Category Archives: Environment

Muskrat Falls hydroelectric – Who buried the risk assessment report?

Muskrat Falls, Labrador. Site of a proposed hydro electric project by the governments of Newfoundland and Quebec. This is downriver from the Churchill Falls Hydro project in Labrador. Photo by Greg Locke © 2017 DCS Files

Muskrat Falls on the Churchill River, Labrador in 2006 before construction of an ill-conceived hydro-electric project by the government of Newfoundland and Labrador.  Photo by Greg Locke ©2017

ROGER BILL
November 25, 2017

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.

 

The warning came in the form of a risk assessment undertaken by SNC-Lavalin, the engineering company retained by the Nalcor Energy, the provincial government agency managing the project. SNC-Lavalin officials, who were responsible for construction management and procurement on the project, conducted the risk assessment when initial prices for some major construction elements came in well above the original estimates in the $6.2 billion December, 2012 budget. The experts at SNC-Lavalin warned their Newfoundland client the project could go over-budget by an additional $2.4 billion. The warning was buried for four years.

 

Some critics of the Muskrat Falls project argue that warnings were ignored long before 2013but when the SNC-Lavalin risk assessment finally surfaced in June of this year it was too much to ignore and according to Newfoundland and Labrador’s premier Dwight Ball too late to put the brakes on the project

 

 According to Nalcor Energy’s CEO, Stan Marshall, the Province is now staring at a total cost of $12+ billion to bring the megaproject in two years behind schedule and the Province wants Judge LeBlanc to inquire into “any risk assessments, financial or otherwise” and whether “Nalcor took possession of the reports” and “made the government aware of the reports and assessments”

 

Judge LeBlanc will find that, yes, there was a risk assessment done by SNC-Lavalin in April, 2013 and maybe Nalcor Energy took possession of it or maybe not, and according to the provincial Minister of Natural Resources in April, 2013, no, the provincial government was not made aware of the SNC-Lavalin risk assessment.

 

Ed Martin, former president and CEO of Nalcor Energy. Photo by Greg Locke © 2017

Ed Martin, former president and CEO of Nalcor Energy. Photo by Greg Locke © 2017

What is a matter of public record is the following: Ed Martin, Nalcor Energy’s CEO, parted company with the provincial government in 2016. Whether he was dismissed or resigned is still a bit of a puzzle, but he was succeeded by Stan Marshall, a very successful executive with the private energy company, Fortis Inc. Stan Marshall says he heard about the 2013 SNC-Lavalin risk assessment from a former SNC-Lavalin engineer, but could not find a copy of it in Nalcor Energy’s files. Finally, Stan Marshall says he asked SNC-Lavalin for a copy of the risk assessment, received it, gave it to the provincial government, and it was released by the Premier and Minister of Natural Resources on June 23, 2017 (External Link to CBC story)

 

A spokesperson for SNC-Lavalin told The Telegram newspaper and www.allnewfoundlandlabrador.com that they “attempted” to hand over the risk assessment to Nalcor. Ed Martin, the former Nalcor CEO told the media the risk assessment was never “presented” to him. Premier Dwight Ball told the media that he had been advised that the risk assessment results were presented by SNC-Lavalin at a meeting attended by Nalcor officials including Ed Martin. Obviously, either Premier Dwight Ball has been poorly advised or Ed Martin is not telling the truth or the word “presented” has a very narrow and specific meaning in the world of engineers and consultants that outsiders fail to understand.

 

The expression “attempted to hand it over” makes one wonder if an official of SNC-Lavalin held the nine-page risk assessment document in their hand and reached out to give it to a Nalcor Energy official who refused to accept it. Or, maybe there was a meeting where the SNC-Lavalin, motivated by what is described in the risk assessment as a sense of “urgency” to convey their findings verbally briefed Nalcor Energy officials on the results of the risk assessment, but did not have the report in hand. When engineers are under oath and lawyers from Judge LeBlanc rather than journalists are asking questions about who told who what and who gave what to who then the people who will ultimately pay for the “boondoggle” will know who buried what.

 

What does not take any clarifying are the words of Tom Marshall, the provincial Minister of Natural Resources in 2013. When the SNC-Lavalin risk assessment surfaced in June, 2017. I asked Tom Marshall if he saw the risk assessment in 2013. He said, “I never saw that report.” Asked if he had been advised of the risk assessment findings Mr. Marshall said, “No.” Did he think Ed Martin, the Nalcor CEO who he met with regularly at the time, held back the risk assessment’s findings Mr. Marshall said, “That would be terrible. I can’t fathom if that is the case.” Would it have made a difference if he had known? “It would have rung all kinds of alarm bells”

 

Eleven months after the SNC-Lavalin risk assessment warning Tom Marshall’s successor as Minister of Natural Resources, Derrick Dalley addressed the House of Assembly to reassure members that the government’s oversight of the Muskrat Falls project was “robust.” Mr. Dalley said, “senior staff with the Department of Natural Resources and Finance have met regularly with Nalcor’s CEO and their staff. As well, the provincial cabinet has had regular meetings and ongoing reports from the CEO of Nalcor”

 

For those who gamble on political affairs the question Mr. Dalley’s assurances in 2014 raise is this; what are the odds that Judge LeBlanc will hear testimony from one single senior staff or cabinet member who met regularly with the CEO of Nalcor who will recall hearing the words, “SNC-Lavalin risk assessment” or “serious concerns” or “very high risk of cost overruns” in any of those meetings?

 

Two days later the Minister again sought to reassure the members of the House of Assembly that there was no very high risk of cost overruns, “Nobody is putting my signature on a paper that costs my children $6 billion and $7 billion into the future. I can tell you the work is done. The oversight is there” he said.

 

When the Muskrat Falls Inquiry releases its schedule of witnesses make a note of the date of Mr. Dalley’s appearance.

 

Copyright Roger Bill 2017

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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

CHRIS WOOD: NATURAL SECURITY
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

 

chris1

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

 

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“Give Disaster a Chance”

CHRIS WOOD: NATURAL SECURITY
Published September 27, 2013

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!

Of course there are good reasons why the IPCC’s fifth compendium of climate science acknowledges a flutter in the century-long incline of global average surface air temperatures, without stepping back from the ‘unequivocal” assertion that human emissions are forcing the climate into alarming and unfamiliar territory. To the contrary: its certainty about that is stronger than ever.

There are also good explanations for why the relatively flat record of one indicator over a decade or so is fully compatible with evidence that increasing heat is altering other strands of the climate system.

But if you are one of those dwindling—but still influential—people who has not accepted the conclusion that human activity is pushing the Earth toward conditions that endanger humanity, it would be better if I don’t explain.

It will only make you dig your heels in deeper.

That, regrettably, is what researchers at Yale, Harvard and Cornell concluded. They found that once someone makes up their mind about an issue in a way that aligns with key emotional values—such as their identity, their politics, or beliefs about what others in their community believe—cognitive reasoning kicks into reverse. The more evidence they encounter that should contradict their views—the more they dismiss those facts and double-down on their beliefs.

This may discourage some of those trying to push or cajole society toward a survivable future. They shouldn’t worry. To paraphrase Edward Littwak, give disaster a chance.

It was Littwak who observed, in an essay entitled Give War a Chance, the “unpleasant truth … that although war is a great evil, it does have a great virtue: it can resolve political conflicts and lead to peace.”

The same could be said of other kinds of catastrophes. To take a homely example, the reason that fire departments exist and most commercial buildings have fire suppression systems, is that before they did, numerous entire cities burned to the ground.

Or, as Ronald Wright, the author of A Short History of Progress, puts it: “Societies behave much like individuals. They find it very hard to change their behaviour and give up self-destructive habits until circumstances force them to do so. It took two world wars before Europeans decided they could not go on slaughtering one another as they had for thousands of years.”

War, given a horrific chance, brought peace.

So, I could point out that the lower atmosphere is only one place where heat can accumulate. It can also be absorbed into the oceans which, being made of water, can soak up a lot more of it than air before their temperatures rise much. Or that heat can be absorbed by water molecules evaporating from lake and sea surfaces into the air.

All of that is happening. But if you are a disbeliever, please forget I mentioned it.

Nonetheless, for North America either to prepare for a different climate or help delay its onset, large numbers of disbelievers in influential offices, particularly in corporate U.S. media and Canada’s petroleo-phile national government, must accept the urgency of those tasks.

And if reason can’t do the job, it will have to be brute force. Happily, nature is obliging.

Mexico’s floods and landslides killed more than 145 people. An early estimate put the cost of clean-up and rebuilding at US$1.2 billion, rivalling the US$1.75 billion in damage wrought by Hurricane Wilma in 2005. The damage in one state alone—Sinaloa—would rank as the country’s eighth-worst-ever natural disaster.

In the rest of North America in the last twelve months, Hurricane Sandy did $65 billion in damage to the Jersey Shore and New York City; mountain flooding left thousands homeless in High River, Alberta; and nearly identical flooding killed at least ten and stranded thousands in small towns surrounding Boulder, Colorado.

Alberta’s insured damages alone are predicted to rise above $1.6 billion (total eventual damages have been spit-balled at up to $5 billion), making this spring’s floods the most expensive natural disaster in Canadian history. Colorado’s losses are still being calculated.

By contrast, Canada’s biggest city emerged shocked but probably no more than $600 million poorer from the heavy rains that overwhelmed Toronto’s creeks and sewers in July. And the long-burning fire that threatened the iconic landscape of California’s Yosemite National Park was contained (more or less) at a cost of only some $100 million.

Still, these sums add up. In an ordinary year, even routine adverse weather costs Americans some $485 billion, according to the United States’ National Center for Atmospheric Research. But these are no longer routine times.

The number of weather-related natural disasters has doubled in number since 1990—from roughly 200 a year to 400. At this rate, the raging greenies at the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) forecast, extreme weather will “endanger economic assets” worth US$45 trillion a year by 2050–slightly more than half of total world economic output in 2012.

Reason may not bring resistant believers around to reality. Disaster will have its chance. cwood@factsandopinions.com

Copyright © 2013 Chris Wood

Also posted in Canadian Journalist, Current Affairs Tagged |

Little Stephen in the Land of Oz

CHRIS WOOD: NATURAL SECURITY
Published September 12, 2013

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.

The crisis in our natural security is occurring in several theatres, but climate change is its central front. And the Majuro statement was one of the more straightforward dispatches from that front in some time.

It declared that present responses to climate change leave several Forum members facing, “catastrophic impacts on the security and livelihoods of our people.” Indeed, they face an existential peril far more profound than Syria’s. The place we call Syria will still be there when the present crisis is history. As things are going the low island territories will simply cease to exist, becoming nothing more than haunted hazards to navigation.

The only way — just perhaps, and with much luck — to preserve these nations, the statement declared, would be “the urgent reduction and phase-down of greenhouse gas pollution.”

As it happened, on the same day that the Pacific Island Forum released its declaration — with Australia adding its imprimatur — Australians themselves were heading to the polls. They delivered a solid Aussie thumping to the party that had agreed to the Majuro statement.

Voters replaced the Labour government of Prime Minister Kevin Rudd with the (not remotely) Liberal Party led by Tony Abbott. Five days later, Abbott repudiated not only the Majuro Declaration’s alarm, but most of the policy response Labour had set in place to contain climate change.

Just as he had promised during the campaign, Abbott scrapped Australia’s carbon tax and its program for emissions trading—the two public policies judged most effective at reducing carbon emissions at the lowest cost to society.

The Aussies have installed in Canberra a spiritual twin to the man who has led Canada, its elder Commonwealth sibling, for the last seven years: Stephen Harper, an anti-charismatic economist. Whether this turns out to be a good thing for Australia’s voters is for them to decide.

It’s almost certainly a very bad thing for the world.

Australia is the world’s largest exporter of coal—the only fossil fuel even dirtier than Canadian bitumen steam-cleaned from the tar sands. And Abbott is as starry-eyed a cheerleader for coal as Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper is for Alberta’s bitumen.

Stephen Harper voices a watery acknowledgement of the reality that human carbon releases are contributing to climate change and consequential changes for the worse in the weather. Aussie Abbott is more Crocodile Dundee on the subject: “The climate change argument is absolute crap.”

Abbott is Australia’s Harper in another revealing way (even beyond the fondness for Orwellian misdirection suggested by his party’s name.)

He is not fond of facts. As he was rubbishing Australia’s best chances to wind down its carbon releases painlessly, Abbott also eliminated its independent Climate Commission, a source of science-based information on the subject for Oz’s voters and legislators.

Canada, needless to say, doesn’t even have such an agency to be scrapped. (The United States, by comparison, does; America’s Department of Agriculture alone, aware of the vulnerability of food supply to climate, has three.

If Abbott is following Harper’s playbook, Australia’s scientists should be polishing their resumes, especially any in the biological and environmental sciences. Or anywhere, really, where they might trip over evidence that wild and human life may suffer a little as it adjusts to the wholesale realignment and amping up of the Earth’s weather systems.

Harper’s cabinet has closed one leading Canadian science platform after another—only pausing at the eleventh hour before delivering a coup de grace to the internationally renowned Experimental Lakes Area, a globally unique open-air ‘laboratory’ that allows scientists to examine entire watersheds, after its death sentence ignited a national hue and cry.

Abbott has warned that once “bureaucrats” in places like Australia’s Climate Commission are done away with, “I suspect we might find that the particular position you refer to goes with them.”

The ‘particular position’ Abbott was talking about was, in this case, the finding by Commission scientists that climate change is making Australia’s already extreme weather, worse.

(When the long-valued, independent and non-partisan National Round Table on the Environment and the Economy had the temerity to examine the merits of a carbon tax for Canada, the Harper government eliminated it, too.)

Three days before the election, the Australia Bureau of Meteorology reported that the country had just experienced its hottest 12 months on record. The September issue of the American Meteorological Society Bulletin concluded that climate change had contributed to the torrential rains that produced calamitous flooding in southeastern Oz early in 2012.

Even U.S. President George W. Bush, not normally known for his acuity, recognized in a State of the Union address that the world’s largest economy was “addicted” to fossil fuel. Now that our global addiction is showing unequivocal signs of leading us to a painful, early death, two of the world’s biggest stashes are in the hands of hard-core pushers deep in their personal denial.

Copyright © 2013 Chris Wood

Contact:   cwood@factsandopinions.com

References and further reading:
New Scientist report on Australian election
American Meteorological Society
U.S. 2007 State of the Union Address 
Majuro Declaration  (PDF)

 

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