Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Taking a Closer Look at Maley Drive, Part 1: Costs

Although the project proposal has been around for over 20 years, lately the Maley Drive Extension has really begun to divide the Greater Sudbury community. On the one hand, there are those that believe Maley will single-handedly get the ore trucks off of Lasalle Blvd., and MR 35 through Blezzard Valley as well. The plan is for Maley to reduce congestion along Lasalle and the Kingway, and have large sections of the City opened up for new development.

On the other hand, there are those, like me, who believe that we are being sold one of the largest and most fiscally unsustainable infrastructure projects ever undertaken by the City. We believe that there is no need for this road, and no money in the coffers to pay for it even if there were a need. Maley Drive would represent a monumental mistake on the part of our City, and shackle taxpayers to higher property taxes to pay for a road which will largely benefit the resource sector.

I believe that people like me, who oppose Maley Drive, are probably in the minority. Certainly during the last municipal election, there were few candidates who questioned the wisdom behind the Maley Drive project. After all, this project has been on the books since before 1995, when an Environmental Assessment was carried out. It became the previous Council's number one infrastructure priority, and they started to set aside dedicated funding to finance it. Our former Mayor, Marianne Matichuk, actively sought out provincial and federal funding partners to pony up some money to help the City out.

In the recent Sudbury by-election, the Progressive Conservatives, Liberals and New Democrats all said that they would fund Maley Drive. Some of these candidates cited opportunities for growth in the City should Maley be built. Only the Green Party's Dr. David Robinson, an economist, stood firmly against funding Maley Drive.

With so many seemingly onside for Maley, why listen to a complainer like me? Well, I certainly hope to provide you with some information that you may not be getting from the media, the Chamber of Commerce, and politicians (both elected and those who want to be elected). In this two part series, I hope to challenge your perceptions about Maley on the issue of costs (Part 1) and benefits (Part 2).

Scoping the Project

First off, finding out accurate information about the Maley Drive Extension project is difficult enough. From conversations that I've seen in social media, it’s clear that people are very confused about what it is that the City is intending on building. Quite often, people are confusing the Maley Drive extension with the Barrydowne extension – largely because Maley is being sold publicly as a way of reducing traffic in the Valley – something Maley might do (by providing an alternative route for ore trucks running between Garson and Levack which currently use a combination of roads including MRs 15, 80 and Radar Road), but not in the way that many people think it will (by building a new road between Notre Dame in Hanmer and Barrydowne in New Sudbury).

The City has some information about the Maley Drive project available on its website, but it’s spread out in such a way that it’s quite difficult to put the pieces together. There is an undated “Quick Facts” page, which contains a lot of unsupported feel-good statements about the benefits of Maley (unsupported in the sense that there are no attributions – there may be support for these “facts” elsewhere, but from a quick read of the Quick Facts, it’s not at all clear), along with an Overview document, also undated and unattributed, which pretty much says the same thing but has a decent map attached to it.

Of course, one should always be cautious when “Facts” – quick or otherwise - are presented about a project’s benefits, and just about everything about the costs are omitted. Upon accessing either of these undated City documents, you’ll find that you’re no further ahead in determining what the proposed construction costs are, other than to find out that “the financing for Maley Drive is largely in place”, so there’s probably no need to worry much, so why bother continuing your search? Of course, there is that statement near the end of both docs which says that the City has banked $10.5 million for the project. Oh, and it continues to budget $2.3 million a year (which works out to 20% of what it’s already accumulated). Perhaps those pesky concerns about costs aren’t so pesky after all.

How Much Does That Cost?

Just how much is this project going to cost the City? Well, that depends on what you mean by “project” and what you mean by “costs”. Let’s look at the “project” part first.

Since early 2009, the City of Greater Sudbury has had a pretty cool video available on YouTube. At last count, it had been viewed more than 10,000 times. The video takes a birds-eye look at the proposed Maley Drive project – or at least at the project as it looked back in 2009, and as it might some day look if it were ever completed.

In the west, a 4-laned Maley would intersect with MR 35 between Sudbury and Azilda in the location where the Lasalle Extension currently is. Heading west, a new section of Maley will be built north and west of Lasalle near the entrance to College Boreal (there will be a partial cloverleaf at Lasalle/Maley). Maley will continue heading northwest, crossing MR 80 north of the Notre Dame/Lasalle intersection in a cloverleaf, and continue westward along to the existing section of Maley Drive which currently terminates at the northerly end of Barrydowne. New roundabouts will be built at an extended Montrose Avenue and at Barrydowne. Maley Drive between Barrydowne and Falconbridge – which is truly one of the worst roads in the City right now – will be upgraded, including a new roundabout at the Maley/Lansing intersection.

From Falconbridge, Maley will veer to the southeast, where a roundabout will connect it with Lasalle east of Falconbridge, and from there it will continue on southwards to the present intersection of the Kingsway with Highway 17. The idea is that Maley will become the northeast and northern sections of a ring road (with the Highway 17 by-pass forming the southeast and southwest sections – note that there are no plans for a northwestern section of the “ring” road).

But that’s not what we’re getting. At least not yet. Right now, we’re looking at something much less ambitious. Only the section between MR 35 and Falconbridge will be upgraded/built. There are no plans for pedestrian or cycling infrastructure included for the road. Indeed, gravel shoulders are currently proposed, which will force cyclists to share the road with the ore trucks, and likely slow down traffic flow.

Incredible Shrinking Costs!

Back in 2012, with anticipated costs having soared to almost $130 million for the project (up from $115 just a few years earlier in 2009), the City decided to divide the project into smaller pieces, because decision makers believed that by doing so, at least parts of the project would be more attractive to senior levels of government to fund (see: “Mammoth Maley Drive broken down into sections”, the Northern Life, August 12, 2012). It looks now like this gambit has paid off, as right before the recent provincial by-election, the Ontario Liberal government rode a white horse into town with a funding announcement (see: “Province vows to ‘fulfil” Maley funding promise”, the Northern Life, December 1, 2014).

So, with the province chipping in $26.7 million as its 1/3 share of the costs, we might be able to start getting a better handle on what those construction costs are. Add it all up and you get $80.1 million. Which is kind of interesting, because when you add up the various components that were identified for the same project area from the 2012 Northern Life article, you get $93 million.

Financing is Largely in Place

Of course, what you don’t get either way is how the City can possibly suggest that “Financing for Maley Drive is largely in place”. First off, although the province has added Maley to its list of funding priorities, this hasn’t yet been announced in any budget. Chances are that will change soon, as Sudbury will get rewarded for ‘doing the right thing’ back in early February when we elected Glenn Thibeault our MPP.

Second, the federal government hasn’t pitched in any funding yet. Until they do, it’s a complete stretch to suggest that financing is largely in place. This, too, might change should funds for Maley be included in the federal budget. With an election coming up in October, at least one Sudbury candidate has raised funding for Maley as an issue pre-budget (see: “Don’t fund Maley extension, Sudbury Green candidate tells Ottawa”, the Sudbury Star, April 15, 2015).

And finally, how about that municipal portion? The City’s website says the City has $10.5 million in the bank – which is rather short of $26.7 million. With $2.3 million being added a year, it’ll be another 7 years yet for the City to have all of its money available for this project. Or will it?

Challenging the City's Growth-Based Financing Assumptions

The City’s $2.3 million is coming largely from levies under the development charges by-law. Put aside for the moment whether you think this is a good use of development charges (I don’t), and let’s just assess whether it’s sustainable. With only modest development forecast over the next little while, and fears of an economic downturn and/or recession which is likely going to impact commodity prices, it’s not at all clear that the City is going to be on track to meet expectations regarding development charges.

Further, last year, City Council voted not to increase the charges after an acrimonious and confusing discussion about the by-law (see: “Sudbury development charges frozen for two years”, CBC News, June 11, 2014). The Sudbury and District Home Builders Association got in on the act, lobbying council to hold or reduce the charges, and during the municipal election, they invited all municipal candidates to come out and hear the Association’s thoughts on development charges. Throughout the municipal election campaign, many candidates – including a good number which were elected – expressed their opposition to development charges, with some saying Greater Sudbury should do what other jurisdictions in Ontario have already done: get rid of them all together (Greater Sudbury is one of a very few municipalities in all of Northern Ontario which levies charges under the Development Charges Act. It’s also one of the few municipalities in Northern Ontario which is experiencing growth).

You can read one candidate’s thoughts on the Maley Drive extension and the use of development charges to fund the City’s share at Robert Kirwan’s Valley East Today website. Kirwan clearly gave a lot of thought to Maley pre-election day, concluding that the “project will never be completed” due to a lack of funding (he was also one of the candidates who wanted to scrap development charges – a move which would almost certainly make his belief a reality. Candidate Kirwan won the election, and he now sits at the Council table for Ward 5. While he doesn’t appear to have changed his mind on development charges, he’s been singing a completely different tune lately on Maley. More on that in Part 2 of this blogseries.

Anyway, given what’s going on in the City with development charges, it’s not at all clear to me that this funding source is sustainable, and that we’ll make up the remainder of our $16.2 million in 7 years in order to chip in our one-third share. Yet the City insists that “the financing for Maley Drive is largely in place”.

Higher Future Costs?

And of course, none of this takes into account what might happen if the costs are higher in the future than they are now. Remember, back in 2009 the costs of the project stood at $115 million for the entirety of the Maley ring-road. Those costs jumped to almost $130 million in just three years. Typically, cost estimates don’t go down – although that’s what appears to have happened between 2012 when the sectionalized Maley was presented to Council with a total price tag of $193 million, versus the 2014 estimate of just $80.1 million.

Does anybody really trust any of these numbers?

Whether they’re trustful or not, what’s clear is that the federal and provincial funding partners won’t be the ones left on the hook to pay for anything more than they’re chipping in. If costs ultimately exceed estimates, it will be the City that has to pick up the bill. Municipal property tax payers will be on the hook for any cost increases.

But don’t worry. The City has it all figured out. “Financing is largely in place”.

Planning Ahead for Roads

How much will this new road add to the City’s operating budget annually? Some are already asking that question. The road has to be plowed, after all. And pot holes have to be filled in (potholes on a new road? Well, we are ostensibly building this road to get those heavy ore trucks off of Lasalle, right? And this IS Sudbury – I think it’s fair to say that there will be potholes). Certainly, annual operating costs won’t be as expensive as initial capital costs to build the road, but the operating costs will be borne exclusively by property taxpayers. The City isn’t looking at any alternative funding models, despite the City’s own Transportation Plan (2005) having suggested that it do so (see Recommendations, No. 12 – “Negotiate cost sharing agreements with major industries when these industries will benefit from the transportation improvement being implemented”, Transportation Background Study 2005, page E12).

Well, maybe there’s something about those operational costs in the Transportation Background Study too. There sure is. Another recommendation was for the City to develop an asset management strategy for lifecycle costing of roads (see page E3). In 2012, KPMG provided the City with a report, “Financial Planning for Municipal Roads, Structures and Related Infrastructure”, which looked at the City’s current roads-related infrastructure deficit based on anticipated capital and operating expenditures for the existing and funded roads network. Note that on Page 10 of this report, Maley Drive is identified as an “unfunded” road (to the tune of $94 million – but again, costs were higher in 2012 than they are today, right?).

(Note that the Transportation Background Study 2005 is in the process of being updated as part of the City’s 5-year Official Plan Review. The original intention was to have the new Transportation Plan available to the public for comment in 2013. As of April, 2015, the plan has not been released, and decision-makers and the public will have to rely on outdated data which is more than 10 years old now)

Our Fiscally Unsustainable Future for Roads in Greater Sudbury

You may be interested to know that KPMG expressed some pretty serious concerns about the long-term sustainability of the existing road system in Greater Sudbury. In 2012, capital and operating costs were at $75 million annually for the entire road system – all 3,600 lane kilometres. However, in 2012, the City was only spending $35 million on roads. With costs outpacing investments, a significant gap between the two already existed, and KPMG recommended the adoption of a financial plan that would see the gap narrowed over a period of ten years, during which annual expenditures would rise from $35 million to $75 million. To cover these additional expenditures, the municipal tax levy would need to increase between 3.3% to 3.5% every year. This plan includes only existing roads and one significant new piece of infrastructure: Maley Drive.

Clearly, there's a problem here. Greater Sudbury has already fallen behind with capital and operating expenditures needed to maintain the existing road system in good shape. A recommendation of an annual tax increase of 3%+ for roads alone is simply not going to fly with voters, no matter how much the need stares us in the face daily. This year, our new Council raided the reserves in order to gift Sudburians with a 0% tax increase. In light of the drastic measures KPMG recommended our decision-makers take regarding roads, 0% appears to be completely unhelpful, with or without Maley Drive.

A New Way Forward Needed

What's clear is that Greater Sudbury has to find a new way forward. I don't know what that way is – maybe user fees of some sort - but it's clear that for too long we've been leading a fiscally unsustainable existence – putting today's costs on the backs of tomorrow's citizens. That would mean that the costs of the benefits we are reaping today are being passed on to our children – those same children that we are trying to entice to stick around our fair City. To me, handing our kids the bill seems a strange strategy to help stem youth out-migration in our region.

Some have suggested that the way forward is dependent on growth. That certainly seems to be Mayor Brian Bigger's strategy (see: “Greater Sudbury needs to grow its economy”, the Sudbury Star, January 20, 2015). Unfortunately, relying on growth to cover capital and operating costs is a dead-end, especially for a community like Greater Sudbury where growth is projected to be limited over the next while. Even for cities which experienced considerable growth, like Mississauga, growth itself ends up contributing more towards a fiscally unsustainable circumstance. And of course, Mississauga invested in one of the most costly forms of growth available for a municipality to service: suburban sprawl.

Yet, the lessons which decision-makers should have learned from the Mississauga experience have yet to seriously affect the mindset of many municipal decision-makers. Many still delude themselves by insisting that growth more than pays for itself, when it is now obvious that the exact opposite is true.

Regarding Maley Drive, which won't facilitate any growth at all in our community, what is abundantly clear is that the expense of this road project simply can't be justified at this time – not for the sake of getting the ore trucks off of Lasalle, nor for the sake of shaving a few minutes of time off of the evening commute. The costs of this new project aren't ones which taxpayers can absorb. Our City has failed to look at alternative funding models which may assist somewhat with defraying costs. Contributions from the provincial and federal governments will only lock us into making a truly unwise, unsustainable decision to build a road that we don't need and can't afford, for growth which isn't expected to happen (there will be more on growth in Part 2 of this series).

(opinions expressed in this blog are my own and should not be interpreted as being consistent with the views and/or policies of the Green Parties of Ontario and Canada)

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Why is the NDP Behaving Like Climate Change Deniers with Pipeline Proposals?

Of course New Democrats, generally speaking, aren’t climate change deniers.  After all, this is the Party that introduced the Climate Change Accountability Act, which was adopted by our elected officials in Parliament in, but met its death in the Conservative-dominated Senate (since then, the NDP has re-introduced the bill).  The NDP has long called for a reduction of greenhouse gas emissions to 80% below 1990 levels by 2050, although they’ve never offered a cohesive plan on how to accomplish that task.  The Party has also quietly supported a price on carbon, if not a “job-killing” carbon tax.  

But these are all vestiges left over from the old NDP, pre Thomas-Mulcair, back when the NDP was concerned with at least appearing to have a principled stance on issues of importance, even if those issues weren’t popular with voters.

What has the NDP been doing lately with climate change?

Expanding the Tar Sands 

Supporters and others who might not be paying close attention to this issue will be surprised to discover that despite the NDP still occasionally talking a good game on climate change, the policies it now pushes run directly counter to the actions Canada needs to take to meaningfully reduce emissions.  NDP supporters will be particularly surprised to discover that Mulcair’s New NDP, motivated far more by obtaining power than taking a principled stand, has decided instead to embrace the expansion of the Alberta tar sands.   This stance is despite the knowledge that doing so will surely doom Canada’s ability to meet our incredibly woeful 2020 emissions reduction target we agreed to in Copenhagen back in 2009.

And it will certainly mean that the NDP’s own target of 80% below 1990 emissions levels will never be met – not with an industrial enterprise which plans on more than doubling its production, from its current output of slightly less than 2 million barrels of oil per day to more than 5.1 million barrels per day by 2030 (see: Alberta Energy, Facts and Statistics).

NDP: Playing Pipeline Politics

There was a time not all that long ago when the NDP came out in opposition to some of the largest pipeline projects currently on the books.  Certainly, the NDP has consistently opposed both Enbridge's Northern Gateway pipeline and the TransCanada's Keystone XL – although opposition to both of these pipelines has never really been about climate change.  Environmental and First Nations concerns led the NDP to oppose Gateway, while exporting jobs to the United States seems to be the NDP's central rationale for opposing Keystone.

But back in 2013, New Democrats seemingly also opposed Kinder Morgan's proposed Trans Mountain pipeline, which would see an existing pipeline route twinned to carry diluted bitumen to the Port of Vancouver, and diluents needed for dilbit transport flow the other way, to Alberta.  Of course, the opposition was a provincial position, adopted by then B.C. NDP leader Adrian Dix in the midst of an election campaign – and again, climate change really wasn't the central concern raised by the Party (it had more to do with tankers plying the waters off the coast of Vancouver – a legitimate issue which I'm in no way to trying to belittle – I just note that Dix's opposition wasn't about expanding the tar sands or limiting climate change).

In fact, it wasn’t entirely clear to most paying attention that the NDP actually opposed Kinder Morgan’s Trans Mountain pipeline at all, but rather just the location of the pipeline’s terminus.  Some NDP candidates floated alternative locations for the pipeline’s port during the election campaign, significantly muddying the waters of the NDP’s actual position on Trans Mountain.  Eventually, Dix had to tell voters that he was against oil tankers off of B.C.’s coast, period – which many (including myself) have equated with an anti-pipeline stance, perhaps erroneously  (see: “Dix says oil tanker stance applies towhole region”, Eric Swanson, Burnaby Pipeline Watch, April 27, 2013). 

"Not Supporting, Not Opposing"

Whether or not Dix was against the pipeline or just the tankers, after Dix lost the provincial election in a rather astounding manner, the NDP quietly changed its ways on Trans Mountain.  Now, both the B.C. Provincial and the federal NDP neither oppose or support the new pipeline.   Many environmental organizations view this as a clear step backwards, on both the issue of climate change and tanker traffic.  These groups argue that it would be relatively easy for the NDP to oppose Trans Mountain if it were really concerned about either issue.  But “not opposing” seems to be the order of the day.

That seems to be what the NDP is now saying about TransCanada's Energy East pipeline now, too.  After about a year's worth of general unqualified support for Energy East, a pipeline which Leader Tom Mulcair is convinced will create jobs in Quebec and the Maritimes, despite evidence to the contrary (see “Mulcair sticks withpipeline policy as report challenges Energy East”, the Globe and Mail, February 6, 2014), the NDP has slowly started shifting its position on the pipeline.   And again, this shift has nothing to do with climate change.  Instead, it has everything to do with the NDP's focus on obtaining power.

Energy East - the Quebec Perception

You see, Energy East isn't all that popular in Quebec.  In that province, environmental activists and every-day citizens have expressed significant concerns regarding the route of the pipeline, as well as the export terminal which TransCanada proposed to be built at Cacouna – right in the midst of beluga habitat (see, “GabrielNadeau-Dubois must reject Energy East to win QC seats”, CBC News, March 19, 2015). If the NDP isn't particularly concerned about one student's point of view, they do tend to be swayed by polls - and a recent one shows that 71% of Quebecers favour protecting the environment over the energy east pipeline (see: "61% of Canadians say protecting the climate more important than pipelines and tar sands"the Climate Action Network, April 7, 2015).

To the NDP's credit, the Party never supported the export terminal at Cacouna because of the beluga.  But this was hardly a brave position for the NDP to adopt, given that even Alberta Progressive Conservative Premier Jim Prentice also came out in favour of protecting beluga (see: “Energy East must be kept away from belugas,Quebec and Alberta premiers say”, the Globe and Mail, December 2, 2014).  With everyone opposed to the marine facility, or at least in favour of not hurting belugas, TransCanada finally amended its proposal and dropped the Cacouna port idea all together (see: “TransCanadadelays Energy East, won’t build Quebec oil terminal”, the Globe and Mail, April 2, 2015).

Nevertheless, the NDP’s opposition to the marine export terminal at Cacouna was the first wedge the Party drove into its unqualified support of Energy East.  Climate change would soon follow, after national outcries were raised that the National Energy Board would not be considering upstream impacts from pipeline development in its assessment. It's being suggested that there's a "civil war" going on in the NDP caucus over the issue of climate change and pipelines (see, “10 questions for NDP energy critic Guy Caron aboutEnergy East”, Ethan Cox, Ricochet Media, April 12, 2015).

NDP on Pipelines: Hypocrisy & Spin

Moving the NDP to consider climate change impacts was a bit of a process.  Originally, the NDP refused to discuss climate change in the context of pipelines – at least the ones which it supported or took no position on, like Energy East and Trans Mountain (see “Greenwashing on Climate Change Starting to Take a Toll on NDP“, Sudbury Steve May, November 4, 2014).  Of course, that didn't stop NDP candidate Joe Cressy from hypocritically attacking Liberal Adam Vaughan during the Trinity Spadina by-election (Vaughan's Liberal Party supports Keystone XL – Cressy was unimpressed that the Liberals were supporting a pipeline which would lead to the expansion of the tar sands and contribute to climate change – despite that his party at that time supported Energy East outright and had taken no position on Trans Mountain – see, “NDPslams Adam Vaughan for missing climate debate”, NOW Magazine, June 18, 2014).

Finally, after withering criticism from organizations like the Council of Canadians (see: “NDP supports Energy East pipeline”, November 14, 2014) and 350.org (see: “Energy East = Climate Change”, November 16, 2014) in December of last year the NDP decided to champion a process for pipeline development which included climate change impacts (see: “Justin Trudeau late tothe party on pipelines”, December 12, 2014). 

Essentially, the NDP’s position on pipelines has is that they don't support any of them, but they take no position on Trans Mountain or Energy East.  Interestingly, the NDP have been trying to spin their lack of position on Energy East by claiming that they’ve never had a position, which is a complete denial of the reality of the past two years. (see, “10 questions for NDP energy critic Guy Caron aboutEnergy East”, Ethan Cox, Ricochet Media, April 12, 2015).

The NDP and the NEB 

Based on the above, it might appear that the NDP now supports a National Energy Board process which requires an assessment of climate change impacts. But pinning the NDP down on climate change has been a really slippery proposition over the last several years.  Let’s not yet leap to the conclusion that the NDP wants to the NEB to evaluate climate change impacts, even though the NEB is the agency responsible for the pipeline’s evaluation.  Although the NDP made the link between Energy East and climate change in a press release, we can’t conclude that the NDP is yet ready to call on the NEB to consider climate change impacts.

Of course, the NEB has no mandate to assess the climate change impacts of any pipeline (see: “It’s taboo to talk climate change atNEB’s Energy East hearings”, Obert Mandondo, the Canadian Progressive, March 6, 2015).  The assessment process which informs the NEB's recommendations to government may include looking at the economic impacts of development the tar sands, but it can't look at how expanding the enterprise may negatively impact the Earth's climate – as absurd as that sounds. 

The NDP know of the NEB’s limiations, of course.  Maybe that’s why they’re not calling on the NEB to evaluate climate impacts.  Of course, if a party were serious about having climate change impacts considered, it would sort of kind of make sense to suggest that it be the NEB which does the evaluation in order to better inform its decision. 

Pro-Climate or Pro-Pipelines: NDP Wants to be Both

But the NDP continues to dither.  They now want climate impacts to be considered for pipelines, but they won’t ask the NEB to do it.  Yet, if climate impacts were included in any evaluation, environmentalists rightly believe that those impacts will outweigh any other merits of pipeline development, and decision makers will have to say No to proposals (see: “Newsweek: Canada’s tar sands at risk of becoming astranded asset”, Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis, February 26, 2015).  If the NDP really wants climate change impacts to be considered for pipelines, why is the NDP so very reluctant to state its position? 

Probably because the NDP doesn't at all like the logic map that it's been drawn into by their attempt to win votes in Quebec and address the criticism of environmentalists.  The NDP wants to maintain the facade that they're not against the pipelines, because they are concerned that every-day voters who continue to believe that Canada's economic salvation lies in developing the oil sands won't vote for a party which puts up barriers to expansion.  Maybe they're right, politically speaking.  But they're playing a very disingenuous and dangerous game.

Those serious about climate change know full well that you can't be both pro-pipeline and pro-climate.  The two are mutually exclusive.  The NDP doesn't seem to understand this yet, or if they do, they are keeping it to themselves until after the next election.

NDP Attacking Climate Champions

Lately, the NDP has upped the stakes by directly levelling criticism at Elizabeth May and the Green Party of Canada – which is currently polling around 16% in the anticipated British Columbia electoral battleground.  Mulcair has gone on the attack, trying to confuse voters by mischaracterizing the Green Party’s position on pipelines. “Anybody who is that adamant would have to complete their thought and say we should get rid of existing pipelines”, Mulcair said to Vancouver media when asked about May’s opposition to current pipeline proposals (see:  “Tom Mulcair fights the squeeze inMetro Vancouver ridings”, the Vancouver Sun, March 17, 2015).  Of course, May and the Greens aren’t proposing to remove existing pipelines, no matter how much Tom Mulcair and the NDP want voters to think they are.

Playing the fear card is something that the NDP is very good at.  Elsewhere, NDP supporters are claiming that only the NDP can knock off Harper, so voting Green or Liberal equates to a vote for the Conservatives (see: “Leaders target B.C. to gainseats in 2015 election”, the Huffington Post, March 19, 2015). And lately on social media, sanctimonious NDP supporters and a few NDP staffers have been crying foul that the Green Party dares contest the election in the Victoria riding at all, because they believe that MP Murray Rankin should be sainted as a champion of the environment (for a sample, see comments to: “Greens going after NDP inVictoria ‘with all we got’: party president”, ipolitics, April 10, 2015).  As long as Rankin toes his party line on expanding the tar sands and building more pipelines, I think Green Party of Canada President David Bagler is right – he’s fair game.

May and the Green Party wear opposition to new pipelines as a badge of honour, because if you're serious about climate change, you know full well that we're going to have to leave over two thirds of the world's known fossil reserves locked in the ground.  And the dirtiest fossil fuels, like tar sands bitumen, will likely need to be left interred at a higher rate.  Simply put, if all of the carbon is burned, we can kiss anything resembling today's climate good-bye within the next couple of generations (see: “Oil sands must remain largely unexploited to meet climate target, studyfinds”, the Globe and Mail, January 7, 2015).

The NDP: Naive on Carbon Sequestration

Clearly, the NDP hasn’t yet got that memo.  “We are not so naïve to think we can leave our resources in the ground forever”, NDP MP Jinny Sims (Surrey-Newton) was quoted as saying to Vancouver media in response to questions about Energy East (see: “Mulcair says a flawed regulatory process hinders Energy East reviewprocess”, the Vancouver Observer, March 19, 2015). I’m not willing to tar the entire New Democratic Party with Sims’ comments, so I’ll limit my observations to this: does Simms really think that people like Bank of England Governor Mark Carney are being “naïve” when they warn of the economic risks associated with a carbon bubble brought on by resource sequestration? (see: “The latest on the environment carbon bubble issue”, the Australian Solar Network, March 28, 2015). 

On the one hand, the NDP claims to be concerned about climate change and want the climate impacts of pipeline proposals assessed (just maybe not by the NEB) – even though they know full well that expanding tar sands production will negatively impact the climate.  On the other hand, they refuse to take a position on the two biggest pipelines being proposed – Energy East and Trans Mountain – out of fear of appearing to be anti-development. 

NDP Using Tactics of Climate Change Deniers

The NDP's “principled” position on pipelines now appears to be the same one used by climate change deniers when they urge inaction on the climate.  In an interview earlier this week, NDP energy critic Guy Caron twisted himself into a pretzel claiming that the NDP needs more time to study impacts (see, “10 questions for NDP energycritic Guy Caron about Energy East”, Ethan Cox, Ricochet Media, April 12, 2015). The party line appears to be that it would be irresponsible to adopt a position until all the fact are known – and by extension, those other parties which have already taken a position are being irresponsible – which is all very reminiscent of what some tea-party republicans have started to say in the States about climate change. 

This may buy the NDP some time and get them through the next election, if their assertions about the science are left unchallenged.  It all sounds reasonable, sure, especially with the NEB's evaluations on-going (and not expected to finish up until sometime after October, 2015).  But the reality is quite different.

Wait Until the Science is In

First of all, the facts are well known.  If production in the tar sands is going to more than double by 2030 – which is the current plan – then new pipeline capacity is needed.  And the pipelines are only needed if production is going to expand.  The two go together.  So arguing that pipelines won't lead to expansion as some in the NDP have tried to do is just beyond any semblance of logic.   Even the NDP has kiboshed those talking points.  Now, the Party just remains silent on the issue, hoping that by ignoring it, it will go away.  Kind of like what they've traditionally done with the Green Party.  They'll have about as much success ignoring tar sands expansion, too.

Can't Stop the Tar Sands

Second, it is also well known that if we are going to hold warming at two degrees Celsius, two thirds of known global carbon reserves will need to be left in the ground (see: “Leave fossil fuels buried to preventclimate change, study urges” the Guardian, January 7, 2015).  We can’t hold warming at 2 degrees and burn known reserves.  Yet the NDP wants to pretend otherwise.  It is their goal to get bitumen to tidewater – or to refineries .  Either way, the NDP tacitly acknowledges that the tar sands reserves will be burned.  They even want to try to use profits from the tar sands to expand renewable energy initiatives (see: “Our new vision for a new Century. Our plan for a prosperous and sustainableenergy future”, NDP, December 14, 2013) – which can only be described as a surreal energy plan from the perspective of limiting climate change.

Can't Make a Decision Because the Process is Flawed

And finally, the NDP knows that the science it claims to be waiting for isn't going to appear as part of the NEB process – which then should mean that it would be very easy to oppose the pipelines for a lack of scientific validity (as the Green Party has done) – but of course, the NDP again wants to pretend otherwise.  NDP energy critic Guy Caron has hinted that the NDP might be taking a position of some sort before the end of spring, but likely whatever position the NDP ultimately takes on pipelines, it won’t be due to climate change concerns.

NDP: Insincerity on Climate Change & the NEB

How sincere is the NDP being with regards to climate change impacts and pipeline assessments?  Interestingly, NDP MP Nathan Cullen (Skeena-Bulkley Valley) has a private member's bill in front of the house in which changes to the NEB's assessment process are proposed.  It's a great bill for what it is – Cullen wants the NEB to assess tanker traffic impacts, and to undertake meaningful consultation with First Nations where pipelines are proposed.

One might think that if the NDP were sincere about having the climate change impacts of new pipeline projects evaluated, it would insist that the NEB review those impacts.  One might think that since the NDP has a bill in front of the house to amend the way in which the NEB assesses pipeline proposals, that there might be something about climate change in that bill.  While one might think that, clearly the opposite is true (see: Bill C-628, Text atFirst Reading, September 23, 2014).

NDP: Unprincipled Position on Climate Change

All of this brings me back to my original questions.  Why is the NDP behaving like climate change deniers on pipeline proposals? Why are they putting politics over principle?

If it walks like a duck and quacks like a duck, it's probably a duck.  When it comes to climate change, pipelines, energy policy and the National Energy Board, despite the NDP's protestations to the contrary about their interest in climate change impacts, it's abundantly clear that the NDP is trying to perpetuate a fraud on Canadian voters.

If the NDP should form government, what is clear is that going forward, the plan will remain the same: build pipelines, develop the tar sands and pay lip service to serious action on climate change – exactly what the Liberals and Conservatives before have done.  And that's not what Canada needs.

But instead of changing course and developing a meaningful position on climate change, the NDP chooses to slag politicians like Elizabeth May and parties like the Greens which have actually taken a critical look at the issue, and which stand up for the climate and economy each and every day, no matter what voters might think.  In short, instead of taking a principled stand on climate change like the Greens do, the NDP has decided to play games with the most important issue of our time, while obstructing real action.

Shame on the NDP.  Canada deserves better.

(opinions expressed in this blog are my own and should not be interpreted as being consistent with the views and/or policies of the Green Parties of Ontario and Canada)  

Wednesday, April 8, 2015

Premiers Headed in Wrong Direction on Energy, Climate

Canada’s 13 provincial and territorial premiers are gathering in Quebec City on April 14th to discuss a co-ordinated approach to take action on climate change.  For those concerned about the anticipated impacts of climate change on our economy, this initiative sounds like it might be a positive step forward by our subnational levels of government.

It would be prudent to hold the applause.

Whatever progress made by provincial leaders in Quebec is likely to be put at risk from another agreement made by the very same provincial and territorial premiers.  Last fall in Charlottetown, under the guise of the Council of the Federation, the premiers announced a provisional Canadian Energy Strategy.  According to the premier’s public relations people, the new strategy will facilitate fossil fuel resource expansion, while considering climate change impacts.  “Greener” bitumen pipelines – whatever those are – will be the order of the day (see: “Premiers tout their own national energy strategy”, the Toronto Star, August 29, 2014).

Greenpeace Canada’s Mike Hudema called the premiers out on this ploy. “A pan-provincial climate deal that greenlights tar sands expansion is a complete non-starter to any serious climate discussion,” Hudema wrote recently on the Tar Sands Solution Network’s website as part of a call for a citizen mobilization later this month in Quebec City (see: “Provincialenergy-climate agreement cannot trade climate for tar sands pipelines”, Tar Sands Solutions, March 27, 2015).

Hudema is right.  The expansion of the tar sand, facilitated by new pipeline development, is incompatible with holding warming at 2 degrees Celsius.   Studies have shown that most of the world’s known fossil fuel reserves must stay in the ground if we are going to have a good chance to keep warming below the 2 degrees C threshold nations pledged to honour in 2009 in Copenhagen.

A recent study published in the journal Nature indicates that as much as 85% of the Alberta’s proven tar sands reserves – which contain some of the world’s dirtiest oil  – will need to stay in the ground (see: “Oil sands must remain largely unexploited to meetclimate target, study finds”, the Globe and Mail, January 7, 2015).  Of course, sequestering reserves as unburnable carbon is completely at odds with Alberta’s plan to more than double production by 2030, from current levels of around 2 million barrels a day to 5.2 million.  That plan calls for extra capacity to move the bitumen. Hence the numerous pipeline proposals, including TransCanada’s Energy East – a pipeline which would move over 1.1 million barrels of bitumen a day from Alberta to ports in Quebec and New Brunswick, where most of it will be loaded onto tankers and shipped overseas for value-added refining (see: “Energy East pipeline boon for refineries an ‘emptypromise’ because most oil will go overseas: Report”, the Financial Post, March 18, 2014).

Although the fossil energy sector may be frightened by the  idea of sequestering carbon reserves, there really is no reconciling the needs of the planet with the notion that industrial society can continue to burn vast quantities of fossil fuels for our energy needs.  If we are to take the threat of climate change seriously, the only responsible option is to aggressively switch to renewable energy.

Other nations have already started shifting.  Canada, however, is largely missing out on the benefits of the global clean energy revolution (see: “Canada missing out ongreen energy revolution, report says”, CBC News, September 22, 2014).  Clean energy is now the world’s fastest growing economic sector, yet instead of creating more well-paying clean-tech jobs, we’re subsidizing fossil fuels to the tune of $34 billion a year (see: “IMFpegs Canada’s fossil fuel subsidies at $34 billion”, the Tyee, May 15, 2014).

A real national energy strategy would focus on how Canada will manage phasing out fossil energy, while making the switch to renewables.  It would provide carbon budgets for provincial governments, established strong targets to reduce emissions, and put a price on carbon pollution. 

It would not promote building pipelines under the guise of a taking action on climate change.

Of course, with past Council of the Federation meetings having been sponsored by pipeline-builder TransCanada (see: Canada’s Premiers,55th Annual Premiers Conference – page down for list of sponsors), it seems unlikely that current premiers will put the health of our economy and the Earth’s climate ahead of short-term profits for fossil resource companies.

(opinions expressed in this blog are my own and should not be interpreted as being consistent with the views and/or policies of the Green Parties of Ontario and Canada)

Originally published as "Premiers wrong about energy, climate change" the Sudbury Star, Saturday, April 4, 2015 (print and online), without hyperlinks.

Thursday, March 26, 2015

Political & Economic Leaders Who Support Energy East are Acting Against Your Best Interests

TransCanada’s Energy East pipeline project will transport diluted bitumen from Saskatchewan to Ontario through a 40-year old converted natural gas pipeline, and then from Quebec to New Brunswick through a new pipeline.  With a capacity to transport 1.1 million barrels of oil per day (almost twice that of Northern Gateway), it will be the largest oil pipeline in North America, as well as one of the longest.

Energy East’s proposed route through Northern Ontario will take it through or near the communities of Kenora, Dryden, Hearst, Kapuskasing, North Bay and Mattawa. Some of these communities have sought intervenor status at Ontario Energy Board (OEB) and National Energy Board hearings (NEB). The OEB has been holding meetings now for several months, attracting both those in favour of and opposed to the pipeline. National Energy Board hearings are likely be restricted only to those individuals and organizations “directly impacted” by the pipeline, and will assess a much narrower scope of issues as a result.

"Public" Consultations?


The City of North Bay has been in the forefront of opposition to Energy East, primarily because the existing TransCanada pipeline is located in very close proximity to Trout Lake, from which North Bay derives its drinking water. At this time, it's unclear whether the National Energy Board will entertain hearing the City's submission, and that of the North Bay-Mattawa Conservation Authority, although I think it will be difficult for the NEB to make the case that the City isn't “directly impacted” by the project (see: "City, conservation authority file to NEB", the North Bay Nugget, February 26, 2015).


North Bay's private citizens, however, may not be able to participate in the NEB's public hearings. Changes made by the government of Canada to the way in which the National Energy Board operates now mean that only a very narrow segment of the public will be able to participate in the hearings. These changes were implemented after the Northern Gateway hearing was forced to entertain submissions from members of the public and First Nations, many of whom did not reside along the route but who had an interest in protecting the environment, and in mitigating climate change.

The Climate Change Impacts of New Pipelines

Of course, unlike the environmental assessment process – the sort of process just about every other western nation uses to evaluate this kind of massive infrastructure proposal – the NEB's process is scoped so that it can't assess climate change impacts from the material in the pipeline itself. The NEB insists that it has no authority to assess upstream or downstream activities associated with the development of the tar sands, but as we found out with Northern Gateway, the NEB used the transport of the material as an economic justification for the project – it just didn't want to acknowledge the climate change impacts (see: “Rethink Energy East pipeline”, Sudbury Steve May, the Sudbury Star, October 18, 2014).

And make no mistake, there will be climate change impacts. The only reason Energy East, Northern Gateway, Kinder Morgan's Trans Mountain and TransCanada's international Keystone XL, are now being proposed is to facilitate the expansion of the Alberta tar sands. At current production levels, there would be no need for additional pipeline capacity. But that's not the plan. The governments of Canada and Alberta want to more than double tar sands from the present 2 million barrels per day to 5.2 million barrels per day by 2030. Former federal Minister of Natural Resources is on record insisting that new pipeline capacity is essential in order to expand the tar sands (see: “Joe Oliver on Keystone: Pipeline Expansion Still Needed Despite Price-Gap narrowing, Oliver Says”, the Canadian Press, March 18, 2013).

Some argue that since the bitumen is going to be mined and find its way to market anyway, that there's really no point in assessing the climate change impacts from an expanded tar sands. While this argument is pervasive (even the U.S. State Department used it in its assessment of Keystone XL), it is limited and fails to take into account Canada's international commitments to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, as well as other economic factors such as the decarbonizing of the economy which is already underway.

Canada Leads the Way Forward Into the 19th Century

Of course, those who favour mining bitumen over the health of the planet will continue to believe that any international commitment to decrease greenhouse gas emissions either doesn't apply to them, or isn't worth the paper its printed on. And with good reason. Canada's historic indifference to international climate agreements, coupled with rising emissions, has done little to dampen the spirits of those whose bottom line depends on the extraction of some of the most emissions-intensive oil on Earth. When Canada unilaterally pulled out of the Kyoto agreement, the signal was a clear one that we would not be bound by these sorts of agreements. Our subsequent behaviour at the United Nations has done everything to reinforce our lack of interest in curtailing tar sands production (see: “Green leader accuses Tories of sabotaging climate talks”, CBC News, November 29, 2012).

Of course, pulling out of Kyoto, throwing monkey wrenches into international climate talks, eliminating a real environmental assessment process for infrastructure projects and moving full steam ahead with new pipelines has all happened on the watch of Stephen Harper's Conservative government. That's the same government which promised to regulate the oil and gas industry's emissions back in 2007, and after failing to take action for 8 years, finally came clean in 2014, insisting that there would be no regulations (see: “New oil and gas regulations would be 'crazy' Harper says”, the Toronto Star, December 9, 2014).

Some have suggested that the current Conservative government has a bit of a pro-oil bent, and will do whatever it can to make sure that Alberta bitumen is mined and shipped offshore for refining. Some have drawn a connection to the fact that the Conservatives hold 85 of 87 seats in Alberta as a reason for their pro-Alberta policy shift, which has seen environmental regulations eviscerated and economic development opportunities in anything other than fossil fuels and infrastructure shunted aside in preference to oil.

The Economics of 2 Degrees C

Yet, we know that if we are to hold the line of warming at 2 degrees Celsius, which is the threshold beyond which the best available science tells us we should not go, we know that the majority of the world's known fossil resources will have to be left in the ground. We know this. Stephen Harper's Conservatives know this. But they don't seem to care – really, there's not much more than can be said beyond the notion that this Conservative government of Canada has continued to put the interests of fossil fuel companies ahead of the interests of citizens. Except maybe to say that they have successfully managed to convince a plurality of Canadians to vote against their own interests at the ballot box in the past several federal elections. And that they may be able to pull it off again later this year.

The evidence that Harper's Conservatives are acting counter to the interests of Canadians – and humanity – is starting to add up. A recent report by Christopher Glade, University College London, concluded that up to 85% of the tar sands' known reserves will need to stay safely sequestered in the ground if we are to hold the line of warming at 2 degrees Celsius (see: “Most of Canada's oil sands must stay in the ground if world to limit global warming: Report”, the Canadian Press, January 7, 2015). This builds upon earlier studies, along with comments made by former Bank of Canada governor (now Bank of England governer) Mark Carney about the need to sequester fossil resources if we the world is going to meet its international obligations to keep emissions in line. Despite the assertions from Conservative climate-change deniers, Carney refers to resources like the Alberta tar sands as “stranded assets”, meaning that the reserves which we all thought would be money-makers, will in fact prove to be essentially worthless in the coming green economy (see: "Mark Carney defends climate change economic study”, CBC News, March 11, 2015).

Carney and others have gone further. They are concerned about a looming “carbon bubble” of suddenly devalued fossil assets – assets like those the Governments of Canada and Alberta are actively planning to exploit by expanding tar sands production to more than twice its current capacity by 2030. Assets like new pipelines designed to ship bitumen to coastal ports to be loaded on tankers to be refined overseas. In the coming economy, these assets may very well prove to be worthless (see “Mark Carney: most fossil fuel reserves can't be burned”, the Guardian, October 13, 2014).

What's clear is that continuing to make investments in fossil fuel infrastructure (like the Energy East pipeline) to facilitate the expansion of the Alberta tar sands not only makes zero sense from a greenhouse gas emissions standpoint, it makes no sense at all from an economic standpoint either. Yet, the Harper government continues to plan for the expansion of the tar sands enterprise – and to subsidize some of the world's most profitable oil companies to the tune of $26 billion a year (see: “IMF pegs Canada's fossil fuel subsidies at $34 billion”, Mitchell Anderson, The Tyee, May 15, 2014).

Canadian Governments and Climate Change

With all of this in mind, it seems completely out of step with reality that the National Energy Board isn't taking into consideration the climate change impacts of what's going to travel through the pipe. It's like building a new Highway 401 and forgetting to assess what sort of impacts all of the cars and trucks will have on the asset. And of course, the NEB isn't even looking at the long-term economic impacts of tar sands expansion either – except in the most positive light.

It's almost as if Canada never made any commitment at all back in 2009 in Copenhagen to reduce emissions by 17% of 2005 levels by 2020. Of course, given Canada's track record so far, it's questionable whether the government ever had any intention of being serious about reducing emissions (see: “Even with proposed emissions regulations Canada won't meet ghg targets: commissioner” Global News, October 12, 2014). Given Canada's desire to pursue the expansion of the tar sands and to start a new liquified natural gas (LNG) industry in Northern British Columbia, it's pretty clear that our economic policy has been completely at odds with our international commitment.

Of course, when it comes to ignoring climate change impacts, the Conservatives are in good company. Recently, Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne and Quebec Premier Phillippe Couillard announced that their provinces would assess the climate change impacts the Energy East pipeline. This commitment was extremely short-lived, for after a whirlwind visit from Alberta Premier Jim Prentice, Wynne and Couillard backed off – and had the audacity to claim that they never actually said what they had said. Clearly, something got to these two eastern Premiers (see: “Ontario Liberals 'Blowing Smoke' on Climate Change”, Sudbury Steve May, December 12, 2014).

Follow the Money

One of the biggest contributors to the Liberal Party of Ontario has been the Laborers International Union of North America (LIUNA). Between 2004 and 2011, LIUNA gave the Ontario Liberals more than three quarters of a million dollars in donations. LIUNA has been sending out its reps to stack OEB hearings in Northern Ontario communities. LIUNA believes that building Energy East makes sense – and seems to be prepared to grease whatever wheels it takes to make it happen (see: “Energy East Footsies: LIUNA, the Liberals and the NDP”, Sudbury Steve May, November 11, 2014).

Of course, LIUNA is a pretty small player when compared to multinationals like TransCanada, Kinder Morgan and Enbridge. It's not always easy to connect the dots about how some of these massive corporations operate, but every now and again their dealings come to light.

We know that TransCanada was considering engaging in a campaign to build artificial support through social media for Energy East (see: “Edelman's TransCanada Astroturf Documents Expose Broad Attack on Public Interests”, DeSmogCanada, November 24, 2014). Concerns were also raised about TransCanada's donation of $30,000 for a new rescue truck for the Town of Mattawa in Northern Ontario – a community which the Energy East pipeline will traverse. TransCanada's donation came with a gag order attached which required the municipality to remain silent on the pipeline proposal. After all of this came to light, both TransCanada and municipal officials engaged in damage control, telling the public that the gag order was nothing of the sort (see: “TransCanada donation to Ontario town comes with 'no comment' condition”, the Toronto Star, July 5, 2014).

Corporate Lobbying of Municipal Officials

What we can definitively take away from the Mattawa episode is that corporations like TransCanada are clearly engaging with municipal officials in communities along the pipeline's route. Exactly what is going on behind closed doors at our municipal offices remains to be seen, for unlike Ontario and Canada, corporate lobbyists have a free hand to do whatever they please in all but 3 of Ontario's 444 municipalities (see: "Registering Lobbyists Will Shine a Light on Back Room Deals”, Sudbury Steve May, March 10, 2015).

Indeed, both the Northern Ontario Municipal Association (NOMA) and the Federation of Northern Ontario Municipalities (FONOM) passed resolutions in 2014 supporting TransCanada's Energy East pipeline. It's not at all clear why these organizations for reps from northwestern (NOMA) and northeastern (FONOM) Ontario have taken the extraordinary steps to endorse the pipeline – a pipeline which will lead to the expansion of the Alberta tar sands and act against the interests of Northern Ontarians.

In FONOM's submission to the Ontario Energy Board, the organization cites a good working relationship with TransCanada and the number of jobs the pipeline corporation has created in northern communities as one of the reasons for supporting the pipeline. FONOM's submission, however, fails to even mention the reality of climate change or how a changing climate is already negatively impacting northern communities.

Connecting the Dots

Of course, elsewhere FONOM has been vocal with their characterizations of those who are concerned about the environment, referring to environmental organizations as benefiting financially from attacking the resource sector and Northern Ontario's economy, and showing a disregard for facts (see: “Northern Ontario gets a “SLAPP” in the Face from FONOMhttp://www.nobs.ca/posts/steve-may-3-2-2015.html”, Sudbury Steve May, NOBS.ca, March 2, 2015). This is the sort of extremist rhetoric which Stephen Harper's Conservative government has used in the past to describe what the RCMP now grossly mischaracterizes for the purpose of instilling fear in the populace as an “anti-petroleum movement” (see: “Anti-petroleum movement a growing security threat to Canada, RCMP say”, the Globe and Mail, February 17, 2015).

Although we can't know what's happening behind the closed doors of our municipalities, and which of our elected municipal officials are actively being lobbied by fossil corporations to take actions which will further imperil Canada's ability to achieve our international climate change commitments, it is possible in some circumstances to connect the dots. For example, Kapuskasing Mayor Al Spacek is also the Chair of FONOM. In 2011, Spacek ran unsuccessfully for the Ontario Progressive Conservative Party in the Northern Ontario riding of Timmins-James Bay, losing out to the NDP's Gilles Bisson. Other members of FONOM have affiliations with the Conservative and Liberal parties, and still a few others are associated with the NDP.

The Conservatives, Liberals, NDP & Energy East: 3 Peas in a Pod

That would seem to cover the entire political spectrum, except for the fact that it doesn't. To be clear, the federal Conservatives and provincial Liberals both support the Energy East pipeline, although each respective government will insist that they will rely on the advice offered to them from the NEB and OEB decisions – decisions which will fail to assess the climate change impacts of the infrastructure proposal.

The federal NDP has long been on record for supporting the Energy East pipeline as well. However, their position has recently become somewhat more nuanced. The NDP now appears to support the pipeline, but not the regulatory approach to allow it to be built. The NDP has recently come on board with concerns over the climate change impacts of the pipeline – impacts which the NEB insists it has no mandate to assess. What is clear, however, is that NDP Leader Tom Mulcair, in a speech to the Economic Club of Canada, laid out how the expansion of the Alberta tar sands would be a priority for his government, and how it would be facilitated by a new east-west pipeline (see: “A new vision for a new century. Our plan for a prosperous and sustainable energy future”, New Democratic Party release, December 4, 2013).

It's certainly not clear to me how a political party can be both seriously concerned about climate change on the one hand, and eager to expand the tar sands by building new pipelines on the other, but that appears to be the state of affairs with today's NDP.

The only national political party which has publicly opposed the Energy East pipeline is the Green Party of Canada. In Quebec, the new Forces et Democratie party has also come out in opposition to Energy East.

Why Your Opposition Matters

With major corporations, unions and Canada's three largest political parties, the federal and key provincial governments all on the same side when it comes to Energy East, one has to wonder whether there's any point in opposing the project. Clearly, there is. Clearly, when it comes to climate change, Canada's international commitments and holding the line of warming at the scientifically recognized threshold of 2 degrees Celsius, so many of our political and economic institutions just aren't taking things seriously. They continue to hold fast to a rapidly disintegrating economic paradigm based on non-renewable fossil energy.

The tide of history is shifting, however, and the green economy is emerging. It will take some time, and along the way we will continue to foolishly waste our scarce fiscal resources on planet-destroying fossil energy solutions. Every action in opposition, however, will slow down the rate of these bad decisions, and help build a truly sustainable economy based on renewable energy. Slowly, the paradigm will change, and the political and economic institutions which resist will either be transformed or cast aside. Change is inevitable, because it must be. Some of our political and economic leaders have already received that memo and are acting on it. Others will follow.

In the meantime, doing what we can to prevent the wasteful and dangerous Energy East pipeline will go a long way to help.

(opinions expressed in this blog are my own and should not be interpreted as being consistent with the views and/or policies of the Green Parties of Ontario and Canada)  

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Registering Lobbyists Will Shine a Light on Back Room Deals

Shady backroom deal-makers love to operate under the cover of darkness.  Openness and transparency are the friends of an engaged citizenry, while backroom deal-makers avoid accountability by scuttling away to dark corners for secret meetings.

In the recent provincial by-election in Sudbury, we saw first-hand how exposing backroom deals to the light of day can have an impact.  Former Liberal candidate Andrew Olivier blew the whistle on senior Party officials who made what he thought were inappropriate overtures to him to drop out of the by-election race.  Had Olivier remained silent, it’s doubtful that these problematic backroom practices would have ever been exposed. 

For others who might think of speaking out on matters of local importance, silence is often ultimately deemed the safest course to take.  By speaking out, citizens expose themselves to all sorts of repercussions, from appearing offside on a popular issue, to experiencing full-blown smear campaigns orchestrated by rivals.  Deep-pocketed opponents have even been known to threaten and file lawsuits in order to silence engaged citizens who are expressing an opinion as part of a public process.

Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation – known as “SLAPPS” – have forced citizens and non-governmental organizations to rethink their public opposition to development projects being reviewed by authorities like the Ontario Municipal Board or the Environmental Review Tribunal.  Often, SLAPP lawsuits have no merit, and are filed only to silence opponents.  After the public process unfolds to the satisfaction of the corporate bully, the suits are quietly dropped.

In December, the government of Ontario re-introduced a bill to curtail SLAPP’s.  Anti-SLAPP legislation would better protect citizens from vexatious lawsuits, while continuing to allow valid defamation suits to proceed to trial.   While this initiative enjoys broad public support, there are some who are nevertheless concerned that citizens and grassroots environmental organizations might gain the upper hand over multinational corporations. 

Resolute Forest Products has been quietly lobbying the provincial government to kill the anti-SLAPP bill.  Resolute, which in May 2013 filed a $7 million defamation suit against Greenpeace and two of its directors, has paid a number of different lobbyists to meet with provincial officials over the past two years.  We know this because in 1999, the Province of Ontario became the first province to require lobbyists to register and record their meetings with elected officials. 

In the interests of openness and transparency, the federal government has a similar registry for lobbyists. 

What about Ontario’s municipal governments?

Currently, municipalities aren’t required to register and record the activities of lobbyists, although Toronto, Ottawa and Hamilton have created registries on their own initiatives.  While lobbying is a legitimate activity, citizens would clearly benefit from knowing exactly who is trying to influence our elected officials, and about what.

Two large northern-based organizations comprised of municipal council members, the Northern Ontario Municipal Association (NOMA) and the Federation of Northern Ontario Municipalities (FONOM), have been urging the Province to amend or kill the anti-SLAPP bill.  Using extremist language to suggest that foreign-funded environmental groups are attacking the North’s economy and way of life, FONOM and NOMA’s opposition to anti-SLAPP actually runs counter to the interests of northern citizens who want to actively and fearlessly engage in public processes to improve their communities.

It’s unknown whether northern municipal politicians have met with corporate lobbyists who have urged them to oppose anti-SLAPP legislation.  Without the benefit of lobbyist registries at our City Halls, northern Ontarians are left in the dark about what discussions are taking place between paid lobbyists and our elected officials.   Municipal politicians who are concerned about accountability should demand transparency and shine a light on secretive backroom deals by requiring the details of lobbying efforts be made public.

(opinions expressed in this blog are my own and should not be interpreted as being consistent with the views and/or policies of the Green Parties of Ontario and Canada)

Originally published in print as "Registering lobbyists brings transparency", the Sudbury Star, Saturday, March 7, 2015. 

Thursday, March 5, 2015

Northern Ontarians Get a SLAPP in the Face from FONOM

Did you know that Northeastern Ontario’s municipal leaders are petitioning the government to enact legislation which will silence the participation of environmental organizations who oppose clear-cutting and bitumen pipelines? It may come as a surprise to voters in centres like Greater Sudbury and North Bay that their tax dollars are going towards a lobbying effort which puts the interests of corporations ahead of citizens – but that’s just what’s happening.

"SLAPP"

In December, 2014, the Province of Ontario re-introduced “The Protection of Public Participation Act”. Bill 52, is the successor to Bill 83 – a bill which died on the order paper when the 2014 provincial election was called in May of last year. Also known as the “anti-SLAPP” bill, Bill 83 enjoyed broad support for striking a more favourable balance between the public’s right to participate in public processes, and the rights of individuals and corporations to protect their reputation. The reintroduction of anti-SLAPP legislation was identified by Premier Kathleen Wynne as a priority for her Minister of the Attorney General, Madeleine Meilleur, in the MAG’s mandate letter of September 25, 2014.

“SLAPP” – or, strategic lawsuits against public participation – has become an issue throughout the western world, and especially here in Ontario. Lawsuits have been filed with the primary purpose of achieving results outside of the legal system – including silencing citizens and citizens organizations which have been critical of a development proposal. Most often, the basis of these lawsuits has been the notion that in the course of public consultation, a corporation or individual has been libelled or slandered by a public participant, and that the lawsuit is necessary in order to protect the reputation of the corporation.

Of course, it’s the filing of the lawsuit itself which typically leads to favourable outcomes for the deep-pocketed corporation over the private citizen or citizens organization. Most often, the lawsuits are dropped when posts are removed from websites, or appeals to the Environmental Review Tribunal or Ontario Municipal Board have been dropped by citizens fearing personal insolvency trying to defend their actions. These lawsuits have led some to suggest that freedom of expression and democracy itself are being undermined (see: "Ontario must ban SLAPP suits to protect free speech", the Toronto Star, November 8, 2013). Ultimately, SLAPP suits throw up a barrier to one's Charter guaranteed right to freedom of expression.

Finding a Better Balance

Changes proposed through Ontario’s anti-SLAPP legislation would see these lawsuits fast-tracked, so that corporations filing the suit will need to prove that the suit merits the court’s continued attention. If the corporation can’t prove that there is merit to the libel or slander accusations it has made, the case will be dismissed in a timely manner – allowing citizens and citizen’s organizations to proceed with public input, consultation and taking a position on a matter of public interest without the fear of financial ruin. The Osler law firm has a good synopsis of the legislation available on its website.

Many jurisdictions in Canada and the United States have already enacted anti-SLAPP legislation. Despite good intentions, Ontario remains on the offside with this necessary protection for citizens. Interestingly, although it has been expressed that the government’s proposed anti-SLAPP legislation may enjoy broad, multi-party support, the government has been and continues to be lobbied by special interests – mainly corporate endeavours – who view anti-SLAPP legislation as a threat to their own bottom lines, most likely because it will negatively impact current corporate practices.

Corporate Lobbying Against Anti-SLAPP

Forestry giant Resolute Forest Products has employed the services of U.S.-based Edelman to lobby Ontario’s provincial government to abandon its pursuit of enacting anti-SLAPP legislation. Interestingly, Edelman, which Greenpeace describes as the “world’s largest PR and crisis management firm”, was the firm employed by TransCanada’s campaign to use a phony “grassroots” online campaigns to show support for TransCanada’s Energy East pipeline (see: "After TransCanada, logging giant Resolute employs Edelman for astroturfing and lobbying in Ontario", Greenpeace, December 8, 2014). Edelman’s astroturf campaign was exposed by the media – and quickly disowned by TransCanada (see: "Energy East pipeline 'advocates' targeted in TransCanada PR move", CBC, November 18, 2014)

It might be expected that companies like Resolute, who have been accused of filing lawsuits to silence opponents of their corporate practices (see: "Resolute sues Rainforest Alliance over 'biased' audit", CBC, May 21, 2014), might have adopted a position contrary to the interests of public citizens in their efforts to get the government to change its mind.

And of course, it might also be expected that filing this type of lawsuit in Ontario - a jurisdiction which doesn’t have anti-SLAPP legislation - makes more sense for a Montreal-based corporation which took exception to an environmental organization’s comments made regarding forestry practices in the province of Quebec (see: "Greenpeace hits back against Resolute Forest lawsuit", the Toronto Star, August 21, 2014). All of this points to the need for Minister Meilleur to stay the course on pursuing her mandate to enact anti-SLAPP legislation for the benefit of our Province and its citizens.

Municipal Opposition to Anti-SLAPP

Despite what many of us have come to expect from industry, what will probably come as a real shock to Ontarians is that an organization comprised of elected municipal councilors from northeastern Ontario have also been lobbying the government to water down its desire to protect free speech. Worse yet, this organization, the Federation of Northern Ontario Municipalities (FONOM), has been using your tax dollars to lobby the provincial government to take actions counter to the interests of the public.

FONOM is comprised of elected councillors and heads of council from many northeastern Ontario municipalities, including Greater Sudbury. For the privilege of being a part of a larger body which co-ordinates issues for discussion with provincial representatives, FONOM charges fees to each municipality, which are paid with taxpayer’s dollars.

While I believe that FONOM does some good work in advancing municipal interests to the provincial government, their opposition to anti-SLAPP legislation clearly runs against the interests of northern voters – the very same citizens who pay the taxes which keep FONOM in business.

Freedom of Expression

Recently, FONOM modified its outright opposition to anti-SLAPP legislation, by requesting that the province amend the proposed Act so that it would only protect the free speech of “volunteers” and community organizations with budgets less than $100,000. I guess in its wisdom, FONOM appears to believe that there are two standards for engaging in free speech. FONOM apparently thinks it’s ok to be protected from non-meritorious SLAPPs if you’re a private citizen, but if you’re hired by that private citizen to offer your professional opinion on an environmental matter in front of a review tribunal, well, you’re fair game. Or if you’re a citizen’s organization forced to raise a lot of money to fight applications against deep-pocketed developers at the Ontario Municipal Board – too bad.

What FONOM doesn’t seem to get is that you can’t put a price on free speech, ever. It’s either a right that you have – or you don’t have it.

Hiring professionals to provide evidence on one’s behalf is almost a minimum requirement to be taken seriously at many of the province’s quasi-judicial tribunals, including the Ontario Municipal Board and the Environmental Review Tribunal. Further, it’s not unusual for legal and other bills for citizen’s groups to climb well beyond the $100,000 threshold that FONOM wants established. An illustrative case in point regarding both of these matters played out a few years ago in the Town of Innisfil, over a development known as Big Bay Point – a case where lawsuits were filed by a developer against citizens and citizens organizations, as well against legal counsel hired by those citizens! (see: "Democracy suffers under barrage of strategic lawsuits", the Toronto Star, February 26, 2008)

And then there are First Nations – organizations of citizens which may have a different take on how consultation over resource development ought to play itself out than do some who comprise FONOM’s membership.

Extremist Rhetoric has No Place in Public Discourse

Of course, FONOM claims to be concerned about those “environmental organizations” which “have shown a disregard for facts” and who “benefit financially from attacking our resource sectors” by receiving “grants from foreign sources to attack our economy” and who put at risk our “way of life in Northern Ontario”. I’m putting a lot of this language into quotations because it’s the language which FONOM uses to voice its concerns about anti-SLAPP legislation (see: "Mayors slam groups with disregard for 'Northern way of life'", SooToday.com, February 20, 2015).

Does this type of over-the-top rhetoric sound familiar to anybody else? (see: "Radicals working against oil sands, Ottawa says", CBC, January 9, 2012)

It's egregious for our elected officials at any level to characterize environmentalists as being somehow anti-Canadian. It's bad enough when it's done so through the lens of party politics. But of course, in Ontario, at the municipal level, we don't have political parties. The elected officials who comprise FONOM's membership are all elected through non-partisan processes. Yet somehow the organization still believes that it's appropriate to vilify environmentalists in this manner. FONOM would do well to remember that many of these environmental organizations are comprised of Northern Ontarians who are concerned about the decisions made by those looking after our natural resources. We live in the same communities as you. Our kids play hockey on the same teams.

Greenpeace SLAPP'ed by Forestry Giant

Of course, like Canada's federal government, FONOM hasn’t offered one shred of evidence in defense of its wild accusations. I’m at a complete loss about what, exactly, FONOM means when it suggests that environmental eNGOs are attacking our economy. If FONOM is thinking about the current lawsuit filed by Resolute Forest Products against Greenpeace and two of its directors, then it remains wholly unclear to me how that might be considered an attack on the North’s resource-based economy.

Indeed, up until just prior to the lawsuit, Greenpeace had been working in partnership with Resolute through the Forest Stewardship Council – up until May, 2013, when Greenpeace published a report drawing critical attention to Resolute’s unsustainable forestry practices. Greenpeace urged Resolute to reform its ways, in keeping with the spirit of the voluntary Forest Stewardship Council agreement. Instead of taking meaningful action to address criticisms, Resolute filed defamation lawsuits against Greenpeace and personally against two Greenpeace directors. (for more information, Greenpeace has documented this story on its website.

Perhaps what would have been a much better outcome for Northern Ontario’s economy would have been for Resolute to reform its business practices so that better regard was had to the health, viability and sustainability of northern ecosystems. By deciding to pursue business practices which put corporate interests ahead of the public’s and the environment’s, it may very well be that Resolute has damaged its own fiscal sustainability (see: "Resolute feud with Greenpeace drags on profits: Corporate Canada", BloombergBusiness, January 12, 2015).

Corporations Protected through Existing Laws

None of this is to suggest that it’s ok for environmental organizations to defame corporate entities. In fact, anti-SLAPP legislation won’t have an impact at all on a corporation’s ability to bring meritorious defamation suits forward – the key, though, is that there must be some merit to the suit – merit which can be demonstrated in a timely manner to the courts. If a court can be convinced to hear the argument that libel has occurred, it’s not going to shut down legal proceedings. Only those proceedings which clearly have no merit will come to a grinding halt.

FONOM Embarrasses Northern Ontarians

FONOM clearly needs to get with the times. It’s over-the-top rhetoric it is using to lobby our provincial government over anti-SLAPP legislation is, frankly, an embarrassment to all northerners. The very idea that our northern way of life could ever be put at risk by well-meaning environmentalists which advocate for the reform of outdated business practices lacks anything akin to credibility. And the notion that somehow all of this is being done in the interests of shady, monied foreign-owned corporations simply defies logic.

FONOM’s support of the Energy East pipeline, in defiance of the environmental damage that reversing existing aging natural gas infrastructure for the flow of bitumen will do, is yet another example of how out of touch with the times FONOM appears to be. In its call for the Ontario Energy Board to approve the project – without the benefit of considering climate change impacts – FONOM has clearly abandoned any ability to claim that it’s looking out for the economic interests of Northern Ontarians. Instead, FONOM appears to be acting clearly on behalf of corporations, and not acting in the interests of the citizens who elect its members – and who pay for its bills.

It’s past time for FONOM to change its ways and focus on advocacy which will meet the real present and future needs of Northerners. Impeding anti-SLAPP legislation and favouring non-renewable fossil fuel resource projects like the Energy East pipeline have no place as part of a sustainable economic development strategy for Northern Ontario. Frustrating the participation of citizens and organizations to become true partners in development will run counter to the sort of collaborative systems which are already replacing failed 20th century consultation models. Calling for the investment in fossil fuel infrastructure to allow the expansion of the tar sands at a time when it’s well known that the majority of fossil fuel reserves must stay sequestered in the ground simply defies economic logic.

Greater Sudbury's Future Role in FONOM

I, like many Greater Sudburians, would like to know whether Greater Sudbury’s representatives on FONOM, including former FONOM Director and Greater Sudbury Mayor Marianne Matichuk voted in favour of motions 2014-14 (opposition to anti-SLAPP) and 2014-17 (support for Energy East) when she represented our community on FONOM’s board. These motions were adopted by FONOM at its May, 2014 meeting in Sault Ste. Marie.

Our new municipal council representatives to FONOM must apply pressure to have these motions overturned – and indeed, to motivate FONOM to change its ways. Our elected municipal officials, including Greater Sudbury Mayor Brian Bigger, must demand that the FONOM back off of its support for the Energy East pipeline and drop its opposition to anti-SLAPP legislation. If FONOM can’t be successfully pressured to join the 21st Century and work in favour of Northern Ontarians, then our municipal councils should start questioning whether it’s past time for the use of municipal tax dollars for the continued support of FONOM.

(opinions expressed in this blog are my own and should not be interpreted as being consistent with the views and/or policies of the Green Parties of Ontario and Canada)

(originally published at the Northern Ontario Bloggers Syndicate, www.nobs.ca, as "Northern Ontario Gets a "SLAPP" in the Face from FONOM", March 2, 2015)