Monthly Archives: January 2008

When conservation doesn’t pay


This must be a bit awkward:

[O]ne thing is certain: Conservation is putting cash-strapped municipalities in a bit of a pickle.

Tougher … regulations, growing communities and a rising backlog of crumbling pipes needing to be fixed are driving up costs even while diligent consumers are lowering their consumption and the size of their bills.

Toronto alone is facing about $800 million worth of repair and replacement work, since half of the city’s water mains and 30 per cent of its sewer pipes are more than 50 years old. But last year, total revenue was only $604 million.

Other regions are hurting, too.

Peel Region treasurer Dan Labrecque estimates his region has lost $7 million to so-called “revenue or billable flows shortfall.” The need to make up for that lost money accounts for nearly half of Peel’s proposed 16 per cent water rate hike (expected to be phased in at 12.5 per cent).

Water and sewer systems bring with them extremely high fixed costs, which is one of the major arguments for conservation. If, for instance, you can get everyone in town to use a few gallons less each day, maybe your peak demand will stay low enough that you won’t have to replace one giant watermain with an even more gigantic one. That’s good for everybody.

But of course, the stuff you’ve already got in the ground needs regular fixing and, eventually, replacement because it’s worn out. If you’ve actually succeeded in making your peak demand not just stabilize, but actually retreat, then you’re going to have a shortfall in revenues and you’re going to have to jack up the prices for the use that remains. The result: people paying nearly the same amount for their water even if they’re using quite a lot less.

At least the balance isn’t getting any further out of whack, if they’re not having to install ever-larger and -longer pipes. But yeah, this is a kick in the slats for everybody involved and there’s not much to be done about it.

Sweet salty Moses…

Speaking of questionable uses of water

Well it’s seawater, so I guess it’s not the actual water that’s the problem. But the filtering and cleaning and heating demands, even if the developers (awkward Flash-based site here) say it uses “100 times less chemicals” than traditional swimming pools, must be spectacular.

How subsidizing water can go wrong

Easy: if the going market price ever goes up.

With water becoming increasingly precious in California, a rising number of farmers figure they can make more money by selling their water than by actually growing something.

Because farmers get their water at subsidized rates, some of them see financial opportunity this year in selling their allotments to Los Angeles and other desperately thirsty cities across Southern California, as well as to other farms.

“It just makes dollars and sense right now,” said Bruce Rolen, a third-generation farmer who grows rice, wheat and other crops in Northern California’s lush Sacramento Valley.

Instead of sowing in April, Rolen plans to let 100 of his 250 acres of white rice lie fallow and sell his irrigation water on the open market, where it could fetch up to three times the normal price.

Argh. So much for helping agriculture and keeping food prices low.

You have to draw a line somewhere

Here’s an annoying trumped-up fight:

Although the [Harper] government pledged to crack down on pollution from large industries to reduce annual emissions by 150 million tonnes by 2020, a new Environment Canada document is proposing to exclude facilities that produce less than 10,000 barrels of oil per day. The document, Minimum Thresholds for the Greenhouse Gas Regulations, estimates that these facilities represent about 20 per cent of the emissions from the sector or the equivalent of five million to 10 million tonnes of carbon dioxide. …

“The (regulations are) saying: ‘We’re really not going to go after the entire oil and gas industry, we’re only going to go after part of them,’ and that’s not (respecting) the government’s promise,” said Nashina Shariff, the associate director of the Toxics Watch Society of Alberta in a phone interview. “Everybody is going to have do their part to fight climate change because it’s a really serious problem and that means all large industries.”

The Harper government’s plan to reduce Canada’s greenhouse-gas emissions, such as it is, focuses on heavy industrial emitters. Arguably, it should be broader-based, but the document Environment Minister John Baird released last spring was pretty explicit that it isn’t. Large emitters are known, easily identified and monitored, and can presumably better shoulder the regulatory burden. There’s a reason you need a licence to drive a car but not a bike, and the same principle is at work here.

Criticizing a plan that’s overtly targeted at major emitters for not encompassing small emitters is just a cheap shot.

Speaking of unhelpful turns of phrase

I’m not going to paint Bono of U2 as an expert, exactly, but he’s a smart guy who pays attention and has done the reading. He must know that jokes like this at the Davos World Economic Forum …

Acknowledging that a career in rock music was not always conducive to a green lifestyle, Bono compared a conversation with Gore to an act of religious contrition.

“It’s like being with an Irish priest. You start to confess your sins,” he said. “Father Al, I am not just a noise polluter, I am a noise-polluting, diesel-soaking, gulfstream-flying rock star.

“I’m going to kick the habit. I’m trying father Al, but oil has been very good for me — those convoys of articulated lorries, petrochemical products, hair gel.”

… don’t help. What he’s obviously trying to do is acknowledge how difficult it is to live the lifestyle he preaches, and that’s reasonably noble, but he’s still playing directly into the hands of people who really want to see environmentalism as cultishly irrational. It shouldn’t be this way, but it is, and Bono should know better.

This’ll be popping up in place of reasonable discussion, here and there, for years.

Alberta’s climate-change “plan”

I guess it’s officially a “strategy,” but it comes across as more of a “wish list,” not unlike the federal government’s.

The promise is to cut greenhouse-gas emissions by 14 per cent from 2005 levels by 2050. That’s a relatively mild target, compared to what climate scientists say we need to do, but even so there’s no obvious mechanism to make sure this actually happens. The newly released strategy from the Progressive Conservative government of Premier Ed Stelmach talks a great deal about investing in carbon-sequestration (capturing and burying carbon-dioxide emissions, that is), but doesn’t describe a means of making major emitters adopt the practice.

Here’s the news release and here’s the document itself (PDF), complete with lovely full-colour images of wheat waving in the wind, close-ups of leaves and images of … chopped-down timber, it looks like, on page 22. (Somebody send down to the stock-photo library for a substitute, would you?)

Alberta’s in an exquisitely difficult position, having a roaring economy that’s almost totally dependent on extracting carbon-producing fossil fuels in an energy-intense (and therefore highly carbon-emitting) way. Alternative sources of power are a long way off and won’t easily displace the cheap natural gas that’s used to fire the boilers that separate oil from sand in the oilsands.

Here’s a generous way to look at Alberta’s position, if you want one. The province’s oil reserves are only worth exploiting if prices are high, and prices are high because supplies are getting tighter while demand is expanding. If Alberta’s oil economy is to continue growing, it’ll be because other oil-exporters are running low, which will mean less overall pumping and refining and burning in the world, even if more of the supply comes from Alberta in particular. Therefore, if Alberta makes its oil economy more ecologically friendly and takes over an increasing share of the world’s production, its own emissions can rise while at the same time representing a net global decline.

One likely flaw in this reasoning is that whatever their other problems, conventional oil producers like Saudia Arabia and Nigeria are probably less environmentally damaging than Alberta is, so maybe we’ll keep doing the same amount of damage, globally speaking, to extract less oil. The truth is, oilsands oil is bad news for everybody except Albertans.Deep cuts to emissions would certainly mean deep economic damage, and Alberta voters wouldn’t likely stand for it. So there’s only so much an Alberta government can realistically do and expect to not get crushed at the polls.

Nevertheless, I’d think it would be more than this.

While Alberta’s latest greenhouse-gas plan talks about an emissions cut of 14 per cent below 2005 levels, most of its graphs and whatnot use a “business-as-usual” baseline for 2050 emissions to make the province’s projected cuts look more impressive. Taking them at their word, Stelmach’s government promises to cut 24 megatonnes of emissions through conservation in regular old power use, 37 megatonnes through greener energy sources, and 139 megatonnes through carbon sequestration by major emitters.

What’s missing, as I say, is the mechanism. How are major emitters to be made to capture all that carbon? The strategy is silent. No dollar figure for government spending is included in the plan, no discussion of carbon taxes or a cap-and-trade scheme. Alberta already charges major emitters $15 per tonne of carbon emissions beyond a  high ceiling, but there’s no way that’s going to produce the kind of changes the government purports to be planning. The last page of the strategy promises implementation plans in the coming months, although it also declares that “Most importantly, this plan is about actions not words.”

Just, uh, stay tuned for the actions.

A sign of urgency?

GM is actually forming a special internal group  to see about hurrying it up with the plug-in electric cars.