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Opinion  

Pipeline paranoia

By Ken Green

Pipeline opponents are lining up again in B.C., but their case is off-point and exaggerates the risks.

The last several weeks have seen new, if somewhat contradictory, developments on the Trans Mountain pipeline file. Kinder Morgan received approval last year to twin the existing Trans Mountain pipeline, which runs from Edmonton to Burnaby. The approval was immediately supported by Alberta Premier Rachel Notley and Prime Minister Trudeau.

But attitudes have hardened in British Columbia. In a July 18 letter to George Heyman, B.C.'s new minister of Environment and Climate Change Strategy, just-elected B.C. Premier John Horgan instructed him to "employ every tool available to defend B.C.'s interests in the face of the expansion of the Kinder Morgan pipeline, and the threat of a seven-fold increase in tanker traffic on our coast."

B.C.'s attorney general clarified somewhat, pointing out that the province faces lawsuits if it delays the pipeline by stalling on permits. But he said the province can "ensure that permits require that construction be done in a way that minimizes spills, protects the environment and ensures appropriate cleanup."

B.C. Green Party Leader Andrew Weaver wants the NDP government to "use every legally available tool to stop the pipeline from going ahead." And Weaver's party has leverage, since its three MLAs give the minority NDP government its voting majority in the legislature.

So it's appropriate to review the question of pipeline and tanker safety.

A new study by the Fraser Institute uses the latest data to provide some context about the safety of transporting oil and gas. The study found that (based on data from 2004 to 2015) when moving a million barrels of oil, pipelines were 2.5 times less likely to have a release of product compared to rail transport.

But what about that seven-fold increase in tanker traffic off B.C.? Isn't that risky?

Surprisingly, despite the fact that oil transported by marine tankers has about doubled from 1975 to 2016, the number of spills declined by 98 per cent.

When comparing the amount of spills for marine tankers in the decades from 1970s to the 2010s, the number of spills between seven and 700 tonnes has dropped from 543 to 35 while the number of large spills in this period dropped from 245 to 12. And there has not been a major spill in Canadian waters since the mid-1990s.

One oil spill is too many, of course, and further work should be done to bring the number of leaks, spills and accidents down further. But unlike the scary rhetoric of pipeline opponents, real-world data shows that oil can be moved safely, and less expensively, by pipeline. 

Kenneth Green is senior director of the Centre for Natural Resource Studies at the Fraser Institute.

– Troy Media





Clearing out the cellar

By Dermod Travis

As the new B.C. government settles in and email accounts are transferred over, it'll soon be time for them to pluck up the courage to check the cellar.

The nooks and crannies of government operations, if you will. Some of what they'll find may come as a shock.

Think of it as the former government outsourcing operations, getting them off the books so to speak and as far away as possible from pesky things such as legislative oversight or B.C.'s access to information legislation.

There's AdvantageBC – an independent non-profit society – whose members enjoy an annual provincial tax rebate in the neighbourhood of $25 million. 

Then there's HQ Vancouver, set up to attract head offices to Vancouver. It received $3.3 million from B.C.’s Ministry of International Trade. 

Both the B.C. government and HQ Vancouver made a big deal out of the decision two years ago of China-based F-Pacific Optical Communications – a manufacturer of fibre optic components – to open its North American headquarters in Surrey.

Former premier Christy Clark called it the “start of great things” for both F-Pacific and HQ Vancouver. Turns out when the Financial Post showed up at the Surrey site they found the plant vacant and a For Lease sign up.

In May, Vancouver journalist Bob Mackin reported on the Forest Enhancement Society of B.C., another independent, non-profit society arranged by government that can also thumb its nose at the province's access to information laws.

The society is charged with overseeing tree-planting in the province.

In 2016, then-Minister of Forests, Land and Natural Resource Operations, Steve Thomson, gave the brand-spanking-new group $85 million in public funding. Clark topped that up by another $150 million earlier this year. 

In March, former MLA Bill Bennett announced that the government would outsource wildlife management to a new outside, independent group.

Local hunting, conservation, and wildlife groups were to be tasked with establishing the group's “framework.”

Fearless Bill felt "government is afraid to manage wolves, for example, or afraid to manage grizzly bears in some cases because of the politics of that.”

At the announcement, Bennett said the group would be funded “with an initial $5 million from the government,” with annual hunting license renewals as the sustaining funding.

The group's current status is unknown.

– Dermod Travis is the executive director of IntegrityBC.



Plastic straws suck!

By David Suzuki

Of all the plastic products we use and take for granted, plastic drinking straws are among the most unnecessary. Designed to be used once and discarded, their only real purpose is to keep your mouth from touching a glass or ice. It made more sense in the days when contaminated vessels were more of an issue.

Now, there’s a movement to get people and businesses to ditch the straws. It may not seem like a big deal, but it is. In the U.S. alone, people discard 500 million straws every day, or more than 180 billion a year. That’s about 1.4 million kilograms of plastic sent to landfills and into the oceans every day!

The explosion of plastic’s popularity in the 1960s and into the ’70s spelled the demise of the paper straw. After that, most drinking straw innovations were as much about marketing as function — including the twisty Krazy Straw and the wide straw-and-spoon combo used to drink slushy drinks.

Plastic straws are now ubiquitous. Whether you’re ordering a takeout drink, cold coffee beverage, bar cocktail or glass of water in a restaurant, you’ll likely get a plastic straw unless you request your drink without it. 

Numerous campaigns have sprung up to get people to forgo drinking straws — or at least to use less environmentally damaging alternatives. Some restaurants have stopped automatically putting them in drinks, and others are using compostable straws, but most still offer plastic. 

As for alternatives, several companies sell re-usable or biodegradable straws made from metal, glass, bamboo, straw or paper. Some come with cleaning brushes. One company is even making straws from pasta, which can be cooked later! 

According to the anti-straw group the Last Plastic Straw, 80 to 90 per cent of marine debris is plastic, and as much as 80 per cent of that came from plastics discarded on land. Researchers estimate eight million tonnes of plastic garbage enter the oceans from land every year. Plastic straws are among the top 10 litter items picked up during beach cleanups, with thousands picked up every year. Cigarette butts are the most numerous items picked up, with plastic bottles and caps, food wrappers and bags also in the top 10.

Avoiding plastic straws won’t save the oceans or the world on its own, but as we’ve seen with plastic bags and public smoking, when people start thinking about their habits and making small changes, they can bring about shifts in consciousness that lead to wider societal changes. 

– David Suzuki is a scientist, broadcaster, author and co-founder of the David Suzuki Foundation





Winning fair and square

By Dermod Travis

All three parties in the B.C. legislature now support a ban on corporate and union donations, as well as setting a cap on personal contributions.

It's that last one that gets tricky. What's the right cap?

Perhaps B.C.'s new government should rip a page out of Alberta's NDP playbook.

Legislate all points of agreement this fall and set a personal cap that's painful for the parties, with an agreement that it will be revisited following a public consultation on a host of related electoral issues. 

It would be a mistake to set a permanent cap right out of the gate, based solely on B.C.'s past fundraising results. 

The province's Wild West political culture has left a distorted reality of donations and party spending, especially when compared to rest of Canada. 

A bit of context on party spending: in 2016, the B.C. Liberal party spent $12.2 million on such things as advertising ($1.18 million), research and polling ($956,803) and bank charges ($164,328).

Meanwhile the NDP scraped by with $5.2 million. 

Back east, the Ontario Liberals spent $6.98 million in 2016 and the Progressive Conservatives ($7.6 million). Compared to B.C., Ontario has about three times the number of registered voters. 

And this is where Alberta's approach comes in handy. 

The bill banning corporate and union donations – passed unanimously – took a two part approach to the issue.

The second part included public consultations on a revised personal limit. Unlike B.C., Alberta already had a cap in place before Notley. The consultation lowered it from $15,000 to $4,000.

Alberta also lowered spending limits for elections. B.C. might want to do the same.

In the 2015 federal election, the overall limit in B.C. for a party running a full-slate of candidates was $5.73 million. For the 2017 B.C. election the limit was $11.63 million.

There's no shortage of other issues for a consultation to consider.

For instance, most jurisdictions set candidate and party limits by taking into account the number of registered voters in a riding and any special circumstances that might exist. Not so in B.C. The limit for all 87 ridings was the same, $77,674.

The party limit ($4.88 million) also didn't vary, whether a party ran 10 candidates or 87. It does vary federally.

Then there's the tiny matter of the Election Act not adequately addressing the possibility of a minority government.

You may have missed it, but the loud sigh of relief heard across Victoria when Lt.-Gov. Judith Guichon didn't dissolve the legislature and call an election, likely emanated from Elections B.C.

Imagine all the nuts and bolts that go into organizing an election: offices for the returning officers, polling stations, ramping up staff, telephones, ballots, mail-outs, printing, etc. 

Now imagine doing it in 28 days – without a head start – and on the heels of just having done it.

The length of an election campaign in B.C. is 28 days, not a minimum of 28 days.

Organizing an election is far easier when you know the date four years in advance. 

– Dermod Travis is the executive director of IntegrityBC.



Who gets the tax breaks?

By Dermod Travis

They're the stories that tug at us. Here's one from Waco, Texas:

“My 86 year old mom...is losing her money to these people who promise her in order to accept her "sweepstakes" she has to keep sending them money for processing fees. She suffers from dementia and this company is taking advantage of her. Someone needs to find this company and make them stop abusing and taking money from the elderly.”

Someone did – the U.S. Treasury Department. They found the company, PacNet Services, on Howe St. in downtown Vancouver. 

According to the department, it had “a nearly 20-year history of knowingly processing payments related to fraudulent solicitation schemes.” U.S. officials shut it down last year.

In a plot twist, it turns out the B.C. government was giving PacNet a 100 per cent corporate tax break on its international financial transactions, through the little-known International Business Activity program at AdvantageBC.

AdvantageBC and its Quebec counterpart, Finance Montréal, trace their origins back to 1986, when the federal government established the International Banking Centre designation “to encourage the repatriation of non-resident loans booked in low-tax jurisdictions.”

But, over the last decade, the government extended the AdvantageBC program into new industries, including the pharmaceutical industry, film distribution, wastewater treatment and fuel cell technology. The incentives kept getting sweeter and sweeter as well.

Along with the program's morphing, came a rapidly escalating cost. In the nine years from 1999 to 2007, the province forewent $26 million in potential tax revenue through the program. In the nine years since, $176.3 million. 

Today, 66 members are listed on AdvantageBC's website. There may be more, as there's no obligation on the part of AdvantageBC to identify its members. Three are part of HSBC Bank.

Four of Canada's five big banks are members.

Not including PacNet and its two associated companies, four other members were among the Top 25 banks implicated in what became known as the Global Laundromat, a four-year scheme to launder $US20.8 billion in organized crime proceeds from Russia. 

Unlike Finance Montréal, not a single member of the AdvantageBC board of directors represents the B.C. government.

The organization takes a 0.45 per cent cut of the “income earned by the international business in the preceding year” to help finance its operations. In 2016, the cut accounted for $1,027,582 of the organization's funding. Membership fees brought in $78,845. CEO Colin Hansen is paid $189,000.

Some of the companies in the roster of members make one wonder what the extent of the government's due diligence was before the tax breaks were extended.

– Dermod Travis is the executive director of IntegrityBC.



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