Saturday, January 31, 2015

What I learned from the Woodfibre LNG open house

Last night I attended an open house along with many other islanders put on by the Woodfibre LNG proponents who would like to build a liquified natural gas facility and port at the head of Howe Sound.  The BC Environmental Assessment Office was also there.  I came away with a number of thoughts.  This will be long.

The format

This was an open house, meaning that it was a chance for people to interact one on one with various folks.  The proponents were spread between two rooms, one that looked at benefits and one that looked at technical questions.  Woodfibre had it staff there including everyone from community relations to to the CEO and with the exception of a disrespectful offhanded comment made to me by a senior technical staff person, the company staff were chatty and open and polite, if not particularly forthcoming.  It was hard to get through the sales pitch for the project.  Some of the folks in the room have amazing technical knowledge and it was good to talk to the real humans who are trying to make this thing happen.

There were also people from Fortis, the company that is twining the pipeline from Burnaby to Squamish and people from Hill and Knowlton, Woodfibre's PR firm and one of the biggest PR and lobbying firms in the world.  It took me a while to find out that the H+K guy was from the firm as he said he was one of Woodfibre's consultants.  When I asked which company he worked for he said "Woodfibre" until I pointed out that I knew that Woodfibre had hired his firm, but I was curious which firm he worked for.  He eventually told me.  Hill and Knowlton are heavyweights.

Nobody had logos or last names on their name tags.  The Woodfibre CEO was only identified as AG.  

There were also folks from the Environmental Assessment Office present who were there to explain their process.

So in terms of process I like these kinds of things better than "public meetings" which are highly controlled and constrained.  At least with open houses you are free to learn more about the issues that are important to you, rather than being fed a big picture.  But let's be clear, this was not a consultation.  It was a sales job.  We were not being asked anything, we were being told things.  When I asked "What are you curious to learn from me?" only James, the project manager from Fortis asked me "Well what do you think of this whole thing?" and we had a really good conversation.  The others were flummoxed by my question and demonstrated no curiosity at all in our perspectives.  They were there to answer questions, not asked them.  That is not "consultation."

(And just to say that the previous consultation process was conducted by Kirk and Company, the same firm that ran the BC Ferries consultation. The principal of thet firm is Judy Kirk who is a private coach to BC Cabinet Ministers and makes regular donations to the BC LIberal party that have coincided with the awarding of her contracts for the Ferries work.  You can read more about that here.  This was at least a more straightforward and direct person-toperson contact.  Even the company CEO was there and available to chat,)

Economic Benefits

One of the questions I had for Woodfibre was about economic benefits.  Woodfibre talks alot about the benefits to the local Squamish economy, including the construction jobs and the 100 $100,000 jobs that will be at the plant in an ongoing way.  They talk about the $283 million that will be added the the provincial GDP and the tax benefits that will come from the various taxes which they will be paying.

But when you dig a bit deeper, you notice things that are missing.  For example, when I asked about what the benefits are to Bowen Island, there was no answer.  They haven't really studied the benefits beyond Squamish itself, other than to say how Woodfibre adds to the bigger GDP.  And the truth is, there will be no real direct benefits to Bowen Island or Bowen Islanders.

But the slide that showed economic benefits was incomplete.  Because while those numbers are big it's hard to know what they represent.  So I asked the CEO of the company for the other, unmentioned benefit.  How much was Woodfibre guessing they would make?  No one engages in a project of this scale without determining the profitability.  So you look at all the benefits that Woodfibre is paying out and you can safely assume that they are projecting making a profit anyway.  And the more I pressed the CEO for numbers, the more he added costs on to this.  Capital costs, shipping, salaries, marketing...and yet it is STILL viable enough to be profitable.  Taxes, royalties, local benefits, donations, and STILL it is profitable.  All the CEO would say is that the business relies on thin margins.  But a thin margin of 3% is quite different when your base costs are $10 vs when you base costs are $10 billion.  $10 billion is a lot of money to spend, but if can you earn $300,000,000 from spending it, that might be worth it.  But I have no idea.  Perhaps the profit from this venture is only $300,000,000 over the course of the 25 years of the project.  Or perhaps the profit will be $4 billion.  Or $20billion.  Who knows? Regardless, the benefits to the Howe Sound economy are likely to be small.  And it is of course always an incomplete picture when we have no idea the economic benefit to the owners.  They want our social license to operate in Howe Sound.  At what price are we willing to give it?

The other thing to bear in mind with discussions about GDP is that there is no way to measure subtractions to the GDP.  You can only add to it.  So Woodfibre would make a substantially larger contribution to the GDP if, for example, there was a major accident requiring billions and billions of dollars of remediation and salvage.  It might cost lives, and property damage and ecosystem destruction, but there is no way you can subtract those costs from the GDP - all of that activity simply contributes to economic growth.  It doesn't matter how a dollar is spent, it always adds and never subtracts. If you want to grow the GDP quickly, poison a water supply, destroy a community, start a war.  You will have instant "growth."  Instant "benefit."  So when someone says their project is contributing to the GDP, you say of course it is. But is it contributing to a better world?  We don't have wasy to measure that in this process.

Impact

This is where I learned the most.  Here is the truth about Woodfibre project: it is does not have a particularly big environmental impact, not when compared to other resource activities, other development projects or industrial uses of Howe Sound.  The folks at the Open House were quick to point out that the economic benefits were huge and the environmental impacts were small.  The Woodfibre folks are well prepared to demonstrate how every worry you have about impacts is addressed with a technical solution.  The exclusion zone around ships is non existent, the air quality degradation will be negligible, there is very little impact on water, the site will be cleaner now than it was when the mill was there.  LNG is cleaner that coal.  The plant's GHG emissions will be so low that the company won't have to pay for carbon offsets, etc. etc.

But here's the deal.  The impact of Woodfibre is not necessarily technical, environmental or even economic.  The impact is that it represents a clear and unequivocal statement that Howe Sound is reversing the story of de-industrializatino and instead is being used as a showcase for industry that the province is trumpeting to the world.

Howe Sound used to be an industrial nightmare.  Two polluting pulp mills and one of the most toxic mine sites in Canada, saw mills, hundreds of log booms dropping organic material on the sea bed.  Life was heavily impacted in the Sound.  The deindustrialization of Howe Sound has proceeded apace over the past couple of decades and the arrival of dolphins in the Sound in 2005 was a significant marker.  Suddenly a new story of possibility for the local environment and economy began to be told.  Tourism became more important than logging, Squamish billed itself as the Outdoor Recreation Capital of Canada, we even considered a national park proposal on Bowen Island.  To even imagine Howe Sound as a national park in the 1990s was well out of the realm of possibility.

And yet, here is a new story of an ecosystems being restored to health by countless volunteer hours led by the residents of Howe Sound themselves.   It is about the kinds of choices we want to make for the future of Howe Sound.  And perhaps the Woodfibre LNG with all it's "low" impacts will be a part of that future, but the big danger is that approving Woodfibre changes the narrative away from the story that is emerging now, the story that has invited and encouraged enterprise and economy based on tourism and a healthy environment.  I asked the Environmental Assessment Office folks if there was a way they could evaluate and assess the impact of a thin edge of a wedge and of course they can't  They can only assess the narrow direct and the broader cumulative impacts of the actual project.  There is no mechanism for taking into account what will happen when the message goes out that Howe Sound is a showcase for industrial projects again.  The reindustrialization of Howe Sound is a real possibility.  

The Woodfibre folks have heard your comments about the dolphins.  But they don't see the bigger picture and they take no responsibility for it.  Nor should they really.  The future of the story of this places belongs to those of us that live here and we need to think carefully about what we want that to be and we need to communicate that to the political decision makers that will ultimately approve or deny this project.

The thin edge of the wedge always has a small impact.  That's how wedges work.

Climate change

There is no place in this process for discussions about climate change.  Unless you are a Woodfibre representative and you want to show how few emissions the plant will actually produce, vs. the thousands and thousands of cars that will come into the Sound if tourism becomes the chosen pathway.  And the Environmental Assessment Office has no way of taking into account the total green house gas emissions that are accelerated and made possible by this project that ships fossils fuels to Asia.

For me, climate change is a huge issue and what makes it hard for me to say yes to these kinds of projects is that there is no tie between a project like this and the transition that we need to make to an economy of renewable energy production.

I use fossil fuels as do you and everyone you know.  You cannot live in this world without using fossil fuels.  Climate change skeptics and resource company shills will point out that you are a hypocrite if you use fossil fuels while complaining about them.  But you aren't.  You are simply embedded in a system that you are powerless to change on your own.

I think, broadly speaking, that if we are to make a planetary shift to renewable energy sources it needs to happen by linking the wealth and energy generated from fossil fuels to the development needs of a new grid.  I have no major problem with drilling for oil and gas IF the use of it is tied to the shift.  That means substantial royalties and taxes taken from that activity and given over to subsidizing research, development and construction of a new power infrastructure.  That means using fossil fuels now to produce the next generation of power generating infrastructure.  And in this scenario, natural gas is a better choice than coal for doing that.

And if that was the project of our governments, then I would be a strong proponent of more activity in the oil and gas sector because I would know that such activity is making a difference because policies and regulations tie that activity to a promising future.  But that isn't what we have.  What we have is a fiscal, policy and regulatory regime that enables private companies to make massive profits (even on small margins) with no responsibility to contribute to the future transition to renewable energy.  The renewable energy infrastructure will take a generation or two to build.  If we don't start building it now with what we have, are we sure that we will be able to afford to build it with what's left later on?  Are we okay with handing over the worlds energy resources to a few salespeople who are trying to burn them as quickly as possible?  The science is clear.  This may be the stupidist thing any animal has ever done in the history of life.

So the climate change conversation is very much a part of this for me, but there is no place for it in the proposal that Woodfibre is making.  If we can't talk about climate change at the very place where the problem originates, where can we talk about it?

How to stop it

When I worked for the federal government years ago doing consultations on the treaty process, one of the questions we used to get a lot was "How do I stop it?"  I found that question odious.  I have a high regard for the moral and legal imperatives of negotiated settlements for the reconciliation of rights and title and treaties are some First Nations way of addressing some of that imperative.  My instinct was to say "That is a ridiculous and odious question and I refuse to even discuss it."

But I didn't.  Because I worked as a public servant and it wasn't my job to decide whether people's opinions and ideas were odious or not.  It was my job was to be at the coal face of democratic involvement.  Some colleagues and I actually prepared and delivered a workshop presentation for people on the seven ways we could see of stopping treaty negotiations. They ranged from political influence to direct action and radical disruption.  I'm not sure too many people took up the strategies but it gave them a realistic sense of what they were facing.  We always received incredulous appreciation for the fact that we were honest about what ot would take to stop it.

Yesterday I asked Josh, from Woodfibre the same question.  "So, how could we stop this proposal?" And I have to give him credit.  He said that at this point really the only way to stop it is politically.  It will be politicians that eventually approve the EAO findings, and they can choose to deny the project a green light.  But they also have to have very good water tight reasons for that otherwise Woodfibre can get a court order to overturn the political decision.  Capital usually gets what it wants.

So if you want to stop it, you have to do more than just oppose it or register your opinion with the EAO.  You DO need to do that, but you also have to support things like marine use planning and land use planning and some of the really interesting work that is happening that helps us to understand Howe Sound, because no politician is going to go against this showcase LNG project unless YOU have a better story, and one backed up with good data.  Woodfibre has 12 binders of stuff, which they were giving away on thumb drives.  How many binders do YOU have?  And do you really have solid data at your fingertips?  And do you know how to read and interpret what Woodfibre has?  Do your homework, but don't hold back.

That is what we are up against, if stopping it is what you want to do.  The Future of Howe Sound Society is the place to start if you have things to offer.

What next?

So where does this all go and what happens next?  There are deadlines and milestones in the process and you should know what those are if you are interested in this process.  There are groups that are working for the future of Howe Sound that actually contain a diversity of opinion about this project. There is not necessarily consensus that this project is a good or a bad thing.  Last night was useful for me in understanding the context for the project.  I think I've tried to make it clear that I could be supportive or opposed to an LNG project like this depending on the shape of the context.  As it stands I'm opposed, and that feels small and lonely in the face of what Hill + Knowlton and a few billion dollars of potential private profit will throw at you.  

What I am up for is developing a much deeper personal and collective understanding of this inlet, and its community.  I'll be working more with that over the next few years.