Hydrogen and RNG gas blends are being touted as a way to reduce emissions from burning gas for heat. Are they an effective strategy or waste of time and money?
IN BRITISH COLUMBIA, the consumption of natural gas is 165 percent larger than the consumption of electricity. If you take transportation out of the equation, fossil gas and biofuels account for over 70 percent of BC’s energy use—most of it for heating. Reducing heating emissions will, therefore, be crucial to the success of BC’s climate plan. BC is asking gas utilities to halve their GHG emissions by 2030—but is still expanding gas distribution, hooking up new homes and businesses, and subsidizing fracking and LNG.
This article examines a Fortis proposal to blend (by volume) 15 percent Renewable Natural Gas (RNG) and 20 percent blue hydrogen (BH2) into their existing gas grid. Gas blending would allow the existing gas distribution and end-use appliances to remain in use, but significant new infrastructure would be required. A schematic overview of the proposal is shown in the following graphic:
The potential for successful emission reductions does exist. For example, climate progress could be made if efficiency and electrification eliminate the majority of all BC gas heating loads, and more RNG is collected from existing methane waste sources, and if the hydrogen used is made from water, rather than natural gas.
On the other hand, gas blending could prove to be a climate dead end—a gas company growth strategy that delays electrification and prolongs methane and CO2 emissions.
Are provincial government, Utilities Commission and Fortis plans for combustion compatible with CleanBC climate goals? The answers to the following questions could provide an indication.
Should RNG be used in this way?
Capturing RNG from organic waste has the very real climate advantage of reducing atmospheric methane. Fortis has been adding RNG to its grid for some years now. As such, it seems an attractive option.
The available volume would have to be increased from landfill, agricultural, forestry and industrial wastes. Collecting the RNG from these far-flung sources would involve new infrastructure, and be much more labour intensive than the existing collection of natural gas. Methane leakage would also have to be eliminated.
Energy cost adjustments would be required. If natural gas subsidies were eliminated, and the full carbon price of $170 per tonne was applied, RNG could be more cost competitive with natural gas. This, however, would also make electrical heat a more attractive option to gas.
Considering such factors, it appears that RNG would be a better climate solution for decarbonizing shipping and other hard-to-abate sectors, rather than for heating loads that can be electrified.
Should hydrogen be used in this way?
Blending 20 percent green hydrogen with natural gas reduces GHGs by 7 percent at best. This is because, among other issues, pure hydrogen has one-third the energy per unit volume of natural gas.
Fortis, being a gas utility, is probably hoping to use blue hydrogen made from natural gas feedstock. This would introduce efficiency losses through methane extraction, hydrogen production, Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS), and gas-powered equipment. The following is a very high-level summary of the main hydrogen colours:
As with RNG, hydrogen is expensive, in low supply, and would be a more effective climate measure if used for the decarbonization of air travel, steel and fertilizer manufacturing, etcetera, rather than for heating.
What climate impact can we expect from the proposed gas blending?
Reducing methane emissions is our best tool to keep global warming below 1.5C in the crucial next 8 years. Gas blending would put extra natural gas and RNG in play—and open the door to more potential fugitive methane emissions.
If we make some very generous assumptions—such as no lost opportunity for other hard-to-abate sectors, no added methane leakage, no energy penalty for transporting hydrogen, and no gas-fired processing equipment—then the proposed gas blending has the theoretical potential to reduce affected gas heating GHGs by 24 percent.
This, unfortunately, is far from BC’s net 100 percent reduction goal for 2050.
If gas blending is seen as a stepping stone to pure hydrogen—moving from virtually no climate benefit over the first number of years, to Net Zero 2050—then existing pipes, compressors, burners and motors will need to be replaced for use with pure hydrogen. When do the substantial cost and safety concerns of this transformation turn up on the balance sheet? How much extra gas will have been leaked and burned in the meantime?
From a climate science perspective, the GHG improvements of this gas blending proposal appear to be “too little; too late” when compared to electrification.
What are the human health concerns of continued (or expanded) combustion?
Oxides of nitrogen and ozone from natural gas combustion already cause significant indoor air quality problems, contributing to juvenile asthma, for example.
Burning hydrogen can be worse than natural gas in this regard. Industrial furnaces and boilers that burn hydrogen or hydrogen-rich mixtures may be fitted with selective catalytic reduction units to reduce NOx, but that option does not exist for residential/commercial furnaces and stoves.
Are there safety concerns?
Hydrogen leaks more than natural gas due to its low density and high diffusivity. It has a wide range of flammable concentrations in air, and lower ignition energy than natural gas. It can ignite easily. It also burns with a nearly invisible flame, especially in daylight.
Natural gas stenching agents, such as mercaptans, are not compatible with hydrogen. Will this create problems for gas leak detection?
CO2 pipeline safety is a concern associated with sequestration. About 100 people already die globally each year from CO2 accidents.
Are there other issues to consider?
BC already expects a massive increase in fracking for LNG. What additional water/air pollution, biodiversity, Indigenous reconciliation, earthquake and tailing pond cleanup impacts and costs can be expected as a result of the proposed gas blending?
Is there an alternative?
The well-understood, proven, safe and clean alternative to gas heat is electric heat. Direct use of renewable electricity for resistance heating is much more efficient than manufacturing hydrogen, and then converting it into heat. Heat pumps for space and water heating are better yet—providing 3 kWh of heat for every kWh of electricity input.
BC Hydro’s new Electrification Plan (September 2021) would contribute only 4 percent to BC’s annual GHG emissions reduction target for 2030. Dylan Heerema, senior policy advisor for Ecotrust Canada, has calculated that if BC’s Electrification Plan succeeds, it will reduce BC’s total emissions by only 1.3 percent.
This won’t get BC to its climate targets. Efficiency and electrification need the type of political drive and ambition that went into launching BC’s LNG industry.
Reaching BC’s climate pledge will involve some degree of disruption and cost. For example, a commitment to electrification comes with the need for a larger power system, but the size of the change can be controlled by pre-work to reduce heating demand. If Canada needed to double its electricity generation, a recent report by the Pembina Institute argues that sharing power between the provinces via integrated national grid inter-ties would help immensely. Such a grid would optimize the location and types of new power and storage sources; require less overall backup power reserves; save both capital and operating expenditures; and produce more opportunities for storing and reselling excess US power. Perhaps most important, it would also result in rapid climate action while avoiding the creation of new technologies and regulations.
Given the urgency of addressing the 1.5C global warming goal by 2030, and the lead time required to research, test, regulate and scale carbon capture and storage, blue hydrogen, and new RNG sources, etc, gas blending does not appear to be a reason to maintain or expand combustion heat.
Rather than create uncertainty about electrifying heating and cooking, it is time to stop hooking up new BC homes and businesses to gas.
Bob Landell is an energy management consultant and climate-concerned grandfather living in Victoria, BC.
Moving to electric vehicles is a key part of BC’s climate action strategy. Let’s crunch some numbers…
VEHICLES ON BC ROADS spew out nearly one-third of the province’s greenhouse gas emissions. According to the latest emission summary published by Environment and Climate Change Canada, vehicles emitted 19.0 megatonnes (Mt) of GHGs in 2019, or 29 percent of BC’s total emissions. Owing to many more vehicles on our roads, that is nearly double the 1990 figure of 9.6 Mt, despite significant improvements in vehicle efficiency since then.
These emissions include all on-road vehicles: gasoline and diesel-powered light cars and trucks, motorbikes, and heavy-duty trucks, as well as those fuelled by propane and natural gas. (Not included are a further 5.16 Mt from off-road vehicles, used in forestry, mining, construction and the like.)
EVs save drivers save 80 percent in fuel costs. But it’s not quite that simple. (Credit: BC Hydro)
Direct emissions from vehicles are not the only ones resulting from our use of fossil fuels to carry us around. Oil and gas extraction, petroleum refining, and fugitive emissions produce an additional 12.04 Mt annually in Canada. While not all of our fossil fuels go to powering vehicles, eliminating internal combustion power for transport would lead to additional reductions in those “upstream” and “midstream” emissions.
For British Columbia, where the electricity is mostly clean, there is a relatively painless way of reducing transportation emissions: switch to electrically-powered vehicles (EVs). This is especially true for light-duty cars and trucks, which emit approximately half of our road transportation pollution and which are becoming more available to the general consumer. (Note: This article considers only electric vehicles without fossil-fuelled engines; it does not deal with so-called hybrids.)
And British Columbians are enthusiastically switching: One in ten new cars sold in BC last year was an EV, the highest rate in North America. There are now more than 60,000 light-duty electric vehicles on the province’s roads—exceeding the energy ministry’s 2021 target by 11,000. BC Hydro forecasts there will be 300,000 by 2030.
Are EVs really cleaner?
One nagging question, often raised by fossil fuel industry advocates, concerns the lifetime emissions of EVs compared with vehicles powered by internal combustion engines: What about the emissions in building EVs, particularly their big batteries?
Due to the extraction of the required minerals and battery manufacturing, more GHGs are emitted in making an EV than a gas-powered vehicle. But once the vehicles are driven, the difference shrinks, and eventually disappears. The timing depends on the efficiency of the vehicles and the source of electricity. BC, as mentioned, is fortunate to have virtually all its electricity supplied by clean hydro power. But even in the US, where 23 percent of its power is still generated by burning coal, EVs’ total emissions soon fall behind, in as little as one year of average driving.
Recent research provides details of the life-cycle emissions of the two types of vehicles. A study by the International Council on Clean Transportation, released in July 2021, examined vehicles’ life-cycle emissions, starting with the extraction of the raw materials, manufacturing, driving, through to their final disposal. The short answer: EVs produce much less GHGs.
A model developed by Chicago’s Argonne National Laboratory predicts that a Tesla Model 3, driven in a jurisdiction like BC where electricity is nearly all from hydro, would have fewer lifetime emissions than a Toyota Corolla after less than a year of driving. Consequently, there is little doubt that EVs are good for cutting emissions.
Total lifetime emissions in millions of grams. SOURCE: Argonne National Laboratory.
How much power do EVs need?
Natural Resources Canada reports that a typical BC car is driven 13,100 km annually, an average of 36 km per day. Finnish EV charger company Virta estimates that each kilometre in an EV uses about 0.2 kilowatt-hours (KWh), meaning that a typical BC car will use 13,100 x 0.2 KWh = 2.62 megawatt-hours (MWh) of electricity annually. (A megawatt-hour is 1,000 kilowatt-hours.)
In other words, the 60,000 EVs currently on BC roads consume 60,000 x 2.62 MWh = 157,200 MWh, or 157.2 gigawatt-hours (GWh) annually. (A gigawatt-hour is 1,000 megawatt-hours.) Based on Hydro’s prediction of a five-fold increase in nine years, the province’s EVs will draw 5 x 157.2 GWh = 786 GWh annually by 2030.
Does that explain the government’s hasty rush to complete Site C? Hardly. If it is ever finished—still highly doubtful--the $16 billion boondoggle is forecast to churn out 5,100 GWh annually, more than six times the anticipated EV energy demand in 2030. Well aware of EVs’ growth, BC Hydro projects that it has sufficient energy until at least 2030.
EV affordability increasing, with some provisos
On May 1, 2021, BC Hydro announced that free charging at its 90 fast charging stations is history. While the stations are handy, if not essential, for long distance drivers, it costs more to charge an EV at the Hydro chargers than at home, even twice as much. The 25 KW Level One chargers now cost $3.60 for a 30-minute session, which works out to 28.8 cents per KWh, compared with the residential Step 2 rate of 14.08 cents. While the 100 KW Level Three chargers cost less, 16.2 cents per KWh, the price still exceeds the top residential rate.
As well, BC Hydro says it is working on a reduced rate for charging EVs at home, probably in off-peak hours. This would make the vehicles even cheaper to drive per kilometre. Various rebates are available for installing chargers in both single family and multifamily buildings.
Those who drive EVs are generally very happy with them, citing much lower fuel costs, good acceleration, quietness and less maintenance, not to mention virtually eliminating their GHG emissions with every kilometre driven. Depending on make and model, EV “fuel” costs—based on residential hydro rates—are approximately 20 percent of those for an equivalent gas-powered car—based on Greater Vancouver gas prices.
However, the financial situation is muddier when also considering the purchase prices of EVs and internal combustion-powered vehicles.
BC Hydro reports that somebody driving 20,000 km annually in an electric 2020 Nissan Leaf S Plus, will save about $1,448 each year around in fuel costs, compared with what Hydro regards as the gas-powered equivalent, a 2020 Chevy Spark 1 LT. This means that for the typical 13,000 km per year driver, fuel savings amount to $941 annually. The costs are based on BC Hydro’s residential rates, and Greater Vancouver gasoline prices in 2019.
What about maintenance costs, another aspect in which EVs prevail over their gas-powered cohorts?
According to an October 2020 Consumer Reports study, in the US a typical gas-powered car costs approximately twice as much per mile in maintenance and repair costs over its lifetime than an EV. When converted to Canadian currency, using the October 19, 2021 exchange rate, the difference is 1.83 cents per kilometre. (This assumes that Canadian repair and maintenance costs are comparable to those in the US.) For our typical 13,000 km per year BC driver, that amounts to an extra $238 in annual savings for EVs. The combined fuel and maintenance savings results in a total annual benefit of $941 + $238 = $1,179 each year for EVs.
Even with federal and BC government rebates of up to $8,000, EVs are not cheap to buy. The 2020 Nissan Leaf Plus S listed for nearly $47,000, while the 2020 Chevy Spark 1 LT sold for a list price of just under $15,000 in Canada. Taking advantage of the $8,000 in rebates from the federal and BC governments, the Nissan Leaf Plus S comes in at approximately $24,000 more than the Chevy Spark. Ignoring the opportunity cost for the more expensive Nissan, the average BC Leaf 13,000 km/year driver would take 20.3 years to break even with the Chevy. If the Leaf buyer has an old car that meets the requirements for BC’s $6,000 Scrap-It rebate, it would take 15.3 years.
Several cautions are in order. First, this comparison ignores the opportunity cost—essentially the interest charge over the years to borrow the difference between EVs and gas-powered cars.
Second, the repair and maintenance costs are average. For a particular model, they may vary: Some models are more reliable than others.
Third, the fuel prices. On September 1, 2021, BC Hydro applied to the BC Utilities Commission for a net increase of 3.3 percent for residential customers over three years, starting April 1, 2022. While electricity costs are somewhat constrained by requiring the commission’s approval, there is no such mechanism for gasoline.
One portion of gas prices is expected to go nowhere but up in the next nine years. BC’s carbon tax, currently $40 per tonne of CO2 , due to increase to $50 April 1, 2022. Presuming that BC adopts the federal government plan to increase it by $15 for each year after 2022, we will be paying $170 per tonne in 2030. At present, the carbon tax costs approximately 9 cents per litre of gasoline. In 2030 it will reach approximately 38 cents per litre.
Crude oil prices are the biggest factor in gasoline costs, and they are commonly believed to be headed upwards. Though they collapsed during the worst of the COVID-19 pandemic, they have since returned to pre-pandemic levels. According to a September 20, 2021 Reuters report, New York bank Goldman Sachs said that a colder winter in Europe and Asia could boost demand for oil worldwide, which would mean higher gasoline prices. As well, demand for gasoline is increasing. Rory Johnston, founder of the Commodity Context newsletter, said in an October 7 report that worldwide demand for gasoline has since recovered: [G]asoline appears to have mostly returned to its modest pre-COVID growth trajectory.”
More assured pricing predictions exist around EVs: lower prices are coming in the next decade. In a draft September 29, 2020 report written for BC Hydro, Vancouver consultancy Navius predicts that EV prices will drop significantly by 2030, mostly due to much cheaper batteries. The cost to manufacture batteries will drop by approximately half by 2030, and could possibly fall by three-quarters. The latter scenario means that an EV with a range of 160 km could sell for the same price as a gas-powered equivalent as early as 2025.
But will EVs make a significant dent in BC’s emissions?
Given the increasing affordability of EVs, BC’s requirement under the Zero-Emission Vehicle Act that all light-duty cars and trucks sold in 2040 will be zero-emission vehicles, may be met well ahead of schedule. (Zero-emission vehicles include those powered with hydrogen.) Ignoring the significant emissions from building EVs outside of Canada, how much will this help the province meet the goals of its struggling CleanBC climate plan?
According to BC’s 2020 Climate Change Accountability Report, incentives to boost zero-emissions light vehicles will save 1Mt of emissions by 2030, or about 11 percent of GHGs currently emitted annually by cars and small trucks. That doesn’t take us very far towards the BC government’s target of cutting total emissions by 16.8 Mt in 2030, as laid out in its climate crisis plan, Clean BC.
In general, BC’s emissions are going in the wrong direction. In 2017, the year in which the NDP formed a minority government, the province’s official GHG emissions totalled 66 Mt. They have since grown to 68.6 Mt in 2019, the last year for which the provincial government has released data. That’s an increase of 4 percent since 2017, despite the now-urgent necessity to quickly reduce emissions.
However, given British Columbians’ penchant for beating EV sales projections, we may in fact easily meet the goal of all light vehicle sales being zero-emission well ahead of the 2040 target. That would count as a rare success story in BC’s attempts to reduce emissions, though making little more than a dent in the overall emissions picture.
The Jevons Paradox
There is another confounding factor when estimating the future use of EVs: The Jevons Paradox, also known as the “rebound effect.”
In his 1865 book, English economist William Jevons noted that providing a raw material more efficiently results in higher consumption. In modern times, researchers discovered that the effect occurs with lighting. When LEDs first penetrated the market, the expectation was that less energy would be used for lighting, since LEDs use about one-fifth as much power for the same lighting. It never happened.
Instead of saving energy, lighting became brighter and was left on for longer each day. The net effect was more lighting, while the proportion of global GDP used by lighting remained constant, according to a survey article by researchers at Germany’s University of Freiburg, published January 2018 on the ResearchGate website.
It may even continue to grow, say the researchers: “In addition to the global number of many poorly lit areas…new application possibilities for LEDs could also drive demand [higher.]”
Could this happen with EVs? Once they sell for the same price as comparable gas-powered vehicles, so that the initial financial hit for going electric disappears, it’s not much of a stretch to predict that average British Columbians will drive a lot more than the current 13,100 km per year. Fuel costs down by 80 percent, repair and maintenance costs cut in half, minimal GHG emissions, and fun to drive: Our roads may be jammed with EVs—meaning more road wear and tear, more accidents, less physical exercise, and all the other disadvantages of driving instead of walking or cycling.
Russ Francis won the 2021 Webster Award for excellence in environment reporting, announced November 3. He is thrilled that the BC government announced October 6 that it will review the countless billions given to the fossil industry through the so-called royalty credit scheme. But first, BC will consult the industry and any other “interested” British Columbians, says oil and gas minister Bruce Ralston. After that he will tell us more about the review—in February 2022. After all, it just wouldn’t be right to make those wealthy fossil companies go without taxpayer handouts cold turkey..
With 243,000 unvaccinated kindergarten-to-grade-fivers in BC there’s a lot of room for COVID-19 to wreak havoc—and no need for euphemisms.
ONE DEATH IS A TRAGEDY. A million deaths is a statistic.
So observed the brutal Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin, that self-styled “man of steel” of the Bolshevik revolution. Stalin, of course, like many a cold-blooded political zealot before and after, dealt mostly with his regime’s generation of statistics. He did not trouble himself overmuch with the tragedies.
Government policy-makers, who mostly tend to see themselves as benign benefactors, also prefer to work largely with statistics. Bureaucrats use the generalizations inherent in statistics both to distance themselves from the specific consequences of their decisions and to obfuscate, deflect, redirect and obscure what’s actually going on. Often, it’s because they think we might not respond the way they’d like us to respond—with the calm and dispassionate disinterest that minimizes the political risk to their elected bosses.
And they—and we—know exactly what they are doing, which is why we have freedom of information laws, however feeble, to purportedly help us at least try to obtain the knowledge that is rightfully ours (we paid for it, after all). But the information is often mislabelled, misdirected, shuffled into different jurisdictions, hidden behind cost-of-extraction barriers or simply filed in such a way that makes it difficult for the uninitiated to retrieve, buried in an avalanche of relatively undifferentiated numbered files, for example.
That’s where I find myself now, wading through chart after chart, table after table, spreadsheet after spreadsheet and jurisdiction after jurisdiction just attempting to figure out the early consequences of British Columbia’s school opening plan.
The effort is undertaken in the context of a recent and alarming local surge in British Columbia’s COVID-19 cases at a time when the New York Times reports dramatic declines in new daily infections (down 28 percent), hospitalizations (down 20 percent) and deaths (down seven percent) across the United States.
As October began, however, BC still seemed on a steep upward trend in new infections, although the rate of hospitalizations was flattening and deaths were actually declining. Yet, as a report late last week by CTV’s Penny Daflos pointed out, as a proportion of population this province has people sick with COVID-19 in numbers that are nearly quadruple those of Ontario, Canada’s most populous province.
The question is whether miscalculations by BC’s government are behind the surge here. After all, 17 percent of infections are now among children under age 11 and 30 percent are under age 18. These age groups are now important drivers of BC’s pandemic momentum. COVID-19 cases among BC school children seem to have risen more sharply and far more rapidly than in Ontario, which has four times BC’s school enrolment.
The increase here was steepest for elementary schools. The BC rate of new infections for unvaccinated kids aged five-to-nine increased 73 percent between school opening and the end of September. The 9 - 11 age group saw a 53 percent increase.
A presumed upside seems to be that statistically, the younger the patients, the less severe the symptoms.
Nevertheless, the infection rate for kids under 10 was the highest per capita for any age group—not surprising perhaps, since it remains the largest unvaccinated group in the province.
There are about 243,000 kids enrolled from kindergarten to grade five. They are not yet eligible to be vaccinated. That’s a lot of room for a fast-moving, highly-contagious virus to rapidly expand its reach.
Additionally, there are those under five years of age, the kids not yet in school. The last census count showed another 237,000 children aged 0 - 4, many of whom are at risk of infection by older siblings returning from the classroom.
On September 28, BC’s public health officer described this upward trend in school-aged children and those younger as “concerning.”
How concerned should we be?
Research normally lags real time events but one study reported by the American Academy of Pediatrics in early September found that children under the age of four are actually more vulnerable than older kids in the unvaccinated grouping.
In fact, children in this age group have had the highest rates of pediatric hospitalization. Between late June and mid-August, as the Delta variant of the virus spread, the study discovered, their rate of hospitalization increased 10-fold.
Of the children hospitalized, it said, about 23 percent were admitted to intensive care, the number requiring a ventilator increased 67 percent and the number who actually died in hospital over the same period doubled.
Looked at another way, the hospitalization rate for children under 10 is about 2 percent—statistically small. That reassuring statistic comes of combining two numbers. For children aged 5 -1 1 the rate is 0.3 percent. But for children under 5 the rate is 1.7 percent.
Those statistics indicate that in actual numbers, the risk for children still appears to be very low. Statistically, about 1,000 children were diagnosed with COVID-19 during the last week of September. Only 5 needed hospital care.
In BC there are about 500,000 kids under 12 and therefore not vaccinated. Let’s do a little mind experiment. If 95 percent of them were to catch COVID-19 and “only” two percent of those who did get sick were to go to hospital, that’s 9,500 children needing hospital beds. If 23 percent of those in hospital were to require intensive care, that’s about 2,200 children. Hopefully, it never comes to this. A critical part of planning, however, is to prepare for the worst while hoping for the best. While the scenario just sketched may be an outlier, it certainly seems possible.
Clearly, “only” is a statistical euphemism. If it’s your child heading for hospital with a one-in-four chance of going into intensive care and perhaps dying, there’s no “only” about it. Thus the statistics of the many give way to the tragedies of what individual parents face in real time rather than the cerebral abstractions of risk evaluation models.
MY FIRST WEEKEND OF OCTOBER began with a cautionary message from some parents in Alberta.
In their kids’ elementary school, I’m told, classroom attendance by just two children with unvaccinated parents resulted in 70 rapidly spread infections among an enrolment of 350 students. The school was forced to close.
By comparison, at a middle school attended by an older sibling where there’s a high vaccination rate among the 12 to 15-year-olds, only one COVID-19 case has been recorded since school opened. Obviously, vaccinations are the key. So far, though, we still can’t vaccinate young and very young children. A strict precautionary approach would seem most prudent.
Admittedly, circumstances are much worse in Alberta than they are in BC. And yet, there’s not much satisfaction to be taken from those statistics, either.
As of October 1, federal data shows that BC ranked second among Canadian provinces for the infection count over the previous seven days. We find 17 percent of all Canada’s cases in a province where 81 percent of the population is now fully vaccinated. Only Alberta, with 11,445 cases—38 percent of all the cases in Canada—tallied more cases than BC.
So the two western provinces representing about 25 percent of the country’s population went into October reporting about 55 percent of the entire country’s COVID-19 cases and 50 percent of the deaths.
The CTV report points out that infection rates here for new cases, hospitalizations and deaths now exceed rates in Ontario by almost 400 percent. For every 100,000 residents of Canada’s most populous province, there are 34 people sick with COVID-19. Here in BC, it’s 127.
In Ontario and Quebec, the fall surge in COVID-19 cases that began at the end of July with a return to school by large numbers of as-yet unvaccinated kids has begun to tip mercifully downward. Here on the country’s western fringe it’s still trending upward.
“It’s plausible that is due to what we’re doing in schools,” one physician and epidemiologist at the University of Toronto told CTV. Framed another way, perhaps the engine driving increases here is what wasn’t done in the schools here soon enough or vigorously enough.
In BC, policy-makers focused on curbing the spread of the virus by vaccination. Schools were deemed safer than almost anywhere else. Kids weren’t considered a major vector for viral spread.
Back in early August, the BC Teachers’ Federation was urging a proactive universal mask mandate in classrooms, even for primary grades, and it wanted a major re-do of school ventilation systems to include extensive use of high grade air filters.
The province addressed ventilation by upgrading central heating and air conditioning. There was a partial mask mandate but a full K-12 mandate wasn’t imposed until October 4 when government apparently caved to growing parental pressure.
But early on, Ontario acknowledged the role of airborne transmission and its importance with the highly transmissible Delta variant, the U of T epidemiologist observed for CTV. That province responded with a full mask mandate from the get-go and installed specialized stand-alone air filtration units in every classroom.
So the question seems fair: Has BC’s pandemic management policy for schools been too cautious and reactive when it should have been aggressively proactive?
IN HIS ESSAY Politics and the English Language, George Orwell compared bureaucratic rhetoric and its reliance upon generalizations, averages, euphemisms, platitudes and high-mindedness as a kind of intellectual and linguistic snow falling unobtrusively—but purposefully—“blurring the outlines and covering up the details.”
George Orwell, c. 1940, by Cassowary Colorizations, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org
We’ve had plenty of exposure to inconvenient details recently: dead children buried in unmarked graves at residential schools; the faces of the homeless—sorry, the “unhoused;” the circumstances of teenagers who end lives just beginning when they cannot obtain timely psychiatric treatment; the increasingly grim facts of how climate change will impact all of us and how deeply invested our government is in perpetuating the use of the fossil fuels behind it.
Not to mention the pesky details of who’s in hospital with long-haul after-effects of COVID-19 infections and exactly how many of them there are. Only thanks to impertinent media scrutiny do we now know that government was under-reporting this phenomenon by about 50 percent every day. And so, on a Thursday it was 332 in hospital, then on Friday it was suddenly 484 with the explanation that the additional 152 cases were previously unreported because they had a different label—“discontinued isolation.”
In Victoria, officials rushed to provide 50 additional housing units where homeless people—oops, “the unhoused”—could properly isolate after contracting COVID-19, but it took a leak of public health documents marked “for internal use only” to prompt that response.
It turned out, the nosy reporters discovered, that on the day the documents leaked, people without shelter or in temporary housing actually made up one-third of all Island Health hospitalizations on that day and that hundreds of cases involved people living in 22 shelters and on the streets.
Look, the health ministry, public health agencies, administrators for health regions, frontline social service and health providers, provincial and municipal politicians are all stressed by what, for this generation of government, anyway, is an unprecedented crisis.
We all get that.
Parents are stressed. Employers and employees are stressed. We all want this to be over. We also know it won’t be over without all of us doing our bit.
But this is a democracy. Adults are expected to think for themselves. Perhaps we should start insisting a little more loudly that bureaucrats be less involved with massaging a blizzard of statistics that often seem opaque and even contradictory and just become a lot more forthcoming with the prospective tragedies. After all, the tragedies, not the statistics, are what the rest of us mostly have to live through and then must carry with us for the rest of our lives.
What happened, what’s happening now, what’s most likely to happen if we do this or if we don’t do that is not beyond the grasp of the general public. Ominous news is not going to cause a panic. History demonstrates quite the opposite.
Just give us the straight goods, however gloomy, and let’s all get on with doing what has to be done.
Stephen Hume has spent half a century as a journalist writing about Western Canada, the Far North, BC and the Island.
A small, noisy, illogical minority is endangering our health care system and the rest of us.
THE NOISY CLAMOUR against public health precautions gets noisier while the moderate majority contemplates a fourth wave of COVID-19 infections surging through the unvaccinated population this winter.
Just as the Alberta provincial government’s official triage strategy for deciding who gets scarce hospital emergency beds and who gets sent home to die was leaked—to great public consternation—another protest of unmasked anti-mask, anti-vaccine, anti-proof-of-vaccination factions convened in Edmonton.
There was a protest in the BC capital too, where politicians had just said no to an Alberta request to transfer critical COVID-19 patients to BC as available beds in Alberta dwindled. COVID-19 admissions were flooding into Alberta’s intensive care units at a rate that grew by 16 percent the previous week.
Rally at the BC Legislature, September 18, 2021 (photo by Leslie Campbell)
BC declined on grounds that while Alberta’s health care system seemed poised to collapse—at current rates of infection all the province’s remaining intensive care beds could be filled in two more weeks, some experts said—BC’s own supply of intensive care beds was already moving steadily toward the same danger zone. Remaining available beds were the margin preventing a similar public health disaster here.
So, preparation for a possible airlift of patients from Alberta to distant Ontario—all that nasty “let the Eastern bastards freeze in the dark” rhetoric now parked for some sunnier day—got underway. Alberta’s health care unions bluntly asked the government to seek federal aid from the military and from the Red Cross.
Rallies, specious claims and the surveillance society
It didn’t take cynics long to point out that given COVID-19’s 14-day incubation period and the way the new Delta variant is ripping through the unvaccinated population (about 90 percent of all new infections are in that group) that the unmasked and unvaccinated mingling at mass rallies are likely going to start falling ill and looking for emergency beds in around two weeks, just about the time that stress on the system might trigger that triage protocol.
Triage is a term that comes to us from the ghastly horrors of the First World War. A deluge of severely wounded from battles which could see 60,000 casualties in a single day descended upon primitive field hospitals and forced medical officers to divide the casualties into three streams. Those who could still walk got sent on to the next hospital down the line. Those with severe wounds but a better chance of survival went into the field hospital. Those deemed to have less of a chance got sent to the “dying tent,” where they were abandoned to their fate.
The idea that a rich, advanced economy is now possibly on the cusp of triaging patients who could have easily avoided serious illness is a bizarre revelation, but there it is.
The current protest movement seems to be largely composed of folks who perceive science as an oppressive tool employed by highly suspect intellectual elites. Not least among the dissenters are those who challenge the legitimacy of the “germ theory” that has been a foundation of medical practice since the scientific method discovered that if obstetricians disinfected their hands before delivering babies, maternal deaths from childbed infections declined sharply. And that when sewers were separated from drinking water, cholera epidemics abruptly disappeared.
Others dissenters advance specious claims—the COVID-19 vaccine causes fertility problems for women; it causes men’s testicles to swell; the vaccine causes the same disease pathology as COVID-19 does; it’s a sinister government plot against racialized minorities; and so on.
Then there are the earnest libertarian constitutional conspiracy theorists. They argue that being asked to show that you’ve been vaccinated for a disease that’s now killed one of every 500 people in the United States (and adds about 8,000 a day to the 4,550,000 it’s already killed world wide) before being allowed into crowded space is an assault upon protected freedom. The freedom to give somebody else a potentially lethal disease presumably trumps the right of the uninfected to mitigate the chance of infection.
And there is just plain delusional paranoia—how else does one characterize claims that a molecular-level vaccine injected in liquid form by transparent hypodermic needle while you watch is secretly embedding a microchip that will report your activities back to government?
News Flash: Government doesn’t need to embed a microchip in your arm to monitor your activities. It can already listen to you, observe you and track your movements using your smart phone’s microphone, camera and GPS functions. Your smart TV, the computer chip in your car, the chip in your bank card, the chip in your credit card, the chip in your computer, your tablet, your modem. So many chips. All of which can be compromised.
Should it so desire, government can use your Facebook account, your Netflix account, your Amazon account, Yahoo, Google, Tik-Tok, Instagram, Skype, YouTube, Apple, your tax returns, your pension funds, your medical and pharmaceutical claims, your driving record, your shoppers’ rewards cards. Even your library card is tracking you.
My library account, for example, not only lists what I’ve read, it tells me how long it took me to read each book, interrupts with finger-wagging notifications about when the book is due, how long it will take me to finish if I will just buckle down to it and how many people are lined up awaiting the book over which I’m so inconsiderately lingering. Has it stopped me borrowing books? No, because I’ve decided the trade-off is worth it. Just as people flock to social media because they value convenience of communication over privacy—vaccine conspiracy theorists included.
The surveillance society has been here for some time, alas. It doesn’t need to stealthily embed microchips in you; you’ve already embedded yourself in the personal data-gathering matrix. Indeed, the best way to avoid Big Brother intruding into your life isn’t refusing vaccination—or spitting on nurses—it’s to stop using all that convenient technology. The same technology used to plaster social media with angry rants against invasive government while organizing rallies where protesters gather and take selfies which can be harvested by authorities and then scanned by facial recognition software.
A small minority
The hard take-away from the September 15 public health briefing is that 81.7 percent of the COVID-19 patients in BC hospitals are unvaccinated. The same data shows if you are unvaccinated your chances of going into hospital are 43.5 times greater than if you are vaccinated. Those odds are not ones I’d happily bet at any race track.
And yet, across Canada, the highly vocal minority so vehemently opposed to proof of vaccination requirements for certain activities—deemed by public health authorities to place other vulnerable people at risk of infection—was at it again on social media and in person this week.
Rally at the BC Legislature, September 18, 2021 (photo by Leslie Campbell)
In Ontario, the target was once again hospitals. In Vancouver, at least, the protest shifted to city hall. In Victoria it was at the legislature. But in Kamloops protesters swarmed school corridors where virtually all the kids are also unvaccinated.
Let’s get this straight from the get-go, though. Although protesters inflate their importance, they represent a small minority. In all of Canada, adherents probably number less than the population of Calgary.
The number of Canadians voluntarily vaccinated so far—and that number rises every day—is roughly 85 percent of the population. So about 15 percent remains unvaccinated. But of this percentage about 10 percent is under 12, can’t yet be vaccinated and isn’t likely on Facebook fomenting an anti-vaccination revolution. So that leaves five percent unvaccinated, of whom who knows how many are actually opposed to vaccines and how many are just needle-phobic, uninformed, ill-informed, caught up in the political exhilaration of saying “No!” or perhaps simply find it inconvenient or think they’re unlikely to be exposed and get sick.
Meanwhile, Canadians in the actual majority are fed up with anti-vaxxer antics that are clearly imported—right down to the slogans—from the United States where public health responses to the pandemic have been uncoordinated, marked by government policy that that verges on medical lunacy, blizzards of lies, dissimulation, fake news and good old incompetence.
British novelist Martin Amis, writing a collection of essays about his sojourn in America, titled his book The Moronic Inferno. Enough said.
An Angus Reid poll taken last week indicates that the vast majority of Canadians conclude that their right not to be exposed to a lethal virus trumps those of people who think their rights entitle them to go anywhere under any conditions regardless of the risk they pose.
Requiring proof of vaccination not new or odd
There have always been vaccination requirements curbing participation in certain activities, not only in Canada but in the 122 other countries, from Australia to Zambia, which at this moment reserve the right to refuse entry to anyone who can’t produce proof of vaccination for certain diseases.
You need a vaccine card to get into Costa Rica for that tropical beach vacation, for example. Not only that, you must produce proof that you have medical insurance that will cover up to $50,000 in COVID-19 medical treatments and enough money to cover your quarantine period.
Seems reasonable considering that the average cost per hospitalization for a COVID-19 patient in Canada—the vast majority of whom appear to be unvaccinated—is estimated at $23,000. And for those who go into an ICU bed—again, mostly the unvaccinated—the cost per patient is estimated at $55,000.
Thinking of some winter snorkelling in Belize? You need an official card showing you’ve been fully COVID-19 vaccinated for at least two weeks. The Galapagos? Ecuador wants proof of full vaccination status.
So how, exactly, does this differ from BC universities saying that if you want to sit in a crowded lecture theatre you need to reassure your fellow students, teaching assistants, professors and cleaning staff that you’ve been fully vaccinated?
Yet of these requirements, one set is arbitrarily framed as a constitutional invasion of personal freedoms while the other becomes merely the inconvenience necessary to take international winter vacations in a warm climate.
Typical signage at rally at the BC Legislature, September 18, 2021 (photo by Leslie Campbell)
Nor are these COVID-19 requirements a recent invention. Many countries require proof that you’ve been vaccinated for yellow fever before entry. Others want proof of polio vaccinations and for meningococcal meningitis.
Indeed, on my left arm is the faint white scar left by a smallpox vaccination. I had to be able to prove that I’d had one to get into Canada as an infant immigrant almost three-quarters of a century ago. Smallpox was just one of the 86 reportable diseases on Canada’s list for public health regulation dating back to 1924.
The current list has 57 reportable diseases. All can be regulated when and if authorities deem it necessary. These diseases range from AIDS and HIV to viral hemorrhagic fever and yellow fever. Regulations governing many of them have been dropped as their risk, thankfully has diminished with vaccination programs, public sanitation, improved hygiene and better public education.
So, when those convinced that vaccination mandates for COVID-19 are some kind of exceptional invasion of their civil liberties, they clearly haven’t read their own Charter of Rights and Freedoms very carefully.
Nor have they read the long-established federal Quarantine Act, which offers some jaw-dropping penalties for those who might think of flouting it.
Here’s Section 15(2): “Any traveller who has reasonable grounds to suspect that they have or might have a communicable disease listed on the schedule…or that they have been in close proximity to a person who has, or is reasonably likely to have, a communicable disease listed in the schedule…shall disclose that fact to a screening officer…”
And here’s Section 72: “Every person who contravenes subsection 15(2)…is guilty of an offence” liable to a maximum fine of $500,000 or a three-year prison term or both!
Aggressive public health powers have been around since before Canada was formed in 1867. There were mandated quarantines for cholera, for smallpox and there were official if primitive vaccination campaigns, one of which was conducted by the Hudson’s Bay Company in the late 18th and early 19th centuries in an attempt to limit the impact of a smallpox epidemic.
So is it surprising that more than three-quarters of Canadians now support restrictions on unvaccinated individuals preventing them from attending crowded public events? While that level of support for mandated vaccination proof falls off when it comes to requiring proof of vaccination to attend work, even there two-thirds of Canadians still want restrictions.
And frustration is clearly growing. Angus Reid polling shows 77 percent of Canadians think government should use its regulatory powers to keep public spaces safe from unnecessary exposure to unvaccinated individuals who are the greatest risk to others, if only by their far greater propensity to become infected. The elderly, for example, even though vaccinated, remain vulnerable to breakthrough infections that are the more lethal the older that they are.
Polling shows Canadians—almost half—think that those who decline or refuse vaccinations should move down the priority list as hospital resources are flooded with seriously ill but unvaccinated individuals.
Ethically, that’s not really a defensible argument. We don’t deny medical treatment to smokers or other substance abusers. Although it is noteworthy that alcohol abusers who are in need of liver transplants and won’t stop drinking don’t get the same priority as those who do stop drinking. Nevertheless, we don’t deny emergency services to drivers who don’t wear seatbelts or cyclists who don’t wear helmets.
The financial and moral burden of the unvaccinated
The willful refusal to vaccinate raises another ethical issue, the matter of cost, both financial and moral.
In BC, data indicates that unvaccinated individuals are 34 times more likely to be hospitalized with COVID-19. And data from September 15 showed that of the 661 new cases in BC, 68 percent involved people who had not been vaccinated. Of those who went to hospital, 81.7 percent had not been vaccinated.
As mentioned, the average cost per hospitalization for a COVID-19 patient in Canada is $23,000, and $55,000 for those who go into an ICU bed. Of the 70,000 COVID-19 cases who have so far been hospitalized in Canada, almost 69,000 were unvaccinated and they have so far cost the taxpayers at least $1.5 billion in medical care. (Some of these cases occurred before vaccinations were available.)
Canada did well in keeping costs down by vaccinating fast, in greater numbers and across a broader cross-section of the population, thus lowering the burden on the health care system.
In the US, the demand for hospital services by the unvaccinated—about 10 times the rate for vaccinated patients—cost more than $5 billion since June alone. Most of this cost, point out medical economists, was almost entirely avoidable.
The US Centre for Disease Control, which has been closely tracking, says the number of preventable COVID-19 hospital cases in the US ballooned from 32,000 in June to 187,000 in August, almost all of it attributed to unvaccinated patients.
“Based on approximately 530,000 hospital admissions with confirmed COVID-19 diagnosis in June-August 2021, we estimate 98.6 percent of hospital admissions with COVID-19 during this period were among unvaccinated people.”
Next, the moral burden:
In Alberta, in order to redeploy trained staff to emergency and intensive care beds, government cancelled all elective and non-critical surgeries. At the province’s children’s hospital, only “life and limb” operations were still being done. All because of the surge in unvaccinated COVID-19 patients who, if they’d gotten vaccinations in a timely fashion, mostly wouldn’t be in hospital.
Procedures cancelled ranged from orthopaedic surgery to brain operations. Patients expressed deepening anxiety and stress as long-scheduled procedures were postponed indefinitely.
Now, hip replacement surgery is considered elective. But if you’ve spent time with somebody dealing with the agonies of severe osteoarthritis in the hip joint, constant fear of falling on stairs, severely restricted mobility and the need for constant—however unwanted—pharmaceutical pain relief just to be able to sleep, it quickly becomes clear that “elective” is a relative value and that for the patient awaiting surgery it’s less an issue of choice than an imperative.
Doctors putting together their triage plans to determine who lives and who dies, plans to airlift patients between provinces, other provinces saying “No room at the inn!” to friends, neighbours and relatives, children being told that long-awaited surgery to correct a deformed limb or seniors needing hip replacements told to put up with their suffering for whatever it takes of whatever time they have left—it didn’t have to be this way.
Stephen Hume has spent half a century as a journalist writing about Western Canada, the Far North, BC and the Island.
Looking at the experience of other provinces and nations with school children in the past few weeks gives us some clues to what to prepare for in BC.
HERE WE ARE IN THE SECOND WEEK of the school year. The pandemic deepens. The numbers of as-yet-unvaccinated kids exposed to the COVID-19 virus is rising. Hospital intensive care units fill up and the insufferable and distracting culture wars over vaccination mandates get noisier.
On the Island, the first week back saw schools in 10 communities linked to at least one case of COVID-19 says BC COVID Tracker. The independent website is run by parents and claims to monitor official notifications on a volunteer basis—valuable since the Province now only reports full-blown outbreaks. Four schools in the Greater Victoria region had reported exposures. Others extended from Mill Bay to Campbell River and Port Alberni to Nanaimo.
This isn’t surprising. Almost 30,000 COVID-19 infections in children have now been identified by the BC Centre for Disease Control. They appear on the agency’s surveillance dashboard. Most are aged 18 and under—but more than 10,000 cases are among children under 10.
Children are one of the largest remaining unvaccinated segments of the population. That makes them a prime vector for the virus as it moves into fertile ground. No wonder there’s parental concern similar to that which manifested in Sointula. There, as school opened, parents yanked 28 of 34 students out of their small school until a teacher who declined to wear a mask for what the North Island Gazette said were medical reasons could be temporarily reassigned.
This parental concern is not unreasonable. In Israel, which was the model for fast and extensive vaccination early in the pandemic, a new study now finds that of 13,864 children aged three to 18 who were diagnosed with COVID-19, more than 10 percent developed long term symptoms. The effects lingered up to six months after the primary episode. If the rate of incidence tracked in Israel were to emerge in BC, we’d face thousands of kids grappling with the “long haul” version of the disease, many of them infected in a school environment that is charged with keeping them safe.
The same survey found that 30 percent of the parents of infected children who developed COVID-19 in Israel also reported that they experienced a degrading of their “neurological, cognitive and mental health abilities.” And, yet another report by Reuters says that a British survey found that 14 percent of children who test positive for COVID-19 display symptoms associated with the coronavirus for months afterward.
Then there are reports from the United States which has just passed a grim COVID-19 milestone. The virus has now killed one out of every 500 Americans.
Most of the dead are in vulnerable high risk groups. But observers there now note that the US hospitalization rate per 100,000 children was 0.3 at the end of June but by mid-August, as fall school terms began, the rate suddenly spiked five-fold to 1.4 per 100,000. The percentage is still small. It’s the trend that is worrying. The spike appeared to track the emergence of the Delta variant that’s been troubling epidemiologists because of its high rate of transmissibility.
The American Academy of Pediatrics and the Children’s Hospital Association, a couple of gold-standard medical organizations, said that children’s cases are now increasing exponentially in the US, with 750,000 new cases added over the month of August and another 250,000 cases in the first week of September alone.
So, parental apprehension about the graduated—some say hasty—opening of schools just as what’s now looking a lot like an aggressive fourth wave of the pandemic gathers momentum doesn’t seem entirely misplaced.
In Ontario, the Province has reported more than 300 known active cases in schools. Some districts report hundreds more students who are not showing symptoms but who were sent home to quarantine for two weeks because of positive tests. These followed school-environment exposures. A number of schools in eastern Ontario were already cancelling classes during the second week of school because of exposures and outbreaks.
In Quebec, 600 schools have reported education-based cases.
In Atlantic Canada, New Brunswick confirmed 11 schools with confirmed outbreaks and closed a high school. Prince Edward Island had no sooner opened schools than it began closing them again in Charlottetown, the island province’s biggest city, because of an outbreak that the chief health officer describes as “a serious situation with COVID-19 transmission…involving children.”
In Saskatchewan, the teacher’s federation urged the provincial government to impose more stringent public health controls to grapple with rising infection rates among children. The union asked for smaller classes, broader indoor mask requirements and a vaccination mandate for everyone one eligible—children over 12, teachers and staff. The federation’s president described the situation as “dire” and called for a requirement that there be mandatory isolation for any students, teachers or staff testing positive for the virus.
Even Alberta, where schools aren’t officially tabulated as experiencing an outbreak until 10 percent of the student body is sick and absent, some schools were already declaring that they had outbreaks.
Is this trend going to get worse? In Alberta they appear to think so. At a special news conference September 15 the province’s upbeat premier Jason Kenney, who not long ago was promising “The Best Summer Ever” and defeat of the virus, seemed subdued when he announced sweeping health-care restrictions to start a day later in response to what’s a developing health care crisis.
The usually pugnacious premier didn’t just blink, he flinched.
On the heels of his announcement, Calgary’s three largest post-secondary institutions abruptly cancelled all in-person classes for the remainder of the week. And The Calgary Herald reports that 40 Alberta schools are now being investigated for outbreaks while parents complain of a growing information void around how many positive cases are actually affecting schools and how close they may be to closing.
ARE THESE EVENTS in school systems elsewhere a possible portent for BC? One hopes not and nobody can say for sure but COVID-19 modelling and experience with what happens to respiratory illness rates when people begin to congregate indoors during the cold winter season, hints that they might be.
In many of these school cases, some public health experts have said, the children were apparently infected at home, then carried the virus to school where it spread rapidly to other children, who then carried it back to their own homes to infect siblings, parents and relatives.
At least one event involved a school bus. BC’s authorities say school buses are safe and require only regular seating for the 110,000 students who ride them twice a day, sometimes for several hours in total. One route in Northern BC, for example, requires a round trip of 230 kilometres. Meanwhile, exposures on school buses are now being reported from Oregon to Ontario.
Not surprising, then, that in Alberta, nine post-secondary institutions have now arbitrarily ignored the province’s advisories. They simply unilaterally imposed much stricter regulations governing access to classes. Not only must faculty and staff be fully vaccinated, so must students—and students are to be required to provide verifiable proof of vaccination to attend class.
Is it time to start thinking about mandating vaccination and proof of such for all students over 12 in all BC schools from university down? Judging from the Province’s own statistics, the majority of parents have already embraced vaccination as a safe and effective protection against the worst effects of a COVID-19 infection.
As of the first week of school, almost 80 percent of adults in the province were fully vaccinated, but the school-aged population between 12 and 17 lagged at 67 percent. Good, but not good enough by the government’s own targets.
The ministry of education’s website is cheery and upbeat about all the benefits of returning to the classroom with the safety protocols it’s put in place. They include masks indoors from kindergarten to Grade 12, flexible regulations that permit the deployment of rapid response teams as necessary. And it cites studies that schools in BC were not a significant source of COVID-19 transmission. These studies found during the 2020-2021 school year that 90 percent of school-associated cases were acquired at home or in the community, not the school.
But that was before the Delta variant, with its jaw-dropping 10-fold increase in transmissibility, came roaring onto the scene to upset models and projections. Delta variant is now the most prevalent strain circulating in BC. It is responsible for almost 100 percent of COVID-19 cases in both children and adults. About 17 percent of cases in the province and two percent of hospitalizations now involve patients under 18 years of age, says the BC Children’s Hospital in Vancouver.
“Children get less sick from COVID-19 than adults—but rarely they can get quite sick. And we still don’t know if the Delta variant is more severe for children,” says Dr Laura Sauvé, a paediatric infectious disease specialist, on the hospital’s website.
What’s been occurring in other provinces suggests that BC’s optimistic approach might need a cautious re-think.
And in the meantime, since the kids are congregating at school, maybe that’s the place to locate province-wide pop-up vaccination clinics in addition to inviting those who want to be vaccinated to travel to community drop-in clinics, public health clinics and so on.
Maximizing vaccination coverage for the remaining 30 percent of teenagers seems like the most effective and painless way to further limit transmission, amplify school safety and reduce anxiety for parents.
Some school districts are setting-up COVID-19 vaccination clinics—there are three scheduled for Mission over the next week; clinics were scheduled for Vernon, Armstrong and Keremeos; Cranbrook and Kimberley also planned clinics. And most of BC’s post-secondary institutions have already provided students with on-campus clinics and held vaccination drives. They seem to have been generally successful.
This is good news for anxious parents, but it could be better news if it were rolled out as a comprehensive provincial program rather than a piecemeal, regionally-driven program—which is what seems to have emerged.
And perhaps it should be developed as a strategy for the next pandemic. Because there will be a next time, maybe even more stressful than this time.
Stephen Hume has spent half a century as a journalist writing about Western Canada, the Far North, BC and the Island.
(Image at top from Province of BC)
As per capita rates skyrocket throughout BC, requiring proof of vaccination for students to attend class is not a violation of their civil liberties.
AS COVID-19’s HIGHLY-CONTAGIOUS DELTA VARIANT rips through British Columbia’s still-considerable unvaccinated and only partially-vaccinated population of almost 1.3 million, the provincial government has finally blinked on its rosy reopening plans.
Not surprising, the way the actual case counts are rocketing up.
The BC Centre for Disease Control dashboard Monday, August 30 showed a count of 1,853 new cases over the weekend. Recall that on July 5, the 7-day average was only 38 new cases. So here we are after several months of cautious opening up with a 1,666 percent increase in the moving average for actual number of cases just a week before school starts.
The blink was appropriate. But it’s still just a belated blink, symbolized, perhaps, by Premier John Horgan’s casual if controversial wink at the rules by appearing with six other maskless diners at a restaurant in Vernon where infection rates have just increased from 12 to 195 per 100,000—that’s a 1,525 percent increase. Here on Vancouver Island the increase is the lowest in the province, yet it’s still up 1,350 percent in a few weeks. In Northern BC, the infection rate increased a jaw-dropping 16,333 percent with almost 40 percent of cases among First Nations although they represent only 17 percent of the overall population there.
Frankly, government should be taking the blinkers off entirely, as faculty at the University of Victoria warned last week.
Allowing university students to attend campus unvaccinated with no requirements for rapid testing to track potential exposures shows lack of concern for risk to faculty, staff and other students, said Lynne Marks, president of UVic’s faculty association.
Worse, it doesn’t appear to deal with the dynamic of either university or high school campuses in which classes shuffle and reassemble every 50 minutes—and at universities these classes can be in excess of 300 students.
A typical university class can have 300 students.
Think about that. An 18-year-old first year student with three large lecture classes and a couple of regular sized classes can mingle with maybe 2,000 strangers a week in an environment where nobody knows who is and who isn’t vaccinated, social distancing is minimal and who knows what standard the ventilation meets.
Let’s see, a 300-student class that meets three times a week is a potential for at least 270,000 contacts among strangers outside their social bubbles—a week!
This is like turning on a giant social Mix-Master for exchanging viral loads among virus carriers.
Research now indisputably shows that even vaccinated people with no symptoms can be carrying 10 times the viral load of people who were infected by the less contagious original virus in the first wave,
History is rife with accounts of generals losing wars because they continued applying the tactics that won past campaigns to the battles being waged by different foes with new weapons and new strategies.
Nobody deserves to be the victim of yesterday’s generals in tomorrow’s fight against this rapidly changing, highly opportunistic virus.
Earlier BC government modelling proved far more optimistic than reality, as shown in graph presented by Ministry of Health on August 31, 2021
The fourth wave of the COVID-19 pandemic is not a replay of the first, second or third waves. Rather than signalling that the end of this dreary campaign is in sight, this fourth wave more likely represents another holding action in a long game that’s already brewing.
What comes next isn’t easily predicted. From the initial scary encounter with the virus—Italian hospitals in chaos, bodies lying in the streets in China, and mass graves from New York to Barcelona—we’ve now got what the World Health Organization classifies as four additional “variants of concern” and four “variants of interest.” They emerged from the 216 million infections world-wide which are now rising by 676,000 new cases a day. The variants have been piggy-backing around the planet on jet planes which we’ve decided must keep flying to keep the economy ticking over.
The precautionary principle & half a million unvaccinated students
Nobody anticipated the aggressiveness of the Delta variant that is now the principal cause of infection, hospitalization and death in Canada. And now we have a fistful of new variants to start thinking about. Lambda, a mutation from South America which is already showing up in Texas and California, for example. Its contribution to the worrying mix is an apparent ability to evade the protections that come from the vaccines now in main use.
Will it, like Delta, emerge as another aggressive threat? Who can say? But it might. And giving it and perhaps other unidentified permutations of COVID-19 an opportunity to spread and further adapt among a large population of unvaccinated school and university students while assuming that measures taken to bend the curve during the third wave are the way to stop them in the fourth wave just seems like an invitation for a fifth wave.
We’re all tired of the impositions, the inconvenience, the economic burdens, the isolation, the physical and emotional stress. Everybody gets that. But we’re also only 16 months into this.
If this were World War Two, we’d be eight months away from Pearl Harbour, with four more years of grief awaiting us after that.
So perhaps instead of griping, denying, evading, obstructing, lying to ourselves and whining about it, we should suck it up as our parents and grandparents did and start buckling down to what needs to be done to face what might be a long, painful and unpleasant grind.
The latest (August 31, 2021) projections from Government of BC shows that cases and hospitalizations pretty much depend on vaccinations rates
We were supposed to be back to normal by the time schools reopened. Instead we’re now back to masks indoors for all teenagers and adults with a new safety regulation added—proof-of-vaccination requirements for attending some non-essential public gatherings from indoor weddings to large-scale sporting events.
But not schools. There’s been a nod to caution by requiring masks in the classroom—well that’s a move in the right direction—but still no imposition of strong rules for appropriate social distancing and enhanced ventilation in classrooms.
One grim epidemiological flow chart from California where public health authorities are worriedly monitoring the arrival of the Lambda variant, gives a glimpse of the risk. A single unvaccinated elementary school teacher read to her class without a mask and infected half her students who then took the virus home and infected their parents. The spread of the virus in the classroom was directly associated with students’ proximity to the teacher. In a few days, 26 people had been affected.
The Centre for Disease Control in the United States, referencing the California incident, said it encourages school authorities to “do the right thing to protect the children under their care.” It urges multi-layered mitigation strategies which included: universal masks in schools “to prevent outbreaks and reduce the risk of children bringing the virus home to others who are vulnerable;” improved ventilation in classrooms to reduce infectious particles circulating through the air and, a side benefit, to reduce exposure to other respiratory viruses that can mask or resemble COVID-19 symptoms; and, finally, vaccination for everyone who qualifies. In BC that’s every student over 12—because “when our children who are not yet vaccinated are surrounded by vaccinated people, they are more protected.”
In BC, with about a week to go before classes commence, we still have roughly 655,000 kids under 17 who are not fully vaccinated and another 184,000 in the college and university age group. Of these, about 425,000 are not vaccinated because they are still too young to qualify for vaccination.
The precautionary principle here points pretty clearly to the value in a plan for vaccinating as many unvaccinated kids as possible in order to protect the large body of students—and by extension their parents, teachers, coaches, dentists, and so on—that can’t yet be vaccinated.
What we don’t want is an aggressive virus with its emerging subsets of mutating variants swirling around in a pool of half a million unvaccinated individuals.
Which leads to the question—why aren’t we making vaccination a requirement for all those eligible if they want to attend or teach a class the same way we make it a requirement for other activities?
Indeed, schools are an ideal place to organize mass vaccination of 12-17 year olds as we’ve done for measles, polio, mumps and so on. And the way to do it is to vaccinate on site, delay the start of classes for two weeks while kids’ immune systems kick in then bring them back to appropriately ventilated and socially distanced classrooms.
Is this a pain in the neck for administrators? Sure, but for administrators the priority is the safety of their charges, not the convenience of the administrative process. Is it expensive? Sure, but we spent $18 billion and 20 years prosecuting a war in Afghanistan that was a complete failure.
Requiring vaccination is not a violation of civil liberties
Trips to the mall, the hockey rink, your local diner, the library and so on will all now require proof of vaccination before entry—although some businesses are objecting that they shouldn’t have to ask people for their health care status on privacy and enforcement grounds. This is a bogus, self-serving argument, though. Establishments routinely ask patrons to produce proof-of-age before serving them alcoholic beverages. If they serve underage customers alcohol, they can be arbitrarily closed and patrons who lie about their age to obtain a drink can be charged and fined.
Restaurant kitchens are subject to public health inspections and if they are deemed not to meet strict standards or to pose a risk to customers, they can be closed on the spot.
All work places are subject to safety checks. If they are deemed unsafe, they get closed and the workers sent home.
And insurers routinely ask clients for a full declaration of health status and can unilaterally void insurance if the information provided is false. Somehow providing accurate information about your health status for travel insurance you can enjoy a beach holiday in Florida is no imposition but providing it to protect kids in a classroom is an affront to civil liberties. It’s not.
So the argument that requiring vaccination—or even asking about it—status is some kind of new violation of civil liberties just doesn’t fly.
The question for government, faced with growing evidence that unvaccinated individuals are a health risk to everyone, most immediately other unvaccinated people but also to many of the already vaccinated, is why it isn’t simply mandating vaccination as a classroom requirement for everyone who qualifies for a jab.
And please, spare us the sanctimonious privacy/civil liberties mantra since government already collects more data than it can use on all of us from which drugs we purchase to compiling every traffic offence to having police rip medical masks off protesters at Fairy Creek—that couldn’t be to make sure they are identifiable to facial recognition software, could it? Just asking, since it seemed pretty methodical in the videos I’ve watched.
However, reassuring as the government’s ability adapt to changing circumstances may seem, it’s been as much a case of the politicians and their advisers following the public as it has of them doing what we elect them to do—actually leading us. Before the province adjusted its alignment we’ve already had private organizations from sports franchises to retailers simply stepping up and saying “No mask, stay home.”
Over the last week of August, with a return to the classroom looming, the Province says the number of registrations for vaccinations by people under 40 has more than doubled. At that rate, another 165,000 people will be vaccinated by September 7, when schools open and students return to campus lecture theatres.
That’s the good news.
The bad news is that teachers, students and staff are still saying the provincial government isn’t providing the kind of strong, assertive leadership that’s required to avert increased danger for at-risk school teachers and college and university faculty and staff if they are forced to mingle in crowded classrooms and lecture theatres where there’s no requirement for social distancing.
As a piece in Focus on Victoria recently observed, about one in 10 of these falls into groups made vulnerable to much higher risk because of age and the underlying medical conditions that exacerbate symptoms, even for those who are fully vaccinated.
But there’s concerning evidence of growing numbers of breakthrough infections for fully vaccinated people, most seriously among older groups with underlying conditions but also for children previously considered at very low risk.
The New York Times reported last week that a survey of children’s hospitals across the United States finds a growing concern among health care experts there that “children not yet eligible for vaccination in places with substantial viral spread (are) now at higher risk of being infected than at any other time in the pandemic.”
Most children still display only mild symptoms—that’s not in dispute. But that doesn’t mean the blinkers should be on for the other ominous signs that are emerging. As The Times reported, for the first time in the pandemic “The crush of COVID-19 at Children’s Hospital (in New Orleans) grew so intense this month that the state called in a federal “surge team” of emergency responders” from the government’s national disaster medical system.”
So here we are, a week before school starts.
Teachers say: Schools need safety upgrades to classroom ventilation; vaccination clinics on site; comprehensive testing; N95 or medical standard masks for staff and students.
University faculty say: Modelling by scientists teaching BC universities points to rapid increases in COVID-19 infections and hospitalizations; current plans for reopening are inadequate and universities should have the authority to demand vaccinations for students, faculty and staff where deemed necessary.
University unions say: Requiring vaccinations for students in classrooms is the most important step necessary to protect both students and staff. They point out that students have the option not to attend classes they feel are unsafe but university employees don’t have the option.
Dr Bonnie Henry, however, says the government’s “complicated, risk-based assessment” means a vaccination mandate is not warranted for school attendance.
Basically, the government is saying: “Don’t worry, we’ve got this.”
Clearly, a lot of well-informed folks don’t think they do.
Stephen Hume has spent half a century as a journalist writing about Western Canada, the Far North, BC and the Island. He has been vaccinated.
WHILE FAMILY AND FRIENDS of the 569 British Columbians who died in June as a direct result of runaway global heating were still grieving, the provincial government was quietly approving the initial project plan for another huge fossil fuel facility.
Producing 12 million tonnes of liquefied natural gas (LNG) annually, Ksi Lisims LNG in northwestern BC will do nothing but increase worldwide emissions, leading to even more extreme heating, more deaths and more unprecedented weather events.
Adding insult to injury, BC taxpayers can expect to cough up additional billions of dollars in subsidies, royalty credits, reduced BC Hydro rates, a sales tax holiday, and cancelled LNG tax for the ill-advised project.
Approving the project, ever-so-quietly
On July 16, 2021, less than three weeks after southwestern BC’s heat dome disaster, the associate deputy minister for BC’s environmental assessment office, Elenore Arend, signed an order approving the initial plan for the Ksi Lisims LNG project. The proponents are Texas-based Western LNG, with Canadian partners Rockies LNG, and Nisga’a Nation. The facility will be built at Wil Milit on undeveloped Pearse Island, 80 km north of Prince Rupert, near the Alaskan panhandle. It will sit on Nisga’a land and water, and is estimated to begin production in late 2027 or 2028. The liquefying modules themselves would float offshore.
Pearse Island, BC: A lovely spot for a huge fossil fuel plant? (Photo: Ksi Lisims LNG)
The Ksi Lisims (pronounced “S’lisims”) LNG project is still some distance from final approval, as it has yet to clear other hurdles, including permission to disturb more than 2 hectares of foreshore and underwater land, arrange for a new BC Hydro line, and build a new pipeline from the Montney Basin gas field on the northern BC-Alberta border, to the project site. The island was previously logged, but has seen no industrial activity of the scale of a large LNG facility. While the partners have yet to make a final investment decision, they have already devoted years of work to the venture, as evidenced by a detailed 135-page initial project description they submitted to the federal and BC governments.
Ksi Lisims LNG would be only marginally smaller than the under-construction LNG Canada facility in Kitimat—dubbed the largest infrastructure project in the history of Canada. Yet, in sharp contrast to the hoopla that surrounded the October 2018 announcement of LNG Canada, there was not a peep out of the well-oiled $28.3 million Government Communications and Public Engagement unit. No BC minister gave a speech; there was no government statement or news release about Ksi Lisims. Certainly no marching bands or balloons.
Answering questions from Focus, an official in the Ministry of Energy, Mines and Low Carbon Innovation, said in a July 27 email: “We are aware of the partnership between the Nisga’a Nation, Rockies LNG and Western LNG for the proposed Ksi Lisims LNG project.”
The government supports LNG development, said the official, provided it guarantees a “fair return” for BC’s natural resources as well as jobs and training opportunities for British Columbians; respects and forms partnerships with First Nations; and “protects BC’s air, land and water, including living up to the Province’s climate commitments.”
The ministry official added that “the environmental assessment process will provide an opportunity for the public to learn more about the environmental, social and economic impacts of the proposed project.”
What about the $6 billion in subsidies, tax deferments and other goodies given to LNG Canada? Would Ksi Lisims get comparable amounts? In a follow-up July 28 email, the official said that Ksi Lisims had yet to ask to be considered under the March 22, 2018 LNG Fiscal Framework.
“The Ksi Lisims project is still at an early stage of development, and the Province does not generally undertake analysis of potential fiscal implications of a project like Ksi Lisims until a request is made,” said the official. “If a request is made, any information on credits or other tax frameworks specific to the project would not be made public due to commercial confidentiality.”
Despite this, the 2018 LNG Fiscal Framework includes the following statement, near the top: “These measures [i.e. subsidies, tax and hydro breaks] below would apply to the entire LNG sector.”
Western LNG estimates that it will pay $3 billion in local and provincial taxes over Ksi Lisims’ 30-year lifetime, or $100 million per year. The description does not mention whether this is after the billions in tax credits and other benefits available under BC’s LNG financial framework and the royalty tax credit scheme.
Direct and indirect economic benefits, says the company, would total another $35 billion.
Western did not point out that there is widespread criticism of so-called “indirect” benefits, which often turn out to be far less than predicted.
As for those jobs, at least some will be overseas, as is the case for LNG Canada. The project’s liquefaction modules, designed to float offshore, are “constructed in foreign shipyards overseas, to BC and Canadian engineering standards, and then towed into position,” says the project plan. Keep in mind that LNG Canada’s decision to have its modules built in China has been less than a raging success.
Adding to the mystery of the missing government news release on the project is the opening by the Environmental Assessment Office and its federal counterpart, the Impact Assessment Agency of Canada, of a brief period for public comment. Having started August 10, the period closes at midnight on September 24. That gives the impression that the government is pushing this project through, come climate hell or high seas. While I could find nothing from the BC government, the federal government did post a statement August 10 on Newswire, a news release site. The news release was carried by just one newspaper, the Terrace Standard, according to a newspaper database search. Doubtless Terrace residents, as well as the Ksi Lisims proponents, know about the “public” comment arrangement. But who else does?
A few weeks following the unheralded approval of the Ksi Lisims LNG initial plan, the August 9 report from the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) warned that without radical, imminent change in the way we live, humans and other animals are not long for this planet. It’s going to take vastly more than all of us installing heat pumps and switching to EVs. LNG Canada and Ksi Lisims LNG will make it that much more difficult.
A slide from the IPCC’s August 9 presentation accompanying its “Code Red” report
But perhaps the government doesn’t care about that. Premier John Horgan doesn’t seem to understand the link between fossil fuels and climate change. Responding to the deaths of nearly 600 British Columbians from the heatwave in June, he stated, “Fatalities are a part of life…The public was acutely aware that we had a heat problem, but it was apparent to anyone who walked outdoors that we were in an unprecedented heat wave and again there’s a level of personal responsibility.”
He certainly wasn’t taking responsibility or admitting that BC’s vast fossil fuel subsidies had helped boost global heating. A few weeks later came the Horgan government’s approval of the initial project plan for Ksi Lisims LNG.
BC’s—and LNG’s—contribution to overheating the Earth
The latest GHG inventory from Environment and Climate Change Canada (ECCC), published in April 2021, showed that for the fourth year in a row, BC’s emissions had increased, reaching 65.7 megatonnes (Mt) in 2019, 200,000 tonnes more than in the previous year. Oil and gas extraction emissions increased 230,000 tonnes—meaning that reductions in emissions from light vehicles, for example, were more than counterbalanced by the fossil fuel industry’s increased emissions. Yet 2019 was the first year covered by Clean BC, the government’s plan towards a low-carbon future.
Neither ECCC nor BC’s Climate Action Secretariat, which publishes the Province’s own inventory, includes in its official total the largest source of GHG emissions: wildfire smoke. In 2018, BC’s wildfire smoke totalled 199.7 Mt, approximately three times as much as the Province’s official GHG total. ECCC’s reasoning? Because along with insect outbreaks, wildfires are “natural disturbances” and are consequently non-anthropogenic—a demonstrably false statement. But even so, it would mean that reducing other high emission contributors—like fossil fuel production—was even more essential to tackling the climate crisis.
Of course, the fossil industry—and the BC Government—love to claim that LNG will displace coal in China as a fuel for producing electricity, pointing out correctly that burning LNG is cleaner than burning coal. For instance, Ksi Lisims partner Western LNG said in a July 19, 2021 statement that environmental benefits of the Project are “extensive.”
Said the statement: “Replacing coal and oil with LNG exported from Ksi Lisims LNG would result in a reduction of global carbon emissions of more than 45 million tonnes per year, or 1.3 gigatonnes over a 30-year period, which is equivalent to nearly two years of total carbon emissions from Canada.”
What this claim ignores are the emissions released during extraction, processing, pipeline transport, liquefaction, tanker transport, regasification and transport of the resulting gas to the power plants. For US LNG, the actual burning of gas in an Asian power plant results in just over half (53 percent) of LNG’s life-cycle emissions, according to a detailed analysis published December 8, 2020 by the New York-based Natural Resources Defence Council (NRDC). The remaining 47 percent are from everything else. Not only that, the vast LNG infrastructure locks in a fossil fuel source for decades, well beyond the time by which humans need to drastically cut emissions, according to NRDC report co-author Christina Swanson. “Instead of pursuing these white elephant projects, we should be investing in clean-energy technologies, technologies that are genuine climate solutions,” Swanson said in a statement.
A slide from the IPCC’s August 9 presentation accompanying its “Code Red” report
The Province of Quebec appears to have heeded such advice. Just a few days after the BC Government gave the go-ahead for the Ksi Lisims LNG plan, Quebec rejected a similar proposal to pipe gas from BC and Alberta, and then liquefy it for export overseas. GNL Quebec planned to spend $14 billion on the project on the Saguenay River. It would have produced 11 Mt of LNG annually, compared with Ksi Lisims’ 12 Mt. Like LNG Canada and Ksi Lisims LNG, it promised jobs, economic stimulus and a reduction in worldwide emissions. But Quebec environment Minister Benoit Charette said his government was not convinced that the plant would reduce greenhouse gases.
“The promoter has not succeeded in demonstrating this—on the contrary,” Charette was quoted as saying in a July 22 Canadian Press story. “This is a project that has more disadvantages than advantages.” He added that LNG would discourage natural gas buyers from switching to cleaner energy—just as environmentalists have argued in connection with LNG Canada.
Charette’s decision was doubtless made easier by a 120,000-signature petition against it, and by the fact that nearly 1,000 scientists, health professionals and economists, three Innu communities, and all opposition parties opposed the project.
Another claim commonly heard is that Canadians need not worry about reducing emissions, since in 2018 we produced only around two percent of worldwide emissions, according to data published by the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS). While China’s emissions totalled 10.06 gigatonnes (Gt), Canada’s were 0.56 Gt. So why bother doing anything? Let’s continue on the path to destruction, and let the Big Bad Guys do the hard work.
However, on a per capita basis, the tables are turned. We produce more GHGs per person annually (15.32 tonnes) than all but four other countries, and are not far behind the worst, Saudi Arabia, at 18.48 tonnes. Ours were more than double China’s 7.05 tonnes per capita. It would not be surprising to learn that those in the dozens of countries producing less emissions than Canada per person are saying: Let Canada reduce its emissions first. We’ll continue business as usual. But from the planet’s perspective, Canada, BC and other jurisdictions need to stop passing the buck.
Immediate action needed
In a summary for policy makers accompanying the IPCC’s August 9 stirring “Code Red for Humanity” report, the United Nations agency warned of the planet’s imminent future: “Global surface temperature will continue to increase until at least the mid-century under all emissions scenarios considered. Global warming of 1.5°C and 2°C will be exceeded during the 21st century unless deep reductions in carbon dioxide (CO2) and other greenhouse gas emissions occur in the coming decades.”
What does that mean for BC? By all means continue Clean BC’s successful subsidies for home energy savings and EVs. But far more is needed, including halting all under-construction and proposed fossil fuel projects. Shut down LNG Canada now, reject Ksi Lisims LNG before any more public time and money is wasted on it, and make it clear that we will consider no more LNG projects.
Divert the untold billions in taxpayer-funded subsidies, BC Hydro discounts and royalty credits from the dying fossil industry to solar and wind energy. Consider a back-of-the-envelope estimate: If the $6 billion in LNG Canada subsidies and credits were instead put towards solar power, they would pay half the cost of 800,000 typical home installations of photovoltaic solar power. That includes site inspection, the panels, installation, and grid tie-in for a common $15,000 home solar project. The result would be a sharp drop in BC Hydro bills, much smaller transmission lines, and even less need than now for Site C.
In other words, start supporting the preservation of life on earth.
Russ Francis worries that runaway global heating will make the planet uninhabitable for most non-human animals, none of whom can be regarded as supporting the fossil fuel industry.
The lack of restrictions in schools and universities don’t jive with Health Canada’s sensibly cautious recommendations around COVID 19.
UNLESS THINGS CHANGE DRAMATICALLY over the next few weeks, British Columbia will launch a massive experiment in pandemic management strategy involving about a million children, teenagers, young adults and their families and teachers.
It begins when students, at least a quarter of a million of them completely unvaccinated, return to crowded classrooms—some university classes number 300 students or more—with (so far) few requirements for masks or social distancing. With a month to go before schools reopen, about 85 percent of kids under 17 were still unvaccinated. About 40 percent of those aged 18 to 29 still had not been fully vaccinated as of August 9.
BC’s allowance of crowded lecture halls with no requirement for masks or vaccinations is contrary to Health Canada’s recommendations around COVID 19.
Some students, parents and teachers want masks and a more conservative approach to classroom safety protocols. Some even advocate that high schools and university students require proof of vaccination before admission to classrooms and university events. One recent poll found that 77 percent of British Columbians want mandatory vaccination as a prerequisite for university attendance and even more—about 80 percent—think the same should apply to attending sports events or to flying anywhere in the province or, for that matter, to the rest of Canada.
But so far the province is standing by its announced position that these additional safety measures are not necessary and that a continued gradual easing of restrictions is the proper response. It says it’s finding a balance between public safety and opening up the economy.
Anticipated rules might change, though, after an announcement August 16 that the province had recorded 1,434 new cases in the previous three days—about 50 percent higher than was reported a week previous. The number of hospital cases had increased by over 50 percent, with those admitted to intensive care doubling over the past week.
The present calculation is that high vaccination rates in BC’s adult population—the government certainly deserves its praise for that—and rising vaccination rates among the population aged 12 to 29 (which currently has the lowest vaccination rate but is also least susceptible to serious illness) will nevertheless blunt both the rate of transmission and the lethality of the virus for those who do get infected. The best case is that transmission of COVID 19 stalls and, while we don’t exactly return to normal, at least we get back to a semblance of normal.
That is the plan. But as every wise general knows, few are the plans that survive engagement with the enemy.
The threat to the reopening plan is what looks suspiciously like a troubling fourth wave. New infections have been increasing on an exponential growth curve, doubling every 7.5 days. Most of the new infections are among the unvaccinated.
The unvaccinated provide a fertile field for the virus, particularly the aggressive delta variant which now comprises most infections and is about ten times as transmissible as the first. Even the vaccinated who are exposed to the delta variant but develop no symptoms can carry heavy viral loads which can then be transmitted to others, including those who are vaccinated but for some reason have less robust immunity.
FACED WITH THE PROSPECT of a return to business as usual in classrooms where few are vaccinated, masks are optional and classrooms are expected to be used at maximum levels, parents and teachers and university faculty associations are protesting the moves and urging stronger precautions.
At Simon Fraser University, the biology department simply defied the administration. The chair of biological sciences at SFU ruled that masks would be required in all biology classrooms and lecture theatres and that staff would have the right to refuse unvaccinated individuals entry to biology offices and labs.
The student society at SFU told media it’s detecting a lot of anxiety among students, not because they fear disruption but because making masks optional, eliminating social distancing requirements and failing to limit capacity in most classes, lecture halls and at campus events puts them and their teachers at greater risk.
At the University of Victoria, the faculty association asked for mandatory vaccinations for faculty, staff and students. The graduate students there moved unilaterally to require masks for entry to their society’s buildings and offices and the UVic Students’ Society says it supports the faculty association’s request. Unions at the university representing teaching assistants, sessional instructors and other staff at UVic want a mask mandate and urge that vaccination be required for residents and workers in student housing. (I should disclose here that I’ve taught—and still sometimes teach—the occasional university course in journalism, creative non-fiction, research methods and so on.)
As with many policy decisions based on big picture statistics, the devil is often in the details.
For example, while most teachers and faculty are vaccinated and therefore assumed to be safe, many younger university students still are not, most teenaged secondary students are not, few junior secondary students are vaccinated and no students under Grade Seven are. So they are at primary risk for infection which makes them a greater threat to their older teachers and their own generally older contacts from partners to frail elderly parents.
There’s growing evidence in the research literature that the older one is, the greater the risk of lower immunity, even if vaccinated, simply because immune systems degrade over time.
So, older teachers have a higher risk. How much higher? Well, we don’t really know because we haven’t had sufficient time for the baseline research. We do know from emerging research, though, that five out of every 100 people in the general population could still get infected even after two doses of either of the leading mRNA vaccines now in widest use in BC.
And we know from research that these “breakthrough” infections are most likely in persons over 65 and among those who have underlying medical conditions that put them a greater risk of serious complications—whether actual disorders or therapies which compromise the immune system. Diabetes, high blood pressure, asthma, congestive obstructive pulmonary disorder, being overweight and so on are all indicators of greater risk.
Okay, how many teachers are in these higher-risk age and health brackets? Well, according to an age profile of the teaching profession tabulated by the BC Teachers’ Federation, there are about 5,500 teachers in the province’s schools who are over 50. And one compiled by the Canadian Association of University Teachers for 2018 on a discipline-by-discipline basis found that more than 10 percent are over 65. Of these, statistical averages suggest about 20 percent of teachers aged 50 to 64 will have high blood pressure and for those over 65 it jumps to about 40 per cent. On average, about 23 percent of those over 50 will have diabetes. So one in five teachers in a school or university classroom is at elevated risk of a serious outcome should they contract COVID 19, even if fully vaccinated. That’s a minority, but it is a significant minority.
Remember, less than half BC’s population aged 18-29 and less than a quarter of those aged 12-17 had been vaccinated. As of July 30, almost half the new cases in Canada, virtually all involving the delta variant, were in people under the age of 29.
A reopening of campuses with no mask or social distancing requirements in classrooms means that the least vaccinated age cohorts—in which symptoms are expected mostly to either not present or to be mostly mild—will be unavoidably mixing with several age cohorts which are at considerably higher risk for serious adverse effects from an infection even if they are fully vaccinated.
Federal safety guidelines affirm this concern, which may alarm the groups affected but doesn’t appear to worry the provincial government.
Here’s what Health Canada was saying the last time I checked its website. The caveat “last time I checked” is required because, as the federal public health office observes, circumstances are fluid and “the risk of getting COVID-19 is evolving daily and varies between and within communities. Overall, the risk to most people in Canada remains high.”
“Deciding what personal preventive practices, like masking or physical distancing, you can safely ease up on and when and in what settings depends on several things,” Health Canada advises. “The decision isn’t just based on whether you’re fully vaccinated.”
It says other factors are age and personal health status and warns that the potential for severe illness following infection increases with age, underlying conditions (like high blood pressure or diabetes) and the age and health status of those immediately around the exposed person.
“The impact of you being infected is greater when you’re with older people and/or people with certain medical conditions,” Health Canada says. “This is because they’re at higher risk of severe illness.”
Thus we have one group that’s not largely vaccinated or is only partially vaccinated and is therefore more exposed to infection, even if the outcomes are mostly mild or asymptomatic, and another population which is mostly vaccinated and therefore has greater protection but which also has components that are at higher risk if infected, not only in themselves but to others in their immediate circle who likely have elevated risk due to age and medical status—very old parents, say. The 95-year-old parent of a 65-year-old teacher, for example, is about 600 times more likely to die from contracting COVID 19 than is a 22-year-old student.
Not surprising, then, that teachers, university professors, students and parents are all expressing anxiety at what seem to be contradictory messages from the BC government and from Health Canada.
Canada’s top public health agency is saying that we shouldn’t be engaging in what it calls “least safe activities” on the basis of age, personal health, medical conditions and the age and health status of those around us. It defines “least safe activities” as large indoor gatherings, especially where masking and physical distancing are not undertaken and/or being physically close to an unvaccinated or partially-vaccinated person when the virus continues to circulate in the community.
A first-year lecture with 300 students jammed into a lecture hall with no requirement for masks doesn’t seem to meet Health Canada’s “keep your distance” benchmark. Nor does exposing a 60-year-old public school teacher with diabetes or asthma or high blood pressure to a classroom of unvaccinated kids who aren’t required to wear masks.
And it gets more complicated. A just-published study of 50,000 vaccinated patients by the famed Mayo Clinic found that the effectiveness of the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine with comprised the first dose for most of BC’s higher risk population had declined to 42 percent effectiveness against the newly emerged delta variant which now represents 95 percent of the new cases in here. And in Oregon, 20 percent of July’s documented COVID 19 infections were among already vaccinated individuals.
The upside to that gloomy news is that the number of breakthrough infections that are serious is small—for now. Yet another variant could change that. The present strain of COVID 19 rampaging through vast numbers of unvaccinated people in our neighbour to the south provides an ideal natural laboratory for developing new vaccine-resistant strains which, as we well know, pay no attention to borders.
All of which helps explain, perhaps, why Health Canada is warning that notwithstanding vaccination, if you are older and/or have pre-existing medical conditions, you are at greater risk of severe illness if you are infected and you may not get as much protection from vaccination compared to a younger person.
For this reason, the agency says, you should “keep wearing a mask and avoid getting close to others in public even if you are fully vaccinated.”
But BC’s plan for all teachers to return to small, enclosed classrooms with students who may not be vaccinated and for whom not wearing a mask is an option for personal choice, seems to ignore such advice.
A recent report in the New York Times quotes epidemiologists warning that seniors and people with immune systems compromised by advanced age and/or underlying medical conditions “could be particularly vulnerable in a surge, even if they were fully vaccinated, because their bodies might not produce a strong immune response from the vaccine.”
None of this is to suggest that vaccines aren’t the most important and valuable weapon for suppressing that exponential growth curve and minimizing detrimental health effects from infection. But it’s a bit more complicated than simply basing policy on the assumption that a vaccination is the silver bullet in this campaign.
Sending potentially vulnerable teachers back into classrooms with students who are not fully vaccinated and for whom wearing a mask is a personal choice is to ask those teachers to risk become potential transmission points to others who might be at even greater risk of severe illness or even death.
Setting up mass vaccination clinics for returning university students who already say they want mandatory vaccinations and telling them to wear masks in classroom settings doesn’t seem particularly onerous. After all, students and faculty can’t drive to campus without proof that they have a driver’s licence; they can’t park on campus without a permit; use the towels in the athletic facilities without paying a fee; take books out of the library without first obtaining a card; or attend classes without putting on their pants. Asking them to get vaccinated and wear a mask doesn’t seem unreasonable.
Stephen Hume has spent half a century as a journalist writing about Western Canada, the Far North, BC and the Island. He has been vaccinated.
Earth rises above the moon’s horizon, as captured by Apollo 9
A CORRESPONDENT WHO IDENTIFIED as a member of the Haida Nation recently commented on a piece I wrote for FOCUS about the role of renaming in the process of decolonizing our thinking about this province, one still draped in the symbols of oppressive colonial authority, from place names to architecture to public art.
It was a thoughtful comment and raised points about which I’ve been reflecting and trying to think through responses that are respectful and equally thoughtful, entangled as they are in a perplexing complexity.
First there’s the observation that: “You and your people were not invited here.”
Well, there’s no disputing that. I wasn’t invited. And yet here I am.
The implication of the statement, of course, is that since I came uninvited, perhaps I should disinvite myself. But the uncomfortable fact is that for three-quarters of a century I have known no other place. I’m here and for me, really, there is nowhere else to go. I didn’t come here of my own volition. I came as a tiny infant. I wasn’t consulted and I was offered no choice in the matter.
And this is even more true of people who aren’t part of Indigenous communities but who were born here—my brothers were all born here, for example, so they aren’t from somewhere else, they’re from here—as are our children, our children’s children and in a few cases, our children’s children’s children.
Others who are not Indigenous have even longer lineages in what’s now BC. Some can trace their genealogies back to the early 1800s.
Telling somebody with perhaps seven generations of ancestors born here that they’re not invited may be satisfying to say but in pragmatic terms it doesn’t really move us in a meaningful way toward a lasting or just solution.
I’ve run into challenges to the legitimacy of my presence here before. And not only from some members of Indigenous communities whose expressions of resentment and anger over the whole ugly, abusive legacy of colonialism I certainly understand and, to some extent, accept as inevitable and perhaps even just.
In the larger context, though, I believe allowing anger and resentment to shape what we say or do is almost always counterproductive. Anger, if you permit it to own you, never leads anywhere good. Even our bodies, faced with constant inflammation, cease to function properly. So, I believe, it is with the spirit.
For example, consider the exculpatory, deflecting “whataboutism” and defensive rhetoric that has arisen from some non-Indigenous quarters of mainstream society upon having the cruel injustice of the residential school system drawn to its attention and then being asked to think about accountability. Who should be held accountable? What should redress look like?
That angry response leads nowhere except into an unsustainable and dysfunctional swamp of denial. There’s no denying the reality of what happened, nor is there any excusing it. Denial prevents us from dealing with what happened. These were children who we victimized. Children! Blaming the victims for drawing our attention to the injustice of their victimization by us is unconscionable.
Misguided non-Indigenous response
I’ve also been told by non-Indigenous people who were born in BC that as an immigrant I have no right to comment upon events here and that I’m unwelcome and that I should either shut up or get out and “go home.” A few even offered to come and physically assist me in departing—“I’ll come and punch your lights out,” said one cheery note from Port Alice.
Some of this I found amusing, since in most cases it turned out that I’d actually been in the province half a century longer than had the folks saying that as a newcomer I had no right to be here.
Most of this ill will erupted into my in-basket whenever I wrote about resource exploitation issues, or shoddy environmental standards and the impending crises of global warming, loss of biological diversity, or the need for less rapacious harvesting of forests, fish and minerals.
A significant number of these non-Indigenous correspondents, however, took greatest affront at my writing about the obligation upon the dominant culture to face up to the need for justice for First Nations; to address their indisputable rights not to be economically marginalized, socially victimized by stereotypes; to govern themselves locally instead of being governed by distant bureaucrats in Ottawa; to have what has been done acknowledged instead of consigned to a collective national amnesia; and to expect redress rather than a gloss of “what-aboutism” and excuses.
I understand the source of that resentment. It comes out of fear, uncertainty, historical ignorance, a sense that there were powerful forces at work marginalizing individuals who had no power to resist what threatened their families and their livelihoods. Just as I understand the resentment expressed by some Indigenous voices at the heedless non-Indigenous majority which has enriched itself by appropriating and exploiting resources to which it had no unilateral right and which until recently seemed incapable of bearing witness to its own wrongdoings.
Which brings me to the second point made by the note from Haida Gwaii: “You and your people are not welcome here.”
The expression of that feeling, however understandable to me or satisfying for the speaker, doesn’t advance the conversation very far.
I’m here—that’s a simple fact.
I’m not welcome—well, that’s a feeling about a fact.
A fact that has to be addressed before we can get to addressing the feeling about it.
The fact is this. I’m here and I’m not going anywhere. And neither are the 5.1 million other British Columbians, 4.8 million of whom are not Indigenous, and who, whether welcome or not, are not going anywhere either.
Indeed, the math indicates the real growth of non-Indigenous numbers in BC is going to continue to exceed the real growth of the Indigenous population here in illahie (meaning ‘country’ or ‘earth’ or ‘land’ in Chinook) for the foreseeable future.
The birth rate for the Indigenous population is high, about four times higher than that of the non-Indigenous population, but it is nevertheless subject to the tyranny of numbers. There are about 8,200 Indigenous births in BC each year, but there are about 32,000 non-Indigenous births. Add to that the net population increase of 10,000 from inter-provincial migrants and immigrants to Canada and the difference is even greater.
By 2031, at those rates, the Indigenous population will have grown from 270,000 to 352,000 people. Over the same decade the non-Indigenous population will have grown by about five times that—around half a million—and the overall population will have grown from 5.1 to 5.9 million.
Even though the First Nations population has now surpassed what it’s thought to have been around the time that the colonial era began (and is now 10 times what it was at its nadir), the culturally dominant non-Indigenous majority is probably going to remain numerically dominant for centuries to come.
One thing seems clear. In a society with such disproportionate asymmetry between Indigenous culture and the mainstream, a progressive engagement is essential. Angry yelling at one another, retreating into self-justifying bubbles of cultural solitude, will simply mean that natural entropy will lead to the dominant culture unilaterally imposing its interpretation of how things should be, likely without even thinking about it.
The only thing we can change is the future
The pragmatic reality is that the past is messy. It’s filled with both despicable people and saintly ones; with great injustices and with ethical triumphs. We discover wicked acts among our ancestors and virtuous ones; there are the venal and there are the incorruptible; the misguided and the wise; there’s structural privilege and there’s altruism.
But the past is also changeless. As a wiser writer than I once pointed out, the past is a foreign country. We can read reports about it from a few who have been there but we can never go there ourselves. We can’t change it. The only thing we can change is our future.
So how do we do that? Where do we go from here? What can we change in our immediate future, the same future which will become our children’s past? How do we make the future better than the past from which our troubled present derives?
These are knotty, difficult questions. Yet that’s where we need to focus our energy, even if for some of us the engine of that energy is anger or resentment.
The worst side of us will always urge us to angry rhetoric that’s often intended more to wound than to engage; or to excuse and absolve ourselves of past injustices rather than take collective responsibility.
But remember this—the best side of us will always strive to do our best for each other and for the home we are going to have to share.
Okay, as the Haida writer observed, I wasn’t invited. And I and my people are not welcome here. I hear that.
But since we’re here to stay, and we’re not going away, what next?
And who, exactly are “my people”? Well, one of “my people,” at least in my immediate family, is First Nation by birth with ancestry in northern BC that goes back at least 10,000 years, probably far longer. And then, of course, there’s me, fresh off the boat but nonetheless here longer than about 90 percent of BC’s population—at my age there aren’t many who have been here longer than me. Quick generalizations (and I’ve made a few myself in my time), generally, are a bad place to start a conversation.
We hear disgruntled rhetoric from everywhere in these parlous times. Claims that Canada has no legitimacy because it was founded in an undeniable injustice; that Canada should be dismembered because of ancient wrongs perceived in Quebec or because of recent wrongs perceived in Alberta, or, indeed, even that Vancouver Island should separate from British Columbia because it doesn’t get a fair shake from the mainland; claims that the fabric of Canada’s identity is threatened by people who are of different race, culture, religion, even sense of personal self. Muslims, Jews, Asians, Americans, Blacks, Christians, atheists, First Nations, white people, the transgendered—the list of grievances is long.
But all this griping leads to a question. If not Canada, what? If not British Columbia, what? If not a culturally diverse nation, what? The question brings to mind the old aphorism that dishevelled, unruly, frustrating, irritating, maddening democracy is the worst possible choice for a government—until you consider the limitations, impositions and inherent injustices that all the others represent. Canada, at least, has the power and flexibility with which it may remake itself as a better version of what went before.
So, how do we go forward in this complicated time to make our shared home a better place? Do we burn it all down, as some propose? If we do that, what do we build in the ruins we create? And how do we do it in a way that means justice for all and not just for some? Do we ignore past wrongs? Then how do we ever reconcile with those who were wronged—or who wronged us?
The notion of ownership is an invention
The last point made by my critic from Haida Gwaii had to do with ownership.
If I own property in BC, the writer observed, the title to it only derives from laws passed by Queen Victoria. Perhaps I should instead write a piece making awkward legal arguments as to how I’m the rightful owner of what the writer describes as “my people’s land.”
Well, there’s indeed truth in that statement, although in my case I actually live by choice on treaty land and while there’s disagreement about what the two parties understood their original agreement to mean, further complicated by the passage of more than 150 years and the vast demographic, social, political and economic changes that none of them could have imagined, there’s a process for sorting those differences out by discussion, negotiation, good faith and, if necessary, the law, which however imperfect is what we have.
Several years ago, I had the privilege of being invited to be one of the formal witnesses at a conference jointly hosted by the Songhees First Nation, elders and cultural leaders from other First Nations around Victoria, and scholars from the University of Victoria to discuss what it meant to be treaty people.
I found it a remarkable and heartening coming together of wise men and women who were, indeed, trying to make respectful sense of who we are and what we want to become together.
The notion of ownership is an invention. It’s a way of trying to create an illusion of certainty for ourselves in an existence in which the norm is uncertainty. Ultimately, none of us owns anything, we just prefer to think we do because it gives us a feeling of certainty, Yet we are all only sojourners for a brief time and we’re all heading for the same exit, however much we surround ourselves with the material possessions, personal relationships, families, communities, tribes, nations and empires with which we create an illusion of permanence.
Live long enough and we’re destined to lose everything: what we own, the people we love, our memories and the consciousness that’s the sum of our perceptions. Naked we come, owning nothing, and naked we depart, taking nothing.
Am I the rightful owner in moral terms of Indigenous people’s land? No. Am I the owner according to the legal conventions of the moment? Yes. Could those conventions change? Perhaps, if we can agree on how. For example, joint sovereignty is not exactly an unusual concept. Our political landscape is already layered with overlapping jurisdictions—federal and provincial, provincial and municipal, legal and social, private and public tenures.
In terms of overlapping Crown and aboriginal titles, why not add a small tax to all private and residential properties and direct it as a reliable, predictable revenue stream to the First Nations that have underlying claims to original title?
We do it for libraries, schools, volunteer fire departments, sidewalks and street lights. It needn’t be onerous. Frankly, adding a couple of mills to the property tax rate and directing it to First Nations governments probably wouldn’t even be noticed by most property owners.
But those are details. There’s a more important question. Do I have a right to my place on Earth? Yes. And where is my place? Well, it’s here regardless of any wrangling over who owns what and to what degree. A conundrum perhaps best answered by two young Dene hunters I met in the sub-Arctic bush more than half a century ago.
They were gutting and butchering a caribou they had just shot.
I remember them grinning at me, up to their elbows in entrails, while I asked them about the magma pool of hostility that had recently welled-up in the resource-reliant non-Indigenous community in response to the filing of a land claim against the entire Mackenzie River Valley where both oil and gas pipelines and a highway were planned.
One of them looked up laughing and said: “They think we want to own the land. That makes them mad. We can’t own the land. Nobody can own the land. The land owns us.”
I’ve thought about that wisdom many times since, the way it frames the prevailing illusion that any of us actually owns anything.
We don’t, of course. All of us are just passing through, brief sojourners in the vast rolling tapestry of life. Everything we think we have must be surrendered and lost. The people we love most. Property. Material possessions. The beauties of sunsets and wind storms and seasons unfolding. All this will pass from our hearts, from our memories and finally from our minds and our ability to even sense their existence.
Perhaps, as some believe, spirits return. Perhaps, as others believe, they don’t and we simply dissipate into the everything and the nothing that comprises the universe. Nobody knows.
Our ideas of ownership, property, permanence, certainty are all illusions. We do have a duty though. A duty to good stewardship on behalf of those who will be here after we have departed, a duty to kindness to those with whom we share our brief journey, a duty to justice, a duty to do our best to act in good faith.
We’re all in the same canoe
In this time of fire and flood, vanishing species, environmental refugees in the tens of millions—including here in BC in our present moment—the looming imminence of catastrophic climate change that is reshaping the global ecosphere, perhaps we’d all do better to heed what a Tseshaht elder told me many years ago.
I was not long out of high school. It was the year after Canada’s 100th anniversary and in a flash of youthful enthusiasm after hearing him speak at a public lecture, I decided I had to go to Port Alberni to talk to George Clutesi about art. I persuaded my 19-year-old girlfriend to drive me there in her ancient and unreliable Volkswagen Beetle and she bravely took me over the hump from Nanaimo in a blinding snow storm.
I’d first met him as a nine-year-old. He was a friend of my dad. George was a janitor at the Alberni residential school where he’d once been an inmate for 11 years. At least, that was the day job that supported his writing, art, and shepherding a resurgence in dance and song. Emily Carr had bequeathed him her unused canvases, paint and brushes when she died which tells you the esteem in which he was held. While he was working at the residential school—despite being told not to by administrators—he began re-introducing a new generation of children to their traditions of song, dance and art.
He invited his two unexpected young visitors in and talked for a long time about art both in the context of Tseshaht traditions and of its place in the larger world of European and Asian art.
But the one thing that he said that has stuck so vividly in my memory that I can still hear him saying it, his old dog snoring on the rug and the rich scent of a roasting tyee salmon wafting out of his kitchen, was this:
“We’re all in the same canoe,” he said. “We can learn to paddle it together or we’ll capsize it and we can drown together.”
Learning to paddle together into the future, that’s the objective of reconciliation. What does reconciliation look like? I don’t know. Different people have different ideas about that. Which vision is right? I don’t know. That can only be determined by agreeing what it looks like and talking out how to get there.
Finding consensus can only come of talking it through. Reconciliation, it seems to me, requires finding what we have in common and celebrating those things while learning to accept, respect and tolerate our differences.
The canoe is already at sea. There’s a big storm coming. Everybody in our canoe has a right to be here. Where it goes is up to us. Paddle together or drown together.
Seems like a pretty straightforward choice.
Stephen Hume spent half a century as a journalist writing about Western Canada, the Far North, BC and the Island. His byline has appeared in most major Canadian newspapers. The author of nine books of poetry, natural history, history and literary essays, he lives on the Saanich Peninsula.
A new alliance of oil-sands producers is hoping to get $50 billion in government funds to use on technologies whose long term net climate benefits are questionable.
SHINY SILVER BULLETS like carbon capture, “clean” and “low carbon” blue hydrogen, or next generation nuclear have the potential to distract attention, while emissions continue to heat the planet. They could also attract climate subsidies away from proven solutions, and provide a lifeline to oil sands, LNG and other polluters.
Provincially, BC has launched its new Hydrogen Strategy which contains many good ideas, but supports blue hydrogen production, and the blending of hydrogen into the natural gas grid. These two goals could easily prolong reliance on fossil gas and contribute to missing another climate “commitment.”
Federally, there is a danger that the transition away from fossil fuels will be delayed by the perversion of erstwhile green strategies. Canada’s multi-billion-dollar Net Zero Accelerator funding could, in effect, become a fossil fuel subsidy. Tax credits for companies that invest in carbon capture, utilization and storage (CCUS) could support more dirty infrastructure at a time when it should clearly be shrinking.
Five companies (Canadian Natural Resources, Cenovus Energy, Imperial, MEG Energy and Suncor Energy) that produce 90 per cent of Canada’s oil sands bitumen are currently lobbying government to support their Oil Sands Pathways to Net Zero initiative. This new alliance proposes to develop, among other things, Carbon Capture Utilization and Storage (CCUS), “clean” hydrogen, and small modular nuclear reactors (SMR) as ways to offset their carbon footprint. They are looking for government support—to the tune of approximately $50 billion through 2050.
Syncrude's Mildred Lake site, plant and tailings ponds Fort McMurray, Alberta
Fossil fuel companies have been aware of their products’ dangerous global heating for decades, but have consistently undermined mainstream science’s message about the need to reduce combustion. Global CO2 emissions continue to rise.
Regardless of whether the alliance is motivated by climate concern, or by self-preservation, the pressing question is this: six years after Justin Trudeau’s promise to end fossil fuel subsidies, how should the government respond to their appeal for $50 billion in taxpayer support?
The oil and gas industry is the largest source of Canadian greenhouse gas emissions (GHGs), even without taking into account its eventual burning outside Canada. It represents 26 per cent of national emissions; more than transport, which also burns oil products. Given the urgent need for climate action, certain industry and government proposals don’t make sense. Using captured CO2 for Enhanced Oil Recovery (extracting more oil) while the world struggles to decarbonize is one. Giving CCUS a disproportionate amount of taxpayer climate subsidy at the expense of electrification or renewables is another.
If the oil sands companies’ alliance is planning to use fossil gas to power the CCUS process, and as a hydrogen feedstock, and to power hydrogen production, then the impacts of this extra gas must be acknowledged. Fracking for extra gas consumes and toxifies huge volumes of water, while triggering significant earthquakes. Extracting more gas means more methane leaks, and methane already causes over 25 percent of global heating. Burning more gas to power CCUS would add to non-carbon air pollution and negative health effects. The substantial cleanup cost for orphaned and abandoned wells, tailing ponds, and infrastructure—too often payed by the taxpayer—would rise proportionately.
As governments scramble to reduce energy use, the sizeable energy needs of CCUS must be considered. For a power plant, CCUS increases the energy requirement by 20 to 25 per cent, while reducing its capacity. Building the pipelines, transporting the CO2, and creating secure permanent storage would also require energy. CO2 pipelines also pose risks from explosive ruptures of super cold CO2 and asphyxiation.
Canada must be realistic about the reliability, benefits, costs and diminishing returns associated with oil sand CCUS. Very little CO2 is permanently captured in practice. Even if 100 per cent of the CO2 was captured in the bitumen extraction process (which it certainly is not), CCUS would do nothing for at least 70 per cent of emissions. This majority of bitumen’s GHG’s is emitted to our atmosphere during refining and eventual combustion in other countries of final use.
“Clean” hydrogen is also proposed by the alliance. The climate impact (cleanliness) of hydrogen depends entirely on how it is produced. Green hydrogen —electrolyzed from water using renewable energy—is clean. Blue hydrogen is produced by the combination of steam and fossil gas. It requires more CCUS, and is not clean. At the moment, blue hydrogen is cheaper than the green option, so long as you ignore the social cost of the leaked methane, fracking damage, pulmonary disease, et cetera. Green hydrogen is expected to be cheaper in the near future, as the cost of renewables continues to plummet.
The intended use of hydrogen is also relevant. When used in a fuel cell, it creates energy with only water and air as exhaust products. When burned, however, it can emit toxic oxides of nitrogen. Blending 15 per cent hydrogen with 85 per cent fossil gas is proposed to reduce GHGs. This practice could serve to prolong the use of fossil gas, which could have a net negative effect on the climate. From a gas company perspective, though, 85 per cent is a lot better than 0 per cent.
The issue of subsidy support for CCUS and hydrogen can be confusing because these technologies can have a valid climate role in limited applications that are hard to decarbonize. Carbon capture makes sense for industries like cement and chemicals, but is not the best solution for industries that can be electrified or decarbonized. Similarly, hydrogen is a good decarbonizer for fertilizer, clean steel, long haul transportation, and refining fossil fuel for non-combustion feedstocks, but little else.
Meeting Canada’s net zero pledge will require the majority of emissions to be displaced by efficiency, electric vehicles, heat pumps, electric heat for industry, and induction cooking. Should these electrified loads be powered by small modular nuclear reactors (SMR), one of the technologies the oil sands alliance is hoping to develop with government help, or by renewables including wind, solar, hydro, and geothermal?
The cost of energy produced by nuclear is already higher than energy from wind or solar with batteries. SMRs, if feasible, will take too long to plan, navigate NIMBY opponents, obtain insurance and permits, and to actually build. They are expensive to manage and operate, and to decommission at end-of-life. Their cooling systems entrap fish, and warm lakes. SMRs have serious weapons proliferation, meltdown, mining, lung cancer and waste storage risks. Renewables have none of these drawbacks and are already tried and true.
Despite fossil fuel production being at record highs, jobs and revenue into government coffers have dropped significantly over the last decade. Large subsidies would only lessen the industry’s net social contribution.
Canada’s GHGs are 21 per cent higher than they were in 1990, and are still rising. This is by far the worst climate performance of any G7 country.
Going forward, Canadian policy is on track to support oil and gas extraction that will eat up 16 per cent of the entire world’s 1.5C carbon budget.
If the alliance’s proposed technologies are used as a pretext to further delay the transition to clean energy, then Canada could let its dwindling opportunity for effective climate action slip by. The growing severity of fires, storms and heat waves is showing us why we can no longer afford such a failure.
Bob Landell is an energy management consultant and climate-concerned grandfather living in Victoria, BC.
ON THE THIRD DAY of the astonishing and historically unprecedented heatwave that brought Death Valley level temperatures to the Interior of British Columbia, I ventured onto my back deck to do some emergency hand watering of wilting plants.
There I discovered that the plastic overflow trays under the plant pots in which I grow my kitchen herbs had simply melted. So had the gaskets and glue in the adjustable head on the water wand I’d neglected to hang up. Every seam now sprayed disconcerting leaks.
Elsewhere on Vancouver Island people reported vinyl blinds melting, windows frames warping, window panes overheating and blowing out, the tempered glass in car windshields simply disintegrating. And on July 13, news media reported that BC Hydro cables to Vancouver Island were damaged during the timeframe of the heatwave, causing a reduction in power delivery.
BC heatwave as illustrated on the Weather Network
It wasn’t just here, of course. In Oregon people reported it got so hot the infrastructure began to melt. The plastic insulation on power cables sloughed off. Asphalt roads and concrete sidewalks heaved and buckled. Wags fried eggs on car hoods for their Twitter feeds.
But it wasn’t so amusing for others.
In the aftermath, BC’s coroner has reported at least 719 sudden deaths, many of them apparently associated with heat-related medical emergencies for seniors in sweltering rooms without adequate ventilation. There are likely more deaths yet to be tabulated. But the number confirmed so far was equivalent to an Air India disaster a day over the heatwave weekend.
Why authorities didn’t anticipate this grim consequence as the disaster unfolded and overwhelmed ambulance services is a reasonable question. Only 20 per cent of British Columbians have air conditioning, so it wasn’t rocket science to predict that low income seniors in older housing would be extremely vulnerable to the heat.
I haven’t seen the distribution figures but my informed guess would be that statistics will ultimately show a correlation between the deaths and poorer neighbourhoods. Poorer people can’t afford the air conditioners that the wealthy buy during heatwaves.
The World Health Organization has been issuing grim warnings about the lethal consequences of heatwaves. It says they killed more than 166,000 people between 1998 and 2017. One summer-long heatwave in Europe killed 70,000 people in 2003. Another that lasted 44 days killed 56,000 in Russia in 2015. A 20-year medical study published in the medical journal The Lancet says that extreme temperature variations caused by global warming now cause more than five million deaths a year.
A paper published June 4 in the respected science journal Nature analyzed data gathered over 28 years from 732 locations in 43 countries. It attributes 37 per cent of deaths related to heat exposure around the world between 1991 and 2018 to global warming caused by humans.
While more air conditioning might help keep individuals who have them alive, air conditioning itself has consequences beyond this obvious benefit. The International Energy Agency (IEA) points out that if the rest of the world were to begin running air conditioners at a similar level to the US, which spends $30 billion a year to power air conditioners, that alone would add about two billion tonnes of carbon dioxide a year to the atmosphere. That’s because air conditioners are colossal electricity hogs. One IEA analyst told The Guardian newspaper in 2019 that during the previous year’s heat wave in Beijing, 50 per cent of that vast city’s electrical budget (much of it from burning natural gas, though other parts of China rely on coal) was diverted to powering air conditioners.
Smashed temperature records call for decarbonization
In the June heatwave, Lytton became the hottest place ever recorded in Canada at 49.6 degrees. It was just one of 59 heat records set around the sweltering province from Victoria—at 38.3, hotter than Hyderabad; Port Alberni—at 41.3, hotter than New Delhi; Fort Nelson—at 35.8, hotter than Mumbai.
Just across the border from Osoyoos—at 45 degrees, already hotter than Uttar Pradesh, itself sweltering under a June heatwave across North India—a satellite sensor recorded a ground temperature near Wenatchee of 63 degrees. That’s the reading you get from your instant thermometer when the steak on the grill hits medium rare.
Many of my media colleagues responded to these temperatures across BC, Washington and Oregon as a freakish event, a one-in-a-millennium marvel, the stuff of exclamatory headlines and breathless news clips, then shock and recrimination at the entirely predicable human toll.
But examining my melted plastic trays, I concluded that we just got a glimpse not of an exception but of the hellish new normal about to descend upon us courtesy of the relentless physics of global warming.
Though “climate change” or “climate emergency” is the politically preferred language these days, they seem almost Orwellian euphemism and dissimulation, suggesting we can have our cake and eat it, continuing to enrich ourselves with fossil fuels and enjoying the conveniences they bring while enthusiastically talking the talk about reducing greenhouse gas emissions.
John Horgan and the New Democrats and the hapless Liberals and whoever they pick as a new leader can talk themselves blue about their green commitments, an endless blah, blah, blah of mission statements about carbon emission caps and magical thinking about electric futures, but their inability to fully embrace decarbonization means we should expect all this to get worse, not better unless we intervene as citizens.
The truth is, our politicians are not stupid; they know what has to be done; but they don’t have the stomach for it.
BC’s energy resource development heading in wrong direction
Despite our self-congratulatory self-image as the greenest province, British Columbia remains a leading producer and exporter of that dirtiest of fossil fuels, coal. In the last 10 years, the province has produced and exported close to 300 million tonnes of coal. Loaded into hopper cars, that’s one giant coal train that would circle the Earth at the equator.
Coal awaiting shipping at Westshore Terminal
Then there’s oil, 100,000 barrels a day, making BC the fourth largest producer in Canada.
And natural gas: five billion cubic feet a day, 32 percent of all Canadian production, much of it coming from a single field—the Montney Formation—in the Peace River district which contains 400 trillion cubic feet of gas, 392 trillion cubic feet of which remain as the recoverable reserve.
This massive reserve is actually a driver of development and production in Alberta’s oil sands. Its natural gas liquids are used to dilute bitumen from Alberta’s oil sands so that it can be transported by pipeline and shipped by tanker. Mining that bitumen still generates 70 megatonnes of greenhouse gases a year. The Alberta government says it’s capping emissions—at 100 megatonnes.
Thus, BC will be a critical enabler of the increased shipment of dilbit—diluted bitumen. Right now, about 300,000 barrels of crude oil and refined petroleum products flow through the existing pipeline every day.
There’s another way to think of this. Natural gas liquids supplied from BC are enabling the flow of 129,000 tonnes per day of greenhouse gas emissions from Alberta. How? Because one barrel of dilbit, refined and burned, yields about 431 kilograms of carbon dioxide. Thus, when the current twinning of the pipeline is complete and another 590,000 barrels a day begin to flow—a tripling of the export of oil—the greenhouse gas emissions being exported will increase to about 385,000 tonnes a day.
Oh, and there’s liquefied natural gas (LNG), also high on the province’s development agenda. It’s touted as a clean alternative to burning coal or oil. That’s generally true, but the devil is in the details.
LNG Canada’s project in Kitimat is now under construction (Photo by LNG Canada)
Every 42-gallon barrel of LNG yields about 236 kilograms of carbon dioxide. The standard LNG tanker carries about 150,000 cubic metres of cargo. So each anticipated tanker leaving BC laden with natural gas will actually be shipping 223,000 tonnes of carbon dioxide for release into the atmosphere.
Then there’s the methane—it’s the largest component of natural gas and it’s 25 times more potent as a greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide. Methane leaks during production and BC’s oil and gas industry is a major source of methane emissions in the province.
There’s no getting around the relatively simple math on these matters, although it’s maddeningly complicated by the way government and industry report using different values, scales and terminologies, and by the different greenhouse gas emission coefficients for different products.
A cynic might think that there’s some sinister reason for reporting in barrels, cubic metres, cubic feet, metric tonnes, gallons, short tons, long tons, litres, pounds and kilograms which require a mind-numbing array of conversions. But perhaps this is less a sinister attempt to complicate and confuse than it is representative of the heedless, unthinking, topsy-turvy evolution that got us into this mess in the first place.
In any event, the politicians in our successive provincial governments have been the leading proponents of the magical disconnect between what we do and what we say when it comes to mitigating global warming.
Part of it is because investors, governments—and by extension the rest of us—are deeply addicted to the revenues and convenience that flow from fossil fuel commodities which have come to permeate almost every human activity.
Reducing our reliance on fossil fuels will mean massive inconvenience
A genuine shift to green energy globally will have immense financial implications for oil producing countries. One study by a prominent think tank estimates a genuine pivot to green energy would mean a cumulative total revenue loss for oil-producing countries of $13 trillion by 2040. Some countries would lose 40 per cent of their total government revenue.
So there’s clearly a significant conflict.
Hence, we tolerate the spin from politicians. Like that from Premier Horgan, who talks the politically correct green line we demand while simultaneously mowing down old growth forests that actually do mitigate against global warming, all the while prosecuting and preparing to stuff into courtrooms those few who are brave enough to object.
BC continues to mow down forests that mitigate against global warming (photo by Alex Harris)
Let’s put a little of this into the context of physics. Burning one tonne of BC coal produces more than two tonnes of carbon dioxide gas, a principal greenhouse gas driving global warming. So burning 300 million tonnes of BC coal contributes roughly 600 million tonnes of greenhouse gas. Where it’s burned—whether in steel mills in Japan or thermal generating plants in China—is completely irrelevant. Pretending it’s not part of BC’s carbon footprint because it’s been exported to some other less environmentally responsible jurisdiction doesn’t matter—or help.
As the recent heatwave illustrated, we all share the same atmosphere and what goes down is bound to come around whether in the form of the recent heatwave or the emissions of fossil fuel particulates that one research paper published last month estimates killed a million people in 2017.
Wait a minute, I hear, how can burning one tonne of coal produce a weight of carbon dioxide greater than the coal itself?
For those of us who should have paid more attention in high school chemistry class, the atomic weight of carbon is 12. The atomic weight of oxygen is 16. When carbon oxidizes, which is what’s happening when you burn it, one carbon atom combines with two oxygen atoms which yields a weight of 44 for carbon dioxide—about 3.7 times the weight of the original carbon.
It’s all more complicated, of course. Coal isn’t pure carbon and different types of coal have different concentrations of carbon, but generally speaking, the laws of physics dictate that burning coal creates twice its weight of carbon dioxide.
Carbon dioxide, of course, is a volatile gas that disperses widely and thus has a greatly amplified effect, trapping heat in the atmosphere.
So when we hear politicians pumping their own tires about their efforts to mitigate global warming while simultaneously promoting their success at generating revenue from commodity exports, the leading of which in BC are timber products—former sinks which stored carbon—and fossil fuels which amplify carbon emissions, we are actually being sold a talking point rather than a solution.
And we accept this, of course, because actually reducing our reliance on fossil fuels for transportation, food production, energy to power everything would be massively inconvenient. For example, consider the ubiquitous cell phone. A cell phone has a particularly high carbon footprint due to the mining for the metals needed to make them; and also the massive amounts of energy used by immense data centres, servers and networks (upon which all our devices rely)—not solar energy, not yet, though there is a push in that direction. Use your cell phone for an hour a day for a year and the energy needed will contribute about 1.3 tonnes of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere. Now multiply that by five billion users worldwide.
Let’s say you decide to send me an email commenting on these remarks. You just added four grams of carbon dioxide to global greenhouse gas emissions. Doesn’t seem like much until you multiply by the 306 billion e-mails sent in 2020, which are expected to increase by 70 billion before 2025.
Let’s say you like these remarks and forward them as an attachment to 65 people on your contacts list. Using a formula worked out by a BBC analyst, that amounts to driving a kilometre in a car. The average e-mail user contributes 136 kilograms of carbon dioxide per year. In total, e-mails alone contribute as much carbon dioxide as seven million cars on the road.
The lethal heat threshold
Contemplating this background to our previously unprecedented but potentially soon to be commonplace heatwave got me thinking again about a troubling research paper I read last year in the journal Science Advances by three scientists from British and American universities and the Jet Propulsion Laboratory at the California Institute of Technology.
The title of the paper was “The emergence of heat and humidity too severe for human tolerance.”
It started with the fact that when high temperatures are combined with high humidity there’s a lethal threshold beyond which human beings cannot survive because their bodies are unable to shed sufficient heat.
The term used for this threshold is “wet bulb.” The condition takes its name from an experiment in which a thermometer is covered with water-soaked cloth over which air is passed. The lower the humidity index, the faster water evaporates, cooling the thermometer. The higher the humidity index, the slower water evaporates and the warmer the thermometer will be. This relationship between temperature and humidity determines the ability of the body to shed excess heat through the evaporation of perspiration.
The researchers determined that a wet-bulb temperature of 35 degrees marks the upper physiological limit beyond which the human organism cannot survive. Climate models, they report, projected that the first wet-bulb temperatures would begin to occur around 2050. But when they examined the actual weather station data from around the world, they found to their alarm that wet-bulb temperatures are already occurring in some coastal subtropical locations and that extreme humid heat overall has doubled since 1979.
“Our findings indicate that reported occurrences of extreme TW (wet-bulb temperature) have increased rapidly at weather stations…over the last four decades and that parts of the subtropics are very close to the 35 degree survivability limit, which has likely been reached over both sea and land,” the researchers say. “These trends highlight the magnitude of the changes that have taken place as a result of the global warming to date.”
Simon Lewis, professor of global change science at University College of London, pointed out in a Guardian article that in 2020, the 35 degree wet bulb limit was reached in both the Middle East and Pakistan’s Indus River Valley.
Stop the magical thinking—cut emissions in half, soon
It doesn’t take a great leap of imagination to reach the conclusion that in a rapidly warming world, coastal places like Vancouver and Victoria may not be the climate havens their residents have liked to think. They may, in fact, be more susceptible to lethal combinations of intense heat and high humidity.
Clearly, we need to aggressively undertake the kind of planning that apparently did not take place before the just-finished heat wave that fried BC, Washington and Oregon, and killed enough British Columbians to qualify as a major disaster—although models have been predicting just such events for some time.
A key component of that planning is going to be up to us as citizens. It’s essential that we start telling our politicians to stop the magical thinking, stop the dissimulation and euphemisms and start talking seriously about what we have to do to address the coming climate events which, 50 years ago, scientists told our federal government posed a greater threat to the survival of humanity than thermonuclear war.
Like Winston Churchill or not, one can’t help but admire his speech telling the British people that for the imminent war against the Nazi, “I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears and sweat.” That’s the kind of direct talk we need from our politicians and each other as we face up to what lies before us.
We need to get our imaginations onto a war footing in response to what’s coming. That means getting serious about cutting our carbon dioxide emissions in half and in doing it over the next 30 years; reducing our personal carbon footprints; revising our assumptions about travel, diet, transportation, housing and the consumer society of planned obsolescence. It means actually thinking about the consequences of what we do, for example preparing and planning for cooling refuges for those in the population who cannot afford air conditioning.
Magic and wishful thinking won’t let us evade the hellish future we’re creating. Only action will do that. And the place to start is with the politicians who are afraid to be decisive on the painful decisions that must be made.
Stephen Hume has spent half a century as a journalist writing about Western Canada, the Far North, BC and the Island.
Vancouver Island’s residential schools saw death rates of up to 40 percent among incarcerated children.
A SPONTANEOUS DEMONSTRATION OF PUBLIC GRIEF over the finding of 215 unmarked graves for children on the grounds of a former residential school in Kamloops created a display of children’s shoes, candles and stuffed animals on the front steps of British Columbia’s legislature. Security staff stealthily removed them overnight. People replaced the display in the following days.
June 13, 2021 at the BC Legislature
The legislature is supposed to be the people’s house. In fact it is the seat of enduring colonial power in a province that has the sorriest record in Canada for acknowledging a prior indigenous presence.
The legislature apologized for—at best—another example of blundering, tone-deaf governance by a system that put thousands of such children into unmarked graves across Canada, hundreds of them right here on Vancouver Island. It was one more apology in a long list of apologies that seem increasingly empty the longer it becomes.
On Vancouver Island at least 202 children died in residential schools. They died at Kuper Island (now Penelakut), at Alberni, at Tofino, at Ahousat and at Alert Bay. Others may have died as a consequence but remain unidentified—dying in hospitals, infirmaries or sanitariums outside the schools or sent to small, remote communities to die at home.
Data from the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation indicates that at the Kuper Island school alone, of the 264 First Nations children forcibly enrolled between 1890 and 1896, 107 were listed as having died.
What had 12-year-old Edith Kruger experienced when she was moved to create this image of graves at a school in BC
If this sounds like a death camp mortality rate—and it most certainly does to me—it is also a conservative estimate. Nobody knows exactly how many children died in residential schools or where the nameless ones, the forgotten ones, are buried. Redbreast, for example. Or Ackeepineskung. Nobody knows which schools they attended—or when they died or where they are buried, only that they were apprehended, taken away to be educated and vanished, never to be seen again.
Some children are recorded only by a first name, like Arthur at Ahousat who died in 1913, exact day not known. Or Mona who died at Alert Bay. Some are known only to have died, with circumstances and date not recorded. Many never even had their deaths officially registered with the province, and searches for them in the archives draw only a blank. It’s as though, like students who vanished under Argentina’s ruthless junta, they never existed beyond that one name on an almost-forgotten list.
Almost, but not quite. This is where almost ends, here and now.
We conveniently tell ourselves that the “disappeared” students in Argentina or Chile were victims of brutal dictatorships that killed them for political reasons. Yet Canada’s residential schools were political, part of the grand government scheme for clearing the land for immigrant settlers. The federal government was encouraging a flood of settlers into the West to help it assert occupational sovereignty in reaction to American expansion westward.
Consider: 107 of 264 children at a Vancouver Island residential school died in the school’s first six years under circumstances that include malnutrition, disease and harsh punishments. That’s comparable to the mortality rate in the notorious Japanese prisoner of war camps that resulted in highly publicized war crimes trials for the prison administrators.
The residential school at Kuper Island
Is it fair to compare a prison camp to a school? Well, if you are put in a place against your will, fed substandard food, not allowed to leave and subjected to corporal punishment if you try, it sounds a lot like the definition of a prison camp.
The death rate for prisoners of war in the Japanese camps that so horrified their liberators exceeded 30 percent. At Kuper Island, judging from the statistics cited for 1896, the death rate for children incarcerated for re-education then exceeded 40 percent.
Perhaps it’s not so surprising that in 1896, says the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation entry for Kuper Island, the students tried to burn it down. Or that more than half a century later two girls would drown trying to flee the place.
Education weaponized for ethnic cleansing
The architect of these humanitarian atrocities was Sir John A. Macdonald.
Alberta’s pugnacious premier Jason Kenney was recently asked in an interview whether, given what we now know, Macdonald’s was the appropriate name to hang on a Calgary high school. Kenney seized the opportunity to pander to his political base by lamenting “cancel culture” and characterizing residential schools as an unfortunate “imperfection” blemishing the otherwise sterling reputation of a great leader who deserved celebration for his other accomplishments, foremost among them the very Confederation that some vocal Albertans on the farther right apparently wish to demolish.
Let’s be clear. The brutal residential school system put in place by the Macdonald government was more than a mere imperfection, some unfortunate flaw in policy. The residential school system was a tool for the methodical abuse of human rights. Residential schools were education weaponized for moral brainwashing, ethnic cleansing and cultural genocide.
Those are strong words. But they aren’t my words. They are the words of a Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of Canada, used to describe what the country’s highest jurist called the worst stain on Canada’s human rights record.
And that’s a record already deeply stained by race riots, the internment of minorities, enforced sterilization of people with disabilities, misogynistic massacres of young women, and religious and racial hate crimes.
“The objective—I quote from Sir John A. Macdonald, our revered forefather—was to ‘take the Indian out of the child and thus solve what was referred to as the Indian problem,’” said Chief Justice Beverly McLachlin in a speech in Vancouver in 2013.
“‘Indianness’ was not to be tolerated; rather it must be eliminated. In the buzz-word of the day, assimilation; in the language of the 21st century, cultural genocide.”
Prairie historian James Daschuk, who said his discoveries made him rethink everything he thought he knew about Canada’s creation narrative, wrote this in a Globe and Mail article in 2013:
“A key aspect of preparing the land was the subjugation and forced removal of indigenous communities from their traditional territories, essentially clearing the plains of aboriginal people…Despite guarantees of food aid in times of famine in Treaty No. 6, Canadian officials used food, or rather denied food, as a means to ethnically cleanse a vast region from Regina to the then-Alberta border.
With buffalo gone, starvation was employed as a tool for forcing indigenous populations onto small reserves. Government officials, Daschuk says, withheld food while it rotted in storage “while the people it was intended to feed fell into a decades long cycle of malnutrition, suppressed immunity and sickness.”
In the winter of 1883, Roman Catholic missionary Father Louis Cochin reported “gaunt children dying of hunger.”
Even Conservative politicians were appalled at what they saw. Thomas Jackson, the MP for the Northwest Territories, saw starving, freezing Cree supplicants for food turned away by government agents.
“In the case of one Indian,” he said, “within two months seven of his children died because they had not the necessaries of life.”
Macdonald had described this policy to the House of Commons in laudatory terms. Refusing food until First Nations populations were actually starving was keeping costs down and weakening resistance to the colonization of the Great Plains.
Residential schools were the second phase of this project to politically remake the West.
The entire raison d’être of residential schools, cloaked in an Orwellian high-mindedness regarding their moral purpose was, put in plainer language, to erase indigenous culture—to deconstruct its economy, disrupt its social cohesion, extinguish its connection to the land, and abolish its language, its history, its literature, its religious beliefs, its traditions, ceremonies and, indeed, its entire sense of identity.
Residential schools, Macdonald said, enabled the separation of children from their culture so that subsequent generations could be more readily remade as something else.
“It has been strongly impressed upon myself…that Indian children should be withdrawn as much as possible from the parental influence, and the only way to do that would be to put them in central training industrial schools where they will acquire the habits and modes of thought of white men,” Macdonald said in 1879.
The residential school at Port Alberni
The object was to make an entire people disappear not by killing their bodies but by killing everything about them that made them distinguishable from the dominant society. The schools were only marginally about education. Really they were a vast exercise in cultural gaslighting intended to brainwash children into a sense of profound shame over who they were and whence they came.
Duncan Campbell Scott, esteemed as a Canadian literary icon, ran the Department of Indian Affairs. He acknowledged that the schools, where children were packed into dormitories under unsanitary conditions, were pestilential. Food was strictly rationed; one former student at Ahousat told a Vancouver Sun reporter in 1995 that 57 years earlier one of his school chums had died following a beating for stealing a prune from the kitchen.
Ahousaht, BC, students in the school cafeteria. British Columbia Archives, PN-15589
“It is readily acknowledged that Indian children lose their natural resistance to illness by habituating so closely in these schools, and that they die at much higher rate than in their villages,” Scott said. “But this alone does not justify a change in the policy of this Department, which is being geared towards the final solution of our Indian problem.”
Canadians have chosen to look away—or seek scapegoats
“Cultural genocide.” “Final solution.” “Disappeared.” “Died while trying to escape.” “Beaten to death for stealing a prune.” This is the context that frames residential schools and the unmarked graves of child inmates.
So when the officials who represent the authority of the BC government—the keepers of its sacred precinct—carelessly removed that poignant public display from the legislature steps, they were symbolically delivering the same message that residential schools themselves sought to accomplish regarding indigenous narratives: erase them from public space.
And really, why was anybody surprised? Like a generation of post-war Germans who professed not to have known about the Holocaust, Canadians have chosen not to look upon this dolorous narrative of national crime. Once again, that’s not my descriptor; it was the term used by Peter Bryce, the federal government’s own inspector who was utterly appalled by what he found, for example, one school where 69 percent of the pupils and former pupils had died.
When his formal report met indifference from authorities, he took it to the press where it was a one-day wonder—front page of the Ottawa Citizen for one day, then off the radar—and then in 1922 wrote a book, The Story of a National Crime. It, too, was largely ignored by the broader public.
Today, there appears to be a national awakening to this awful past of brutality, indifference and cruelty. But even now there’s a search for scapegoats. Blame past leaders. Pull down their statues. Blame former governments. Blame cancel culture. Blame the churches that ran the schools. Yet the truth is, there is no “them” to blame. There’s only “us.” Government was us. The authorities were us. The administrators were us. The churches were us. They did what they did to the victims for us. The big objective was to help us cover up, to evade responsibility and ultimately to help us absolve ourselves of the human rights crime upon which we have constructed our entire national edifice.
Many of us are still in denial about this sin. But many more, it seems, led by young people, are now prepared for the painful conversation that comes with acknowledgment of what was done and who did it and on whose behalf.
Personally I don’t care about pulling down statues of Sir John A. Macdonald or renaming Ryerson and McGill universities, high schools and streets. All that may be satisfying. But to me, the important thing is not the past, it’s the future. It’s what we do next to reconcile with those we have wronged and in many cases continue to wrong.
When we think about Macdonald’s starvation policies, we should think about the 53 percent of First Nations children more than a century later who live below the poverty line in a country that became one of the wealthiest in the world by exploiting their former homelands. We should think about the 22 percent of indigenous families in 2021 who experience moderate to severe food insecurity.
When we think about the fate of First Nations children in residential schools that were lethal dormitories of disease and illness, we should consider that today in Manitoba, although indigenous people are 10 percent of the population, they suffer 70 percent of COVID-19 infections. And First Nations families are 10 times more likely to be living in overcrowded housing, many with inadequate access to safe drinking water—of the 60 communities with water advisories in place, 47 percent have been in that state for more than a decade. The government still has no comprehensive regulatory regime for managing drinking water on the reserves it set up.
The residential school at Alert Bay, circa 1970
When we think about the sad stories of two little girls drowning as they attempted to flee one residential school in mid-winter, or four little boys freezing in the snow after they sought to flee another in their shirts at minus-38 degrees, or the teenager reportedly beaten to death for stealing a prune for his six-year-old dormitory mate, we should think about the fact that anxiety remained the most prevalent mental health issue for aboriginal youth in 2016. The suicide rate for indigenous youth is three times that of the mainstream population; in some regions it’s 33 times the Canadian average and is the leading cause of death for children and adolescents.
We owe it to Maisie—and 150,000 other children
I planned to start this piece by saying that the events on the legislature steps brought to my mind the memory of Maisie Shaw. But to be honest, that wouldn’t be true, because since she came to my awareness more than a quarter of a century ago there’s seldom been a day when I haven’t thought of her.
I never met Maisie Shaw. She departed this world almost 75 years ago just as I was coming into it. She’s a mystery, a revenant, an unknown. She’s been held up as a symbol of oppression, an icon of the brutality of residential schools for those determined to address the past, a metaphor for our collective failure to address the truth about ourselves.
For me she’s an echo of the trauma from those days that will destroy this country if we don’t resolve it. Most important, she’s not a statistic, she’s not a number or a registration entry or a line on a list of names.
She was once a person, embedded in a family like yours and mine.
Maisie Shaw was a student at Alberni Residential School in 1946. She came from the tiny village of Nitinat on the remote West Coast. Her father was Walter Shaw, a fisherman, and her mother was Ella Williams. Maisie was born on August 26, 1932. In one of those odd occurrences of history, she shared her birthday with her father, who had been born August 26, 1905 in New Westminster. Her mother was born in Alberni in 1906.
One of her brothers was born at Whyac where the Nitinat River reaches the sea, another was born at Clo-ose, a little farther down the coast. One brother died when he was one, the year before Maisie was born. Her mother died when she was five. And then she went to the Alberni school.
What happened to her there is the mystery. Another former student, Harriet Nahanee, who died in 2007, said in 1995 that on December 24, 1946, when she was six, she had witnessed Maisie Shaw being kicked down a flight of stairs at the residential school and lying motionless on the floor with her eyes open and that she later died of her injuries; her body was sent back to Nitinat.
The official documents tell another story: Maisie was admitted to West Coast General Hospital in Alberni on December 18 with an acute case of rheumatic fever; she died there on December 26 of a severe inflammation of the pericardium, the membrane that surrounds the heart, which is commonly associated with the illness. She was buried, a document said, in the Tseshaht band cemetery in Alberni. I went to look for her grave, but the undertaker listed on the death certificate had no records, and I was unable to find her burial site.
When I called West Coast General to determine whether Maisie Shaw had been admitted on the date given on the death certificate, I was told records from that time had long been destroyed and the hospital itself had been relocated twice since then.
Everybody associated with Maisie is now dead: Harriet, the school principal, the Indian Agent who signed the death certificate, the doctor who said she was his patient for a week, her parents, her brothers. All dead.
Did Harriet Nahanee conflate events and people? There’s no doubt whatsoever that the Alberni school, like others on the Island, was a violent place. Students there were disciplined by corporal punishment. Some were repeatedly and brutally sexually assaulted by the school’s dormitory advisor over a 20-year period from 1948 to 1968; he was later jailed for 11 years and has since died. And memory is at best a malleable thing, particularly for traumatized children.
Were official documents destroyed, falsified or altered? Also possible.
Perhaps, though, seeking the details of Maisie Shaw’s fate reflects only an old reporter’s urge for precision, a way of trying to refute public amnesia. Ultimately the facts are less important than collectively remembering the historic truth of what was done to her and to 150,000 other innocents over a century of cruelty.
On this coast First Nations were pushed out of their traditional fisheries and their lands were appropriated. Among the first acts of British Columbia on entry into Confederation was taking away their right to vote. First Nations were denied the right to own property; denied the right to practice traditional ceremonies and religious rites, denied the right to organize politically to address their land rights; and denied the right to hire lawyers. Finally, in the most intimate insult, their children were taken from them and sent to be brainwashed in prison schools where they were publicly whipped, forcibly confined, abused, raped and buried in unmarked graves.
The message of the residential schools was simple: We can do anything we want and you are powerless to stop us.
All these things are a matter of record. We haven’t had a national conversation about them because we haven’t wanted to face the truth about ourselves as a country founded on a national crime.
The memory of Maisie Shaw and all the other lost children demand that conversation. It’s a conversation we cannot, must not, turn away from, however painful it becomes.
Stephen Hume has spent half a century as a journalist writing about Western Canada, the Far North, BC and Vancouver Island.
Tiny particles (PM2.5s) produced by burning anything are destroying our bodies. And they are making the COVID-19 pandemic worse.
THEY ARE NEARLY EVERYWHERE: Tiny particles produced whenever anything is set on fire.
Particles measuring 2.5 microns or less are so small that they are dwarfed by a single human hair. (A micron is one-thousandth of a millimetre.) And they are killing us.
The particles, known as PM2.5s, are small enough that they slip past our bodies’ natural defence mechanisms—primarily nose hairs—to gain easy access to every cell in our bodies. (‘PM’ stands for ‘Particulate Matter.’) Once there, they wreak havoc, causing cancers, heart attacks, lung disease, strokes, dementia, and Parkinson’s disease. They even increase the risk of permanent blindness.
Where do they come from? Burning gasoline, wood, candles, incense, natural gas or anything else: all produce PM2.5s. According to the 2021 edition of Canada’s air pollutant emission inventory report, a significant portion of Canadian PM2.5s comes from road dust, construction and the production of crops. But those resulting from burning fossil fuels kill tens of thousands of us every year, according to recently published research.
Comparative size of PM2.5s: Tiny particles caused by burning stuff kill millions every year. Source: EPA
The health damage
Unlike other substances which cause harm only at high levels, PM2.5s have no safe limit. In the words of the World Health Organization: “Small particulate pollution has health impacts even at very low concentrations—indeed no threshold has been identified below which no damage to health is observed.”
A UK study reported in the January 25, 2021 issue of the British Journal of Ophthalmology found that the particles increase the risk of irreversible blindness. Eyes are especially vulnerable, since there is a very high flow of blood to the retina, meaning that the eyes are exposed to an especially high volume of PM2.5s. This, says the study, raises the risk of age-related macular degeneration (AMD)—a leading cause of permanent blindness in older people.
As well as threatening our eyes, PM2.5s are killing us. Recent work by an international team of experts suggests that previous estimates of the number of deaths due to particle pollution were far too low. The study, published in the April 2021 issue of Environmental Research and Public Health, reports that PM2.5s from the fossil fuel industry alone resulted in 8.7 million premature deaths of adults older than 14 in 2018, across the world. That compares with 3.4 million deaths worldwide from COVID-19, as of May 15, 2021. In other words, fossil fuel-generated PM2.5s kill 2.6 times as many adult people in just one year as the pandemic has killed in total.
The groundbreaking study suggests that earlier estimates were too low because previous calculations relied on an incorrect model for the number of excess deaths at both high and low levels of PM2.5s.
On the world scale, Canada does not fare well, having a higher death rate from fossil-fuel generated PM2.5s than the US. Our rate is also higher than the following regions: South America; Western Asia and the Middle East; Central America and the Caribbean; Africa; and Australia and Oceania. Details of the study were supplied to Focus by lead researcher Karn Vohra of the University of Birmingham. More than one in seven (13.6 percent) deaths of Canadians over 14 are due to fossil fuel-produced particle pollution, compared with 13.1 percent in the US. (However, several parts of the world had higher rates still. Eastern Asia had 30.7 percent, and Europe 16.8 percent.)
In 2018, approximately 281,000 Canadians older than 14 died from all causes. According to the study’s data, more than 38,000 premature Canadian deaths in 2018 are attributable to the particulate pollutants from oil and gas.
Acknowledging that fossil fuels are not the only source of PM2.5s, the researchers point out the importance of concentrating on oil and gas. “Fossil fuel combustion can be more readily controlled than other sources and precursors of PM2.5 such as dust or wildfire smoke, so this is a clear message to policymakers and stakeholders to further incentivize a shift to clean sources of energy,” they conclude.
That’s something to think about when fossil-heads warn us to take our time in phasing out the tar sands and shutting down pipelines, or when we consider installing a gas fireplace. The study did not report on PM-related province-by-province deaths, due to a lack of suitable data.
Keep the home fires burning?
Environment and Climate Change Canada (ECCC), to its credit, reports annually on the levels of air pollution, according to pollutant, source and province. The latest report, published April 30, 2021, reveals that home firewood burning remains the largest source of PM2.5s in Canada’s Commercial/Residential/Institutional category. This is despite the fact that the amount of PM2.5s generated across the country from home wood burning has dropped by nearly half in the period 1990-2019, in part owing to the replacement of open fireplaces with fireplace inserts, heat pumps, furnaces and more efficient wood stoves.
The ECCC data reveals that PM2.5 emissions in British Columbia from all sources totalled 64.1 kilo-tonnes in 2019, an increase of more than 8 percent compared with 2010. About 7 percent of the total was from home firewood burning, far less than the 32 percent that came from unpaved roads, but still a serious problem.
According to an article in the December 2020 issue of the peer-reviewed journal Atmosphere, PM2.5 levels triple inside dwellings when wood stoves are in use, much of it occurring when the door is opened to add wood. Consequently, the researchers recommend that wood stoves be sold with a health warning. Every time we light the wood stove, we are harming family and friends. Worse still, our dogs and cats.
Canada’s fossil-heavy future
How is Canada working to reduce fossil fuels and their devastating impact on both human and planetary health? In December 2020, Ottawa released an updated climate plan, including a promise to raise the carbon tax by $15 per year, reaching $170 per tonne in 2030. It also promised $15 billion in new climate spending.
It sounds reassuring: We have the climate crisis under control, with the goal of reaching “net-zero” emissions for the country by 2050. But a few facts get in the way of this convenient view. For instance, to succeed, the plan relies on carbon capture and storage (CCS), of which there are no commercially successful plants. As a January 2021 report from Friends of the Earth Scotland and Global Witness put it: “The [CCS] technology still faces many barriers, would only start to deliver too late, would have to be deployed on a massive scale at a scarcely credible rate and has a history of over-promising and under-delivering.”
A technical paper published by the Cascade Institute in April 2021 warns that despite the December 2020 climate plan, Canada will produce more oil and gas in 2050 than in 2020. Using projections from the Canada Energy Regulator and the federal government, the paper says that even with our stronger climate policies, Canada will be producing more natural gas and oil by 2050 than in 2019.
This will result in the oil and gas industry’s annual emissions growing to 200 megatonnes of CO2-equivalent by 2050.
But that counts only the upstream emissions—those emanating from extraction and processing. By the time those fossil fuels are transported and burned, Canada expects to have added to the atmosphere 26.1 gigatonnes of GHG emissions from oil, plus another 10.1 gigatonnes from gas. This amounts to more than 50 times the total 2019 GHG domestic emissions reported in Canada’s April 2021 National Inventory Report, which counts only emissions inside Canada, ignoring emissions generated when Canadian fossil fuels are ignited elsewhere.
This is in keeping with international emission reporting rules, according to which GHGs are counted only in the country in which they are produced. But that doesn’t mean that they don’t matter to Canada, which is warming twice as fast as the global average.
Put another way, for the official GHG inventories, the fossil fuel industry and their friends in the BC and Canadian governments who subsidize it worry only about the supply side of the fuels. If we care about the planet, we should also pay attention to the demand side, where emissions for each barrel of oil or thousand cubic feet of gas are vastly higher.
PM2.5s and COVID-19
Much has been written in the last year about the fact that the COVID-19 pandemic has inadvertently improved the health of the planet, by reducing demand for fossil fuels, if temporarily. For instance, the Canada Energy Regulator reports that end-use energy demand fell in 2020 from 2019 levels, with the sole exception of residential electricity, as more people worked from home, fewer cars were on the road, and some factories closed. In other words, the pandemic has slightly reduced the use of fuels, including natural gas, diesel and gasoline: The virus temporarily helped the planet.
COVID-19 impact on Canadian energy use: All Canadian energy use declined in 2020 except residential electricity. Source: Canada Energy Regulator
But what about a related question: Has pollution from fossil fuels helped spread the virus?
There are at least two ways in which this could happen. First, it has long been known that air pollution, including from PM2.5s, causes inflammation in the lungs, inhibiting our ability to fight infections. As BC’s Centre for Disease Control says in a September 11, 2020 statement: “Exposure to air pollution can irritate the lungs, cause inflammation, and alter immune function, making it more difficult to fight respiratory infections such as COVID-19.” In smoky conditions, more people who are exposed to the virus may develop COVID-19 and some cases of COVID-19 may become more severe, warns the centre on its wildfire web page.
There is another way that PM2.5s from fossil fuels can make the pandemic worse: PM2.5s could carry the virus directly into our bodies. PM2.5s transport a range of substances into the human body, including polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) and heavy metals including mercury, chromium, cadmium, arsenic, lead, and uranium. Once inhaled, these hitchhiking substances only increase the toxicity of PM2.5s. They can also transport virus particles.
COVID-19 virus particles are spheres, approximately one-tenth of a micron in diameter. This means that COVID-19 particles are about 1/25th the size of the largest PM2.5 particles, suggesting that small particulate matter could carry the COVID-19 virus into our lungs.
In an article published in the June 2020 issue of Environmental Research and Public Health, four Italian researchers raise that very question. Particulate matter “could act as a carrier through the aerosol, conveying the virus and increasing its spread,” write the researchers.
In turn, this could magnify the havoc wreaked by COVID-19. “Cardiovascular effects induced by PM are linked to particles’ deposition in the lungs, to their translocation through the air-blood barrier to extra-pulmonary sites, and to the resulting systemic inflammation.” This inflammatory storm “may increase the mortality rate and the severity of expression of [COVID-19] in the most polluted areas.”
The 38,000 premature Canadian deaths described above are for 2018—more than a year before the pandemic began to take hold. If fossil fuel-derived PM2.5s increase the number of deaths attributed to COVID-19, shouldn’t fossil fuel providers share part of the blame? If major oil companies knew beforehand about the damage their products do to human health, is COVID-19 being unfairly blamed for more harm than it actually causes?
But did the fossil fuel producers know? Recently released documents from oil companies prove that they did.
An internal Shell technical report completed in July 1968, available from the University of California, San Francisco, was apparently written as a way of warning the company that it will likely face future regulations. (In May 2021, Shell, the lead partner in the LNG Canada project in Kitimat, reported profits of $3.2 billion US in the first three months of 2021.)
The 1968 report notes that “air pollution is largely a function of the use of fuels.” As a result, the fossil fuel industry is inevitably facing dreaded regulation: “When the concentrations reach adverse levels, controls must be applied, and because the oil industry is a major source of fuels control, legislation will affect us, both as a supplier and manufacturer.”
The Shell report even anticipates the damage done by PM2.5s.
“Particulates in combination with toxic substances are generally considered to be the real villains in health effects. This is explained on the basis that the particles concentrate the chemical on their surfaces or in their interstices and produce locally a high concentration of an otherwise very dilute substance. Further, as in the case of [sulphur dioxide], the particles carry a substance deep into the lungs which would otherwise be removed in the throat due to its high water solubility.”
The report also warns of the consequences of regulating the industry. “Regulations will affect our major product, gasoline, and hence have great potential for affecting operations, manufacturing, transport, dispensing, etc.”
Is COVID-19 getting a bum rap, one that should properly be shared by fossil fuels?
In any case, things must change, and quickly. We need to stop setting fire to things, especially fossil fuels. As longtime environmentalist Bill McKibben has said, it’s time to bring the combustion age to a close.
Russ Francis believes, on good evidence, that the climate crisis is real. But he wonders whether the Conservative Party of Canada exists.
Read the abstract of the Environmental Research and Public Health research report
The easiest ADR (adverse drug reaction) to avoid is the second one, not the first one.
CLOSE TO A DECADE AGO Vancouver resident Johanna Trimble took a seaplane trip to Victoria for an important mission and she brought one important thing. A story. And that story has made all the difference.
She travelled that day with two Vancouver emergency room physicians, who invited her along to a meeting with officials at the BC Ministry of Health. The trio’s goal was to try to convince officials at the Pharmaceutical Services Division that BC had a very big, but very solvable problem on its hands. It concerned adverse drug events (ADEs), drug reactions that can be serious enough to cause hospitalizations, serious illness and sometimes death.
Johanna was unwittingly thrust into the position of witnessing the care of both her elderly mother-in-law, and her stepmother who were prescribed drugs and hospitalized due to adverse drug reactions. Equipped with both the wisdom to question a drug and the determination to question the doctors, in both cases she managed to get the culprit pills stopped. You’d think that would be the end of the story, but in both cases, the offending drug was represcribed by a different doctor, in a different clinic, and wham, back to the emergency room for a repeat episode.
A doctor from a different mold
Emergency room physician Dr Corinne Hohl has seen her share of people showing up in the emergency department suffering the effects of prescribed drugs. Adverse drug events are a leading cause of emergency department visits and unplanned hospital admissions. Shockingly, of those in the emergency department because of an adverse drug event, 29 percent are there because they are having a repeat adverse reaction to the same drug (or drug class) that had brought them to the ED previously.
Dr Hohl accompanied Johanna on that trip to Victoria, and she speaks with the kind of verve and enthusiasm of someone who’s out to change the world. She recounted an incident that made its mark on her. An elderly woman was admitted to her emergency room in Vancouver General with subdural hematoma—a fairly serious head injury—related to a fall. The patient was taking fairly high doses of fentanyl patches, which were likely the cause of the fall. After being hospitalized for weeks, the patient was slowly switched off the fentanyl to a safer drug. Not long after, the same woman appeared in her emergency room after another fall, this time with multiple rib fractures.
“And guess what?” she told me. “She was on the fentanyl again. Basically back on the drug that had previously been related to her fall.”
Dr Hohl had been working on how to get a handle on this problem for several years before that meeting with the Ministry. “They thought we were going to show up on the phone but we showed up in their offices in person and their jaws were on the floor.” Her request was concise: she wanted a very simple change to PharmaNet, BC’s comprehensive province-wide drug data system that tracks every prescribed drug in the province. Why not modify it so that it would allow physicians and pharmacists working in hospitals to enter any drug-related ADEs on the patients’ chart? She reasoned that if that information, like an allergy, for example, was a routine part of a patients’ medical record, then the problem of repeat ADEs could be eliminated overnight.
“We did all kinds of modelling, to show them how expensive and serious the issue of repeat adverse drug events was. In my presentation I compared it to the opioid epidemic and I showed them how many people died from this problem that is being completely ignored,” she said. Not to be outdone by the enormity of the problem, she also made a promise: “I told them I was going to design a solution for them that was unique across the world.”
It helped immensely that Johanna was there—just a regular BC citizen who has seen this problem firsthand, twice. Her story probably helped convince the Ministry of Health officials that change needed to happen. After all, how many BC seniors are on the receiving end of an avoidable prescription mistake that could be fatal?
The meeting was probably the inflection point that is now slowly reducing the problem of repeat ADEs in BC. But as Dr Corinne Hohl found out, big system or cultural changes in medicine don’t happen overnight.
Research money and pizza
From the time that Dr Hohl recognized the problem of repeat ADEs, until some (not all) hospitals began acting on the information from BC PharmaNet, eight years had passed.
The delays were understandable but frustrating. Once she got over the bureaucratic hurdles that stymie all but the most determined, Dr Hohl saw that making software changes to a large and impossibly complex computer data system was no walk in the park. And then there’s what is known as the “human factor”—the culture of medicine would need clinicians, nurses, doctors and pharmacists to recognize, record and later seek out any ADEs that are in a patient’s chart.
What fuelled her work to make headway on an impossibly complicated task came down to research money and pizza.
Many times smart clinicians working in our medical system will see a problem that needs a solution, yet they hit the brick wall of their colleagues or administrators asking “where’s the evidence?” Inertia is easier, and if you don’t have a study to back up what you’re proposing, you better go get one.
Dr Hohl went to the research world, getting grants from various sources including the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR), which helped pay for a gold-standard study, a randomized controlled trial (RCT), and allowed her to tap into the expertise of people on the front lines.
A system like this needed a user-friendly interface for physicians and pharmacists, so that meant a kind of “action-research” approach. She worked tirelessly with Ellen Balka, a communications specialist and qualitative researcher at SFU, who helped her dig deep into the principles of behaviour change. This also meant constantly going back to those in clinical practice.
“We really needed to bring in that expertise to figure out how clinicians think, work out the details of proper drop-down menus, data standards, and so on,” said Hohl. “We kept buying pizza for the pharmacists. They told us, change this, make this like this, and so on. All those sorts of design features were exceedingly important.”
The software application Hohl and her team created is called ActionADE, designed to enable front line clinicians to document adverse drug events by communicating to a central medication dispensing database.
Dr Hohl’s system is not province-wide yet, but it has been implemented in nine acute care hospitals already. It still needs ongoing investment to upgrade software and pay for staff, mostly pharmacists, to enter the data into patient records.
At the end of the day she has shifted the culture, reminding her colleagues of the enormity of potential adverse drug events, and the need to make sure peoples’ medications are as safe as they can be. All this is part of the growing patient safety movement, where adverse drug events are better known, and many people are becoming aware that tracking and recording them can be lifesaving.
Johanna Trimble doesn’t mind being “the voice of the patient” when it comes to speaking truth to power. And she’s darned good at it, becoming one of our province’s most vocal patient safety advocates. About ActionADE she says, “in the absence of such a system, it all comes down to the family. The family has to remember the drug information and these side effects, because nobody else is. The family is the continuity. If the family doesn’t know they have to do that, then somebody might die.”
Luckily now in BC, the family is going to get some help in this area.
Alan Cassels is a researcher and writer about pharmaceutical policy issues. He lives in Victoria. A webinar discussing Dr Hohl’s research is posted at the website of the Therapeutics Initiative.
Health Canada has now recognized that patients taking certain antidepressants face potential risk of long lasting sexual dysfunction—even after usage stops.
LATE IN 2019, I met a 23-year-old woman with an unimaginably tragic story. Believing that I might be able to help create some awareness of what she was experiencing, she travelled to Victoria from her home on central Vancouver Island. I knew it was a drug story, but I had no idea what kind of drug story it was.
Emily met me in my office in Victoria and I turned on my voice recorder. For the next two hours, her voice often quivering with emotion, she told me how, at 17 and still in high school, she was prescribed the antidepressant citalopram. It is one in a class of selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor (SSRI) antidepressants, a class that includes drugs like escitalopram (Cipralex), sertraline (Zoloft), venlafaxine (Effexor), fluoxetine (Prozac) and paroxetine (Paxil). The psychiatrist told her that it might help her deal with her impulsiveness and depression. Emily admitted that over the years the drug might have helped some, but there was also something very worrying happening: she felt she was losing whatever libido she had.
Growing increasingly concerned about how it might be affecting her sexuality, she asked her physician directly if her drug could be the problem. She was assured that the antidepressant might “lead to some loss of libido, but it would come back after she stopped the drug.” Emily was persistent, and eventually her doctor switched her to a different antidepressant which she stopped several months later.
She described what happened then: “I woke up one morning to abruptly discover that all sexual sensation I had, disappeared from my body. My clitoris was now no more than an inert and sensationless nub of flesh. I was unable to feel attraction, arousal or orgasm.” Not only did her body seem incapable of responding, the emotional blunting that came with it was almost too hard to take.
“Now I wonder if I will ever find romance or love, or have a normal life,” she says, eyes brimming with tears, “Instead of desire and libido returning, they disappeared.”
How much do we know?
Depending on who you talk to, the syndrome described by Emily, known as PSSD, (Post SSRI Sexual Dysfunction) is either widely known, or completely unknown. Sixty years ago psychiatrist Frank Ayd, credited with discovering the early antidepressant amitriptyline, noticed that this drug affected the libido, causing effects that weren’t otherwise due to the patients’ depression. While psychiatrists might maintain that being depressed can have a seriously debilitating effect on one’s sexual function, over the years published reports and case studies have accumulated, detailing a condition definitely linked to antidepressants, which some people can suffer for months, years or decades. It can include genital numbness, total lack of arousal or orgasm, and a blunted ability to feel emotions.
Drug warnings are found in the official, regulator-approved product monograph for antidepressants. The monograph outlines a drug’s pharmacology, research evidence and adverse effects. When SSRIs were launched in the late 1980s, the monographs stated that less than 5 percent of patients reported experiencing some form of sexual dysfunction. This seemed a far cry from what was seen later in unpublished phase 1 trials, where as many as half the healthy volunteers reported some kind of severe sexual dysfunction, even cases where the dysfunction lasted after the treatment was stopped.
It was only two years ago that PSSD was officially recognized by the European Medical Agency.
Canada, slow as usual on these things, issued a warning in January 2021, signalling that the condition was now officially recognized by our drug regulator. The warning reads, in part:
Health Canada will work with manufacturers to update the product safety information for all SSRIs and SNRIs to recommend that healthcare professionals inform patients about the potential risk of long lasting (possisbly weeks to years) sexual dysfunction despite discontinuation of SSRIs or SNRIs.” (serotonin-norepinephrine reuptake inhibitors, another class of antidepressant)…
Thirty years to recognize a problem
Thirty years ago the data establishing the link between sexual dysfunction and SSRIs in both men and women may have been hard to find in medical journals. Perhaps our prescribing physicians may have been lulled into complacency, hearing nothing from the drug salespeople of the potential sexual dysfunction linked to these drugs.
Then along came something that was going to help change all that: the internet. What if there could be a simple, yet systematic way to actually document the experience of real-world patients, so that you could discover, beyond the drug company-massaged medical literature, the experience of the Emilys out there, who were enduring this life-altering, pharmaceutical-induced condition?
Wondering how frequent these effects occurred, and generally concerned about the growing sexual problems linked to drugs like SSRI antidepressants, as well as drugs for prostate problems (finasteride) and acne (isotretinoin), Dr David Healy started a website to collect case studies. The key principle of his website, Rxisk.org, is captured in its subtitle: “No one knows a prescription drug’s side effects like the person taking it.”
An Irish psychiatrist and psychopharmacologist who works at McMaster University in Hamilton, Dr David Healy has become, probably by accident, the world’s foremost expert on PSSD. Not only does he know the history of sexual dysfunction and psychiatric drugs, he knows about it from the ground up—from first-hand accounts of patients. He has studied and written about this extensively and told me that while some early reports were made to British regulators of a patient with post-treatment genital arousal disorder in the late 1980s, the first report of PSSD was filed with regulatory agencies in 1991.
In 2000, he saw his first patient with what was later called PSSD, a 35-year-old woman who told him that three months after stopping treatment, “she could rub a hard-bristled brush across her genitals and feel nothing.”
By the end of 2017, he had enough reports to publish his results, a series of almost 300 cases of sexual dysfunction collected from 37 countries and linked to 14 different drugs. He wrote that some symptoms were unique to antidepressants, such as premature ejaculation and persistent genital arousal disorder (PGAD), but other drugs were also linked to “genital anaesthesia, pleasureless or weak orgasm, loss of libido and impotence.”
The implications of his paper were huge, because, finally, here was a body of research that could make regulators around the world act, and start warning physicians, and in turn patients, of the sex-destroying potential of these drugs.
To strengthen the warnings on these drugs, Dr Healy and his colleagues filed petitions on the sexual side effects of SSRIs and SNRIs with the US FDA, Health Canada and the European Medicines Agency (EMA). Two years ago the EMA was the first to issue warnings of SSRI/SNRI antidepressants and their links to sexual side effects.
Concerned that our regulator was dragging its feet, in March of 2020 he wrote Health Canada and said that if the regulator didn’t warn our doctors about the “persistent sexual dysfunction” associated with these drugs then patients were going to continue to be dismissed by their physicians when they try to report these problems.
How aware are our physicians?
It seems astonishing to say this but Dr Healy contends that almost everyone taking an SSRI/SSNI experiences some form of sexual dysfunction. Thankfully, some of that effect is transitory and minimal, yet for others, people like Emily who have been reporting their symptoms and joining online chat groups around the world to exchange information, this is no small matter. For them, the impact is profound, with faint hope of any cure at the moment. And they are angry.
For David Healy, the facts indisputably show that SSRI and SNRI antidepressants often cause sexual dysfunction in both men and women. He estimates that given current prescribing rates, as much as 20 percent of the population may not be able to make love the way they want as a result of the drugs. He also believes that for the sake of prescribers and patients our regulators need to act immediately to implement an effective warning system that can reduce the potentially catastrophic impact on the sexual lives of our citizens.
It all comes down to what Emily refers to as “informed consent.” She doesn’t think that antidepressants should be banned or that people shouldn’t be prescribed them, when there is no alternative. It was the not knowing that stings so much.
“None of the doctors over the years ever mentioned the sexual side effects of these drugs. Not a word,” said Emily, the anger rising in her voice. Asked why she came to me to tell me her story she was firm: “I don’t want anyone else to go through what I’m going through.”
What does this have to do with the pandemic?
If there is one thing that is clear about the pandemic, it’s that many people are struggling with mental health issues. Physician visits via the internet are now a fixture, and a model that may even more rapidly expedite the prescribing of psychiatric drugs. SSRI/SNRIs are among the most widely prescribed antidepressants in the world and it is pretty clear that the use of these drugs during the pandemic has been skyrocketing.
Reflecting a rate that is slightly lower than the Canadian average, about 15 percent of the population in BC was, pre-COVID, taking some form of antidepressant. The pandemic-related growth in those rates over the last year are concerning. A recent CBC news report says that insurance claims in Canada for SSRIs have grown by 25 percent over the last year. Time will tell whether that means many more people will suffer sexual difficulties due to antidepressants, but we know one thing: people in Canada cannot now say that they haven’t been warned.
Alan Cassels is a drug policy researcher who lives in Victoria, BC.
Three years after the New Democrats assumed power, BC is further behind in meeting emissions reductions targets.
ON THE DAY FOLLOWING the BC government’s release of its 2020 Climate Change Accountability report, the December 17, 2020 Times Colonist front page was brimming with stories: COVID-19 rules, a column on government process, as well as a non-announcement of a possible future film studio, a story promising that unnamed investors for the studio were “hiding in the woodwork.”
Notable for its absence—from the entire December 17 issue—was the one story that is arguably far more significant than nameless, invisible investors: that the target for BC’s greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions has become ever more distant; that the government failed to come through on its promise to tell us how it is going to meet the required emissions reductions. And that BC’s emissions are vastly larger than the usually quoted figures, once forest-management-related emissions are counted.
A ProQuest newspaper database search revealed that the Times Colonist was not alone in its inattention. Three other large dailies—the Vancouver Sun, the Province and the Globe and Mail all ignored the report on BC’s worrisome emissions predicament in a year when the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change told us we had to begin reducing emissions if we are to avoid making Earth uninhabitable.
Readers of some regional newspapers fared better. The Abbotsford News ran a Canadian Press story in its December 17, 2020 issue, a story that included critical comments from environmental organizations Stand.earth, Sierra Club BC, Georgia Strait Alliance, and the Pembina Institute.
Though the National Post ran a version of the same December 16 Canadian Press story, it was much shortened, and omitted the environmental activists’ criticisms. CBC’s online news site also ran a condensed version of the Canadian Press story, but offered no in-depth analysis. And the only person quoted by CBC was Environment and Climate Change Strategy Minister George Heyman. Not one environmentalist.
Climate crisis? What climate crisis?
Carbon intensity: not a relevant measure
So what does the Province’s 2020 Climate Change Accountability report tell us? For one thing it proudly points to progress on the carbon intensity front: “Between 2007 and 2018, net GHG emissions grew by 6 percent while the economy grew by 26 percent. That means that the GHG intensity of our economy decreased by 16 percent since 2007.”
It notes that the carbon intensities of population and buildings also decreased. Emissions per person and per square meter of building space both fell in the same 2007–2018 period.
Does that mean we’re winning the climate change battle?
Not so fast. The planet doesn’t give a flying fig about the economy’s carbon intensity, nor about how many tonnes of GHGs each person or each square meter in buildings is responsible for.
When it comes to global heating, the relevant number is total greenhouse gas emissions. To demonstrate how silly focusing on carbon intensity is, consider this: By doubling the province’s gross domestic product—such as by having many more car crashes—the BC economy’s carbon intensity would halve, other things being equal, while our total emissions could increase.
The energy intensity of floor space has dropped by 22 percent for commercial buildings and 23 percent for residential. However, the total building energy use has increased, thanks to more and bigger buildings. Similarly for population. Needless to say, the last thing the planet needs is more people, even though boosting the population would almost certainly reduce per-person emissions.
Unfortunately, our total emissions continue to increase. The last year for which emissions are available is 2018, the first full year of the NDP’s reign. In that year, they jumped from 65.8 to 67.9 million tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent (Mt CO2e), 3.3 percent over 2017.
To put that figure in context, Oregon’s emissions fell 1.1 percent from 2017 to 2018, though they increased slightly the following year, according to preliminary data for 2019. Washington State’s emissions rose 1.3 percent and California’s increased 1.9 percent in 2018. Once more, BC is lagging its US partners in the Pacific Coast Collaborative when it comes to getting a grip on controlling emissions, and getting further away from its legislated emissions reduction goal of 40 percent below 2007 emissions by 2030.
Accountability lacking in accountability report
In some respects, Clean BC’s 2020 Climate Change Accountability Report seems to have been rushed out the door weeks before the December 31, 2020 deadline, a deadline the NDP itself laid down when introducing CleanBC in December 2018. The report lacks a critical piece of information: How does the government plan to close the 6.5 Mt gap in emission reductions needed to reach CleanBC’s 2030 reduction target of 25.4 Mt?
According to Environment and Climate Change Strategy Minister George Heyman, writing in the report’s introduction: “We encountered unexpected challenges, and while we have not met this target date we will redouble our efforts…” Translation: We failed.
We still know nothing about where those extra emission cuts are going to come from, crucial information that we were promised by now. Heyman is now saying the new road map will come by the end of 2021.
But it gets worse. That 6.5 Mt gap is now between 7.2 Mt and 11.2 Mt, thanks to improved estimates from the government’s own modelling.
A second major problem with the December 2020 accountability report is that it says nothing about how well CleanBC is working, on the grounds that emissions data for 2019, the first year of the program, are not yet available. For reasons that are unfathomable to me, it takes approximately two years for the federal and BC governments to agree on emissions data for each year. In other words, there is little in the way of accountability concerning CleanBC—in CleanBC’s own accountability report. Perhaps the report should instead have been entitled: “A collection of euphemistic fog.”
For what it’s worth, the report does update emission projections for 2030, admittedly not an easy task. The latest model estimates that BC’s emissions will then total 47.2 Mt, up from the earlier estimate of 44.3 Mt.
Besides the accountability report itself, two related documents have also been released recently. One is a November 26, 2020 letter from the government’s Climate Solutions Council, which advises the government on meeting emissions.
The Council’s letter warned that BC is falling behind schedule in reaching its legislated targets of 40 percent below 2007 levels by 2030, 60 percent in 2040 and 80 percent in 2050.
“Recent ministry modelling shows that BC is not at present on track to meet its 2030 greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions target,” said the letter. Hence the 7.2 Mt to 11.2 Mt in emissions reductions yet to be found.
The government-appointed volunteer council includes environmentalists, labour representatives, First Nations, industry representatives and others. One member is Scott Maloney, the “vice-president, environment” of Teck Resources, a company whose claim to fame includes proposing the development of one of Canada’s largest tar sands projects, near Alberta’s Wood Buffalo National Park. (Following energetic opposition by environmentalists, in February, 2020 Teck dropped the $20 billion project.)
Another Council member is Skye McConnell, a manager with Shell Canada, which is the main partner in the wholly foreign-owned LNG Canada project. McConnell, a registered Shell Canada lobbyist, lobbied various deputy ministers and other senior officials in several ministries no fewer than 11 times since September 2020. As of February 4, her last reported lobbying involved Les McLaren, an assistant deputy minister in the Ministry of Energy, Mines and Petroleum Resources. Topics discussed at those meetings included “LNG Bunkering: exploring opportunities for use of LNG [liquefied natural gas] as a marine fuel.”
Speaking of LNG: neither the Climate Solutions Council’s letter nor the accountability report itself even mentions the 8.14 Mt that the LNG Canada facility in Kitimat will add to BC’s emissions each year, purportedly starting years before CleanBC’s 2030 target date. As Marc Lee of BC’s Corporate Mapping Project has written: “BC’s targets are incompatible with provincial plans for an LNG export industry.”
The second supporting document, released in January 2021, is Supporting the Development of CleanBC by Vancouver consultants Navius Research. Submitted to the BC Climate Action Secretariat, its 123 pages comprise a closely reasoned analysis of the methodology, assumptions and results of CleanBC. (More from Navius’s analysis below.)
Offsets: like “Indulgences” in the Middle Ages
The Province refers to 2018’s emissions of 67.9 Mt as “gross.” However, according to the December accountability report, the “net” emissions are 1.0 Mt smaller, once “offset” forestry projects are counted. These projects are those “that improve the storage of carbon dioxide in BC’s forests,” says the report.
What are offsets? To explain, suppose that a factory currently emits 10 tonnes of CO2 -equivalent each year. Being a good corporate citizen, it wants to cut its emissions by 10 percent, but it proves costly to achieve this by modifying factory equipment. Instead, the facility buys one tonne of offsets from the BC Government’s offset program. That money might, for instance, be used to replace diesel generators in a remote northern community with solar- and wind-powered electricity. Consequently, emissions in the remote community fall, ideally by more than one tonne and at a lower cost than had the factory instead cut its own emissions. The result is an overall reduction in emissions.
In this hypothetical example, the benefit is obvious. But BC’s offsets as specified in the accountability report involve forest management, and that suggests a problem.
Mark Jaccard, who teaches sustainable energy at Simon Fraser University, helped design BC’s carbon tax in addition to other climate and energy policies. As well, he sits on the Climate Solutions Council.
Jaccard’s 2020 book, The Citizen’s Guide to Climate Success, is arguably the best book in years on climate policy. Its tone is irreverent, attacking various widely-held tenets of climate policy. He doesn’t hold back when it comes to carbon offsets, comparing them with “indulgences” paid the church in the Middle Ages by rich Christians to expiate their sins.
Jaccard is especially tough on forest-related offsets, citing a Costa Rican program to help conserve forest land. Nearly all the land covered by the program could not be used for anything but forests. “Thus, forest land owners received money for not cutting down forests they were not going to cut down anyway,” says Jaccard. Put another way, the program lacked “additionality”—the requirement that it result in lower emissions than would have happened otherwise.
Doubtless pushed by Jaccard, in a November 26, 2020 advice letter to Heyman, the Climate Solutions Council advised of the risks inherent in relying on offsets to meet emissions targets. In a three-page appendix, it cited several problems with offsets, including a lack of additionality. Another problem, said the council in the letter, is that offsets can be a disincentive to invest in carbon reduction, by encouraging the purchase of offsets rather than reducing emissions.
Consequently, I will disregard the claim that BC’s 1.0 Mt in forest offsets means that emissions are really down by that much. BC’s 67.9 Mt of “gross emissions” were the actual emissions in 2018, according to the latest GHG inventory.
Smoke from a forest fire fills a valley in the Interior of BC
Ignoring an emissions elephant
But the province’s actual emissions are far greater than even the gross emissions addressed in the accountability report. As Focus publisher David Broadland has pointed out, missing from the official count are those connected with “Other Land Use.” In 2018, emissions in this category, by the government's own figures, totalled 236.0 Mt—approximately 3.5 times as much as the 67.9 Mt mentioned above.
What caused this huge glob of emissions? The vast majority, 199.7 Mt, came from one source: wildfires, which were worse in 2018 than the previous year—though not by much. In 2017, wildfires resulted in 163.3 Mt of GHG emissions.
Why not count those “other land use” emissions, which amount to 88 percent of BC’s emissions? In a phrase—they’re not our fault. Says the inventory’s so-called methodology book: They “are more volatile and largely determined by natural factors outside of human control.”
The Chutanli Lake forest fire in 2018. Many forest fires in BC start in or near clearcuts.
Huh? If the recent upsurge in forest fires isn’t largely anthropogenic, I don’t know what is. Of course, it is not just BC or Canadian humans contributing to the jump in forest fires. Does that mean we shouldn’t worry about it? Hardly. How about BC leading the way, and taking climate change more seriously than concerning ourselves with CleanBC’s politically-motivated goals of cutting only some of the trifling 12 percent of our actual emissions?
Besides, as Broadland’s research found, clearcut logging increases the risk of wildfire—which BC can do something about. Moreover, the carbon emissions prematurely released as a result of clearcut logging on publicly owned land are also huge. By international convention, emissions associated with tree cover loss are attributed to the year in which the tree cover loss occurred. Those emissions in BC, according to Broadland’s research, have been averaging about 110 megatonnes each year over the past 11 years, and are completely within the control of the BC government. For 2018, the Province acknowledged 41.4 megatonnes of such emissions, but doesn’t include them in its account of “total” emissions.
Slash piles being burned after logging on publicly owned land on Quadra Island
By not counting BC’s largest emission source, we are at an even greater risk of contributing to runaway global heating. Suppose, for the sake of argument, that BC somehow does manage to hit its CleanBC 2030 target of a 40 percent reduction in “net” GHGs. But omitted from the ebullient government press releases at the time—as now—will be logging and wildfire emissions, which will doubtless be even larger nine years from now, larger because there is no requirement to reduce them to meet CleanBC targets. In turn, this will lead to even higher logging and fire emissions.
Sierra Club BC senior forest and climate campaigner Jens Wieting urges the BC government to include forestry emissions in its official GHG inventory. In a September 3, 2020 news release, Wieting objected to the Province ignoring the “exploding growth” of BC’s forest management emissions, including those caused by clearcut logging, slash burning and worsening climate impacts like wildfires and insect outbreaks. “It is not too late for the BC government to amend CleanBC to make sure it addresses forest emissions as part of its efforts towards an economic recovery strategy post COVID-19,” said Wieting.
The gaping hole in BC’s emissions inventory makes the entire reporting mechanism under the so-called Climate Change Accountability Act for GHG reductions a sorry joke, a gutless public relations exercise—one that the politicians hope voters will not see through.
Forest management expert Dr Peter Wood wrote a detailed February 1, 2021 report for Sierra Club BC calling for a radical revision of how BC’s forests are managed. In particular, says the report, unless we stop clearcutting we face more frequent and intense forest fires, as well as increased risk of flooding, droughts and heatwaves.
Wood agrees that it is unacceptable to omit wildfire emissions from the provincial inventory, and calls this part of “the mathematics of convenience.” We can expect more such numerical shenanigans, Wood told Focus. “As countries are pressured into making bigger commitments on emissions reductions, the temptation to look for or create loopholes will also increase,” he says.
The slightly good news
Of the 67.9 Mt of carbon emissions CleanBC is prepared to admit, the biggest source is transportation (including heavy trucks, passenger vehicles, and off-road industrial transport), which spewed out 41 percent of the province’s emissions in 2018—an increase of 6 percent over 2017. Next came the oil and gas industry (20 percent), other industries (19 percent), buildings (12 percent), waste (5 percent) and deforestation (4 percent, but this does not include industrial forestry since the assumption is made that clearcut areas are replanted). (The percentages do not add to 100 percent, due to rounding.)
There are a couple of bright spots in the CleanBC accountability report.
One is electric vehicles. Electric cars have become an easy fix for part of BC’s growing greenhouse gas emissions. In 2019, helped by provincial and federal subsidies, sales of electric light vehicles more than doubled from 2018 and the province has nearly met CleanBC’s 2025 target—that 10 percent of new car sales be zero-emission—five years early, says the accountability report. (The term “zero-emission vehicles” includes those powered by hydrogen, a fuel which, depending on how the hydrogen is produced, may not be zero-emission—but that also applies to electricity.)
In 2020-21, BC budgeted $20 million for rebates for plug-in hybrids and battery-electric light vehicles.
The funding is growing. In the year beginning April 1, 2021, the Province will nearly double its spending on rebates, to $38 million. The Navius modelling assumes that this higher amount will continue through 2030.
Thanks to the additional rebates, much cheaper batteries, and sharply reduced operating costs for electric cars—e.g., no oil changes, engine tuneups, or transmission repairs—it’s likely that the 2040 target that every new light-duty vehicle be zero-emission will also be reached early. As a result, Navius estimates that emissions from light-duty vehicles will drop 24 percent by 2030 from the 8.5 Mt they produced in 2020—about 10 percent of last year’s total emissions (i.e., without counting forest fires etc.) They would fall more, except for the fact that in 2030 there will still be many fossil-fuelled vehicles on the road.
Another success lies in home heating, which represented 12 percent of 2018’s 67.9 Mt emissions. In 2019, the proportion of households warmed and cooled by heat pumps sat at 10 percent, more than three times the percentage in 2007, says the accountability report. Heat pump installations will likely continue to increase sharply, since government incentive money is projected to nearly quintuple in the next few years.
By complete coincidence, these pending large increases in money to help voters buy nicer cars and home heating systems will take effect in the run-up to the next provincial election, due in October 2024. (Of course, Premier John Horgan has been known to ignore legislated election dates.)
Despite these minor successes, BC’s total emissions continue to increase, while NASA reports that 2020 was tied with 2016 as the warmest year on record. Yet the Province still has no complete plan to help reverse this alarming trend.
Russ Francis notes that a January 31, 2021 New Zealand Climate Change Commission report advises cutting livestock numbers in that country 15 percent by 2030 as a means of reducing biogenic methane emissions. The freed-up land in that country, heavily dependent on the animal exploitation industry, would instead be used for agriculture and exotic forestry. In BC, animal production caused 2.0 Mt of emissions in 2018. Yet CleanBC is silent on the issue.
Cascading and compounding mistakes may be leading BC to an $8-billion loss.
ON A TROUBLED PROJECT, there is a tendency for every sequential decision to narrow the options and increase the costs of the next one. Path dependency, once it has set in, makes out-of-the-box thinking harder and harder since it requires the proponent to say, “I was wrong.” This is one reason why democracies, with their habit of changing ruling parties every so often, are often economical. Quite radical decisions to staunch bleeding can be easily taken when there is a failed predecessor to blame.
Poor John Horgan! He paused—and plunged forward. When he took office in the spring of 2017, he brought with him the hopes of many, which he had encouraged, that the Site C project would be cancelled. Fearful that his predecessor had indeed already gone past the point of no return financially, as she had promised, he asked the BC Utilities Commission for advice.
BC Premier John Horgan made a number of costly errors
He did so without purging the BC Hydro Board of incompetent Liberal placemen who had no business on the board of a large utility. Its management of dreamers (“We’re dam builders!”) hadn’t built a dam since the 1980s and had no one on staff who had, but were still transfixed by Wacky Bennett’s vision of a BC with cheap power and flooded valleys. The new government also failed to purge the provincial bureaucracy, whose relevant senior jobs were filled by men (obviously) consumed by the same theology. One of them was asked to draft terms of reference for the Utilities Commission. First mistake. These folks were not Horgan’s friends.
The Commission, with a short deadline and a restricted mandate, answered the questions asked, with evidence that came principally from the proponent BC Hydro. Despite some manful attempts to smuggle a few home truths into the text, such as around over-capacity and flat demand, the government allowed the Commission’s analysis to be savaged by the provincial bureaucracy. Second mistake. Premier Horgan and his Cabinet should have asked for the views of external critics as well.
In consequence, the Premier wound up accepting, with a degree of public reluctance, a decision that flew in the face of basic textbook advice about the fallacy of sunk costs. He decided that explaining a $3-billion dead loss to an electorate conditioned to expect profligacy from a left-wing government—a minority government at that, dependent on three Green Party votes for its continuance in office—was too high a risk, and opted to continue construction. Third and fundamental error. The opportunity to blame the Liberals winked out.
Continuing construction required reposing trust in the general contractor, a Spanish firm that won the contract with an underbid and a local partner firm that shortly collapsed. Horgan, newly cautious, might have asked why none of the great Canadian dam constructors decided to bid, but apparently didn’t. Fluor and Bechtel, large and experienced US firms in the same time zone, passed. Low bid won. The subsequent history of poor quality control by a firm without relevant experience (the 800 MW they claimed to have built was in some 50 projects, none of which were in countries with cold winters) meant change orders—change orders that upped the price and ate more time.
Even as his options narrowed, the Premier was wary of BC Hydro’s blithe promises about cost controls and engineering competence. He appointed a Project Assurance Board to continuously monitor BC Hydro’s promises, and a Technical Advisory Board of engineers and scientists. But—fourth mistake—he allowed the inmates to appoint the wardens and, suspecting the make-up of these boards would not withstand public scrutiny, acquiesced in a degree of secrecy of North Korean quality. The membership was unknown, though a director of BC Hydro and former chief engineer on the Site C project chaired the Assurance Board. Their expert advisers were unnamed. Their reports were classified.
Horgan’s new Assurers were mostly the people who had designed the project in the first place, or were technically incompetent BC Hydro Board members. There were no genuine outsiders— people without past, present, or anticipated future financial connections to BC Hydro. BC Hydro’s reliance on its own staff for technical and economic advice, or on that of engineering firms in receipt of large fees and hoping for more, or on provincial officials still starry-eyed by the Bennett dream, continued unabated.
By late 2017 it became apparent even to outsiders that something was rotten in Denmark. Vern Ruskin, 94, a retired BC Hydro chief engineer from the glory days of half a century past, had been warning all and sundry that there were unexamined geotechnical and dam safety problems with the novel dam design and the crumbly rock below. He recommended engaging world-class experts for an independent review. Nothing was done. In 2019, the drillers of the diversion tunnels on the left bank encountered unexpected high-pressure water in unconsolidated gravels which required unplanned money and time to fix. Grout sellers rejoiced.
Seismicity related to nearby gas well fracking was well beyond predictions, both in frequency and strength. All demands for external review were brushed aside by BC Hydro. The government took no action. Fifth mistake.
The history of doubling down as costs rose was now habitual.
By January 2020 the problems could no longer be hidden even by the tame Project Assurance Board. BC Hydro and its owner squirmed as the news kept getting worse through the first half of the year. On July 31, a Friday, on the eve of a long summer weekend, BC Hydro at last confessed via press release that “unexpected” geotechnical problems had arisen under the concrete powerhouse and spillways they had just completed on the right bank. The current $10.7 billion cost estimate was out the window, and the schedule would have to be recalculated after more remedial engineering. They would report back later in the fall. In the meantime, the Premier said, he would appoint Peter Milburn, a retired engineer and former deputy minister of finance, to investigate and report back.
The immediate joke in Fort St John was that the 1.5 million ton powerhouse had already slid two or three inches toward Alberta. Unique in the world, its design called for a concrete powerhouse at right angles to an earthfill dam.
View of the spillway headworks, stilling basin, intakes, penstocks and powerhouse in June 2020 (BC Hydro photo)
Elsewhere suspicion sprang up that there would be an election in October.
Mr Milburn‘s terms of reference were not released. However, despite the focus on dam safety, he had no independent expert assistance and was at the mercy of BC Hydro, its contractors, and the hapless Project Assurance and Technical Advisory Boards, which had obviously failed. Error six.
In January 2021, Milburn’s report (and, presumably, the long-promised BC Hydro response to their confessions of July 2020) were reportedly on the Cabinet table—which august body discovered that Milburn could not provide a definitive answer to the go/no go question because he had not been provided with the resources to find out and had no capacity independently to review the doubtless voluminous reports of BC Hydro and its contractors. The Premier announced that two renowned international experts would be hired to review the file again; meanwhile construction would continue.
What can the experts say? They cannot say the project is without risk; their professional reputations depend on having enough weasel words in their report so that if anything does go wrong they can say they warned the government. If they are really mean, they will not say it’s unsafe, either, thus leaving the Premier twisting slowly in a Peace River breeze, forced to make a fateful decision without unequivocal professional advice. If they say it’s not really safe the Premier will be forced to do, at great political and financial cost, what he should have done four years ago.
About $6.5 billion has now been spent, with more under contract, and a large but unconfessed sum has been lost in related lawsuits by First Nations, with more to come. On an unrelated matter, the inept managers of BC Hydro will have lost $1.15 billion by March 31 on interest rate hedges on their massive debt that have gone sour, some of it Site C-related. The gang that couldn’t shoot straight thought they could beat Goldman Sachs.
With the rockfill berm and upstream cofferdam complete, the Peace River flows through Site C’s twin diversion tunnels at centre-left (October 2020)
British Columbians are now well down that slippery slope that many had feared ever since the joint federal-provincial environmental review panel reported in 2014. Each step has made the next less avoidable. A project that was sold to Premier Campbell at $3.5 billion had grown to $6.9 billion by 2014, was shortly increased to $7.9 billion once the environment review was safely forgotten, and now sits somewhere well north of $10.7 billion. Estimates—not BC Hydro’s—are that the total could be between $12.5 and $14 billion, assuming the geological conditions will allow safe completion at all.
The price of kicking the can down the road has increased at every step. The dead-weight loss during the terms of the present government has at least doubled, to a probable total of more than $8 billion: $6.5 billion spent and a good bit more for liquidated damages and minimal land reparation.
The options facing the Premier and his government are increasingly unpalatable. Each choice is narrower, and the cost higher. The reputation of a government which soared on its handling of COVID-19 is being eroded by its embarrassing and increasingly public handling of the largest public works project in provincial history. If Premier Horgan chooses to finish the dam, the next election will coincide with the completion of the project—and the entry of Site C’s enormous cost to a rate base already stressed by having too much capacity. It’s far too late to blame things on their predecessors. The current government now “owns” the project in every sense. Mr Horgan must be praying that the latest reviews give him an excuse to cancel the project while blaming somebody else.
Harry Swain chaired the Joint Review Panel on Site C in 2013-14 and is a former deputy minister of Industry Canada. He lives in Victoria.
The greatest risk to our coasts is not oil tankers, but all the other marine vehicles that carry oil—from tugboats to BC Ferries and container ships from China.
ENCOUNTER THE DIABOLICAL AFTERMATH of an oil spill and the evil consequences it inflicts upon wild creatures and the sacred spaces they inhabit and you can never forget.
It’s three decades now since I retrieved oil-soaked seabirds from the coastline that reaches from Sooke Harbour to the mouth of the San Juan River at Port Renfrew—what’s now the Juan de Fuca trail with its iconic tourist brochure beaches Mystic, China, Sandcut, Sombrio, Botanical.
Indelible images remain as stark as ever, stirred to life by reports of “small” oil slicks spreading again: one from a 52-year-old shipwreck near Yuquot; another from a barge sunk at dockside in Port McNeill on Christmas Eve.
On that day 30 years ago, oyster-coloured banks of fog settled on the dark sea, shrouding the whole of the distant southern shore of the Strait of Juan de Fuca. A single white sail scudded down its distant outer edge, a big sloop catching the combined currents and light airs, making way for Neah Bay or somewhere beyond.
Above the mist, a darker band of forest, then paler rain cloud, its grey-bottomed layer pierced abruptly by the glittering, snow-clad peaks of the Olympic Mountains. In the foreground, the Aurora massif, Sourdough Mountain, and behind them Snowdome and eventually the crags of Mount Olympus itself, flanked by ice fields.
I had paused to contemplate this view, still and vivid as a landscape painting. If there’s a sight to stop the breath quite the way that vista does, expanding from the South Island across foam-flecked, ultramarine straits into the vast rain shadow of those austere mountains soaring two-and-a-half kilometres into the sky, I’ve yet to find it.
It was one of those otherwise bleak and narrow days that populate the weeks before Christmas. The light seems uncertain. There’s a bite of snow in the air — but not quite. A hint that any precipitation might decide to come as sleet — but not just yet. Or rain — more likely, but maybe not until tomorrow.
I was walking Whiffin Spit, that long bar of sand and gravel thrown up by tireless tides and swirling currents. It curves its white mile of beaches into Sooke Narrows, a perfect natural breakwater sheltering the finest natural harbour on Canada’s West Coast.
These days it’s a destination for walkers, birdwatchers, amateur botanists, landscape painters and practitioners of Zen-like mindfulness, all heeding the accolades plastered over Facebook, TripAdvisor, Nature Canada, Victoria Trails and the various websites of enthusiastic real estate developers, tourism marketers, bed and breakfast operators and lodge owners from Port Renfrew to Victoria.
All those years ago, Whiffin Spit still seemed a relatively out-of-the way spot. It had its local aficionados but appreciation of its charms had yet to spread much beyond Victoria. Today, appreciation of its Ruskinesque charms makes it one of the better-known landscape features of the region.
And not without reason. It’s a living symbol of the beauty that surrounds those lucky enough to live on the South Coast of BC. Combers come sweeping in to spend themselves in creamy patterns on the shingle. The muscular, glass green coil at the end of the spit where tides turn the corner into its lee and spill into Sooke Harbour is a menacing evocation of the serpent-like sisiutl, the supernatural shape-shifter who reigns in the deeps. And, in the background, that stunning view—what’s not to celebrate?
Those timeless things didn’t change in the long millennia before Manuel Quimper anchored the Spanish navy’s sloop Princesa Real there 230 years ago and commented on the beauty of the place, its first known entry into European consciousness. They haven’t changed since.
But as I made my way past the stunted, wind-sculpted underbrush where the end of the spit widens, my reverie was interrupted. A volunteer crashed out of the scrub. His arms cradled a heavily oiled merganser, its bright, unblinking golden eyes the only part of the bird not matted with black tar.
“We might save this one,” he said. So back we went down the spit, hurrying to get the bird to an emergency washing station set up 30 kilometres away at Victoria’s SPCA.
I held the merganser while he drove. Oil oozed from its feathers, soaked into my jacket and dripped onto the car seat as we headed for Victoria and the rescue station. The bird gasped, fluttered a little, too weak to do anything but wait, powerless to avoid its fate, whatever it might prove.
The oil had begun coming ashore on Whiffin Spit and all down the southern Outer Coast of Vancouver Island days before. Now we walked the beaches trying to save as many of the oiled seabirds struggling ashore as we could — those birds that hadn’t sunk to the bottom already, encased in their small coffins of tar.
The oil was heavy, sticky, bunker-type crude, probably pumped out of some passing freighter’s bilge beyond the horizon, far off shore and safely distant from the consequences. By the time I was walking the spit, the Province’s environmental authorities had already pronounced the beaches clean and had moved their major efforts farther west.
“Clean,” like “risk,” is a relative term.
There’s risk. And there’s risk. Jaywalking downtown at 3 a.m. carries significantly less risk than jaywalking on the freeway at rush hour. One risk might seem acceptable, the other a lot less so.
I was reminded of this both remembering my encounter with bunker oil and its repercussions at Whiffin Spit and in having that recollection jarred out of the sediments of an old reporter’s memory banks by reports of oil seeping out of corroding fuel tanks aboard a half-century old shipwreck.
The wreck is off Bligh Island in Mowachaht/Muchalaht territory, about 37 kilometres west of Gold River and not far from Yuquot, where naval commanders George Vancouver, Juan Francisco de la Bodega y Quadra and the whaling chief Maquinna resolved the Nootka Crisis in 1790, averting a war between two of the day’s imperial superpowers and giving shape to what’s now British Columbia.
The MV Schiedyk ran aground and sank in 1968. Its fuel is still surfacing 52 years later (right)
The oil has been surfacing from the wreck of the freighter MV Schiedyk. The ship was loaded with pulp and grain when, on January 3, 1968, it struck a ledge that opened its hull like a can opener. The crew of 40 took to the lifeboats and it sank in 66 fathoms of water, deep enough to disappear from public memory until a few weeks ago.
The present slick is thought to be from oil seeping out of tanks made rotten by corrosion and time. It’s a small one as oil spills go and we’re assured that the Canadian Coast Guard is working with BC Spill Response and the area’s First Nations to assess the threat and try to contain it.
But that recollection from Whiffin Spit which bubbled up from the depths of my own memory reminded me that there’s actually no such thing as a small oil spill.
One litre of oil contaminates about a million litres of water. The contamination is widely dispersed. A coffee mug of oil can create a slick that covers the area of a football field. One barrel of spilled oil renders the area of 300 football fields lethal to waterfowl, not to mention the seals, sea lions, whales and porpoises that have to breach the toxic film to breathe.
So the idea of a small spill is false, even when it’s made in comparison to larger and more devastating spills. Sure, the Deep Water Horizon catastrophe, spewing 53,000 barrels a day into the Gulf of Mexico for three months is vast in its implications. But for birds landing in the “small” slick off Bligh Island, the consequences are the same. As an 18th Century poet pointed out, long before the observation’s attribution to Joseph Stalin, one death is a tragedy, a million deaths is a statistic.
Dismissing a spill as small seems like telling a pedestrian who’s been hit by a VW beetle on a quiet side street not to worry because it was a small accident compared to getting run over by an 18-wheeler on the freeway. To the person run over, the difference matters not a whit.
For that merganser, struggling to live in spite of its soaking in a “small” spill of oil that had been deemed cleaned-up, the consequences loomed large and permanent.
Oil affects seabirds in many different ways. The principal threat is that it clogs their feathers and reduces buoyancy. Oiled birds must spend much more energy swimming just to stay afloat. They have less energy to spend on feeding. The natural insulating quality of their down is destroyed, exposing them to the strength-sapping cold of the North Pacific.
Desperate to restore their flotation, oiled birds preen frantically. Each time, they ingest a bit of oil which then slowly destroys their internal organs. Some birds, as they weaken, sink and drown. Others perish from hypothermia. Yet others starve to death as they become too feeble to feed. Some get smashed to pieces on the rocks. A few, lucky enough to make it to shore, are too weak to avoid predators. Even fewer are found by some beach-walker. They have a ghost of a chance to survive, although they most certainly then become statistics for the beancounters of ecological tragedy.
The washing station, when we got there, was tucked away on Napier Street among the machine shops of the industrial crescents just off Burnside Road. Four makeshift pens had been thrown together from wooden frames and netting. They were covered with old blankets and warmed by heat lamps. Out back, a kid’s blue plastic swimming tank made do as a washing station.
One pen was filled with terrified horned grebes. Other pens held loons, guillemots, murres, mergansers like the one I was carrying, and a number of birds I couldn’t identify. The tank was thrashing with murres, diving birds that look like tiny penguins, their wings cunningly adapted to “fly” through the water, each one a tiny miracle of evolution and adaptation.
The volunteer in charge picked a dying grebe out of the pen, its crimson eyes just starting to glaze. He expected 85 percent of the birds in the pen to die, he said, like this one, unable to recover from energy loss and organ damage from ingested oil.
A log book told the grim story. So far, 123 birds recovered, 60 dead, 45 more expected to die.
And I recall with great exactness what he said next:
“That bird’s life is as important to it as your life is important to you. That bird knows it’s dying. It feels pain and terror just like you. I wish everybody could come here and experience this. If there’s one message we have to get across it’s that life is not a bottomless pit. We just can’t keep on doing this.”
Where the real risks lie
But, or course, we do keep on doing it. Ahead of us, even then, lay the Prestige spill, 70 million litres; ABT Summer, 193 million litres; MV Selendang Ayu, 1.3 million litres; Deep Water Horizon, 8.4 million litres a day for three months; and so on up to the Husky platform spill off Newfoundland in 2018, right in the middle of a wintering area occupied by 40 million seabirds.
How many birds are killed by oil in the ocean? The fact is, nobody knows. Mortalities are desperately difficult to estimate. Evidence is hard to find because much of it sinks. But one might start with the stark fact that for decades about 300,000 fatally oiled seabirds have been found each year in the waters off Newfoundland alone.
As I was saying, there is risk and there is risk. We tend to focus on the catastrophic spills, the really big ones with dramatic TV footage and large numbers. When we calculate risks, for example, from a completed TransMountain Pipeline expansion which could increase tanker traffic through the Gulf Islands and Juan de Fuca Strait from one ship a month to one ship a day, we model the effects of worst case spills from a wreck on Arachne Reef or Race Rocks and try to figure out the habitat that would be affected. The models cited in the pipeline application suggested up to 46 percent of the “available habitat” has a very high probability of oil contamination with marine bird habitat at greatest risk. Depending on where the accident occurred, available habitat might include the Fraser River estuary, the Gulf Islands and San Juan Islands, the beaches of Victoria and the South Island and so on.
An honest risk analysis, however, suggests that there is an extremely low probability of a catastrophic spill of this nature. That’s not to say the possibility doesn’t merit concern. It is to say that we shouldn’t allow concern to deflect attention to the least likely catastrophe and away from the most likely—the death by a thousand cuts posed by “small” spills.
Federal safety experts conclude that the probability of a major accident is minuscule, some marine transport experts say the risk is close to nil.
The far greater risk to the Strait of Georgia, Puget Sound, the Gulf Islands and the South Island is a bunker fuel spill from any number of bulk carriers, container ship, passenger ferries, warships, tugboats and community fuel barges that already ply those waters in very close proximity to shorelines.
Some of these vessels carry 10,000 tonnes of bunker oil in their fuel tanks, equal to the amount that the pipeline applicants’ modelling for a worst-case tanker accident estimated would contaminate from 29 to 39 percent of the Strait of Georgia.
One federal study planning spill response reported in 2013 that more than a billion litres of petroleum already moves through coastal waters in the tanks of vessels other than barges. These vessels, in 2017, accounted for perhaps half a million sailings, almost 320,000 of them by BC and Washington State Ferries.
The ill-fated Queen of the North, the BC ferry that sank on the North Coast in 2006, went down with almost 250,000 litres of oil in its fuel tanks and the chronic leaking of that oil remains an environmental concern.
The same year, a cargo carrier spilled 243,000 litres of crude into the Squamish River estuary when its starboard fuel tank was punctured on a metal piling. A year later, a logging barge moving equipment lost its deck cargo which went over the side in Robson Bight, the ecological reserve created because of its importance to killer whales which congregate there to rub on sandstone shelves along the shoreline. Among the equipment lost, a tank truck loaded with 10,000 litres of oil.
In 2016, the Nathan E. Stewart, an articulated barge returning from Alaska, ran aground on a reef—the second mate on watch fell asleep and a course-correcting alarm had been turned off. It released 110,000 litres of fuel and lube oil into Gale Pass (near Bella Bella), an important Heiltsuk food harvesting site.
The Nathan E Stewart, an articulated barge that sunk in 2016 near Bella Bella
In Victoria, where two barges ran aground off Dallas Road in 2016, there are more than 500 fuel barge movements in and out of the harbour each year. They transport an estimated maximum of 8.2 billion litres of oil and petroleum products.
According to the Transportation Safety Board’s report for 2019, there have been 1,059 marine accidents involving 1,228 vessels in the Pacific Region since 2009. On average, the Pacific Region experiences 46 percent of all marine accidents in Canada.
Over the last 10 years, accidents involving barges and ferries amount to three times the number involving cargo ships or tankers.
As a consequence, according to Transport Canada, the southern BC coast has one of the highest probabilities of a marine spill. And the Georgia Strait Alliance warns that if all the proposed traffic expansion in the Salish Sea takes place, the risk of a spill will increase by 68 percent. Ironically, any such spill is least likely to come from a tanker and most likely to come from a fuel barge accident.
It’s the “little” spills that often pass below the media’s radar. And it’s the chronic exposure of the environment to low and less dramatic levels of oil that we should be thinking about.
Media responds energetically to catastrophes and gives them exhaustive coverage. The dreary daily litany of bilge pumpouts at sea, chronic leaking tanks on sunken wrecks, accidental overflows while refuelling, “small” leaks from small collisions, the leaky outboard motors of recreational boaters and anglers, not so much.
The truth is that large marine tanker shipping is vastly safer than it was and is getting much safer with double hulls, sophisticated navigation systems, pilotage and tug escorts.
Smaller vessels, non-tanker marine traffic, already sunken vessels—that’s what we should be thinking hard about.
For example, there’s the ticking time bomb of ships, many of them tankers, sunk during hostilities in World War 2. When Trevor Gilbert of the Australian Maritime Safety Authority put together a global data base of leaking wrecks, he listed 8,569 of which 1,583 are oil tankers with cargo and on-board fuel of up to 20 million tonnes of oil.
Transport Canada reported in 2013 that sunken vessels, the zombie threat to Canada’s marine environment, are estimated to be in the thousands. One of them, a US Army transport with a load of 500-pound bombs and 700 tonnes of bunker oil sank in 1946 not far from where the Queen of the North went down. When the oil began to leak, a dangerous recovery operation cost $27 million.
In the Strait of Georgia, four railway tank cars loaded with chlorine went to the bottom in a very deep part of Malaspina Strait when the barge carrying them capsized on February 21, 1975.
These zombie threats, it turns out, are everywhere.
“They lie forgotten by time, dormant until corrosion reawakens their potential threat,” said the chilling Review of Canada’s Ship-Source Oil Spill Preparedness and Response Regime.
All of a sudden that “small” spill at Bligh Island and the leaky barge at Port McNeill begin to feel like part of a much larger and more consequential but far less dramatic spill.
We’re all participants in this. If we shop for groceries, catch a ferry to Salt Spring, take the bus to a concert, go for an oil change, drive the dogs to the off-leash park, drive the boards and wet suits to Sombrio for a surf session. All of us are complicit. So perhaps I fully deserved the accusation I felt in the golden eyes of that small bird as it lay dying in my arms so long ago. And that’s why I remember what that volunteer at the washing station said.
“Now it’s the birds. Next it’s you and me and my three kids. When are people going to figure that out?”
Stephen Hume has spent half a century as a journalist writing about Western Canada, the Far North, BC and the Island.
Late, over budget and made worse by the coronavirus, will “Canada’s largest infrastructure project” ever produce one gram of liquefied natural gas?
LNG Canada’s project in Kitimat is now under construction (Photo by LNG Canada)
TO SOME, it might be tempting to feel sorry for the LNG Canada construction project, now under slowing construction near Kitimat. A variety of reasons might invoke sympathy.
For one thing, the world is quickly moving away from fossil fuels. To pick just one example, on the afternoon of December 18, 2020 Great Britain’s wind farms generated 17.3 gigawatts (GW) of electricity, amounting to a record 43 percent of Britain’s power at the time, according to Renewable UK. And it was just when the country needed it most, on a cold winter day. British solar isn’t far behind, in a country that not long ago relied heavily on burning coal to produce electricity. On April 20, 2020, solar produced a record 9.7 GW, or nearly 30 percent of UK demand, reported the Solar Power Portal.
And let’s not forget that in December Prime Minister Justin “Kinder Morgan” Trudeau announced an increase in the carbon tax to $170 per tonne by 2030, which might even lead to Canada actually meeting its Paris climate targets in greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions.
Originally expected to begin churning out liquefied natural gas (LNG) by 2025, the Shell-led foreign consortium building the LNG Canada project faces intense competition from US plants that are either already operating or are further ahead than the Kitimat facility. Delays may well have pushed LNG Canada’s first production to at least 2026, possibly allowing competitors to jump ahead.
The LNG Canada project calls for two trains (production units) to open initially, producing a total of 14 million tonnes per annum (MPTA) of LNG. How does this compare with competing US LNG export projects?
There are currently 15 large-scale LNG export trains operating in the US, 4 of which began commercial operation just in 2020. The 15 now-operating trains have a total capacity of 76 MTPA—or more than 5 times the output of LNG Canada’s first stage.
As well, another 7 are under construction in the US, all of which are projected to start exporting by 2025. One, in Corpus Christi Bay, Texas, will begin production in May 2021, according to the US Energy Information Agency. These new facilities will add a further 38 MTPA to US exports, bringing total US capacity to 114 MPTA in 2025, the year in which LNG Canada originally expected to begin producing one-eighth as much. While it is entirely possible that some of the new US facilities will also be delayed, it is clear that our southern neighbours have a significant head start on BC. According to a September 23, 2020 report by data analysis company Statista, COVID-19 “leaves the future of [LNG] terminal projects unclear.”
By 2026, despite projections from industry cheerleaders of increased Chinese demand for LNG over the next decade, the combination of falling prices for renewable energy, growing US competition, and the greening of government policy could mean that the LNG Canada partners—Shell, Mitsubishi, Petronas, Petrochina and Korean Gas—could be stuck with a truly stranded asset, unable to profitably sell the plant’s fossil fuel despite $6 billion in subsidies from the BC government.
Work sites are like “landlocked cruise ships”
In recent months, the project has been hit by a number of unexpected issues.
A few days before Christmas 2020, janitors at the LNG Canada site voted 84 percent in favour of a strike. In normal times, the threat of reduced or no cleaning might amount at most to a bit of a nuisance, but not earth-shattering. Serious pandemics such as COVID-19, however, mean that the times are far from normal.
The accommodation facilities for workers at LNG Canada’s project in Kitimat (Photo by LNG Canada)
“LNG janitors work on the front lines in construction sites surrounded by heavy machinery, cleaning work camps staffed by hundreds of other LNG workers,” said the janitors’ union, Unite Here, in a December 21 statement. “They are among the lowest paid workers on the LNG site. Janitors have not been provided with a living wage, adequate staffing levels, fair workloads, and enough health and safety equipment to protect against COVID-19 until recently.”
The janitors, many of whom are Indigenous, work for Burnaby-based subcontractor Dexterra, which has since said that it continues to negotiate in good faith and is optimistic about reaching a satisfactory resolution. (Before November 13, Dexterra was known as Horizon North Logistics.)
After the pandemic hit North America early in 2020, LNG Canada seemed to be taking appropriate steps. In March, the project laid off approximately 750 “non-essential” workers as a preventative measure against the virus, flying them back to their homes across Canada.
But not all experts were convinced it was enough. The former Chief Medical Health Officer for Northern Health called for the immediate closure of all industrial work camps in the region, including LNG Canada. In a March 28 open letter to Provincial Health Officer Dr Bonnie Henry, Dr David Bowering referred to such work sites as “essentially landlocked cruise ships.” Added Bowering: “The camps are and will be COVID-19 incubators placing the workers, the host communities, and the home communities of the workers at unacceptable risk.”
However, Dr Henry declined to order such projects closed, noting that many had already reduced their staffing levels. “You can’t just abandon a large mine or industrial site,” Dr Henry said at a March 30 news conference.
The LNG plant construction is governed by a contract between LNG Canada and a venture formed by Texan company Fluor and Japanese firm JGC.
In November, the builders said they had received a number of questions about how careful they were about protecting workers and the local community. In response to the queries, LNG Canada construction manager Vince Kenny and JGC-Fluor Joint Venture construction director Berni Molz were reassuring. For one thing, the project is adhering to orders from Dr Henry, the pair said in a November 19 statement. Not only that, it was following the Industrial Camp Guidance issued by the BC Centre for Disease Control and also obeying WorkSafeBC’s safe construction worksite requirements.
Actually, boasting that the consortium is abiding by such rules is a somewhat hollow gesture: Companies operating in BC are required to follow them. It’s a little like telling the world that you promise not to rob banks.
In their statement, Molz and Kenny summarized the project’s approach: “We can assure you that together we are taking prudent measures to help stop and reduce the spread of the virus.”
Apparently, those “prudent measures” were not enough. As it happened, though the statement did not mention it, on the same day (November 19), Northern Health declared a COVID-19 outbreak at the LNG Canada site, an outbreak in which 56 site workers eventually tested positive. (However, by December 11 all but one of the 56 had recovered.)
A few weeks later, COVID-19 hit the project for a second time in an unrelated outbreak. Northern Health said in a December 17 statement that 15 of the 40 employees of Diversified Transportation who work at the LNG Canada site had tested positive. The outbreak declaration will remain in place until at least January 14, 2021.
Wet’suwet’en worries confirmed
The pandemic is also affecting LNG Canada in other ways.
Adding insult to injury are problems with the Coastal GasLink pipeline, intended to ship fracked fossil gas 670 km from the Dawson Creek area to LNG Canada, over the continuing, strenuous objections of the Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs.
In case anyone remains unsure as to whether the chiefs remain opposed to the pipeline, a November 30 open letter from 22 female Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs to Dr Henry puts any doubt to rest. “We understand that the Province has declared oil and gas work an essential service, however, we strongly encourage you to reconsider,” the chiefs said in the letter. “The economy cannot come before Indigenous lives.”
“Living in these northern rural communities, we see and feel the influx of transient workers in our communities” they told Dr Henry in the letter, which calls for both the pipeline and the LNG Canada site to be shut down.
“Our hotels are occupied by LNG workers, we see the traffic through our territories increase ten-fold, we see the workers eating in our restaurants, shopping at our grocery stores and visiting our local pubs and bars on a regular basis,” they said in the letter. “Not only have we witnessed an increase in drugs, alcohol and gang related violence in our communities, we are now faced with a disease that could kill any one of us.”
The chiefs’ concerns were prescient. Less than one month later, Northern Health declared a COVID-19 outbreak at two Coastal GasLink worker accommodation sites, in the Burns Lake and Fraser Lake areas. To date, 27 employees had tested positive for the virus, and 17 cases remain active, Northern Health said in a December 20 statement. In addition, medical health officers issued an order that the worksites be limited to all but essential workers until health authorities approve an updated COVID-19 safety plan. The outbreak declaration will remain in effect till at least January 17.
The multitude of COVID-19 outbreaks related to LNG Canada has not gone unnoticed by BC’s Provincial Health Officer.
On December 23, Dr Henry announced new orders for northern industrial projects like LNG Canada and the Coastal GasLink pipeline, including a requirement that these companies must slow their usual January ramping-up of activities, when workers return to the sites from both inside and outside BC.
“This large movement of people means potential for higher spread amongst employees, but also into communities along the areas where the industrial camps are in the north, and right now we know Northern Health is stretched,” Henry said, according to a transcript of her comments provided by the Ministry of Health. “We are already seeing many small, rural, and remote communities in the north under strain,” she said, adding that the order will help ease that pressure at the start of the year.
Cost increases could lead to stranded asset
Apart from the effects of the pandemic, how is pipeline construction coming along? In a December 18 update, Coastal GasLink issued a statement boasting that its team “has made an incredible amount of progress,” having completed 23 percent of the 670 km pipeline.
But there was one slight hiccup. Ten days earlier, the BC Environmental Assessment Office (EAO) issued an order following an inspection. Builders had failed to mitigate adverse effects of erosion and sediment control, as required by the project’s environmental assessment certificate, Clayton Smith, a senior compliance and enforcement officer, said in the December 8 order. Smith ordered the project to take a number of steps, including providing biweekly monitoring reports from an independent erosion auditor, beginning February 8, 2021.
Not only must the auditor be independent, any monitoring reports the auditor writes must be provided directly to the EAO “without first being reviewed by [Coastal GasLink Pipeline Project Ltd.]” Given the disastrous record of BC’s supposed monitoring of mining, forestry, fracked gas and other so-called “natural resource” industries in recent years, the condition is reassuring. The sad part is that the EAO felt it necessary to spell out that an independent auditor must actually be independent.
Such challenges, along with disruptions due to COVID, will affect both construction costs and the schedule for building the LNG plant.
When costs rise above what was anticipated, the joint venture could end up losing money. In fact, less than a year after the LNG Canada contract was signed on October 31, 2018—and long before the pandemic—Fluor officials expressed concern about such fixed-price contracts, announcing that it would be much more cautious before accepting similar contracts.
Construction of a storage tank at LNG’s Kitimat site (Photo by LNG Canada)
On August 1, 2019, Fluor’s then-executive chairman Alan Boeckmann said he was “extremely disappointed” with the company’s performance. In the three months ending June 30, 2019, Fluor lost $555 million US. As a result, Fluor fired both its chief executive officer and chief financial officer, began selling off real estate, and cashed in some of its insurance policies.
In a December 10, 2020 conference call with analysts, present Fluor chief executive officer Carlos Hernandez said that the LNG Canada project was moving along. “Up in Kitimat, progress continues to be made on the LNG Canada project despite the ongoing challenges presented by the government-imposed restrictions due to the COVID-19 pandemic,” Hernandez said during the call.
The impact is also being felt on aspects of the project outside Canada. The modules for the LNG Canada plant are being built at the Zhuhai fabrication yard in China, which has been affected by the pandemic. “Ongoing COVID impacts and travel restrictions to China are hampering progress but mitigation actions are being taken,” the company said in the December 10 presentation.
Explaining how COVID-19 has affected Fluor projects, Hernandez said that clients understand the impact. “[W]e are negotiating with the clients on the effects of the COVID impacts both as to schedule and as to cost, and I think that the discussions are very collaborative for the most part,” he said.
“There is no question that there will be compensation to the contractor for impacts beyond our control, and we’re in process of resolving some of those at this point in time,” added Hernandez. “The problem is that, obviously, we don’t know what the final COVID impact is going to be until we get past the pandemic. But we’re engaged in some discussions right now with clients to resolve them to this point and then reserve the right to further negotiate, down the road, additional impacts.”
Asked specifically about resolving problems with delays at LNG Canada, Hernandez said in the call he expects a “partial resolution” of the impacts to date. “And then later on when we’re in a position to assess additional impacts, we’ll negotiate that,” Hernandez said in the call. “[I]t’s not something we can negotiate all at once because situation of the effects are pretty lengthy.”
Hernandez indicated that many of the impacts are the result of “government-directed lock-downs.” In other words, many of the delays are due to a “change of law,” a fact that may “give us the basis for resolution.”
My translation: “The delays are costing us, but they aren’t our fault. So we’re expecting more money from LNG Canada. Oh, and we’re going to be late.”
Joint venture partner JGC also hinted in November that COVID-19 is affecting the project. During a call with investors on November 10—nine days before the first outbreak at the plant—JGC was asked about the impact of COVID-19 on the company’s major projects. In response, an unnamed JGC official said that the pandemic had slowed the LNG Canada project, according to a company-supplied transcript of the call. “Production of some equipment ordered from European manufacturers has been delayed, but we are working with the client [LNG Canada] on this matter as we move ahead,” added the official.
As the 40 percent owner of LNG Canada, Shell would likely control a decision on whether to throw extra cash at the joint venture. However, these days, like other fossil fuels companies, Shell may not have a lot of extra cash to throw around.
In October 2020, Shell—the world’s largest LNG trader—said it did not expect to ever build another “greenfield” (previously undeveloped) gas-to-liquid project, like LNG Canada. And in a series of announcements in 2020, Shell wrote down the value of its oil and gas assets by a total of approximately $22 billion US, including a $1 billion US write-down of its Australian LNG assets.
Adding to its problems, In December 2020 Shell appeared in a Dutch court facing demands by Greenpeace, Friends of the Earth Netherlands and other activist groups that the company cut its emissions by 45 percent below 2019 levels by 2030.
LNG Canada senior communications advisor Crystal Sharwood said in an email that the consortium had no comment regarding possible variances in the construction contract. Fluor did not reply to a request for comment by the time of publication.
What if Shell and their four foreign cronies dig in their heels, refusing to pay another cent to the Fluor-JGC joint venture contractor? If Fluor-JGC gets the bum’s rush from LNG Canada, the joint venture could end up losing money on its $14 billion US contract. And thanks to falling prices for renewable energy, increased competition from US plants, and greening government policy, delays could make selling LNG unprofitable by the time the Kitimat plant is actually finished.
Horror of horrors: Canada’s largest infrastructure project—the one that was supposed to bring countless jobs and prosperity—could quickly become a stranded asset, never producing a single gram of LNG. This is despite $6 billion in the form of reduced hydro rates, cancelled LNG export tax, temporary waiving of provincial sales tax, and carbon tax subsidies from BC taxpayers (that’s us), plus another $1.275 billion from federal taxpayers (that’s also us, in part).
“Stranded asset” is a term increasingly applied to antiquated ventures like the Alberta tar sands, a reference to the fact that vast sums of money have been invested in a facility that will no longer operate. But calling such projects “assets” may misrepresent their true status, as it implies that they retain some net value. Rather, Shell and company may end up losing their shirts, pants and socks on LNG Canada.
In other words, LNG Canada could end up as a stranded liability. Not good for the fossil fuel industry.
But an excellent outcome for the planet.
Russ Francis is pleased to learn that after inexplicably cancelling the $5 increase in the carbon tax scheduled for April 1, 2020, the BC government is resuming the annual $5 increase per tonne of carbon dioxide equivalent, reaching $45 this April 1.
When it comes to encouraging citizens to reduce electricity consumption, is BC Hydro like the fox being in charge of the chicken farm?
THERE CAN BE LITTLE DOUBT that we will pay a lot more for electricity before long, thanks to the Site C mess and declining revenues at BC Hydro.
This is in spite of December 1st news releases from both BC Hydro and BC Minister of Energy Bruce Ralston trumpeting a supposed rate decrease in Hydro rates, retroactive to April 1, 2020. As a result, residential ratepayers will get a credit in early 2021 of $4.
Don’t spend it all at once, because you’re going to need it—to pay BC Hydro rate increases that took effect last year. The two releases omitted that minor fact. Decisions on rates are made, not by Hydro, but by the BC Utilities Commission—which gets its marching orders from the Province. The Commission made its rates decision on October 2, 2020, and issued a press release three days later. In that decision, the Commission did indeed approve a 1.14 percent decrease effective last April. But in the same decision, it also retroactively approved a 6.85 percent increase in rates, effective April 1, 2019. Had the Commission not approved that increase on October 2, we would likely be receiving a far bigger refund than $4. As well, the Commission said rates are subject to “adjustment” due to the cost of installing electric vehicle charging stations.
BC Hydro’s Site C dam and powerhouse under construction
In his cover letter for a July 31, 2020 report to the BC Utilities Commission, BC Hydro President and CEO Chris O’Riley said he had “serious concerns…regarding schedule, scope and budget” regarding the Site C project. O’Riley could not even estimate the final cost, let alone the completion date. Budgeted originally at $6.2 billion, Site C is now officially expected to cost $10.7 billion. A 2017 BC Utilities Commission report said the final price could hit $12.5 billion.
As well, BC Hydro’s revenue is falling, another fact omitted from the December 1 news releases. According to its September 17, 2020 financial report, net income for the three months ended June 30, 2020 was $6 million—$19 million lower than the same period a year earlier. That’s a 76 percent drop. Hydro is already using “deferral accounts,” which despite government protestations could well mean that future ratepayers and taxpayers will be dinged for the missing loot. In February 2019, then-BC Auditor General Carol Bellringer said that the utility had amassed a total of $5.5 billion in its 29 deferral accounts. Somebody is going to have to pay them off, and the tooth fairy doesn’t have pockets that deep. For these reasons, it is not unreasonable to expect sharp increases in electricity charges sooner rather than later.
My guess is that we will start getting dinged through sharp increases in electricity charges sooner rather than later.
Heat pumps may be one part of the solution to the looming increases. By transferring heat from the outside—even when the temperature is minus 20 degrees Celsius—they produce up to 5 times as much heat energy as they use in electric energy. This compares with electric baseboard heaters—the most common kind of electric heating in BC—which produce approximately the same amount of heat energy as they use in electric energy.
For those now heating their homes with natural gas, a significant benefit in replacing the furnace with an electric heat pump is the virtual elimination of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions produced largely by problematic fracking. Heating BC homes results in total annual emissions of 2.6 million tonnes (Mt) of CO2 equivalent, plus an additional 1.8 Mt for water heating. (Figures are for 2017, from Natural Resources Canada.) Nearly all of these emissions are from burning gas. Emissions from residential space and water heating amounts to approximately 7 percent of BC’s total GHG emissions.
But heat pumps are not cheap, even with rebates of up to $6,000 offered under the BC government’s Better Homes program. No qualifying heat pumps cost as little as $6,000, and not everyone can afford to pay $10,000 or more up front, no matter how much energy they would save by making the switch. The rebate scheme may in fact be supporting those who would have installed heat pumps anyway, then happily pocket the handout. (The program also offers up to $2,000 in rebates for heat pump water heaters.)
A simpler way of reducing BC Hydro payments is to generate your own electricity. Home solar power makes more sense these days, given dropping prices and increased efficiency. The cost of photovoltaic (electricity-producing) solar panels has dropped by 85 percent in the last 10 years, and their efficiency has doubled in the same period. Also, unlike Site C power, solar is genuinely green.
Does solar power make sense for homeowners? Dozens of my neighbours in the Southern Gulf Islands think so. Tom Mommsen is the co-founder of the Southern Gulf Islands-based Salish Sea Renewable Energy Co-op (SSREC), which actively advocates for zero-emission energy. But SSERC does more than advocate. It makes bulk purchases of solar panels, and arranges inspections as well as installation and tie-in to the BC Hydro grid.
Tom Mommsen, co-founder of the Southern Gulf Islands-based Salish Sea Renewable Energy Co-op
“Residential solar is already less than half the cost of retail solar from BC Hydro, with costs decreasing steadily while BC Hydro rates keep increasing,” Mommsen said in an email. “Solar power is considerably cleaner than mega-hydro, does not involve transmission losses, can be deployed quickly, and its production is under local control. All this is anathema to a utility like BC Hydro that runs centralized generation stations far away from the majority of its customers.”
At current costs, Mommsen said, homeowners with solar panels produce 1 kilowatt hour (kWh) of energy for less than 6.5 cents (after taxes), while they would have to pay 10 to 15 cents, plus taxes, for the same kWh delivered by BC Hydro.
Mommsen provided an example, based on his experience with recent solar installations, which are tied to the BC Hydro grid to ensure power is available at night and on cloudy days.
Average BC annual residential electricity consumption is approximately 10,000 kilowatt hours (kWh), costing about $1,200 annually, not counting connection fees. To cut that bill in half, a homeowner could install a 4.5 kilowatt (kW) solar system, at a cost of $9,000, Mommsen suggested. Even with an interest-free loan, using the resulting annual BC Hydro savings of $600 to pay off the loan would take 15 years to repay the $9,000. (Energy output from the solar panels refers to installations in the Southern Gulf Islands.)
Mommsen noted that financial assistance could make a huge difference in the uptake of solar power. (Oh, the BC government doesn’t have a lot of money to play with these days? I know where they could find around $6 billion to subsidize solar installations. Hint: It starts with ‘L’, ends in ‘G’, and has an ‘N’ in the middle.)
In practice, the savings from solar installations will increase, as BC Hydro rates inevitably grow and solar costs continue to decrease by at least 5 percent per year, Mommsen said. “Still, anyone with solar will have loans with very long terms unless financial backing is provided,” he said. Not only that, BC Hydro is unlikely to take widespread adoption of solar power sitting down. Said Mommsen: “You can rest assured that BC Hydro is already thinking about increasing the monthly connection fees for solar customers.”
Concludes Mommsen: “Anybody thinking about energy would be showing off their ignorance by not going solar.”
BC Hydro did not respond to a Focus request for comment on financing energy upgrades by the time of publication.
Are reduced electricity costs from energy upgrades only for those who don’t need them: the wealthy?
One way to encourage widespread adoption of home energy upgrades is to offer low- or zero-interest loans, repaid through the resulting energy savings. That means customers might no longer need to find large sums upfront, and once the loan is paid off via energy savings, they would end up with large reductions in their energy bills.
In fact, the Province’s CleanBC Better Homes program does have a low-interest financing program for switching from a fossil fuel heating source to a heat pump. Loans range up to $40,000. However, the amortization period is five years, meaning that even at zero interest, participants have to repay the entire sum in that period. For the maximum loan, participants would have to come up with an extra $8,000 per year for five years: The program is plainly not for the average BC household.
Besides the Better Homes loan, BC does have some experience in financing energy upgrades. In November 2012, the Province launched two pilot programs, using “On-Bill Financing” (OBF)—in which loans are repaid through utility bills. The pilots were in Colwood, involving BC Hydro, and in the South Okanagan with Fortis BC. How did they turn out? “Both pilots were major failures,” reported the Pacific Institute for Climate Solutions in a September 2015 study. A grand total of two residents took part in each program, who were lent a grand total of $20,000.
This compares unfavourably with a highly successful Manitoba Hydro program, which consistently attracted 5,000 new participants annually, and lent a total of $300 million over a 13-year period. Average energy savings per household reached 825 kWh per year.
One drawback of BC’s 2012 OBF scheme was that the loans were taken out by individual homeowners, which can be problematic. For instance, what happens if they move before paying off the loan?
The answer to this and related issues may be to register the loan against the property title.
That is exactly the thinking behind Property Assessed Clean Energy (PACE) programs, which now operate in 37 of the 50 US states. That way, when a house is sold, both the upgrades and any outstanding loan balance form part of the sale. So far, according to the PACENation website, more than $8 billion US has been invested in 280,000 programs across the US, producing more than 134,000 jobs.
Municipal governments are pushing PACE programs for energy upgrades. But they cannot launch in BC without enabling legislation from the Province. Required are amendments to the Community Charter and the Vancouver Charter. At the 2019 convention of the Union of BC Municipalities, delegates approved a resolution urging the Province to pass such legislation. In its response, the government waffled.
“The experience of other jurisdictions with PACE has been mixed, including some concern with unintended consequences…” said an unnamed spokesperson in the then-Ministry of Municipal Affairs and Housing, in a written response to the UBCM. “The Province is open to further discussions with UBCM about whether PACE, or a different approach, can best deliver on goals.”
Despite this lukewarm response, BC’s newly re-elected New Democrat government is now publicly acknowledging the importance of low-cost financing for building energy upgrades. Among Ralston’s tasks, as laid out in his November 26 mandate letter from Premier John Horgan, is to “enhance energy efficiency programs and incentives for residential and commercial buildings, including Property Assessed Clean Energy financing to help homeowners make energy-saving retrofits and repay the cost of them over time.” (In the November cabinet shuffle, Ralston continues his role as energy minister of the renamed Ministry of Energy, Mines and Low Carbon Innovation.)
As well, this fall, in its September 17 Economic Recovery Plan, the Province committed $2 million towards a “road map” and pilot PACE program. “PACE is a financing tool for home and building owners that addresses key market barriers to the adoption of energy efficiency and low-carbon retrofit measures in commercial and residential buildings,” an energy ministry spokesperson said in an email to Focus.
Madi Kennedy is an analyst with the Pembina Institute, a non-profit think tank that has long advocated for PACE programs, playing a leadership role in PACE BC, a coalition of environmental organizations and building owners, among others. She said in an email that PACE programs need to be scaled up considerably. “In BC, to meet climate targets, we need to retrofit 30,000 homes, 17,000 apartments, and 3 million square metres of commercial space every year until 2050,” Kennedy said in an email.
BC Green Party leader Sonia Furstenau said energy retrofit programs should treat all electricity customers equally. “It is important to make climate policies accessible to all—not just those who own their own homes and have disposable income,” Furstenau said in an email to Focus. “Enacting PACE-enabling legislation is one way to provide access to long-term financing, repaid through an addition to property tax bills and transferred from one owner to the next when properties are sold.”
SSERC’s Mommsen said much depends on whether BC Hydro is in charge of energy upgrade financing, noting that there is a clear conflict of interest between energy efficiency initiatives, BC Hydro’s business model, and government policy regarding fossil fuels and mega-hydro.
“As long as efficiency, solar policy, and rebates are run by BC Hydro, there is no hope,” Mommsen said. “The foxes are in charge of the chicken farm.”
Russ Francis wishes well-paid so-called “public engagement” staff—formerly called public relations experts—in the BC Government, BC Hydro and elsewhere would stop omitting highly relevant bad news in their “everything is wonderful” press releases. Doing so might boost their credibility.
Exuberant denialism and magical thinking characterize our response to both emerging viruses and the climate and biodiversity crises—and their root cause.
This is happening all over BC: A forest company burns half the public forest it just chopped down, adding to the climate and biodiversity crises, and quite possibly creating conditions from which the next pandemic will emerge.
THE PREDICTED SECOND WAVE of the coronavirus pandemic appears to be arriving right on schedule although Vancouver Island has so far won a thankful reprieve. The rest of British Columbia, however, is now trending new cases at almost four times the rate at which they occurred in June.
We knew the second wave was coming because epidemiologists warned this pandemic was following the classic pattern: pulsing new infections into the “fertile ground” of previously uninfected populations. Yet, we nevertheless eased up on safety protocols—in some cases outright resisted them—different groups arguing fatigue, boredom, inconvenience, age-related immunity, cost or overblown hoax. And now, to paraphrase Steven Spielberg’s classic horror movie Poltergeist, “It’s baaack!”
Confirmed new cases of COVID-19 were sharply on the rise again by mid-October. Numbers were up for BC, for Canada, for the rest of the continent and for the world. In the United States, a new infection occurred every 1.25 seconds and a death from the virus about every 1.5 minutes, about three times the death rate from influenza last year. In fact, reports Scientific American, back in April the coronavirus became the third leading cause of death in the US, exceeding every cause but cancer and heart disease.
But despite almost 40 million cases worldwide, with new infections hitting 80,000 a day in the US, in this weird alternative universe that BC sometimes seems to occupy, an anti-mask faction was noisily disrupting ferry sailings, menacing concerned public transit passengers, and hassling employees in retail outlets that had imposed mask requirements as a safety measure for staff and customers.
It might seem self-evident that masks are a good idea for preventing transmission—that’s why health care workers wear them in hospitals and your dental hygienist puts one on to clean your teeth—but clearly this isn’t about logic or reason, it’s about emotions and magical thinking.
For the rational, daily increases spiking back to levels that just a few months ago overwhelmed frontline health care providers and triggered unprecedented lockdowns should serve as a sobering reminder that even if we’re learning to cope—for now, at least—we’re nowhere near the end of this pandemic, we’re merely at the end of the beginning.
Infection trends relentlessly upward everywhere: Germany, Italy, Spain, South Korea, Russia, India, South America, the United Kingdom, where hospitals in Manchester and Liverpool are now running out of intensive care beds in a grim reprise of New York and Milan during the first wave.
It’s true that the death curve has flattened as medical research extends our knowledge of drug therapies and clinical practices that seem able to blunt the initial lethality of the coronavirus.
Although, if you’re poor, an ethnic minority, elderly (10.7 million in Canada are at elevated risk because they are over 55) or have an underlying condition (3.1 million of us are diabetics, 2.4 million have cardiovascular ailments and 2.1 million have chronic obstructive lung disease) or one of the many immunocompromised by HIV, chemotherapy, radiation treatment or certain drugs, the chances of dying from the virus and associated complications increase up to 630-fold.
Globally we’re now counting more than a million coronavirus dead. More than a third of those mortalities are in North America.
And if that math takes one aback, so should the explosion of conspiracy theories—it’s a hoax; the medical profession is cooking the statistics for profit; Big Brother is taking away your right not to wear basic surgical masks to protect fellow citizens (this from folks who routinely abide by such infringements upon their freedom as the requirement that you shower before going into a public swimming pool and who wouldn’t dream of yelling at their surgeon for wearing a mask). Then there’s Big Pharma hyping the danger so it can sell you untested vaccines. Bill Gates, George Soros, genetic engineers in China; the scapegoats abound.
Magical thinking about herd immunity ricochets through social media. And the outright denialism—the numbers are false; the virus is less lethal than common flu (indeed it is, if you’re a baby but if you’re over 50, beware!)—more resembles the Middle Ages of miracles and belief in the healing properties of amulets than a century in which science can land robots on passing comets.
The coming economic costs are staggering
Behind the clamour on Facebook, TikTok and Twitter, the actual tabulated cost of the pandemic clicks upward along with the case loads.
Right now, the estimated personal costs to a patient hospitalized with the virus and later discharged from direct medical care to deal with lingering effects is about $4,000, calculates Bruce Lee of City University of New York’s School of Public Health. The math is pretty simple. If 20 percent of the US population gets sick, one year’s post-hospital costs would be $50 billion. If no effective vaccine emerges and 80 percent of the US population is infected, the cost soars to $204 billion says another report from the Reuters news agency.
Statistical wiggle-room notwithstanding, in-hospital costs have been estimated at $35,000 to $45,000 per patient which means that in the US alone, admittedly one of the world’s most expensive systems, pandemic hospital costs are going to run to the hundreds of billions.
There’s a lot more red ink coming, though. The economic fallout from job losses during lockdowns is just now being totted up by accountants. The International Labour Organization estimates initial job losses to the pandemic at 3 million jobs in Canada, 60 million in Europe, 70 million in the US, 45 million in Africa and an astonishing 235 million in the Asia-Pacific region, of which 122 million lost jobs are in India.
Overall, the ILO estimates global job losses at 400 million, with a cautionary note. That total is calculated using the 48-hour work week that’s more common outside the developed world. Use the standard 40-hour work week of North America and Europe and the total estimated pandemic job loss hits 480 million.
The total cost of the coronavirus pandemic will top $16 trillion—that’s equivalent to almost a decade of Canada’s total economic output at current nominal GDP—says a paper published in the Journal of the American Medical Association in mid-October.
The takeaway from all this is that our slackness in preparing and sustaining a serious and comprehensive pandemic response strategy—we’ve had warnings from epidemiologists and virologists about the potential for a lethal plague like this for 30 years now—is going to cost us dearly in lives and money. Whole economic sectors are in shambles because we collectively failed to hope for the best while preparing for the worst.
The airline industry is in trouble as passenger loads collapse. By mid-April, 65 percent of the world’s commercial passenger aircraft had been mothballed. Some major national airlines reported a 95 percent decline in passengers. The restaurant industry is in turmoil as small operators with small profit margins decide they can’t break even as mandated social distancing measures limit tables. Tourism is in trouble from luxury resorts to recreational fishing lodges. Movie theatres are in trouble as apprehensive audiences stay away in droves. Universities that relied on revenue from foreign students face catastrophic declines in enrolment and cash flow.
Even the once-haughty province of Alberta, Canada’s economic powerhouse fuelled by oil exports, has been humbled by a perfect storm of pandemic and commodity price collapse. Accelerated by the economic slowdown, global demand for all oil shrank sharply just at the same time some developed nations began a pivot toward clean energy sources. With a world suddenly awash in cheaper oil, the more expensive oil suffered.
Alberta, where median household incomes for decades exceeded those in Toronto and Vancouver by as much as $30,000-a-year, is suddenly faced with dwindling royalty revenues, a $24-billion deficit and correspondingly severe cuts to services. The diminished expectations appear too much for some to acknowledge, hence the din of outraged blame from some Albertans aimed at Quebec, Ontario, BC, the federal Liberals, the province’s previous NDP government, even teenaged environmentalist Gretta Thunberg—just about anybody makes a convenient scapegoat, it seems.
BC’s damaged forest ecosystems could nurture the next pandemic
If news from the pandemic is depressing, hang onto your hats, you ain’t seen nothin’ yet.
The real takeaway from our coronavirus woes is far worse. It’s this: global warming increases the risk and propensity for more pandemics like this one and possibly far worse caused by emerging infectious diseases.
How does that work?
Harvard University’s School of Public Health explains:
“As the planet heats up, animals big and small, on land and in the sea, are headed to the poles to get out of the heat. That means animals are coming into contact with other animals they normally wouldn’t, and that creates an opportunity for pathogens to get into new hosts.”
The current pandemic is a classic example. It’s a new virus that apparently hopped from wild bats to us. Yes, that seems to have occurred first in China, but there are implications here, too.
“Many of the root causes of climate change also increase the risk of pandemics,” the Harvard experts say.“Deforestation which occurs mostly for agricultural purposes, is the largest cause of habitat loss worldwide.
“Loss of habitat forces animals to migrate and potentially contact other animals or people and share germs.”
What’s that got to do with us in BC? Well, we’re pretty good at stripping habitat, clearcutting watersheds, flooding entire valley systems, and encouraging urban sprawl. Instead of in-fill and vertical development in a contained urban footprint, we spend billions on highways access to land beyond surburbia and then complain when the displaced deer look for food in our urban gardens.
Mountain caribou, marmots, bats, shrews, sea lions, orcas—more than 70 mammal species in BC—are endangered, threatened or of special concern. Then there are the species and subspecies of birds, insects, reptiles, amphibians and fish, a total of 1,900 at risk of being erased from the province’s collective gene pool even as surviving populations are compressed into shrinking, polluted and fragmented habitat.
When it’s salmon or steelhead or moose at risk, there’s usually a commotion from special interests. If it’s pink sand verbena, badgers or rare butterflies, not so much.
In Canada, a now-25-year-old comparative study found that a square kilometre of forest was cut, stripped or burned every 49 minutes and while BC is home to 6 of Canada’s 11 major forest regions, it’s also the place where up to 2,400 square kilometres of forest a year are logged, 90 percent of it by clearcutting, which is habitat erasure. Those numbers come from the provincial government.
Taken as a whole, the gallery of dwindling habitats and their inhabitants is precisely what the public health experts at Harvard seem to be warning us about when it comes to creating propensities for future pandemics. The last one came out of Wuhan, China. There’s no reason the next couldn’t come out of damaged forest ecosystems anywhere.
When climate change really starts to bite—and it’s nipping at our heels already as the weeks of wildfire smoke that choked Victoria’s capital region so densely last summer should surely instruct us—the coming costs, casualties and inconvenience are going to make the upheavals of the 2020 pandemic look like the good old days.
Consider that if a $16 trillion bill for failing to prepare mitigation strategies for a viral pandemic seems onerous, what will a $530 trillion bill for failing to adequately address global warming seem? That’s the cost estimated as a worst case scenario by research published in 2017 by James Hansen, former director of NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies.
More conservative estimates of the coming costs of failing to act aggressively to mitigate global warming are scarcely more reassuring.
Citi, one of the world’s leading financial institutions, calculated recently that continuing on the present course could see costs of $72 trillion over the next 30 years. And it warns investors that perhaps $100 trillion in fossil fuel and other assets could simply be stranded by climate change should the public insist on a robust response to address global warming.
Amplifying that, Andrew Winston, writing in the Harvard Business Review, notes the financial implications of climate change for ordinary folk.
A recently graduated teacher in her mid-20s who is prudently contributing to a pension plan will expect a payout in 50 years, he points out.
But if things continue as they have, she’ll be expecting returns on investments that may well be liabilities rather than income-generating assets—Alberta’s oil sands, for example—or real estate investments in what are now prime residential, commercial or agricultural properties that may be sharply devalued or made worthless by rising sea level, increased exposure to hurricanes and tornadoes, or exposure to drought or increased seasonal flooding.
In fact, as another recent piece of investigative reporting for National Public Radio in the US points out, most of us currently invest in real estate with blissful ignorance of the looming risks from wildfire, floods, drought or sea level rise because it’s not in the interests of developers, sellers or regulators to disclose them.
That report found that many millions of people have their life savings tied up in property that’s at increasing risk from climate-driven natural disaster. In the US, for example, easily extrapolated to Vancouver Island, 15 million residential and commercial properties are at significant risk from climate change flooding and another 4.5 million homes from wildfire.
“None of the landlords, real estate agents, sellers, appraisers, bankers or home inspectors the families interacted with explained the risk of flooding or wildfires, because no one had to do so,” reports the NPR investigative team.
“Numbers such as those will grow as climate change makes the Earth hotter and floods and fires get more frequent and severe.”
Mario Alejandro Arisa, writing in Yale Environment, notes that while city planners in Miami and its surrounding districts are planning for sea level to rise about half a metre, current science increasingly points to a rise that will be four times that—close to the depth of your average living room. Such a rise would displace up to 800,000 people, about one-third of the urban and suburban populations in the Miami area.
“Unlike the jet-set owners of high-end real estate,” writes Arisa,“the region’s middle-class residents—who have most of their savings tied up in their homes—face the prospect of generations of wealth being wiped out when the property market inevitably craters in the face of rising seas.
“The science of what is going to happen here—higher seas, increased heat, intensifying storms—is certain. Still the developers, real estate agents and many buyers continue to play a long con against the rising tide pretending that all is well in South Florida, even though some 10 percent of its land area will be under water if the ocean rises just two feet.”
“The coming market shift is inevitable as what’s now valuable seaside property becomes steeply devalued and the value shifts to real estate away from sea level,” Arisa predicts.
BC’s magical thinking fuels climate calamity
It’s been said of our increasingly globalized world of data flows that “here is everywhere and everywhere is here.” Anybody who has taken the effort to download interactive coastal elevation maps of Greater Victoria and the Lower Mainland can see how these warnings have plenty of application in this place.
The same might be said of BC, where premiers from left and right blissfully conclude that when it comes to carbon emissions and global warming, they can have their cake and eat it, too.
Somehow, they persuade themselves that the piper will never have to be paid—at least not on their watch—as they subsidize industries to mow down ancient forests and export them as lumber, pulp, paper, raw logs and sawdust, and to promote short term prosperity through fossil fuels.
In 2011, professional forester Anthony Britneff warned, in a rigorous analysis of statistics so dispersed that one might be forgiven for thinking that obscurantism reigned in a provincial government whose mantra was transparency, the area of inadequately restocked forest lands in BC was larger than at any time in the history of provincial forest management. He calculated it at 170,000 square kilometres.
Meanwhile, dirty old coal is still BC’s leading export. Include oil and natural gas and fossil fuels amount to almost 25 percent of the annual total of provincial exports with plans underway to dramatically expand exports of the very commodities that amplify global warming.
This is something about which our 20-something teacher, frugally putting a bit of income aside each year toward her modest retirement in 2060, might want to start asking her pension fund managers.
Just as we collectively turned a blind eye to the lesser viral outbreaks of ebola, SARS and bird flu—all dry runs for the pandemic that was sure to follow—we now sleep-walk toward the far greater menace of economic, political and social disruption that will arise from climate change.
The gloomy omens of what’s coming—and the same exuberant denialism and magical thinking that characterize our response to the inconvenience of pandemic—are everywhere.
Drought-stricken California, Oregon, Washington, BC and Alberta have been swept by fires that are radically configuring the forest cover we take for granted. It’s the same in Siberia and Australia.
In BC, Washington, Oregon and California fires have consumed more than 40,000 square kilometres of forest lands, whole communities have been razed and more than 100,000 people evacuated—one in 10 Oregon residents had to leave their homes. At one point last summer, 500,000 people, 25 percent of Oregon’s population, were on immediate evacuation alert.
And it looks like this is just the start. MunichRe, one of the giant capital pools that underwrites insurance companies, gloomily concludes after analyzing 50 years of insurance data that climate-induced risks from intense storms, relentless droughts, blistering heatwaves, flooding from heavy rain and snowfall events, coastal marine inundations and vast wildfires are all steadily trending upward with uninsured losses now almost doubling insured losses.
Here on the West Coast, from California to Alaska, fires ripped through forests stressed by 15 years of drought and the insect infestations that have inevitably followed progressively warmer winters brought by global warming.
Sea ice in the arctic is thinner than it’s ever been in human memory and getting thinner by the year, altering global geopolitics as the militaries of countries above the Arctic Circle begin their strategic moves to take advantage.
While maritime shipping magnates and admirals salivate over the opening of Arctic Ocean sea lanes that shorten the distance between Europe and Asia, the melting permafrost vents methane, a greenhouse gas that’s far more potent than carbon dioxide.
Further south, glaciers that feed the rivers carrying meltwater to big prairie cities like Calgary, Edmonton and Regina are losing mass faster than winter snowfalls can replace it. But Alberta has a plan. It’s about to spend $815 million to expand and modernize irrigation of its southern dry lands which sprawl in the rain shadow of the Rockies. It will use water from where? Oh, yeah, those disappearing glaciers that serve as fresh water banks for the dry summers.
The balmy September just past turns out to have been the hottest since science began keeping records 140 years ago. Of the 10 hottest Septembers recorded, all have occurred since 2005 and the 7 hottest were recorded over the last 7 years with each September hotter than the previous year.
This puts the pandemic year of 2020 on track to be one of the hottest years, perhaps even the hottest, since global records began, says the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in the US. Two cities in the American southwest, Phoenix and Palm Springs, had more than 145 days of temperatures over 100 degrees by this fall.
Research published in the journal Science, which combines weather observations with tree ring data from the last 1,200 years, suggests this drought, amplified by global warming, has the potential to last 400 years or more.
The last time there was a megadrought in southern California, the social disruptions were brutal as otherwise peaceful Chumash cultures dwelling on the coast suddenly found themselves warring to control increasingly scarce water and food resources.
Brian Fagan, editor of The Oxford Companion to Archaeology, chronicles the drought and its social impact in his book The Long Summer: “Chiefs vied for control of territory and resources. They fought one another for food as hunger and malnutrition stalked their villages. At the same time, permanent water supplies shrank dramatically…The droughts created a new social reality…”
The archaeological record, he says, confirms that reality. Anthropologists studying skeletons from pre-contact village cemeteries discovered a disturbingly sharp increase in the number of head injuries inflicted by clubs and stone axes (circa 700 to 1150 CE).
“Warfare was not an innate propensity of the Chumash or somehow an outgrowth of their culture; it was a response to environmental conditions,” Fagan writes.
Here on the BC coast, the archaeological record finds an abrupt and long-lasted period of village fortification from Victoria to the North and there were fortified sites at key fishing locations from the Fraser River estuary to the canyons above Yale, where massive stone walls can still be seen.
Was this, too, sparked by competition for scarce resources in a time when climate change up-ended patterns of expectation? Is something similar on the books for us?
Every society assumes it stands at the pinnacle of achievement and that there’s no going back.
The builders of Mayan pyramids, of Angkor Wat’s elaborate temples, of the great baths of Mohenjo-Daro in the Indus Valley and of the Akkadian palaces of Mesopotamia doubtless thought they were the culmination of progress. Until climate change intervened and they weren’t. Their monuments were left to be reclaimed by wilderness and drifting sand.
Perhaps what we should most learn from the trials of our present pandemic is the peril of not paying attention and of indulging ourselves in self-absorbed denial and the wishful thinking that leaves us unable to acknowledge and address the much greater potential calamity that’s barrelling towards us.
Stephen Hume has spent half a century as a journalist writing about Western Canada, the Far North, BC and the Island.
Are we headed to dangerous levels of overdiagnosis by interpreting a test in a way that labels people as sick and infectious when they may be neither?
EIGHT MONTHS INTO THE PANDEMIC, here are some BC numbers to think about:
5,071,000: Population of BC (est. 2019)
38,471: Typical number of BC deaths in a single year (2019)
132: Number of BC deaths, on average, everyday. (est. 2019)
274: Number of days between Jan. 15 and Oct. 14, 2020
36,168: Estimated number of total deaths in BC between Jan 15 and Oct 14, 2020
250: Number of deaths in BC attributed to COVID-19 up to Oct 14, 2020
0.69: Percentage of total BC deaths over 8 months possibly due to COVID
10,836: Number of “laboratory confirmed” cases of COVID up to Oct 16, 2020
691,741: Number of SARS-CoV-2 tests Jan. 15– Oct 13, 2020
1.82%: Proportion of COVID-19 tests in BC showing as “positive.”
As COVID’s daily data dump lands on our heads, shaped by scorekeeping, commentary and predictions, it’s pretty easy to get lost in the numbers and what to make of a nasty pathogen circulating in our communities.
What stands out from these numbers?
An extremely low likelihood of death by COVID-19 in BC. Certainly lower than any annual toll of the flu. Certainly lower than the numbers of people who have died from cancers, heart attacks, overdoses, suicides and the myriad of other things that take life every single day. If you take 2019 as an average, 132 people per day die in BC, from all causes. That was the last full year without a pandemic virus.
With less than one person per day dying of COVID in BC, one is tempted to ask if we’re making a mountain out of a molehill. I’m increasingly surprised by the general subservience of the populace and the absence of thoughtful dissent against emergency measures that are undoubtedly causing all kinds of other suffering, wreaking long-term havoc on our society, our livelihoods and our economy.
People are quick to point at our numbers and say what a wonderful job BC public health people are doing, keeping COVID cases down and deaths by COVID at a minimum. We are an obedient lot and so listen to Dr Bonnie, among others, who reminds us to limit contact, wear masks, and control the virus by widespread testing, even if some people have reported how hard the tests are to get.
Yet, if it is true that the SARS-CoV-2 causes the respiratory disease COVID-19, how much effort has been put into ensuring the virus test is done properly, evaluated thoroughly and adequately interpreted? Basically, can we trust the test?
What is it about the test?
Kary Mullis won the Nobel Prize in chemistry 1993 for inventing the PCR (Polymerase Chain Reaction) test, the test that is now being used to ascertain whether or not a person has COVID-19. His test eventually became the standard test that drew the definitive link between the HIV virus and AIDS.
Ironically, Mullis himself was at the forefront arguing that PCR should not be used as a tool to diagnose the disease. Why? Because even if it could identify the presence of a virus, that detection did not mean the virus was capable of infecting other cells. An eccentric and vocal iconoclast, with a penchant for dropping acid, Mullis went to his grave last year continuing to decry his test being misused to diagnose HIV.
Like many jurisdictions in the world, BC employs RT-PCR to test for COVID. It uses an enzyme called reverse transcriptase to take a piece of RNA (ribonucleic acid) which comes from a swab deep inside the patient’s nose. Adding viral enzymes to the RNA converts it into DNA through what is called Polymerase Chain Reaction. The DNA is turned into billions of copies and a fluorescent signal is added, which, after being run through numerous cycles of heating and cooling, can be detected. This amplification allows the needle in the haystack to be seen.
Here’s where things get interesting: The “Ct” or cycle threshold is the number of cycles needed to see the fluorescent signal. So how many cycles of heating and cooling do you need to determine a definitive “positive” or “negative” result? If you don’t detect the virus after a few dozen cycles does that mean the patient is negative? What if you do more than 30 which many molecular biologists say is like trying to squeeze blood from a stone? There may be detectable virus in that highly cycled sample but it is so small and so dead it’ll never be able to infect others.
I put some questions about BC’s Ct cutoff to a spokesperson from the BC-CDC and here’s what she wrote back: “The cycle threshold number used to diagnose COVID-19 may vary based on the test used but we typically use a cutoff of 35 cycles.” She added that other targets (the RDRP and E gene) and certain assays “use cutoffs of 40 or even more cycles.”
I’m no expert, but I wondered: Shouldn’t they have a constant Ct—because changing it can dramatically change the number of positives? It also makes me wonder that if BC uses a Ct of 35 and Ontario (whose Ct, I’m told, is set at 38) then can this alone explain why BC has a much lower level of positive cases? If some countries set the Ct at 20 (very low) and others set it at 40 (absurdly high), how can one even compare levels of positivity between jurisdictions? This really matters.
I consulted a molecular biologist (who asked me to withhold her name as she works as a provincial government biologist) who said that we have to be very cautious in interpreting these tests because the reverse transcriptase enzyme has poor efficiency in converting RNA to DNA. She told me that if we do over 30 to 35 cycles “we can’t culture a live virus from the sample.” Basically, she added, “a high cycle threshold means we’re finding meaningless fragments that say nothing about the infectivity of the patient.”
This is an expert who uses the RT-PCR test everyday in her work doing forensic science, so I trust she knows its limitations. She was quite forthright in saying that possibly as many as 90 percent of those testing positive for COVID-19 are probably not infectious. Which is to say they may have had “fragments” of the virus, but they couldn’t possibly spread the virus to anyone else.
Is a “positive” test really positive?
Where this is heading is a dangerous level of overdiagnosis. Other commentators have said the rate of false positives might be 50-80 percent.
More testing and more false positives would help explain why deaths and hospitalizations aren’t rising on the same trajectory. It’s because some new “cases” are unlikely infectious or indicative of ill health.
Again a “positive test” is about declaring a person “infected and infectious” but what follows from that? If we were to say maybe half of those 11,000 people in BC testing “positive”—and therefore have been subject to quarantines, social isolation and stigma—then that’s an awful lot of people who have been unfairly labelled and isolated with a disease they couldn’t possibly transfer to others.
Maybe this comes down to a question of what we value. Is it better to have a non-sick person incorrectly labelled as sick (a false positive) than to have a sick person labelled as not sick (a false negative)?
I can understand the BC CDC’s position, because it’s based on the greatest fear of all, the boogeyman of underdiagnosis. The CDC spokesperson explained it to me this way: “setting the detection threshold too low seems appealing until one misses that early case that can transmit infections to multiple people.” The implication here: we can’t be too careful.
However, with screening people for disease you will always have overdiagnosis and underdiagnosis, and careful testing tries to eliminate the possibilities of both false positives and false negatives. It would seem to me that we are likely doing a serious disservice—to society and our economy—by interpreting a test in a way that labels people as sick and infectious when they may be neither.
Alan Cassels is a drug policy researcher and author in Victoria. He is the author of Seeking Sickness: Medical Screening and the Misguided Hunt for Disease.
Despite some fossil fuel divestment, BC Investment Management Corporation tripled its investment in the Coastal GasLink pipeline builder and doubled its investment in Gazprom.
BCI recently doubled its investment in Russian fossil giant Gazprom, which owns this LNG production facility on Sakhalin Island
STOCK MARKET HOLDINGS IN PENSION FUNDS for more than 600,000 BC teachers, public servants, college instructors, municipal staff, BC Hydro workers and others have taken a big hit in the year ending March 31, 2020. The funds are managed by BC Investment Management Corporation (BCI).
While BCI made a small overall gain in the year ended March 31, 2020, its investments in the Canadian stock market fell 13.9 percent. BCI also lost money in emerging market stocks (11.2 percent) and global stocks (4.0 percent).
BCI’s share market performance would likely have been much worse had it not sold off some of its holdings in large fossil fuel companies, including Royal Dutch Shell, the lead partner in the LNG Canada project now under construction near Kitimat. However, at the same time it bought approximately 2.7 million more shares in TC Energy, which is now building the Coastal GasLink pipeline to supply gas to LNG Canada.
Public equities comprise just under one-third of BCI’s managed assets, and overall the corporation earned 3.0 percent—including returns from private equity, fixed income (such as bonds), and real estate as well as the stock market—in the year.
The corporation does not break down its equity investments by category, so there is no easy method of calculating its total fossil investments, nor measure their precise returns.
However, one way of estimating its fossil share performance is to examine the shares of the firms that do the most damage to the planet. An October 2019 report by the Colorado-based Climate Accountability Institute listed the 20 worst climate-wrecking fossil fuel firms, which together produced 35 percent of total global emissions in the modern period, 1965 to 2017.
On March 31, 2019, BCI owned shares in 10 of those 20 companies, worth approximately $660 million. The companies are Shell, Mitsubishi, Petrochina, Chevron, Gazprom, Coal India, Conocophillips, BHP Billiton, Exxon Mobil and Total SA. The 10 companies were responsible for 271,581 Megatonnes (Mt) of CO2-equivalent emissions in that 52-year modern period, amounting to one-fifth of total worldwide emissions.
One year later, BCI still owned shares in the same “Top Ten” firms, though the value of holdings in those firms totalled just under $189 million—less than one-third of the 2019 total.
Of course, the value of shareholdings can drop either by a fall in the share prices or by the sale of shares. BCI’s publicly available records do not reveal earned dividends, nor share transactions. However, there is a way to estimate the number of shares BCI held in 2019 and 2020: For each firm, divide the total value on the last day of each year into the share price for that day, adjusted for historical exchange rates. This method provides only an estimate, since it does not account for the possibility that BCI participates in a dividend reinvesting program. Nor does it account for any funds paid out as dividends.
Among the Top Ten, BCI’s largest investment on March 31, 2019 was Shell, the lead partner in LNG Canada. One year later, Shell was still BCI’s largest holding of that group.
However, Shell holdings dropped from $219.17 million to $43.46 million in the one-year period. This is partly explained by the collapse of Shell’s price, from $42.16 to $25.04 in the year ending March 31, 2020. (All figures are in Canadian dollars, adjusted for historical exchange rates.) But most of the drop in value was the result of BCI unloading Shell shares. BCI sold two-thirds of the 5.2 million shares it held in 2019.
There was one exception to the selloffs among the 10 holdings: Gazprom, the world’s largest natural gas producer, based in St Petersburg and majority-owned by the Russian state. The shares trade on Russian stock markets, as well as on the New York Stock Exchange in the form of American Depositary Receipts (ADRs). In 2019, BCI held $15.33 million in Gazprom and its subsidiaries. A year later, that investment had nearly doubled, to $28.44 million, despite the share price growing by less than 3 percent in the year.
At the same time, BCI sold off large portions of most of its other Top Ten holdings. The number of shares it held in Conocophillips dropped by 68 percent, and BHP Billiton by 74 percent.
Had it not sold these stocks by last March 31, BCI’s stock market performance would likely have been worse. In the three-month period ending October 14, Exxon Mobil dropped another 23 percent, Shell and Gazprom 22 percent, and Petrochina 19 percent.
In the case of Fluor Corporation, the Texas company leading the construction of LNG Canada’s plant, BCI sold its entire $6.51 million investment. It still owns $150,000 worth of shares in the other construction partner, JGC Holdings.
As well, as of last March 31, BCI retained shares in all five members of the LNG Canada partnership—Shell, Mitsubishi, Petronas, Petrochina and Korea Gas. But the total value of BCI’s shares in the seven LNG Canada-related firms dropped from $269 million to $63 million, a 77 percent reduction. Much of this was the result of BCI’s sale of shares in Shell.
TC Energy is the company building the highly controversial Coastal GasLink pipeline, a 670 kilometre project intended to deliver unnatural, fracked gas from the Dawson Creek area, through Wet’suwet’en territory, to Kitimat to supply LNG Canada. BCI increased its shareholdings in TC Energy more than three-fold, jumping from 1.2 million to 3.9 million shares.
BCI’s actions are prima facie somewhat puzzling. If it is genuinely concerned about either the climate crisis or the poor recent performance of fossil fuel shares, why not sell all fossil fuel holdings? On the other hand, if it cares about neither, why sell any?
Focus asked BCI external communication manager Ben O’Hara-Byrne why the corporation had sold some of its fossil fuel holdings, and whether it plans to further reduce them.
“While we do not comment on our specific investment strategies, BCI does recognize the role institutional investors around the world can play in promoting sustainable, inclusive, and long-term growth,” he said in an email. “Assessing and managing investment risk is an integral part of how we meet our fiduciary responsibility to our clients, and climate change is a key focus of both long-term investment risk and opportunity at BCI.”
O’Hara-Byrne added that BCI participates in Climate Action 100+, a group of more than 500 large, world-wide investors which aims to ensure that the largest corporate emitters “take necessary action on climate change.”
What kind of action? Well, for one thing, 120 companies have now nominated a board member or committee to “oversee climate change.”
It’s not evident that such measures are in keeping with the urgency of the climate situation.
In July 2020, the World Meteorological Organization warned that there is a 20 percent chance that the annual mean global temperature will exceed 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels in at least one of the next five years. And the probability is increasing, says the United Nations organization. The probability is approximately 70 percent that one or more months in the next five years will exceed 1.5 degrees Celsius.
UVic environmental studies associate professor James Rowe calls BCI “an interesting case.”
“They remain invested in many of the largest reserve-holding fossil fuel companies—those companies most likely to push us beyond 1.5 degrees,” Rowe said in an email. “They also remain invested in companies with long records of climate change denial (Exxon and Imperial). Finally, they continue to hold a large stake in TC Energy, the company pursuing the Coastal GasLink pipeline on Wet’suwet’en territory without consent from hereditary leadership. They have, however, significantly reduced a number of their fossil fuel investments over this past year. The sell-off of shares is dramatic and relatively unique in the Canadian pension landscape.”
Russ Francis is highly impressed with the recent BC government’s September 17 announcement that it is helping pay for the electrification of Centerra Gold’s Mount Milligan mine, north of Vanderhoof. This will reduce annual emissions by 4,800 tonnes of CO2e—or approximately seven one-thousandths of one percent of BC’s 2018 emissions. See? Mining is green!
The science is thin whereas the symbolism is strong.
ONE OF THE MORE FASCINATING THINGS that COVID-19 has brought us is a lot of pandemic-related discourse around masks. Wearing a mask seems like a fairly simple, non-invasive and inexpensive intervention to prevent the spread of a virus. Yet the virulence of arguments made on both sides of the issue is so forceful, and, at times, self-confident, it’s worth digging into the evidence to see what lessons we might find partly because I am a firm believer in the adage that all technology bites back.
I’ll wear a mask when I’m sanding, or when exposed to smoke or dust during a renovation, or when I need to conceal my identity, such as at a costume party or when robbing a bank. Wearing a mask in a crowded place, like a store or a train, while the coronavirus still circulates seems reasonable. Yet in Victoria you see people wearing masks walking alone down the street, riding a bicycle, or even driving alone in a car. Sheesh. Even if there is some theoretical benefit to masking up in some situations, in the process have we lost our common sense? Like many things related to healthcare we think that if a little of something is good, then a lot is better. And we’re probably being misled.
Wearing a mask in a crowded space during the pandemic seems reasonable. But is there evidence that it makes a difference?
Weakness of the evidence base
An alert Focus reader from Duncan sent us links to a handful of studies asserting the case that “mandating masks has not kept death rates down anywhere.” The 15 studies he used to support this provocative statement examined health professionals in medical settings over about a 45-year period and he claimed the results have been consistent: “masks are useless in preventing the spread of disease and, if anything, are unsanitary objects that themselves spread bacteria and viruses.”
Often in medicine, reasonable-sounding recommendations, when poked, reveal an evidence base that is weak or non-existent. A review of the literature from 2015 of mask wearing in surgery confirmed that there’s very little evidence that “facemasks protect either patient or surgeon from infectious contamination.”
Just last month researchers Tom Jefferson and Carl Heneghan at the Centre for Evidence Based Medicine in Oxford wrote that in the past three months there have been 15 evidence reviews on masks, but there is still not a single published trial on the effectiveness of masks for COVID-19.
Let’s not forget that lack of evidence for effectiveness does not mean the contrary is true, that there is evidence for their ineffectiveness. What seems most true is that we simply don’t know.
Is it possible to extrapolate from other situations, such as studying the spread of other infectious agents, such as the flu virus? In May, an article from the US Centres for Disease Control and Prevention looked at 14 randomized trials of non-drug measures to prevent the spread of the flu. Focusing just on face masks, they found 10 randomized trials of the effects of masks in reducing flu virus infections in the community and found “no significant reduction in influenza transmission with the use of face masks.”
Shifting public health recommendations
Earlier in the pandemic, the World Health Organization (WHO) reflected this evidence base, saying that “there is no direct evidence (from studies on COVID-19 and in healthy people in the community) on the effectiveness of universal masking of healthy people in the community to prevent infection with respiratory viruses, including COVID-19.” The WHO went on to state that since the community prevalence of COVID-19 is so low (such as here on Vancouver Island) “even if facemasks are assumed to be effective, the difference in infection rates between using facemasks and not using facemasks would be small.” The numbers, if true, are startling: “Assuming that 20 percent of people infectious with SARS-CoV-2 do not have symptoms, and assuming a risk reduction of 40 percent for wearing facemasks, 200,000 people would need to wear facemasks to prevent one new infection per week in the current epidemiological situation.”
Even when the evidence case in support of masking shows a pretty small yield, the battle for and against mask wearing remains strong. Spend any time on social media and you’re sure to ingest a powerful dose of pro and anti-mask sentiment. Sidestepping the most vociferous of conspiracy theories, you’ll find those vigorously opposed to lockdowns and physical distancing measures are apoplectic about mandatory mask orders. On the other hand, people in Victoria, whether driven by fear, altruism or simply enacting the spirit of “let’s do what Bonnie asks” can be spotted masked up in the most preposterous of low-risk situations (such as being alone in a car).
You can’t overlook the symbolism of masks, the wearing of which can be like a talisman, assert virtue and personal support for “doing whatever” to flatten the curve. Alternatively, not wearing one asserts the opposite: that no one is going to restrict my god-given freedom to do whatever the hell I like.
Stanford scientists on COVID-19 mask guidelines
Things began to shift in June when the WHO revised their guidelines, after apparently reviewing new information from researchers at Stanford and elsewhere. Claiming that wearing cloth coverings over nose and mouth can prevent the spread of the virus, the WHO guidelines shifted to say that when in close contact with others in crowded areas, with people over 60 or those with underlying health conditions, people should wear medical masks, such as surgical masks, in public.
This recommendation might pass the test of common sense, noting that masks are just another form of “source control” to prevent the spread of respiratory droplets from infected people. Yet are there any harms in mandating masks? The Stanford researchers quickly discounted a number of arguments put forth that mask wearing can be harmful—curiously presenting no research to support that position—and concluded with a boilerplate platitude: as societies open up more, we need to protect vulnerable people around us and therefore it’s our duty to do what we can.
What if we are all wrong about masks?
One of the arguments against masks says that wearing face masks can adversely affect attitudes towards social distancing. Which is to say you’re more comfortable sitting or standing closer to someone else when wearing a mask, a case of risk compensation, similar to the argument that people wearing seat belts are more likely to drive recklessly.
Certainly people with respiratory problems like asthma can find mask-wearing very problematic.
Then there is the bigger picture about the virus and what is the ultimate effect of hand washing, social isolation and masking policies. Increasingly there is more heft in the discussion of herd immunity, absent a vaccine, and that we’re never going to get through the pandemic until enough of us have been exposed and developed some immunity. Others wonder how high the herd immunity threshold must be before we all basically develop some level of natural protection from the virus. It’s the most crucial unanswered question in this whole pandemic thing.
Let’s say herd immunity is at 20 percent. That means about 1 in 5 people are immune. If it was this low, the number of people infected would just keep going down. The problem, of course, is that we have no idea where that number is, and whether, ultimately, all our efforts at social distancing and wearing masks are going to make a whit of difference.
Then there is the big question of how long immunity lasts once people have been exposed to COVID-19 and developed some antibodies. No one knows how long antibodies last or how “protected” one is by previous exposure.
We think that wearing a mask is protecting our loved ones, but we may be doing so with a price—prolonging the amount of time we’ll need to get to the other side of this pandemic.
At the end of the day, no one would argue against an urgent need for scientists to deeply understand COVID-19 and herd immunity before we go overboard with more stringent mask-wearing public policies.
Heneghan and Jefferson of the Centre for Evidence Based Medicine in Oxford also write that “masks are a symbol for society—[implying that] you are protected. The evidence says you may not be.” They conclude that in this kind of uncertainty, society has a deep responsibility to study the use of masks thoroughly. This can happen a number of ways, especially by examining the many “natural experiments” in different mask and distancing policies around the globe.
The key is to refuse to jump to premature conclusions such as that tighter masking policies are nothing but beneficial. Only when public health officials are brave and willing to have their preconceptions challenged, can society arrive at a truer understanding of what behaviours are beneficial and which are harmful. Masking might seem like common sense for many people and only time and good research will uncover whether we are being mislead.
Alan Cassels is a drug policy researcher and lives in Victoria.
Green MLAs have thwarted NDP government plans a few times this summer, renewing speculation that John Horgan might not wait until October 2021 to call an election.
DESPITE ALL THE TOUCHY-FEELY TALK in their 2017 Confidence and Supply Agreement with the BC Greens, there is little question that the New Democrats would love to avoid having to deal with those annoying climate crisis affirmers.
The tension was heightened in recent weeks when the Greens, with the help of the Liberals, forced the government to put two bills on hold, and to cancel a proposed extension of the government’s power to spend taxpayer money for six months following an emergency, without the approval of the legislature. (The BC Auditor General criticized earlier Social Credit and NDP governments for routine spending via so-called “special warrants.”)
The Mental Health Amendment Act (Bill 22) would have permitted youth admitted to an emergency room following a drug overdose to be involuntarily detained. The Clean Energy Amendment Act (Bill 17), among other measures, proposed dropping the made-in-BC requirement for the province’s future electricity purchases.
Both bills are going nowhere for now, but the Greens’ opposition to the clean energy amendment bill may seem at first a little surprising.
For one thing, it could save already burdened Hydro ratepayers money, by allowing BC Hydro to buy purportedly “clean” electricity from suppliers in other provinces and countries, through its trading subsidiary, Powerex.
Why do that? Because in accordance with the Clean Energy Act, under direction from the former BC Liberal government, BC Hydro signed contracts with BC private power producers to buy electricity at obscenely high prices. This move is costing BC Hydro customers a total of $16.2 billion over 20 years, or $200 extra each per year, according to a detailed 2019 analysis by former BC Treasury Board Director Ken Davidson. A little external competition might help ensure that we never pay such inordinate prices again.
Whether over-priced or not, a number of BC First Nations are among the current providers of clean electricity to Hydro, a point not lost on Green interim leader Adam Olsen—who was raised on Tsartlip First Nation in Brentwood Bay.
The Greens refused to support the bill without more consultation with First Nations and without a strong definition of “clean energy.” In a July 28 statement, Olsen helpfully reminded the NDP that the current legislative session is the first since the passage of the United Nations Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples Act.
“Many Nations have seized on economic development opportunities linked to clean energy generation,” Olsen said in the statement, “and we feel strongly that they need to be given a clear pathway forward that honours the time and investments that have been made.”
As it turns out, there may have been no need to rush at least the clean energy portion of Bill 17, which also contains several housekeeping amendments. Hydro’s present surplus of electricity means that removing the made-in-BC provision is unlikely to have any impact for the foreseeable future, according to lawyer William Andrews, in a July 28 summary for the BC Sustainable Energy Association.
“Would-be sellers of power to BC Hydro are naturally offended at being told they will have to compete with foreign suppliers when BC Hydro eventually requires new electricity supplies,” says Andrews, “especially since much of the US renewable energy generation is government-subsidized.” He adds that the issue is a “tempest in a teapot” until electricity demand grows substantially.
Bruce Ralston, Minister of Energy, Mines and Petroleum Resources wasn’t thrilled about the Greens’ actions. “Disappointed to hear that BC Greens not willing to support Bill 17 that would keep hydro rates affordable for people and promote electrification of BC’s economy,” Ralston said in a July 28 tweet. “Clean and affordable energy is key to meeting our CleanBC goals.”
Being thwarted by the Greens three times this summer has renewed speculation that the NDP could call an early election, rather than wait till the prescribed date of October 16, 2021. A number of long-serving Liberal MLAs will not run again, including West Vancouver-Capilano’s Ralph Sultan and Langley East’s Rich Coleman. One local non-NDP seat may be vulnerable, the popular former Green leader Andrew Weaver having announced that he will not run again in Oak Bay-Gordon Head. Currently 42 seats are held by Liberals, 41 by New Democrats, two by Greens, and two by independents.
Though the next election is scheduled for October 16, 2021, it can happen earlier if the cabinet decides, or if the government loses a vote of confidence. The election occurs up to 38 days after the cabinet order, depending on the circumstances.
Weaver says the New Democrats are in a tough spot. “The Greens plus Libs can kill anything they want,” he said in an August 10 email to Focus. Added Weaver: “A number of members of government have expressed to me their frustration in dealing with my two former colleagues.”
Recent polling may encourage the NDP to move sooner rather than later. An Ekos poll released July 17 found that decided voters overwhelmingly support the New Democrats (46 percent), compared with support for the Liberals (29 percent), and the Greens (13 percent.) In the capital area, NDP support was 53 percent, Liberal 25 percent and Green 19 percent. The poll was conducted June 16-July 17, with a province-wide margin of error amounting to +/- 2.5 percentage points, 19 times out of 20.
As well, the Greens, under a new leader to be decided September 5-13, may take some time to define a new direction. But Weaver suggests there is a possible opening for the Greens. “The BC Liberals don’t know if they are right-wing conservatives or more centrist liberals,” Weaver said in the email. “In trying to be both they allow the BC Greens to clearly articulate a centrist voice, which is where most voters lie.”
George Orr has a different view concerning the best direction for the Greens. A documentary filmmaker, and previously a highly respected CBC-TV producer, reporter and journalism instructor, Orr ran for the Green Party in North Vancouver in the 2019 federal election. In an emailed statement to Focus, Orr said the BC Greens risk sinking under present economic waves.
Filmmaker George Orr
“By holding hands for the term of this government, the Green Party has yet to distinguish itself for its core values and principles,” Orr said. “But it strikes me that [Premier John Horgan] is occupied with solving his next electoral move and that the Greens’ dwindling profile will play less and less into that equation.”
“The only burr under his saddle may well be if the next Green leader can light a political fire large enough to remind British Columbians about the looming climate crisis,” added Orr.
Asked about the possibility of an early election, NDP Executive Director Raj Sihota downplayed the likelihood. “Of course political parties always have to be ready in a minority situation, but Premier Horgan has made it clear that the focus of his government will continue to be keeping British Columbians safe during this pandemic,” Sihota said in an August 11 email to Focus.
How will we know an election is coming?
With sharply-growing concerns about the climate crisis, a sudden outpouring of small-g green policies may portend an imminent election. The latest BC greenhouse gas inventory, published August 6, reports that the province’s 2018 emissions jumped to 67.924 megatonnes of CO2 equivalent, a 3.3 percent increase from 2017.
The CO2 observatory on Hawaii’s Mauna Loa volcano
Pandemic or no pandemic, worldwide carbon dioxide emissions continue to rise. The observatory on Hawaii’s Mauna Loa volcano, operated by the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, has been measuring daily carbon dioxide levels since 1958. In May 2020, monthly atmospheric carbon dioxide reached the highest concentration ever recorded. Said senior scientist Pieter Tans in a June 4 statement: “Progress in emissions reductions is not visible in the CO2 record.”
In my view, shortly before an election call, the government will roll out a series of popular measures designed specially to steal votes from the Greens.
Free heat pumps for all? A Tesla in every driveway?
Russ Francis appreciates the government’s recent announcement of a $1,050 rebate for electric bike purchases—provided you turn in a car under the Scrap-It program. But $1,050 doesn’t go very far in buying a quality e-bike, and it compares with up to $8,000 in federal and BC rebates for a new electric car—including the Tesla Model 3.
Many people have stopped seeking medical attention during the pandemic out of fear of catching the virus at a doctor's office or clinic. As a result, fewer people may die from adverse drug reactions to prescription medicine.
WHEN YOU WITHHOLD MEDICINE, people die, right?
Well, not quite.
We are currently living in a massive medical experiment that may reveal a number of surprises. Down the road, as researchers look back and parse through what happened in the year 2020, they will undoubtedly discover a goldmine of evidence of the impact of the pandemic—both the good and the bad. We know that things won’t be the same in many dimensions of our lives, and we may discover things that make us fundamentally rethink much of what we do in medicine. Despite all the hardship, anxiety, and economic impact inflicted on the world by the COVID pandemic, there may be some silver linings.
One particular area of interest is the ceasing of the delivery of medical interventions. Undoubtedly many types of harm have been inflicted by imposed lockdowns, shutting hospital beds, cutting off of elective surgeries, isolating elderly people from their loved ones, and the general heightened level of fear imposed by social distancing rules. The fact that people have been generally fearful of going near any doctor or health facility may have prevented them from accessing important healthcare. At the same time, not going to the doctor on a massive scale will allow researchers to examine the full effects of stopping medical delivery and possibly uncover unexpected benefits.
This is not the first time stopping medical delivery has been studied.
Much has been studied about the impact of doctor strikes over the last 40 years, and the results generally point in the same direction: when doctors strike, fewer people die. A systematic review of five doctor strikes between 1976 and 2012 found that patient mortality either stayed the same or fell. It didn’t—as one might expect—increase.
How does one explain this? One of the key answers is iatrogenesis, which is harm that is inflicted by the medical system itself—so that any medical activity, including tests, drugs, scans, and hospital stays, can involve harm. Less contact with the medical system, less avoidable death. At least that’s the theory.
Currently there are many voices delivering dire warnings about the pandemic’s effects on the health of the population, beyond the risk of the virus. Other voices, perhaps more muted, include some who suggest there could even be some general health improvements.
I talked to my friend Dr Eddy Lang, an emergency room physician from Calgary and a member of the Canadian Task Force on Preventive Health Care. He told me: “Some signals are suggesting increased mortality in countries hard hit by the virus, but it is unclear if this is uncounted COVID deaths or collateral damage, as others claim.”
We know that, for example, during doctor strikes the kinds of hospital infections and other complications associated with surgery go way down. Some patients who might have mild heart conditions will avoid the hospital, where they may avoid the stent or other bypass surgery they’d get in normal times. This might be a good thing as there is some evidence that we are doing too many of these cardiac interventions in low-risk patients.
In mid-July Dr Lang and colleagues published a piece in the British Medical Journal which echoed these thoughts and called for rigorous studies to investigate the effects of reduced healthcare. It noted that “looking beyond the crisis, our collective learning about the effects of the large falls in healthcare use can help inform and intensify efforts to reduce unnecessary care. This in turn can prevent avoidable harm to patients, enhance healthcare equity, and improve the sustainability of health systems everywhere.”
What about drugs?
If reductions in physician office visits mean that patients aren’t getting new prescriptions, or renewals of existing prescriptions, three things could happen: Their health may worsen, it may stay the same, or, possibly, it might improve. In those serious cases, such as when a person with asthma avoids getting a puffer prescription refilled or a diabetes patient avoids renewing their insulin prescription—this kind of avoidance could turn fatal. But for many conditions, a drug holiday might be very good for you. Dr Lang reminded me that many prescriptions for antibiotics, for example, are unneeded and often cause more harm than good.
For longer-term drug use, people who take drugs in a class called proton pump inhibitors (PPIs) including Losec, Pariet, or Pantaloc, which are prescribed mostly for heartburn, might see their health improve if they slowly weaned themselves off the pills. A study published last year examined over 200,000 US veterans who took PPIs and found that long-term therapy with these drugs, with other things being equal, increases the risk of death.
Adverse drug reactions (ADRs) associated with many commonly used prescriptions, are a real thing. As well, as Dr Lang points out: “The trials that looked at these drugs actively avoided recruiting frail folks with co-morbidities.” What this means is that older and more frail people are likely at even more risk. Being injured or hospitalized because of a medication reaction is commonplace and some estimates say as many as 220,000 Canadians suffer ADRs per year in Canada, of which about 10 percent, or 22,000, are fatal. “Not to mention the thousands of avoidable hospitalizations,” adds Dr Lang. Obviously if the harm exceeds the benefit of any medication, stopping it might be the right and healthy thing to do.
ADRs are often overlooked and underreported, but if you broke down the estimated ADRS by province, BC alone would have about 2,860 ADR deaths per year, or about 8 deaths per day due to what are regular, normal prescribed drugs. As of mid-July in BC, we’ve had about 190 COVID deaths in the last 120 days, or about 1.5 per day.
So you could look at it this way: If people stopped taking drugs that were causing excessive ADRs, that act alone could potentially save up to five times more lives than we are losing to the virus.
In the future, stopping certain medications could be a lot more “normal” than it currently is.
Some of the major chronic conditions like high cholesterol, type 2 diabetes or high blood pressure, result in a lot of long-term drug use, but probably not as much as you’d think. Many people naturally stop taking their drugs for whatever reason, or get to the point where they’d rather not live with the hassle or expense.
Drugs for type 2 diabetes are almost universally prescribed to alter blood sugars, yet for most people any change in your numbers brought on by these drugs don’t automatically translate into a longer or healthier life. Even the guidelines (which are underwritten by the drug industry) advise that the most important step in helping type 2 diabetics is altering diet and exercise patterns—before you ever consider taking a drug.
But what about high blood pressure?
Stopping medications has always been difficult because clinicians and patients worry that stopping a drug will worsen their health. But what about drugs for high blood pressure?
Well, even here there is growing evidence that stopping antihypertensive drugs (drugs to lower blood pressure) may not be bad for you, especially if you’ve never had a heart attack and are not afflicted by cardiac issues.
Dr Lang reminds me that “elders have a higher risk of ADRs and may not benefit at all from a lower blood pressure.”
A recent systematic review by Cochrane agreed with him. It looked at six studies with over 1000 healthy patients over 50 and found that those who stopped their high blood pressure pills did as well (in terms of heart attacks and deaths) as those who continued. This review was rated as “low certainty” of evidence, so it is not the last word on the question. What it did show is that there is no evidence of increased risk if older people without established heart disease stop taking their antihypertensive medications. The implications of this itself could be huge.
Let’s not downplay the seriousness of hypertension, which is considered a risk factor for strokes, heart attacks, and chronic kidney disease. At the same time, you would only want to be taking these drugs if you were sure they are reducing your overall risks, instead of just altering your numbers. But as Eddy Lang notes: “Knowing for sure is almost impossible. Best you could hope for is a decent chance of benefit.” In any event, it’s certainly worth a discussion with your doctor.
Stopping medications, for older people who face the many problems that often come with too many drugs, is becoming more and more mainstream. There are a number of groups who are actively concerned with overprescribing and working to reduce the harm of too much medicine.The Canadian Deprescribing Network, and Choosing Wisely Canada are two such organizations.
As a researcher I’m particularly hopeful that this pandemic will prove to be an opportunity to discover which medical treatments or drugs we could use less of.
It’s a natural experiment that is happening around the world. With some good international collaboration and good data on how we have faired with less medicine and less medication, we might learn some valuable lessons.
Alan Cassels lives in Victoria where he studies and writes about pharmaceuticals. He works for UBC but the opinions represented here are his own.
July 7, 2020
Given travel’s role in the pandemic and its large carbon footprint, “staycations” look like the best path to recovery of human health and ecological stability.
READING THROUGH THE CITY OF VICTORIA’S recent economic action plan, Victoria 3.0, one might easily get the impression that tourism is not important to the City’s economy. There is barely a mention of it.
It crops up exactly twice. Once in a short highlight of the organization Destination Greater Victoria, and again in reference to the Victoria Conference Centre.
In the Destination Greater Victoria section it’s noted that (normally) the visitor population “contributes $2.3 billion in economic activity to the regional economy, while stimulating more than 24,000 direct jobs and $400 million in local taxes.” The report observes, “In Greater Victoria, the overall visitor economy is comprised of more than four million overnight guests annually.”
This year, however, mid-pandemic, it’s all different. Most of the usual six million tourists are absent. In mid-May, Victoria hotel occupancy was only at 15.5 percent. Revenues of many tourist-reliant businesses are being obliterated. Words like “devastating” and “ominous” are used to describe the impact. A local industry task force estimated in May that 90 percent of the full-time tourism workforce has been laid off and roughly 20,000 jobs lost.
Victoria, especially its downtown area, could be transformed over the next year. It’s not just the obvious businesses like tour operators and souvenir shops, but all the retailers and restaurateurs that will be missing tourists this summer. As will the businesses they in turn supported. Many other businesses will miss the money spent locally by all the former tourism industry employees.
It’s a bleak picture indeed, with no end in sight, and with the possibility for further disruptions due to a second wave of COVID-19 —or other crises. The abrupt plunge in the number of visitors to Victoria underlines the fact that components of tourism are a key factor in the global transmission of disease. It’s also implicated in the climate crisis. How does a community that has become so dependant on tourism adjust to these new realities?
Air travel in January and February quickly spread the novel coronavirus around the globe. Below, airport workers in Korea attempt to disinfect part of an airport terminal.
The high cost of flying
ONE VERY BIG elephant in the room associated with international tourism, even the so-called sustainable version, is its immense carbon footprint, due in large measure to aviation emissions.
According to the Victoria International Airport’s data, about 2 million international travellers arrived in Victoria by plane last year. (Another large group—about 700,000 in 2019—came by cruise ships; more on them later.)
A Guardian analysis shows that individually, flying from Vancouver to Bangkok and back generates about 2,394 kilograms of CO2—more than the average person in 98 countries produces in a year. Even a return flight from Vancouver to New York produces 593 kilograms of CO2 per passenger—about what the average person in 44 countries generates in a full year.
Contrails created by condensation of moisture from jet airplane exhaust. The gases released that contribute to the climate crisis are invisible to the human eye.
Some in the travel industry are aware and concerned, but offer little in the way of real solutions. Destination Greater Victoria has hosted two “Impact: Sustainability Travel & Tourism” conferences in recent years (and is scheduled to hold another in January 2021) on the interplay between tourism and the environment, including climate change. At the 2018 Impact conference, a session on the future of low-emissions travel noted that the International Civil Aviation Organization is committed to carbon neutrality from 2020 onwards. That goal was set in 2010; meanwhile, air travel has increased exponentially. As the proceedings paper notes, “In 2016, 3.8 billion passengers took flight—an increase of 7 percent over the previous year.” By 2036, the numbers flying are expected to double.
How is carbon neutrality to be achieved in light of such numbers? A record of the conference proceedings states: “Improvements to technology and shifting to alternative fuels, and finally through carbon offsets for any remaining emissions.” But with longer-haul air travel there really are no alternative fuels on the horizon. As for fuel efficiency technologies, the paper notes that in 2016 Canadian air carriers improved fuel efficiency by all of 3.2 percent. It concludes: “Requiring that airlines purchase carbon offsets may be one of the simplest and least risky ways to ensure that airlines factor in the cost of emissions when making capacity decisions.”
Offsets, of course, do not reduce emissions or the climate emergencies heading our way.
Tourism’s emissions are not just due to air travel. Research by a team of University of Sydney scientists calculated the direct emissions from air travel and indirect emissions—including from food production, hotel maintenance, and souvenirs—in 160 countries. The research, published in the journal Nature Climate Change, found that tourism now accounts for eight percent of global greenhouse gas emissions.
One researcher involved with the study, Dr Arunima Malik, told the New Scientist, “Growth in tourism-related expenditure is a stronger accelerator of emissions than growth in manufacturing, construction or service provision.” If the (pre-COVID) business-as-usual scenario continued, the researchers projected the carbon footprint from tourism could increase to 6.5 gigatonnes by 2025. The report noted, “The rapid increase in tourism demand is effectively outstripping the decarbonization of tourism-related technology.”
Such realities pose a problem for a city like Victoria, which is heavily reliant on tourism for jobs and bringing revenue into the community, yet committed (in theory, at least) to reducing its carbon footprint. The City of Victoria’s Climate Leadership Plan, however, makes virtually no reference to tourism and certainly none at all to those extra-heavy-footed vehicles—air planes and cruise ships—bringing millions of tourists and travellers to the city.
The global tourism study found that the highest emissions were associated with the very type of “high-value” traveller Victoria (and Destination Greater Victoria) is most keen to attract—those from affluent countries. As Dr Malik told the BBC, “When richer people travel they tend to spend more on higher-carbon transportation, food and pursuits.”
Besides the carbon footprint, there are now public health issues to consider. Global travel helped cause the world-wide spread of the coronavirus, resulting in over 550,000 deaths (as of July 7) and a serious, likely years-long recession. While all the big travel industry players are lobbying the federal and provincial governments to relax restrictions, infection disease experts are warning against it. “[Travel] is the one segment of the economy that probably has the greatest potential to derail our ability to stay out of lockdown,” Lauren Lapointe-Shaw, a general internist and clinical epidemiologist at Toronto’s University Health Network, told the Globe and Mail in late June, further noting travel’s “outsized effect on the ability of outbreaks to grow quickly.” It’s not just the risk of spreading a virus on a plane, another medical expert told the Globe, “but the risks that come with travel, such as venturing out and meeting new people.”
While compassion and concrete measures to help tourist-dependent workers are called for, there are, thanks to the climate crisis and pandemic, ethical considerations around long-distance travel in particular.
Coronavirus superspreaders no more: Idled British aircraft parked on runways
The cruise industry: A blessing? Or a curse?
OVER THE LAST TEN YEARS, some Victoria businesses have become increasingly reliant on tourists from cruise ships. It’s not clear how many businesses benefit, but the Greater Victoria Harbour Authority (GVHA), which operates the cruise ship terminal, claims the cruise industry contributes more than $130 million annually to the regional economy and is responsible for 800 direct and indirect jobs in the area. Given that passengers do not stay in local hotels, and take most meals onboard their ships, it is Downtown retailers and the short-tour guides who will likely miss the cruise ships the most.
Since 2010, cruise ship passengers have increased over 45 percent. This year was expected to bring the most ever: 300 ships with close to 800,000 passengers between April and October.
But after alarming stories of virus-infected ships, chaotic management, detained passengers, and the ensuing worldwide grounding of the industry, will cruising will ever rebound? Should it?
Certainly, the GVHA is counting on increasing cruise ship visits in the years ahead. In April, the organization completed a $6.8-million extension to the mooring dolphin at Pier B—one of the largest capital infrastructure investments in the organization’s history—to allow for newer, larger ships, “ensuring the Victoria Cruise Terminal will remain competitive in the decades to come.”
Ogden Point often saw three cruise ships at a time before this year’s coronavirus pandemic struck
With 70 percent of its approximately $15 million in revenues coming from cruise ships, the GVHA relies on them to fund its other operations—like Ogden Point Breakwater, the Inner Harbour's Lower Causeway, Ship Point, and Fisherman’s Wharf. Without any cruise revenues in 2020, GVHA has laid off 50 percent of its staff, is deferring major capital projects and even maintenance on the other properties it manages.
The wisdom of the GVHA’s emphasis over the years on growing the cruise business is put into question considering the industry’s widely recognized contribution to the climate crisis. Large cruise ships are notoriously carbon-intensive and polluting (of air and water). Though emissions-per-passenger have come down, overall emissions from cruise ships at Ogden Point rose 19.1 percent between 2010 and 2018.
Late last year, GVHA resisted City of Victoria council’s push to have cruise ships use less-polluting electrical shore power when in port. Councillor Jeremy Loveday likely had no idea how prophetic his statement to CBC was last December, when he said: “I think the tourism industry is heading toward a climate reckoning, and we’ll need to adapt very quickly.”
Many ports around the world have required large ships to plug into shore power rather than continuing to run their engines when in port. Synergy Enterprises, a carbon accounting and energy audit firm hired by GVHA, reported in late 2019 that with shore power installed, the terminal would see greenhouse gas emission reductions of 51 percent and 47 percent for other polluting emissions. It noted that “emissions have been increasing since 2010, as the average vessel stays in port longer; total hotelling time almost doubled.” (Synergy measured ship emissions from 4.4 nautical miles outside the terminal.)
To get a clearer idea of just how much one, let alone 300 cruise ships, can pollute when in port, a New York Times article from December 2019 noted: “When not using shore power, a single cruise ship docked for one day can emit as much diesel exhaust as 34,400 idling tractor-trailers, according to an independent analysis verified by the Environmental Protection Agency. When a ship is plugged in, the agency said, its exhaust is nearly eliminated.”
In Seattle, where shore power has been available at some terminals for more than a decade, more conversions are planned. Its Port Authority has described the carbon reductions: “An average cruise ship plugging into shore power at Terminal 91 saves the greenhouse gas equivalent of a typical car driving 30 road trips from Seattle to New York.”
Vancouver has shore power too—since 2009. Over the ensuing years it’s estimated to have reduced greenhouse gases by over 20,000 tonnes, along with removing 600 tonnes of air pollutants.
Given the global move towards mandating that ships use shore power, it’s surprising Victoria, a city priding itself on being green, had not insisted on it sooner than last year. The GVHA had apparently not even thought of it before being called out. CEO Ian Robertson initially stated he wasn’t sure BC Hydro would even have enough capacity. BC Hydro immediately assured that they would have no problem meeting the load.
In February 2020, City Council agreed to give GVHA another 5 years to come up with shore power. The GVHA estimates it will cost $20 million, and will be looking to government and the cruise industry itself to subsidize the improvements. Of course, with every organization feeling pinched after the pandemic, expect resistance to paying for such improvements, including retrofits needed for many ships.
Yet, with a climate crisis unfolding on the heels of the pandemic, insisting that cruise ships use zero-emission shore power while in port seems the very least that needs to happen.
Future directions: go local, go virtual, be smaller
VARIOUS REPORTS AND FORECASTS by Canadian industry analysts provide headspinning statistics and dramatic graphs of the plunge in tourist activity in the early months of 2020. Even under best-case scenarios, the financial picture is dire.
A recent Tourism Industry Association of Canada (TIAC) report states that “without further government investments, 61,000 tourism businesses (57 percent of total) are projected to fail, and 1.66 million tourism sector employees could be laid off (~83 percent of total).”
Such reports also make it clear that we cannot rely on the tourism industry itself to make the profound transformations needed. TIAC wants to see Canada “re-emerge as a stronger, more cost-competitive global tourism competitor.” It makes a host of recommendations. Some, like the government funding of marketing campaigns to entice Canadians to explore Canada, might be compatible with a lower-carbon industry. Others like a postponement of the excise tax on jet fuel, are not.
The federal government has already re-directed $30 million from international tourism marketing to promoting regional travel within Canada. The City and Province could also fund “tourist-in-your-own-town” campaigns, along with more art promotions. Simple things like the City of Victoria’s closure of Government Street to automobiles, and opening up more outdoor spaces to businesses and citizens, also help locals enjoy their city in a low-carbon way.
More concrete long-term help could come in the form of government funding of projects like the redevelopment of the E&N line as an electrified train, ideally that extends further north to Campbell River or beyond. This could be hugely attractive to regional tourists—including from points south in the US, where there are electrified trains already. It could be marketed as an environmentally-friendly “trip of a lifetime,” allowing for a wide variety of side-trips developed by businesses along the route—adventure travel featuring kayaks, sailboats, hiking in Strathcona, forest conservation work, wildlife viewing, and the like; trips for foodies featuring farm stays and vineyards; guided tours for seniors of natural wonders and cultural attractions in electric vans that meet the train. This could keep the hotels and restaurants of the areas hopping as long as the train allowed for lots of layovers along its route. Maybe it’s feasible to have a bike path alongside as well, allowing some of us to do parts of the journey by train and others by bike.
Another important role in lowering the emissions of the tourism industry will be played by a move to virtual activities.
A good case in point is the Victoria Conference Centre. The City of Victoria’s action plan, Victoria 3.0, notes that VCC delegates are the highest-spending segment of out-of-town visitors—the very visitors research shows have the largest carbon footprints. Apparently still stuck in the old paradigm, the report states: “The VCC has the potential to be a greater economic generator through hosting larger conferences and attracting more international audiences. Our current facility only allows us to host one conference at a time. We want to be able to host two, mid-sized conferences concurrently or one large meeting. A significant renovation or rebuild is necessary.”
When asked at an online panel discussion to explain how doubling the capacity of VCC would help put Victoria on a “path to low carbon prosperity”—as is a key goal of the action plan—Mayor Lisa Helps said some conferences could be virtual. Though not mentioned or implied in the report itself, it’s the direction needed. Besides saving on travel emissions, it would allow for a more modest, less carbon-intensive renovation.
Businesses, too, can help lower emissions (and save money) by switching long-distant meetings to teleconferencing. Pre-COVID statistics show that business travellers account for 12 percent of airline passengers.
Even with such virtual conversions, and projects like a new rail line, and re-targeting towards nearby clientele, tourist-dependent businesses will likely need to figure out how to operate in the black with lower revenues. Victoria’s whale-watching industry, for instance, will be especially hard-hit. A recent news story noted that only 10 percent of their clientele is BC-based.
Whale-watching industry players have always prided themselves on their conservation efforts and their ability to inspire love of the animals they showcase. But unless travel is done by kayaks or sailboats (rare in this age of instant gratification), the carbon emissions associated with the industry are very high. While some of the companies boast new fuel efficiencies and carbon offsetting, these do not address the emissions associated with travel to the region.
What might come out of the “creative destruction” of the whale-watching industry? Shifting to non-motorized boats with an even greater emphasis on education about their subjects would certainly help the whales. With their population reduced to only 73, the endangered Southern Resident Killer Whales (SRKW) have been largely absent in the Salish Sea all spring, apparently residing in California waters. Their main food source, Chinook salmon, has been so diminished they have to forage longer, and fossil-fuel-powered whale-watching makes that process harder. A study commissioned by the Enhancing Cetacean Habitat and Observation Program found that SRKWs lose up to 5.5 hours foraging time each day due to noise and disturbance from whale-watching and commercial vessels, from May to September in the Salish Sea.
Some tourist-focused businesses may need to convert themselves to something else entirely—those in the accommodation sector, for instance. Ingrid Jarrett, CEO and President of the British Columbia Hotel Association (BCHA) stated recently, “With over 400 hotels closed, and more than 62,000 employees laid off in the province, many businesses—some of which rely completely on the summer season—are on the brink of insolvency.”
In Victoria, there is dire need of housing and some hotels and motels are already being transformed to fill this need. Maybe others can be converted into efficient green housing, creating jobs in the process.
Finally, Victorians themselves can rethink their “right” to travel long distances, given the high environmental and public health costs—which are largely born by others. Is it such a sacrifice to embrace “staycations” in which we explore Vancouver Island’s wealth of appealing natural and cultural offerings? When we do travel afar, we must be prepared to pay higher prices and more taxes to offset our emissions.
The “stay home” mantra may have long relevance beyond the pandemic. By foregoing international travel, we not only help out those struggling to stay afloat here, we help keep the world a safer place for everyone. It seems the kind thing to do.
July 7, 2020
The coronavirus crashed our growth-dependent economy just as the global community was figuring out how to shift to an economy that doesn't destabilize climate or threaten biodiversity. How will Victoria respond?
THE COVID-19 PANDEMIC has dramatically reduced economic activity. Canada’s Parliamentary Budget Officer Yves Giroux, for instance, estimates real GDP will fall by 12 percent this year, close to four times the steepest drop on record. Stats Canada reports that “from February to May, total employment has fallen by over 2.7 million, as the unemployment rate rose to a record high 13.7 percent.”
Despite government injections of cash—causing ballooning, unprecedented deficits—people are losing their businesses, their jobs, potentially their homes. They may well have trouble paying their taxes, which means governments will be hard-pressed to deliver all the services (especially with those deficits) we’ve come to expect.
Statistics Canada’s graphic depiction of what happened to economic activity in Canada in the first three months of 2020
Along with such pain associated with the economic fallout of COVID is a silver lining: climate-warming carbon emissions and other forms of nature-destruction have gone down in synch with our reduced economic activity.
While many people and governments want to quickly get back to full-tilt economic growth, this is the ideal time to reimagine the economy. How could we rebuild it so that it doesn’t harm life-support systems we depend on? Can we get our economic or material desires in line with the Earth’s carrying capacity? Given the realization that another virus or the climate crisis could destabilize our lives in the future, how can we best reshape our economy so that it is more resilient?
The solutions will likely involve a radical departure from the traditional economic growth model. The assumption of conventional economics—that we can just keep growing the economy—fails to reflect the reality that Earth’s resources are finite. Most of us acknowledge that climate change has already given rise to costly floods, forest fires, and fatal heat waves. But the encroachment of our continually growing demands on natural systems also threatens food security, water supply, and the physical integrity of coastal communities.
Bold steps are needed and the pandemic has proven that they can happen in short order if we muster political will and social cohesiveness. The fact that Canada and BC’s economies are based primarily on natural resources, however, poses a significant challenge.
Two reports with lofty, contradictory goals
A PROVINCE OF BC TASK FORCE and the City of Victoria have both issued economic reports in recent months that appear, at least on the surface, to take seriously the need to transform the economy in a way that protects the natural world and addresses the climate crisis.
The BC Emerging Economy Task Force’s final report, released in March 2020, states “We cannot stress enough the need to make the changes now in order to have a diversified and resilient future.” It calls into question our reliance on GDP as a measure of success: “Moving beyond GDP and including indicators like work and life balance, education and skills, income and wealth, jobs and earnings, environmental quality and housing, can give us a realistic window into the true state of our province.” The report continues, “These broader measures can be used as a blueprint for addressing challenges including poverty, inequality, climate change, environmental degradation, prosperity, and peace and justice.”
That report characterizes the emerging economy as: “Rapidly evolving: The economy of the future will experience regular disruption and uncertainty, creating a need for nimble, adaptive and flexible business practices and policy, as well as continuous learning in order to remain globally relevant and competitive.” The future economy will be “low-carbon, circular and sustainable…one where society exists within its ecological means, avoiding the excessive depletion of natural resources while extracting their maximum value and minimizing pollution and environmental degradation in all its forms.”
The City of Victoria also has a new report addressing such issues. Victoria 3.0 – Recovery Reinvention Resilience – 2020-2041 lays out measures to “build an economy that enables everyone to flourish and that will set Victoria on a path to low-carbon prosperity.”
Adopted by city council in May, its first of three main goals is helping small business, “the lifeblood of the community,” become more resilient in light of experiences and lessons learned during the COVID-19 pandemic. The assistance seems to come mostly in the form of “how to” guides, new committees, hiring a consultant to guide strategy development, and, as we’ve heard about, opening up patio space and the like for restaurants.
Tech is the shiny new industry in town, creating $5 billion of economic impact annually (about double that of Victoria’s tourism sector).
The new, desired economy is described in Victoria 3.0 as “an innovative economy that develops solutions to pressing global challenges, sells these solutions globally, and brings the money back to Victoria.”
The second goal is “to create a city and an economy for everyone.” A strong and resilient economy has diversity. It provides living wages, childcare, affordable housing, and affordable transportation.
The third goal, states Victoria 3.0, “is that while we build our economy over the next two decades, we do so within the boundaries of the Earth’s capacity to sustain us.”
Given the other goals and the nature of cities, this will be the most difficult goal to realize. As the report itself notes, “Cities consume resources from global hinterlands at unsustainable rates [and] produce well over 70 percent of greenhouse gas emissions…”
Unfortunately, the report doesn’t outline a set of actions that will reduce that impact. In fact, there are recommended actions—like doubling the capacity of the Victoria Conference Centre—that appear to take us in the opposite direction, increasing our footprint. (More on this in an upcoming Focus’ article on the tourism sector.)
The report mentions how an Arts and Innovation District, along with an Ocean Future Cluster will create low carbon prosperity, yet fails to illuminate us on how, except for a brief mention about creating a “Building Innovation Incubator to stimulate construction innovation for climate impact.”
The central vision of Victoria 3.0 states: “As the Capital City, Victoria is a future-ready, globally-fluent influencer and innovator. Working within the bounds of the Earth’s capacity to sustain us, we will use our status as a small powerhouse and nurture our innovation ecosystem to create a strong and resilient economy that meets our needs now and anticipates the future.” The jargon-heavy text frequently references working or thinking “like an ecosystem”—but it’s an “innovation ecosystem” or “tech ecosystem,” not the real, endangered varieties.
Both BC’s Emerging Economy report and Victoria 3.0 pay lip service to the goal of carrying out business without environmental degradation yet fail to appreciate how difficult that is. In the BC report, a Victoria-based tech company is highlighted that helps logging companies operate more efficiently through data-generated 3-D imaging to “harvest” timber. While it might reduce loggers’ consumption of fossil fuels, it is also helping them destroy the capacity of forests to store carbon. In the Victoria report, BC Investment Management Corporation (BCIMC) is highlighted—a corporation, based in Victoria, investing government employees’ pension funds in all the major international oil and gas firms, and more locally, Mosaic (the joint business management unit of Island Timberlands and TimberWest), which clearcuts forests on Vancouver Island, thereby once again preventing those forests from continuing to serve as the best carbon capture and storage facilities in existence.
Economic growth and emissions: decoupling not happening
AT A RECENT URBAN DEVELOPMENT INSTITUTE WEBINAR on the Victoria 3.0 plan, Mayor Helps, Gordon Fyfe, CEO of BCIMC, and other panellists painted a picture of an exciting future Victoria that will house a growing population of innovators. The City of Victoria will need 6,000 more housing units, on top of the 6,000 recently built, the audience was told. Traditional neighbourhood restrictions on housing form may have to be removed, said Luke Mari of Aryze, a development firm. Fyfe implied that bringing workers and wealth to Victoria is the name of the game—by nurturing tech companies that sell internationally and bring the money back here; bringing in workers and their families, and supplying homes and more jobs for the spouses and kids.
Is this growth inevitable given Victoria’s liveability? Certainly our political and industry leaders don’t question its desirability, even as they acknowledge the need for a low-carbon future and the need to work “within the bounds of the Earth’s capacity to sustain us.”
Yet decoupling economic growth from the destabilization of climate and ecological systems is a form of magical thinking according to many experts. There might even be “overcoupling” happening, according to the International Resource Panel. The global economy now needs more materials per unit of GDP than it did at the turn of the century. The European Environmental Bureau states: “not only is there no empirical evidence supporting the existence of a decoupling of economic growth from environmental pressures on anywhere near the scale needed to deal with environmental breakdown, but also, and perhaps more importantly, such decoupling appears unlikely to happen in the future.”
While there have been dramatic increases in energy efficiency in recent decades, the International Energy Association (IEA), notes that “2018 marked the third consecutive year in which the improvement rate for energy efficiency slowed.” And such measures have been outweighed by the demands of even more dramatic, compounding economic growth, at least pre-pandemic. In European countries where a degree of decoupling seems to be occurring, one study shows it’s been accomplished by shifting energy intensive activities abroad.
The only thing that seems to cause emissions to decline at any substantial rate is declining economic activity. As the IEA states about COVID-19’s impact: “Not only are annual emissions in 2020 set to decline at an unprecedented rate, the decline is set to be almost twice as large as all previous declines since the end of World War II combined.” [Italics added]
Until the depth of the economic growth problem is understood, there’s no hope of solving it. And our leaders appear to have no clue. Expansion—of population, industry and prosperity—is the name of the game, with little analysis of the external costs.
Yet COVID-19 has shown us that we can change our habits, our assumptions even, almost overnight when there’s a threat to our health. It has shown us that economics do not trump everything else with the public, the government or business.
While the climate and biodiversity crises may not seem as urgent a threat as a pandemic—they are already impacting our well-being. COVID-19 itself was recently acknowledged by the leaders of WHO, the UN and the World Wildlife Fund to be directly related to humans’ over-exploitation of the Earth’s ecological systems.
Citizens have key roles to play—in the industries and government policies they choose to support and in how they otherwise lead their personal, professional and political lives. The likelihood of both another pandemic and of climate catastrophe demand we rethink many of the things we’ve taken for granted, be willing to change our expectations, give up certain types of consumption, and pay more for others so that their external costs are mitigated.
The first industry sector we’ll look at is one of Victoria’s and BC’s largest—tourism. Go to story...
(The BC government is inviting citizens to submit their ideas on the BC Economic Recovery Plan. Visit www.gov.bc.ca/recoveryideas)
Focus editor Leslie Campbell wrote about the need for a transformation to a degrowth economy pre-COVID as well, here.
July 3, 2020
Over the past 10 years, it cost British Columbians $365 million per year, on average, to allow forest companies to log publicly-owned forests.
Most of BC’s “working forest” is now a giant patchwork of logging roads, clearcuts and young, fire-vulnerable plantations. For that dubious environmental result, BC citizens are paying more to manage the destruction than they receive in direct payments from forest companies for the wood extracted.
An update of this story has been published, Dec 2021
ONE OF THE GREAT ENDURING MYTHS told about BC’s forest industry is that “forestry pays the bills, folks.” Those are the exact words a Vancouver Sun reader used recently to dismiss a report by three BC forest scientists that urged the provincial government to put an immediate moratorium on further logging of large, old-growth trees. That reader’s view? No can do. Forestry pays the bills.
The Sun reader didn’t say whose bills; perhaps forestry pays his bills. But this rationale—that the forest industry is of such great economic importance to BC that nothing should be done to disturb its operations—has been used for decades as proof that any change in direction on public forest policy would be foolhardy.
That may have been true 40 years ago, but those days are long gone.
Over the past 10 years, for example, the cost to the public purse of managing BC’s publicly-owned forests has exceeded all direct revenue collected from the forest industry by $3.65 billion. BC taxpayers are, on average, providing a subsidy of $365 million each year to forest companies that operate in BC.
That figure of $3.65 billion is derived from publicly available accounts published by the Province of BC. Those accounts show that, on the revenue side, BC collected $6.41 billion in stumpage between 2009 and 2019. It also collected about $300 million through the BC Logging Tax. Together they produced revenue of $6.71 billion.
On the expense side, figures published in annual Ministry of Forests Service Plan Reports over those 10 years show total expenditures of $10,363,595,000.
That works out to an accumulated loss of $3,652,460,667.
Forestry doesn’t pay the bills, folks.
Perhaps one of the reasons this basic fact about the forest industry—that it doesn’t pay the bills—is widely misunderstood by the BC public is that detailed accounts of forest-related revenue and expenses for a given year never appear in the same document, at least not in public. Determining these numbers would be a daunting task for any curious citizen. For example, to obtain a detailed account of stumpage revenue collected by the Province over the past 10 years, Focus needed to download and sort through 3,617,486 lines of data from the Ministry of Forests’ Harvest Billing System.
There are, of course, other gauges of the economic benefits generated by the forest industry that ought to be considered in an examination of the claim that “forestry pays the bills, folks.”
The forest industry—which includes forestry, logging and support industries, pulp and paper manufacturing, and wood product manufacturing—has long trumpeted its contribution to this province’s exports. The value of those exports, of course, belongs to the forest companies that produce them, and there’s nothing to prevent those companies from investing profits from those exports outside of BC. Vancouver-based Canfor, for example, recently announced majority acquisition of Vida Group, a Swedish forest products company. Canfor has also invested in Alberta, North and South Carolina, Alabama, Georgia, Mississippi and Arkansas. With the globalization of BC forest companies, we just don’t know whose bills are being paid by raw log and wood product exports.
A more reliable indicator of the overall economic importance of the forest industry to BC is its contribution to the provincial GDP. For the eight years between 2012 and 2019, according to BC Stats, the economic contribution of the forest industry accounted for an average of 2.6 percent of provincial GDP. That includes all the road-building, felling of forests, transportation of logs to mills and log export facilities, and all the milling into wood products at lumber, panel, pulp, and paper mills. In each of those eight years, the annual growth in overall provincial GDP—none of which came from the forest industry—was larger than the entire output of the forest industry. Over those eight years, the forest industry’s contribution to GDP shrank 25 percent. By 2019 it accounted for only 2.1 percent of provincial GDP.
Not only does the forest industry not pay the bills, its economic importance to the health of the provincial economy is getting smaller and smaller each year. This trend is evident in employment statistics, too.
In 2000, according to BC Stats, there were 100,400 people employed in the forest industry. Those jobs accounted for 5.2 percent of BC’s labour force. By 2019, that had dropped to 46,100 jobs, or 1.8 percent of all jobs. If that rate of decline continues, the remaining jobs will be gone by 2031.
To keep those 46,100 jobs going, the Province has provided the forest industry exclusive access to 25 million hectares of British Columbia. At current employment levels, that works out to 5.42 square kilometres of publicly-owned working forest for each forest-industry job.
The records Focus obtained from the forest ministry’s Harvest Billing System allowed us to determine the actual cut and compare that with the official Allowable Annual Cut.
The data shows a 22 percent drop in the actual cut in 2019 as compared with the average cut over the previous nine years. This decline occurred before the coronavirus emerged and, given the global recession that’s been triggered by the virus, the amount of forest cut in 2020, and the number of people supported by that cut, are likely to reach historic lows. A comparison of the reported volume harvested in the first six months of 2020 with the same period in 2019 showed a 21 percent drop across the province (down 27 percent in coastal BC). The troubled future many British Columbians have imagined would one day afflict BC’s forest industry has now arrived.
The sustained losses to the public purse from the current management regime for publicly-owned forests might provide ammunition for those who would privatize the land base dedicated to logging. But there are good indicators that, after decades of over-exploitation of public forests, managing BC’s forests primarily for timber extraction is a money-losing proposition. TimberWest and Island Timberlands, through Mosaic, their joint business management unit, have recently claimed that the value of logs in the BC market doesn’t even cover the cost of logging. TimberWest and Island Timberlands want to export more raw logs offshore in order to make money. To get what they want they have curtailed their operations until the federal and provincial governments acquiesce, putting hundreds of workers in small communities out of work. If timber extraction in BC has become such a marginally-profitable business, what would happen if the working-forest land base was privatized and there were no controls on what could be done with the wood extracted? Where is the public interest benefit in that direction?
A change that would be more beneficial to the public interest is suggested by data Focus downloaded from the Ministry of Forest’s Harvest Billing System. For 2017, 2018 and 2019, we compared the value per cubic metre obtained by BC Timber Sales with that obtained from area-based tenures such as those held by TimberWest and Island Timberlands. BC Timber Sales uses a process of competitive auctions to market wood from public forests. Area-based tenures were established in the mid-20th century as a way of encouraging large forest companies to build mills in BC. Many of those mills have since closed and there is now no requirement for area-based tenure holders to operate manufacturing facilities to process wood logged from their tenures.
For all of BC for those three years, BC Timber Sales obtained an average value of $37.33 per cubic metre. The average value collected from area-based tenures was $13.32 per cubic metre, a third of what BCTS collected. Ending area-based tenures and expanding competitive auction of publicly-owned forests seems to be a much more certain way to protect the public interest, at least as far as the economic value of logs is concerned.
With an ever-increasing area of BC lying bare, stripped of forest by clearcut logging and clearcut-and-plantation fires—both contributing heavily to the climate emergency and biodiversity collapse—perhaps now would be a good time to envision a less destructive, more ecologically-enlightened relationship between humans and what remains of the forests of British Columbia.
David Broadland is spending the pandemic learning more about the forest he lives in and discovering the plants and creatures he shares it with. He can be contacted at email@example.com.
An update of this story has been published, Dec 2021
You may also be interested in David Broadland’s “Forestry isn't sustainable, folks”
Canada’s plan to include emissions from logging in carbon calculations points towards a new economic model whereby communities manage (and save) their forests for carbon storage.
BRITISH COLUMBIA’S DIRTIEST SECRET—destruction of one of the world’s most important carbon sinks and releasing more emissions than any other province or sector through logging, slashburning and exacerbating fire through failed management—is about to enter the national public record. The logging industry and complicit governments will still continue their polite fiction that depositing pennies, i.e., planting trees, will compensate for robbing the carbon bank of billions, i.e., clearcutting our high carbon storage temperate rainforests, but they can’t sing that song forever.
This January with the release of Canada’s 4th Biennial Report on Climate Change, Canada announced its change in approach to accounting for emissions from the forestry sector (included in the category Land Use, Land Use Change and Forestry) towards its 2030 emission reduction target.
This means that when we see those bar charts with emissions from different sectors—like oil and gas, transportation, buildings, electricity, heavy industry—forestry will be there too. And you’ll notice it because it will be the red bar that rises above everything else.
As expected, industries’ hand is still evident in the writing of the report: they don’t have to report emissions of harvested wood immediately; they don’t have to report fire in industrial clearcuts/plantations as one of their human-caused emissions; they buried the burning of wood pellets in the energy sector in the hopes that they can chip and burn the last of the old growth.
Still, it won’t take long for the bright young minds who will inherit this planet to see that even though they are still buried and scattered, the numbers can be pulled together. And when you add up all the emissions, logging in BC is the worst polluting industry in the nation.
Schmidt Creek June 2020.m4v
Above, part of a 30-hectare clearcut in Vancouver Island’s Schmidt Creek Valley. Each year, approximately 180,000 hectares of Crown forest in BC are clearcut. That’s equivalent to 6000 clearcuts the size of that pictured above. The carbon released to the atmosphere is far greater than Alberta’s oilsands projects. (Photo by Mark Worthing)
Logging hits twice in the climate equation—once with the release of huge emissions and again with the removing of the mature forests that pull the CO2 out of the atmosphere. It takes a plantation of seedlings two human generations to catch up to a mature forest in pulling the same amount of carbon out of the air; it will be over a century or two (depending on the forest) to replenish the overall storage of carbon. The forest industry likes to deceive the public by saying that forests are renewable, but they forget to add “one day.”
One of these bright minds is Joseph Pallant, who with his organization Ecotrust Canada, is proposing a system that would fund local communities across Canada to conserve and restore their forests.
This is not a Trudeau stop-gap plan to just plant trees, but a real plan for meaningful ongoing livelihoods to restore damaged forests, conserve existing forests and manage forests with the climate in mind. It prioritizes good ecosystem planning, assesses climate impact, and establishes tools to monitor progress. Polluters pay for rural communities to reduce emissions and increase sinks while upholding international conventions on biodiversity, indigenous rights and climate. To get these projects up and running, we need three reforms in federal government policy: First, a methodology (or defensible way) to estimate, quantify and report on the climate, community and biodiversity aspects of a proposed project. There are lots of examples elsewhere, including California. Second, a national fund to invest in improved forest carbon, community and ecosystem outcomes. And third, a way to register these emissions reductions and improvements in carbon storage as part of Canada’s progress toward the Paris Agreement.
Having a Forest Carbon Economy Fund would draw its inspiration from innovations in the low carbon economy such as carbon offsets, community-controlled forests and Indigenous Guardian programs. Ecotrust Canada has been innovating in this space over the last 25 years and has worked on a variety of projects that are feeding into this new approach.
The Cheakamus Community Forest Offset Project, developed by Brinkman Climate and Ecotrust Canada, is managed in partnership by Whistler, the Squamish Nation and Lil’wat Nation. The project earns significant revenue from sales of carbon offsets, allowing the Community Forest to implement an Ecosystem-Based Management Plan, reduce harvest by 50 percent and double riparian buffers. It protects more old growth, wildlife management areas, and keeps more carbon on the ground. Their carbon revenue funds work to tackle the interrelated risks of fire, drought and flooding, stops clearcutting, and increases resilience in the forest and around the community.
The Cheakamus project, like many of the high-quality offset projects in BC, is developed to the provincial carbon offset standard built to supply the Province’s “Carbon Neutral Government” commitment. Implemented under the Campbell government and continued today, all schools, hospitals, universities and core government operations must be carbon neutral. Some funding was given in the early days to implement energy efficiency at these facilities, and they all track and report their emissions annually. Any emissions that are not reduced (currently around 700,000tCO2e/year) must be offset by BC offsets from projects like the Cheakamus project, the Great Bear Rainforest project and others.
This system was set to be a trial run, and test for a larger cap-and-trade program that Gordon Campbell had legislated to begin in 2012 for large polluters. Alas, Christie Clark struck that law off the books, and John Horgan’s NDP never brought it back.
A second governmental market for offsets in BC exists at the local government level. It is a polluter-pay model and comes from Gordon Campbell’s surprising legacy of legislating local governments into carbon neutrality. While full carbon neutrality was originally the commitment, it got watered down to “make progress to carbon neutrality.” A few local governments have continued to achieve neutrality through organizational emissions reductions and offsets, such as Whistler and the Squamish-Lillooet Regional District. As Pallant states: “Local governments across the country are aware of the climate emergency, but many haven’t taken the opportunity to reduce their footprint in line with the science. Development of regional carbon offset projects like Cheakamus offer a compelling way for local governments to bolster their climate action, along with emissions reductions achieved in their operations.”
After a flurry of innovation, action and successful project development a decade ago, there are still startlingly few offset projects in Canada. Ecotrust Canada has a project under way in the Northeast Superior region of Ontario supporting “improved forest management” a fancy name for ecosystem management on a newly established, 1.5 million hectare “Enhanced Sustainable Forest License” with six Indigenous communities. This project was being developed to issue offsets under the Ontario cap and trade program, but a combination of slow offset protocol development by the government, and the Conservative government’s scrapping of cap and trade was a real setback.
There is now hope for change, with the federal government currently developing a national offset system as part of their Pan-Canadian Framework on Climate Change. Ecotrust Canada and many other organizations hope that this can drive resources into the important work of community-led emissions reductions projects throughout the country.
Since Christie Clark’s slashburn of progressive carbon policy, the only other way to generate revenue to finance the higher costs of ecosystem forestry and conservation has been voluntary offset markets or donations through the traditional non-profit sector. According to Pallant, “It’s very difficult to raise the capital and take the risk to develop a truly additional, high quality offset project without an expectation of being able to sell the outcomes, only issued years down the road, into a stable market. It’s exciting that the Canadian government has indicated its strong support in its Pan Canadian climate framework.”
Pallant acknowledges that there has been lots of international criticism—some warranted—around offsets in the first 25 years of their use as a transition tool to a new climate economy. He also recognizes the advancements that have been made to ensure that cultural and social equity issues are addressed. He states: “The federal move to create payment-for-performance carbon projects, but basing them on true carbon accounting with goals of lowering the national emissions, will have huge implications for First Nations and other land rights and title holders.”
“How will it look?” is the big question that Pallant is hoping to help answer at the federal level. We know there are models out there that promise rural economic development based on longterm nurturing of the forests—rather than mancamps bent on destruction. This begins to look like the future we are all waiting for.
For more on Ecotrust’s proposal, see https://ecotrust.ca/latest/blog/forest-carbon-economy-fund-a-new-pathway-for-funding-forest-carbon-and-biodiversity-outcomes/
Briony Penn is the award-winning author of non-fiction books including The Real Thing: The Natural History of Ian McTaggart Cowan, A Year on the Wild Side, and, most recently, Following the Good River: the Life and Times of Wa’xaid, a biography of Cecil Paul (Rocky Mountain Books).
Thousands of BC Government employees are already halfway to a 4-day work week.
NOT EVERYONE IS WILDLY ENTHUSIASTIC about chopping the normal work week to four days from five, as recently promoted by New Zealand Labour Prime Minister Jacinda Adern.
While not rejecting it outright, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau was decidedly non-committal when asked about the idea on May 27. Other priorities, etc.
Former BC Green Party leader Andrew Weaver, now an independent MLA, pulled fewer punches than Trudeau, calling it on Twitter “an absolutely kooky idea.” His exclamation was in response to comments supporting the four-day week from current Green house leader Sonia Furstenau and acting leader Adam Olsen. Weaver’s comments were in part just the surfacing of long-simmering tensions within the formerly Weaver-led Green caucus.
The right-leaning Fraser Institute released a June 3 statement that prima facie supported the four-day work week. Well, kind of.
First, it would take till 2030.
Second, it would require workers to work harder, or to use the popular euphemism, increase “productivity.” The release didn’t discuss the fact that, as previously observed by the Fraser Institute itself, labour productivity is highly dependent on companies’ investments in machinery, equipment and intellectual property. And that investment has declined in Canada in recent years, as company after company used their spare cash to buy back their own shares—boosting the share price—rather than invest in anything that would help their staff.
Premier John Horgan, asked June 4 by a Global News reporter about the Fraser Institute release, was at best lukewarm, saying only that “nothing should be off the table.”
BC Labour Minister Harry Bains also managed to restrain his excitement at the prospect, in a statement sent to Focus June 19. His government “fully supports creative ideas about how to ensure workers can balance work with other obligations,” he said in the statement. In fact, there’s nothing to stop employers and workers voluntarily switching to a four-day week.
To claim the government is “supporting creative ideas” may be a way of saying: “No, we will not change the Employment Standards Act or its regulations, to make compulsory this work-life balance that the government ‘fully supports.’”
In the case of New Zealand, a principal motivation was to boost domestic tourism. Having to all intents and purposes defeated COVID-19, the country is carefully but persistently re-opening its economy. As of June 15, overseas tourists remained banned. However, Australia and New Zealand are cautiously considering a proposal to create a “trans-Tasman COVID-safe travel zone,” which would permit back and forth travel between the two countries.
How could a four-day week help domestic tourism? On a five-day week, too often Saturday is spent catching up with chores, shopping, etc. And Sundays can easily be taken up in preparing for the next work week or visiting in-town family. No time to travel far.
In pre-COVID-19 days, it was not uncommon for New Zealanders to travel overseas, known as getting “OE” (overseas experience), before seeing more than a handful of their own country’s sights. The hope is that a four-day week will restore interest in Kiwis seeing more of their own country—which after all, is a few steps above the moonscape of New Jersey in aesthetic qualities.
As well, some research indicates four-day weeks provide for a better work-life balance, will likely create more jobs, and reduce worker stress, while increasing productivity.
Kooky or not, it’s now in effect at several Canadian workplaces.
On June 15, the municipality of Guysborough, Nova Scotia, began a nine-month pilot project that put its staff on a four-day week, partly as a way of reducing commuting time and partly to boost morale.
Closer to home, administrative staff in the offices of the BC Government and Service Employees’ Union (BCGEU) already have it, says union president Stephanie Smith. When the staff requested a four-day work week, the BCGEU promptly agreed and implemented it.
BC Government and Service Employees’ Union President Stephanie Smith
What about a four-day week for the union’s 31,000 members who work for the Province?
Smith said in an interview that if government workers asked for it, the union would back them, noting that in her experience the arrangement boosts morale and productivity. “We take our direction from the members,” Smith says, adding that no such request has come forward to date.
In one sense, however, thousands of BC government employees are already halfway there: They get every second Friday or Monday off at full pay, under a longstanding arrangement between the government and the BCGEU.
Known informally as providing for “flex days,” the nine-day fortnight is highly popular. So entrenched is it in government culture that the intransitive verb flex has been awarded a new sui generis meaning. This neologism, not yet in the Oxford Canadian Dictionary, is a commonplace in government lunch rooms, as in: “I flex this Friday.”
In exchange for the biweekly day off, on each of the other nine days employees are required to work an extra 47 minutes longer than the standard seven-hour government work day. The total time worked each week still averages 35 hours. However, as one longtime government worker explained about the extra-time requirement for the other nine days: “Nobody’s counting.”
Though widespread in the BC government, the flextime arrangement is not guaranteed. It is only upon agreement between the union and employer; management at some ministries, divisions and worksites do not permit it.
Flexing was never intended for managers—the so-called “excluded” staff. Unionized workers, offered a promotion to a non-union management job, have been known to turn down the promotion on the grounds that they would no longer receive flex days.
In one large ministry, many managers did in fact receive flex days, a special perk that was not widely known outside the ministry. When the word finally did reach the higher echelons about 10 years ago, a new deputy minister was brought in to end the practice and other questionable parts of that ministry’s culture.
Nice try: In unison, the flexing managers rebelled. The new deputy was forced to back down, and before long, he was shipped out to another ministry.
It is plain that the central government has at best mixed feelings about the flex-day arrangement, which does not bode well for the chances of a regular four-day week.
During the last bargaining round, which ultimately led to the current 2019-2022 collective agreement, government representatives wanted to end flextime for staff in the Ministry of Social Development and Poverty Reduction.
Came the reply from staff negotiators: No way. The government dropped it.
Businessman and researcher Andrew Barnes, based in both the UK and New Zealand, is an energetic advocate of the four-day week, and funded 4 Day Week Global Foundation to promote it throughout the world.
In 2018 Barnes used the 240 staff of New Zealand’s Perpetual Guardian estate planning company—which he heads—as research subjects for a study of the four-day week.
Though Barnes formerly believed that longer work hours meant better business outcomes, his research found otherwise. Working fewer hours resulted in more work getting done, in part by cutting meetings, eliminating open plan offices (BC Government: take note), and reducing social media use.
The employees benefitted in numerous ways. The gender gap shrunk, staff were happier, and commuted less frequently. Yet productivity jumped 20 percent and company profits grew.
The BC government’s apparent hesitancy about even the flex-day agreement is likely due in part to the fact that it makes arranging meetings more challenging. Managers know full well that two days every week are off-limits when it comes to organizing most meetings or teleconferences. Since on any given Friday or Monday many staff may be taking flex days, only Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays are available.
Less opportunity for mostly useless meetings, primarily taken up with reminiscing about the previous meeting, anticipating the next one, idle chat, and socializing? Quelle horreur!
Russ Francis, who worked for 10 years in the provincial government, appreciates BCGEU president Stephanie Smith’s sardonic suggestions to hold a meeting to examine why there are so many meetings, and to set up a committee to study the large number of committees.
Vaccines often seem to be in their own special, sacred category of pharmaceuticals, yet the science is often far from settled.
THERE’S NEVER BEEN A VACCINE FOR A HUMAN CORONAVIRUS and yet a vaccine for SARS-CoV-2 seems to be the holy grail we’re all waiting for. If so, we could be in for a very long wait.
Vaccine development is tricky and the kind of immunity that most would find acceptable—protecting against excess deaths and sickness—may never be achieved. There has never been an effective vaccine for a coronavirus, so to think we’ll develop one within 12-18 months, as experts are saying, seems farfetched. Any shortcuts taken to approve a vaccine may compromise safety and effectiveness for speed. We may all hope and pray for a vaccine, but it would be most preferable if we had a vaccine that worked. And it’s worth noting, that all technology bites back. Sometimes fatally.
Before the pandemic, a friend, an expert who is writing a book on vaccine safety, thought I might have some thoughts on where we are going on vaccines and whether vaccine mandates might be used. He sent me a list of questions, which I answered and now have adjusted in light of COVID-19.
1. What have you learned about vaccines, their effectiveness against infectious diseases, and the risks they might pose for some individuals?
I have learned a lot from the scientific literature and working with colleagues who study the safety of drugs. In the drug world, often experts will assert the “facts” of a drug’s safety are solid and unassailable, but we later find out we were mislead. In fact, if I had one universal thing to say it would be that expressing certitude concerning effectiveness or safety of a drug or vaccine is a naïve position. Those who are honest about the science will often say that proper and unbiased research to establish a true picture of safety is often not done.
People need some level of comfort that they are making the right choices for themselves or their children. In this vein, the benefits of the six basic childhood vaccines (combined in the DPT—diphtheria, pertussis, and tetanus—and MMR—measles, mumps, rubella—vaccines) likely exceed the harms and can improve population health. Have some people been harmed by these vaccines? Yes. It’s very unhelpful to label people who have legitimate concerns about vaccine harms as “anti-vaxx” and disregard them. It is delusional to think vaccines only have benefits and no harms.
2. Do you believe vaccines are an important component of modern medicine? Please provide examples to illustrate your opinion.
Nobody would ever say all drugs are important, but many will claim that “all vaccines are important.” For some vaccines, it’s not yet established if they are important or not. Asking people to “vote” on whether they’d get a COVID-19 vaccine (if it is ever produced) is stupid. Like any drug, the right answer is, it depends.
On my list of “possibly useless” or “not yet proven to be beneficial” vaccines, I’d put shots for rotavirus, pneumonia, flu, chicken pox and HPV (human papilloma virus). Some people might benefit from a flu shot, but in a healthy population the benefit is vanishingly small. Despite the hype over the HPV, the first mass vaccination to prevent cervical cancer, it hasn’t shown any lifesaving benefits yet. And chicken pox? Meh. Most kids challenged by chicken pox will have a few days off school and be rewarded with lifetime immunity. Not a bad deal, huh?
3. Do you have concerns about vaccine adverse effects? Which ones in particular, if any?
Indeed. For some vaccines we don’t know the magnitude of adverse effects, the type of person who might be at higher risk if immunized, whether the recommended vaccine schedule itself causes adverse effects, or even if medically-trained people can properly diagnose a vaccine-related adverse effect. Rare yet nasty immune-system harms have been linked to some vaccines. There are several medical clinics in Europe designed to help girls suffering the adverse effects of the HPV vaccine. Have these families cooked up a conspiracy against HPV vaccine manufacturers? Unlikely. Again, labelling vaccine-injured people as “anti-vaxx” isn’t helpful. It’s a much more mature conversation if you can accept that people are sometimes helped and sometimes hurt by vaccines.
4. Do you feel that on this subject the science is settled? Do you feel that the same claim can be made about any other branch of science or hypothesis/theory?
No. No. No. Nothing is settled. Proclaiming “the science is settled” on the usefulness and safety of vaccines is the biggest barrier to producing quality, independent science. The scrutiny of any COVID-19 vaccine is going to be intense and before any mass immunization plans come together we need solid proof the real benefits exceed the harms.
This may come as a shock to people but many prescription drugs swallowed by millions of us every day are either not proven in quality trials, have proof of harm, or haven’t been proven either way. A Health Canada stamp of approval is no guarantee that we can fully trust the science underlying that approval. Scientific debates over the value of some drugs and some vaccines are frequently “unsettled” and, frankly, unsettling.
5. What do you feel the role of the pharmaceutical industry is, if any, in controlling the discussion about vaccines in general?
Like any big business or monopoly industry, the goal is to maintain and increase shareholder value. Pharma companies, which make both drugs and vaccines, have only one main legal requirement: to maximize shareholder value.
Over the last 25 years I have seen how the pharmaceutical industry has used its prestige, power and financial might to purchase a central role in the practice of medicine. It holds inordinate power over how we think about sickness and medicine, a kind of “cultural hegemony” where the beliefs and explanations, perceptions, values and mores of a society have been imposed by a ruling class manipulating the culture of that society (rephrased from Wikipedia).
Let’s be clear about one thing: The drug industry doesn’t just manufacture products, it manufactures consent about its products. Can our public health people work in a healthy alliance with the hegemony of the pharmaceutical industry? Will trustworthy, independent, evidence-based assessments of a new COVID-19 vaccine prevail? In our haste for a vaccine will we continue to live in this strange dual world where many of us are deeply and appropriately skeptical of the pharmaceutical industry’s hegemonic power in medicine, yet somehow blindly believe that vaccines are in a special, sacred category?
6. What is your opinion about the need for “vaccine mandates”? Why?
Mandates are about forcing people to accept a medical treatment when they may not want it, for whatever reason. They are seen as a way to put pressure on vaccine-hesitant people, through regulations and laws. Problem is, mandates can be ineffective because they are likely to backfire. Mandating the injection of a chemical into someone’s body is unlikely to achieve the objective of increased immunization rates. Thankfully Dr Bonnie Henry, our Provincial Health Officer, doesn’t think a mandate is necessary. She told CTV news “we have no mandatory immunization in the province and I do not expect we will have mandatory COVID-19 immunization.”
7. Do you have any concerns about such mandates for civil or natural rights?
Absolutely I’m concerned about legislating vaccines. The biggest problem with forced vaccines is that Canada has no compensation system for people who are vaccine-injured. Would it be good policy to order everyone to drive a car but tell them they can’t buy car insurance? If you are injured and medically damaged for the rest of your life, tough luck. Too bad sucker. You’re on your own.
I would be very concerned if our politicians relied on a hastily developed and launched COVID-19 vaccine policy that could ultimately harm people. What if it produces antibodies but people get sick anyways? Or worse, healthy people become injured by a vaccine designed to help them? Lockdowns might drive people crazy, but an uninformed public might push hard for a mandatory immunization policy. Before even thinking of a mandate, public health people will need hard evidence that there is a vaccine that is rigorously scrutinized, proven effective and safe. This is a very, very tall order…
Alan Cassels is a pharmaceutical policy researcher and lives in Victoria.
A new report on old-growth forest in BC says only 415,000 hectares remain. The BC Ministry of Forests has claimed there's 13 million hectares.
A “very large” old-growth Western Red Cedar, felled in the Nahmint Valley on Vancouver Island in 2019. (Photo by TJ Watt)
THE DEGREE TO WHICH the BC Ministry of Forests has become the public relations arm of BC’s forest-industrial complex is measured precisely, if not intentionally, in a report by three former BC government forest ecologists. In their evaluation of the old-growth forest remaining in the province, the scientists characterized the ministry’s simplistic approach to estimating old growth forest as “very misleading.”
The report, “BC’s Old Growth Forest: A Last Stand for Biodiversity,” was authored by Karen Price, Rachel Holt and Dave Daust.
When they say “very misleading” we need to ask: How much is “very?” Publicly, the ministry estimates there are 13 million hectares of old-growth forest remaining in BC.
Advocates of protecting the remaining large, old trees have long argued that most of what the Province calls “old growth” is indeed old, but includes short, small-diameter trees, many growing in bogs, at high elevation or on rock, sites that don’t support the level of biological productivity and biodiversity found in forests with large old trees.
Along come Price, Holt and Daust. Their report provides a more detailed breakdown than we’ve seen before of the nature of the remaining unprotected old growth. They differentiate, for example, between “very large old trees,” “large old trees,” and “small old trees.”
They estimate there are only 35,000 hectares on which “very large old trees” still grow in BC. That’s an area smaller than BC Premier John Horgan’s home municipality of Langford (41,000 hectares). The scientists report that under circumstances in which forest growth is in equilibrium with natural disturbances like fire and insect infestation, there would be 1.5 million hectares of forest in BC that would contain old trees that are “very large.” Today, only 2.3 percent of that remains.
Price, Holt and Daust estimate that in all of BC there are an additional 380,000 hectares of forest that contain “large” old trees. That’s an area 1.6 times larger than the Capital Regional District. They estimate that—under natural circumstances—there would be 3.5 million hectares of forests with large, old trees in BC. That’s an area larger than Vancouver Island. Today, only 11 percent of that remains.
A 336-year-old Douglas fir felled recently on Quadra Island. This is an example of a “large” old-growth tree. (Photo by David Broadland)
Combined, the scientists say, the area of BC covered with unprotected forests containing “large” and “very large” trees is 415,000 hectares. If you drew a line on a map of Vancouver Island from Duncan to Bamfield, the area of land south of that line is about 415,000 hectares (see map below). Price, Holt and Daust note that’s less than 1 percent of BC’s 50 million hectares of forested area. (By “forested area” the scientists mean land in BC that could support forests, including the millions of hectares that are currently bare clearcuts or young regrowth.)
Let’s summarize all those numbers: On one hand we have the Ministry of Forests claiming there’s still 13 million hectares of old-growth forest and, on the other, these three scientists estimate there are 415,000 hectares remaining of the forests needed by endangered and threatened plant and animal species, including the Northern Spotted Owl, the Woodland Caribou, the Marbled Murrelet, the Wandering Salamander, the Northern Red-legged Frog and so on.
When you put these two estimates side-by-side, one appears to be supported by data, arithmetic and logic, and the other is revealed as a public relations gimmick designed to maintain the illusion that old forests are plentiful.
Price, Holt and Daust estimate there are 415,000 hectares of unprotected old-growth forest remaining in BC that contain “large” and “very large” trees. That’s equivalent to the area of Vancouver Island shaded in dark grey in the map above.
Does it matter if there’s less and less forest containing large and very large old trees? The scientists say it does. In their report, they link the loss of large and very large trees to higher ecological risk. This occurs as a result of the loss of ecological function when large and very large trees are removed from a forest. You’re not a Pileated Woodpecker or a Northern Red-legged Frog, so such loss is hard to comprehend, and understandably so. Most of us spend so little time in an old-growth forest that we have little knowledge of what lives there, what it needs to live, and what happens when its habitat is logged. But think of what your life would be like if aliens from another world suddenly arrived in your town, physically removed all of the houses, and then left a 2x4 in everyone’s front yard. The loss of your habitat would put you and everyone else in the community at greater risk of harm or death. Could you move to a nearby city? No, the aliens took that, too. The food system has disappeared and there’s far less water available.
The end result? The forest scientists noted, “Conservation science agrees that habitat loss leads to declines in populations and ultimately loss of species.” They observed that shifts in a forest’s ecological function “mean that forest ecosystems can pass a point whereby a particular species may not be able to recover to former abundance even if habitat is subsequently increased, and/or that ecosystems are less able to withstand disturbance and they become less resilient.”
While we might think the scientists are talking about Pileated Woodpeckers and Red-legged Frogs, the same principles apply to humans.
The scientists connect the magnitude of ecological risk directly to the extent of forest removed: “Studies of habitat change suggest that risk to biodiversity and ecological function is low when more than 70 percent of natural forest remains, high when less than 30 percent remains, and moderate between.”
What happens to plant and animal communities that live in forest stands of old and very old trees when less than one percent of the natural forest remains? The plants and animals already know. The human community is slowly becoming aware of the enormous loss in biodiversity that is underway.
Price, Holt and Daust call for an immediate end to logging old-growth forests. In response, Forests Minister Donaldson told CBC reporter Rafferty Baker, “We want to make sure that [old growth] is being managed properly, and we recognize the importance old forests have for biodiversity in the province…We also recognize the importance that [old growth] provides for communities and workers who depend on harvesting.”
Donaldson’s ministry has recently conducted a review of its old-growth policies. Given his comment to the CBC, it doesn’t appear he’s going to impose the moratorium Price, Holt, Daust and many others are recommending. What will that mean?
Sierra BC has put the rate at which old-growth forest is being logged in Coastal BC at 15,200 hectares per year. For the Interior they estimate 126,000 hectares are logged annually. Added together that amounts to 141,200 hectares being lost each year. At that rate, the 415,000 hectares that Price, Holt and Daust have identified would be gone in three years. What Sierra BC calls “old growth” may not correspond exactly with the analysis of Price, Holt and Daust, but it’s in the same forest.
Imagine for a moment, though, that both the scientists’ and Sierra BC’s estimates are essentially correct, and that there is only a three-year supply of old forest “for communities and workers who depend on harvesting,” as Donaldson put it. If the Province’s new strategy were to cut the rate of old-growth logging in half—which Donaldson implies would impose significant hardship on communities and workers—all the large and very large old growth would be gone in six years instead of just three. Old-growth-related forestry jobs would still be gone forever, the end coming just a few years later. Plant and animal communities dependent on old forests would be gone, too, perhaps permanently.
Whether this ecological catastrophe unfolds in three, six or even twenty years isn’t clear, and it shouldn’t matter. Why would a small difference in the timing of the endpoint of a catastrophe make any difference to decision-makers who have a responsibility to avoid such catastrophes altogether?
Surely the correct course of action for a government to take is to ensure that our economic activities do not put the planet’s life support systems at risk. Given the hard numbers provided by Price, Holt and Dauss—which were derived from the Province’s own records—the only reasonable course of action for the Province to take is to permanently protect the remaining 415,000 hectares identified by the scientists.
That shouldn’t be difficult. If the Province has been truthful about there being 13 million hectares of old-growth forest, protecting the 415,000 hectares identified by the scientists will mean a loss of just 3 percent of the old-growth forest the government claims is still there.
David Broadland has been writing about BC’s forest industry since 1990.
BC’s Old Growth Forest: A Last Stand for Biodiversity: bcs-old-growth-forest-report-web.pdf
FIFTEEN YEARS AGO while writing our book Selling Sickness, Ray Moynihan and I probed deeply into the pharmaceutical industry’s involvement in the development and marketing of a little known condition called “social phobia.” Apparently, some people are so nervous in social situations that they rarely leave their house. Public speaking? Definitely out of the question for social phobics.
While the extreme form of that condition could certainly be debilitating for some, with the financial might of one of the world’s biggest pharmaceutical companies, and the FDA approval for paroxetine (Paxil) to treat this new condition, “social anxiety disorder” (SAD) became a multi-billion dollar market almost overnight. With some of the slickest, award-winning drug marketing ever seen, the poster tagline behind Paxil read: “Imagine being allergic to people.” The ad didn’t even mention the name of the drug. Why? Because they were just marketing the condition, and they had (at that time) the only pill approved to treat it.
The whole fascinating tale, complete with celebrity spokespeople, athletes on the payroll, and fake patient groups promoting the disease, was textbook bamboozlement, selling consumers and prescribers a company-sponsored version of “abnormal” mental health.
Enter the pandemic, an unprecedented time of worry, where stress, fear and anxiety among a locked-down population become the perfect petri dish to spawn new customers of psychiatric drugs of all sorts.
A report from the US pharmacy management company Express Scripts said that the number of prescriptions filled per week for antidepressant, anti-anxiety and anti-insomnia medications “increased 21 percent between February 16 and March 15.” The kicker here? Three quarters of these were for new prescriptions.
The Council for Evidence-Based Psychiatry (CEP) in the UK reported that 20 percent of the adult population in the UK were taking antidepressants. They are worried that “reframing situational distress as a psychiatric condition” could lead to speculative, pre-emptive prescribing. That is, getting a script “just in case.”
Suffice to say a whole lot more of us might be coping with their lock-down situation with the help of a new drug, an adventure that may not end when the pandemic has run its course.
If you’re anxious, does that mean you’re sick?
There are many things wrong with this picture. First of all, feeling anxious towards situations out of one’s control is normal. Feeling a sense of loss and worry given the rapid way in which society is being reshaped by the pandemic? Also normal. People need social interaction and the support of their families and peers, something which social distancing makes more difficult. Yet a pharmaceutical lifebuoy may not be the answer for most.
The history of “selling” depression, which put generations of people on antidepressants, is built on a false narrative of “chemical imbalance” where wonky brain chemistry is blamed for your sorrow and thus tweaking your neurotransmitters fixes it.
If it were only so simple.
Today, most thoughtful psychiatrists have largely discarded the chemical imbalance theory, yet patients come to them for chemical help. Undoubtedly media saturation, and the infodemic of minute-by-minute death numbers due to COVID-19, adds to the stress of pandemic-induced isolation and disruption. Media reports claiming we’ve got a full blown “mental health crisis” on our hands—whether true or not—likely means that careful and cautious prescribing gives way to an epidemic of people taking antidepressants and anti-anxiety drugs.
KIM WITCZAK BECAME A FIERCE DRUG SAFETY ADVOCATE 15 years ago, after her husband Woody took his own life after being prescribed Zoloft, a widely-prescribed SSRI antidepressant (this class of drugs include Prozac and Paxil). Well-versed on the dangers of antidepressants, Kim is one of the most coherent voices on the dangers of psychiatric drugs and sits as a patient representative on the US FDA’s Psychopharmacologic Advisory Committee. Advocates like Witczak have influenced regulators about drug warnings and in fact her testimony and others in front of the FDA on the risk of suicide related to SSRI depressants forced the US FDA to put black box warnings on those drugs. (See www.woodymatters.com)
I contacted her at her home in Minneapolis to talk about the impact of COVID on mental health. “So many lives have been greatly damaged or impacted by the economic toll on families,” she said, adding, “drugs are going to be thrown at people.”
“People need to be informed…Pills are not a quick fix, but I fear they will be the easiest way to deal with mass mental health issues of society,” said Witczak. What adds fuel to this fire is the fact that telemedicine in both Canada and the US are loosening the requirements and making it a lot easier to prescribe a range of drugs.
Witczak is concerned that many patients aren’t going to have needed conversations around the immediate and long-term harms including addition and withdrawal effects related to psychiatric drugs. “These are serious, mind-altering drugs that have real risks,” she told me.
“It is normal to be struggling with intense emotions like anxiety, fear, sadness, anger given this global pandemic and no one having a clue what the future holds. But is it really mental illness? People should pause and think twice before quickly resorting to a pill.”
There are effective alternatives to drugs including counselling, cognitive behavioural therapy, mindfulness-based stress reduction and “exposure therapy” which can effectively reduce anxiety without the potential problems that come with any drug. The normal advice about reducing stress applies even more: getting exercise, eating properly and getting out into nature. My lay advice would add one thing: stop squirrelling away with social media or reading the news all the time. The world might be crazy but you don’t have to be.
Some people are questioning this premise that we’re facing a massive mental health crisis and noting that there is a flip side to all of this. George Monbiot, writing in the UK’s Guardian, noted that the pandemic is causing a global outpouring of community action—people getting to know and look after their elderly neighbours, volunteers delivering food for healthcare workers and first responders, kids building healthcare visors on their home 3D printers and so on. Maybe the inherent altruism of people is emerging as a way to deal with the pandemic’s stresses?
But back to the selling of social anxiety. In surveys people often say they fear public speaking more than they fear death. But is being afraid of speaking in public a “disease?” Is the fear of death? Maybe imagining the worse makes us all eager to reach for any lifebuoy at hand. But for those of us who are well aware of the dangers of prescription drugs, we just want to make sure that what keeps you afloat is buoyant, and not another anchor.
At the end of the day it’s OK to feel anxious. Our world is changing. What would be really bad is if the short-term solutions turn into much worse long-term problems.
Alan Cassels studies pharmaceutical policy and works at UBC. His book Seeking Sickness: Medical Screening and the Misguided Hunt for Diseases is available from bookstores and libraries. You can follow him on twitter @akecassels.
May 14, 2020
A new tool allows citizens to measure the carbon storage and health of their local forests—before they are cut down.
FOREST SCIENTIST Dr. Nicholas Coops from UBC and his two colleagues, Dr. Joseph Landsburg (Australia) and Dr. Richard Waring (Oregon), recently won the equivalent of the Nobel Prize in forestry—the Marcus Wallenberg Prize—for their work on an open-source model that allows anyone to predict how their forests are growing in real time.
The tool, called 3PG (Physiological Principles Predicting Growth), can be set up on most computers and will tell you how your local forest is doing and predict what the future might be as climate conditions change. Using available data sets from weather stations that measure temperature, moisture and tree level information from long-term forest plots, coupled with remote sensing data from satellites or LIDAR, we can now answer questions like: How much carbon is being sequestered by this patch of trees? How much carbon was released by that clearcut? How will biodiversity hot spots do in the future? How can we prevent insect outbreaks? How are certain species doing through spring and summer droughts? What if we increase the number of nurse logs in this patch? Is it helping the stressed trees?
The model can be scaled from my tiny patch of forest of 60-year-old Douglas-fir to diverse tracts of forest across the planet. Any student or planner with an interest in forests and climate can adapt the model to local forest data.
It was a tool originally devised for forestry managers to manage plantations, but has much wider applications, according to Coops, including understanding what our Douglas fir forests are going to look like in the future.
To understand why this is hopeful, it is important to start with a refresher on forests and climate change. Currently the only things on the planet that remove carbon dioxide from our atmosphere are plants—either on land, in water or sea. CO2 is sequestered by the forest through everything that photosynthesizes: trees, shrubs, moss, etc and is then processed into carbon which the forest stores in what we call carbon pools: trunks, branches, bark, roots, leaves, shrubs, soil, litter and coarse woody debris (nurse logs, wildlife trees). The plants pull out the carbon and release the oxygen (O2) to the atmosphere. The rate at which they they do that and how they store it, is the complicated part.
Storing carbon depends on complex ecological relationships between species of trees, other plants, lichens and fungi, the soil, the forest litter and detritus, aspect, moisture, temperature and nutrients. It is a big dynamic system and taken at a provincial, national or international level has a great many complexities. At the forest stand level, however, it becomes far more understandable and relevant.
Using the new 3PG tool on my acreage, we assess how each of the different tree species are doing, their height, age and diameter and how much carbon they pull out of the atmosphere on a daily to annual basis and have stored over the last 60 years, and where it is stored.
My forest stores about 1,468 tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent (CO2e) per hectare (it is actually stored as just carbon but it is expressed as CO2e so we can understand the implications if it is released back into the atmosphere). Two hundred tonnes of that is in the soil, another 200 tonnes in the detritus, about 500 in the trunks/stems and the rest in the branches, bark and shrub layers. Every hectare of my forest is pulling about 14 tonnes of CO2e out of the atmosphere a year.
There is always some natural decaying going on, where the carbon isn’t stored but released back into the atmosphere. This relationship between decay and sequestering is expressed in a figure called “forest growth minus decay.” In a healthy forest like mine, forest growth far exceeds forest decay. In an unhealthy forest where drought decreases the moisture retained in the soil and increases the respiration of carbon back into the atmosphere, that figure can reverse. There are die-offs already starting in my western red cedars on south-facing, dryer slopes so I’m anticipating that these figures will change.
The model works by using key measurements of certain species acquired from long-term research plots, like the ones around southeastern Vancouver Island of coastal Douglas fir forests from old growth to young ones.
Provincial forest ecologist Andy Mackinnon and federal forester Tony Trofymow set up forest plots in 1992 in response to concerns about the effects of clearcutting and the conversion of coastal old-growth to managed forests. The plots provide information about the growth, structure, diversity and carbon storage of forests at different ages, on different aspects, terrains and microclimates. In 2002, research towers were added to fine tune our understanding of fluxes of carbon and water from different pools based on temperature and precipitation. Fluxnet Canada has three forest plots of different aged coastal Douglas fir, one of which is very similar in age and composition to mine, at Oyster River. Pulses of carbon dioxide are measured from processes like soil respiration, decomposition, litterfall and microclimate changes in soil which change with the time of day, the season, and the year. It allows us to attribute specific events and features to fluxes of ecosystem carbon.
The 3PG model is able to apply this information to whichever forest an enquiry directs it to (small to large) by using remote sensing, like satellite and LIDAR.
Finally, it uses climate forecasts to let you ask questions about what it will look like in the future.
Coastal Douglas fir is uniquely suited to these kinds of tools because it is such a wide-ranging tree, from California to Vancouver Island. If I want to know what my forest will look like in a warmer world, the benchmark data from California forests is there to draw from.
The reason this is important is because if you go to the latest (2017) BC Greenhouse Gas Emission Inventory you will discover that over the last 27 years, more than half of all CO2e emissions come from the “Forest Management” sector. Because of a historic federal decision at Kyoto to not include forest management emissions in our inventory, these figures are only included in an appendix. This raises a critical question about how we should respond to these huge emissions and better understand the complex interplay of warming temperatures, greater insect predation, changes in traditional burning practices by First Nations, and modern industrial approaches of salvage clearcut logging. The immensity of the problem requires better tools that can peer right into the different patches of forest and then go back up to 30,000 feet and see the patterns.
To further appreciate the magnitude of the climate crisis as it relates to forestry, remember there are two sides of a carbon equation: on one side is our need to reduce our emissions; on the other is our need to protect and increase our sinks. Ignoring emissions from forestry is a double hit to climate change as we send our emissions skyrocketing while removing our sinks.
And I haven’t even added in another sector that is included in our official inventory called “deforestation,” when sinks are converted permanently to non-forest use. Deforestation emissions take the overall number up another 2.5 million tonnes.
But before we unpack these numbers, remember this story started as good news.
I have been writing about climate change and the problematic forest industry for over 30 years and it has mostly been bad news for climate, wildlife, water, fire and flood risk, and cultural survival. No amount of science seems able to shift governing parties away from the status quo and corporate exceptionalism so what will get us to a different future?
Coops’ colleague, Dr. Gary Bull, head of the Forest Resources Management Department at UBC who has equal international standing in his field of forest policy and sustainable economic models that integrate climate change, indigenous rights and ecosystem services, suggests that 3PG gets us one step closer. Putting a forester’s tool in the hands of local people who love their forests and want to improve their resilience to drought, fire and loss of wildlife is a key part of the solution.
It used to be that only forest carbon scientists hired by companies could calculate these complex carbon equations. This led to a lot of carbon myths, myths that provincial forest ecologist Jim Pojar has done a great job of refuting. (https://sierraclub.bc.ca/7-myths-about-forests-carbon-and-climate-change/ )
If you don’t want to take his word for it, though, now you can see for yourself. With this tool, anyone should be able to figure out that if I clearcut even a hectare of my forest, I will immediately release at least half a thousand tonnes of CO2e from the different carbon pools into the atmosphere through various processes: slashpile burning, increased respiration, and decomposition as the forest floor dries.
In the carbon pool called “trunks,” a good proportion would end up as my firewood, and also go up with the smoke. Some might make it as timber for construction, but the emissions from cutting, trucking and processing it would offset the carbon stored in the few pieces of timber that made it into house beams. Within 15 years, most of the carbon in that hectare of forest would be back in the atmosphere.
I would also have shrunk the world’s carbon sink by a hectare and made adjacent forests more vulnerable to rising soil temperature, wind throw, and fire through loss of moisture in the forest.
Replanting my forest is not mitigation. It will be 17 years before the clearcut is not still emitting carbon. And it will be 105 years before I have even caught up with the storage that I had before I cut it down, if ever.
I could have travelled 250 times to Baja in a jet and still not exceeded those emissions, so why are we not taking these actions into our carbon accounting?
Once you get your head around your own local forests, it is much easier to scale up and make sense of the provincial numbers. In the BC inventory, decomposition from clearcutting accounts for 42,034,000 tonnes (this is probably conservative). Slashburn piles account for another 3,990,000 tonnes. Then there is the big whammy for 2017 of wildfire—176,550,000 tonnes. (Spread over the last 27 years, emissions from fires average out to 20,000,000 tonnes a year.) Wildfire is a bit of misnomer because within this category there is no distinction between fires that burn in unlogged forests and fires that burn through clearcuts, but are not technically accounted for under slashburns. An Oregon State University study found that the 2013 Douglas Fire took off when it “hit a sea of clearcuts.” It makes sense, as the driest tinder for any fire is in a clearcut. They are now called “clearcut firebombs” in the research parlance. (See David Broadland’s The Forest-Industrial Complex’s Molotov Cocktails)
Having a fine-tuned tool that can operate with local data is critical to discern exactly what’s going on.
This forest on Quadra Island is slated to be logged, but its carbon sequestration capacity, critical to global efforts to reduce emissions, has not been taken into consideration by government when it determined the area could be logged. Now local citizens will have a tool that allows them to do the carbon calculation and add another science-based argument for conservation.
Bull points out that these new tools and forest research typically take at least a decade to translate into policy, “but,” he adds, “we could adapt pretty damn quickly if we had the political support, legislation and resources to devolve more power and tools to local communities and First Nations.” He has long believed that the path to climate change mitigation and reconciliation of First Nations land issues is through ensuring the economic benefits flow to those that tend the forests. He is working on innovative economic streams from forest stewardship.
The development of open source tools such as 3PG brings down the biggest obstacle in the past: the costs of planning, management and inventory. For communities and regions to assess alternative economic models for rural communities, the right set of tools in the toolbox is critical. Bull states, “Dr. Coops’ tools are essential.”
Coops is enthusiastic about the potential for the model as it puts a free tool into the hands of local people which is the scale that forest management is best done at. Because it is open source, it can be adapted and developed to reflect the amazing research that has gone on already.
One of the improvements Coops hopes to see in the tool, is a way to improve measuring the below-ground carbon and fuel loads across clearcut landscapes. Coops believes this is possible using drones and satellite imagery. He and Trofymow also examined and compared methods for estimating the amounts of woody residues left after harvest of one of the long term forest plots. In 2017, Trofymow remeasured (after 25 years) the carbon in aboveground forest and woody debris on the four east Vancouver Island sites; soils were remeasured in 2019 and are currently being analyzed. The results will be ready in a year or two.
3PG is currently the most widely-used forest growth model of this type in the world, but not here in BC. Asked what his ultimate dream for the model is, Coops responded: “I want to alert citizens about how they can take care of their forests/carbon sinks.”
See https://3pg.forestry.ubc.ca/software/ for the 3PG software tools.
Briony Penn is the award-winning author of non-fiction books including The Real Thing: The Natural History of Ian McTaggart Cowan, A Year on the Wild Side, and, most recently, Following the Good River: the Life and Times of Wa’xaid, a biography of Cecil Paul (Rocky Mountain Books).
May 6, 2020
BC loves to boast about its climate initiatives, but our emissions keep shooting up.
IN THE FIRST YEAR of BC’s NDP-led government, the province’s emissions headed skywards. In 2018, BC’s greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions grew faster than the rest of Canada, according to a federal report issued April 20. The three-volume report, comprising 573 pages, forms Canada’s 2020 submission to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change.
When the NDP took control of the government in 2017, it didn’t bode well for the planet. After all, it was the NDP that had campaigned against BC’s continent-leading carbon tax in the 2009 election, with its “axe the tax” platform plank.
As well, after winning the 2017 election the New Democrats eliminated tolls on the Port Mann and Golden Ears bridges, making cars—already heavily subsidized—cheaper still. What next, some might ask? Free gasoline for all?
And what to make of the New Democrats’ “make BC a leader in climate action” 2017 campaign promise when the following spring the government tried to convince us that the only path forward for the Province was to develop and subsidize liquefied natural gas (LNG) projects? Don Wright, Premier John Horgan’s deputy minister, had the nerve to put his name to a March 22, 2018 “Update and Technical Briefing” that pushed LNG as the Province’s saving grace. The briefing claimed that climate action, First Nations reconciliation and LNG-driven economic development were “parallel and mutually dependent priorities,” a non sequitur if ever there was one.
In 2007, Gordon Campbell’s Liberal government had promised to reduce BC’s emissions 33 percent by 2020, though progress disappeared long before the deadline. Never one to let the impending annihilation of life as we know it stand in his way, in May 2018 Horgan extended the Campbell government’s deadline to 2030, though he did boost the target reduction to 40 percent beneath 2007 levels.
The NDP’s CleanBC plan of December 2018 specified measures projected to cut the 2030 emissions by 18.9 million tonnes of CO2 equivalent (Mt). This is just 73 percent of the cuts the Campbell government had promised for this year. The NDP measures include subsidizing electric car purchases and home energy renovations, reducing the carbon intensity of transportation fuels, and incenting industry to lower emissions.
Then there was the bizarre November 7, 2019 cabinet order exempting LNG projects from all carbon taxes above $30 per tonne. Hardly a step forward.
And as if to give the proverbial finger to the climate crisis, this spring the NDP government even cancelled the $5 per tonne increase in the carbon tax scheduled for April 1, 2020—an increase specified by CleanBC. The move was purportedly in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, despite the fact that global heating may well end up killing many more people than the virus. The carbon tax is now stuck at $40, a tiny fraction of what it should be.
However, not all subsequent moves have been retrograde. In February this year the government released a detailed update of CleanBC, using revised emissions modelling.
Backed by a technical report commissioned from Vancouver’s highly-respected Navius Research, the Environment and Climate Change Strategy Ministry now says it is closer to meeting its 2030 GHG reductions, in part because the updated modelling projects that BC’s total emissions under a “business as usual” scenario—without CleanBC measures—would be 2.5 Mt less than estimated in 2018.
The main reason for this reduction is that natural gas wells are not quite as dirty, from an emissions viewpoint, as previously believed. (Navius reports that this information was provided by the Energy, Mines and Petroleum Resources Ministry.) The upshot is that the Province now has a smaller gap (5.5 Mt) to meet its goal of a 40 percent reduction by 2030. That’s assuming the reductions estimated to result from the CleanBC initiatives actually come to pass.
And since the Navius report was completed before the government cancelled the scheduled April 1 carbon tax increase, the situation may be a little less rosy than suggested. Navius explicitly relied on the government’s then-current policy to continue increasing the tax annually till it reached $50 in 2021. Revenue from the tax is supposed to help fund further reductions in industrial emissions, meaning that there are several pathways by which a lower carbon tax could affect GHG levels.
Let’s not forget that 2020—this year—is the deadline from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) deadline to begin reducing emissions if we are to avoid making Earth uninhabitable. And we’re going the wrong way.
In 2018, the first full year under the NDP, BC’s emissions grew at a much faster rate than Canada’s as a whole. BC’s emissions jumped 2.2 Mt between 2017 and 2018, according to the new federal report, which offers the latest data available. In 2018 they reached 65.5 Mt, up from 2017’s 63.3 Mt. (For comparison, had the Campbell Liberal government managed to survive and hit its original 2020 targets, BC’s emissions this year would be no more than 39.6 Mt, far beneath 2018’s actual figure of 65.5 Mt.)
At the same time, Canada’s emissions reached 729 Mt, a 2.1 percent increase from 2017, compared with BC’s 3.5 percent. Put another way, BC’s emissions increased 1.7 times faster than did Canada’s.
The Province’s 2018 emissions continue a trend: Since 2015, they have steadily increased each year, and things are not expected to improve in the near future, IPCC warning or not. According to the February update, the government now expects emissions to continue increasing “over the next couple of years,” before beginning a downward trend. By 2021, says the report, emissions would be approximately 3.5 Mt less than in 2018.
In short: BC has yet to do its share in preventing runaway global heating even without LNG, a fortiori with it.
Canada’s GHG emissions by jurisdiction. Source: Environment and Climate Change Canada
Among the untested measures in CleanBC is “carbon capture and storage” (CCS), involving collecting CO2 from the air and storing it underground. The plan projects that CCS will reduce annual emissions by 0.7 Mt. But despite considerable effort expended on various demonstration CCS technologies, there is only one method yet proven to work on a large-enough scale: Planting trees.
The biggest single fossil fuel subsidy in recent memory is BC’s $6 billion dole-out to LNG Canada, not to mention the foreign consortium’s royalty tax credits, and a further $275 million from the federal government. The only bright light on the horizon is that the project may now be at risk from various obstacles, including COVID-19, the related disruption of the chain supplying the Chinese-built modules for the Kitimat plant, and economic turmoil—combined with the growing use of renewable energy—that could slash future worldwide fossil fuel demand.
BC Green House Leader Sonia Furstenau and her Green caucus colleagues have said for years that LNG Canada is neither fiscally worthwhile nor feasible. “I don't anticipate that the COVID-19 crisis will work in its favour,” Furstenau said in a perhaps understated, emailed response to Focus queries.
Furstenau and the two other Green MLAs voted in the legislature no fewer than 14 times against subsidizing LNG Canada. “I don’t think they should have received the benefit to begin with, and argued as hard as I could to make that case to the BC NDP,” she said. “But they felt differently and voted to go ahead.”
(Note: This article relies on the latest emissions data from the federal government. BC’s own emissions inventory does not yet include those for 2018; the updated version is due to be published later this year.)
Russ Francis was shocked to learn that hundreds of staff at Alberta’s Cargill abattoir were infected with COVID-19. Careful, or there could be death in the slaughterhouse.
April 9, 2020
Do the construction of future pipelines, mining, logging, fish farms and other resource industries qualify as essential services? Are enough precautions against virus transmission being employed?
WHILE JUST ABOUT EVERYONE but grocery and health care workers are staying home and practicing social distancing to the point of losing jobs or businesses, there is one sector that seems to be immune to any national effort to contain the virus. The resource sector is still being mandated to work by their companies on a directive from government that they are essential services.
According to the Council of Canadians, “Across BC and Alberta, over 100 energy megaproject work camps are continuing to operate, including Site C and the Trans Mountain and Coastal GasLink pipelines. Each of these camps houses hundreds of workers in close proximity…At least one worker has already tested positive for COVID-19 at LNG Canada, the destination of the Coastal GasLink pipeline. Site C, which has over 1,000 workers on site, recently isolated 16 workers who exhibited flu-like symptoms.” (April 4, 2020)
Site C's 1600-room Two Rivers worker accommodation facility. It experienced at least one virus outbreak in 2017.
Just how does the construction of future pipelines, mining, logging, fish farms and other resource industries qualify as essential services?
These industries have been handed guidelines that provide, at best, minimum measures: restricting only foreign travel; mandating self-isolation for returned travellers; social distancing; increased cleaning and sanitization in workplaces; and instructing employees who work remotely to reduce interpersonal contact.
But even these measures, according to workers, are impossible to meet with the existing conditions and no attempt is being made by their employers or regulators to bring them into line with what the rest of the population are doing. For many, the fact that resource companies are asking for bailouts for their “hardworking families” while putting those same families at risk and the rest of us, doesn’t sit well.
In Victoria, BC Tradeswomen Society Board member, Robyn Hacking, has sent a letter to Premier Horgan about the conditions of her work and the failure of her employer, general contractor and Worksafe BC to ensure even minimum measures. “On a busy construction site with multiple trades working in enclosed spaces together, social distancing is very difficult to maintain and almost every surface gets touched by multiple people hundreds of times a day. (Consider access tools like ladders and scaffolding). Hand washing is impossible when workers don’t have access to soap and clean water, which is certainly the case on most new construction sites, even though it has been a WorkSafeBC requirement since 2005…The reality is the last time I personally had access to hand washing facilities on the job was over three years ago…The workforce is calling on you, our government, to remedy poor working conditions that have been accepted standards on construction sites for far too long.”
Hacking’s concerns are evident just about anywhere you look. A fish farm worker on Vancouver Island, who has asked to remain anonymous says: “social distancing requirements in the boats and fish farms are impossible to meet. We share small kitchens, small bathrooms, eating and sleeping areas; we can’t practice social distancing, yet we are being told we must go to work.”
He went on to describe how crews regularly use planes to fly in and out for work returning to their homes between shifts. These shifts are typically less than two weeks—shorter than the required period of self-isolation should symptoms appear.
Grand Chief Stewart Phillip of the BC Union of Indian Chiefs has sent an open letter asking governments to halt pipeline projects to protect remote communities with limited services and elders increasingly at risk from workers returning home.
A quick review of different company websites doesn’t provide a lot of confidence. For example, in the camps of LNG Canada, which number in the hundreds, “juice machines are cleaned every 15 minutes” and “hand sanitizer usage remains mandatory prior to entering the dining halls.” LNG did not respond to Focus on how they were social distancing in the workplace nor how self-isolation is managed with shift workers. Canfor simply reports they will reduce operating hours.
Prime Minister Trudeau, when questioned about concerns that workers and communities might have for the spread of the virus through this sector, said companies are to be trusted in implementing these measures.
Grand Chief Phillip states: “Corporate exceptionalism cannot become a pandemic response strategy for the Governments of BC and Canada.”
Concerns from the communities into which workers travel or return have led to self-quarantining in places like Haida Gwaii and Bella Bella.
The fish farm worker noted that before the Heiltsuk took their own initiative to shut down the airport to anything but real essential services like food and medical supplies, his crew members had flown into the community and could potentially have exposed villagers to the virus. “Why is everyone else being asked to stay home and I’m not? Am I really an essential service? Are exported industrial foods that put local food supplies at risk essential?”
He challenged Transport Canada about why he is an essential service and hasn’t received a reply. Dr. Bonnie Henry, who has deflected questions from the media about the “essentialness” of the resource sector, also didn’t respond to Focus.
Calgary airport, the hub through which potentially thousands of workers pass on their way back and forth to northeast camps and Vancouver Island, doesn’t appear to be taking any special measures to monitor or advise passengers, according to a Vancouver Islander coming back through Calgary on March 31. She reported that the only recommendation for 14-day self-quarantine came from “a table of volunteers.” Sixty-one percent of Alberta’s COVID infections are in Calgary, and one in six Albertans polled believe the crisis is overinflated in the media.
The legal definition of essential services under the government’s own Public Service Labour Relations Act, is “any service facility or activity that will be necessary for the safety or security of the public or a segment of the public.” Corporate exceptionalism now appears to be corporate essentialism in this time of crisis.
Briony Penn has been living near and writing about the Salish Sea pretty much all of her life. She is the award-winning author of non-fiction books including The Real Thing: The Natural History of Ian McTaggart Cowan, A Year on the Wild Side, and, most recently, Following the Good River: the Life and Times of Wa’xaid, a biography of Cecil Paul (Rocky Mountain Books).
April 7, 2020
It didn't take long for the novel corona virus to spread from humans to BC’s liquefied natural gas (LNG) projects.
ON APRIL 2, LNG Canada chief executive officer Peter Zebedee announced that in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, the foreign consortium had cut its 1,800-strong Kitimat workforce by 65 percent, continuing with only “essential” work. (Wonder what those 1,200 non-essential workers were doing.)
LNG Canada CEO Peter Zebedee says 65 percent of workers have been sent home
Despite this, LNG Canada is persisting with its GHG-laden future. Zebedee said in his letter that “we have every intention to deliver.” Zebedee is a former vice-president of Shell, which, as the largest partner, owns 40 percent of the project.
However, I can’t help but ask whether Zebedee has spoken recently to his own head office.
For on March 23, the multinational fossil fuel giant announced it is slashing spending world-wide. Without revealing details, Shell said it is cutting annual operating costs by $3 - $4 billion US, and capital spending by $5 billion US this year. A week later, on March 30 Shell said it is pulling out of the Lake Charles LNG project, a partnership with Texas-based Energy Transfer to convert the existing Louisiana LNG import facility to one that would export 16.45 million tonnes per annum (MPTA) of LNG. This compares with LNG Canada’s 14 MPTA for its first phase.
Why did Shell withdraw? To “preserve cash and reinforce the resilience of our business,” said Shell’s Maarten Wetselaar, adding that “the time is not right for Shell to invest.”
Where have we heard that sort of language before? Last fall, Kitimat LNG partner Woodside Energy said it wanted to reduce its 50 percent share of the project, joined in December by the other partner, Chevron, which wants to exit completely. Both companies said the reasons were risk and cost. The virus is also affecting other Woodside projects. In March, Woodside cut its spending in half, and delayed decisions on three planned LNG projects in its native Australia. It blamed COVID-19,as well as the oversupply of crude oil and LNG.
A much smaller BC LNG project has also been infected by the virus. Woodfibre LNG, which planned to produce 2.1 MPTA on the shores of Howe Sound, said in March it was delaying its start date from summer 2020 to the end of 2021, in part because of the virus. Like LNG Canada, Woodfibre LNG—owned by Asia-based Pacific Oil & Gas—is building much of its plant in Chinese fabrication yards.
Woodfibre LNG delays Howe Sound project in part due to COVID-19
Texas-based Fluor is building the LNG Canada facility in partnership with Japan’s JGC. Asked about the project during a February 18 analyst conference call, Fluor chief Carlos Hernandez said “at this point, we don’t see any delays, but obviously we’ll wait and see when we wrap up completely.”
Marc Lee, senior economist with the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, said in an interview the fact that much of the LNG Canada plant’s construction work is being done at the Chinese fabrication yard may be a hiccup for the project: “The supply chain may be severely disrupted.”
Economist Marc Lee: LNG Canada’s Chinese-built modules may be delayed due to supply-chain disruption.
At a time of severe financial stress on BC’s economy, the growing possibility that LNG Canada may not proceed cannot be good news for Premier John Horgan, who has claimed that the $40 billion project would bring the government $23 billion in new revenue.
Then there is LNG Canada’s contribution to increasing GHG emissions, at a time when the entire planet is supposed to be drastically cutting them. According to BC government data, the first phase of the project will add 3.45 MPTA of GHG emissions, though the figures have been widely criticized as considerably under-estimating fugitive emissions (those released before the fracked gas arrives at the facility.) If fully built, LNG Canada would result in 6.9 MTPA in emissions—more than one-third of the 18.9 MTPA in GHG reductions under specific programs of BC’s CleanBC plan.
Green MP Elizabeth May is confident that neither LNG Canada nor Woodfibre LNG will go ahead. “The whole notion that they’re going to proceed with any of these is fanciful,” May said in an interview. “The economics of these projects are absolutely not on.”
The Green Party has proposed a detailed plan to reassign fossil fuel workers to cleaning up orphan wells, while transforming to renewable energy.
Neither Shell nor LNG Canada had responded to Focus requests for comment by the time of publication.
Russ Francis is not sad about some effects of COVID-19: the suspension of Hockey Fight in Canada, the estimated 5 percent drop in 2020 GHG emissions, and the expected cancellation of the Calgary Stampede.
This virus is another evolutionary opportunist, not so different from we humans.
THE MORNING the United States became the world’s epicentre in the coronavirus pandemic, I woke to more ancient news. A spring rain drumming on my skylights and a raucous perturbation among nesting waterfowl.
The rain dwindled to a drizzle, then a sniffle, then wraiths of mist. The birds subsided into grumbling. I took a hike. I seldom meet anyone on the back trails, less frequently now that we’re social distancing.
Above, the sky was steel grey but for a band of intense blue at the eastern horizon. Mt. Baker glittered behind the San Juan Islands in Washington, an epicentre within the epicentre.
Yet, a silver lining. Those snowfields are brighter than most of us have ever seen as entire cities discover they can do what many claimed impossible—just shut down—and the air pollution from 6.5 million vehicles, most from Victoria through Seattle to Vancouver, disappears.
Mount Baker as seen recently from Sidney, BC. Cleaner air is one consequence of the pandemic.
By April, this virus had killed about 40,000 people, mostly elders over 70. Air pollution kills about 73,000 elders over 70 each year—and another 4,000 infants under five.
Tourists who normally throng Victoria’s waterfront and Downtown shopping districts have vanished as abruptly as the Purple Martins in the fall.
So have Americans enjoying an inexpensive day trip to Sidney from Anacortes. They normally swarm Sidney Bakery for cream puffs and perch in rows sipping their London Fogs or eating ice cream at the two flanking cafes.
The Colwood Crawl and the Pat Bay Pandemonium are gone.
As the pandemic spreads, war metaphors abound.
Yet, despite harrowing stories from hospitals in Milan and New York, what we’re experiencing is not war. It’s a natural biological event.
This virus is another evolutionary opportunist, not so different from we humans. It’s killed 40,000 of us so far. We, on the other hand, continue to kill ourselves at a much faster rate—about 500 suicides a year in BC, about 5,000 by self-administered drugs since 2015, 35,000 drug homicides in Mexico, maybe 500,000 dead in Syria’s civil war. Since January we’ve killed more than 13 billion sentient animals in slaughter factories.
We inhabit a vast sea of viruses. This one surged into an ecological niche—us—exploiting vectors that we created with our technologies, our complacent social habits and our political and economic hubris.
Is it scary? Yes. Can it have tragic consequences. Yes. Do we have an obligation to respond to it appropriately? Yes. Does the war analogy help? No. The term mischaracterizes that with which we must deal.
Unlike war, which rages unabated in Africa and the Middle East and which, as we see from our response to coronavirus, could be ended tomorrow if parties to the conflicts agreed to end them, we are dealing with a force of nature—not malevolent, just ambivalent.
Around us, everywhere, life is resurgent. As our urban lives contract, the natural world reasserts itself. Wild boar forage in Barcelona’s streets, deer investigate empty train stations in Asia, mountain lions pad the squares of South American cities, wild turkeys strut San Francisco and red foxes return to Paris.
Here, on my deserted trail, spring unfolds on schedule. Red currants bloom, Indian plum dresses drab thickets with creamy lace, green moss velvets dead stumps and countless buds uncurl their tiny, defiant fists into the growing light, a reminder that these gloomy days, too, shall pass one day from memory.
Stephen Hume spent half a century as a journalist writing about Western Canada, the Far North, BC and the Island.
March 5, 2020
A growing budget, a lack of transparency, and a boundary-challenged City Council all merit voters’ attention.
IN THIS EDITION OF FOCUS, Ross Crockford interviews candidates running in the April 4 City of Victoria by-election. Who voters choose will provide the current council with some feedback on its direction thus far, so it’s a good time to reflect on recent governance issues and talk to candidates about them.
One area of concern is the growth of the City budget and residents’ tax burden. This is central, especially in the face of a climate crisis. Keeping spending in check is both highly practical and a matter of planetary survival. Growth costs us in earthly resources and climate stability. Reducing our collective footprint is the best way to ensure future generations have a place to live.
The City can’t be a climate leader without figuring out how to make government more efficient and less demanding of more and more resources, in the form of tax dollars or otherwise. Ultimately, it’s nature that pays for it all.
The City’s budget for 2020 will be finalized at the end of April after property assessments are finalized. Land values have gone up in recent years due, at least in part, to City policies around development.
The City’s new budget, with its proposed $265 million for operating expenses and $43 million for capital expenses, will require an approximate hike in property taxes and utilities of 3.32 percent. The mayor has boasted about adding new programs and services, while keeping tax increases to the rate of inflation plus one percent.
For an average residential home ($805,000 assessment), the proposed total municipal property taxes and utility user fees will be approximately $3,605, an increase of $116 over 2019 (on top of a similar increase last year). Property taxes ($140 million) and utilities (about $40 million) comprise the lion’s share of the revenue side of the budget, with parking fees, grants and other revenue providing the rest.
In 2019, the “New Property Tax Revenue from New Development” provided an extra $3.7 million and was used to fund such things as more mayor’s office support ($114k), the urban forest management plan ($858k), an Indigenous artist in residence ($72k), a disability coordinator ($128.5k), a climate outreach specialist ($106k), and a climate grant writer ($117k). The draft 2020 budget notes that it is only in recent years—since 2015—that council has used this revenue to fund services. It used to be used solely to reduce taxes and help fund reserves.
In a survey about the budget, residents were asked how the City should allocate new tax revenues from development: 55 percent of the 5,100 respondents said “reduce the tax increase.” Half of respondents also said “save for future infrastructure investment.” Only 16 percent responded “invest in new initiatives,” yet that appears to be what the City has done since Mayor Helps was elected in 2014.
That same survey showed over half of respondents wanted service levels cut in order to maintain or reduce taxes. An exception in terms of increasing the budget was made for VicPD, where 67 percent judged current spending too low. Council has resisted the Police Board’s requests for additional funds in the past, forcing the Province to step in and order increased funding. This year, it looks like VicPD will get its requested four extra officers.
Every new initiative has costs—even if you get a grant from the Feds or Province, and especially if it’s from new development which increases the need for—and maintenance of—all sorts of public infrastructure, from libraries and schools to roads, parks and sewage treatment, as well as services like policing. The new revenue from development is a pittance when considered against all the costs.
Reducing our footprint cannot be achieved with continual growth in spending, whether on an individual consumer level, or by government. Climate leadership, then, involves showing how we can do more with less. And sometimes do without.
TRANSPARENCY IS AN ESSENTIAL INGREDIENT of an accountable government, and another issue worthy of consideration on voting day. The City of Victoria likes to think of itself as transparent and communicative, but a recent example shows it needs to do some work.
In looking into the City’s climate action plan last December, and finding that its greenhouse gas inventory had been done by Stantec, we wondered how much that had cost. The City’s Statement of Financial Information (SOFI) for 2017 and 2018 noted Stantec had been paid $249,629.95 and $211,874.53, respectively.
Municipal governments are required by the Province to produce a SOFI annually. It’s supposed to provide a basic level of accountability. Our inquiry was about one line on a long list of outside suppliers who, in 2018, charged the City a total of $110 million. That amounted to 42 percent of the City’s operating budget. The SOFI names the vendors and puts a dollar figure beside each name. But how can the public know how its money is being spent without a little more detail? Could we find out what work Stantec did for the City that cost taxpayers nearly a quarter of a million a year?
Focus asked the City’s “engagement” office what services Stantec provided for those sums. It seemed a simple request to the office that responds to simple requests for information from media. But our simple request for information was directed to the City’s information access and privacy analyst. In a number of lengthy, confusing emails, the analyst noted the “complications” in answering Focus’ question: Two days of work would be required due to, among other things, the accounting system, the multiple departments that might have used Stantec, the 7 different vendor record types for Stantec (with 37 invoices, for example, for just one); and the fact that 2017 records were stored offsite. The official concluded with: “Therefore, under section 6 (Duty to Assist) the City is not required to provide the information you are seeking as it would ‘unreasonably interfere with the operations’ of the City.”
We persisted, and eventually we asked a question simple enough that the City could answer. In February, we received a one-page record (see link at end of story) from the City’s FOI office showing City ledger entries for Stantec in 2017 and 2018. Among other things, it showed a 2017 charge for over $83,000 for climate action consulting, and another $924 in 2018. (Which was interesting because we had been told earlier that Stantec was paid $17,587 for the emissions inventory —which, as shown in Focus’ last edition, the City manipulated in such a way as to be unrecognizable.)
We found the Kafkaesque response to our simple inquiry revealing. No one at City Hall could easily tell us where nearly $500,000 was spent. The City is meeting its legal requirement to produce an annual Statement of Financial Information. But its ability to provide even a slightly deeper level of detail is very limited. There’s no true transparency.
Supplier payments, by the way, have increased a whopping 40 percent since 2015 when Mayor Helps took office. It wouldn’t be so bad if, say, staff costs had gone down, but they have increased 10 percent over her mayoralty, with more coming. In 2020, the number of employees will rise another 20-plus to 882.
A THIRD, CENTRAL QUESTION TO CONSIDER on by-election day is: What is the role of City Council, anyway? This has become important to answer because Victoria councillors have pushed the boundaries about what a councillor should spend time on—from the removal of Sir John A’s statue through proclamations on subjects that civic governments have no authority over. Is council wasting precious time and resources? It has been argued that council’s amorphous mandate is not just wasteful, but is causing unnecessary divides in our community as councillors move from overseeing City operations to more ideological stands.
Questions about council’s role peaked when Councillor Ben Isitt lobbied for a 50 percent raise for council members to a base salary of over $70,000. In the survey of 5,100 mentioned above, 86 percent said, in effect, fugget about it!
Some councillors—Isitt included—already make close to $70k with CRD board and committee activities (Mayor Helps about double that). They also get full dental and extended health benefits, and their pay is indexed to the cost of living. They do have to prepare for and attend a lot of meetings. Maybe a $45-70k salary is not enough, but in what kind of fantasyland does one imagine a 50 percent raise? Should it be viewed as a full-time professional-level job? Or modestly-compensated community service, representing City residents on policies? I am looking forward to hearing the views of by-election candidates on such matters.
One thing the City Council and those 5,000 citizens agreed on was that priority number one is “Good Governance.” And surely that includes being careful, frugal even, with resources.
On the eve of both the by-election and the 50th anniversary of Earth Day, Leslie Campbell reminds readers that a healthy, climate-stable environment needs citizens who don’t forget to vote. She also gives thanks to the candidates for sticking their necks out.
FOI release of records from City of Victoria: Payments to Stantec in 2017 and 2018
March 5, 2020
Recent protests in support of the Wet’suwet’en could be a teachable moment, if only we study history and listen.
THE RECENT PROTESTS AND OCCUPATION of the BC Legislature by young members of the Wet’suwet’en/Gitxsan First Nations, other First Nations, and settler allies, continues a 140-year tradition of reasonable requests being met by unreasonable responses from government. It seems crucial to hear these reasoned requests, so here, for the record, we invited some young protesters to explain what’s at stake and how they are upholding not only their own laws and rules of honour—but Canadian laws.
“My name is Shaylynn Sampson. I grew up in the Wet’suwet’en community hearing about the Delgamuukw court case. It was before my time, but my great aunt was closely linked to the folks that were doing that. The court case is so closely related to what we are doing, which is continuing to defend this land. It isn’t something new, defence of this land has been going on for a very long time—since settlers first came to our territories. My ancestors have been fighting for this for hundreds of years.
“There is a failure to understand the difference between the band council and hereditary leaders. The band councils were set up under the Indian Act to police people. It is helpful to recognize that the band council and that system was put in place specifically to undermine the hereditary chief, which continues still to this day. Traditional governance is all done in the feast hall and has witnesses and it is so much more. It is so important that an understanding of this is correct.
“Red dresses [hanging at protest sites] are there to symbolize missing and murdered indigenous women [MMIW]. [The hereditary chiefs] are filing a complaint against the government’s Environmental Assessment Office permit process, for not taking into account the statement in the MMIW report that specifically links man camps [such as Coastal GasLink is building] to the violence. I grew up on Highway 16 so I know how serious that issue is. We can’t think about the violence against the land and violence against ourselves as not intrinsically linked.
“What happens on Wet’suwet’en territory is integral because it can happen to any Indigenous Nation. We want to drive this idea forward. The state is willing to commit violence against us and where they have done it once, they can do it anywhere.”
Gina Mowatt (photo by Lauren Sortome)
“My name is Gina Mowatt. I’m Gitxsan, and my Nation is right beside the Wet’suwet’en Nation, we’ve been allies forever, and support each other and have been very close prior to colonization and beyond, and now we stand with each other in struggle against the violence against our land, our peoples. We have also worked together in court cases.
“This is a struggle that we’ve inherited as Indigenous people, so for me, being here is my responsibility and role as an Indigenous person who knows our laws. I know who I am as a Gitxsan person so I have to stand up for the land, I have to stand up against colonial violence against our people and the animals and the water to ensure that there will be a future for coming generations, so that’s why I’m here.
“I live in Victoria and there are so many opportunities here to put pressure on the colonial government and to make sure that we do everything that we can here to take pressure off the folks up north who feel the brute force of the colonial violence…and we can’t stand idly while ‘our’ government chooses over and over again to enact violence against people as if they’re not human and they don’t have human rights.
“Canada has implemented UNDRIP and the TRC and they go in and rip people off their homeland and throw them into jail cells; we cannot stand by and let that happen. My main reason for being here is to try and bring the front line of resistance to Victoria where it should be because this is where the problem resides.
Hannah Carpendale (photo courtesy Ancient Forest Alliance)
“My name is Hannah Carpendale; I am a settler ally. The suggestion that the only acceptable way to advocate for change is through lawful means, as suggested by BC Premier John Horgan, ignores the years of work spent by Wet’suwet’en land defenders opposing severe injustices through ‘acceptable’ channels that have proven ineffective. This position also shows an ignorance of the way in which many social changes from which we benefit have come about through the course of history—namely, through disruption of the status quo in ways that were not, at the time, considered acceptable.
“When considering the land defenders who have contributed so much to these efforts because it is the only clear, morally responsible path forward, the inconvenience of a missed appointment, an hour’s wait at a highway blockade, or a missed train connection seems a small price to pay. In contrast, the inconvenience of colonization, cultural genocide, and Coastal GasLink’s continued attempts to bulldoze their way over unceded Wet’suwet’en territories—damaging cultural sites, healing spaces and intact ecosystems—seems immeasurably greater.”
Kolin Sutherland-Wilson (photo by Lauren Sortome)
“My name is Kolin Sutherland-Wilson. I am Wet’suwet’en. We have to deconstruct this narrative Canada is creating regarding the elected band councils and Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs. Even the English language is so problematic when applying to this—the leaders of the Wet’suwet’en are the Dinï ze’ and Ts’akë ze’. [The term] ‘hereditary chiefs’ is a colonial imposition on Indigenous leadership—in no way are the Dinï ze’ and Ts’akë ze’ a form of monarchy, there is so much accountability and responsibility to the people.
“How would Canada feel if we infringed on its sacred spaces? This space here is on stolen land; it is the territory of the Lekwungen Nation. We are reclaiming this space and pointing out the real colonial origins of Canada. Canada acts as a colony using military force to invade nations, displace people, and extract wealth from their territories.”
KOLIN SUTHERLAND-WILSON’s words echo an 1884 declaration by Gitwangak chiefs reacting to the imposition of the reserve system. The declaration included a question: “[W]e would ask you, would it be right for our Chiefs to give licenses to members of the tribe to go to the district of Victoria to measure out, occupy, and build upon lands in that district now held by whitemen as grazing or pasture land? Would the whitemen now in possession permit it, even if we told them that, as we were going to make a more profitable use of the land, they had no right to interfere? Would the government permit it? Would they not at once interfere and drive us out? If it would not be right for us so to act, how can it be right for the whiteman to act so to us?”
As the century turned, those questions remained unanswered and leaders from many Nations continued to petition governments for meetings, but it wasn’t until the McKenna/McBride Commission in 1915 that those requests were granted. In 1915, the Commissioners arrived at a reserve near Hazleton for the afternoon and asked leader Edward Souk/Spoukw why he was there, to which he responded: “We want to get our own land back, that is all.” The commissioners stated that he was wasting their time and left shortly after.
By 1926, Indigenous leaders had formed the Allied Tribes of BC, taking their petitions to governments in Victoria, Ottawa, and London. When that alliance was undermined, the Native Brotherhood of BC formed in the 1930s to continue the cause, sending more delegations to the three centres of government, all unsuccessful.
The BC Union of Indian Chiefs took up the banner in 1969 to continue the land question and Wet’suwet’en leader Misilos/Victor Jim became a key leader of the Gitksan-Carrier Tribal Council to advance legal action stating that their “hereditary lands” be set out in a map.
Two years after neighbouring Nisgaa leader Frank Calder had successfully sued BC—seeking a declaration that aboriginal title had not been extinguished—the federal government agreed to negotiate comprehensive land claims over territory outside the reserve system, and the Wet’suwet’en began a process of mapping their boundaries to accompany their claim. Neil Sterritt, Gitxsan member, writes in his book Mapping My Way Home about the subsequent 14-year process of mapping the Gitsxan/Wet’suwet’en territories. Thirty-four elders born between 1890 and 1920 travelled throughout their territory while Sterritt and others helped record the place names and history. One of the Wet’suwet’en elders was Gisday Wa/Alfred Joseph, who played a major role. Another was Albert Tait from Kispiox—Delgamuukw himself. As Sterritt describes it, “they had grown up on the land and knew their histories, territories and laws. Their memories reached back to and beyond the time first Europeans started to settle our lands. We recognized that within a few short years, the legacy of those witnesses would be lost.”
Originally, the maps were to provide the key evidence for their comprehensive land claim, but that eventually turned into a lawsuit out of frustration with the delays and the continued industrial encroachments on their territory. In 1984, while blockading CP Rail lines to try and stop the clearcutting of their territories, the Nations decided to pursue a lawsuit. It took three more years to get into court and then they had 318 days to put forward their maps and testimony. Peter Grant was their lawyer.
The elders were subjected to humiliating and exhausting cross-examination by Provincial Justice Allan McEachern who infamously dismissed these extraordinary oral witnesses as “vagrants” whose lives were “nasty, brutish and short.” According to Grant, McEachern “did not have the capability of understanding or hearing what was being said.”
It took another six years before the Supreme Court of Canada overturned most of McEachern’s opinions in its 1997 ruling on Delgamuukw. During that time many of the elders like Delgamuukw had died. The appeal court unanimously ruled that the Province had no jurisdiction over their territory without consent from the government of the First Nation. It was established that the Indigenous Nation had a system of law that predates the days of elected band councils enacted under Canada’s Indian Act. The elected band councils’ authority is limited to decisions about reserve lands. Under traditional Wet’suwet’en law, hereditary chiefs are responsible for decisions regarding ancestral lands. And as Wet’suwet’en Dinï ze’ Frank Alec/Woos stated in a CBC interview on February 12, 2020: “We have always maintained our stance on this. The hereditary chiefs are just saying no to all the pipelines on the territorial lands.”
As lawyer Grant stated in a February CBC interview (in response to the media framing of the issue as one of complexity, internal division, and inconvenience): “It is not complex. The Supreme Court of Appeal and subsequent court cases recognized that the legal title carriers are the hereditary chiefs—when we are speaking of the Wet’suwet’en—and that is in Delgamuukw. There is no question that the proper title holders recognized now, and later in a 2014 decision, were the hereditary chiefs. The BC Supreme Court in the recent Canfor decision recognized that the system of government includes the feast hall, as chief Woos told you, and that the feast system is tied to territory.”
In that same CBC interview, Minister of Indigenous Relations and Reconciliation Scott Fraser was asked how he justified only listening to elected leadership given Delgamuukw. He stated: “The court didn’t go quite as far enough in my opinion to clarify that…There is no question that it confirmed that there is aboriginal title, it just didn’t say who and what. I guess it was going to require subsequent court action that did not occur…The courts are one way of dealing with it, but they have been telling us it is not the right place. They have been asking government to get on with legislation.”
BC’s Select Standing Committee on Aboriginal Affairs has not met since 2001 despite calls for two decades from the Wet’suwet’en, and many others, to follow up, given continued industrial intrusions into their territory. Fraser and Premier Horgan refused to meet and speak with these young people, educated in both legal traditions, who brought the concerns of their community one more time to the steps of the Legislature—and were snubbed yet again. Minister Fraser has since announced that for the first time since Delgamuukw, a committee will meet with the leadership.
We have been given yet another chance to hear from a governance system that is based on accountability and responsibility to future generations, with a foundation that doesn’t distinguish human health from the health of land and water. This time the stakes are so high that we fail to listen at our peril.
For a timeline of the history of the Gitxsan/Wet’suwet’en territories, see www.gitxsan.com/culture/culture-history/gitxsan-history-of-resistance/ and a good “explainer” on legal issues can be found at www.firstpeopleslaw.com.
Briony Penn is an award-winning writer of creative non-fiction books including The Real Thing: The Natural History of Ian McTaggart Cowan, A Year on the Wild Side and, most recently, Following the Good River: The Life and Times of Wa’xaid, a biography of Cecil Paul (Rocky Mountain Books)
March 5, 2020
Pensions of BC teachers, public servants, and municipal workers include huge fossilized investments.
IN THE BAD OLD DAYS, those wanting to earn a reasonable return in the stock market might have been well-advised to look for what amounted to climate-hostile companies. Sure, there were “ethical investors” who may have had little more than feelings of moral superiority to show for putting their money into the likes of renewable energy producers or makers of vegan bicycles. But many investors were reliably collecting vast payouts from big frackers, tar sands developers, and pipeline companies. That’s where the money was.
That was then. These days, financial heavyweights ranging from outgoing Bank of England Governor Mark Carney, the International Monetary Fund (IMF), and the European Union have a warning: firms that do not properly account for and reduce their GHG emissions are headed for financial trouble.
The IMF is by definition a conservative organization: its primary mission is to ensure the stability of the international monetary system. But its last World Economic Outlook update, issued in January 2020—the hottest January on record—warned of financial risks posed by the climate crisis, as a result of greater frequency and intensity of weather-related disasters like tropical storms, floods, heatwaves, and wildfires. “Climate change…already endangers health and economic outcomes, and not only in the directly affected areas,” says the report. “It could pose challenges to other areas that may not yet feel the direct effects, including by contributing to cross-border migration or financial stress (for instance, in the insurance sector).”
Among internationally recognized financial experts, few have stronger establishment pedigrees than Carney. A 13-year veteran of Goldman Sachs—one of the world’s largest investment bankers—in 2008 he began a five-year stint as governor of the Bank of Canada. Currently, Carney is playing the same role at the Bank of England until March 15, when he becomes the United Nations special envoy on climate change. “[A]ll financial decisions need to take into account the risks from climate change and the opportunities from the transition to a net zero economy,” he said in a January Bank of England statement.
Carney warns that it’s not just the fossil fuel industry itself that will be hit hard by the climate crisis: those investing in them should also prepare for losses. Calling the climate crisis a “tragedy on the horizon” in a December 30, 2019 BBC interview, Carney warned pension funds that their fossil investments could eventually become worthless.
Carney’s admonitions—which he has been espousing since 2015—may be prescient. The Boston Consulting Group reported this past December that from 2014 through 2018, the oil and gas sector had the worst total return of all 33 industries it tracks. (Total return is the sum of capital gains and dividends.)
Despite this, British Columbia Investment Management Corporation (BCI) retains significant investments in fossil fuels.
BCI manages the pensions of 598,000 British Columbians, including school and college teachers, BC public servants, municipal staff, and some BC Hydro employees. With managed assets worth $153.4 billion, BCI is one of Canada’s largest institutional investors. (All figures refer to March 31, 2019.) Of those assets, 40.5 percent are in the stock market.
The corporation does not break down its share holdings by industry; however, a quick glance at its investment inventory shows that BCI does not discriminate against fossil fuel companies. According to an October 2019 report by the Colorado-based Climate Accountability Institute, 20 fossil fuel companies were responsible for 480 billion tonnes of CO2-equivalent emissions in the modern period of 1965 to 2017. This amounts to 35 percent of total global emissions in that time. Of the 20 companies, 8 are investor-owned and traded on stock markets. (The other 12 are owned by various governments.) BCI has investments totalling $690.14 million in 7 of those 8 investor-owned fossil fuel firms.
As another example of its do-not-discriminate-on-the-grounds-of-emissions policy, BCI is invested in all five LNG Canada partners: Royal Dutch Shell ($219.17 million), Mitsubishi ($59.57 million), Petronas ($5.97 million), PetroChina ($34.31 million) and Korea Gas ($0.68 million). It also holds shares in the two companies that are building LNG Canada’s Kitimat facility, Fluor ($6.51 million) and JGC ($0.56 million.)
Asked about the fossil-fuel investments, BCI spokesperson Ben O’Hara-Byrne said in an email that the corporation is part of the Climate Action 100+ plan, which works with more than 450 other investors to convince companies to reduce their greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. “BCI invests in companies and sectors that generate reliable returns—this includes the oil and gas industry, a significant part of the Canadian and global economy,” O’Hara-Byrne said. Divestment is the wrong approach, he added: “We believe divestment eliminates our rights as a shareholder to engage with management and raise awareness of long-term risks and encourage change of practices.”
In the last few days of that hottest-ever January, UVic’s board of governors voted to adopt a similar approach for its $225 million short-term investment fund. The university’s investments will move slowly away from fossil fuels, even withdrawing from some, but will not eliminate them, according to a January 28 statement. Instead it will engage with those companies to “encourage” a reduction in carbon emissions of 45 percent by 2030.
James Rowe, who teaches in UVic’s environmental studies department, calls this attitude a copout. In an email, Rowe said that oil, gas and coal are high-risk investments. “As energy generation shifts away from fossil fuels, investors who do not respond could be left with stranded assets—investments that are no longer profitable,” Rowe said. “Shareholder engagement with fossil fuel companies in the context of a climate emergency is our Neville Chamberlain moment; it’s a form of appeasement that makes us feel like we’ve addressed the problem, while the threat only grows more severe.” (On September 30, 1938, British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain boasted that he had signed an agreement with Hitler for “peace for our time.” Eleven months later, the Nazis invaded Poland, leading to the Second World War.)
Rowe added that for non-fuel industries, engaging companies might help reduce emissions, but for fossil fuel firms, that approach will not work if we are to keep global heating below 1.5 degrees Celsius, as required under the Paris Agreement. “To avoid blowing past our carbon budget, fossil fuel companies need to keep significant amounts of their reserves in the ground, and no company will willingly strand their own assets.”
In December, the UVic faculty association voted to support the university withdrawing entirely from fossil fuel stocks. In doing so, it joined a worldwide trend. A growing number of central banks, investment companies, and governments are casting a skeptical eye at fossil fuel investments, often due in part to outside pressure. But their financial risks are also an accelerating worry.
In June 2019, Norway’s parliament voted unanimously to order its $1.5 trillion sovereign wealth fund—ironically consisting of income from petroleum—to sell off its $10.6 billion investment in 134 oil and gas exploration firms, though it will retain its holdings in companies such as BP and Shell, which have renewable energy divisions.
Last November, Riksbank, Sweden’s central bank, said it had sold off its Alberta government bonds because that province’s GHG emissions were too high. The same month, the European Union’s financing department, the European Investment Bank, said it would stop funding oil, gas, and coal projects by the end of 2021.
In December 2019, Carney’s alma mater, Goldman Sachs, announced it would not finance new oil projects in the Arctic. And in January this year, the world’s largest asset manager took its first steps towards decarbonizing the $2.4 trillion it holds in actively-managed portfolios. BlackRock chairman Larry Fink told chief executive officers in a letter that climate change is now a defining factor in companies’ long-term prospects. “[W]e are on the edge of a fundamental reshaping of finance,” Fink said in the letter. To begin, BlackRock will divest all its holdings in thermal coal, due to its high sustainability-related risk.
Despite Fink’s inspiring words, the change may not have been entirely altruistic. According to an August 2019 report by the Ohio-based Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis, BlackRock lost an estimated $120 billion over the previous decade, most of it resulting from its investments in just four companies: Royal Dutch Shell, ExxonMobil, BP, and Chevron.
To be sure, there may be some fossil fuel stocks continuing to provide strong returns in the short term. But these days, it is a lot easier to be ethical about where to invest and still make good returns.
In always-reliable hindsight, there is a way one could have made money from LNG. On October 1, 2018, when LNG Canada awarded Texas-based multinational Fluor Corp the contract to build its Kitimat plant (along with its Japanese partner JGC), its shares traded at $77.95, when converted to 2020 Canadian dollars. A little over a year later, on December 9, 2019, they closed at $21.41—a 73 percent drop. In early February, the stock rebounded slightly, trading in the $25 to $27 range.
This hints at how the BC government might have been able to recoup its $6 billion-and-counting donation to LNG Canada: by short-selling, say, $9 billion worth of Fluor; even after borrowing and transaction costs, the government could have picked up enough to cover its multi-billion LNG giveaway gamble.
Short-sellers could have made even more money had they waited till February 18, 2020, when the company announced that the US Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) is investigating Fluor’s past accounting and reporting. By late morning Victoria time, Fluor’s shares were trading heavily at $19.31. This amounts to a 75 percent drop from October 1, 2018.
Who says you can’t make money from fossil fuels?
Russ Francis is increasingly convinced that there is more wisdom in the Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs than in all the BC Liberal and NDP MLAs put together.
March 5, 2020
Thoughts around overdiagnosis after a visit to a medical specialist.
A FASCINATING STUDY was published last month in Australia. It may not have got much press here in Victoria, but confirmed a lot of what the world is learning about overdiagnosis.
That study, carried out by Paul Glasziou and colleagues, compared the year 1982 to 2012, analyzing changes in lifetime risks for prostate, breast, renal, thyroid cancers and melanoma. They concluded that 18 percent of all cancers diagnosed in Australian women (11,000 diagnoses each year), and 24 percent of those in men (18,000 each year) are overdiagnosed cancers. Screening programs (for cancers and other things) look for signs of disease detected in healthy people. Often those signs are just “prediseases,” benign signs which never go on to be lethal. Predisease is what might be diagnosed when a screening result isn’t quite normal, but is below the threshold of true disease. It is considered a potential precursor to a disease which may or may not be worrisome.
The seriousness of “false positives” is also gaining worldwide attention, as this Australian study demonstrated.
I wrote about the problems of overdiagnosis in my 2012 book Seeking Sickness and made the same case, where in condition after condition which involves some kind of medical screening, there is always overdiagnosis. There’s both benefits and harm in screening healthy people. It’s worthwhile if it finds signs of potential disease that will stop you getting a more serious disease. It can, however, lead to anxiety and often substantial medical activity, including biopsies, more screening, more procedures, surgery, radiation, and prescription drugs. Often all this anxiety and medical activity never actually extends the quality or quantity of your life.
Here’s a scene that happened when I was partway through writing that book: I am in the chair at the optometrist, as he was about to blow a puff of air into my eyeball, checking for eyeball pressure. It dawned on me: “This is a screening test!” This is how I described it:
“Things look different when you’re sitting in the chair, playing the role of the trusting patient. It was like I had two angels sitting on my shoulders. One was whispering in one ear: ‘What’s the big deal? It was just a puff of air to the eyes. C’mon.” On the other shoulder, the naysayer angel, armed with a pitchfork, was jabbing me in the ear: “Are you nuts? Do you have any idea what this screening test will lead to? False positives. False negatives. Overdiagnosis. Downstream effects. Worry. Anxiety. Depression. Say no!’”
I was being overdramatic, yet I wrote that I learned a vital lesson: if you are about to face a health professional offering you a screening test, you need to have already done your research. Doing it afterward is getting things backward. The air-puff test showed normal eye pressure, but what if it didn’t? Thankfully, I didn’t find out.
That experience became my operating axiom of why people need to go into medical screening test with their “eyes wide open.”
Fast-forward eight years, and it was time for another trip to the optometrist. To get my eyes checked, maybe see if I needed a new eyeglass prescription. But darned if this didn’t turn out to be another “teachable moment,” this time with a much more potentially serious intervention.
My optometrist said he saw something unusual in one of my eyes. He said I had a suspected case of narrow-angle glaucoma, a condition that could lead to an acute eye emergency and the potential loss of sight.
That opened my eyes.
He referred me to an ophthalmologist. The first trip to the ophthalmologist was just for a few tests and pictures of my eyes, collecting data. I was invited to watch a video of the doctor explaining the procedure he would offer, a quick operation called a laser peripheral iridotomy (LPI). Perfectly safe, right? But…
Let’s be clear. I am a healthy patient, normal eyeball pressure, and a normal optic nerve. No history of eye disease and no family history either. I was what the literature called a PACS, which stands for “primary angle closure suspect.” I don’t have disease—I have the younger sister, predisease.
I found an excellent paper by Dr H. George Tanaka, an ophthalmologist in Arkansas whose 2018 Review of Ophthalmology study gives considerable detail about the pros and cons of such a procedure. I learned quickly this was no slam-dunk, and I was right to be cautious.
I tracked him down and arranged a phone interview. The main thing I learned is that for people without symptoms or family history of other types of eye diseases, there is no way to know how many PACS patients go on to have an “acute episode” that involves losing your eyesight. Is it one in ten, or one in ten thousand? We don’t know. He admitted that “unfortunately, we don’t have any good evidence for how to manage a PACS patient, and that we don’t know how many PACS patients go on to develop more serious eye problems.”
For the sake of everyone in Victoria who (at a certain age) may well be diagnosed with suspected angle-closure glaucoma, there are a few things to know about the LPI surgery being offered. Angle- closure glaucoma can be an aggressive disease, probably the leading cause of glaucoma blindness in the world, and it is one of the few emergencies in ophthalmology. But as Dr Tanaka wrote: “We don’t actually know how many future angle-closure attacks we’re preventing by performing LPIs. That’s why we can’t say to a patient with narrow angles, ‘Mrs Smith, your risk of going blind is X percent (or your risk of getting glaucoma is Y percent), but the odds will improve by this much if I perform this procedure.’ We don’t have the numbers to support that.” It’s the conclusion that bothers me: “so we just treat everybody.” Clearly, this is textbook overdiagnosis: finding “predisease” in normal people, who are then given the impression they are now living under a dark cloud.
The research suggests the LPI may delay or prevent primary-angle glaucoma. Luckily, the LPI is fairly benign. This operation used to be major surgery, but now is a couple of minutes in the clinic, with minimal risks of infection or bleeding.
As for the cons, sometimes things go sideways. Sometimes patients get extra spots of light in their vision—dysphotopsias—which won’t go away. And believe it or not, some research says the LPI can accelerate cataract development, as well as make you more predisposed to getting a condition called posterior synechiae, making future cataract surgery more difficult.
For me, saying no to the procedure was a no-brainer. If I had higher risks, a personal or family history of eye disease, high eyeball pressure, or if I was going to be hiking in the outback for months at a time where getting emergency medical care was difficult, my decision might have been different. But the doc was not impressed.
I really liked the ophthalmologist. He was a very nice gentleman. He explained things well, but at the same time, I could tell he was taken aback when I refused the procedure. Perhaps he’s not used to patients doing a deep dive into the literature on the potential benefits and harms of surgical procedures. He pressed me, eventually turning up his hands and saying: “Oh well, I just want to tell you the risks, but you’re on your own,” later adding, “well, you’re the ticking time bomb.”
Luckily I have a thick skin, though if you had taken my blood pressure at the time it, would have been through the roof. Not only does his comment not reflect the real research, it’s the height of insensitivity to call a patient a “ticking time bomb.”
No one deserves to be intentionally frightened into getting an elective procedure, especially one with many unknowns and potential harms. As an aside, if the average person knew how much these doctors make by five minutes of lasering your eyes, they would be astounded (all in, close to $400 per eye—$116.76 for the actual few minutes of surgery, $35 for the office visit, $96 for the consultation, $60.42 for “orthooptic evaluation,” with likely extra charges for the photography of the eyes, etc. ). I found in the MSP bluebook that this ophthalmologist billed MSP $749,000 last year.
Later, when I calmed down, I reflected on the “ticking time bomb” comment. Listen, dear reader. Like everyone on the planet, you could live another five minutes or another fifty years. We are all ticking time bombs, more or less. We are all “prediseased” and suffering from “predeath.” Being called a “ticking time bomb” made me angry but also sad for all the patients who are worried, who crave the trusted advice of a health professional, but then get bullied into procedures (or drugs) that they would rather not have.
When I was in the navy, we had a principle: if you don’t know where you are, stop the ship. All signs of disease have uncertainties, and all surgeries and drugs have potential harms and potential benefits. Any honest health professional will tell you those uncertainties. When you don’t know where you are, don’t keep sailing.
Alan Cassels studies pharmaceutical policy and works at UBC. His book Seeking Sickness: Medical Screening and the Misguided Hunt for Diseases is available from bookstores and libraries. You can follow him on twitter @akecassels.
January 5, 2020
The biodiversity and climate crises are a reflection of our culture’s emphasis on economic growth.
WHILE I WON'T BE ALIVE when the worst effects of the climate and biodiversity crises play out, children born today will be; and I think we owe it to them to be clear-eyed and fierce in our efforts to leave them a healthy planet. This edition of Focus, our entry into a pivotal new year and decade, provides thought-provoking reporting and analysis about the challenges of growth in the region, and what we are and are not doing to maintain the natural world on which we depend.
Like Focus’ writers, Greta Thunberg is a refreshing witness to our current situation because she doesn’t skirt around the truth. At last September’s UN Climate Action Summit, she famously told world leaders, “We are in the beginning of a mass extinction and all you can talk about is money and fairytales of eternal economic growth. How dare you!”
The dark side of planet Earth (Photo by NASA)
It seems apparent that “business as usual”—especially eternal economic growth—is a recipe for the end of much that we cherish on this planet. Many species are going extinct with predictions of more to come as climate change wreaks its havoc. Our own species may have difficulty feeding itself, and many parts of the Earth will simply become too hot and dry for habitation. As Stephen Hume writes in this edition, sea level rise and flooding will progressively render coastal areas unliveable. Climate refugees are already searching for new homes and will grow in numbers, challenging the rest of us to make them welcome.
As disasters unfold, however, our GDP (Gross Domestic Product), as a measure of economic activity, will go up. This shows the inadequacy of the GDP as a yardstick of well-being or progress, and certainly of sustainability. Even the economist who developed it in 1934 warned it couldn’t be considered an indicator of well-being. Through the decades, its ups and downs have been reliably in synch with ecological destruction. It has always been easy to notice that rising GDP or economic growth comes with noise, waste and pollution, and that it is perfectly compatible with worsening poverty. But the reality that economic growth also ripped up the Earth and its ecosystems—and warmed the atmosphere—was somewhat hidden behind the scenes. Science and the environmental movement have removed our blinders. We now know (or should) that infinite growth on a finite planet is beyond unsustainable, it’s disastrously destructive.
Many advocate replacing the GDP with other yardsticks as a truer reflection of the well-being of a population—from Bhutan with its Gross National Happiness, to University of Waterloo’s Canadian Index of Wellness. The Green New Deal seems to have a more holistic approach, as does the “triple bottom line.” And there’s a growing chorus in support of a “steady state economy” or “degrowth.” Proponents include the likes of E.O. Wilson, Jane Goodall, and David Suzuki.
According to the Center for the Advancement of the Steady State Economy, “In a steady state economy, people consume enough to meet their needs and lead meaningful, joyful lives without undermining the life-support systems of the planet. They choose to consume energy and materials responsibly, conserving, economizing, and recycling where appropriate…Personal and societal decisions about how much to consume take into account sustainability principles and the needs of future generations.”
Technological progress still exists in such a vision, but is driven by the need for better goods and services, as opposed to quantity.
A UK scholar, Joe Herbert, takes it a step further, writing: “degrowth argues for establishing more localized economies, which reduce the reliance on high-emission international trade flows. By strengthening the role of co-operatives, solidarity and sharing economies, production processes could be democratically organized around social and ecological well-being, rather than the resource-insatiable profit motive…degrowth not only provides a practical route out of climate breakdown but also offers the prospect of simpler, more fulfilling ways of living, where more time can be dedicated to community, relationships and creative pursuits. To reframe [Robert] Kennedy’s words, degrowth truly has the power to prioritize the things which make life worthwhile.”
On the other hand, a system which relies on continual growth will continue to exploit the planet’s natural resources, destroying ecosystems and the atmosphere that supports us all. As David Broadland shows in this edition, we are trashing our coastal forests, a natural gift, centuries in the making. The BC government and industry brag that such forestry—much of it in the form of raw logs shipped to Asia—is our largest export and a valued contributor to our GDP. But as David’s numbers illustrate, given an accounting of the carbon emissions involved, it is utterly nonsensical, resulting in a “carbon bomb” surpassing even that of the oilsands. Moreover, we are blowing the opportunity for an incredible carbon capture and storage system. Our forests, if re-imagined, could transform BC and Canada’s carbon footprint and the well-being of future generations.
THE HIGH LEVEL OF CONSUMPTION we in the developed nations engage in results in high levels of global CO2 emissions. Even our purchases of electric vehicles and solar panels have both emissions and other environmental costs associated with them, as they involve resource extraction, manufacturing, and shipping. Every time the Earth is forced to cough up more resources, biodiversity is impacted.
The luxury condos we’ve gained throughout Greater Victoria add to the biodiversity and climate crises. Often marketed to wealthy people from away, often as second homes which they will fly to and from regularly, they strain our infrastructure and have immense environmental costs. The planet and our communities would be better off densifying existing housing stock by encouraging single-family homeowners to host secondary suites and garden suites through innovative programs. Could the CRD or BC Housing help launch local industries to make modular or tiny-home garden suites that could be rented or purchased by homeowners willing to rent to others at an affordable (but not money-losing) rate? Right now it’s simply too costly for most homeowners to finance such homes themselves.
While there’s a growing call for a stable or steady-state economy that works for everyone, you won’t find many politicians advocating anything but continual economic growth. In fact, any proposal that might cause just the rate of growth to decline, risks condemnation. This helps explain why, for instance, at the municipal level, virtually all development is welcomed with open arms by city councils (see stories by Judith Lavoie, Briony Penn, and Ross Crockford). Most of them appear to believe growth is always good—so it’s up to us to educate them, or vote them out of office.
At the provincial and federal levels, the growth-is-good philosophy plays out in the abuse of forests and the continuing subsidies to the oil and gas industry (see Russ Francis in this edition).
Canada’s GDP largely parallels our greenhouse gas emissions which, on a per capita basis, are more than double that of the average of G20 nations. Relevant to coverage in this edition, the Climate Transparency organization highlighted this observation: “In order to stay within the 1.5°C limit, Canada needs to make the land use and forest sector a net sink of emissions, e.g. by halting the expansion of residential areas and by creating new forests.” And it’s critical to start making such changes in 2020, says the research body.
But it will be far from easy, and perhaps that’s why, once people get elected to office, they do things like buy an oil pipeline or encourage a bigger tax base through carbon-intensive development.
Such government decisions mean our role as citizens, actively encouraging wise, far-sighted policy change, is our most important role. While there are other things we can do at a personal level—from eating a plant-based diet to foregoing fossil-fuel-powered travel and home heating—the larger part of our per-capita footprint comes from our collective economy and the reality that 76 percent of the energy that supports it is from fossil fuels. Taken together, Canadian industries, institutions, the jobs they create and the taxes they and their employees pay, provide public health care, education, transportation infrastructure, waste management, care homes, pensions, social assistance, and on and on. We all benefit from Canada’s collective, carbon-intensive economy. Transforming it will not be easy or comfortable.
I think it’s safe to predict the 2020s will be a decade of transformation for us all, on many levels. A well-informed public is crucial to make that transformation happen, so Focus will continue to work on that front—aided by our readers. As our “Readers’ Views” section makes clear, you have a lot to contribute to the discussion.
Editor Leslie Campbell wishes Focus readers all the best in 2020, mindful that the best things in life are free, including a sense of community, peaceful times in nature and with friends, meaningful work, watching kittens play…
January 5, 2020
Concerns over slow progress lead to questions about campaign donations from developers.
SEVERAL YEARS AGO, Saanich resident Merie Beauchamp and her husband bought a large lot overrun with invasive species. It had subdivision potential but was also subject to the Environmental Development Permit Area (EDPA) bylaw. Under the EDPA, they would be required to work with Saanich planners and biologists, should they want to subdivide, in order to minimize the impact to the endangered Garry oak ecosystem.
Both Beauchamps had biological backgrounds and were curious about what lay under the brambles and daphne. Said Merie: “We removed the invasives and the land came back to life. The native wildflowers began to reappear, the Garry oaks suppressed under the invasives started to take off, the butterflies, birds and other wildlife returned and we realized that we could help restore the natural diversity of this piece of land.”
Saanich resident Merie Beauchamp
The couple decided that they had an opportunity to manage this restored area, which lies adjacent to a protected area. Conventional thinking would describe them as having cost society in foregone development values. “True cost accounting,” however, would value their actions in terms of averting the rising costs of the biodiversity and climate change emergencies. Beauchamp wants people to get excited about true cost accounting and to educate people about the harm of the business-as-usual approach, but it is a hard thing to do with a council that is mostly stuck in an old paradigm.
In May, the UN Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) released a report that gave humanity a dire prognosis. A million species are now threatened with extinction, and our own species may follow if we don’t do something about the threats.
In the District of Saanich, over 90 of those species are at risk along with the ecosystems that support them. As one of the most affluent, well-educated, and still biologically-rich urban/rural districts in Canada, Saanich could be playing a leading role in reversing this trend. However, this region has lost ground—literally and figuratively. Garry oak meadows have been blasted into oblivion for everything from swimming pools to subdivisions ever since Saanich scrapped its progressive Environmental Development Permit Area (EDPA)—a bylaw and planning tool that had, since 2012, a proven record of guiding development away from, and around, endangered ecosystems.
A byelection in late 2017 had resulted in a pro-development majority on council, which moved quickly to rescind the EDPA—though a replacement was promised. A battle for sustainability was waged in the suburbs, with lawyered-up landowners and developers on one side, and Saanich residents who supported the bylaw on the other.
Since then, the battle has continued with divisions growing deeper. And the casualties of the lack of regulation are evident all over Saanich—endangered ecosystems wiped off their last remaining spots on Earth: at Mount Douglas Cross Road, Rainbow Road, Ten Mile Point, Gordon Head Road, Milner Road, Holland Avenue. Until journalist Wolf Depner was moved from the Saanich News to a new beat in Oak Bay, you could read regularly about yet another endangered meadow getting ploughed under by a bulldozer.
The public discourse has only grown more heated. The College of Applied Biology permanently rescinded the membership of Ted Lea, a key player in the opposition to the EDPA, for violation of the college’s code of ethics stemming from his role in the matter. Councillor Nathalie Chambers urged her fellow council members to reinstate the EDPA given its removal was, in part, based on faulty reports from the biologist—or at least place a moratorium on Garry oak removals. (She failed.) University of Victoria faculty and students have weighed in on the science. Citizen’s groups, like the Falaise Community Association, have gathered people at a Tree Love Town Hall this spring “because of a growing concern for the protection of the residual Garry oak ecosystems under threat.” Citizen watchdogs, like Katherine Whitworth, are tracking what appears to be the increasing control of council by developers through electoral donations to councillors— and Chambers is calling for a ban on such donations.
A perusal of the political donors to councillor campaigns reads like a who’s who of the local development industry, studded with family names like Jawl, Miller (Abstract Developments), Mann, Vanderkerkhove, Geric, and Knappet. Though donations from corporations are prohibited, and individual donations capped at $1200/year ($2400 in an election year), there’s nothing to stop multiple family members and a company’s staff from donating (this has also been noticed in other municipalities).
The industry benefits when it controls the land-use planning process and has every incentive to populate council with people who share their views. That is not news. What is news is that according to the authors of the UN’s IPBES report, the key driver of extinctions worldwide is changes in land use. It also notes the trend is reversible. “Nature can still be conserved, restored and used sustainably.” The authors stress the necessity of transforming governance and accountability, so that the full costs of not conserving or restoring natural systems and of not using land sustainably are assessed. Accountability also entails the rigorous uncoupling of politics from land use change and its biggest driver, the development industry.
Not surprisingly, the conflict in Saanich is exacerbated by highly confusing narratives being put forward by pro-development councillors in which citizens are told that they must choose: housing versus nature; public versus private land stewardship; farming versus conservation; restoration versus conservation; wetlands over Garry oak; emissions reduction over carbon sink expansion. Claiming that one action over another is prudent and efficient is far easier to sell politically—especially if it retains the status quo.
From where the researchers of our climate and biodiversity crisis sit, however, choice is a luxury that the world doesn’t have. If we are going to avert this emergency, then we actually have to transform our thinking and figure out a way to integrate all these components of the crisis, now.
Dr Eric Higgs
As Dr Eric Higgs of the University of Victoria’s School of Environmental Studies puts it, “Every effort matters. We have to stem the loss and restore. For example, if we are at roughly five percent remnant Garry oak habitat presently, what would it take to get to six percent or 10 or 20 percent? What could happen if citizens were encouraged to take action in their front and backyards, new developments had stringent offset requirements, old trees were cherished, and Saanich really took seriously the need for nature-based solutions?”
BEAUCHAMP WAS AGAINST SCRAPPING THE EDPA, and says the impacts of its loss have been immediate and unnecessary. The move has also devalued and demoralized other efforts for conservation and restoration on private land. She cites as an example, the controversial 4355 Gordon Head Road property where an endangered ecosystem that had previously been protected under the EDPA (through restricting building to an already existing building footprint) was destroyed for a swimming pool by moving the development closer to the cliff to take advantage of ocean views. “Why, when an alternative existed, would we allow an endangered ecosystem to be destroyed for someone’s swimming pool? The cost is borne by the next generation.”
The scrapping of Saanich’s EDPA bylaw allowed this property, which includes an endangered Garry oak ecosystem, to be redeveloped.
In the Milner Road development, four city lots of Garry oak woodland were razed with the lifting of the EDPA. Lauraine Derman, former Councillor Vic Derman’s widow, wrote to Saanich, stating, “At present, we see the ‘Sustainable’ Saanich moniker being abused and ridiculed as we witness some developers flaunting regulations and racing to destroy unique, ecological sensitive areas previously under EDPA protection. A case in point (among others)…is the well-publicized Milner/Leveret incident.”
Against this backdrop of ecological destruction, many citizens wanted to see some sort of replacement for the rescinded EDPA—and quickly. Saanich staff had been working to create the “Natural Saanich” Environmental Policy Framework—which would include polices and regulations related to addressing climate change, biodiversity and stewardship—and envisioned the Framework being completed by 2022. But they also suggested some possible interim measures to address gaps left by the loss of the EDPA. These potentially included an enhanced tree bylaw (protecting other at-risk species), an enhanced fill bylaw (stopping wetland infill), and an adjusted development application. These were considered by staff as “low-hanging fruit as they are easily achievable and relatively effective,” according to meeting minutes.
But the Framework, particularly its interim regulatory measures, was questioned by some councillors, including the Chair of Saanich’s Environmental and Natural Areas Advisory Committee, Rebecca Mersereau. Minutes of a June 2019 meeting show she questioned the effectiveness of regulatory measures. In this, her views were at odds with the committee she chaired.
Saanich Councillor Rebecca Mersereau
Mersereau argued in a July Facebook post that “developing and administering regulations also consumes resources and limits our ability to use other strategies to achieve the same goals, or other environmental goals we consider important. As much as it would be nice, resources are not available in an unlimited supply to help us achieve our environmental goals. If we were more cognizant of all these challenges, and if biodiversity conservation is truly a priority in Saanich, I believe we would have long ago invested more resources into protecting and even enhancing biodiversity in our extensive protected parks network.”
Beauchamp has disagreed on development-related issues with other members of Saanich council, but nowhere has the narrative been more confusing for her than with Mersereau, who has degrees in biology, education and water resource management; was mentored by former Councillor Vic Derman; and once supported the EDPA.
Beauchamp now draws a clear relationship between councillors’ decisions and their financial backers, and believes that rules around conflict of interest and disclosure must be tightened to ensure land- use decisions serve wider interests. She cites four donors from the development industry to Mersereau’s campaign, and adds “politics shouldn’t be mixed with science.”
Dr Higgs has also responded to Mersereau on the interim regulatory measures question: “We need regulatory capacity to limit negative actions, and reward virtuous ones. This is why I support very strongly the kind of integrated package of initiatives comprising the Natural Saanich project. Stripping out the potential for discouraging or stopping heedless actions on private lands, or focusing only on remaining jewels [parks] that make up such a tiny fraction of historical habitat, will result in a future Saanich that is like every other municipality that failed to address issues sooner.”
Higgs points to the March 1, 2019 United Nations General Assembly 2021-2030 declaration of the Decade of Ecosystem Restoration and suggests, “It would be unfortunate and ironic if Saanich were now to turn its back on the power and promise of hundreds of projects on public and private lands. Yes, environmental conditions are changing—a fact I know too well from my own research on novel ecosystems—but this is hardly an argument for letting the perfect stand in the way of good outcomes, especially those that support innovative approaches to biodiversity conservation and restoration. Every remnant patch of biodiversity that can be conserved or restored makes a difference to climate adaptation and flourishing ecosystems, whether natural, novel, or hybrid.”
At the heart of Higgs’ analysis is the fact that 75 percent of the world’s land base has now been “significantly altered by human actions” and an international consensus of biologists advocate Nature Needs Half—a goal already in the CRD Regional Parks Strategic Plan. There is no research that comes to the conclusion that we will survive the political expediency of scrapping regulations on private land use for protecting endangered ecosystems. Landscape ecologist Jan Kirkby, who worked on Saanich’s original Sensitive Ecosystems Inventory mapping, notes “with strong, forward-thinking leadership and public education, landowners and land managers can embrace these conservation-based planning tools as they have in many other jurisdictions. EDPAs provide guidance and opportunities to enhance both natural and property values of the land. There are also tools like the Natural Area Protection Tax Exemption Program (NAPTEP) for conserving special features and sensitive ecosystems on private land.”
Local governments are indeed free to change zoning to achieve conservation goals without compensation. But that is rarely done and only as a last resort. Kirkby emphasizes “most developers and property owners labour under a critical misconception, that there is such a thing as ‘development rights’ in Canada, that people ought to be able to do whatever they want on their land, and no local government has or should have the right to restrict development. These beliefs and views originate in the US and are supported by their constitution; however, Canada’s constitution supports the collective over the individual.”
TWO YEARS HAVE PASSED SINCE THE DEMISE OF THE EDPA. And now some fear that Saanich council will further delay measures that would hopefully fill the gaps left by its loss. Mersereau, however, assured Focus in an email: “Council has approved an expedited timeline for the development of the EPF, so I’m hopeful that by mid 2020 we’ll all have a better sense of at least the scope of it.”
Yet even the original process was to take until 2022, so any further delays are worrisome to those witnessing ecosystem destruction as the development boom continues.
For now, a technical group to advise the process has been approved. But no “interim measures” (as the staff report advocated) to protect endangered ecosystems are likely in the near future, says Councillor Nathalie Chambers, who has repeatedly asked for them to deal with the biodiversity emergency.
Saanich Councillor Natalie Chambers
She is also advocating tighter accountability of councillors. Under the Community Charter, council members have to declare their own personal investments and may not vote or exercise influence over them. Chambers suggests, “They should also have to recuse themselves when voting on development issues when they receive developers’ donations.” She suggests accountability might have prevented some other recent moves that were developer-friendly: a proposed new bylaw raising development cost charges (DCC) was delayed, denying Saanich taxpayers $2 million; Local Area Plans were halted in favour of fast-tracking housing; and Abstract Developments, which has eight downstream applications, was granted special privileges on the Mayor’s Standing Committee on Housing Affordability, having access where Chambers, for example, has none.
Chambers’ concern over the development industry’s “undue influence” has led her to propose a resolution for the Union of BC Municipalities to eliminate developer donations.
Councillor Mersereau did not address Focus’ questions regarding Higgs’ challenge of her ecological rationale or Chamber’s comments of undue influence, but referred us to her July Facebook post which asserts: “Yup —that’s right! We’re in a process to discuss a process…If we have a good process set up to objectively evaluate how effective each option will be at helping us achieve our goals—whether they are voluntary, financial, or regulatory options (which the EDPA is one example of)—I can support the options that emerge at the top, regardless of what form they take.”
Higgs responds, “We should not be caught in the midst of spats that result in inaction, but leading with the framework, policies, legislative action, and public programs that result in the very kind of Saanich that people will value in the future.”
What do we need to get there? Beauchamp suggests “a conflict of interest bylaw for municipal donations might be a good start. Then let’s get Natural Saanich back on track.”
Briony Penn is an award-winning writer of creative non-fiction books including The Real Thing: The Natural History of Ian McTaggart Cowan, A Year on the Wild Side and, most recently, Following the Good River: The Life and Times of Wa'xaid, a biography of Cecil Paul (Rocky Mountain Books).
January 5, 2020
While political leaders exude enthusiasm, some large firms involved seem to be looking for the exits.
TO HEAR OUR POLITICAL LEADERS TELL IT, liquefied natural gas (LNG) is the solution to all that ails us. For instance, in December 2019 federal Finance Minister Bill Morneau called Canadian LNG a “very positive opportunity.” Premier John Horgan promises $23 billion in new government revenue from the LNG Canada project, where construction is underway on the shores of Douglas Channel, south of Kitimat.
Several other LNG projects are in the wings. By far the largest of these is Kitimat LNG, projected for Bish Cove, also on the Douglas Channel, not far from the LNG Canada site. Continuing the tradition of zero Canadian content, Kitimat LNG is a partnership between wholly-owned subsidiaries of California-based Chevron and Australia’s Woodside Energy. The plant would be supplied with fracked fossil gas via the proposed 471-kilometre Pacific Trail Pipeline. While there has yet to be a final go-ahead, things have been churning along.
Artist's rendering of proposed Kitimat Lng facility that would be located at Bish Cove. (Image by Chevron)
The BC Oil and Gas Commission has issued Kitimat LNG 26 permits for roads, water and site use. The plant site is on Haisla Nation Reserve Land, and Kitimat LNG has signed a benefits agreement with the Haisla Nation. It also has an agreement with 16 First Nations along the route of the pipeline, via the First Nations Limited Partnership (though the Unist’ot’en are still protesting it running through their territory). Construction is due to start in 2022/23.
Kitimat LNG’s ambitions are growing. On April 1, 2019, it asked the National Energy Board to approve boosting production from the originally planned 10 million tonnes per annum (MTPA) of LNG to 18 MTPA, and to double the term of its export licence from 20 years to 40, starting when the plant expects to begin operations in 2029. In a December 4, 2019 letter, the National Energy Regulator (which has superseded the National Energy Board) granted the increases. This would make Kitimat LNG nearly as big a player as LNG Canada, which plans on exporting 14 MTPA to start, expected to double to 28 MTPA.
Despite the project’s apparent progress, both partners now appear to have cold feet. Woodside Chief Executive Officer Peter Coleman announced he wanted to reduce the company’s 50 percent stake in Kitimat LNG “from a capital management and risk management point of view,” according to a September 11, 2019 report in LNG World News. That’s corporate-speak for: “This costs too much and is too risky.”
The other partner is Chevron, one of the world’s largest fossil fuel companies, with 2018 sales of $159 billion US. Less than a week after the National Energy Regulator approval, Chevron announced that it, too, wants out of Kitimat LNG. And—unlike Woodside—it is hoping to unload its entire 50 percent holding. Why? Said Chevron Chief Executive Officer Michael Wirth in a December 10, 2019 statement: “We are positioning Chevron to win in any environment by ratably investing in the highest return, lowest risk projects in our portfolio.”
So now both owners of Kitimat LNG believe it is too expensive and too risky compared with other projects. Not helping prospects is the fact that Chevron had previously committed to not only build, but also operate the Bish Cove facility.
THE PENDING DEPARTURES of these corporate players are in spite of the BC government’s giveaways to the liquefied fossil fuel companies, including tax cuts and reduced hydro rates. And let’s not forget the royalty credits, which provide huge discounts to the payments that companies make for taking Crown-owned oil and gas.
For reasons unknown, until now there has been no way to discover which companies get how much in credits. Even a recent report from the International Institute for Sustainable Development (IISD) could only provide totals—$830 million for all fossil fuel production in 2017-18, with “at least CAD 2.6 billion to 3.1 billion in outstanding royalty credits from fossil fuel producers…[E]ach year, fossil fuel producers claim millions of dollars in credits to reduce the amounts of royalties they pay…These billions in outstanding credits is money that fossil fuel producers will not have to pay in future years and that BC’s citizens will not see put toward social services.”
The IISD report, Locked In and Losing Out, says such subsidies are undermining BC’s efforts on climate change. Besides phasing out fossil fuels, it recommends “BC should publicly release all data related to government spending on fossil fuel subsidies each year since currently very little data is available.”
Thanks to a two-year battle by Ben Parfitt, resource policy analyst with the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, we now have at least some of that information. After the government rejected his Freedom of Information requests for the data, he filed a number of requests for review with the Office of the Information and Privacy Commissioner, ultimately succeeding. Commenting on the government’s initial refusals, Parfitt said: “To refuse to release information on oil and gas royalty credits is troubling.”
Having finally received the deep-well credit royalty data, Parfitt shared it with Focus. These credits earned Woodside Energy and Chevron $3.2 million in the 2016 to 2018 period. The amount handed to all companies in that period totalled $2.1 billion. And while Parfitt was successful in obtaining the data on royalty credits, in December, 2019 he was still trying to learn the amounts that fracked-gas producers actually did pay after the credits were deducted. The government’s usual practice is to publish details of all financial spending and revenue. Royalty credits, like other tax credits, are a type of public spending, known as “tax expenditures.”
The data Parfitt obtained shows that when it comes to royalty credits, LNG Canada has handily outdone its would-be competitor down the channel. From 2016 to 2018, the consortium’s five partners and their wholly-owned subsidiaries collected $266.5 million from taxpayers in deep-well royalty credits. A further $167.3 million was shared by Encana, Cutbank Dawson Gas Resources Ltd—wholly owned by LNG Canada partner Mitsubishi—and other unspecified companies. Then there are two infrastructure royalty credit programs, which earned LNG Canada partners Petronas and Shell (and their subsidiaries) more credits worth $23.9 million in 2016- 2018. Plus a further $27.5 million to Mitsubishi’s partly-owned Cutbank.
A further handout to entice liquefied, fracked gas comes in the form of carbon tax rebates.
A November 7, 2019 cabinet order brings LNG under the government’s CleanBC industrial incentive program. It ensures that producers of LNG will likely never pay more than $30 per tonne in carbon tax, which, for the rest of us, is now at $40 and due to stop increasing at $50 in 2021.
Sonia Furstenau, the BC Green house leader, said in an interview that this is an abuse of the industrial incentive program, which was meant to help large, established GHG polluters reduce their emissions. “It was never intended to provide incentives to new fossil fuel industries,” she said. “It’s Orwellian to apply it in this way.”
BC Green Party House Leader Sonia Furstenau
During the last Question Period before the legislature rose on November 28, a determined Furstenau wanted details of the refunds. In response, Minister of Environment and Climate Change George Heyman confirmed that all present and future qualifying LNG players are eligible for the program, in perpetuity.
What is the cost of this additional subsidy? To use government figures, once LNG Canada is up and running with all four trains (production units), the facility alone will emit 4.2 megatonnes (Mt) of GHGs each year. By that time, with the carbon tax at $50 per tonne, LNG Canada’s rebates will cost taxpayers 4.2 million x ($50 minus $30) = $84 million annually. Even $50 is far too low, according to a November 27, 2019 report from Canada’s Ecofiscal Commission. Rather, it needs to be at least $210 if we are to meet the 2030 Paris targets. At $210, BC’s carbon tax refunds to LNG Canada would amount to $180 per tonne, for a total of $756 million annually. Even that is peanuts to the company, but it’s on top of the growing list of other subsidies.
The carbon tax refund program is subject to several conditions, including the facilities in question meeting emissions “benchmarks,” according to a detailed response to questions asked of the Environment and Climate Change Strategy Ministry. If it’s any comfort to taxpayers, the rebate program ends if the world carbon tax ever reaches the BC price.
As of Focus’s deadline, there were no takers to buy Chevron and Woodside out of Kitimat LNG. What about the Province? That’s not likely, as BC’s finances are no longer in such great shape. On September 27, 2019 Finance Minister Carole James called on the public service to cut $300 million, and the Insurance Corporation of BC may stick us with an additional $400 million charge in the 2019/20 fiscal year.
Why not ask the feds? After all, in 2018 they coughed up $4.4 billion for Kinder Morgan, netting Kinder Morgan Canada—which is approximately 70 percent owned by Texas-based Kinder Morgan—a $2.7 billion profit. A Canadian government purchase of Kitimat LNG might even soothe some of Alberta’s hostility towards the rest of us. What’s to lose—besides the end of life as we know it?
Russ Francis taught sessions for more than a decade at UVic’s Environmental Law Centre.
January 5, 2020
The Climate Leadership Team massaged an engineering report to justify policy directions the City had already taken.
AN ENGINEERING COMPANY’S REPORT obtained from the City of Victoria through an FOI request shows that the City cheated on its first attempt to plot a critical path to lower territorial greenhouse gas emissions. The way in which the report’s findings were changed suggests that the City was intent on manufacturing information for its Climate Leadership Plan that would provide support for policy directions it was already pursuing, or wanted to pursue.
Stantec Engineering was hired by the City to assess the municipality’s emissions in 2017. The City published its Climate Leadership Plan (CLP) in 2018 (see link at end of story).
Focus reviewed the CLP in mid-2019. While the 66-page report is full of high-level visions and soft goals, the only hard information about emissions, and how those might be reduced, were numbers that appeared in percentage breakdowns of the sources of emissions, and in a wedge graph titled “Pathways to 2050 GHG Emissions Reductions.” These were attributed to a “GPC Compliant Inventory, 2017.” Focus requested the inventory and the City released Stantec’s report to us in late October. There are several interesting differences between the information in the City’s Climate Leadership Plan and Stantec’s report.
Stantec estimated GHG emissions that occurred within the municipality’s boundaries in 2017 were 465,482 tonnes. It classified those emissions by categories that were in accordance with the Global Protocol for Community-Scale Greenhouse Gas Emissions Basic+ (see link at end of story). But the City’s CLP used “387,694” tonnes and “370,000” tonnes on different pages, thereby reducing at least 77,788 tonnes of emissions with six taps on a keyboard.
If the emissions Stantec estimated had been used, the paper pathway the City had plotted for reducing those emissions by 2050 would have missed its target by a wide margin.
A more telling difference between Stantec’s and the City’s account of emissions is the way in which the categories used by Stantec were changed by the City. The GPC protocol has established categories of territorial emissions that allow comparison with other jurisdictions and provide a method for consistently measuring progress from year to year. Adhering to the GPC categories creates transparency, which in turn allows accountability.
Adhering to the GPC Basic+ protocol is also a requirement for any city that wants to be listed on the Carbon Disclosure Project’s A-List, or is a signatory to the Compact of Mayors. Because of the way the City altered Stantec’s reported emissions, the CLPdoesn’t meet the requirements of either of those projects. Neither is it GPC compliant. Perhaps the City ought to take the "Leadership" claim out of its climate action plan.
The City eliminated three of the seven categories for which Stantec had found significant emissions (see pie charts above). That included the category “Industrial Processes and Product Use (IPPU),” which had the highest rate of growth in Victoria—66 percent over the last 10 years. The City also eliminated the GPC categories “Transboundary Transportation” and “Off-Road Transportation,” which accounted for, combined, 35 percent of all territorial emissions. Lastly, the City moved multi-unit residential buildings out of the GPC category “Residential Buildings” and lumped it in with the GPC category “Commercial & Institutional Buildings and Facilities.”
In the City’s version of Stantec’s report, single-family homes have suddenly become greater emitters than Stantec had found for single-family and multi-family buildings combined. Perhaps to stymie any efforts at holding the City accountable (like this story), it then moved multi-family residential buildings in with “industrial” and “commercial, institutional” buildings and found that this category now had emissions of 124,062 tonnes, only slightly higher than the 123,370 tonnes Stantec had attributed to just commercial and institutional buildings in its assessment. Trying to figure out the City’s rationale for doing that produces a sensation in my brain that I imagine is something like having a mini-stroke.
In a similarly puzzling shift, the City made a separate category for single-family homes and held it responsible for a bigger percentage of emissions than Stantec had found for multi-family and single-family residential housing combined.
It may be entirely coincidental, but there is a move afoot at City Hall, led by Mayor Lisa Helps, to eliminate single-family zoning throughout the City of Victoria. If it comes to that, the mayor and her supporters will be able to point to the Climate Leadership Planand say, “Look, our GPC Compliant Inventory shows this will address a big source of emissions.”
Another of City Hall’s controversial directions might be at the heart of the difference between Stantec’s findings and the City’s spin of Stantec’s findings regarding transportation emissions.
Stantec found that “On Road Transport” accounted for nine percent of total territorial emissions. Victoria’s version boosted that to 40 percent. This category is intended to measure emissions from cars, trucks and buses that don’t cross the City of Victoria’s boundaries. In other words, it’s not intended to include vehicles that make longer trips, too long for most people to make by walking or cycling. Emissions that result from longer trips are counted under “Transboundary Transportation,” a category the City eliminated.
In the City’s version of reality, cars, trucks and buses making short trips on its streets are the single biggest emissions problem by far. That version supports its choice to spend money and create community division in the hope of getting people to cycle instead of driving a car.
Stantec found that “Off-Road Transportation” (marine, aviation, other) accounted for 12.4 percent of emissions, even higher than on-road transportation. Yet the City’s climate-action brain trust deep-sixed these emissions altogether, perhaps influenced by the tourism lobby.
This is classic decision-based evidence-making.
In early 2019, City staff requested that council approve a $540,000 increase in spending related to further development of its climate initiatives. Those initiatives included expanding the size of the City’s public relations department.
After publication addendum: The City did not respond to questions presented to it about its Climate Leadership Plan and the numbers it contained.
David Broadland is the publisher of Focus.