PIT BULLS AND LIVER TOTS VS. RANDOM ACTS OF POLITENESS

I was in a coffee shop working at my Powerbook when a stranger tapped me on the shoulder. “Is this yours?” he asked, holding up a wallet he found in the washroom. I had been at the bank earlier in the morning to withdraw a few hundred dollars; I thanked the guy and insisted I buy him the designer coffee of his choice.

With my brain’s serotonin receptor sites aglow from this exchange, I returned to websurfing the headlines. The home page of cbc.ca/bc was splattered with disaster headlines: Man Stabbed to Death in Maple Ridge; Float Plane Crashes Near Peachland; Senior Shot Outside Legion in Surrey.

I looked up from the screen. The sun had cast pinnacles of light across the cement concourse outside the café. People were smiling, conversing, and soaking up a brief respite from Vancouver’s monsoon norm.

Sometimes I’m struck by the mismatch between our humdrum day-to-day lives and the print/broadcast news cycle, with its buzz-kill laundry list of disconnected, nothing-you-can-do-about-it disasters. I’m not slagging the CBC here, which at this stage could use all the support it can get. It’s just that Mothercorp has taken to accident rubbernecking just like most other news organizations. That said, its Vancouver outpost is a model of decorum compared to the 6 o’clock news shows vomited out of Seattle. These broadcasts often begin with a solid 10 minutes of vehicle crashes, shootings, stabbings, fires, rapes, suicides, beatings, floods, drownings, electrocutions, etc.

The gatekeepers will tell you they’re just giving people what they want, by fulfilling our morbid fascination with death and disaster. In his 2007 memoir Wages, former entertainment writer John Armstrong recorded his experiences working at a West Coast daily he preferred to call the “Picayune Standard.” The broadsheet had an extended period of enthusiasm for stories about children’s transplant operations and mad-dog attacks, he recalled. “The editors called the former Liver Tots and the latter Pit Bulls, whether they were pit bulls or not.” Armstrong wryly observed that, “a Liver Tot attacked by a rabid Pit Bull was the Holy Grail of local reporting.”

Most of us know the map ain’t the territory, and that media don’t supply us with a “one metre equals one metre” representation of reality. Yet I’m sure the front-and-centre catastrophism has a wearying effect on many news consumers. For the average couch potato, it might seem wiser to stay at home and watch the world fall apart in high definition rather than venture outdoors—even though the odds are vanishingly small that any given sofa spud will be a victim of violence.

I’m not denying that terrible, random incidents happen locally on a regular basis, or saying that they shouldn’t be reported. I’m just suggesting such stories should be led to the back of the news bus, rather than propped up behind the wheel.

The lives of most Canadians aren’t governed by constant rip-offs, rough-ups and arbitrary tragedy. It’s actually the opposite. Our lives are knitted together by regular small acts of kindness and generosity from friends, family, acquaintances and the occasional stranger. Even when we are not on the immediate receiving end of such acts, someone nearby us probably is, which may inspire them to do unto others, as well.

You may be thinking, “Olson, you lazy bugger, you’ve spun an entire column out of nothing. This isn’t news, it’s a Seinfeld episode without punch lines—unless it wasn’t actually your wallet.” Well, it’s true that senseless acts of beauty have never been news, and never will be, because the trainwreck-spotting industry is focused on things that veer off the tracks and fly off an existential cliff.

Locally and beyond, innumerable, unrecorded acts of altruism have always outweighed the foundation-laying gestures of philanthropists. I’m betting they always will. And although I neglected to ask the name of the guy in the coffee shop, it’s safe to say it won’t ever grace the façade of an institute of higher learning or sports complex. He performed his gesture in a perfunctory way, with a smile and no expectation of a reward. There’s no need to put it in a screaming 72-point headline, but I thought this minor moment was still worth a coffee and a column.

And yes, it really was my wallet.

The Vancouver Courier, May 25

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A BIG FRACKING PROBLEM

PART 1

It’s not looking good for hydraulic fracturing on the PR front. Also known as the unfortunate-sounding sobriquet “fracking,” it’s the practice of sending superpressurized water down wellbores to fracture deep-bed rock formations and release natural gas.

A recent report in the journal Ground Water concludes that benzene and other toxic chemicals injected into the ground during fracking operations could migrate toward the aquifer level much faster than previously predicted. Experts had assumed that impermeable layers of rock would keep the chemicals trapped deep underground. Not so, according to the report’s author, Tom Myers, an independent hydrogeologist who used computer modelling to examine the safety of gas drilling in the Marcellus Shale in Pennsylvania, where more than 5,000 wells have been drilled between 2009 and 2010. According to his modelling, the toxic chemicals could reach the surface in “just a few years.”

Whatever the predictive powers of Myer’s study—the map is not the territory, and computer models are not ancient deposits of rock—it follows on the heels of a report from U.S. Geological Survey that a “remarkable” increase of quakes in the U.S. mid-continent since 2001 is “almost certainly manmade,” perhaps linked to the deep underground injection of drilling waste from fracking operations. However, the study’s lead author later told reporters that there is no evidence that fracking had any direct connection to the increased seismicity.

So what does that have to do with us in B.C.? Plenty. The northeast corner of our province is home to immense hydraulic fracturing operations, notes Ben Parfitt, a resource policy analyst with the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives. At a public meeting two weeks ago at the Vancouver Public Library, Parfitt and other speakers painted a sobering scenario for B.C.’s wilderness, energy independence, and corporate accountability.

B.C.’s shale gas production is comparable to Alberta’s tar sands project. Both require immense amounts of water and energy in their operations; hence their tag as “unconventional” fossil fuel extraction. In a November 2011 report for the CCPA, “Fracking Up Our Water, Hydro Power and Climate,” Parfitt notes a recent B.C. Hydro assessment that the projected power needs of the province’s shale gas sector would require to three times the power produced at the proposed Site C dam on the Peace River.

“Currently, much of the gas produced in B.C. moves by pipeline to Alberta, where the biggest industrial user of natural gas is the tar sands industry. We are literally exporting the world’s most energy-intensive natural gas to help produce some of our planet’s most energy-intensive oil,” writes Parfitt.

In other words, the natural gas extracted in B.C. is going in one pipeline direction to Alberta, to heat water for separating bitumen from sand. In the other direction, synthetic oil created by this process will (Harper willing) soon be flowing in the opposite direction toward the projected supertanker port in Kitimat, which will also have liquid natural gas facilities for the export of gas to China. That nation’s explosive growth, now cooling, has been fuelling this megaproject mania in Canada.

The Ensbridge pipes will also require natural gas “condensate” to smooth the transfer of the heavy oil from Alberta. This energy extraction back and forth reminds me of the Jazz Age cartoons by Rube Goldberg, where a profusion of gears and pulleys perform a straightforward task, like cooking a piece of toast or patting a cat. I asked Parfitt if there’s been a reliable study of the sum energy inputs and outputs of the fracking/tar sands dynamic, without even factoring in environmental impact and water use. Is this the royal road to energy independence, or are we talking about the Tweedledum and Tweedledumber of fossil fuelishness? Or a necessary response to “peak oil?”

Parfitt knows of no reputable study on the net gains and losses, but suggested there are reasons for doubt (a June 2011 report in the New York Times points to Wall Street speculation as a prime mover in shale gas exploration and drilling, comparing the latter to previous financial bubbles). Yet surely technocrats would conduct a proper risk/benefit analysis of such megaprojects, including thorough environmental assessments, well before a reflexive gold rush toward unconventional energy sources, no? It’s not as if the U.S. and Canada are ruled by beancounting boneheads, Ponzi-minded greedheads, and political opportunists, right?

More on this next week.

PART 2

During a recent public meeting on “fracking” at the Vancouver Public Library, a brief moment of irony broke the sober mood in the room. Ben Parfitt, resource policy analyst for the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, was discussing B.C.’s abundant fresh water and hydroelectric power-and the shale gas industry’s immense thirst for both-when a cellphone went off in the audience. The ringtone: the theme from The Good, The Bad and The Ugly, Sergio Leone’s 1966 spaghetti western filmed in the arid region of southern Spain.

Hydraulic fracturing goes through water the way Simon Cowell goes through auditioning singers. Last year at B.C.’s Horn River Basin, “600 worth of Olympic pools of water were pressure pumped at just one multiwell site. There will be thousands such well sites developed if the industry is able to develop out the way it wants to,” Parfitt told the audience.

The shale gas industry has a budget-busting thirst for energy, too. The one liquid natural gas facility approved for Kitimat involves a partnership between Encana, Apache Canada and EOG Resources. It will take eight per cent of all the power that is currently produced on our hydroelectric grid, says Parfitt.

“The premier and the energy minister have stated it as a goal having three such facilities in the province by 2020, and that translates into a quarter of all the hydroelectric power in our province by an industry that will be consuming more and more water_” Much of the natural gas will be directed to Alberta for the production of the energy-and-water-intensive Tar Sands.

Parfitt insists there’s nothing carbon-neutral about shale gas operations. They’re certainly not consumer-neutral. The demand for increased hydroelectricity production is coming from industry, yet residential rates are already much higher than industrial rates. In effect, British Columbians are subsidizing the oil and gas companies’ hydro consumption.

The consumer may be getting the drill shaft in more ways than one. A front page New York Times report from last June, “Insiders Sound an Alarm Amid a Natural Gas Rush,” cites hundreds of industry emails and internal documents to warn of another economic bubble in the making. The size of North American gas reserves have reportedly been exaggerated, and some experts see the spectre of Enron-like accounting methods in the industry’s inflated projections.

In a March investigative report in Rolling Stone magazine, journalist Jeff Goodell concludes that fracking “is about producing cheap energy the same way the mortgage crisis was about helping realize the dreams of middle-class homeowners.” The primary profits for one of the biggest shale gas companies, Chesapeake Energy, come not from selling the gas itself, but from buying and flipping land. The company “is now the largest leaseholder in the United States, owning the drilling rights to some 15 million acres-an area more than twice the size of Maryland,” writes Goodell.

A more immediate concern is the cocktail of toxic chemicals injected deep underground during fracking operations, and the cavalier approach of some companies to the environment. In 2010, the New York Times documented how shale gas drillers were emptying millions of gallons of toxic, chemical-laden wastewater into Pennsylvania’s rivers and streams. Prior to this, in the controversial 2010 film GasLand, inhabitants of the area complained about their foul-tasting, health-disrupting tap water, and indicated the mysterious deaths of wild animals and fish near their properties, which they had leased to fracking operations.

An April report in the LA Times profiles a physician, Dr. Amy Pare, who found inorganic compounds-hippuric acid, phenol, and mandelic acid-in the urine of a dozen people living a half mile from a gas well near Avella, Pennsylvania. Yet incredibly, a new state law forbids health care professionals “from warning the community of water and air pollution that may be caused by fracking, but which also forbids them from telling their own patients what the physician believes may have led to their health problems,” observes author Walter Brasch. The Pennsylvania law requires fracking companies to supply information about chemicals and procedures to a state-maintained registry, but it also requires that health professionals must first sign non-disclosure agreements in requesting specific information from shale gas operators, supposedly to protect any corporate trade secrets.

It sounds to me like The Gas, the Bad and the Ugly.

The Vancouver Courier, May 11 and May 18
 

FIVE BAD IDEAS

No overall theme this week, just a brief catalogue of recent bad ideas.

Bad Idea Number One: Rebuilding the Titanic. Given all the centenary overkill, it was probably inevitable. Australian billionaire Clive Palmer has arranged with a state-owned Chinese shipyard to hammer together a sequel to the doomed pleasure craft. The mining magnate insists that the design will be faithful to the Dublin-built original, yet will have enough high-tech gewgaws to ensure its safety. “Of course it will sink if you put a hole in it,” Palmer helpfully added.

Marketers will have the thorny problem of addressing superstitious fears of potential passengers. Do you advertise the new ship as “unsinkable,” the adjective affixed to the first Titanic? Or would that just be tempting fate to a game of roulette in the ship’s ornate ballroom? In any case, there’s no word if Palmer has any other retro travel concepts up his sleeve-like say, partnering with George Lucas for a space hotel in the form of Darth Vader’s Death Star.

Bad Idea Number Two: Journalistically Jumping the Gun on Election Results, and Making Your Political Bias a Bit Too Transparent. Pundit Andrew Coyne got a bit excited last week in the Ottawa Citizen online. “Unless something astonishing happens, the Wildrose Party will form the next Government of Alberta: all that remained at time of writing was to discover whether it would be a minority or majority,” he wrote. Coyne was likely following the misleading polls rather than talking to actual Albertans, and after the Progressive Conservatives embarrassing win (with a majority, no less), his premature exclamation was quickly wiped from computer screens. Of course, nothing ever disappears on the Internet. The web-cached report reads like a scented letter to Wildrose leader Danielle Smith, praising her “gumption,” “sang-froid” and “fully-worked out philosophy of government.” This wasn’t so much reporting as toadying: a croaking audition for a kiss from the uncrowned Queen of Prairie extremists and her Koch Brothers-backed court.

Bad Idea Number Three: Fuelling Rumour by Depriving People of Information. You’ve likely followed the claims and counterclaims in this paper about Chinese foreign investment driving up local real estate prices into the stratosphere. Fellow Courier columnist Allen Garr dismisses the claims as anecdotal, although they can’t be otherwise in the absence of reliable statistics on the national origin of local property owners. Rumours-reliable or otherwise -breed in a vacuum of information. That’s all I have to say about this jagged can of worms, other than to add that this point goes triple for the federal government. Harper’s crackdown on Environment Canada scientists, among his other recent crusades against raw data (like the long form census), isn’t about cultivating public awareness; it’s about throwing Miracle-Gro on grassroots ignorance. Even the Globe and Mail has recently taken to comparing our dear leader’s democratic blackout to the Russian politburo at its height. Oh well. With unpleasant facts out of the way, a least Andrew Coyne will get to play whack-a-mole with the snooze button, and post corporate puff pieces and propaganda on a flexible schedule.

Bad Idea Number Four: Google Augmented Reality Glasses. As the information spigot is being turned off in one direction, making governments and corporations increasingly unaccountable, it’s being opened wide from the top down, powerwashing the consumer brainpan. An overhyped Google’s concept video promises that some day vapourware will meet with optics, swarming the consumer’s field of vision with avatars, tweets and instant messages. Dramatist Max Frisch once described technology as “the knack of so arranging the world that we don’t have to experience it,” and in that respect Google’s embryonic brainchild sounds like a great way for the urban pedestrian to end up as a smudge on a Ford Escalade.

Bad Idea Number Five: Putting Missile Batteries on Top of Residential Buildings. According to a Reuters story, the British military is planning to put missile batteries on top of apartment blocks in London prior to this summer’s Olympic Games-to defend the public against aerial terror attacks, natch. Once again, nebulous nightmares from above are being used to ratchet up public anxiety and justify raids on the public purse. The Olympics has long been a moveable feast for infrastructure privateers; now the global defence establishment has joined the party.

The Vancouver Courier, May 3