Monday, October 25, 2010

Mary Lake: Grassroots Caring + Social Media = A Clever Campaign

We're all familiar with the parcels of land around the south island, and around the world, that need our assistance. From the Amazon rain forests to the Boreal forest in Northern Alberta, from Sandcut Beach on the Juan de Fuca West Coast to Madrona Farm, there's always an ecosystem or a parcel of land that needs saving. It can be difficult not only to choose which one to support, but also to get the word out to the wider world. Sometimes, however, a different twist is all that's needed to inject some new life into a campaign. Take for example the recently launched grassroots social media campaign to protect and save Mary Lake, in the Highlands District of Southern Vancouver Island.

The Mary Lake property, which includes the whole of the lake, is located on Millstream Road in the Highlands. The dry coastal Douglas fir forest, one of our south island's most threatened ecosystems, surrounds a pristine lake festooned with water lilies and lined with mossy rock outcrops, wetlands and trails. The 107 acre parcel is a prime example of native plant and animal life and is one of the last undeveloped lakes in the area.

So what makes this campaign special? For one: social media. Though the campaign has a website, organizers are using Twitter and Facebook to spread the word about the property. Retweets and Facebook "likes" get the word out, and drive people to the site, where a series of short videos on the property and a simple paypal donation system allow people to easily contribute.

Secondly, donations are given an interesting twist through the "purchase" of one or more square metres of land. You can get a square forest metre for $10; a square lakeside metre costs $40. Put your name to as many parcels as you like, and see the tangible results of your purchase on the interactive map created specially for the campaign. Giving people a bird's eye view of the protected portions (and watching that patchwork grow, daily) is a great way of showing the impact we can have through grassroots donations. Similar to micro-credit loans systems, this system uses a large number of people and a low donation threshold to create a big impact.

The campaign to save Mary Lake deserves the attention it's getting; it may also be the mark of a new generation of environmentally concerned citizens who want to see immediate tangible results for their contributions.

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Panel on Energy, SEJ Afternoon Plenary, 2010

Kieran Suckling, Executive Director of the Center for Biological Diversity, sits third in a row of four guests during the final lunch Plenary at the SEJ conference on Sunday, October 16, and his dire view of the energy situation in the US causes my table mates to give one another surprised looks. “Obama has failed,” he says, in a laconic but vehement voice. He’s judged as crabby, but probably right. In a few short minutes, during his first opportunity to talk, he lambastes the Obama administration for its lack of initiative and failure to act during what has been an historic time in American presidential history.

“The Obama administration was given an unprecedented opportunity, and it has not stepped up.” He leans back in his chair and continues. “Are we going to remove the massive subsidization of fossil fuels? Are we going to say, ‘Today we begin the ramp down of offshore oil drilling.’ There is no possibility of being able to clean up a spill of any magnitude in the Arctic, and yet the Obama administration continues to go forward with this.” His listing of the failures of the current government is refreshing, jolting and drops a sobering pall over the tables of journalists.

Energy issues are a huge topic today and for good reason. As Randy Udall, Independent Energy Consultant and former Director for the Community Office for Resource Efficiency and Co-Founder, Association for the Study of Peak Oil and Gas-USA says, “We have been born into the oil tribe. We consume our body weight in petroleum every seven days. Half the fossil fuel on the planet has been burned in the last twenty years. This is why we have a climate change problem. It’s a problem of abundance.” What we are most missing, he argues, is an appreciation, even a love, an acknowledgement of what these fossil fuel resources have meant to us, and how important they’ve been. At the same time that we understand this, we need to accelerate a move away from them.

It’s a holistic view, but one that may not be forceful enough, given the current situation with oil reserves, greenhouse gas emissions and a rapidly warming planet. But don’t say the words global warming to Karen Harbert.

Harbert is the Director of the Institute of 21st Century Energy, US Chamber of Commerce. “We say we want alternative energy,” she says, “but it can take 18 years to get a permit for renewable energy projects in this country. Is this really furthering our desire for a low carbon future, or standing in the way of it?”

Harbert ends up in hot water during the question period of the Plenary. A journalist asks her why her Institute supports Republican candidates who have questioned, or even disputed, the idea of climate change. “The problem with this debate is that you are supposed to be for or against. I want to look at the solutions, not the problems.” The problem with this is that it discounts the science.

If we look only forward we are no better, as the journalist also points out, than the Institute for 21st Century Energy’s Index of US Energy Security Risk, which fails to mention the link between carbon dioxide and global warming. Harbert’s answer? “We are not going to go down the science route.”

Kieran and Udall are the only two panel members who speak with clarity on the issue of energy during this panel. Nancy Sutley, of the Obama Administration, also demurs and hesitates. It will take time to find energy alternatives to replace fossil fuels, she says. She will not commit to yes or no on the issue and shifts the blame when pointedly questioned. “The lack of broad action on energy,” she says, “is due to congressional inaction, not executive indecision.”

Suckling's reason again comes to the fore. “Why does industry get to determine where to do alternative energy on public lands? If you want to avoid environmental litigation, you have to have the government lead, and the government is not leading.” That’s why, he says, we have these battles between environmentalists and industry over placement of wind turbines, over solar panels, over natural gas exploration.

What there seems to be is a basic disagreement in how to move forward. Harbert is interested in the future, but it’s unclear how she plans to get there when her center supports Republican candidates who question the scientific validity of global warming. To some on the panel, namely Herbert, there seems to be a questioning of the science. For others, such as Udall and Suckling, the science is unquestionable, but again, they differ in how best to use this science in order to fix the problem of energy issues. Suckling's critique asks if it is really too late. Where Udall sees opportunity, he sees pure failure.

Udall also posits that if we simply redirected some of our spending on military, we could shut down every coal plant in the country. Why not do this? Because of the massive machinery of fear which has gathered such momentum in this country. Diverting money away from attempts to catch 50 Al Khaida in Afghanistan would be to admit that the threat is not so great as we think. It would be to admit that there are more pressing problems. Setting aside military spending as a separate topic, everyone on the panel would agree that energy is a very pressing issue. But when it comes to finding solutions, and finding fool proof ways of putting those solutions into practice, trouble arises, and it isn’t going away any time soon.

SEJ Indian Country Field Trip Video, October 14, 2010

Flathead Tribes Bison Reserve, SEJ Conference, 2010

Shot and edited by Maleea Acker

Friday, October 15, 2010

The Tar Sands Mini Showdown at SEJ

On Thursday, October 15, a panel gathered in Missoula, Montana during the Society of Environmental Journalists’ annual conference to discuss the Tar Sands development in Northern Alberta. Present were Preston McEachern, Section Head of Science and Research, Alberta Environment, Peter Hodson, Department of Biology and School of Environmental Studies, Queen's University, Andrew Logan, Director of the Oil and Gas program, CERES, and Janet Annesley, Vice President, Communications, for the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers. The moderator was Hanneke Brooymans, a seasoned tar sands reporter based in Edmonton.

If fully developed, the tar sands will directly impact more than 2,000 square kilometres of northern Alberta. From the ducks that died in the tailings pond near Fort McMurray to questions now being asked about human health and safety for those living near the developments, the sands are an indisputably difficult and controversial way to extract oil from the earth. Estimates are that two barrels of water are used for each barrel of oil extracted. And the polluting effects of fracking, drilling and disposing of used water are well documented.

Andrew Logan admits to standing in the grey area of a very black and white fight, and states his case in a quiet but persuasive voice. “The economics of the tar sands are somewhat tenuous at best. Our concern is, once you begin to layer in other costs: carbon, water scarcity, cleaning tailings ponds and rehabilitating land, then the scale of the liability and the full cost of the development is too much. Our investors want to see the tar sands project looked at more holistically.”

Is it only money that will change people’s minds? The Beaver Lake Cree are in process of  launching a Constitutional challenge against the Canadian government for violation of their treaty enshrined right to hunt, fish and gather on their traditional lands. With the advent of the tar sands, caribou herd numbers in the area have plummeted. Rather than make do with environmental protests or boycotts, the Beaver Lake Cree have decided, using famed Woodward and Company Law firm, to fight the tar sands using the Canadian Constitution.

Logan continues with a list of statistics. Only a quarter of the projects have any plan for water use. Pollution in the Athabaska River may be the direct result of nearby oil industry operations and not a naturally occurring source. “What we’re looking for is a frank discussion of the problems and the possible solutions for these projects.” It’s a case of ‘show me’ versus ‘trust me,’ and despite assurances from Preston McEachern, there isn’t necessarily a reason to be greatly optimistic. What we’re seeing right now in the tar sands development, says Logan, does not give anyone huge confidence that we’ll get the answers we’re looking for.

Janet Annesley is a practiced and cool speaker, at least at first. Half the remaining investable oil in the world lies in the tar sands, she says, we need to realize we’re all in this together. “The world needs energy. And the reality is that only a small percentage of our energy needs can be supplied by alternative energy sources.” She quotes James Cameron, who while visiting the sands recently apparently said, “this resource could be a blessing or a curse.” It becomes obvious very quickly which side of this quote she’s trying to work.

What’s surprising is that the panel is comprised of two tar sands proponents, the CERES representative and only one scientist. In the US, I can’t help thinking that we must look a little like a bumbling, unconcerned populace. There are many scientific studies that show the sands are not doing harm to the environment. The trouble is, many of these studies are paid for by the petroleum producers themselves, or by the Alberta government, whose hands are so deep in the oil pot that they cannot possibly be called an impartial body. And studies that show an opposing view are reluctant to say, definitively, that there are links between the tar sands and wide spread pollution or health concerns. Better disclosure, as the Logan says, will help bring opposing studies greater validity. As well as better planning and longer term thinking. He’s right. How can the government simultaneously guard the environment while supporting the tar sands development?

The panel talk concludes on an uncertain note, and I hope that questions from the conference participants will bring more to light. “Our science,” says Peter Hodson, “may not be capable of producing the answers that we need at the present moment.”

The first question from the audience concerns an article in the local Missoula paper this morning. Giant rakes needed for the tar sands projects are being shipped up small highways from the Western United States up to Alberta. This backyard concern takes up almost a third of the question period. There are no questions about caribou habitat or tailings ponds and there is only one about health effects for people living near the tar sands.

So I stand up, state my name, and ask for thoughts on the Beaver Lake Cree’s case and the destruction of caribou habitat. The only person who comments is Janet Annesley. Who says exactly what one would expect. Who says the law suit concerns the government, not the companies she represents. Who says that she has ongoing discussions with First Nations in the area and greatly respects the fact that treaties are enshrined in the constitution. But who avoids talk of the case itself, or of the caribou. 

So I lean down to Marty Cobenais, Pipeline Organizer with the Indigenous Environmental Network, who has just beckoned me across the room to whisper the real answers in my ear. We’re nodding and whispering, and the next thing I know, Janet is calling to me from her microphone. “Excuse me. I’m answering your question but it doesn’t even look like you’re listening to my answer. Are you even listening to me? I’m putting a lot of effort into my response.” The moderator blushes. An electric charge goes through the room. A woman in the audience has my back before I can respond, “Why, is there going to be a quiz?” Everyone laughs. “I’m putting a lot of effort into trying to understand you,” I counter, lamely, but with more than a little pleasure. Janet Annesley’s face sets, and she wraps up.

No one else addresses the question of the caribou, or the three hundred Cree who have been brave enough to face off against oil giants such as Suncor and Shell Oil. Afterward, I am inundated by smiling conference attendees, who assure me Janet has shown her true colours. True, perhaps, but until we get this issue out to the entire world, a not just to a few supporters in England and across our own country, I’m just a shit disturber facing off against a single representative for the giants.

Monday, October 11, 2010

Seattle Missoula: Where is Fall?

The winding forested tracts of the Cascades outside of Seattle gave way more quickly than I had anticipated, right after Snoqualmie Pass. At 10 am I was in Pike street market, grabbing cheese, coffee and breakfast sandwiches for Drew and I while he circled the block; by 11am I was doing almost 100 miles an hour on the straight, wind farm covered rises and golden grazing land that surround the i90. And all around me, the warm wind that felt so strange for this time of year. I stepped out of the car near Moses Lake and the dry grass scent of late summer hit me like a sauna. Where was Fall? I wondered.

Idaho, as well, was not what I expected. As we crossed the border, clouds and rain hemmed in the road and the pines gave way to cedar, a carpet of moss and tamarack. The forest continued all the way through the top end of the state. No potato fields, no wheat, no chasing the harvest up the continent, as that beautiful article in Harper's told of, years ago. After I crossed over the pass near Coeur d'Alene, cedars changed to black spruce and then back to high mountain pine--untouched, as far as I could see, by mountain pine beetle. Sage brush and cactus reappeared.

My friends Meera Subramanian and Rusty, who I have met met here for two days of hiking and, hopefully, raptor banding, before the Society for Environmental Journalists' annual conference begins, explained to me that Missoula County's lack of topsoil is due to the glacier movement and melting that occured during the last ice ages. As the ice melted, it took the sediment with it down into the Walla Walla region of Washington, where the topsoil is eight feet deep in some areas.

Lucky them; hardscrabble but beautiful Missoula. As I drove into town, the first thing that greeted me was a giant "350" pinned or placed onto a hillside above town. Yesterday was 10-10-10, the grand culmination of the 350 parts (of carbon) per million movement. 350 is the number over which we cannot go, if we expect the world to survive and look anything like what we know it to be at present. Beyond this level of carbon in the atmosphere, mass extinction and the extreme effects of global warming may render the world uninhabitable. I joined Rusty and Meera on the B&B by the river that we're staying in for the next two nights. We drank wine and ate cheese on the wide wooden porch; the warm wind continued into late evening and made the river flow both ways.