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Memo to Media: Watchdog the Environment

Six issues the press must cover to hold power in this province accountable.

Rafe Mair 24 Jun

Rafe Mair writes a column for The Tyee every second Monday. He is also a founding contributor to The Common Sense Canadian.

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Premier Clark's mandate puts nature in the crosshairs. Who will protect B.C.'s environment?

Now that the BC Liberals have a new four-year mandate we need media vigilance more than ever.

Although to see it in action you wouldn't know it, the press has special constitutional protection both in our written and unwritten constitutions which give it a unique position in our society. Thomas Jefferson put it this way: "Our liberty depends on the freedom of the press, and that cannot be limited without being lost."

And yet, at a moment when our liberties are fast eroding, the press, which should be fearless in our defence, has gone silent.

There are two ways the media can become pointless: By disseminating untruths or not saying anything at all. And by depriving the public of the true state of affairs. Postmedia, owners of the Vancouver Sun and Province and therefore key to the conversation in this province, appears to me guilty of both shortcomings.

I can only conclude that in the last 12 years, they have muzzled both Vaughn Palmer and Mike Smyth. How else can you explain the virtual absence of columns critical of fish farms, so called "run of river" atrocities, pipelines and tanker traffic? You will look in vain to find even the most blurred line from these two excellent writers critical of any of the "establishment" positions on these matters. In fact, the Sun seems to give the fish farm spokespeople an op-ed piece on demand.

Now we are seeing the ranks of journalists dramatically thinning at both papers, as staff is reduced to cut costs. Who is left to do the reporting we desperately need?

Here are several enormous issues ongoing and new coming down the track where media vigilance of the days of yore will be needed.

Fish farms. Many seem unable to understand that the reason fish farmers don't want to go on shore is the expense of getting water to the fish and -- here is the main problem -- cleaning up after themselves. Thus it can be seen that the major cost of fish farms is borne by us, the public of B.C. What is so difficult to understand about that?

We, the public of B.C. see our waters polluted and our wild salmon destroyed so that large international companies make a handsome profit unbothered by the nuisance of paying for the use of their location and damages for the consequences that flow from their actions.

So-called 'run of river' projects. This donation of our wild rivers to Independent Power Projects (IPPs) so that they can make power, is one of the great heists in history. Their dams (and that's what they are) divert water within rivers to generate power that BC Hydro is compelled to buy at double the market price and up to 10 times what they can produce it for themselves. And, it must be emphasized, nearly all of it is produced during run-off time when BC Hydro doesn't need it but must buy anyway. They are on a "take or pay" contract forced upon BC Hydro by the Liberal government. Thanks to this unbelievable Liberal government policy, BC Hydro isnow in future debt to IPPs for some 50 to 60 billion dollars.

This has all been achieved with hardly a peep from the mainstream media! BC Hydro, the jewel in the provincial crown is now financially ruined by greedy business, urged on by a far right-wing government with nary a murmur by the mainstream media! BC Hydro, if in the private sector, would be bankrupt and escapes bankruptcy only because it can turn to us the public for their ongoing fiscal requirements. This is scandal of major proportions yet unmentioned by the media who are supposed to be protecting the province from this sort of corporate and government fiscal vandalism.

Pipelines. This issue from an environmental point of view can be simply stated. We know that there will be spills and we know from experience such as the Kalamazoo River tragedy that they can never be thoroughly cleaned up. The clear question is this -- seemingly because companies promise, cross my heart and to die that they can and will clean-up spills, the main question is unasked by the mainstream media -- how the hell can they get heavy machinery and crew into the Rockies? The Rocky Mountain Trench? The Coast Range? The Great Bear Rain Forest?

The plain answer is that you cannot clean up anywhere because you can't get to it and are unable to do much even if you could because of where the two major pipelines are planned to be.

Premier Clark talks about "world class" clean-up techniques to cover off spills that would take an act of God to deal with. This is pure sophistry. If the best efforts are bound to fail, what does it matter if they are "world class"? The truth is that diluted bitumen is all but impossible to clean up and, due to the geography of where the pipelines are to go, there's no way of getting crews and heavy machinery to the spill anyway.

Tankers. Tankers will have spills and the amount of oil to be shipped makes it clear that some will be major ones that simply cannot be cleaned up. We know from spills of ordinary oil they are impossible to clean -- the Exxon Valdez demonstrated that beyond doubt. But here we're dealing with bitumen, a tar-like substance which only floats for a very short time. With traditional spills, clean up is done by "rafting", which, in effect, contains the spill so it can be removed. This is only partly successful for crude or refined oil that will float for awhile until winds and tides play their role. Bitumen, soon after if gets on water, sinks like a stone. We learned that from the Enbridge Kalamazoo spill nearly three years ago which remains uncleaned.

Liquefied Natural Gas (LNG). This is, Premier Clark tells us, the savior of B.C.'s fortunes. It will pay off our debt and we'll have a provincial fund with over $100 billion in it.

Much of this natural gas will come in the form of "fracking," a technique which drills vertically, for often over a more than a kilometer, then drills horizontally in between layers of shale using huge quantities of chemically charged water, to blow the oil or gas to the surface.

There has been little environmental research done. Virtually none independently.

Where does the water come from? Where does it go when it has been made undrinkable and unusable? What about the stability of the ground when the oil and gas has been removed?

The government's entire fiscal policy is wrapped around the premier's dreams of a huge bonanza of gas revenues. Before the May election, this bonanza was just a year or so away. Now it is 2018, she hopes.

It's all eyewash. It's not going to happen. The world is awash in natural gas including Premier Clark's putative client China. On Sunday, June 16, this was announced in The South China Morning Post: "It sounds like an engineer's pipe dream -- a 9,000-kilometre-long pipeline stretching from Turkmenistan in Central Asia to Hong Kong and bringing energy to the homes of more than 500 million people along the way."

While this gas comes from Turkmenistan, we already know that China and Russia have huge shale gas reserves. Somehow Premier Clark is banking on LNG, natural gas that has the enormous cost of liquefying it attached, will sell like hotcakes in places with plenty of their own gas in reserve. Dream on!

While we learn more and more about increasing deposits of both oil and natural gas worldwide, we have an "opposition" that also thinks that B.C. LNG will put us all on easy street.

Northern Gateway. Premier Clark did not nix the Enbridge pipeline as some assume. She merely told The Joint Review Panel that B.C. opposes on environmental grounds. At the same time she has told the Alberta government -- and indeed the world -- that B.C. will consent if some money comes its way and that "world-leading oil-spill response and clean-up systems" are in place. She has to know, as stated above, that this latter condition is, I emphasize, plain sophistry since she must know that in truth there is no response and clean-up possible, world class or not.

The plain fact is that unless an informed public rises against these assaults on our intelligence, B.C.'s environment will take blows from which it never can recover.

Environmental groups are fighting valiantly on all of these fields of combat but they have no media to investigate and report, fairly, on what they are doing.

There are no media holding the government's feet to the power. There are no media scrappers like the late Marjorie Nichols, the late Jack Webster and, dare I say it, Rafe Mair in the mainstream media.

That's why it's critical that citizens read the Wilderness Committee, The Common Sense Canadian of which I am a co-founder and columnist and, of course, The Tyee. They must also inform themselves by the periodic releases of organizations like The Living Oceans Society, the Georgia Strait Alliance and many other fine groups that concentrate on various aspects and locations of environmental importance.   

With the NDP reeling after its election collapse, the media must do the work of holding the government and business accountable. The question we face is whether the media's owner will allow that to happen, and even if they did, there are enough people left in newsrooms to perform the vital role of citizens' advocate.  [Tyee]

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