The fracking freak-out to come

To frack or not to frack, that is the question the Nova Scotia government doesn’t have to think about for another two years. But it’s a question we should be asking ourselves, or a series of questions about energy and the economic future of this province.

It’s possible that Nova Scotia contains significant onshore reserves of natural gas trapped in the shales deep underground. These potential resources can only be exploited by the use of hydro-fracturing of the rock in which the gas is trapped. It might very well be possible to get the gas out of the ground and to market with little or no negative environmental fallout.

But before a rock is ever fractured, there’s already a nascent anti-fracking movement in Nova Scotia, one that cites every scary statistic about the practice and warns of yet another environmental holocaust to come. Its tone is little bit of oil sands scariness, with just a touch of anti-vaccine hysteria thrown in.

Clearly, it’s time to talk about fracking.

A 2004 study by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency into hydro-fracking of coalbed methane wells “concluded there was little to no risk of fracturing fluid contaminating underground sources of drinking water.” However, the agency said it would continue to monitor and study the practice to see if that opinion should change.

The U.S. EPA is now conducting studies specifically related to natural gas exploration and development. That study is due to produce its initial findings late this year and to be completed in 2014. Nova Scotia’s policy makers will have the benefit of that research as they decide whether to allow the practice here or not.

The EPA also investigated complaints from Pavillion, Wyoming, where locals said gas fracturing by Calgary-based Encana Inc. had polluted their drinking water. That investigation did find evidence of “compounds likely associated with gas production practices, including hydraulic fracturing.” But it doesn’t make a direct link between Encana’s wells and Pavillion’s polluted wells. It does note that Encana is paying for the locals’ drinking water.

Pavillion has become a symbol for the anti-fracking movement, which is taking root here in Nova Scotia. The EPA’s Pavillion study does appear to illustrate the dangers of hydro-fracturing where drinking water sources are close by. And there is some evidence that fracking has had a role in some tiny earthquakes recorded over the past few years in the U.S.

But these studies do not prove that fracking is inherently dangerous, that it will pollute drinking water or that it will set off earthquakes. So while we’re waiting for more definitive word, let’s try to establish some perspective on what this means to this province.

Right now, most of our electricity is generated from coal. There’s really no dispute about its dangers, with an increasing body of evidence emerging that coal is far worse for climate health than natural gas or any other energy source. Scientists around the world are working on ways to make coal burn cleaner, but it will never be truly clean as an energy source.

Natural gas is way cleaner, which is not to say there are no dangers from so-called “clean” natural gas. Gas is certainly cleaner than coal or oil, but it’s not clean.

And Nova Scotia has to face facts. Gas supplies from Sable Island are drying up and the new Panuke development won’t be large enough to replace them.

And right now, natural gas is dirt cheap. It has become so plentiful that supply is vastly outpacing demand, prices are at 10-year lows and predicted to stay low for some time to come. That makes it a no-brainer choice to investigate ways of replacing coal as a power source in Nova Scotia with natural gas.

But when you come right down to it, the real problem is our continued dependence on fossil fuels. So we need a mature debate about how to go forward. This is something all the major participants would need to join: governments, Nova Scotia Power, consumers, industry and the activist community.

Nova Scotia is a weird place. We allow clear-cutting and radical forest practices. We allow hoovering fish off the sea bottom. Hell, we celebrate that. We allow coal plants to foul the air. But we are not even allowed to look for uranium while exploring for other resources. Nuclear power is strictly taboo, no matter how high electricity prices go. And now fracking. Why are we so precious about some environmental choices and not others? I wish I knew.

A freakout over fracking is coming, and NS stands the chance to lose its opportunity to exploit a cheap, plentiful and local energy source just as Sable is drying up and coal loses its lustre. We should be talking about that.

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Mission Accomplished! Sort of.

We interrupt this program to bring you an information bulletin from the Department of National Defence. Here is the bulletin: a Canadian naval submarine has successfully fired a torpedo. That is all.

Well, actually more than one torpedo as the department’s news release suggested. But wait, you say. What’s the big deal? Submarines fire torpedoes. It’s kind of the whole point. And too true, for most submarines in most navies around the world, firing torpedoes is nothing too unusual. But for the Royal Canadian Navy, the successful test firings in Nanoose Bay, B.C. last week were a deal, a big deal, even if they were only firing unarmed fish.
That’s because our four-boat fleet of former Royal Navy subs has been more than a dozen years and billions of dollars in the making, with very few actual results. And the test-firings by HMCS Victoria, the only sub currently in service, represents the first-ever firings of the Canadian heavy torpedo of choice, the MK48, by any vessel in the fleet.
And the reason that’s doubly significant? The navy, when it bought the four boats from some fast-talking Brits for $750 million in 1998, wanted to use the torpedo that was in commission with the Canadian Forces. Problem was, the British boats used a different torpedo, the Spearfish. So all the boats have had to be modified to accommodate the preferred Canadian weapon, which of course is an American weapon.
Navy brass at the time also decided to Canadianize many other systems on the submarines, and that cost a lot of dough. Then there was the fire aboard HMCS Chicoutimi in 2004, the day after it was commissioned by our navy. The fire killed a gallant young officer and put Chicoutimi out of operation. It might not be ready to go to sea again until 2016, according to defense industry publications. So in the case of that boat, it was in service for a day and out of commission potentially for 12 years.
There have many others problems: an undersea grounding and fire safety concerns feature prominently and at times the navy was hard pressed to keep up the effort to get the subs operational while still committing the surface fleet to missions in the Mediterranean, the Arabian Sea, Haiti and other hotspots.
The navy isn’t keen to talk about how much this whole escapade has cost. With so much of the senior ranks’ credibility on the line over the sub program, the costs are an embarrassment. Independent and government sources generally agree that the total is approaching $3 billion. So just to keep things in perspective, for $3 billion, we’ve kept four boats in various states of repair, for about 14 years.

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Vote suppression: the real problem in robocalls

My column in The Chronicle Herald today is about the philosophy behind voter suppression tactics like robo-calling with negative messages, attack ads and other political chicanery.
Some of the commenters are suggesting that all’s fair in love and war, and Norman Spector chided me on Twitter because I didn’t allude to the terribly tragic and unfair character assassinations of Stockwell Day, Robert Stanfield or Joe Clark. And that really hurts, because I got to know Clark on a number of occasions and met Mr. Stanfield a few times too. Mr. Stanfield is gone but Joe Clark is still a going concern and from what I personally know of him, a class act. I’m sure somewhere in political heaven Robert Stanfield is cussin’ out the current crop of Tories.
check it out here

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Really, Mr. Dunne? Media hype about submarines?

So, media reporting about submarine accidents and damage from an underwater grounding is just so much uninformed, misinformed hype, Tim Dunne? Dunne wrote in The Chronicle Herald op-ed page on the weekend how the grounding of HMCS Corner Brook was really no big deal. The sensational photos shown on the CBC of the sub’s stove-in hull were misinterpreted or over-amped as to their significance.
Because after all, the only part that got smashed up was the sub’s fiberglass casing. The only part that had a four-by-five metre hole in it was the fiberglass casing, not the “special high yield steel” of the sub’s pressurized hull. That hull, according to Dunne, “able to withstand incredible stresses, was untouched.”
So the sub hit bottom in 45 metres of water and tore the nose cone off. No big deal. Get another nose cone, eh? Oh, and just replace a couple million dollars worth of equipment housed up there. Wait, one more thing: fire the captain.
But the terrible media misreporting of this routine incident must have been deeply felt by higher-ups in the navy. That’s why they would no doubt smile and approve of a frequent-flyer flack like Dunne defending their subs in the biggest paper in the navy’s home town.

According to Dunne, “Canada’s submarine community could be forgiven for their disappointment at the level of ignorance demonstrated by some commentators.” It would appear that people involved with the submarine program, that community of military and civilians whose paycheques and professions depend on it, who have been working like demons for more than 10 years to get the subs to sea safely, are disappointed that some media folks are not experts in submarine groundings “during advanced submarine officer training.”

Of course, to sub fleet apologists like Dunne, the purchase of the Victoria-class boats has been a roaring success. All told, he says, the flotilla has “accumulated 900 days at sea since they came into service in 2003” making it “an essential component of the RCN’s fleet.”
Simple arithmetic applied to that number puts each of the four subs at sea an average of 25 days a year over that time. Maybe that is an impressive number, but it doesn’t sound like something that would scare the Russian navy. And by the way, 2003 is the year the subs officially entered service. The first, HMCS Victoria, was commissioned in 2000. Work on the subs getting ready for Canadian service went on years before that at UK facilities in Barrow-in-Furness.
Whatever. Dunne also remarked on how these poorly-informed media hype artists suggested it was time for a public debate about how well or poorly the submarine program has served the national interest. But, he says, it can’t just be a free-for-all that will allow just anyone to comment about this multi-billion dollar program.
Sure, have your little debate, he suggests, but the critics have to change first. You can hold a debate, he argues, “only if those on whom we depend for full and accurate information meet their obligations.”
Now, Tim Dunne if anyone should know about that. He’s not just a communications consultant, he’s also a recently-retired military officer. Not a submariner, mind you, but a public affairs officer. He seems to miss his old days spinning for the military.
His articles in the Herald run like a production straight out of a military cheerleading team: “Military Standing on Guard over Christmas,” “F-35: Case for the Defence,” “HMCS Charlottetown vs. Ghadafi” and “Canada’s Achievements in Afghanistan Worthy of Pride.” All of which is entirely impartial, straightforward military affairs analysis, including the part about Christmas.
But if the well-informed, like Maj. Dunne (ret’d) don’t think the less well informed (like the rest of us) should be talking about the sub program, maybe we should listen to others. Like, for instance, the Defence Industry Daily, which serves “defense procurement managers and contractors.”
Here’s an excerpt from their review of the program published last October.
The “expert” magazine reported, “the country’s purchase of 4 second-hand diesel-electric Upholder Class submarines from Britain ran into controversy almost from its inception. In early 2008, controversy flared again as the submarines’ C$ 1.5 billion Victoria Class In-Service Support Contract (VISSC) became an issue. Subsequent revelations concerning spiralling costs, boats in poor condition, and few to no actual submarines in service have kept the fleet controversial to the present day.”
As a result: “Beyond the costs involved, the need for refits and their slow pace have left Canada fielding the equivalent of training submarines for about a decade. At more than one point, problems have left the entire fleet of commission.”
And by the way, the magazine also cast doubts on the navy’s plan to have HMCS Chicoutimi back in operation by 2013. “Inside sources suggest that serious mistakes at the shipyard may make 2016 a more realistic date. It’s also possible that she may never become a fully operational boat.”
So when reading the well-informed insider views of Maj. Dunne (ret’d), keep in mind that TV skeptics aren’t the only Canadians concerned about the cost, efficiency and military usefulness of the Victoria-class fleet. Attacking the messenger through not-at-arm’s-length spin doctors like Tim Dunne makes the navy look petty and does precious little to inform Canadians paying the bills.

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Fire Vic Toews. For everyone’s good

Man, Vic Toews really stepped in it this time. He has fired up the Interwebs and he is facing their wrath. And he deserves every bit of it.

This is a cabinet minister skating on ice as thin as paper. He has called too many ordinary people terrorists and has told too many of us we side with child pornographers. He has taken partisanship to levels below which we have rarely peered. He is the Public Security Minister who has made us less secure. But more important, he has become an embarrassment to the Harper government. Do not be surprised if he’s fired.

Toews goes too far in castigating opponents of the Harper government.  You can’t suggest that law-abiding Canadians with concerns about personal privacy and civil rights are siding with pedophiles. It’s beyond the pale of civilized political discourse. For that alone, he should be sacked.

Did you notice his mealy-mouthed “apology” on CBC Radio over the weekend? Like so many other politicians who want to sound apologetic without admitting any wrongdoing, he suggested that if people objected to his comments, then he would take that into account. Big whoop. That is not an apology, that is weasel talk. Besides, who needs an apology from Toews? The prime minister, who must be getting tired of walking around behind Vic with a pooper scooper, should end the misery now and send Vic back to Manitoba.

And Toews deserves what he got from the vengeful internet. He proposed a catastrophic erosion of personal rights and privacy. It was only fitting that his own privacy got trashed in the process. By the way, such behaviour by a cabinet minister would have been a clear firing offence back in the Cold War days. A minister responsible for a security file would have been judged vulnerable to blackmail or sinister temptation and been quietly shuttled aside.

One thing that is disturbing about Vic and Vikileaks30, the Twitter account that outed his messy divorce and personal spending habits, is that self-appointed avengers are doing the deeds. Who named Anonymous to be the watchdog of all that is right online? Toews has committed enough political blunders to fully justify his dismissal from cabinet. The anonymous, or Anonymous avengers should leave it to Canadians to make political decisions.

By the way, here’s a link to my column in The Chronicle Herald about that selfsame minister and his many problems: here

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Canada: we oppose torture. Sort of

Here’s my column in today’s Chronicle Herald pointing out that the federal government, most particularly the odious Public Security Minister Vic Toews, is being deeply hypocritical on the subject of torture.

We say we don’t do it, but we’re cool with others doing it and us using their information. Torture is wrong. Denounce it.


Update 15.2.2012

Minister Toews disagrees with my views on his torture directive, but he seems to hate me less than the NDP. The NDP, by the way, wasn’t mentioned in my column. But what the heck?

here’s his two cents worth

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The census is a wake-up call. So Nova Scotia, wake up

If any of us needed reminding why some new energy has to be pumped into our sleepy paradise by the sea, then last week’s census was a wake-up call of the first order. Nova Scotia is growing more slowly than the rest of Canada, even slower than our equally-solipsistic neighbours in New Brunswick and P.E.I.

Not only that, but population and economic power is shifting inexorably westward. More Canadians now live west of Ontario than in the east. Soon, Alberta and British Columbia and to a lesser extent Ontario, will get new seats in the House of Commons. Nova Scotia’s voice in the country it helped to found will dim a bit more.

And the economic lure of the West is every bit as powerful now as it was when Ontario was the great generator of jobs, opportunity and moving plans for Maritimers. Now, the road for too many of our motivated and ambitious young workers leads west.

So at this time when the need to innovate and be creative is stronger than ever, is Nova Scotia really facing facts? What actual positive steps are being taken to not just stop the leakage of talent and commitment to other places, but to reverse that trend and get things moving again?

Too few, sad to say. In fact, a lot of the NDP government’s time is spent trying to prevent conditions becoming worse, especially outside of the Halifax metro area. The electoral breakthrough Darrell Dexter and his party made in the last election came in rural Nova Scotia. His government can’t ignore its needs.

But rural Nova Scotia’s challenges are vexing and will stay that way until some of the energy and creativity of the cities is applied in the rural context. Innovation has to spread outward and government can help foster that. But it can’t control it, no matter how pure its intentions.

The province can help by fighting to make sure that Nova Scotia’s innovators and creative producers get full access to federal programs aimed at encouraging economic development. And it can spend its own money more carefully, by vigorously supporting the potential economic winners and spending less time obsessing over the losers.

Municipalities, towns and communities can also play a role. They really must stop crying about Halifax’s influence and find positive ways to tap into the wealth being created here. Halifax can do its part by building that wealth, some of which will come with the federal shipbuilding enterprise over the next decade or two.

And we’ve got to find ways to bring our kids back. They’ll only come if there’s opportunity, optimism and a shared sense of purpose. Nova Scotia lacks that shared purpose and it’s going to have to find it, either through encouraging the current crop of leaders or by finding people who actually can get the job done.

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Savage in the race: let the games begin

If Mike Savage truly has multi-partisan support for his campaign for mayor, he will be the strongest threat to Peter Kelly since the Bedford bumbler first took over at City Hall. And there are signs that Savage does have support beyond the Dartmouth crowd or the Liberals who sustained him in federal politics. NDP icon Alexa McDonough introduced him at his kickoff rally, which is pretty much a stamp of approval from an important segment of the vast NDP throng that currently dominates politics in the HRM.

Speaking to an enthusiastic crowd at Alderney Landing in hometown Dartmouth, Savage hit a lot of the right keys in making his announcement. He wants HRM to be liveable, entrepreneurial and more inclusive. He wants to end the culture of secrecy at City Hall and to get the city moving again.

But the strongest line of all in a pretty darn good speech was simply to say that it’s time for change in HRM. In my opinion, that is pretty much the most powerful political message anyone can deliver in any race, for any position, by any party. When the old regime has outlived its use, it is time for a change. And when that gets into the heads of voters, it’s impossible to hold back.

Is it time for change in HRM? Ask any citizen. Most will tell you they have had enough of Kelly’s misdirections and vacillations and his secrecy fetish. They’ll tell you he has overstayed his welcome and indeed, it’s time for a change.

This isn’t to say Kelly will be easy to knock off. The 2012 HRM mayoralty race is going to be a knock-down, drag-out affair. Kelly is well financed and spends vast amounts of time cultivating his suburban following. He has never been seriously threatened. But if the Savage team, perhaps with help from the legendary NDP voting-day machine, is able to crack suburban complacency and get the younger vote motivated in the urban core, he will be the next mayor.

So let’s review. Mike Savage has comparable political experience to Kelly’s. He comes from a family with a distinguished record of public service. His father helped clean up Nova Scotia politics to the point where at least you could no longer smell it in Greenland. Savage has a deep personal interest in matters of social justice, which will serve him well with urban voters. But this campaign is also his chance to evolve from the role as a backbench Liberal MP to the role of municipal leader. And it is leadership people crave here in the HRM.

To further review, Kelly is carrying baggage, big time baggage. Beyond the concert scandal, the secret Council meetings and his fumbling of the Occupy Nova Scotia protest, he has also alienated too many constituencies with his weather-vane leadership style.

Mike Savage isn’t the only guy in Halifax who thinks it’s time for a change.


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Transit Strike: dialogue of the deaf

So is this strike all about the city’s deafness to the needs of its transit workers? Or is it all about a clique of senior union members imposing their will on the broader union, the city and 90,000-plus people a day who rely on public transit?

As in all labour-management disputes, it depends who you ask. The city, through its increasingly-isolated mayor, Peter Kelly, says it’s all about the need for greater flexibility in scheduling public transit. That in itself does not seem unreasonable. But flexibility in managing the system is not a hallmark of Metro Transit.

Instead, a seniority list determines who’s driving what bus on which route, which sounds like the worst possible way to deliver an efficient and essential service to the public. But that is apparently the key issue for the union. And that raises the question about whether a powerful group of senior transit workers is imposing its will on the whole city.

The current system accords healthy dollops of overtime to workers and if seniority determines the schedules then it likely also determines who gets the OT and on what terms. Even Tim Bousquet, in his very pro-union piece in the Coast, found space to report that the bus drivers earn from $7,000 to as much as $25,000 per year in overtime. So the seniority system is rewarding some transit workers quite well, it would seem.

The union’s articulate president, Ken Wilson, has argued that the seniority system has always worked fine, so why change it now? Which is a good question. But it’s the same kind of question posed by people who favoured riding their horse and buggy across town over the newfangled contraptions being built by Henry Ford. Why have transit when you can have horse carts? And why not schedule public transit in our putative modern, complex city with round-the-clock transportation needs, according to methods dreamed up a century ago?

The transit workers do not have a terrible lot in life. They get reasonable pay: circa $50,000 plus overtime, all the usual health care and government employment perquisites and a defined benefit pension, all for driving the bus in a city with moderate traffic, few dangers and mostly polite customers. They work in an industry which covers almost all hours of the day and almost every part of the city. Scheduling will always be a challenge in public transit, no matter what city you’re in.

Beyond that, transit is a public trust, which every citizen helps maintain. So how is it that a relatively narrow issue has become central to a strike disrupting life and employment for tens of thousands?

Yes, HRM Council is ineffective and Kelly’s leadership is hopeless. But the strike isn’t about a feckless council and its gormless mayor. It’s about who’s running the bus system. Don’t let anyone tell you any different.


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Yeah, that Dan Leger

You might remember me from such newsy enterprises as The Chronicle Herald, or CBC TV or even The Canadian Press if you’re of a certain age. I’ve worked in Halifax, St. John’s and Ottawa, but my heart is here in Nova Scotia by the endlessly fascinating sea. I’ve spent a lifetime telling stories and figuring out ways to get folks to watch them or read them.

I’m leaving all that, at least in the formal sense, to write about things I really care about. Here you’ll find the occasional observation on politics, life, the economy, culture and very importantly, sailing.

Twitter: @dantheeditor and yes, Bruce MacKinnon did draw this lovely caricature of me.

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