Friday, September 21, 2007

Coming soon - for-profit social services?

Jody Paterson takes the first look at a big change in social services in B.C.
All programs to help people with disabilities find jobs and get off income assistance are now to be provided by Arizona-based Providence Service Corp., an American company with that runs for-profit operations providing governments with everything from child protection to probation services to reform schools.
It's a good business niche, the company notes, citing stats to encourage investors - more than 40 million Americans now living in poverty; almost five million adults released every year on parole; two million children needing protective care.

Thursday, September 20, 2007

Coalbed methane ups ante in B.C.-Montana mining fight

The big fight between Montana and B.C. over mining in the Flathead Valley is heating up again.
And this time, since coalbed methane is involved, the battle is likely really on.
It's a mistake to dismiss the dispute. Any kind of cross-border spat can get complicated and costly in a hurry. Just look at the big fight over the proposed power plant across the U.S. border from Abbotsford. The mining battle is already starting to get high-level attention in Washington - the U.S. State Department has complained; Canadian Ambassador Michael Wilson has been defending B.C.; Premier Gordon Campbell and Montana Gov. Brian Schweitzer have just exchanged letters on the issue. Now the whole dispute is threatening to get bigger, with the Americans complaining about possible coalbed methane development in the same area. That's even more of a hot button in Montana, in part because of the industry's poor record in the western U.S.
The starting point for all this is a proposed coal mine in the Kootenays about 30 kilometres from the U.S. border. The B.C. government already barred the owner, Cline Mining, from developing a coal property closer to the U.S. It thinks this one is OK.
But Montana's politicians are united in opposition. The mine would be in the headwaters of the Flathead River, which forms the border of Glacier National Park.
There are lots of political angles. The loudest opponent is Max 'Blame Canada' Baucus, a long-time Democratic senator who was a hawk in the softwood lumber dispute.
For any politician, it's a great opportunity to score painless points by talking tough about a foreign country and looking all pro-environment. But the Montana politicians - backed by a pretty sophisticated environmental movement - have already started to turn the spotlight on B.C. environmental approval standards. They note, for example, that the mining operation wouldn't be allowed near the river within Montana. (They don't note that the state is encouraging coal mining and coalbed methane in other areas.) The other big advantage the Montanans have is support from within B.C. And that's going to get much stronger once more people in the province are aware of the interest in coalbed methane.
The provincial is keen on coalbed methane development and has sold more than $25 million worth of drilling rights in the last five years. So far, there are no commercial developments.
Coalbed methane is natural gas trapped in cracks in coal seams and the rocks around them.
It's a good clean fuel. But there's a catch. The cracks also often hold water, sometimes contaminate, and it has to be pumped out and disposed of as part of the process. The industry has left some big messes in its wake. Now British Petroleum wants to start drilling test wells in the Crowsnest coal field next year, an area that includes the upper Flathead. The company believes the waste water can be re-injected into the ground. The Montana politicians are skeptical, and a lot of people in the region will be too. Coalbed methane is already an issue. Shell's effort to drill test wells for coalbed methane in the Klappan Valley was stalled by a First Nations blockade this month. The company applied for an injunction, but abandoned the effort. Wisely, perhaps. As the blockade continued, eight environmental groups spent $20,000 on an ad in the European edition of the Financial Times condemning Shell's plans. The ad referred to the valley as the Sacred Headwaters, source of the Nass, Stikine and Skeena rivers. Shell was portrayed as the despoiler of one of the world's great wildernesses. It's effective stuff. BP can expect a similar reaction, except with a U.S. protest thrown in. Baucus promises ""a massive and unpleasant fight from Montana that will end badly." There is actually a reasonable case that coalbed methane can be produced safely. But the government hasn't been able to make it. And it will get tougher now that the battle has gone international.
Footnote: There's coalbed methane around much of the province. Quinsam Coal and Cornerstone Gas plan to drill test wells in Campbell River as early as this fall, hoping coal fields in the area produce methane.

Monday, September 17, 2007

Time for some honest answers on Afghanistan

If Canadians are entitled to straight talk from their government on any issue, it's the war in Afghanistan.
Instead, it feels like we are being conned, either misled or kept in the dark to suit the government's political agenda.
It's a poor way to approach such an important issue. Families are sending their loved ones off to war. They deserve clear answers from their government.
The basic question is simple: Does the government support continuing our military mission in Afghanistan once the current commitment ends in February 2009?
Getting a straight answer has proved impossible. It sounded like Defence Minister Peter MacKay was providing real information earlier this month in a television interview. He was asked if Canada should be telling NATO what our plans are - after all, the mission ends in less than 18 months.
"As far as the signal that has been sent already, our current configuration will end in February 2009," he said. "Obviously the aid work and the diplomatic effort and presence will extend well beyond that, and the Afghan compact itself goes until 2011."
Sounds pretty clear. The military mission is almost over.
But within hours, a government spokesman said MacKay hadn't meant to say anything, certainly not that NATO had been told that we intended to end the mission as scheduled. He was just trying to sound like he was saying something.
Which left Canadians in the dark about what the government believes should happen.
Prime Minister Stephen Harper was a little clearer this week. He says the future of the mission is up to Parliament.
But he added that the Conservatives won't allow a debate or vote on the mission until he's convinced that the Commons will extend the war commitment, Harper says.
Which means an indefinite period of political jockeying.
That's unfair. Canadians deserve a full debate now. NATO deserves to know whether our troops will continue fighting after 2009, so it can plan.
And our troops deserve to know what their futures hold.
The Conservatives could argue that they need more time to persuade Canadians of the progress being made.
But they have had 19 months to make the case for the mission. It's now time for a debate and a decision.
Reaching a decision will be difficult, because the correct course is not obvious.
There are reasons for Canada to be at war in Afghanistan - to support the government, prevent terrorists from using the country as a safe haven and improve the lives of citizens.
But there are also reasons to question the effectiveness of the mission, the chance of success and the high cost in Canadian lives.
Recent months have been discouraging.
Canadians are fighting to regain control of areas they secured earlier this year, which the Afghan police and army were unable to hold. They are battling an insurgent campaign that poses enormous tactical challenges. The enemy can avoid confrontation, harass Canadians with IEDs and wait for the chance to reclaim the territory once the NATO forces have moved on. At the same time, the rising civilian death toll is reducing support for the NATO campaign.
Independent reports suggest Canadian aid - at least in terms of some of the major projects touted by the government - has failed to translate into change on the ground.
And the Afghan government and police remain corrupt and inefficient.
Canadians have weighed the evidence and decided our troops have done enough. A national Decima Research poll this summer found two out of three Canadians want the troops out of the fighting when this commitment ends. About 75 per cent of those surveyed did not believe our effort would produce real change in Afghanistan.
It's time for the Harper government to make its best case for a continued mission, and then listen to Canadians.
Footnote: The issue could come to a head when Parliament resumes sitting in October. Dion has said the Liberals would introduce a motion calling on the government to inform NATO that the mission would not be extended. Harper could choose to consider the vote a confidence motion, which would mean an election if the government is defeated.