BC putting all its eggs in one energy resource basket

by Geoff Olson

The other day I was going through my notes from a November 2013 presentation held at SFU Harbourside on liquefied natural gas development in B.C. when Milo Minderbinder came to mind.

Minderbinder is a mess officer in Joseph Heller’s 1961 antiwar novel Catch-22. His “syndicate,” M & M Operations, uses complex trade deals to expand his mess operations across the wartime Mediterranean.

He buys eggs in Sicily for one cent, sells them in Malta for four and a half cents, then buys them back for seven cents. He then sells them to the mess halls for five cents. The book’s central character, Yossarian, expresses puzzlement. How can Milo make a profit? The mess officer tries to explain, but Yossarian — like the reader — remains in a fog.

So what’s this got to do with liquefied natural gas? Glad you asked.

According to environmental researcher Ben Parfitt, even without those much-ballyhooed, yet-to-be-signed LNG plants, our province has had the most intensive gas extraction project going anywhere in North America. At the presentation hosted by the Vancouver Council of Canadians, Parfitt displayed photographs of immense tanker trucks in Northeast B.C., travelling the equivalent of an eight-lane highway in width. The road space was cleared for not just for transport, but for gas feeder lines interconnecting to bigger gas lines for massive hydraulic fracturing operations, with the forest “permanently removed from the land base, taken right down through the organic soil layer.”

Parfitt says northeast B.C. set a world  record for fracking in 2010. If we go ahead with LNG plants, he  foresees a gold rush on our water resources “unlike anything that’s been seen, certainly in the northeast of the province.”

Now there’s a glut of gas on the market, natural gas production in B.C. is nowhere close to what it was just three years ago. That gives some idea of the market’s mood swings when it comes to this vaporous commodity. Yet if four LNG plants are built on the B.C. coast — Christy Clark’s  stated objective for  2020 — the province will have to quadruple or quintuple its record-setting gas production. To get that much gas to four LNG facilities will require massive increases in the amount of gas drilling, fracking, and water consumption. This will involve trillions of litres of water over the projected 20 years of development, and massive amounts of energy to liquefy the gas for export. The combined power demands of the four LNG plants would swallow at least one-quarter of B.C.’s projected hydroelectric supply in 2016, says Parfitt.

Premier Clark’s rosy projections for LNG profits are based on current market estimates, yet there is now a global boom of shale gas extraction underway.

Bloomberg News — no hotbed of radical environmentalists — has projected the “difference between U.S. and Asian gas is poised to drop by more than 60 per cent by 2020, leaving exporters facing a loss of as much as $6 million per tanker.” Australia, which is already in financial difficulties due to its LNG commitments, by itself may be capable of oversupplying China’s natural gas market. Where then will be B.C.’s much-ballyhooed “prosperity fund” from LNG revenue?

From this perspective, Clark’s idea of eliminating B.C.’s debt through LNG development sounds about as convincing as Milo Minderbinder’s magic act with eggs from Malta. But on a global basis, this may be less about long-term energy security than mid-term profit. Those in the chain of resource extraction, infrastructure creation and peripheral services all get their fee, even if the LNG resource economy turns out to be as much time bomb as boomtown.

A 2012 article in Rolling Stone argues that the U.S. business model for fracking is based more on land speculation than future energy revenues. This would be consistent with late-era capitalism’s pattern: the manufacture and gaming of  bubbles, with the accompanying destruction of natural capital.

In Catch 22, Minderbinder’s syndicate becomes part of a large company, and then an international syndicate. Minderbinder himself becomes mayor of Palermo and Cairo, assistant governor-general of Malta, caliph of Baghdad, vice-shah of Oran, and the god of corn, rain, and rice in numerous African countries. Similarly, in petitioning for a LNG gold rush, our noble representatives in government may find cushy corporate directorships, ambassadorships, and all sorts of ships ready to sail them away from so-called public service.

The Vancouver Courier, Feb. 21


The four-day TED (Technology, Entertainment and Design) conference is on for Vancouver this March. If you don’t have tickets yet for this high-level gabfest, too bad. They went months ago to those willing to pony up $7,500 US each.

The nonprofit organization’s Brother-Can-You-Paradigm revenue model may sound elitist, but someone has to cover this moveable feast of Fabergé eggheads. On the plus side, paying registrants have subsidized the 1,500-plus TED talks that are free for viewing online. A great many are superb, from Sir Ken Robinson’s take on How Schools Kill Creativity, to Kevin Slavin’s meditation on How Algorithms Shape Our World.

It was probably only a matter of time before TED’s gleaming, futuristic image became tarnished by controversy. Every once in a while a guest does a presentation at TED or its independently organized TEDx spinoff, but the video is spurned by head office.

In March 2013, the Oxford-educated scientist Rupert Sheldrake delivered a TEDx talk at Whitechapel on his theory of morphogenetic fields. Former Economist correspondent Graham Hancock lectured at the same event on the connection between the drug war and social control of consciousness. Both talks were deleted from TED’s YouTube channel after complaints from skeptics, but blowback resulted in reposting them in a special blog post on TED.com (and on the channels of other YouTube subscribers).

Previously in March 2012, Nick Hanauer, a billionaire venture capitalist from Seattle, gave a presentation at the TED University conference on why “rich people don’t create jobs.”

Hanauer argued that last thing a firm wants is to hire more people, which negatively affects the profit margin. Only higher demand for a given product or service compels a firm to do so, and only if automation or an increased employee work load are not options.

Consumers are actually the ones who create jobs through demand, the venture capitalist insisted.

TED deemed Hanauer’s talk too politically sensitive to post on their channel or main site. Was this what constituted intellectual kryptonite for TED – the bleeding obvious from a counterintuitive source? The organization — which sometimes resembles a three-way collision of venture capitalists, techno-evangelists and Ayn Rand fans — was now facing backlash from the wider Internet community. In deep-sixing Hanauer’s talk, they were seen as acting more like policers of thoughtcrime than curators of “Ideas Worth Spreading.” TED honcho Chris Anderson responded that the organization has a “backlog of amazing talks from all over the world,” and not all of them make primetime.

Enter Benjamin Bratton, a professor of visual arts at UC San Diego. His December 2013 TEDx presentation was cheerily titled, “Why TED Is a Recipe for Civilizational Disaster.” You can imagine how well this went over.

Describing TED as “middlebrow megachurch infotainment,” Bratton asked why all the brilliant ideas trotted out for 30 years by a conga line of invited geniuses aren’t translating into a transformed world free from poverty, inequality, and ecological breakdown. He then told a story of an astrophysicist friend who gave a presentation to a potential donor.  Bratton found the presentation “lucid and compelling, but claimed the donor told his friend he “didn’t feel inspired,” and advised him that he should be “more like Malcolm Gladwell.”

“Think about it,” observed the discreetly fuming arts prof. “An actual scientist who produces actual knowledge should be more like a journalist who recycles fake insights! This is beyond popularization. This is taking something with value and substance and coring it out so that it can be swallowed without chewing. This is not the solution to our most frightening problems — rather this is one of our most frightening problems.”

For TED’s flock, this went beyond farting in church — it was like crapping on the altar while pounding the communion wine. Not surprisingly, the presentation didn’t make it to TED’s archive of talks, but a transcript from the Guardian and the talk itself were linked by contributors to TED Conversations.

Echoing Bratton, statistician and scholar Nassim Taleb has described TED as a “monstrosity that turns scientists and thinkers into low-level entertainers, like circus performers.” Given such withering estimates from the global cognoscenti, it’s not hard to imagine the launch of Salon des Refusés  across the world, showcasing edgier thinkers who question what writer Gore Vidal once called “the agreed-upon-facts.”

How about talks for the UnTED?

The Vancouver Courier, Feb. 14


ImageOn the fifth day of creation, God called Bulldog, Eagle, and Beaver for a meeting. “I’m thinking of fashioning something out of soil tomorrow and calling him Adam,”  said the Creator in a booming voice from above.

The puzzled animals cast sidelong glances at one another. “You three shall represent a trio of great nations for Adam’s descendants,” God proclaimed. “Well, two great nations, at least. Bulldog, you shall front for a naval power with colonies around the world. The People of the Bulldog shall have a polyglot language, a world-class broadcasting system, and a magical singing foursome named after a kind of insect. But your peeps shall feel the sting of austerity, too.”

Bulldog shifted uneasily, unsure where The Lord was going with this.

Relax already, it’s just a symbolic role!”  God thundered. “I’m talking branding here, not putting the screws to the beasts of the Earth. That’ll be Adam’s business!”

“Your turn, Eagle.  I’m talking national symbol again. One day you’ll take up the reins of world empire from Bulldog. Your nation will invade foreign lands spreading Freedom™ in exchange for resources. It will rain bombs like brimstone down upon all those who resist its beneficence. On the domestic front, The People of the Eagle will swell to immense size, pushing shopping carts laden with corn-based crap through behemoth discount stores, out to vast expanses of asphalt where their giant, cartoon-like combustion chariots await.

“And I love this idea – I actually got it from my Lead Angel –  the adult inhabitants of this great nation shall carry lethal weapons under the pretext of protecting themselves against others with lethal weapons! I’m a total nut for Wild West themes!”

Eagle looked mildly irritated, which God immediately detected with his Awesome All-Knowingness.

“C’mon, you’re a bird of prey, for My sake!  Nations will prey upon other nations, just like animals prey upon other animals.  It’s an addendum to The Law of the Jungle –  the legal department is working on it right now. Now over to you, Beaver.”

The aquatic rodent’s eyes twinkled like brown marbles. Was his to be the most dominant empire of all?

“No,” commanded the super-psychic deity. “In fact, your nation will be dominated by the other two, starting with Bulldog. Hewing wood and hauling water will be the Beaver people’s destiny, as a resource-based, branch-plant economy. Then you’ll do the bird’s bidding for a stretch,  while a monarch from pooch nation remains your default ruler.”

Beaver’s heart sank. He wasn’t into conquest, but he wasn’t up for being anyone’s bitch either.

“Oh, lighten up, Beaver,” said the Creator, rolling His eyes. “I see you doing a ‘soft power’ thing. Basically, it’s a bureaucratic charm offensive where you try to influence global events through diplomacy. But that won’t last. The People of the Beaver shall join in on a “War on Terror,” which one Eagle leader will ironically mispronounce as ‘War on Terra.’ The three of you will institute all kinds of crazy security laws while spying on your own subjects.  And you know how the People of the Beaver, Eagle and Bulldog will be surveilled? Through their own smartphones!”

God’s laughter echoed throughout the firmament, but the three beasts didn’t understand what he meant by ‘smartphones.’  “Never mind, they haven’t been invented yet. The important thing is that it’s all part of My moving mysteriously. On the upside there will be legalized weed.”

There was a long pause. With their heads averted, the humbled creatures could barely catch a glimpse of the Lord’s blazing countenance what with the glare from His 50,000-watt nimbus. In spite of the radiance, He looked dimly down upon His rushed work in fur and feathers. ‘Next time I generate intellectual property I’m going to give it more than a week,’ God thought.

“Okay crew, let’s wind this up. All empires have their best-before dates, so let me explain what I have planned after Eagle’s reign.” God pressed a button on the console of his majestic, cloud-wreathed throne.

“Send in Panda,” he boomed.

The Vancouver Courier, Feb. 7