,” he says over coffee in Calgary. “And what happens when anybody raises even a question about the pace and scale of development in the tarsands? ‘Oh well you’re fucking Greenpeace, or you’re this or you’re that.’”

Peppering his conversation with expletives, it would be easy to paint Nikiforuk as an angry ideologue, but that’s simply not the case, in person or in print. His latest book takes us from the use of slaves in building society to the present-day use of energy slaves, slurping up oil and gas in order to give us a level of societal opulence never before seen. The arc is presented matter-of-factly and helps to illustrate the gooey bind we find ourselves in.

“We’re locked into high energy living, which is really high carbon spending too,” he says. “We have all these freakin’ slaves, we’ve become fat and lazy and extremely comfortable, and like the slave holders of old, we don’t even want to have a discussion about this.”

Nikiforuk blames this silence on the fact that Big Oil dominates the conversation, but he also acknowledges that the comforts afforded by oil and its mechanical slaves are a balm for people not wanting to address the inevitability of change. He calls the oil age “a hell of a joyride.”

From a historical arc, Nikiforuk takes us on a journey through our increasingly complex world, from the politics of the petro state (Alberta is textbook in this definition, save for the military spending), to the absurdities of economics, to Japan’s energy crisis and what it means for the rest of the industrialized world.

These are not new ideas, at least not all of them. There are astute observations about the dangers of mechanical slaves and the new capitalism that date back to the 19th century, but Nikiforuk has skilfully weaved these old ideas into the contemporary sphere in an attempt to create a concise metaphor for a larger discussion about where we need to go.

His logic is sharpest when he focuses on the rate of energy returns and the changes that have occurred in efficiency since the early days of oil. Our rates of return are diminishing and the high returns that led to our complex world of luxuries are gone.

“We can argue and rail against the tarsands in terms of carbon emission and pollution, but the thing that’s going to get us there are how poor those damn returns are,” he says.

“Big Oil can make a lot of money off that, but civilization can’t run on this shit for long. It is not providing the surplus. We haven’t had that conversation at all.”

Those waiting for the big sales pitch on renewables from Nikiforuk will have to hold their breath a while longer. Although he thinks that we need to invest heavily in cleaner forms of energy, he doesn’t see it as a panacea. He says that if we do renewables the same way we’ve done oil and gas, “we’re going to be really fucked.”

“They thought the transition would be glistening windmills and solar panels in their front yard, when in fact the transition begins with an economic dislocation and disruption,” he says. “The same way the industrial revolution began.

“Unfortunately I think going down the energy ladder might be a lot harder than it was climbing up the energy ladder.”

So, the book and the author aren’t the most optimistic, but it’s not all doom and gloom. Yes there will be shocks, but there is only one conclusion to be drawn, according to Nikiforuk: we have to use less energy and give up some of our slaves.

“That doesn’t mean that everything will be bad,” he says. “I mean, I think relocalizing food production, I think that’s a good thing; getting more people involved in agriculture and farming, that’s a good thing; reducing the complexity of having to deal with so many mechanical, digital, electrical slaves in your life, I think most people are going to welcome that and, in many ways, are looking for that, because they can no longer cope with the complexity of machines in their lives.”

Staunching the flow: As Alberta reviews its pipelines, critics cry foul

Illustration by Mariella Villalobos.

Illustration by Mariella Villalobos.

On Thursday, June 7, approximately 475,000 litres of oil started pouring into the Red Deer River from a ruptured pipeline owned by Plains Midstream Canada. By the next day, Premier Alison Redford was on scene, eager to show she cares.

Just over a month later, a coalition of 54 groups penned an open letter to the premier demanding more than a well-timed photo op. The groups wanted the Redford government to initiate an “immediate independent provincewide review of pipeline safety in Alberta, similar to the one which was recently conducted for the auditor general of Saskatchewan’s 2012 report.”

The letter was signed by a wide array of groups including the Alberta Surface Rights Group, the Alberta Union of Provincial Employees, Greenpeace Canada, the Confederacy of Treaty 6 and more. By July 20, the groups had gotten their wish. Sort of. Energy Minister Ken Hughes announced that the government would conduct a pipeline review, but the signatories are upset that they have been left out of the conversation while the government consults with players in the energy sector, and they have raised concerns about the review’s effectiveness and impartiality.

Specific concerns are that the provincial regulator, the Energy Resources Conservation Board, was put in charge of hiring a third party to conduct the review, the scope of the review is too narrow, and the month-and-a-half timeline for finishing the report is far too fast for any meaningful examination.

“There have been other reviews done, both nationally and provincially,” says Mike Hudema of Greenpeace. “Most recently by the province of Saskatchewan, and their review was done by their provincial auditor. It was a very expansive review and looked at most of the sort of wide-breadth of Saskatchewan’s pipeline infrastructure, and what came out of it was several different places that the Saskatchewan government was failing communities and their environment when it comes to pipeline safety, and then a lot of suggestions for improvement.”

Hudema doesn’t hold out much hope for the same kind of result emerging from Alberta’s review. “Unfortunately we have a lot of questions about the review process and that’s, again, one of the reasons why we wanted to meet with the premier,” he says.

To that end, the 54 groups have initiated a petition to try and force Redford and Hughes to meet with them. In just over a week the petition collected over 5,000 signatures, but the response from the government has been silence.

Don Bester, of the Alberta Surface Rights Group, which represents concerned landowners, doesn’t think that silence will be broken any time soon. “There’s a push,” he says, “but there isn’t much response.”

JUST THE FACTS

Albertans have reason to be concerned. Although most oil, gas and energy byproducts reach their destination safely, the ERCB’s latest figures still highlight the dangers.

In its 2010 Field Surveillance and Operations Branch provincial summary, the regulator says there were 687 incidents spread over Alberta’s more than 400,000 kilometres of pipeline in 2010, which resulted in 1,175 recorded “liquid releases.” In total, approximately 25 million litres of produced water (an oily byproduct of extraction) and three million litres of liquid hydrocarbons were released into the Alberta landscape.

The ERCB directed 30 pipeline operations to suspend activities in 2010. Of those shutdowns, 47.3 per cent were due to internal pipeline corrosion, followed by external corrosion at 11.2 per cent.

Of course, most Albertans don’t hear of these “incidents.” Many happen far away from urban centres and the watchful eye of media. But there were three high-profile spills this year that brought the problem to public attention and forced the government’s hand. Earlier this year, 230,000 litres of heavy crude spilled onto farmland northeast of Edmonton and 800,000 litres of oil gushed near the border between Alberta and the Northwest Territories. Including the spill in Red Deer, these three “liquid releases” alone have let loose 1.5 million litres of oil in 2012.

Bester thinks things can be done better. The farmer, whose group includes landowners affected by the most recent Red Deer spill, says technology must be improved, particularly when it comes to river crossings. “We have people that own land right there and they’re telling us that Plains Midstream knew that this pipe was exposed and floating in the river well before the break even happened,” he says. “It was reported to them and they did nothing.”

Bester wants the current practice of lowering pipelines into river beds and fixing them in place with gravel to be replaced with new technology, including horizontal drilling far below the river bed. “I mean, they can drill a horizontal well a mile-and-a-half, you can drill your pipelines just the same as you do highway crossings,” he says. “You don’t rip up number 2 every time you want to put a pipeline across Highway 2.”

JUST THE POLITICS

Of course, the recent publicity around oil pipelines in Alberta has as much to do with pipelines that haven’t been built as it does with oil clogging up rivers and muskeg. TransCanada’s Keystone XL pipeline through the States and Enbridge’s Northern Gateway that will transport oilsands bitumen to the West Coast are both high-profile fights that have galvanized public opinion and focused attention on Alberta.

“The world’s watching us and we need to make sure that people know that the regulations, the standards and the processes in place are, first and foremost, meeting Albertans’ expectations, but now also national and international scrutiny,” says Mike Deising, a spokesperson for Alberta Energy. “So we want our regulator to take a look at it and we also want them to bring in an independent third party. It just makes sense.”

MLA Laurie Blakeman, who, among several other portfolios acts as the energy critic for the Alberta Liberals, agrees that pipelines are inevitable. “I’m going forward with, if it’s going to happen, how do we make it the least damaging,” she says. “How do we take steps to make sure that if something goes wrong, it’s the least amount of something going wrong; there’s the most protection for the environment and the people that are around it. That’s my point of view.”

Her other point of view is that the government isn’t fulfilling its role when it refuses to listen to all sides of a story. In this case, the 54 groups representing a broad swath of dissenting Alberta voices.

“We all live here, we all breathe this air, we all have children that we want to be able to drink the water. So, having the government divide and conquer is not helpful,” says Blakeman from her office in Edmonton.

“There’s a lot of smart people in Alberta and some of them work in these organizations. And to completely go, ‘No, I’m not going to talk to a whole bunch of smart people that have things to tell me that would be helpful’ is kind of stupid, I think.”

Nobody thinks that the government should be ignoring the oil and gas industry, at this time or any other, but it’s a familiar complaint in the province that the government’s ear is a little too attuned to the messages put out by the royalty-gushing industry.

“I do think that the public deserves some degree of input,” says Hudema. “There’s definitely, when we’re talking about pipeline spills, the environmental impacts are a huge issue…. Also, when you look at the members of the 54 groups, a lot of them are landowner groups and landowner associations, so they have first-hand experience with what a spill means to a local farmer or a local rancher, what it’s done to their property, what some of their concerns are. I think the government should hear some of those voices.”

It doesn’t appear, however, that the government will be discussing pipelines with any of these groups any time soon. The premier’s office directed all questions to Hughes’ office, and Deising says it’s now out of their hands. “With respect to the review, now it’s in the hands of the regulator and the independent party to look at the three aspects that the minister wanted to see completed as part of the review. Taking that aside, because really we’re talking about the technical expertise of water crossings, spill response and pipeline integrity, that is a specific technical expertise that is required to look at those things…. With respect to broader stakeholder discussions, we’re open to always hearing from Albertans and their perspectives.”

THE OUTCOME

The signatories of the open letter to Redford aren’t happy about the ERCB playing a role in any pipeline review, insisting that it’s too close to the industry that it oversees. The process for the review allows the regulator to not only choose the third party that will review pipelines in Alberta, but also to review that third-party report and submit its own report to the energy minister with any recommendations it thinks are necessary.

According to Hudema, “they are part of Alberta’s pipeline problem and really shouldn’t be reviewing themselves.”

On September 10, the ERCB announced that it selected Group 10 Engineering of Calgary to conduct the review, citing their technical competency. In total four organizations were vying for the job, but the ERCB won’t comment on who else was in the running.

Group 10’s engineering managers, Theo Abels and Daryl Foley, both have years of experience working in the oilpatch, from regulatory compliance to technical inspections. Of course, hiring an organization with so much experience is a double-edged sword, bringing expertise on one hand, and cries of bias on the other.

According to Hudema, it’s another indication that the government isn’t serious about the review. “I think what most Albertans were expecting was a very balanced review process that would not just look at things from an industry perspective, but really from an independent perspective, and would hopefully include some of those other voices in the process,” he says.

The ERCB, by necessity a thick skinned organization, isn’t fazed.

“Someone’s going to be upset with this, no matter what we do, usually, when we make a decision, so this is no different from any other time we make a decision,” says Bob Curran, an ERCB spokesperson. “We make thousands of those every year. For us, it’s business as usual.”

Of course, business as usual is what many of the critics are, well, criticizing. They view the government, the regulator and the industry with suspicion — a closed loop bent on extracting and shipping oil and gas despite the consequences. For Bester, this review is merely window dressing and he’s not surprised. “They do not want to know. Put it that way. As long as the royalty dollars can keep flowing, they have no concerns, everything is just swept under the table.”

This post originally appeared in Fast Forward Weekly.