Friday, December 23, 2011

Time for a real debate on fracking risks, benefits

The fracking debate — or more accurately the absence of one — is another example of B.C.’s great divide.
If fracking was going on in the Lower Mainland, or the Okanagan, it would be front-page news. (Just look at how quick the government was to pay a company $30 million to make the prospect of uranium mining — more benign — vanish from the Okanagan.)
But fracking is booming in the northeast, as energy companies rush into a shale-gas boom. So it’s largely been taking place under the radar. Many people probably have no real idea what it is.
That should change. A full debate about the practice and the government’s approach to regulation is urgently needed.
Fracking has been around for at least three decades. As a newcomer in Alberta long ago, I was intrigued by the Fracmaster trucks rolling around the highways. They pumped water and additives, under pressure, into wells to fracture the rock — thus the name — allowing oil and gas to flow more freely from conventional wells.
Today’s fracking has little in common with that relatively low-tech approach.
Energy companies have tapped a new resource in gas trapped in shale deposits. Horizontal drilling — drilling down and then parallel to the surface — has allowed long wells through the rock formations. New equipment allows the injection of water, sand and chemicals under extremely high pressure to crack the rock, allowing the gas to flow.
The chemicals, some toxic, help the process. The sand flows into the fractures and prevents them from closing. Unlike the old days, when wells were usually fracked once, the industry will repeatedly frack the same well to increase producton.
The advances have allowed the energy companies to exploit vast new reserves around the world that were trapped in the rock formations. Northeastern B.C. has been a particularly hot spot; half the gas in the province is now produced by fracking. The government says production could double by the end of the decade.
That’s got some big benefits. The government has cashed in on auctions for drilling rights and leases and on royalties. (Though the lease revenue plummeted this year to $223 million, compared with $844 million last year.)
The boom has brought jobs to the northeast, and the rush of shale gas onto the market has depressed natural gas prices — good news for consumers.
But there are huge environmental issues and governments have lagged badly in understanding them and regulating the fracking operations.
Start with water. It takes vast amounts of water to generate the pressure needed to frack a single well. Energy companies in B.C. already have the right to withdraw water from lakes and rivers that’s equal to the consumption of a city of more than 700,000 people. They also draw from wells and have applied for large amounts of water from the Williston Reservoir on the Peace River, used by B.C. Hydro to generate power. There is concern other users will be left dry.
Once the chemicals are added, the water is toxic. That creates risk to aquifers, both in the fracking operation and when the companies try to dispose of the water by injecting it into deep wells. The seriousness of the threat has been debated, but this month the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency reported a preliminary link between fracking and well contamination in Wyoming. Encana, the company involved, disputes the finding.
On top of those risks, fracking has caused earthquakes in the U.S. and England.
Some jurisdictions, like Quebec, and France and some U.S. states, have banned fracking.
But B.C. hasn’t even had a real debate about it, or the regulations and oversight needed.
Independent MLAs Bob Simpson and Vicki Huntington have called for the creation of an all-party legislative committee to hold hearings and report on fracking. It would be a useful start.
Footnote: The province has made some regulatory changes. Companies were required to report water use this year (though about one-third didn’t comply and received fines of under $1,000). And a new online registry will have information about fracking locations, though companies can still keep the chemicals being used secret.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Heading to Honduras

Those paying close attention might have noticed a new link in the upper right here, called Heading to Honduras.
That’s where I’m going in mid-January.
My partner and I both applied to Cuso International for volunteer work. I was offered a post in Ghana, she was offered one in Honduras. For assorted reasons, we picked Honduras, where she’ll be working with an NGO on communications, knowledge development and whatever else they need.
I’ll expect to find some way to volunteer down there, do some work for clients up here (if you need fast, sharp editing or writing, keep me in mind), write, paint and get really good at Spanish.
It’s the right time for us to make this change, and I’m looking forward to living in a new culture in Copan Ruinas.
I’ll write more about all this, and all the years of blogging/columning on events here.
Check out the link. And if you’re around Victoria, come on out to our farewell party Jan. 11 at the Garry Oak room at the Fairfield Community Centre, from 6 to 10 p.m. Music and fun. It’s also a fundraiser for Cuso and PEERS.

Time to kill Campbell's gimmicky education fund

I have good news for Premier Christy Clark — a way to deal with Community Living B.C. underfunding that won’t require spending cuts elsewhere or tax increases.
All she has to do is kill a goofy policy initiative of Gordon Campbell that never really made any sense.
Community Living B.C. says it needs about $65 million more a year to meet the immediate needs of adults with developmental disabilities, what we once called mental handicaps.
Clark says the government doesn’t have the money.
But this year the government is committing $47 million to the Children’s Education Fund, a shoddy piece of public policy that came out of nowhere in 2006 when Campbell needed something cool to announce at the Liberal convention in Penticton.
Campbell said the government would commit $1,000 for every baby born after that year to the education fund. Beginning in 2025, every teen graduating from high school would get the $1,000, plus interest — perhaps about $2,200.
It’s one of those silly ideas that makes sense as a short-term political gimmick when people are tossing around ideas in the premier’s office, but serves no real long-term purpose.
There’s no logical basis for the government to decide that a tuition subsidy for students starting school in 2025 is a priority today — more important than caring for the disabled, improving health care or offering a tax cut to encourage employment growth.
In fact, the notion that the government can predict the needs of students two decades in the future is dubious. Imagine the outgoing Socreds trying to come up with a tuition plan that would work for students in 2011.
The amount, for example, could be a pittance compared to the cost of education more than a decade from now.
Or alternately, a future government, given the need for skilled British Columbians, could have decided post-secondary education should be free to some qualifying students, or even all students. That’s not an outlandish notion, given the shift to a knowledge-based economy in the province.
It’s also odd the government decided the needs of students in 2025 would be greater than students today. About 60 per cent of Canadian students graduate with some debt. For those people, the average debt load is $27,000. It would take $90 a week for nine years to pay off the balance.
That’s a big burden, particularly in a soft employment market. Why not take the $47 million and address today’s needs, through scholarships or education credits or tax breaks, or target First Nations’ high school graduation rates, or address other educational needs?
It’s also bizarre that the fund makes no distinctions based on the needs of either the province, or the students.
A multimillionaire’s child will get $2,000; so will a youth coming out of care, living on income assistance and trying to get an education.
A smart program would target bright students who couldn’t afford an education, and be based on merit and need. Or it could support education for students entering fields that were critical to the province’s future.
We’re talking about serious money. The program started in 2007; by the end of this year the available money in the fund is expected to have reached $230 million.
By 2025, the government will have stashed more than $1 billion in the fund.
The money isn’t counted as an expense in the current budget year. It’s counted as an investment, with the interest showing up on the books as revenue each year. The actual expense will show up on the government books when the payouts begin in 2025. (A development that might not thrill the government, or the taxpayers, of the day, saddled with an expense by a long-gone predecessor.)
It’s interesting that the Liberals don’t talk about the fund anymore. It’s like they realize it makes little sense, but haven’t quite figured out what to do about it. So they just keep committing more than $40 million a year to poor policy.
So there’s some free advice for Clark. Announce the fund is no longer a priority in the wake of the economic slowdown. Allocate the money to CLBC, or some other useful measure.
And take care in future to avoid such poor policy gimmicks.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Federal leadership on health care missing

The biggest issue in the federal government’s move to curb health-care spending increases isn't the new limits, although that should be a concern.
It’s the Harper government’s decision to abandon any leadership role on health care and leave the provinces to sort things out.
The country’s finance ministers were in Victoria this week. The provincial ministers thought they would have a few meals and meetings, talk about big issues and do a little preliminary work on a new health funding plan to replace the current one, which ends in 2014.
Instead, federal Finance Minister Jim Flaherty arrived at a lunch in a dining room on a downtown hotel’s top floor - very nice harbour views - and the premiers were handed the new deal. No discussion, he said. Here’s the new funding formula.
The current arrangement provides provinces with six per cent a year increases in federal health care funding. Flaherty said that will continue until 2017, then the increases will be capped at the rate of growth in the economy. There will be minimum increases of three per cent, so health care doesn’t face deep cuts if there’s a recession.
Based on current growth and inflation, the provinces could expect increases of about 4.5 per cent a year.
The federal government provides about 20 per cent of health care costs, with the provinces paying the rest. The change means about $55 million less for B.C. in the first year, increasing by a similar amount each subsequent year. It’s not a huge amount, though after five years the shortfall will be nearing $300 million.
The reaction of the provincial ministers was mixed. Six were critical, either of the lower increases or the federal government’s failure to consult and discuss the change.
But B.C. Finance Minister Kevin Falcon said he was satisfied with the change. He welcomed the long-term certainty, so the province could plan, and supported the desire to reduce federal spending. (That’s a little odd, since during the Liberal leadership campaign he condemned a similar proposal from Christy Clark. Clark did not, it should be noted, include the promise of a minimum increase even if the economy went into reverse.)
A little more skepticism might have been in order. The proposed funding formula doesn’t include any provision for population growth, which means there will be a reduction in real per-capita funding. Nor does it reflect the impact of an aging population, or costly technological advances.
And it isn’t based on any assessment of actual health care needs (note that the meeting involved finance ministers, not health ministers). What if a continued six per cent increases would allow dramatic reductions in wait times, or much better seniors’ care?
Instead, the Harper government picked an arbitrary ceiling that could be sold politically and went ahead.
Canada has room to increase health care spending, if it’s in the public interest. Other countries — Germany and the U.S., for example — spend a higher proportion of their GDP on health care. And the Canadian public, so far, has indicated quality health care is a priority.
The federal government initiative also abdicates any leadership role. Health care is a provincial responsibility, but provinces and territories operate under the terms of the Canada Health Act.
Federal funding is important. But federal leadership in tackling the challenges of delivering cost-effective high-quality care would also be valuable.
As a significant funder, the Harper government could have lead a national discussion of what Canadians expect from care, how technology can be used, how prevention could reduce costs and more effective ways of using health-care staff.
Instead, the provinces will be largely left to their own devices, or to figure out ways to work together on their own.
It’s probably an astute move politically — health care issues tend to earn governments more blame than praise.
But it won’t help Canada move to the best, most cost-effective care.
Footnote: Provincial and territorial premiers will meet in Victoria next week to discuss health care. They will likely call for a federal-provincial conference on the funding formula and the future of care, and Prime Minister Stephen Harper will likely reject the idea.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Justin Trudeau could have been describing Parliament’s session

There’s no real theme to the column, beyond a general sense of wonder.
First, burkas and citizenship. Foreign Affairs Minister Jason Kenney said this week that women would no longer be allowed to take the citizenship oath with their faces covered as part of their religious beliefs.
You can have a good debate about the burka and niqab and their place in society. There are concerns some women are forced into wearing them, making them instruments of oppression. Other women say it is a core part of their religious faith, mandated in the Koran. There are questions about how society changes when some people hide their faces in public.
But Kenney’s reason is goofy. He fears women might not actually be saying the citizenship oath.
Come on. New citizens have all studied and passed a test. We don’t now know whether they are taking the oath, or moving their lips. (Perhaps Kenney will mandate monitors to stand next to every person at the ceremonies in future.) It would be easy to have women wearing head coverings sign a written oath.
Even more offensive was Kenney’s response to questions about legal challenges to the edict. “I’m sure they’ll trump up some stupid Charter of Rights challenge,” he said.
There is nothing “stupid” about asserting the rights guaranteed all Canadians by law. Kenney’s contempt for the law, and those freedoms, is alarming.
Meanwhile, Liberal MP Justin Trudeau got in trouble this week by calling Environment Minister Peter Kent “a piece of s***.”
That, of course, reminded people of his father, then prime minister Pierre Trudeau, being accused of mouthing “f*** off” to opposition MPs 40 years ago.
Trudeau claimed then he was mouthing “fuddle duddle.” Justin Trudeau was more honest, jumping to his feet to apologize and retract his remarks.
So what riled him? NDP environment critic Megan Leslie had asked Kent a question about Canada’s withdrawal from the Kyoto Protocol.
Kent responded by noting that “if she had been in Durban” Leslie would be better informed.
But the Conservative government had, for the first time in the history of Kyoto talks, refused to accredit opposition MPs as observers at the talks, denying them a role. Trudeau thought it a bit much that Kent would bar MPs, then criticize them for not going. (Green leader and Saanich-Gulf Islands MP Elizabeth May cleverly got herself approved as a delegate for Papua-New Guinea; Liberals and New Democrats could have shown similar initiative.)
Sadly, Trudeau’s rudeness was far from the low point of the just concluded parliamentary session. The Conservative majority has not brought civility or even a basic commitment to let MPs actually do the job of representing their constituents. Legislation has been forced through with minimal debate. There is an appalling lack of respect, civility or even basic decency in the Commons, in large part because the Conservatives seem to see evil enemies across the House rather than men and women elected by Canadians to represent them. (It does, of course, take two to bicker.)
As the session ended, the Conservatives confirmed they planned to increase secrecy by barring the press and public from more meetings of parliamentary committees. Conservative MP Tim Wallace said going behind closed doors “gives members of Parliament an opportunity to speak frankly.”
Wallace is acknowledging duplicity, perhaps dishonesty — saying one thing in public, and another when citizens don’t have a chance to know what’s going on.
Then there’s the stonewalling of the G8 spending scandal that saw border security funds diverted to often frivolous projects in Treasury Board president Tony Clement’s riding, Defence Minister Peter MacKay’s misleading explanations for his use of a search and rescue helicopter as a taxi to get him from a fishing camp in Newfoundland and other lapses.
It’s odd. The Liberals were booted out because the Conservatives promised something better. Now they’re turning into what they once condemned.
Footnote: The session ended with Speaker Andrew Scheer, a Conservative MP ruling that a party dirty tricks campaign aimed at Liberal MP Irwon Cotler was “reprehensible,” but not against the rules. The Conservatives were caught calling voters and falsely claiming Cotler had resigned and a byelection would be held. It was later revealed thatthe company hired to make the calls had also worked on Scheer’s election campaign.