Thursday, May 31, 2012

Greater Sudbury at a Crossroads, Part 1: Looking Backwards and Moving Forwards

The City of Greater Sudbury finds itself at a crossroads. The time is now ripe to tackle difficult, but important and interesting questions about the nature of our City, and what we want it to become in the future. With a number of trends underway locally and globally which will bring change to our City, planning for a suitable direction forward is more important now than it ever has been.

Modest Population Growth Projected

Two reports were released this week which identified some of the changes which Greater Sudbury can expect to see over the next few years and decades. The first report, the “Growth and Settlement Background Report and Issues Paper” (City of Greater Sudbury, May 28 2012), was produced by the City as part of the background materials for the 5-year review of the City’s Official Plan. The Official Plan is a land use policy document which guides development, and has been likened to a promise made to the public by the municipality that growth and development will occur in a particular manner.

Amongst other findings, the Growth and Settlement Background Report concludes that Greater Sudbury will experience modest growth over the next two decades, with a population rising from the existing 160,274 (in 2011) to 170,680 people in the year 2032. Coupled with a declining household size, we can expect the need for an additional 4,400 dwellings over the next 20 years.

The policies of the updated Official Plan will largely assist in determining where these new people will live, and specifically where new dwellings will be created.

Satisfactory Economic Outlook

The second study, “Sudbury: Mining for Economic Growth” (BMO Capital Markets Economics, May 31 2012), predicts a rosy picture of Greater Sudbury’s prospects for job creation in the short-term (well, “rosy” when compared to provincial averages). BMO is forecasting the City’s unemployment rate to continue to trend downwards (to 6% in 2016 from 7.2% in 2011), and that if existing global and regional economic conditions continue, as many as 4,000 new jobs may be added to the City by the end of 2016.

BMO believes that many of these new jobs will be in the well-paying mining sector (including mining supply and mining technology), based on a number of initiatives which are currently underway in the City (Vale’s $10 billion investment is cited), and due to estimates for continuing strong resource demands. Spin-off jobs from resource sector investment, particularly in construction, are also anticipated.
However, this good news about growth comes with a bit of a warning. While BMO indicates that housing affordability remains relatively attractive in Greater Sudbury, the Sudbury Star reports that BMO has likened growth here to what happened in Calgary 10 years ago, and warns that the City’s housing infrastructure in particular couldn’t keep up with demand (see: “Boom goes Sudbury”, The Sudbury Star, May 31, 2012). This drove up real estate prices, affecting affordability.

Rising Energy Costs

Global trends, too, will play an important role in Greater Sudbury’s development, particularly those trends related to energy pricing. We can continue to expect to see energy costs rise, although a recession might temporarily disrupt the upward pace of energy prices, similar to what we witnessed in 2008-09. There can be no denying, however, that oil prices will increase over time, due to the added costs related to processing/refining and transport of non-conventional oil sources. As a result, we can all individually expect to consume much less energy in the future.

Increasing Inequality

The growing gap between the rich and poor will likely continue in the future, unless significant policy changes are made at the federal and provincial levels of government. Increasingly, the middle class is losing ground in terms of real wages and purchasing power. Although interest rates have remained low for some time now, the impacts of inflation and rising food prices continue to pose a threat to all but the most well-off Canadians. While the 1% get richer, the 99% will continue to lose ground, relatively speaking.

Personal debt loads also continue to be very high, especially for young people entering the workforce. The percentage of income used to serviced household debt has risen over time, and will continue to trend upward. With more seniors now working past the traditional retirement age of 65, entry into the workplace will continue to be increasingly delayed for youth. Youth will need to compensate by taking on lower-paying and part-time jobs, in order to service rising debt. The impacts are already being felt by youth, as increasingly youth are choosing to reside at home, and delay making significant decisions regarding vehicle and home ownership, marriage and starting families.

Planning for Future Economic Prosperity

Taken together, these trends will have an impact on the wants and needs of Greater Sudburians. That’s why it’s so important that we plan for a City which will meet our changing future needs, rather than to continue to do things as they have always been done. Greater Sudbury’s economic prosperity will be determined by how successful we are at planning for and creating communities which meet our anticipated future needs. A city which provides opportunities for people and businesses to thrive in a low-carbon economy will be a better place for all of its residents.

How, then, do we move forward? The first step is to understand the impacts which local, regional and global trends will have upon current and future residents. The second step is to plan to meet those needs. The third step, and probably the most difficult one, is to implement the plan. This requires political leadership and political will, which aren’t to be confused.

Political leaders must act as champions for a new vision of the City. Our elected officials and other key individuals in positions of power and influence must be advocates for a new way forward. However, champions can only do so much if the political will of the electorate is focused elsewhere. Therefore, there must be a broad understanding that changes are necessary, and that we are moving forward, together, to address our anticipated future needs.

In my next few posts, I’ll examine what changes we should be thinking about making to our City based on local, regional and global trends. I’ll be looking at ideas of leadership and political will a little more closely, particularly with regards to achieving the outcome of creating a City strongly positioned to take on the challenges of tomorrow. And finally, I’ll be looking at why creating complete communities makes the most economic sense for Greater Sudbury taxpayers.

(opinions expressed are my own, and should not be interpreted as being consistent with those of the Green Party of Canada)

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Omnibus Bill Shows Harper's Contempt for Natural Environment

The following letter to the editor was originally submitted to the Sudbury Star on May 8, 2012. At this time, it has not been published in either the print or on-line editions of the paper. As a result, I am now sharing this letter with you directly, through my blogsite ( and through the UR Sudbury website.

Omnibus Bill Shows Harper’s Contempt for the Natural Environment

Stephen Harper’s Conservative government is determined to push through the omnibus Bill C-38, with the minimum of input from our elected parliament. By using time allocations to limit debate, the Conservatives once again are showing their contempt for our elected parliament. It’s the same kind of contempt which the Conservatives have repeatedly shown Canadians who are concerned about conserving our natural environment.

Bill C-38 will do a lot more than simply implement the federal budget. It will eviscerate many of Canada’s historic environmental laws, and establish a new regime which promotes unrestrained economic development at the expense of environmental protection. For starters, Bill C-38 will repeal the Canadian Environmental Assessment Act, a foundational piece of legislation which for decades has required an assessment of impacts when development is proposed. In place of the Act, the Conservatives are offering new legislation which will severely restrict the required assessment of environmental impacts, and limit opportunities for input from the public and First Nations.

The Fisheries Act will also be gutted by the omnibus bill, as fish habitat protections will be removed. Tom Siddon, the former Tory Minister of Fisheries and Oceans in Brian Mulroney’s government, expressed his outrage over this regressive step to managing the economically important fisheries resource.

The public is starting to realize that the Harper Conservatives really are at war with all Canadians who are interested in seeing our environmental resources protected for the use of future generations. Along with cabinet ministers on-going references to environmentalists as being “radicals” and “extremists”, last week we witnessed Peter Kent, the Minister of Environment, claim that certain environmental groups have been laundering money. When pressed by the media for specifics, Kent refused to identify which groups he believes are engaging in illegal activities, thus leaving his smear to taint all those engaged in promoting conservation efforts.

It’s important that mega-projects are developed right the first time, and that Canadian taxpayers aren’t left holding the bag when expensive remediation is necessary due to environmental oversights pre-development. The Harper Conservatives believe that our environmental regulations are standing in the way of economic growth. That’s nonsense. The real threat to Canada’s economy is the undoing of environmental protections in the name of unrestrained resource exploitation. We and our children will be paying for the contempt shown to the natural environment by the Harper Conservatives long after the current Prime Minister retires.

(opinions expressed are my own, and should not be interpreted as being consistent with those of the Green Party of Canada)

Thursday, May 10, 2012

Answers Still Needed for Appropriate Assessment of Cliffs Chromite Project

I read with interest today a number of news reports related to the announcement that  Cliffs Natural Resources will be investing approximately $3.3 billion in Ontario, to build a chromite mine in the Ring of Fire, and a ferrochrome processing facility in my city, the City of Greater Sudbury.  That Cliffs has been pushing ahead with developing the Black Thor deposit in the Ring of Fire has been no secret.  What was up in the air, however, was the selection of a community to host the prized ferrochrome processing facility (smelter), which is expected to generate approximately 400 operational jobs, and an additional 400 construction jobs.

Today’s announcement identifying the Moose Mountain site outside of the Capreol community in the City of Greater Sudbury as the new home for the smelter was one of the worst-kept secrets in Northern Ontario.  While the communities of Greenstone, Thunder Bay and Timmins were also in the running, Cliffs has been proceeding since the fall of 2011 with an Environmental Assessment process based on a “base case scenario” which identified Moose Mountain as the site of the smelter, and media has since reported that Cliffs has actually purchased the Moose Mountain site.

Still, today’s announcement brings some additional certainty to the environmental assessment process.

However, the announcement appears to have been structured in a way which suggests that the Cliffs Chromite Project is a “done deal”, and that only the specifics now need to be worked out.  This, to me, seems incredibly premature, given that the environmental assessment process, flawed as it is, is just getting underway.  Wouldn’t it be more astute to wait for that process to unfold before assuming that the project is viable?

Or is the environmental assessment process really just window-dressing? 

A B.C. Comparison

A few weeks ago, the British Columbia provincial NDP made national headlines when it was revealed that they had written to the National Energy Board on the proposed Northern Gateway Pipeline, which is intended to transport bitumen from the Alberta tar sands to the port of Kitimat on the B.C. coast.  The BC NDP took a position that it did not support the proposed pipeline.  At the time, B.C. Liberal Premier Christy Clark took some heat because her government hasn’t taken a position on the pipeline.  Clark maintained that it would be premature for her government to take a position one way or the other until all of the technical information has been produced and made available to the public for review.

Clark’s position with Northern Gateway was echoed today by Bill Boor, Cliffs’ Senior Vice President.  The Northern Life reports that Boor indicated that objecting to the Ring of Fire development on environmental grounds is “premature”, since the project is only now moving into the feasibility and environmental assessment phase (see: “First Nations fumingover smelter decision”, The Northern Life, May 9 2012). 

I believe that Boor is correct: without all of the facts available (because they are still being assembled), it really is premature to simply oppose this project over environmental concerns, because we just don’t have answers to all of the questions yet.  However, I have to acknowledge that there are likely other valid reasons for some to find themselves opposing this project at this time.  I have been asked a number of times now what my own position is on the project, and I have caused some a considerable degree of discomfort when I have stated that I’m not ready to take a position yet, precisely for the reason which Boor has identified.

With respect, although Boor does not say this, I believe that it is also premature for decision-makers to support this project until such a time that all feasibility and environmental assessment work has been completed.  It only makes sense that decision-makers wait for assessment processes to be completed, and to then use actual information and data to make an informed decision.  That’s the way things should work, if the environmental assessment process is to be taken seriously.

Roles in Decision-Making Processes

However, with Cliffs, it appears that some of our elected officials have taken a different approach than the one B.C.’s Premier has taken on Northern Gateway.  I guess I shouldn’t be surprised, given that during the 2011 Ontario provincial election, Progressive Conservatives, Liberals and NDP candidates for Sudbury and Nickel Belt all offered their unabashed support for Cliffs building a smelter in Greater Sudbury, even before the environmental assessment process – which is intended to inform decision-makers – had even started.

This may have been good politics, but it was also certainly premature, given that these candidates were vying for positions in government.  And to me, it spoke volumes about these three political party’s commitments to issues related to public health and the natural environment, and to their desire to take action on climate change.

It may sometimes be necessary to adopt a position when your role in the decision-making process is one which is limited to influencing outcomes.  It’s often difficult to exert much in the way of influence at all until a clearly articulated position has been taken.  But when you are a public decision-maker, and when the decision is one which you are going to wear, it really makes sense that you wait until all of the information is available, so that you can adequately balance competing interests based on real data, and not simply on perception.  That’s why I think that the approaches adopted by both the BC NDP and the BC government of Premier Clark were the right decisions to take, given their respective roles in the decision-making process.

Increasingly, we are seeing decisions made by our governments based not on science and information, but for ideological reasons.  If anything, these decisions are being made in the absence of data which might assess a complete range of impacts.  In the year 2012, our elected officials should know better, as we have accumulated considerable knowledge now which suggests that we end up with negative impacts and paying more when decisions are made which do not address a complete range of issues.  With this knowledge, it’s almost as if our decision makers must wilfully blind themselves when making a decision in absence of facts and data pertaining to anything beyond their very narrow definition of economic benefit.

Triple-Bottom Line Analysis

Frankly, I’m growing extremely weary of the attitude taken by many of our elected officials that we must prostrate ourselves at the shrine of economic growth, potentially sacrificing concerns about health and environment in the process.   Again, we are offered a false choice between the “economy” and the “environment”, one where the economy must win out every time. 

This approach doesn’t even make sense to me from an economic perspective, as we’ve seen time and again.  We need look no further than to yesterday’s federal Environmental Commissioner’s report, which once again highlighted the price tag taxpayers must pay to remediate environmental hazards created by for-profit private enterprises (estimated by Environmental Commissioner Scott Vaughan to be $7.7 billion for about 13,000 known contaminated sites). 

Yes, it’s true that the rules have changed since many of those sites were abandoned by industry, and it’s also true that development within the Ring of Fire today would not likely find itself in a similar circumstance regarding remediation when mines are closed.  But it’s also true that not all environmental costs have been internalized through legislative processes.  Taxpayers continue to pay significantly for damage done to our health and to our natural environment by industries which are making profits extracting and processing our resources.  In Canada, we continue to privatize profits and socialize losses.  And that’s simply not a sustainable approach to resource management.

It’s past time that our decision-makers apply a triple bottom line analysis to the development of all new projects.  A triple bottom line analysis will assess economic, social and environmental impacts, positive and negative.  It would also determine the value of all costs, so that if taxpayers are asked to pick up the tab for some of the costs, at least it will happen with the knowledge that full costs have been assessed.

Cliffs Chromite Project – Unknown Costs

What potential costs might taxpayers be on the hook for paying for with the Cliffs Chromite Project?  There are several which we need to know more about.  One of my personal concerns has to do with the minimization of climate change-causing greenhouse gases, as climate change adaptation is estimated to cost Canadians an additional $7 billion dollars by the year 2020.  The longer we wait to take action to transition to a low carbon economy, the greater we are going to have to pay for it later (or more precisely, the greater the bill will be that we pass along to our children, since many of today’s decision-makers won’t be around in a couple of decades when we’ve passed the tipping point of two degrees Celsius and have to deal with runaway global warming).  Greenhouse gas emissions represent real costs to taxpayers, as currently emitters are not required to pay for the pollution emitted.

Currently, we don’t know anything about who is going to pay to build and maintain new transportation infrastructure in Northwestern Ontario.  Cliffs is proposing to transport materials from the Black Thor deposit to a railhead near Nakina, where it will be loaded onto an existing rail line for transport to Capreol.  To do this, Trunk Highway 643 will need to be extended 260 km through the boreal forest and boggy James Bay lowlands.  When production at Black Thor is up and running, Cliffs estimates that between 50 and 100 transport trucks a day will use this road.  Cliffs points out that other communities along the route will also benefit from increased accessibility, and therefore the cost of this infrastructure should be shared.

Road Vs. Rail – What are the Costs?

Truck traffic is a significant contributor to greenhouse gas emissions.  A more efficient and sustainable transportation option would appear to be a rail corridor to the existing rail line, approximately 300km from Black Thor.  A rail corridor may have higher upfront costs, but maintenance may actually be lower over the long term, as the corridor itself would not need to be as wide as would a corridor for a highway (a physically narrower corridor would also benefit wildlife which may have to cross it).  Transporting materials by rail will cut down greenhouse gas emissions.

Interestingly, Noront Resources, which is also proposing to develop a chromite mine in the Ring of Fire not far from Cliffs Black Thor, is proposing to transport ore by rail through a different corridor.  However, there is no co-ordination at all occurring between Cliffs and Noront, and our existing environmental assessment process does not require that there be any co-ordination, as absurd as that sounds.  Ontario taxpayers might end up on the hook financing both a road and rail corridor to remote locations within hiking distance of one another.

Back to Cliffs proposal, though.  Would a rail corridor be cheaper than a road?  The truth is, I don’t know if a rail corridor would be less costly than a road, or what the total tonnage of carbon emissions saved might be.  But I’m not the expert here; nor am I trying to demonstrate that a significant industrial project is viable, and will profit my shareholders.  I’m not the person who should be looking into having these questions answered.  Cliffs should be doing that, and our governments should be requiring that they do so.

Instead, with today’s announcement, it appears that our elected officials have embraced the concept of building a new road – without even looking at whether rail might actually make more sense and be less expensive to taxpayers over the long term, or how taxpayers might benefit by requiring co-ordination with Noront.  And there was no discussion at all about reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

Embracing the road concept over rail appears to me to be putting the cart before the horse.  Why not wait for Cliffs to provide real answers to the road vs. rail questions, which one would think they ought to be doing through the environmental assessment process.

Well, actually, it’s not clear from the paper-based environmental assessment process that transportation alternatives are actually going to be looked at.  Right now, our federal government is in the process of repealing the Canadian Environmental Assessment Act, and replacing it with a watered down version which may not actually require that alternatives be looked at when new industrial projects are proposed.  And since it’s not clear whether Cliffs will be proceeding based on the existing legislation or the new legislation, it remains to be seen whether the EA process will even ask the question, “What makes more sense from an economic/social/environmental perspective, road or rail?”

Energy Costs

Other questions remain regarding greenhouse gas emissions, particularly as they relate to Ontario’s energy needs.  The ferrochrome production facility to be built at Moose Mountain near Capreol is estimated by Cliffs to require as much energy needed to power a City of 300,000 people.  Along with a lack of information related to emissions, questions remain as to just who is going to pay for this electricity?  Is Cliffs going to be expected to pay market prices for their electrical needs, or will there be subsidies (meaning, will taxpayers be on the hook for socializing costs while Cliffs pockets the profits?)

Air and Water Quality

The ferrochrome production facility will be located to the west of Lake Wanapitei, one of the sources of Greater Sudbury’s drinking water, however the site itself is located within the Vermillion River watershed.  It’s not unreasonable to be concerned about air quality issues related to precipitate arising from industrial smelting processes, and whether air-borne precipitate might nevertheless end up Lake Wanapitei.  I understand that Cliffs will be looking at these air-shed issues as part of the EA.

Chromium 6 – Hexavalent Chromium

One of the big environmental concerns with chromite mining and smelting has to do with the presence of hexavalent chromium (Chromium 6), which can get into surface and groundwater sources.  Very small amounts of this extremely toxic substance can contaminate large areas.  And since hexavalent chromium is very stable in water and air, it will accumulate locally over time, especially in acidic environments like those found in Greater Sudbury.  Hexavalent chromium is very carcinogenic and is known to create multiple health risks.

Two words: Erin Brokovich.  If you haven’t heard of hexavalent chromium, you’ve probably heard of Ms. Brokovich or are at least aware that Julia Roberts played her in a movie by the same name.  The substance which was contaminating the water in Erin Brokovich’s community was hexavalent chromium.  The California Environmental Protection Agency suggests that acceptable levels of hexavalent chromium in drinking water should be 0.02 parts per billion, which itself is estimated to create 1 additional cancer patient a year.  What level of exposure can we expect in Greater Sudbury?

What are the potential health risks Greater Sudburians can expect if the ferrochrome processing facility is built?  Will some Greater Sudburians be at higher risk than others, due to geographic proximity, or being downwind or downstream from the facility?  Again, these questions have yet to be answered.  And again, the lack of answers here hasn’t prevented our elected officials from trumpeting the selection of Greater Sudbury to be the home to the smelter.

Done Deal

Many questions remain to be answered.  I hope that the on-going environmental assessment process will answer all of these questions, but from what I’ve seen, it’s quite likely that the flawed assessment process won’t address at least some of these concerns (especially related to electricity pricing and greenhouse gas emissions).  Until all of the technical studies have been done, and the data has been made available to experts and to the public for review, it seems to me that it is premature to determine whether Cliffs’ investment in my community will be a positive or a negative for Greater Sudburians.  A real triple bottom line analysis is needed.  But I’m not optimistic that we’ll end up getting one, given that it appears that the project may already be a “done deal”.  Concerns about social, environmental and First Nations issues may have to take a back seat again to a short-sighted definition of “economic benefit”.

(opinions expressed in this blog are my own and should not considered consistent with those of the Green Party of Canada)