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.