Daily Archives: July 15, 2007

Russia’s land-grab, Canada’s benefit

Suddenly, the U.S. is in a bind over resources in the far North. Here’s an editorial in the Chicago Tribune, decrying the fact the U.S. is powerless to resist Russia’s recent undersea resource-grab:

Russian scientists are hard at work trying to prove that a big chunk of the Arctic Ocean — and the billions of tons of oil underneath it — belong to them. The U.S. could counter this claim, but it doesn’t have standing to do so because this nation hasn’t ratified the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea.

The International Seabed Authority, which governs deep-sea drilling, is a byproduct of the convention. The U.S. is the only major industrial nation without a seat on the 21-member seabed authority, because it hasn’t ratified the convention.

Russia’s Arctic ambitions are a serious matter, particularly in the context of its renewed and frequently unhelpful assertiveness in foreign affairs generally.

But the U.S. has a dilemma: ratifying the Convention on the Law of the Sea would mean acknowledging that a big chunk of oceanbed in the Beaufort Sea off Alaska and the Yukon belongs to Canada. The U.S. claims it, but the way the UNCLOS draws boundaries, Canada gets it. The convention also tends to strengthen Canadian claims to control of the decreasingly frozen Northwest Passage, which the United States also resists.

Not a choice I’d envy, though I think Prime Minister Stephen Harper should send Vladimir Putin a nice thank-you note.

Flush this ban

Another case of sending a ban to do work that price signals ought to. From the Toronto Star, which quite enjoys banning things:

In a remarkable display of environmental consciousness, the leaders of 29 municipalities around the Great Lakes have adopted the worthwhile goal of cutting their water consumption by at least 15 per cent.

That action is an encouraging sign that many cities are now committed to the principles of “reduce, reuse and recycle.” When it comes to water consumption, the key is to reduce the amount being drained from our lakes. The province could play an increased role by banning the sale of wasteful traditional toilets in favour of low-flow models.

Toronto Mayor David Miller called for such a ban at a recent meeting of officials from Great Lakes cities. Low-flow, quite simply, is the way to go. Some toilet models use as little as six litres of water per flush compared to more than 20 litres for some wasteful older brands. That is a lot of liquid. Low-flow toilets do a good job of removing waste and save consumers money by lowering their water costs. And they help the environment because cities don’t have to purify as much water.

If it’s so difficult for cities to purify water, charge more. In Ontario at least, cities are required to charge the full cost of water treatment — the real problem is that cities, like any other mass consumer of Great Lakes water, don’t pay to take water out, so the price is artificially low. Rather than deal with that problem, cities are going to police toilet capacities.

Wind annoyances

Wind turbineWindmills are an interesting and challenging frontier in environmental regulation, as this story from the New York Times suggests. This fellow Michael Mercurio, who’s in the windmill business, put one up on his Cape Cod property and is now fighting tooth and nail with his neighbours:

Some of his neighbors say it is also annoying. They say it is too big. They say it is too noisy. And some residents in this middle-class borough on Long Beach Island have gone to court to try to make him take it down, while the township has stilled it since winter.

“I don’t understand why they are against this[,” Mercurio says, “]I really don’t.”

Maybe because, as Mr. Mercurio’s neighbors Patricia Caplicki and John Miller say in the lawsuit, in a 14-mile-per-hour wind, the three fiberglass blades produce noise greater than 50 decibels, the rough equivalent of light traffic or a noisy refrigerator.

The suit also says that the spinning blades throw “strobe-like shadows” on their property from noon to sunset.

According to the Times, the windmill and additional solar panels cut Mercurio’s electricity and gas bills from something like $4,000 a year to $114, suggesting it’s a significant environmental improvement. This kind of distributed, consumer-controlled generation is a good thing because of that, because it means individuals are taking responsibility for linking their consumption to where power comes from, and because it means a more resilient generation system overall.

That said, I can understand somebody not wanting a 35-foot-high windmill looming over his or her yard, particularly if the business about the strobe effect is true, and I don’t imagine it’d be pleasant to inhabit a neighbourhood forested with them. It’s not that it’s unpleasant to look at, but that it has a deleterious effect on the neighbours whether they look at it or not.
Lots of harmless property improvements — solar-powered water heaters, say, or new kinds of insulation — are effectively forbidden under zoning codes because they’re not specifically permitted, and without official standards, they can’t be inspected. This is dangerously silly; if I want to stick some panels on the roof of my house, that’s nobody’s business but mine, and perhaps my insurance company’s.

In cases such as Mr. Mercurio’s, though, there’s doubtless a role for the local government in setting limits on what you can do that affects other people’s enjoyment of their property. If you couldn’t put up an antenna or an advertisement that does certain things, you probably shouldn’t be treated different just because your goal is environmental rather than commercial.

 Photo credit: “Wind turbine,” Flickr/Lepti