Tag Archives: oil sands

From fiery Alberta to North Korea, America’s genie to London’s mayor: Facts, and Opinions, this week

Flames rise in Industrial area south Fort McMurray, Alberta Canada May 3, 2016. Courtesy CBC News/Handout via REUTERS

Flames rise in Industrial area south Fort McMurray, Alberta Canada May 3, 2016. Courtesy CBC News/Handout via REUTERS

Fort McMurray: Boom, bust …burned, by Rod Nickel and Liz Hampton

A convoy of evacuees from the Canadian oil town of Fort McMurray drove through the heart of a massive wildfire guided by police and military helicopters as they sought to reach safety to the south of the burning city. “Our life is here. We will go back and rebuild,” vowed one. … read more

By Unknown - http://collectionscanada.gc.ca/ourl/res.php?url_ver=Z39.88-2004&url_tim=2014-06-25T15%3A39%3A41Z&url_ctx_fmt=info%3Aofi%2Ffmt%3Akev%3Amtx%3Actx&rft_dat=3592868&rfr_id=info%3Asid%2Fcollectionscanada.gc.ca%3Apam&lang=eng MIKAN no. 3592868, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=4928941

Athabasca oil sands on the banks of the river, c. 1900 Photo: Collections Canada

Fort McMurray: from “black pitch” and salt to oil sands. By Brian Brennan

The story of Fort McMurray is one of long hibernation followed by rapid growth. The oilsands developments turned it from a sleepy little northern frontier town into Alberta’s most explosive boom city. But it took almost two centuries for the development to happen. The boom had been foretold from the time fur trader Peter Pond explored the region in 1778 …read more

Sadiq Khan: British dream reality for London’s first Muslim mayor, by Parveen Akhtar

In Pakistan, the chances that the son of a bus or rickshaw driver could secure a high-ranking political position in the country’s capital city are minuscule. But now, the people of London have elected Sadiq Khan – the son of an immigrant Pakistani bus driver – to be their first Muslim mayor.

The Irreconcilable Narratives of America’s South, by Ruth Hopkins, Wits Justice Project

In Montgomery the narrative of a proud confederacy is visceral and dominant and is echoed in its street names, buildings, signs and statues. But the Equal Justice Initiative, instead of protesting the display of Southern pride and honour, has started an elaborate and ambitious remembrance project that not only includes the collection of soil from sites of lynchings to remember the victims.  Alabama’s huge slave population and Montgomery’s central role in the confederacy are intimately connected. … read more


North Korea’s Kim rattles the bars of his cageNorth Korean leader Kim Jong Un signs a document regarding a long range rocket launch in this undated photo released by North Korea's Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) in Pyongyang February 7, 2016. REUTERS/KCNA, by Jonathan Manthorpe, International Affairs columnist

A good rule of thumb is to always be deeply suspicious of optimistic projections for the future of North Korea. There have been some rose-tinted forecasts wafting from Pyongyang this week as the Workers’ Party of Korea holds its first congress since 1980. The congress was called to endorse the leadership of Kim Jong-un, 33, who took over after the death of his father Kim Jong-il at the end of 2011. … read more

Trump has made racism and violence “OK” in the US, by Tom Regan, Summoning Orenda columnist

Donald Trump is not the real problem in the rise of racism  in the US . He is merely the catalyst. It’s his ham-handed ridiculous racism masquerading as “policy” or “outreach” that’s the problem. He has let the racist and bigoted genie out of the bottle and it won’t go back in peacefully. America needs to prepare for scenes of violence and hatred it may not have seen since the 60s in the South. … read more


Elsewhere ….

On World Press Freedom Day, May 3,  Reporters Sans Frontieres/Reporters Without Borders launched a campaign called “Great Year for Censorship.” Its aim is to draw attention to “a deep and worrying decline in the ability of journalists to operate freely and independently throughout the world,” and especially targets leaders in 12 countries who have “trampled on media freedom and gagged journalists in various spectacular ways.”

RSF’s 2016 World Press Freedom Index, released in April,  reveals “a climate of fear and tension combined with increasing control over newsrooms by governments and private-sector interests,” said the organization.



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Fort McMurray: from “black pitch” and salt to oil sands



© Greg Locke 2007


By Brian Brennan
May 7, 2016

The story of Fort McMurray is one of long hibernation followed by rapid growth. The oilsands developments turned it from a sleepy little northern frontier town into Alberta’s most explosive boom city. But it took almost two centuries for the development to happen.

The boom had been foretold from the time fur trader Peter Pond explored the region in 1778 and marked the location of a deposit of black pitch, along the banks of the Athabasca River, that the aboriginal people used for caulking the seams of their birchbark canoes. Eleven years later, a federal government geologist reported that the region was “stored with a substance of great economic value.” When developed, it would “prove to be one of the wonders of northern Canada.”

For the next century, however, the oilsands remained a natural oddity, much like the Sargasso Sea or the petrified forest of Colorado, and the promise of Fort McMurray remained unfulfilled. Not until the late 1890s was any serious exploration done in the area.

The first flurry of claim-staking activity occurred in 1898, but not for oil. Klondike gold seekers seemingly misread the map and started looking for nuggets in the streams around Fort McMurray. A few years later, oil explorers drilled a well to see if the bitumen was seeping from a conventional oil reservoir below the sand. The drillers didn’t find any oil but they did find salt, and that became a commercial industry in Fort McMurray for a couple of years during the 1920s. Other local industries included sawmilling and a commercial fishery on Lake Athabasca.

During the First World War, Fort McMurray asphalt was used for road paving in some Canadian locations – including Edmonton, Camrose, Jasper and Ottawa. However, this use soon proved to be basically uneconomic and was discontinued.

By Unknown - http://collectionscanada.gc.ca/ourl/res.php?url_ver=Z39.88-2004&url_tim=2014-06-25T15%3A39%3A41Z&url_ctx_fmt=info%3Aofi%2Ffmt%3Akev%3Amtx%3Actx&rft_dat=3592868&rfr_id=info%3Asid%2Fcollectionscanada.gc.ca%3Apam&lang=eng MIKAN no. 3592868, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=4928941

Athabasca oil sands on the banks of the river, c. 1900 Photo: Collections Canada

During the Second World War, the arrival of 3,000 U.S. troops caused the population of Fort McMurray to swell from 1,000 to 4,000. The troops were there to establish a base for the ill-fated Canol pipeline project, which was meant to pump oil from Norman Wells to Whitehorse but ended up becoming what a U.S. Senate committee described as a $120 million “junkyard monument to military stupidity.” After the war, the population of Fort McMurray dropped back down to 1,100. There was some oilsands development during this period, when Abasand Oils began producing diesel oil on a small-scale basis west of Fort McMurray, but that project died when the plant burned down.

Continued interest in developing the Athabasca oilsands came from growing postwar concern about Canada’s dependence on foreign sources of oil. This changed dramatically when a huge conventional crude oil reservoir was discovered at Leduc, Alberta in 1947. As a result of this and other conventional crude discoveries, which were easier and cheaper to recover, oilsands development and the growth of Fort McMurray stalled for several years.

In 1950, an Alberta government report finally concluded that the oilsands were “entering the stage of possible commercial development.” But it took another decade before large-scale commercial development became a reality and Fort McMurray was ready to take flight. In 1961, Fort McMurray was a railway outpost with little more than one gas pump, a rundown hotel, a few stores, no highway link to the rest of the province, and about 1,200 people. Two years later, Fort McMurray and nearby Waterways (then a separate community, now one of the neighbourhoods severely damaged by fire) were bursting at the seams as construction workers poured into the region to build the Great Canadian Oil Sands plant.

By 1973, the population had grown to more than 10,000, and the town wrestled with a housing crisis as southern invaders found temporary shelter in tents and trailers. But this crisis was nothing compared to the chronic housing shortage and other social problems that developed over the next five years when an additional 8,000 migrant construction workers flooded into Fort McMurray to build the giant Syncrude plant. Wayne Skene reported in Maclean’s magazine that it was like a scene out of John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath:

“The less fortunate and the less perceptive camped in drafty tents and trailers along ditches of the highway leading into Fort McMurray. The few hotels that existed then were always full. New bungalows – when available – were priced at $80,000 to start. Recreation facilities for the population of 18,000 consisted of a single community centre and any tavern where you could grab a seat. Like ghosts from a Dawson City daguerreotype from the turn-of-the-century gold rush, Fort McMurray inhabitants lined up for the once a week delivery of fresh vegetables at the Safeway store.”

Basic community services such as medical care, fire fighting, and education were woefully insufficient to meet the demand, and crime increased beyond the initial capacity of the police to handle it. “Fort McMurray was all things Canadian communities are not supposed to be,” concluded Skene. “Visually uninviting, socially sordid, and violated by an invasion of single, unemployed transients.” Yet for many of those transients, Fort McMurray was a mecca for partying, brawling, big wages, and ripping off the company. Working on the Syncrude project was – as one worker put it – “the softest touch ever in the States or Canada” for the building trades.

Downtown Fort McMurray in 1991, at the confluence of the Clearwater and Athabasca Rivers. Photo by Gord McKenna via Flickr, Creative Commons

Downtown Fort McMurray in 1991, at the confluence of the Clearwater and Athabasca Rivers. Photo by Gord McKenna via Flickr, Creative Commons

Colourful tales of equipment theft and featherbedding, while impossible to verify, have become part of the folklore of the project during that period.  Canadian Business  magazine writer Robert Bott reported that some of the stories were amusing, if implausible: “A D-9 Cat allegedly turning up grading roads in Stettler, Alta., nearly 400 miles from the Syncrude site … an East Indian youth fired when he was found sitting down, after two weeks of standing around, waiting for someone to tell him what to do … Newfoundlanders staggering into the Fort McMurray post office to mail 100-pound cartons of stolen tools back home … guys who would check out their brass ID tags in the morning and sleep all day until it was time to check them back in at night … workers wandering around the site for days, pretending to look for a missing tool or an absent foreman.”

By 1980, things had settled down. The partying construction workers had moved on, and Fort McMurray had become a stable city of 28,000 with a new hospital, transit system, radio station, community theatre, schools, churches, recreation facilities and door-to-door mail delivery. Crime statistics were down, and the community was no longer being portrayed in the national media as a Wild West town where the per-capita sale of liquor was the highest in the country. “We did it and we survived,” said one seven-year resident. “We didn’t fall apart at the seams, become gibbering idiots, or end up in Valium City.”

The population of Fort McMurray continued to grow during the years following. By the mid-1990s, with Syncrude and Suncor gearing up for massive expansions, the population had reached 38,000. With almost half the residents hailing from Atlantic Canada, the community was – in the words of one local wag – “Newfoundland’s third-largest city.” The community now boasted three golf courses, a dozen shopping malls, nine movie houses, two dozen bars, one gourmet restaurant, 10 liquor stores, and the largest mobile home park in Canada.

At the beginning of the 21st century, Alberta’s most explosive boomtown had become home to more than 40,000 permanent residents, and also had to deal with an influx of 13,000 construction workers contracted to build new or expanded facilities for the big oil companies. While many of these temporary workers were able to find accommodation in company-owned work camps outside the municipal boundary, others scrambled to find shelter in a municipality where all the hotels and motels were full, and as many as five or six workers would cram into one small apartment because of what one realtor described as “zero, zero vacancies.”

In preparation for these new mining developments, the municipality and private sector created a computer model that would give some indication of the future impact of these developments on Fort McMurray’s infrastructure and work force. They expressed the hope that this type of “SimCity” computer-game approach would help Fort McMurray avoid some of the withdrawal pains of other one-industry communities when the oilsands boom eventually turned to bust. Since that time the permanent population of Fort McMurray has grown to more than 80,000, and the municipality has been gearing up to celebrate its history this coming August with the opening of a heritage village containing 17 buildings. That celebration is now on hold following the recent wildfires.

Copyright © Brian Brennan 2016

Related stories:

Fort McMurray: Boom, bust …burned, by Rod Nickel and Liz Hampton

A convoy of evacuees from the Canadian oil town of Fort McMurray drove through the heart of a massive wildfire guided by police and military helicopters as they sought to reach safety to the south of the burning city. “Our life is here. We will go back and rebuild,” vowed one.  …read more

Flames rise in Industrial area south Fort McMurray, Alberta Canada May 3, 2016. Courtesy CBC News/Handout via REUTERS

Flames rise in Industrial area south Fort McMurray, Alberta Canada May 3, 2016. Courtesy CBC News/Handout via REUTERS

Brian BrennanBrian Brennan, an Irish journalist living in Canada, is a founding feature writer with Facts and Opinions and a contributor to Arts dispatches and the Loose Leaf salon. His profile of Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi, the first original feature in the journal’s inaugural issue, won Runner-up, Best Feature Article, in the 2014 Professional Writers Association of Canada Awards. Brennan was educated at University College Dublin, Vancouver’s Langara College, the Poynter Institute in St. Petersburg, Florida, and the National Critics Institute in Waterford, Connecticut.

Visit him at his website, www.brianbrennan.ca

Brian Brennan also plays jazz piano, for fun and profit.


Facts and Opinions is a boutique journal, of reporting and analysis in words and images, without borders. Independent, non-partisan and employee-owned, F&O is funded by you, our readers.We do not carry advertising or “branded content,” or solicit donations from partisan organizations. Thank you for your patronage, and please tell others about us. Most of our pages are outside our paywall. To help us continue, we suggest a minimum payment of .27 for one story, or for use of the entire site at least $1 for a day pass, and $20 for a year. With enough supporters  paying a small amount, we will continue, and increase our ability to offer original works.  Visit our Subscribe page for more details. 


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White House decision on Keystone pipeline

Photo of an Alberta oil rig by Greg Locke, Copyright 2014

Alberta oil rig. Greg Locke © 2014

UPDATED: The U.S. rejected the final phase of the Keystone pipeline, President Barack Obama announced at his Friday morning press conference.  “The State Department has decided that the Keystone XL Pipeline would not serve the national interest of the United States,” said Obama in a statement, adding “I agree.”

TransCanada Corp.’s application for the Keystone XL pipeline, shipping oil from Alberta’s oil sands to refineries in the southern U.S., hit a wall earlier this week when Obama rejected the company’s 11th hour request to suspend a review of the pipeline’s final construction phase.

The pipeline is partly symbolic at this point; as the tortured application process wound its way through  America’s Byzantine politics, much of the oil that Keystone would carry has already found alternate ways south, through existing pipelines and via rail. But Obama’s decision is a key signal on how serious America is about climate change, leading up to the Paris summit in a few weeks.

Links below. Drag the counter to the 51 second mark to replay the live announcement from the White House here:

Excerpts, via @WhiteHouse Twitter feed :

  • “The pipeline would not make a meaningful long-term contribution to our economy.”
  • “A bipartisan infrastructure plan…could create more than 30 times as many jobs/year as the pipeline”
  • Our businesses created 268,000 new jobs last month…the unemployment rate fell to 5%.
  • “The pipeline would not lower gas prices for American consumers. In fact, gas prices have already been falling steadily”
  • “Shipping dirtier crude oil into our country would not increase America’s energy security.”
  • “We’ve doubled the distance our cars will go on a gallon of gas by 2025.”
  • “We’ve…multiplied the power we generate from the sun 20 times over.”
  • “America has cut our total carbon pollution more than any other country on Earth.”
  • “America is leading on climate change with new rules on power plants”
  • “We’ve got to come together…to protect the one planet we’ve got while we still can.”
  • “If we want to prevent the worst effects of climate change before it’s too late, the time to act is now.”

Statement from Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, emailed:

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau today issued the following statement on the Keystone XL pipeline decision by the United States:

“The application for a cross-border permit for the Keystone XL pipeline project was turned down by the United States Government today. We are disappointed by the decision but respect the right of the United States to make the decision.

“The Canada-U.S. relationship is much bigger than any one project and I look forward to a fresh start with President Obama to strengthen our remarkable ties in a spirit of friendship and co-operation.

“We know that Canadians want a government that they can trust to protect the environment and grow the economy. The Government of Canada will work hand-in-hand with provinces, territories and like-minded countries to combat climate change, adapt to its impacts, and create the clean jobs of tomorrow.”


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When Democracy Becomes Controversial

Poet, editor and professor Stephen Collis,  and cell, molecular and biochemistry professor Lynne Quarmby, were on October 13 awarded the Nora and Ted Sterling Prize in Support of Controversy at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver.

The professors took part in a peaceful protest in the fall of 2014 on Burnaby Mountain, against test drilling for a proposed pipeline expansion by American energy giant Kinder Morgan. The Trans Mountain pipeline carries bitumen from Alberta’s oil sands through British Columbia to a port on Canada’s west coast, for transfer to tankers that ship it to refineries in Asia. Collis and Quarmby were among scores of protesters arrested, and also included in a small group sued by the company later sued; the suit was dropped in January. The Sterling prize was awarded the week before Canada’s national general election Monday October 19, in a campaign in which pipelines are a major issue. Quarmby is a candidate for the Green party.

With permission, F&O publishes Collis’s acceptance speech.

Stephen Collis, Lynne Quarmby, and xxx. Photo by Emma Campbell.

Stephen Collis andLynne Quarmby, left. Photo by Emma Campbell.

By Stephen Collis 
October, 2015

Our argument tonight, stated as simply as possible, is this: If what Lynne and I have done constitutes anything “controversial,” it is so only because of the problematic state of our current democracy, for all we have done, in our opinion, is exercise “normal” and supposedly long-standing democratic rights of assembly and public speech. Democracy, now, produces a fundamental contradiction which anyone engaging in the political must wrestle with: we feel we cannot help but participate in the current democratic system (there are so many urgent issues to address)—voting, supporting parties and candidates, participating in public debate, even running for office—at the same time, we can have little faith in the ability of our political system, as currently constituted, when it comes to the most pressing issues we face (such as climate change, the geographical displacement of populations, and Indigenous rights and land claims), and so we must also take direct action outside of the electoral and representative apparatus of governance. To live today is to live in a world of such contradictions. Go vote on Monday, but do not stop there, and do not stop demanding, and taking steps to build, a more just, more open, more equal and more participatory political system.

Another way of approaching this: controversy, however figured—along with informed, respectful argument and passionate disagreement, as well as acts that can be seen as confrontational or disruptive, acts which sometimes may involve non-violent civil disobedience—should really be understood as part of the healthy functioning of a democracy. They are evidence of the people taking autonomous control of and responsibility for their lives. If such acts themselves come to be characterized as “controversial,” rather than essential, then something is rotten in the state of our democracy.

Our discussion tonight of what, exactly, might be “controversial” about direct democratic action will pass through the lenses of our personal stories this past year, the particularity of our fields of research, and the critique we are levelling with our words and our actions.

For me, my involvement in the Kinder Morgan resistance this past year was unavoidable. I had for a number of years been writing about and participating in social justice and environmental justice grassroots movements. I had been concerned about climate change, social inequality, Indigenous land claims, and our government’s seeming inability, or lack of interest in, doing anything about these issues. When Kinder Morgan came to the Burnaby Mountain Conservation Area, to cut trees and conduct seismic testing for their new pipeline last September, they came into my back yard. I have a 20-year relationship with Simon Fraser University, so this mountain is one of my homes, a place where I have spent a good portion of my life, and I care about it, as a place and as a community. I care about local First Nations title to this land upon which I am a settler. And I care about the state of this world, the natural environment upon which we all collectively depend, and the future my and your children and grandchildren and great grandchildren will inherit. “Kinder Morgan,” it may be worth noting, in perhaps not the best German translation, can be taken to mean “tomorrow’s children.” This accident in corporate naming is telling.

I could, on my way to and from work, stop on the mountain and join others keeping watch in the forest. I could, and soon did, play the role of a spokesperson for what people were trying to achieve on the mountain. And I could write—and I did write—as Lynne did too.

For me personally, one of the most instructive, and chilling, moments was having my writing read aloud in the BC Supreme Court, by Kinder Morgan’s lawyers, accusing me of conspiring against their company. “Underneath the poetry,” the lawyer said of a blog I had written (and I quote), “is a description of how the barricade was made”—thereby unintentionally echoing the famous Situationist slogan: sous la plave, la plage (under the paving stones, the beach). It was a good day for poetry—it mattered enough to be cited in court—even if it was a bad day for this one poet.

That one sentence spoken by that lawyer on November 5 2014 continues to haunt and shape my work (including my forthcoming book of poetry, Once in Blockadia). Of course, I’ve always mostly been interested in what was “beneath the poetry”—the Real, the material world of exploitation and repression, and collective struggles for justice and freedom and our complicated social relations. But now that the two-headed monster of the corporate state has tipped its hat—that it, too, is very interested in what’s “beneath the poetry,” and the sort of veiling that literary and other cultural expressions may engage in—well, quite simply I’m still trying to process this new piece of information.

The connection between poetry and politics, poetry and social justice and social movements, is primary to the work I do in my academic field. In a recent publication I referred to the sort of work I do as a form of “embedded poetry”—like an “embedded” journalist, I write from a position within groups undertaking certain actions in the social field. Obviously this is anything but dispassionate, distanced or objective research; it is a committed creative and critical practice. But the literature that doubles as social commentary and in fact at times as a form of social “action” also has a long tradition about which I teach and write, as well as engaging in it in my own creative practice.

This is what I find so useful and fascinating—both as a subject I study and a methodology I employ: poetry, especially, provides the generic wherewithal to imagine ourselves as vocal agents of change and actors on the stage of social transformation. Poetry is still shaped by speech and the oral imaginary. In a poem, we can say public things we otherwise do not have the opportunity or occasion (or perhaps even freedom) to say, and we can address situations, individuals, the body politic and even abstract entities in ways that would not otherwise make sense. And yet, this imaginary by which we speak to that which it is often impossible to speak is a crucial political imaginary too. Democracy, I would argue, is nothing less than a mechanism to allow impossible speech: the collective speech of and between communities, the speech of and to large and abstract forces that affect us all in the broadest, and therefore sometimes decidedly intangible, ways. Such speech is absolutely necessary to our social wellbeing, and while “publicness” seems to be something which has been steadily eroded over the past three or four neoliberal and austerity filled decades, poetry and other literary arts remain a place where the voice of honest indignation (as William Blake called it) is kept alive.

Here’s perhaps a bit of controversy: we’re not living in a democracy. Not, at least, if we take seriously the idea that a democracy is a system of rights and freedoms enshrining the self-determination of a community’s constituents. As many thinkers are now pointing out, western democracies in fact function much more like oligarchies than anything else—as a recent Princeton study suggests of the United States:

Multivariate analysis indicates that economic elites and organised groups representing business interests have substantial independent impacts on US government policy, while average citizens and mass-based interest groups have little or no independent influence.

This is likely news to no one. Consider Bill C-51, a piece of legislation which the majority of legal experts in Canada deride as unconstitutional and, frankly, undemocratic. Consider the “close working relationship” between the current Conservative government of Canada and its “friends” in the fossil fuel industry—to the point at which, as documents have revealed, the government has over the past four years implemented exactly those policy and regulatory changes industry has asked for—down to each dotted i and crossed t. Then of course there is the denial of the will of the city and the majority of the citizens of Burnaby in the Kinder Morgan case on Burnaby Mountain, and the way various levels of government run roughshod over Indigenous rights and title in the rush to approve and develop multi-national fossil fuel extraction, infrastructure and trade deals.

I could of course go on. But consider this: a recent Fraser Institute report suggests that “democratic institutions are not relevant for an enhanced feeling of life control.” The report adds that economic freedom, specifically, “exerts a positive impact on life satisfaction, while democracy remains insignificant.” Here’s where we are heading under the current neoliberal phase of capitalism and governmentality: democracy is “insignificant”; you can find “life control” and “life satisfaction” through economic (as opposed here to social) freedom alone. Interesting. And who, we might ask, has access to this singularly significant “economic freedom”? Hmm…I wonder.

Let’s step back from the brink of democracy’s twilit last gleaming. The era in which modern democratic institutions developed, over the past two to three centuries, is also the era of capitalism’s full and eventually global development. It is also the era of colonialism—if we stretch this analysis back just slightly into the seventeenth century, when the British parliament, at least, began to exert more power, and in which global exploration and expropriation began to expand beyond Europe in earnest. All these socio-historical phenomena—capitalism, colonialism, and what we have come to refer to as “democracy”—are linked processes. They are phenomena unleashed by the drive of elites to increase their influence and wealth—and thus productive forces—supported by a rapidly developing ideology of limitless economic growth and competition—through the private ownership of land and labouring bodies (sometimes the bodies themselves, literally, at other times simply the labour time of those bodies—although it has often amounted to the same thing).

In the historical narrative I’m offering here, democracy—the “granting” of democratic rights and the gradual implementation of a slowly expanded franchise—functions as a “containment system,” intended to corral popular will and opinion—to cordon it off while the important business of colonization and capital accumulation proceeded and expanded (as indeed it continues to proceed and expand, in diverse ways). We might say that the rights and freedoms we do have were “granted” only because of popular unrest and resistance: the commons demanded change, and elites gradually offered various sops and allowances and “privileges” which were eventually stitched into a system (which we have deigned to call democracy), constantly modified, which allowed a semblance of the participation of the “will of the people” while continuing to serve the interests of the accumulation and radically uneven distribution of wealth.

If we, the commons, made some gains in the past through popular resistance, we can do so again. Indeed, I would argue that we have not yet gone nearly as far as we need to in this direction. In this regard, I recall the words of Henry David Thoreau, who in his essay Resistance to Civil Government, wrote: “Is a democracy, such as we have known it, the last possible improvement in government?”

So—maybe there’s something more important here that the word “democracy” obscures. Maybe what we really need to focus on is the demos, the commons, and the ability of the commons to manage and maintain its shared planetary resources. This is the controversial thing Lynne, and myself, and many others did: we stood on the remnant commons of public space and unceded territory and demanded that the commons be heard, be acknowledged, and be followed.

I return to the question of controversy. Is it really controversial to act to protect our shared natural environment? Is it really controversial to place ecological values ahead of economic ones, or to demand economic practices that are in harmony with ecological values? IF it is, then we are truly in a bad way. And certainly legislation such as Bill C-51 attempts to mark out those who stand in the path of the economic’s triumphant parade over the body of the ecological—especially Indigenous land defenders—as controversial, deviant, even terrorists.

If Lynne and I have indeed participated in a controversy, it is largely, to my mind, a controversy centered on one aspect of our work as academics. It is not our research that is necessarily controversial, nor is it our teaching. Rather, it is our public outreach and service to the wider community—our functioning as “public intellectuals” (if such beasts are not yet extinct), and our taking of SFU’s mantra—engaging the world—perhaps a little more literally than intended. Advocacy is often a part of what academics do, both from within and outside their respective fields. You might also characterise what Lynne and I have done as to take our social analysis and critique—our understandings of the functioning of the physical and social worlds—and put them at the service not just of our disciplinary community, but at the service of the wider community as well. This is perhaps another form of “embedded” cultural practice—embedding knowledge production and dissemination not in the rarefied and disciplinarily bound institution alone, but in the very communities that are struggling for social change from below—and further, to actually form that knowledge in a collaborative and grassroots milieu.

We have without question desired to be of service. But again I have to ask, what here is controversial or even exceptional? In the kind of political life that I would see as living up to the concept of democracy—of real, participatory democracy—such “engagement,” such direct collective social action, would neither be controversial nor extraordinary. It would be expected. It would be a normal part of daily life—and indeed we would have to reconceive daily life so that it allowed and supported a more fulsome participation in a more autonomous, localized, and engaged form of community self-governance (a topic of discussion, perhaps, to reserve for another occasion). Now imagine—if engaging the world was taken to mean direct and active participation in our own collective self-governance, as well as the attendant ascendancy of the rights and responsibilities of citizens over corporations, we might have to redefine engagement—we might in fact have to rebrand SFU as having a new, more radical mandate—one of revolutionizing the world.

Copyright Stephen Collis 2015


Click here for more works in F&O’s Focus on Canadian politics

The Nora and Ted Sterling Prize in Support of Controversy, Simon Fraser University, Vancouver, Canada.

Testing Theories of American Politics: Elites, Interest Groups, and Average Citizens, by Martin Gilens, Princeton University, and Benjamin I. Page, Northwestern University: http://journals.cambridge.org/action/displayAbstract?aid=9354310

Steve picStephen Collis is a Professor of English at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver, Canada. His many books of poetry include The Commons (Talon Books 2008; second edition 2014), On the Material (Talon Books 2010; awarded the BC Book Prize for Poetry), and To the Barricades (Talon Books 2013).  He has also written two books of criticism and a novel, The Red Album (BookThug 2013).  His collection of essays on the Occupy movement, Dispatches from the Occupation (Talon Books 2012), is a philosophical meditation on activist tactics, social movements, and change.  In September 2013 Coach House Books published DECOMP, a collaborative photo-essay and long poem written with former SFU student Jordan Scott. Visit his site at SFU here.

Related on F&O:

The images below were taken in the autumn of 2014 of the protest on Burnaby Mountain against test drilling for a proposed expansion of Kinder Morgan’s Trans Mountain pipeline. Trans Mountain delivers bitumen from Alberta’s oil sands through British Columbia to a port on Canada’s west coast, for transfer to tankers shipping it refineries in Asia. Photos by Gavin Kennedy and Deborah Jones.




Facts and Opinions is a boutique journal, of reporting and analysis in words and images, without borders. Independent, non-partisan and employee-owned, F&O is funded by you, our readers. We are ad-free and spam-free, and we do not solicit donations from partisan organizations.  Please visit our Subscribe page to chip in at least .27 for one story or $1 for a day site pass. Please tell others about us, and follow us on Facebook and Twitter.

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Canada’s Harper Government’s ‘Maginot’ Security Plan

Roberts Bank Superport near Vancouver, Canada, is one of the exports . © Deborah Jones 2015

“The current government is not Canada’s first to go AWOL in protecting natural security. Indeed, as a colonial, second-generation industrial power, Canada was built largely by converting natural capital to private fur and timber, later pulp and fossil fuel, fortunes” — Chris Wood. Above, Roberts Bank Superport near Vancouver, Canada, includes North America’s busiest single coal export terminal. © Deborah Jones 2015

June, 2015

Canada’s heavy-handed ‘security’ strategy is a sham. 

That statement may be true in a number of readings, ranging from motive to likely outcome (more inflamed zealots with an excuse for violence on Canadian soil). But the sense in which I mean it is this: Canada’s strategy is not securing the foundation of the nation’s wealth or prosperity or the freedoms those assets support. To the contrary.

Behind its constant drumbeat of threat and necessary repression, the Conservative Party of Canada-led government has all but given up defending the most fundamental security its citizens enjoy: their natural security.

Now that security is beginning to break down.

Recently, we saw the results when wildfires accomplished what a generation of activists have failed to: force some tar sands operators in Alberta to suspend activity.

It broke again down in the small town of Cache Creek, British Columbia, where flash flooding tore out building lots, damaged scores of homes and left half a dozen condemned in destruction the province’s Premier called “unbelievable.”

Not really. Canada’s natural security is showing signs of stress from coast to coast. 

It broke down big time a couple of years ago this month, when another near-flash flood inundated Calgary’s financial and Stampede districts. That breakdown eventually cost Albertans $5 billion.

The tab from the ” snowmageddon” in the Maritime provinces this past winter has yet to be calculated. The one from flash frosts in southern Ontario’s temperature-sensitive fruit industry is still unfolding.

The current government is not Canada’s first to go AWOL in protecting natural security. Indeed, as a colonial, second-generation industrial power, Canada was built largely by converting natural capital to private fur and timber, later pulp and fossil fuel, fortunes.

In a massive journalistic project for the Vancouver-based Tyee Solutions Society, an independent, non-profit journalism generator, I examined 25 years of Canada’s environmental record in close detail. That record (available here in searchable form with numerous links) reveals a quarter-century retreat from bold-sounding declarations of standing on guard for the world’s second-largest national territory. 

Since 1989, five Prime Ministers from three parties have occupied the official residence at 24 Sussex Drive. Every government has enacted impressive-sounding laws to protect air and water, species and entire ecosystems, and even to help protect the planet’s oceans, atmosphere and climate. 

And every government has failed to fully, or occasionally at all, implement and enforce those laws. For more than a quarter century, Canada’s national government has turned critical components of natural security defence for which it is Constitutionally responsible, over to provincial governments — despite evidence from its own Auditor General that this has resulted in soaring non-compliance.

In 2011, Environment Canada acknowledged that it was not enforcing half of the few laws for which it retained nominal responsibility. The same agency has admitted to Canada’s Commissioner of the Environment — an independent officer of Parliament — that it has no idea of the condition of most species and ecosystems under its protection. In 2012, the current government dropped century-old legislative protection from more than 90 per cent of the country’s waterway and lakes.

This is the equivalent of ordering all of Canada’s border guards to go home, grounding its coastal air patrols, sending the Royal Canadian Mounted Police back to their barracks, switching off every air-defence satellite and letting even Canada’s spies and internet nannies take the rest of their careers off.

It is a form of unilateral disarmament that puts at risks values that are only beginning to be quantified. But the numbers being reached by economists who look closely at what intact, fully functional ecosystems provide us, are staggering.

The Mackenzie River Valley is reckoned to provide the country with natural services worth some $571 billion a year — thirteen and a half times the region’s official GDP of $42 billion. Toronto’s trees kick in benefits in health and air quality that exceed that city’s promotion and development budget. 

Then there is the sobering fact that the entire planet is running what might be called a natural security deficit. Two thirds of the biosphere’s life-support systems, according to the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment, were being drawn down at unsustainable rates a decade ago. The human economy has devoured the temperate zone’s most productive ecosystems: its deltas and plains and forests and shallow seas. 

Our appetites have only increased. They are being turned now on places that once seemed hard to get to, like Canada’s north — and the last extant expanses of life-support ecosystems on the planet. 

The economists have put a value on those too. They calculate that the earth’s biosphere as a whole contributes services worth US$127 trillion to humanity (2011 estimate). That’s a bit less than twice the global economic GDP that year of roughly $72 trillion.

But in fact, the value of our natural security is both incalculable and by definition greater than all of the material and financial assets it underwrites. At the extreme, without the life-supporting ecosystems that form our biological habitat, all the rest of our wealth, our homes, our cars and toys, as well as most of our hopes and dreams and very possibly we ourselves as a species, disappear.

Our natural security is provided by densely interconnected and interactive living biological and geo-physical systems, working in constant autonomous motion. Imagine a vast bio-physical game of Jenga, with a lot of its structure still obscure. We are pulling out the pieces from the game… with no real idea when the whole thing will come tumbling down — or whether we’ll be able to survive the wreckage when it does.

Canada’s government is focused on enhancing police powers and projecting its small and thinly equipped military abroad in order, it claims, to preserve its citizens’ security. 

It should read the history of the Maginot Line: the vastly expensive, strategically pointless, fortification that France built along its border with Germany in the 1930s. 

The Canadian government is building one of its own. Less imposing, and even more beside the point.

 Copyright Chris Wood 2015

For more information about Canada’s environmental stewardship, visit: Bottom Lines: A Quarter-Century Report on Canada’s Natural Security: bottomlines.tyeesolutions.org 



Chris Wood is a founding writer with Facts and Opinions. He is the author of the Natural Security column and occasional long-form Think magazine pieces, and contributes the odd blog entry.

Wood writes about the issues of human social survival in the 21st century. His 40-year career has spanned award-winning work in radio, newsmagazines, books and the internet. He is the author or co-author of seven books, most recently Down the Drain: How We Are Failing To Protect Our Water Resources, with Ralph Pentland (Greystone, 2013).  After growing up near Hamilton, Ont., and later living for periods of time in rural Ontario, the Maritimes, Toronto, Dallas and Vancouver, his home is now on Vancouver Island with  his writer/marketer wife, Beverley Wood, and their two middle-aged bull terrier dogs. Currently, all are on an extended research and study term in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico. 

Read more about Chris’s work, or book him as a speaker, at www.bychriswood.com 



Facts and Opinions is an online journal of select and first-rate reporting and analysis, in words and images: a boutique for select journalism, without borders. Independent, non-partisan and employee-owned, F&O performs journalism for citizens, funded entirely by readers. We do not carry advertising or solicit donations from foundations or causes. Help sustain us with a donation, by clicking below; by telling others about us, or purchasing a $1 day pass or subscription, from $2.95/month to $19.95/year. To receive F&O’s free blog emails fill in the form on the FRONTLINES page. 

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Alberta election: is change in the wind?


Alberta NDP leader Rachel Notley, on May 3. Photo: Don Voaklander, creative commons

Polls suggest Alberta NDP leader Rachel Notley has a shot at governing. Photo: Don Voaklander, creative commons

Could Alberta be the bellwether for shifting politics in North America’s oil patch communities?

Alberta citizens vote in a provincial election today.  Alberta — world famous as home of the oil sands — has been ruled by the Progressive Conservative party for more than four decades, and it is the base of Canada’s hard-right federal Conservative government. Now the socialist New Democratic Party, which received less than 10 per cent of the popular vote in 2012,  is on a wave of massive popular support, and numerous opinion polls give it a shot at governing.

The election of a socialist government in right-wing Alberta would have been unthinkable until now — but amid social and political upheaval, global oil prices are volatile and plunging, and communities almost entirely reliant on oil and gas extraction are suffering. 

Alberta-based journalists Penney Kome and Sean Holman consider aspects of the issues.

The election, writes Holman, is “a missed opportunity to change that indifference, raising awareness among Albertans about why their information rights are important and how those rights can prevent another 44 years of unaccountable governments in this province.”  

“Alberta, the province that elected North America’s first Muslim mayor, is flirting with another surprise: a feminist New Democrat government — or at least Opposition,” writes Kome.

Click here to read NOTEBOOK: a bellwether election for Alberta?


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Pipeline protest

November, 2014

Throughout the autumn citizens including First Nations peoples, politicians, and visitors from other countries, trekked up Burnaby Mountain to protest a proposed expansion of Kinder Morgan’s Trans Mountain pipeline. Trans Mountain delivers bitumen from Alberta’s oil sands through British Columbia to a port on Canada’s west coast, for transfer to tankers shipping it refineries in Asia.

The expansion has not yet been approved by Canada’s federal National Energy Board. But it triggered a jurisdictional war after the NEB gave the Houston, Texas, based company the right to drill two test holes in a nature conservancy, over opposition by the city of Burnaby. Dozens of police were called in to keep protesters from the drill site, and scores of protesters were arrested, mostly peacefully, before Kinder Morgan removed its equipment by a court-imposed December 1 deadline.

Images of the protest, and a celebration after the drills were removed, by Gavin Kennedy and Deborah Jones. Updates on the story to follow on F&O. 


Further reading:

ENERGY, F&O’s ongoing coverage

© 2014 Facts & Opinions



Facts and Opinions is an online journal of select and first-rate reporting and analysis, in words and images: a boutique for slow journalism, without borders. Independent, non-partisan and employee-owned, F&O performs journalism for citizens, funded entirely by readers. We do not carry advertising or solicit donations from foundations or causes.

Subscribe by email to our free FRONTLINES, a blog announcing new works, and the odd small tale. Look for evidence-based reporting in DISPATCHES; commentary, analysis and creative non-fiction in THINK; and image galleries in PHOTO-ESSAYS. Some of our original works are behind a paywall, available with a $1 site day pass, or with a subscription from $2.95/month – $19.95/year. If you value journalism, please help sustain us.




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Environmental Assessments Include Climate

By Chris Wood,  Natural Security columnist

West Elk Mountains, Colorado, Photo by Ken Lund, Flickr, Creative Commons

West Elk Mountains, Colorado. Photo: Ken Lund via Flickr, Creative Commons

How wide to cast the net when examining the environmental damage a proposed industrial development might do, is a contested issue. In Canada, panels weighing the impacts of proposed oil pipelines from Alberta to the Pacific Coast have repeatedly refused to consider the damage that may occur from climate change as a result of the transported oil being burned. A similar tension has bedeviled hearings into proposals to expand coal exports through Vancouver. 

In January, separate suits by environmental groups and First Nations challenged, in Canada’s Federal Court, a license issued to Enbridge Inc. to build its proposed Northern Gateway bitumen pipeline. They argued that the project’s environmental impact assessment was flawed in not considering its downstream climate impact. (The cases are still pending.)

The Canadian argument received some moral support from across the border. In June, a United States federal judge in Colorado invalidated a U.S. federal license for a coal mine on similar ground: because its proponents and the permitting agency (the Bureau of Land Management) had failed to adequately consider the mine’s climate impacts — including the impact of burning the coal it produced.

U.S. District Court Judge R. Brooke Jackson found that while the mine’s proponents had been able to calculate its anticipated economic benefits “down to the job and the nearest $100,000,” they had failed to address the potential economic costs associated with the climate impacts of methane released during production, and of other greenhouse gas released when the mine’s product was consumed. 

Ignoring “the social cost of coal,’’ Jackson said, the Bureau and Arch Coal, developers of the West Elk Mine, had produced, “half of a cost-benefit analysis.”

Copyright Chris Wood 2014

Further reading:
A Canary for Coal Mines, by Brian Calvert in High Country News: http://www.hcn.org/articles/new-coal-and-climate-policy


*Facts and Opinions is a boutique for slow journalism, without borders. Independent, non-partisan and employee-owned, F&O performs journalism for citizens, sustained entirely by readers: we do not carry advertising or solicit donations from foundations or causes.  Why? If you’d like to support our journalism, for $2.95 (the price of a cheap brew) you can subscribe to F&O for a month. If that breaks your budget, a one-day pass is $1.) 

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~~ Energy and persistence conquer all things — Benjamin Franklin ~~

The Law of Conservation in physics says energy can be neither created nor destroyed, only transformed. But lawless politics have no such constraints — and here the role of energy has ceaselessly expanded, to dominate economics and polarize politics.  Here is a collection of select F&O stories about how we harness energy to run our material world — to feed, clothe, transport and shelter ourselves — and the ways in which our choices enrich and shackle our lives and prospects.

Reader-Supported Facts and Opinions survives with an honour system. Try one story at no charge. If you value no-spam, no-ads, non-partisan, evidence-based, independent journalism, help us continue. Details.  


Greg Locke © 2015

Greg Locke © 2015

Wanted: A new story of humanity’s place in the world. By Philip Loring

It goes without saying that humans are good at causing problems. Climate change, overfishing and widespread environmental contamination from chemical toxicants are all creations of our own making. But are we destined to create such problems? Many people believe so, and argue that our capacity for self-interest, avarice and ecological shortsightedness make us inherently unsustainable as a species. Not only is this way of thinking built on long-disproven myths about human nature and human origins, it also constrains how we think about solutions and alienates us from the rest of the natural world. We need to abandon this belief and not allow ourselves to be defined only by our most recent history. The truth of the matter is that we belong here, and belonging is a much more powerful narrative for sustainability than isolation.

Landmannalaugar with glacier Vatnajökull in background. Photo copyright Mattias Klum 2015

© Mattias Klum

Big World, Small Planet: book excerpt. By  Johan Rockström and Mattias Klum

Big World, Small Planet is a book both alarming and hopeful, a work of science and art that arrives as world leaders prepare — at last? — to address climate change at the summit in Paris. “We need a new way of thinking about our relationship with nature, and how reconnecting with the planet can open up new avenues to world prosperity,” state authors Johan Rockström and Mattias Klum.

© Ed Struzzik 2015

© Ed Struzik 2015

In Northern Canada’s Peaks, Scientists Track Impact of Vanishing Ice. By Ed Struzik

That a cluster of glaciers in the Northwest Territories is melting is hardly earth-shattering news. What makes the Brintnell/Bologna and nearby glaciers unique is that they comprise the last extensive icefield remaining in the interior of Canada’s Northwest Territories. And because temperatures are rising so rapidly here, the icefield appears to be melting at a rate three times the global average.

Risky Business: The facts behind fracking. By Chris Wood

Bouncy music and colouring book graphics introduce A Look Underground, a short video uploaded to YouTube1 by the Calgary-based Encana Corporation “to educate children about natural gas development.” In the demonstration, engineer Mark Taylor explains the principles of hydraulically fracturing shale and recovering natural gas to a dozen kids ranging from toddlers to preteens. The children stand gathered around a structure built from cupcakes arranged in a horseshoe, its top iced a vivid green and decorated with plastic trees and farm animals. A thick layer of white icing represents the shale layer below. Taylor shows how drillers push steel pipe down deep through the chocolate “earth” to the coveted shale, an operation depicted with plastic tubing. Next, he says, “we basically load it up with explosive charges like big firecrackers, and we blast holes into spots all along the way, so the gas can come out of the white shale here and into our well.”

Mexicans with Sweaters: On the road with Newfoundland’s migrant workers. By Greg Locke

Newfoundlanders running the Salvation Army shelter in Fort McMurray, Alberta. Greg Locke Photo © 2013

© Greg Locke 2013

Contrary to what mainland North Americans may think of us, a plane-full of Newfoundlanders heading to well-paying jobs in Alberta’s oil sands was never going to be a “Party Plane” full of happy people heading to a new, bright future. They might have been surprised that most passengers on Air Canada’s new direct 7:00 AM flight from St. John’s to Fort McMurray were middle-aged men with grey hair, in a somber mood for having to leave behind wives, children, grandchildren, and homes, because there is no room in the new Newfoundland economy for them and their primitive resource and trades-based skills. No, this was not a party plane. It was a plane filled with people resigned to a new life they don’t want.

Reader-Supported Facts and Opinions survives with an honour system. Try one story at no charge. If you value no-spam, no-ads, non-partisan, evidence-based, independent journalism, help us continue. Details.  



Muskrat Falls hydroelectric – Who buried the risk assessment report?  by ROGER BILL

ST. JOHN’S, Newfoundland — The man in charge of finishing the Muskrat Falls hydroelectric project on the Churchill River in remote central Labrador calls the venture a “boondoggle”. The Newfoundland and Labrador government has established a commission of inquiry to determine why the project is wildly over budget and years behind schedule. A good place for the Commissioner, Judge Richard D. LeBlanc, to start is to find out who buried the warning that there was a “very high risk” of a multi-billion dollar cost overrun barely four months after the massive project was green-lighted in December, 2012.

Newfoundland’s fourth offshore oil project set to sail, by Greg Locke

The Hebron offshore oil production platform awaits tow out to the Grand Banks of Newfoundland. Photo by Greg Locke © 2017 -www.greglocke.comThe Hebron offshore oil production platform awaits tow out to the Grand Banks of Newfoundland. Photo by Greg Locke © 2017 -www.greglocke.com

The Hebron offshore oil production platform awaits tow out to the Grand Banks of Newfoundland. Photo by Greg Locke © 2017 -www.greglocke.com

While Canada’s oil sands projects and the North America fracking companies are under scrutiny and financial distress, Newfoundland prepares to bring its fourth major offshore oil project online.

Trump’s Hot Air Far From Greatest Climate Threat, by Andrew Revkin, ProPublica

The real risk for climate change in a Donald Trump presidency, according to close to a dozen experts interviewed for this story, lies less in impacts on specific policies like Obama’s Clean Power Plan and more in the realm of shifts in America’s position in international affairs.

If carbon pricing is so great, why isn’t it working? by Peter Fairley

Carbon pricing has yet to deliver on its potential. To date most carbon prices remain low — “virtually valueless.”  That has led even some economists to question whether carbon pricing’s theoretical elegance may be outweighed by practical and political hurdles.

Paris Agreement: landmark accord, turn from fossil fuels, By Alister Doyle and Barbara Lewis

 The global climate summit in Paris agreed a landmark accord on December 12, setting the course for a historic transformation of the world’s fossil fuel-driven economy within decades in a bid to arrest global warming.

Climate: Paris Agreement at a glance
The Conversation  Report

Paris Agreement massive “take-back” scheme, by Myles Allen, University of Oxford

How many of the delegates in Paris realise that they have just created the mother of all “take-back schemes?”

Catastrophe will result if climate summit fails — Pope. By Philip Pullella and George Obulutsa

World leaders must reach a historic agreement to fight climate change and poverty at upcoming Paris talks, facing the stark choice to either “improve or destroy the environment”, Pope Francis said in Africa on Thursday.

World at “breaking point” as Paris summit begins. By Bruce Wallace and Alister Doyle

World leaders launched an ambitious attempt November 30, to hold back the earth’s rising temperatures, with French President Francois Hollande saying the world was at “breaking point” in the fight against global warming.  After decades of struggling negotiations and the failure of a summit in Copenhagen six years ago, some form of landmark agreement appears all but assured.

Catastrophe will result if climate summit fails — Pope. By Philip Pullella and George Obulutsa

World leaders must reach a historic agreement to fight climate change and poverty at upcoming Paris talks, facing the stark choice to either “improve or destroy the environment”, Pope Francis said in Africa on Thursday.

Are countries legally required to protect from climate change? By Sophia V. Schweitzer, Ensia

On June 24, 2015, a court in The Hague ruled that greenhouse gas reduction is a state obligation. This marks the first time the issue has been legally declared a state obligation, regardless of arguments that the solution to the global climate problem does not depend on one country’s efforts alone. Here’s what that could mean for the rest of the world.



Global oil industry slipping into the red. By Ron Bousso, Karolin Schaps & Anna Driver

The oil sector is slipping into the red after years of fat profits as the steep slump in oil prices shows little sign of ending, with this quarter shaping up to be the worst since the downturn started. The world’s top oil companies have struggled to cope with the halving of oil prices since June 2014. They have cut spending repeatedly, made thousands of job cuts and scrapped projects.

Fracking: it’s everywhere (at least in America). By Peter Dykstra

Forget, for the moment, whether you think fracking is an energy godsend or an endtimes disaster. Just consider how it’s everywhere. In the long run, fracking will impact our lives far more than four of its fellow inductees into the Merriam-Webster dictionary this past year: Hashtags, selfies, tweeps, and turduckens all have their place in society. But none touch everyone’s lives like fracking will, and already has.

Canadian Court Expands Aboriginal Rights. By Deborah Jones

Canada’s top court greatly expanded aboriginal rights in Canada’s westernmost province, in what may stand as a landmark decision affecting control of a vast swath of land and resources, in British Columbia and beyond. The case, Tsilhqot’in Nation v. British Columbia, was sparked in 1983 when the provincial government licenced a commercial company to log the Chilcotin. The licence was disputed by the Chilcotin residents who lived there long before the mid 2800s when — without their consent — England claimed the land as a colony, and named it British Columbia.

Aggressive Tactic on the Fracking Front. by Naveena Sadasivam, ProPublica

For the last eight years, the American state of Pennsylvania has been riding the natural gas boom, with companies drilling and fracking thousands of wells across the state. And in a little corner of Washington County, some 20 miles outside of Pittsburgh, EQT Corporation has been busy – drilling close to a dozen new wells on one site. It didn’t take long for the residents of Finleyville who lived near the fracking operations to complain — about the noise and air quality, and what they regarded as threats to their health and quality of life.

Landowners often losers in deals with U.S. energy companies.  By Abrahm Lustgarten, ProPublica (Public access)

At the end of 2011, Chesapeake Energy, one of the United State’s biggest oil and gas companies, was teetering on the brink of failure. Its legendary chief executive officer, Aubrey McClendon, was being pilloried for questionable deals, its stock price was getting hammered and the company needed to raise billions of dollars quickly. The money could be borrowed, but only on onerous terms. Chesapeake, which had burned money on a lavish steel-and-glass office complex in Oklahoma City even while the selling price for its gas plummeted, already had too much debt. In the months that followed, Chesapeake executed an adroit escape, raising nearly $5 billion with a previously undisclosed twist: By gouging many rural landowners out of royalty payments they were supposed to receive in exchange for allowing the company to drill for natural gas on their property.

Drilling for Certainty: The Latest in Fracking Health Studies, by Naveena Sadasivam, ProPublica (Public access)

For years environmentalists and the gas drilling industry have been in a pitched battle over the possible health implications of hydro fracking. But to a great extent, the debate has been hampered by a shortage of science. The science is far from settled — but there is a growing body of research to consider. ProPublica offers a survey of some of that work, in air quality, birth outcomes, and other health risks.

Report says 90 companies cause 2/3 of climate change, past and present. By Deborah Jones

International debates about climate change, such as the United Nation talks now underway in Warsaw, have lately focused on blaming nations and which of them should pay the bills. That changed today, with new research that claims just 90 companies are responsible for two-thirds of emissions linked with human-caused global warming. Researcher Richard Heede is upfront about his purpose: to change the game — and to name and shame.

Are humans too selfish to fix climate change? By Deborah Jones

Chilcotin burn

© Deborah Jones 2012

In the perpetual debate about whether humans are good, greed scored another point. Researchers in Europe and North America invented a game in which players had to cooperate to receive both individual cash and a reward for achieving a public-good (the example used was avoiding climate change). The longer players were willing to wait for their pay-off, the bigger the reward. Each player could defect at any time and claim at least some cash.

Frack Fluids can Migrate to Aquifers: Study. By Abrahm Lustgarten, ProPublica

A new study has raised fresh concerns about the safety of gas drilling in the Marcellus Shale, concluding that fracking chemicals injected into the ground could migrate toward drinking water supplies far more quickly than experts have previously predicted. Scientists have theorized that impermeable layers of rock would keep the fluid, which contains benzene and other dangerous chemicals, safely locked nearly a mile below water supplies. This view of the earth’s underground geology is a cornerstone of the industry’s argument that fracking poses minimal threats to the environment. But the study, using computer modeling, concluded that natural faults and fractures in the Marcellus, exacerbated by the effects of fracking itself, could allow chemicals to reach the surface in as little as “just a few years.”

Reader-Supported Facts and Opinions survives with an honour system. Try one story at no charge. If you value no-spam, no-ads, non-partisan, evidence-based, independent journalism, help us continue. Details.  


Depiction of mass bomber raid on Cologne, by The National Archives, UK. via Wikimedia Commons

PENNEY KOME: Climate watch: the world cannot afford a war

War, the most costly and damaging human activity, is outside the scope of Paris climate talks. “If the war was ranked as a country in terms of emissions, it would emit more CO2 each year than 139 of the world’s nations do annually, more than 60 percent of all countries, said one report.

CHRIS WOOD: The Climate Models are Wrong!  (Just not the models you think)

A common line of attack for the propagandists, and the misled who imagine we are not altering Earth’s climate, is that climate projections rely on models. Models! But it turns out there are models, and models. And now economists Simon Dietz and Nicholas Stern have published some startling findings about the DICEy current models used to estimate the social price of carbon.

1200px-Marsh_Arabs_in_a_mashoofCHRIS WOOD: Let Nature’s Geography Trump Westphalian View

Millennia of not-always-wise irrigation, a century of water seizures for national ends, and decades of conflict including that now in Iraq, have not been kind to the once-lush basin of the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers. “Recovery” might yet be possible, in the unlikely event that environmentalists, who are without a name let alone an army, unify the Levant under a Green banner. But the point we all need to grasp is that the former Mesopotamia is merely a little ahead of the rest of us, on the road to bankrupting our natural security.

CHRIS WOOD: What’s a World Worth? We now have a very precise idea

If you have ever spent a night under the canopy of stars undimmed by city lights, in a place where the only sounds are those unmade by man that have whispered and lapped and knocked and called out through the dark hours in that place since the last big ice released its grip on the Earth, you may share the view of many who have been so blessed that the essence of our planet’s nature and worth cannot possibly be reduced to the grasping calculi of dollars or pounds or Euros. You would be only partly right. An American economist has done just that, sort of.

TZEPORAH BERMAN: The Ugly Oil Sands Debate. 

I have family who work in Canada’s oil sands. They know that I have been a vocal critic of current oil sands operations and plans for expansion, yet they didn’t hesitate to welcome me into their homes and to invite me to a family gathering in Canmore, Alberta. We had a wonderful time. We shared some memories, laughed a lot and even tackled some hard stuff. The conversations were rich and surprisingly easy. Perhaps in part because although we have different opinions there already was a basis of trust and shared experiences.

CHRIS WOOD: The point of no return

If there were before some footing left for doubt, narrow and slippery though it might have been, there is none left now. The world as it has been for the entirety of human history is on its way to the exits. What makes this certain is a pair of studies of the behaviour of a glacier most of us have never given much thought to. The West Antarctic Ice Sheet is a vast ice-scape at the bottom of the world, nearly half again larger than Canada. And it is breaking up. Indeed, the scientific teams that gathered the evidence of the ice-sheet’s retreat say its collapse is now “irreversible.”

CHRIS WOOD: Planet Insurance. Seriously

Acidifying oceans. Desertifying fields. Liquifying glaciers and icecaps. Toxifying lakes and rivers. Our species has a nature problem. Or to put it another way: nature has a human economy problem. Before this century is over — more likely before it’s half over — that problem will be resolved, one way or another. Either we’ll be bright and change the way our economy works, or — and also more likely — we’ll carry on until either our economy or nature or both break beneath our weight. What we need here is a little insurance. Seriously.

CHRIS WOOD: A Reflection On Easter, Math and Judas

Where I live, in the most Catholic part of old Mexico, the entire week and weekend to come are turned over to a passionate mix of Christian and not-so-Christian rituals: an overnight pilgrimage of the faithful in their hundreds bearing a life-size effigy of a suffering Christ, an entire afternoon devoted to the satisfaction of blowing up life-size paper Judases (although some bear a suspiciously strong likeness to certain political figures. It is Easter. Which turns out to have nothing to do with Ishtar, a Canaanite goddess of war, fertility and something called “sacred prostitution.” What it does have to do with is the hope that comes with spring time, with the return of life after the little death of winter, that is celebrated by different names in different ways everywhere we are on the planet. I am not a Christian, but we need that hope just now.

512px-Archbishop-Tutu-mediumDESMOND TUTU: An Argument for Carbon Divestment. (Public access)

Scientists and public representatives gathered in Berlin are weighing up radical options for curbing carbon emissions contained in the third report of the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. The bottom line, a draft of the report warns, is that we have 15 years to take the necessary steps to affordably reduce emissions to attain the targeted 2°C over pre-industrial times. The horse may not have already bolted, but it’s well on its way through the stable door.

Who can stop it? Well, we can, you and I. And it is not just that we can stop it, we have a responsibility to do so.

CHRIS WOOD: The End of the Century is Now, in Northern Canada

The 1,000-gun salute in the realm of natural security these past weeks has been for the Fifth Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change Report. So let me talk (mostly) about something else instead. The IPCC’s latest synthesis of science mainly confirms widely known trends and risks and warns, yet again, that our business-as-usual is leading us to the extreme end of the range of climate forecasts by the end of this century. So instead of dwelling on that, let me take you to one specific place where the climate hasn’t waited for the end of the century, the Mackenzie River delta on the Arctic Ocean’s Beaufort Sea.

CHRIS WOOD: Our Rube Goldberg World

Rube Goldberg is long dead, but the figurative machine to which he gave his name lives on. It’s that whimsical confection where a rolling marble tips a lever that sends a toy plane whizzing down a wire to bump into a scissors that cuts a string that drops a water balloon on a sleeping victim … Earth’s climate is a lot like a Rube Goldberg machine: a vast assembly of invisibly connected parts, pushing and pulling each other around the spherical planet to achieve, for the last 12,000 years at least, a lot of movement of heat and wind and water, but very little change in the overall state of affairs.

CHRIS WOOD: On the Fiction of Averages and Meaning of Marbles: It’s extremes that kill

North America’s recent wintry blast, and one unfortunate crew of ice-detained eco-cruisers in the south polar sea, have stirred the blood of the science deniers. According to well-paid propagandists working for media outlets, small-time municipal councillors, and a certain spotlight-seeking New York City property magnate and game-show host, the occurrence of cold and — OMG! — snow, is sufficient to overlook millions of other data points meticulously collected around the globe over the last 40 years, and conclude, ever hopefully, that this whole climatey, changey, thing is a hoax. If only it were so.

CHRIS WOOD: We’re All In This Together: ecosystems as life-support systems.

We’re all in this together. That is not a moral sentiment. Nor is it the wooly-headed utopiate of some bleeding-heart liberal. In fact, it is a statement about biology. Nonetheless, this clearly unoriginal insight has implications for everything from agriculture to medicine to business. It should resonate across our social, inter-personal and economic realms as well. Here’s the deal: That splendid, solitary, neurotically cultivated and over-examined individual of pop cultural celebrity, of too many moody novels, of philosophy, and more recently of Darwinian economic ideology, turns out to be just another of those enterprises’ many fantasies. In reality, we are not individuals, we are collectives.

CHRIS WOOD: The Shakedown of the Century? Will trade deals let energy companies shake us down for $55 trillion?

Oil and gas companies plan to spend $700 billion searching for fossil energy next year—even when four-fifths of the reserves they already own may end up ‘stranded’ to stabilize the climate. Why? Because international trade and investment rules will allow fossil fuel companies to demand trillions of dollars in compensation for abandoning locked-in carbon assets. Every additional barrel in reserve is another potential claim. The total bill could rival the size of the world economy.

CHRIS WOOD: Say Hooyah for Natural Defence: U.S. military identifies climate change as security threat

Gavin's Mexican windmills

© Gavin Kennedy 2013

Say what you will about the United States military, no organization on earth is more focused on maintaining its capabilities no matter what. As a result, its upper echelons spend a fair amount of time considering what that ‘what’ might actually look like. Recently at a conference in Halifax, Canada, the top figure in that military, United States Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, described what he and his top-brass colleagues see when they look around the globe for the biggest looming threats to America’s security. Significantly, it wasn’t men with guns.

CHRIS WOOD: Give Disaster a Chance: Brute force will make us change our ways

Where I live, in Mexico, screens have been filled with the devastation wrought by Hurricane Ingrid and tropical storm Manuel along the country’s coasts. Mexico is in no doubt about the reality of climate change, and is instituting a national strategy to respond to it. Meanwhile those relative few in the Canadian and US media who pay attention to such things have jumped on the latest Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report to comfort skeptics with the idea that global warming has slowed down or perhaps even paused over the last 15 years.  A pause! Why, it’s the next thing to global cooling and a complete collapse of that whole, human-caused climate-change hoax conspiracy!

CHRIS WOOD: Australia follows Canada to elect a hard-core fossil fuel pusher

The Majuro Declaration. Ever heard of it? I thought not. The two-page document was released Sept. 5 by a group of 15 small Pacific island nations, and two somewhat larger Pacific island nations — New Zealand and Australia. It was promptly hailed by the few climate cogniscenti who were aware of it as a breakthrough in candor, if nothing else, about the gravest crisis facing the world. No, not Syria. The crisis that is on a trajectory to exterminating most of Earth’s life forms and sharply reduce humanity’s numbers. That crisis.

CHRIS WOOD: Natural Security is the central question of our age

With apologies to Charles Dickens, it is the best of times, it is the worst of times.  We are surrounded by miracles and wonders that would have dazzled the most indulged monarch of any earlier era. And we are preparing for ourselves a tribulation commensurately greater than any in our species’ record. A time of disruption which may, indeed, bring that record to an end (really, this time). What to do? What to do? These are the defining facts and central question of our age.

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Mark Carney: The tragedy of the horizon. By Mark Carney

mark_carneyA tragedy looms on the horizon, warns Mark Carney, one of the world’s most influential central bankers. “Our societies face a series of profound environmental and social challenges,” he said in a speech to Lloyd’s of London. “The combination of the weight of scientific evidence and the dynamics of the financial system suggest that, in the fullness of time, climate change will threaten financial resilience and longer-term prosperity. While there is still time to act, the window of opportunity is finite and shrinking.” With permission, F&O  publishes an excerpt of the speech.

 The Banality of Ethics in the Anthropocene. By Clive Hamilton

Among the great crimes of the 20th century the most enduring will surely prove to be human disruption of the Earth’s climate. Duty to the truth and the obligation to avoid actions that harm others are powerful principles firmly rooted in the universal framework of legal and ethical codes. Yet before the enormity of what humankind has now done, I cannot help feeling that these grand constructions are frail and almost pathetic. Let me explain why.

The Pointy End. By Tzeporah Berman

The effects of human-caused climate change are already evident on all continents and waters, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change said in its latest report, released March 31. The report is, undeniably, grim: agriculture, human health, water and land-based ecosystems, water supplies, and some livelihoods are already affected. But the report also held out hope: there are opportunities, it said, to take action — albeit challenging ones. How to summon the hope needed to meet the challenges? Canadian environmental activist Tzeporah Berman is an expert on finding hope, gleaned from years on the front lines as co-director of Greenpeace International’s Global Climate and Energy Program, Executive Director and Co-founder of PowerUp Canada and Co-founder and Campaign Director of ForestEthics.

On Geoengineering: a case for sophisticated thinking. By Brad Allenby

The failure of the Kyoto Protocol and the underlying process of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change has led to substantial interest in geoengineering technologies …  The response of falling back on ideological certainties, romantic visions, and over-simplistic worldviews at some point becomes simply a form of irresponsible denial, because the complexity of the systems within which we are embedded mean that there is no home base, no golden age to return to — and our network of systems continues to evolve, and to reflect the growing dominance of human influence. And it will do so regardless of what stories we tell ourselves to try to avoid our responsibilities. What we can do is, to the best of our ability, rationally and ethically respond to the challenges we face. Geoengineering technologies are a part of the technology response that must be developed, but they are only a part, and as we explore them and their implications we need to be far more sophisticated in how we think about them as technologies, and manage them as part of an increasingly engineered planet.

The Changing Arctic Ocean. by Kevin R. Arrigo

For some, the loss of Arctic sea ice is a unique opportunity: the development of a viable Arctic commercial fishery, for exploration for fossil hydrocarbons, as an ice-free Northwest Passage between the Atlantic and Pacific oceans. For others, the loss of Arctic sea ice looks to be a disaster in the making, especially  indigenous populations. Yet the consequences of Arctic sea ice loss extend far beyond the subsistence and commercial activities of humans – there will be profound ecological implications as well.

Biodiversity in the Anthropocene. By Bradley J. Cardinale

Claquot Sound

Claquot Sound, British Columbia. © Deborah Jones 2006

Imagine a hypothetical scenario. Imagine you are traveling through space and come across Earth for the first time … what would you be most struck by? Would it be the water that gives our planet the nickname ‘blue-marble’? I doubt it. We’ve now found water on the moon (Saal et al., 2008), on several other planets in our own solar system (Carr et al., 1998; Malin and Edgett, 2000), and a single survey of the Milky Way found >270 planets in the so-called “habitable zone,” warm enough for liquid water (Borucki et al., 2011). Would you instead be struck by the mountains, canyons and other geological features that are most visible from space? Again, it’s doubtful. Geologists tell us there are few, if any, landforms that are wholly unique to Earth (Baker, 2008; Dietrich and Perron, 2006), and you probably would have seen them all before. Based on our current understanding of the universe, the only thing a space-traveler is likely to be struck by, and the one thing that appears to be fundamentally unique to Earth, is its remarkable variety of life.


Environmental Assessments Include Climate, by Chris Wood

How wide to cast the net when examining the environmental damage a proposed industrial development might do, is a contested issue.


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Naheed Nenshi’s unlikely stardom


Naheed Nenshi. © 2013 Neil Zeller (City of Calgary photo)

There are strange doings in Alberta, the Canadian province that’s often compared to America’s state of Texas.

Alberta has been characterized by its Go-Get-‘Em attitude, cowboy hats, and an economy based on oil and gas extraction, especially the oil sands in its north. It’s widely associated with the full-throated call for unfettered markets by its neo-liberal “Calgary School” of economics. Alberta is home to Canada’s Bible Belt. Its Wildest and Westest city is dubbed Cowtown for its famous Calgary Stampede, but has developed into one of the world’s great modern energy headquarters. In short, Alberta has been fertile territory for Canada’s version of America’s Republican party. 

Alberta is now at a crossroads: a landlocked province, it’s on tenterhooks awaiting U.S. President Barack Obama’s decision on approving the next leg of the Keystone pipeline, crucial for transporting bitumen from Alberta oil sands to world markets. And yet, despite its safe historic identity and these parlous times, the citizens of Calgary have abandoned their predictable scripts. They’ve enthusiastically embraced a leader who surely ranks amongst the world’s least-likely political stars: Naheed Nenshi, a former policy wonk and academic, a self-styled “brown guy,” a liberal quite willing to fetter some sorts of business, and an Ismaili Muslim. 

Nobody, noplace and nothing can be captured in the simplistic terms I’ve used above, of course. But facts underly most stereotypes – and if there’s even a grain of truth in Alberta stereotypes, a remarkable political shift is now underway. Conservative, staid Alberta has begun electing politicians, both provincially and locally, who can only be characterized as “moderate,” perhaps even “progressive.” Provincially last year, Albertans voted for the centrist Progressive Conservative party over the far-right Wild Rose Party. This week its two biggest cities chose unapologetically “progressive” mayors: Nenshi by a 74 per cent landslide in Calgary, and a newcomer named Don Iveson by six out of 10 voters in the provincial capitol Edmonton.

Nenshi, who came to national and international media attention earlier this year after massive floods struck Calgary (he was called a “superhero” for his adroit handling of the crisis) is arguably the poster child of this shift. 

But as surprising as it is to find Nenshi as Calgary’s much-loved mayor, he is no risk-taker. His role as a change-maker may be more symbolic than actual. In his first term he proved willing to forcefully push back against opponents on local issues – but he very deftly avoided the big issues:  North America’s culture wars and Alberta’s bête noire, climate change. The question now is whether his horizons will expand in term two.

Log in to read Canada’s Mayor, a profile of Nenshi by Alberta author Brian Brennan, in the Magazine section, accessible with a $1 day pass for the entire site, or by subscription.


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