Friday, September 6, 2013

Target Acquired! F-Bombs Away

So, this is what it's come to.  While hundreds of families around the province struggle to get their lives back together after the June flooding, the partisan feuding between our government and our official opposition takes centre stage.  If it didn't point to such a fundamental problem in our approach to government, it would almost be entertaining.  But it does... and so it isn't.

The leader of our official opposition party calls a public forum to stir the pot on an issue that has been, in my opinion purposefully spun in a partisan fashion.  Private property was seized by the RCMP during the evacuation, and yes, some of that property was in the form of guns.

As I understand it, each firearm seized has now been returned and there are mechanisms in place to seek compensation for doors broken down and gun safes damaged in those seizures.  But that's not enough for some people.  They want to know why these seizures happened in High River and not Calgary or Canmore or any of the other municipalities that had evacuation orders.  The inference is that the government was punishing High River residents for electing an opposition MLA.

That's patently ridiculous.  The flood happened much faster in High River and caused more damage than in other municipalities and the evacuation order lasted longer.  The RCMP have taken responsibility for the decisions made to seize property.  I'll leave that decision for them to explain.

What's so sad is that this is the issue that the opposition has chosen to focus on.  There're still a lot of families suffering and so many questions of compensation left to deal with.  Getting people back into their own homes before winter should be at the top of our list of priorities.

Yet to a certain extent, we've all come to expect opposition parties to seize upon any notion of government wrongdoing to stir the pot of voter discontent.  That's the quagmire we find ourselves in.  The spirit of cooperation that existed in the worst hours of the flood have been long forgotten.  It's back to politics-as-usual.  Find the mistakes of the other guy and exploit them for self-serving reasons.

In this case, the government's response is no less surprising.  Minister of Municipal Affairs, Doug Griffiths exploded in raw anger at the accusation that his government targeted the people of High River and somehow ordered the seizure of firearms in the community.  His reaction was not one of calm response... which was so readily available to him.  Instead, he reacted in unbridled fury, roaring that Danielle Smith's claim was "fucking embarrassing."

The relationship between our government and our official opposition has become so toxic, it brings Doug Griffith's own words to mind.  On a train engine, or in the middle of my berry farm, I might scream the same thing.  But I expect more from the people we elect.  I expect them to remember they were elected to serve the interests of everyone in this province and not their own party's interests before the good of the province.

The whole episode is made sadder because so many Albertans have already muttered (about our provincial political scene): "F-this!"  So many have given up on the system because it's so beneath what we expect.  We're way better than this.

There're tons of good F-words our government ought to be focusing on:  foresight... forthrightness... forethought... and future.

As an old berry farmer in standing out in my field.  I'd say, "it's about FLIPPING time for my government to start working for the best interests of this province and stop putting narrow interests first."

Thursday, August 15, 2013

Last minute decision

A couple of nights ago, I was called as the engineer on train 41251-10, from Edmonton to Vermilion.  It was over 10,000 feet long and weighed just over 10,000 tons.  About 15 miles east of Edmonton, I had 412 doing the speed limit of 35 mph.  We were cruising around a curve in the dark when I spotted what I thought was a deer between the rails.  That's not rare, and usually as you get closer, deer jump out of the way.  

But as I rounded the curve and my headlights found the straight rail, I saw that it wasn't a deer between the rails, but a person.  He was standing there, looking back over his shoulders and me and 412 bearing down on him fast.  Only about 250m away, there wasn't much I could do that would make any difference... if he didn't decide to move.

I blew the whistle.  I grabbed the brake handle (even though there was no chance of stopping in time).  And then, just when I was sure we were going to get him, he  stepped over the rail and sat down, right on the roadbed.  As I roared past him, I looked out my side window to see if he'd been far enough away from the side of the train.  He was clear of us by a foot, or so.

I'd expected to see shear terror on his face.  Instead, I saw a man in his mid-twenties with an expression I can only describe as overwhelming sadness.

On the radio, I called the Rail Traffic Controller and told them about the guy, who I'd pretty much decided was out to kill himself.  The train in front of me heard my call and told us  they'd seen the man standing in the farmer's field adjacent to the track about 20 minutes earlier.

I figured the guy was just 'measuring' trains to see how to kill himself... figuring out if we'd be able to stop if we saw him... how fast we travelled... if it would be quick.

All of that ran through my head in the three or four seconds I had between thinking he was a deer in my headlights and the time we roared past.

After I'd reported the incident to the Rail Traffic Coordinator, a CN supervisor called and asked me if I was all right.  "Do you want to stop your train?" he asked.  Until then, I hadn't thought about being affected one way or the other.  I started to go a bit weak in the knees, realising that his last minute decision had been a very good one for both of us.

Later that night, as 412 rumbled closer to Vermilion, the RTC called us and told us the police had found the man... nothing else.  I hope he finds some help.  I hope his last-minute decision to get out of the way of 41251-10 works out for him.  I know his decision saved me a whole lot of turmoil.

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Head in the (oil) sand.

For the last three months, bitumen has been leaking to the surface of northern Alberta wetlands at an uncontrollable rate, and no one knows how to stop it.  Yet, Alberta's own Minister of the Environment, Diana McQueen, has made no public statement, other than to say our environmental regulations are tough.  Our premier, who showed so much leadership during the flooding of southern Alberta, is also noticeably absent.  And now the leader of the official opposition is writing op. ed. pieces for the NY Times, telling Americans why Alberta's bitumen is their best option for energy.

No one in our own government (or the official opposition) appears outraged by this massive, and continuing spill. That this tragic leak has killed wildlife and polluted the traditional lands of several Metis and First Nations communities rates no indignation.

Quite possibly, the ramifications of this spill are simply too dire for our government to consider.  If it turns out the seeping bitumen is a fundamental flaw in the injection process, rather than a one-off problem with an old well casing, it brings into question why leases were approved without the due diligence required to ensure our environment is sufficiently protected.  Better--it seems--just to cross our fingers and hope the seeping stops.  We've seen this lack of accountability over and over when it comes to holding industry to the standards Albertans agree are some of the best in the world.

While CNRL has apologized for what they have call "the incident," neither they nor the government has any idea when (or how) the spill can be brought under control.  In the meantime, our environment minister is nowhere to be found.  Our premier continues to expound to fellow premiers and American politicians about our "world-class" regulatory process.  Even our official opposition leader is spending her time writing pieces to the NY Times to convince Americans their own government is wrong about using Alberta's energy resources. 

Alberta has developed many state-of-the-art energy extraction methods.  However, that becomes meaningless when our political leaders ignore disasters such as the Primrose spill, in lieu of preaching standards they have no intention of enforcing.  In the marketplace, integrity means something in the long run, and Alberta's integrity is at stake.  It's time to enforce the regulations based on our values to build strong communities by building a viable, responsible and sustainable economy.  That cannot be done by ignoring problems.

William Munsey
Alberta Party

Monday, March 18, 2013

The Too Bad Ad

In the larger view of a provincial budget, $30,000 isn't a lot of money. The Government of Alberta and the companies so heavily invested in the oil sands stand to lose a whole lot more than that if Keystone XL is not built.  So the government’s latest effort to ensure the building of that pipeline (in the form of a paid ad in the New York Times) isn't surprising.

What is striking, however, is that one of the ad's focuses was Alberta’s “superior” environmental standards, making the argument that buying unrefined bitumen from Alberta is somehow more environmentally sustainable than producing more shale oil in the USA itself or importing from other nations.  The fact that Alberta spent the last decade spending more money and effort on green-washing our bitumen than actually enforcing regulations and providing leadership in sustainability is the true irony here.  Only lately we’ve committed to a world class monitoring system.  For years, both the Alberta government and oil and gas lobbies have worked to limit regulations on the oil sands.  Now we’re bragging about our environment record.

Because we refused to see the world changing… because we ignored the growing thirst for cleaner energies… because we’re so dependent on one source of revenue, we’ve painted ourselves into a corner, trying to convince potential markets that we’ve done enough on the environmental front.  The truth is that we have consistently missed our annual greenhouse gas emissions targets and we have given oil sands producers the go-ahead on 27 high-risk and experimental end-pit lakes in the Athabasca boreal region* and virtually ignored the downstream effects of the industry.

President Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry have repeatedly said the economy of the United States must be built on a more sustainable energy future. The New York Times editorial last week (to which the Alberta government ad responds) argues that Keystone XL is the first project that should be turned down in order to start along the road to more sustainable energies. 

If the Americans decide not to go ahead with the project, Alberta will be left with hundreds of billions of dollars invested in a commodity that will become increasingly hard to market.  We’re playing catch up because we never looked ahead.  We didn’t want to put environmental regulations and monitoring in place because of the costs to industry.  Now, our argument has become our “great” environmental record.  This irony should not be lost on Albertans. 

Had we put as much effort into actually creating and upholding environmental controls and providing incentives for sustainable energy, our argument today might ring a whole lot truer.  Had we been more prudent in not allowing runaway development of the oil sands and had we provided as many incentives for greener energy in this province as we have subsidies and tax breaks for oil sands development, we would not have so many of our economic eggs in one basket.

No, it’s not the $30,000 the Government of Alberta has spent on the ad in the New York Times stands out.  There are billions of dollars at stake here and the government is only trying to protect potential revenue.  The sad irony is we all but ignored a changing worldview on energy and allowed runaway development of the oil sands without a parallel focus on our environment.  Now the world is wondering just how valuable our bitumen really is.  The writing is on the wall.  Will we continue to ignore it?  Much depends on the American decision on Keystone XL, but even more depends on recognising the changing global market for energy... and the consequences of not doing enough to defend against climate change and the environment.

* a fact gathered from the blog Susan on the Soapbox... a friend who always has her facts straight.