The Tyee: Six ways climate change is getting personal in B.C.

Climate change is getting personal in British Columbia. Shifts in weather patterns in recent years are already changing the way we live in this province, whether you ranch, ski, love eating shellfish, or happen to notice the forest on the edge of town isn’t the same as it was when you wandered through it as a child.

Here are six ways global warming is coming home for British Columbians.

Read more here

BCBusiness Magazine: Why an economist picked Kamloops over Vancouver. Hint: it has to do with the commute

An average morning for Joel Wood used to begin with a 20-minute drive from his Langley home. He would arrive at a park-and-ride in South Surrey, board a bus to a Canada Line station, then take a train into Vancouver. From there, it was just one more bus ride to his job as assistant director of the Centre for Environmental Studies at the Fraser Institute in Kitsilano. At the end of the day, he would do it all again in reverse—a total commute time of 75 minutes each way, or about two and a half hours per day. He would spend 50 hours each month in his car, buses and trains—the equivalent of working more than three extra months per year. “It was pretty taxing,” says the 34-year-old father of one (soon to be two). “You’re away from family, away from small children, away from your partner.”

After three years of slogging from Langley to Kitsilano and back, Wood started to look for work in smaller cities; his wife is from a small town and they both pined for a slower pace of living.

Read more here

Hakai Magazine: The Blob in the Northeast Pacific Ocean

For the past couple of years, researchers from California to Alaska have witnessed a warm-water phenomenon mess with the coastline’s marine food web. It’s like watching a horror B-flick unfold: suddenly, a strange miasma emerges, things get weird, and everyone starts behaving differently. Appropriately, a scientist nicknamed this tepid ocean broth The Blob.

“It’s the type of thing you might expect to happen once in a millennium,” says Richard Dewey.

Read more here

Globe and Mail: Green MLA wants property-tax loophole to be closed

A loophole in B.C. tax law that allows people to avoid property transfer taxes is costing the province tens of millions of dollars, says Green MLA Andrew Weaver, and he wants it shut down in next month’s provincial budget.

But the provincial government says closing the loophole could have unintended consequences for businesses, making the tax code unnecessarily complex. And the ministry said it has no evidence that the trusts are being used to avoid paying the tax other than anecdotes.

Mr. Weaver wrote a blog post Wednesday pushing for the Liberal government to take control of bare trusts in its upcoming budget. He says the trusts are being used by corporations and the rich to avoid paying property transfer taxes when pricey land changes hands.

By registering property in a bare trust, and then transferring their rights to the trust rather than to the actual property, companies and individuals can avoid paying the taxes that are triggered when a property title is signed over.

But since details of the trusts and who uses them are not publicly available, it’s hard to know how much money is really being lost in avoided taxes, Mr. Weaver said.

“As it gets more and more known, and as property prices go up, more and more people are doing it,” Mr. Weaver said, citing his conversations with accountants and real estate executives.

But a statement from the B.C. Ministry of Finance said a property transfer tax that applied to bare trusts “could create more fairness problems than it hopes to solve.”

“While it has not yet been determined that a remedy is required, it may be challenging to design [a tax] that doesn’t have other, unintentional consequences,” the statement said.

And it said tinkering with the system could amount to a new tax, which the government wants to avoid.

The ministry also noted that first-time buyers are exempt from paying the property transfer tax on their first home as long as the home sells for less than $425,000.

But Mr. Weaver countered that the Ontario system of taxing changes in ownership – even through trusts – works just fine without causing undue complications for businesses.

Property transfer taxes in B.C. are calculated at 1 per cent of the first $200,000 and 2 per cent of the value over $200,000. When the tax was first introduced in 1991, the average home price in Vancouver was about $200,000.

This year RE/MAX expects the average home to go for around $800,000, meaning that while the original tax was about $2,000 for a normal sale, today that cost has increased sevenfold.

Putting a piece of property in trust means that ownership officially remains with the original owner, but rights to it are transferred to the buyer, the so-called beneficiary. Because the property is not signed over completely, the property transfer tax is never triggered.

Real estate lawyer Neil Mangan of Vancouver law firm Bell Alliance said trusts are an age-old way of getting around taxes such as those applied to the transfer of property.

Doing it isn’t cheap or simple: For an individual selling a home, the expense of hiring a lawyer and registering the trust is a deterrent, and the risk of having to go to court over a breach of the trust is also unappealing for some. But for a large corporation looking at hundreds of thousands of dollars in savings, it’s sometimes worth the hassle.

“The formula changes [in larger deals],” Mr. Mangan said. “All of a sudden the opportunity to save hundreds of thousands of dollars in tax makes those issues well worthwhile.”

The official Green Party stand on the transfer tax is to eliminate it for all transactions, not just those involving bare trusts, but Mr. Weaver said with revenues from the tax worth hundreds of millions of dollars, getting rid of it is unlikely.

“In light of the fact that it’s not going to happen, let’s fix it.”

Globe and Mail: Angry Burns Lake victims seek accountability after Crown declines to press charges

This article originally appeared in The Globe and Mail, and was primarily written by Ian Bailey. I provided several interviews.

The injured and families of those killed when a Burns Lake sawmill blew up two years ago are angrily looking for accountability after the Crown ruled out criminal or regulatory charges against the mill’s operators because of a flawed investigation.

Despite the largest probe in WorkSafeBC’s history, the effort fell short in several areas, such as failing to obtain search warrants and inform witnesses of their Charter rights, prompting B.C.’s criminal justice branch last week to declare it could not secure convictions if it went to court.

Lucy Campbell, whose brother Carl Charlie was killed in the blast, said hearing the news was like re-experiencing the events of Jan. 20, 2012, when she heard about the disaster at the mill.

“There’s no room for error when it takes my brother’s life,” she said, referring to the legal shortcomings the Crown found in WorkSafeBC’s investigation.

“Our family is disgusted, disheartened, heartbroken all over again.”

In a statement issued Monday night, Justice Minister Suzanne Anton ruled out an independent probe of the Crown’s ruling on the WorkSafeBC probe.

She said she was confident the Crown had conducted a “thorough and careful” review of the matter.

Mr. Charlie and co-worker Robert Luggi were killed in the blast and fire at the Babine Forest Products sawmill and 20 others were injured – a devastating blow to the village of about 2,000 located about 220 kilometres west of Prince George.

Ms. Campbell recalled that when she explained the legal problems to her parents, they reacted with awe – her mother noting it was remarkable that laws protect pets, but not sawmill workers in a case such as this.

She said she “100 per cent” supports calls on Monday by the NDP’s Adrian Dix, leader of the official opposition, for an independent review of the situation.

Jeff Dolan, investigations director for WorkSafeBC, has said he accepts the Crown’s findings in the Babine case, and noted that WorkSafeBC is taking the situation into account as it prepares to file an investigation report next month with the Crown on a sawmill explosion and fire in Prince George two months after the disaster at Burns Lake. That blast killed two workers and injured two dozen.

WorkSafeBC is planning this week to release an 88-page overview of its Burns Lake investigation to help those in the community further understand the situation.

Maureen Luggi said it was “extremely painful” to hear no charges would be laid in her husband’s death.

“I was hoping that we would have some sort of peaceful closure and justice for the manner in which my husband died,” she said. “I thought that this could be a process that we could rely on, and that someone in authority would help us, and support us in achieving closure. That didn’t happen.”

Derek MacDonald, who was sent to hospital in Vancouver due to his injuries in the blast, said members of the community are in shock.

“After what we’ve gone through, what we’ve endured the last two years, after all the surgeries, the physio that everyone has gone through, someone has to be held accountable,” Mr. MacDonald said on Monday. “I’m not going to call it an accident, because it wasn’t an accident.”

Expert opinion gathered by WorkSafeBC suggested airborne combustible sawdust in the basement of the Burns Lake sawmill was ignited, possibly by an open flame or electric arc, creating a dust explosion that spread.

Kathleen Weissbach, whose husband was injured in the fire, called the news devastating.

“It was like a dam broke. I cried. I just lost it,” she said in an interview, noting the wives of victims had no support for such services as counselling. “We don’t have the money to pay for it. I took a year off work to take care of my husband.”

But Bruce Disher, who was a welder at the sawmill for 33 years, said there is ambivalence in Burns Lake over the situation.

“About 75 per cent [in the community] wish charges would be laid. The other 25 per cent have got their jobs back and don’t want [the mill] shut down because it is the only major industry we have in the town,” he said.

“There’s a real mixed feeling here of uncertainty, and what would have happened if charges were laid.”

Kinder Morgan submits pipeline plan

This originally appeared on the Canadian Geographic blog (here).

Kinder Morgan’s pipeline expansion would result in more tankers off of Vancouver. (Photo: Mat Hampson)

Kinder Morgan has submitted its plan for the proposed expansion of its existing Trans Mountain pipeline, setting in motion the National Energy Board review process that is expected to take about two years once the final proposal is in later this year. The company plans to add a new line to triple the capacity of the existing pipeline, which carries light and heavy oil from Edmonton to the Pacific coast in Burnaby, B.C.

This initial proposal lacks detail on the exact route the pipeline would take. The plan is to add to an oil pipeline in operation since 1953; the document released Friday says only that “most of the new proposed pipeline will be adjacent to the existing pipeline or along existing corridors.” But conditions aboveground have changed in the last 60 years, and issues such as aboriginal rights and title, landowner complaints and zoning restrictions are likely to cause issues for the construction.

Some critics such as B.C. MLA Andrew Weaver say that the larger concern is the increased tanker traffic on the coast, rather than the pipeline itself. Environmental groups and First Nations in Vancouver have expressed strong opposition to the proposal since it was first announced over a year ago.

The criteria for environmental reviews of similar projects were reduced in 2012 following Bill C-38, but in an attempt to satisfy the project’s opponents, Kinder Morgan has actually requested that the project be given a review under the brand-new Canadian Environmental Assessment Act.

This pipeline proposal represents the third current major proposal in Canada, joining the highly controversial international Keystone XL pipeline and the domestic Northern Gateway pipeline. Confused about which pipe is which? Here’s what you need to know:

Keystone XL
Proponent: TransCanada
Proposed in: 2008
From: Cushing, Oklahoma (Phase 3) and Hardisty, Alberta (Phase 4)
To: Houston/Port Arthur, Texas (Phase 3) and Steele City, Nebraska (Phase 4)
Fine print: There are two existing operational segments of the pipeline, with two more proposed. US President Barack Obama has yet to decide on whether or not to approve Phase 4. Stephen Harper recently made a visit to New York to promote the pipeline, while environmentalists rallied outside.

Northern Gateway
Proponent: Enbridge
Proposed in: 2006
From: Edmonton, Alberta
To: Kitimat, B.C.
Fine print: The pipeline has raised controversy because of the route, which will cross mountains, rivers, and the Great Bear Rainforest. Opponents also argue that the seas beyond the planned terminal are too dangerous and could cause a spill. The company responded by announcing additional tugboat escorts and tightened operational guidelines.

Trans Mountain
Proponent: Kinder Morgan
Proposed in: 2013
From: Edmonton, Alberta
To: Burnaby, B.C.
Fine print: The company intends to add a line to an existing pipeline, adding 590,000 barrels per day of capacity to the existing 300,000. The pipeline has been in operation for 60 years, but the route of the new expansion has not yet been announced; in the intervening years, land use aboveground has changed, and First Nations have filed land claims as well. Opponents also take opposition to the increased tanker traffic in the Burrard Inlet, B.C.

Reporting in Indigenous Communities

Reporting in Indigenous Communities

There’s a new website up – that’s right, the Internet has a new member! It even has some of my writing on it. My colleague Allison Griner (@allgriner) and I wrote our piece, “Eco-Partners: Fighting together for the health of an inlet” over the course of the last term. We worked with members of the Tsleil-Waututh First Nation and environmentalists to see what their relationship looks like. Is one manipulating the other? Where do First Nations identity and environmental protection overlap – and where don’t they?

Norway, the Heritage Fund, and Ralph Bucks

Why, in Edmonton, the heart of Canadian resource wealth, is the University of Alberta $40-million in the hole? Why is the president of the University of British Columbia – in a province bragging that its natural gas wealth will make it the next Alberta – saying it will have to shut down programs because of budget cuts?

I hate to bring up the old Norway analogy, but Norway should be the energy-rich economy our energy-richest provinces should want to compare themselves to. General social welfare aside (because that wouldn’t even be fair), Norwegian students are actually paid generous grants to study at any of its universities, rather than graduating with crippling debt.
We say Norway is expensive, because it’s expensive to eat out, get drunk, and buy things we don’t need. But in Canada, students can’t even afford to get an education.

Former Alberta Premier Ralph Klein was praised last week in the National Post for his work in reducing the province’s deficit. What wasn’t mentioned is that in the process, he raided the province’s rainy-day piggy bank, the Heritage Fund. This fund was established in 1976 with the understanding that oil wealth doesn’t last forever. Then, as Klein led Alberta through the 2000s, with talk of the province as an “energy superpower” never far from his lips, the fund flatlined. Today, it stands at $16.4-billion, just a year’s worth of royalties higher than in 1987, according to an industry promotional website.

And back to Norway – its fossil fuel royalties go straight into its own fund. The value of that fund should enrage every Albertan who has been told again and again that oil wealth is providing for the next generation and not just buying trucks and iPads for the province’s young men and women who could afford to pay for their engineering degrees. Norway’s $710-billion fund (43 times that of “superpower” Alberta) is one of the world’s largest investors. It’s a safety blanket for the entire Norwegian economy, whose GDP is just $485-billion. That’s a year and a half of the country’s entire economic output in one giant bank account.

My point is this: if Alberta is an energy superpower, why can’t it afford to educate the next generation of engineers to exploit its resource wealth? Across the fence, we British Columbians should ask ourselves the same thing before we buy into the LNG boom.

Fracking ban in Sacred Headwaters set to expire Dec. 18

This article originally appeared on the Tyee blog, the Hook, December 14, 2012.

A moratorium on a large coal bed methane project in northern B.C. is about to expire. The moratorium has prevented Shell Canada from conducting “any oil and gas activity or related activity” in the Sacred Headwaters project since December 2008, according to the original Order in Council.

While First Nations, environmental groups, and the provincial NDP are calling for the moratorium to be extended, negotiations around the future of the area between Shell, First Nations and local stakeholders are ongoing, a spokesperson for the B.C. Ministry of Energy, Mines, and Natural Resources confirmed.

The spokesperson would not comment on the nature of the discussions, saying that further details would be made available when an agreement is reached.

The project is located in Tahltan First Nation territory. Anita McPhee, president of the Tahltan Central Council, also would not comment on any negotiations with the province, but said she is determined to protect the Sacred Headwaters.

“We’re not going to stop until there is permanent protection in the Klappan.”

The Klappan, as the Sacred Headwaters basin is sometimes known, is located at the head of the Skeena, Stikine, and Nass rivers.

The BC NDP recently weighed in on the issue.

“Coal bed methane development could see hundreds of gas wells drilled in these pristine river headwaters, along with construction of hundreds of roads and pipelines to support them,” said NDP mining critic Doug Donaldson in a recent email to supporters. “It could contaminate groundwater and river water downstream, and put at risk significant wild salmon spawning beds.”

The original government document that ordered the moratorium has provisions for Shell to have resumed operations two years after the moratorium was issued, as early as 2010. This was on the conditions that the company first conduct an assessment of the impact the operation would have on water quality, that First Nations and other local communities be provided with sufficient information on coal bed methane extraction, and that this all be done to the satisfaction of the minister.

Karen Tam Wu, who is in charge of the advocacy group Forest Ethics’ campaign to prevent Shell from developing the natural gas deposit in the region, says she is optimistic about the outcome of the ongoing discussions.

“I’ve heard the government is going to come down on the right side of the fence on this,” she explains. “I’m holding my breath and my fingers are crossed.”

On Friday morning the Senate approved Bill C-45, the omnibus bill, which included provisions to eliminate the Hazardous Materials Information Review Commission. This was the body responsible for, among other things, monitoring chemicals used in hydraulic fracturing operations like the Shell project in the Sacred Headwaters.

Disclosure of the composition of the chemicals used in fracking is mandatory in B.C. as of April 1, 2012, and the registry is publicly available. However, many chemicals can be protected as trade secrets.

The HMIRC’s responsibilities will be transferred to Health Canada, which in April announced that it would be cutting 840 jobs.

More British Columbians oppose Gateway pipeline after map controversy, ad blitz: poll

This originally appeared on the Tyee blog, The Hook, on December 11, 2012

A new poll suggests that 60 per cent of British Columbians now oppose the proposed Northern Gateway bitumen pipeline. And according to the results, controversy over Enbridge’s tanker route map — which omitted 1,000 square kilometres of islands in the Douglas Channel — didn’t help: 58 per cent of respondents who saw the map said that it worsened their opinion of the project.

Commissioned by the Gitga’at First Nation and carried out by Forum Research, the poll (hosted on this website) is the most recent survey of public opinion surrounding the pipeline project. Forum Research contacted 1,051 British Columbians, asking the same central question as in two other polls they have conducted on the issue: “Are you in favour or opposed to the Northern Gateway pipeline which would carry crude oil from the Alberta oil sands across the Rocky Mountains to the BC coast at Kitimat to be shipped by tanker to refineries in Asia?”

The poll comes six months after the start of a major, multimillion dollar ad campaign from Enbridge, which included TV and radio spots, and newspaper and online ads. It found that 86 per cent of respondents had seen some advertising from Enbridge in the last six months. Of those 86 per cent who had seen ads, 46 per cent had not changed their opinions, while 37 per cent said it made their impressions of the project worse.

“We don’t have the resources to fight Enbridge’s multi-million dollar advertising campaigns,” said Cam Hill, Gitga’at councillor, in a statement released with the polling results.

“What we do have is the truth, and the truth is that a single oil spill in B.C.’s coastal waters could wipeout the traditional foods that feed our people. We don’t want dead water.”

Last August, critics attacked Enbridge’s depiction of the Douglas Channel, minus the channel’s many islands, in a promotional video, accusing the company of misleading the public. An Enbridge spokesperson, Ted Nogier,told the Times Colonist that the map was for “illustrative purposes only,” and that it wasn’t to be taken as an accurate depiction of the channel.

Earlier polls from Forum have given similar results, but the trend in their results points toward growing opposition. Last January, opposition was 46 per cent, and by April it was at 52 per cent.

The Tyee has not yet been able to reach Enbridge for comment.

Jimmy Thomson is completing a practicum at The Tyee.