Apologies to regular readers (Hi Mom!) that I have not been putting a lot of content on this blog recently. The campaign is in full swing, we are still doing our regular City Council stuff, and I have another job that keeps me occupied. Hopefully back to regular programming in later October. In the meantime, I am talking more about campaign stuff on my campaign Facebook page, and on the my campaign website and trying to keep this page about City stuff that isn’t campaigning.
However, I thought it apropos to provide a quick update on the annual Union of BC Municipalities meeting. I was not able to attend this year, mostly due to work and Council commitments. I did go up there on September 10th (disclosure: on the City’s dime) to attend the BC Municipal Climate Leadership Council quarterly meeting, and the Minister’s breakfast that is hosted by that Council (of which I am a member). It was a productive meeting, and we were able to discuss the BCMCLC’s response to the Province’s Clean Growth Intentions Paper, which was both supportive of the work the province wants to do, and suggestive of some further steps the province could take to support local governments in reaching the aggressive greenhouse gas reduction goals that are required to meet Canada’s Paris targets.
I then returned to Whistler on Wednesday (not on the City’s dime this time) to attend the Lower Mainland LGA meeting (I am a vice president) and to present the annual Community Energy Association awards to communities taking exceptional efforts to reduce their energy use and greenhouse gas emissions. In my role as Chair of the CEA, it was my honour to share the awarding duties with the Minister of Environment and Climate Change Strategy. I also had the opportunity to give one of the awards to the Mayor of Nelson for their Solar Garden project –and let her know that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, demonstrated by New Westminster copying their model for our own Solar Garden project.
The good news coming out the UBCM is that some resolutions we sent to be debated were passed by the membership of UBCM. These were:
B-8: Alert Ready Emergency Alert System
… be it resolved that UBCM works with the Province of British Columbia to provide access to the Alert Ready (emergency alert) system to local governments in order to allow them to broadcast critical and potentially life threatening alerts to residents of their respective communities using the framework of the Alert Ready System.
B-54: Cannabis and Harmonizing Smoking Regulations
… be it resolved that UBCM urge the Provincial Government of British Columbia to extend the prescribed distance from a doorway, window, or air intake in which a person must not smoke tobacco, hold lighted tobacco, use an e-cigarette or hold an activated e-cigarette from 6 meters to 7.5 meters and prohibit smoking in all public parks by amending the Tobacco and Vapour Control Regulations and by ensuring the corresponding distances prescribed in the Cannabis Control and Licensing Regulations are the same.
And: B-102: Updating the BC Motor Vehicle Act to Improve Safety for All Road Users
… be it resolved that the provincial government be requested to support modernization of the Motor Vehicle Act, addressing the recommendations in the Road Safety Law Reform Group of BC Position Paper entitled “Modernizing the BC Motor Vehicle Act” to enhance safety for all road users.
I have to admit, I’m pretty chuffed about that last one.
Howdy. Two questions having just moved here from Vancouver’s West End.
1. Why are the street trees so short? Is it just time (but I thought this city was older) or the species? The streets are really hot without that shade.
2. At 6th and Carnarvon, pedestrians don’t get to cross without pressing the button. Even if pedestrians are crossing the same way on the other side. 2b. Also why aren’t your beg buttons those buttonless ones like you have for the bikes? Those are better. 2c. Also why does 6th and C have beg buttons at all? Just let peds cross with green cars always.
Welcome to New West. I would love to hear more about your decision to move here from our western suburb, and your experiences since making the shift. The theme of my answers to the above will be “A City is always a work in progress”. We are now headed the right direction, but have more work to do.
1: (caveat: I’m not an arbourist, but I have a couple of suppositions) First, the trees may be younger than you are used to. The City of New Westminster, with the exception of Queens Park (the neighbourhood) and a few parts of Glenbrooke North and Sapperton, really lost the plot on street trees a few decades ago. It may have been the fashion of the time, the cost of development, a mandate by the electrical utility, or just short-term thinking, but our urban forest was cut back in a devastating way. Our canopy cover City-wide is less than 18%, which is similar to Vancouver, but low compared to much of North America. It was only a few years ago when New Westminster introduced a new Urban Forest Management Strategy, and started to a) proactively protect the trees we have; and b) ramp up plans to plant trees and bring back more canopy cover. Unfortunately, the ultimate results of this will not be seen for another decade or two. That said, although the best time to plant a tree is 20 years ago, the second best time is today, and we are getting on it.
That said, it is also possible that trees are smaller above ground because they are smaller underground. Trees need healthy root systems to prosper, and our 150-year-old streets and sidewalks and utility corridors mean that the area of healthy nutrient-rich and porous soil around many of our newer trees is limited. This may mean staff decided to plant diminutive tree species to respect the available growing area, or it may be that the lack of soil is keeping the tree from meeting its ultimate size. There is a bunch of new engineering practice around creating “soil cells” as part of new street tree installations, but see last paragraph about 20 years.
2: (Mostly) because the City is old, doesn’t have endless money, and until recently, it wasn’t a priority.
Beg Buttons (the pejorative name given by pedestrian advocates to buttons that must be pushed by pedestrians in order for the red hand to become the white man at light-controlled intersections when the cars get a green light) were all the rage at one time, because everybody important drove, and pedestrians were just another thing that needed to be managed within car spaces to get traffic moving.
Our new Master Transportation Plan, however, prioritizes pedestrians for the first time, so we are working on changing these things. That said, Beg Buttons can still serve a purpose for system-wide traffic management in more pedestrian-oriented urban areas. They can assure that crossing times for wider roads are adequate for slower pedestrians when they are present, and not too long when they are not. They also make the audible crossing signal for the hearing impaired work better. As always, the devil is in the details.
In some places, we still have older Beg Buttons (even old-style small-button ones in place of the larger panel-type ones) in places where more modern treatments would be appropriate. These are being replaced as budgets allow on a priority basis. Every year, Transportation staff do a review of all identified crossing improvement needs, place some draft priorities on them based on safety, potential to dovetail with bigger projects or adjacent development, and other factors. They pass that priority list through the Advisory Committee for Transit, Bicycles and Pedestrians, the Access Ability Advisory Committee, and the Neighbourhood Transportation Advisory Committee, then spend their budget making the changes. Sometimes that means curb bulges, marked cross walks, lighting changes or updating the signal operations. All of these things are ridiculously expensive, hence the need to set priorities.
In some places, the Beg Buttons will remain (although I hope we will eventually migrate all to the more accessible panel-type ones) because they are a useful tool. If well applied, they make crossing safer for pedestrians, especially in lower-pedestrian-traffic areas. However, when they are not well applied (as you point out a 6th and Carnarvon, and I can point out a few more in the City), they create an impression to pedestrians that are not a priority in our public spaces, and sometimes go so far as to create inconvenient barriers to pedestrians. Perhaps a good example is all of the crossings along Columbia Street in Downtown, where there is an almost constant east-west flow of pedestrians, and pedestrians should see the white walking guy every time cars get a green light.
I wanted to comment a bit on this story. Kinder Morgan is apparently using an industrial lot in the Braid Industrial Area of New Westminster for staging and equipment storage as part of the Trans Mountain Pipeline Extension Project. That has caused some people to send me correspondence around why the City is allowing this, people asking me why I am not opposing the pipeline. I replied to a Facebook Post, but I think this issue is important enough for me to expand a bit on it here on my blog.
The site within New West being used by Kinder Morgan is on Port of Vancouver land, not land where the City has any jurisdiction. Council members were very recently made aware this was happening, but we do not have any regulatory authority around land use on Port lands, as only the Federal Government can issue or withhold those permits. We were not involved in the planning for this, and we have not had any formal correspondence on the issue from the proponent or the Port.
This City and this Council have been involved in the NEB review of the Kinder Morgan pipeline from the onset. The City acted as an intervenor in the NEB review, raised a number of significant concerns during the process, and continues to emphasize these concerns since. Not the least of these concerns is the potential for impacts on the Brunette River and its riparian areas.
We have supported court cases challenging this project and the process towards its approval. The NEB and the Federal Governments (past and present) have demonstrated no interest in our position, nor do I feel they have adequately addressed our concerns. It is actually worse than that, as there were recent hearings in Burnaby to review some of the still-unresolved questions about the routing of the new pipeline along New Westminster’s border (and within the Brunette River riparian zone) and the NEB didn’t even invite New Westminster to attend. I was refused entry to the hearings when I showed up. They were held behind closed doors, and as the routing was some 30m outside of our City, my being able to even listen to the conversation was not seen as relevant. At least the Harper Government invited us into the room to be ignored.
I cannot speak for all of Council, nor is this the “official position” of the City, but I have been involved in this process for several years now. I bring a significant amount of professional and technical experience to this, having provided expert evidence as an Environmental Scientist to several Environmental Assessments in my career. I am concerned about the pipeline, but I am much, much more angry about the unaccountable and unacceptable process that has taken us to this point. In the last Federal election we were promised that the industry-focused reviews brought in by the Harper Government would be replaced; that didn’t happen. We were told that community consultations would be opened up, and that consent from communities would be sought; that didn’t happen. We were told that a new era of reconciliation would be ushered in before we impose unsustainable and damaging infrastructure projects to unceded lands; that didn’t happen. We were told that subsidies to sunset oil industrial development would end and a new energy vision would be offered; that didn’t happen.
Concomitant to being on City Council, I am involved with more than a few other projects. Two of these are membership in the BC Municipal Climate Leadership Council, and Board Member of the Community Energy Association. These two organizations collaborated last week to put on the first Climate Leadership Institute conference in Richmond. If you are a New Westminster resident, you paid for me to attend, so here is my report on what you got for your 1/3 of a penny each.
(I feel I need to mention here that it was a pretty intensive program, and I have dozens of pages of notes, so I need to do quite a bit of distilling. Everything below if my filtered impression of the program, and may not reflect another person’s experience, and every quote is a paraphrase from memory or scribbled notes!)
This was an interesting 2.5-day event that brought together local government elected officials from across BC, municipal staff working in energy and emissions policy, and subject matter experts across the broad spectrum of energy efficiency and climate change policy. The format was a repeated pattern of a keynote presentation, a panel discussion, then an intensive break-out conversation where the participants could share their local successes and challenges related to the topics covered by the panels. This schedule drove collaborative thinking, shared learning, and more than a little inspiration.
The first session was on communications – how do we lead productive conversations on this politically difficult topic? Aside from some pretty useful self-reflection on how we are communicating personally and on the social media (Do we spout facts, or talk about our beliefs? Are we open to being wrong? Are you silent for fear of being judged?) we heard from some organizations who are learning how to effectively lead conversations: the Pembina Institute, the BC Sustainable Energy Association, Clean Energy Canada. We also discussed current communication challenges related to climate policy: How do you talk to a denier – or do you even bother? Does “Decongestion Charging” mean anything to anyone? With so much bad info on Social Media, how to react?
My takeaways from this were not profound, except in that I recognize I have shifted a bit on this blog and in public from speaking my passions to speaking facts and pragmatics. I think there is a space for the latter – I strive to be factual – but it is the first part that matters, and makes people want to listen to or read my ideas. I gotta get that passion back…
The second session was opened by former Premier and Mayor of Vancouver Mike Harcourt. He gave a pretty interesting “inside basebell” historic run-down of the politics of Greater Vancouver’s regional transportation and infrastructure planning, from Expo86 to today. He spoke of the politician’s paradox – the need to have a long term vision and also deliver in the short term to get re-elected so that vision can be realized. In the end, we all fail, but can move the baton forward, and good work can get done (or undone) by those with the ability to project a vision.
This led to a panel discussion on policy creation an implementation within complex (and often political) organizations. It was less about specific ideas (although some ideas I’ll talk about later arose here), and more about how to champion ideas through an organization as complex as a City. Do we make climate action part of a strategic plan? What happens when your strategic plan gets old (as happens quickly in this fast-moving tech-driven policy area)? What point to making new plans if you haven’t the budget or political capital to see it implemented? We also talked quite a bit about how we measure and report out the results of climate policy, in order to assure our staff are accountable to our council, and our Council is accountable to the public that elect them.
The third panel brought together energy managers from North Vancouver, East Kootenay, Richmond, Campbell River and our own New Westminster to talk about initiatives unique to each community that was making a difference in the their community in reducing energy use or emissions. We were presented a variety of policy tools, technology approaches, and strategies – including the successes and the challenges. I did note that New Westminster’s Urban Solar Garden got quite a bit of interest from other regions and communities.
We had a couple of powerful presentations on the future of global energy systems and on bringing the changes home to our communities in meaningful ways. I really need to write a separate blog post about this, because it takes us to interesting places. In short, the world’s energy economy is changing much faster than we ever thought possible. Canada’s National Energy Board, the agency that regulates the oil and gas industry and approves pipelines recently shifted their prediction of the year when Canada will hit peak oil. Last year, they said after 2040; this year they say 2019. Think about the meaning of that on every aspect of our economy. It’s happening, the only question is whether we will be ready. I’m looking at you, Jason Kenny.
On the last day, there were break-out sessions that explored in depth some of the topics not yet covered by the conference (in my case, we talked about food security, and the role that food systems play in our community energy and emissions goals). We also had presentations from the Provincial Government, the Federation of Canadian Municipalities, and the Real Estate Foundation of BC, all of who outlined grant opportunities local governments can use to develop studies, to implement new programs, or even for capital costs that will result in reduced energy use and emissions.
Finally, a theme I took away from the entire conference was one of timescales. On one hand, we need to think long-game in energy reduction and community emissions. We cannot replace our vehicle fleet in a year, or our building systems in a decade. On the other hand, things are moving fast. Electrical vehicle technology is growing at an exponential rate, as is building insulation and energy system technology. The prices for what was until recently “bleeding edge” technology are dropping fast, as China invests heavily in solar systems and vehicle tech is pushing storage systems forward. Where putting off infrastructure improvement was once fiscally prudent, the pay-back time for more efficient systems is shifting that equation.
As much as we need to think long-term, there has never a better time than now to take real action.
This proposal to put a potash storage and transportation facility on the Surrey-side banks of the Fraser river seems absurd!
I have recent made the New West and the Fraser river my home and come to realize how much of it is surrounded with beautiful marshlands and resident wild life – despite the Fraser being a working river. I see seals bobbing their heads out of the water everyday from my window.
Our efforts need to be to preserve and clean up this beautiful surrounding; not further pollute it with such harmful proposed projects.
What is the City’s stance and influence on the proposed project?
The first I heard of a plan to move potash through Fraser Surrey Docks was when a few residents of Queensborough started sending me e-mails. The general theme of these e-mails was “What is the Port trying to pull here!?” Hopefully I can explain, although I have not heard a peep from the Port (officially or informally) about this project, so most everything I know you can read yourself at the Port’s information website about the project.
It appears that one of the world’s largest mining companies, BHP Billiton, wants to build a facility in Surrey to move potash off of train cars and into bulk carrier ships for export. Much like the previous coal terminal facility proposed for Fraser Surrey Docks, this facility will be required to go through the Port’s own Environmental Review process, instead of a Federal Environmental Assessment. This procedure exists because of legislative changes made by Stephen Harper’s Conservative government that decimated the Canadian Environmental Assessment Act – changes Justin Trudeau’s Liberal Government seems in no rush to address despite significant election promises to the effect. But I digress.
Upon hearing about this proposal, my initial questions were around what it means for the Coal Terminal project. That project has already been approved by the Port, although that approval is still being challenged in court. My cursory look at the proposed coal terminal drawings:
…and the drawings for the proposed potash terminal:
…suggest to me that they do not share operational footprint, except for some rail loop infrastructure. So I am operating under the assumption that potash terminal approval would not mean coal terminal termination. We should be so lucky.
So what do we know about potash? It is mined from evaporate deposits under Saskatchewan; it is mostly potassium chloride with less than 5% sodium chloride and trace amounts of other minerals; it is primarily used for fertilizer, although it is also used in metals refining and other industrial processes. It is no more toxic that table salt, isn’t flammable, isn’t carcinogenic, and isn’t a particularly nasty environmental contaminant in soil or water. There are some well-understood and generally well mitigated environmental impacts from mining. After spending a few hours reading up on potash and its handling, finding science-based sources I consider reliable and relatively unbiased, there is little in my Environmental Geoscientist experience that causes me great concern about this material being handled in or moved through my neighbourhood.
There will be impacts, no doubt. Train traffic, noise, light, and potentially dust (though potash is usually handled though a pretty closed system due it its solubility). The Port review process (as sketchy as it is) should provide us some ability to provide input to the Port about how we want these potential issues mitigated. You can learn about the project and review process by attending an Open House at the Fraser River Discovery Centre on Thursday evening, you can read the project materials here, or you can go to the BHP project site here and provide some feedback directly. For further research, I might reach out to some council colleagues on the North Shore where potash has been handled for years to see what concerns it has caused in their communities.
That said, you asked a specific question, with pretty simple answers: Council has not been formally asked to opine on the project yet (any more than any other stakeholder), haven’t received any reports, and haven’t really discussed it, so the City doesn’t yet have a stance on the project. Our influence as a stakeholder is limited – as we learned from the coal terminal project where our firm opposition did not prevent the project from being approved. I am sure we will participate in the review process, but it would be premature for me to speak on behalf of all of Council on what the City’s position will be.
Long-time readers (Hi Mom!) will remember that I got involved in this entire blog thing through an environmental lens. When I moved my constant beaking off onto the internet back in 2010, I had been involved with groups in New West and regionally who were trying to promote sustainability and environmental protection, in my profession, in the community, and in politics.
At the time, New West Council was making significant shifts towards better environmental policy. A few of the newer members of Council, led by some young whippersnapper named Cote, were putting environmental issues on the agenda. The City was adopting environmental policies, hired an Environmental Coordinator, and was moving into developing a sustainability framework that would become Envision2032.
The City of New West considers itself a leader in environmental initiatives, however I have yet to see a local government that doesn’t consider itself a leader on this front. That may sound critical, but it is really more a reflection of the sometimes poorly-defined and always evolving concept of environmental sustainability. Local governments (like most organizations, and most people for that matter) emphasize the good things they are doing and progress they are making, but are commonly blind to the things they are not doing. When it comes to something like environmental sustainability, consistent re-evaluation of goals and metrics is the only way to avoid comfortable smugness.
Recognizing this, the City is inviting you to help us move forward on environmental policy. Council has asked staff to review what we are doing, and what we can do better – both a gap analysis and reality check. And we are asking you to help.
This week (October 25th!) there will be a Public Event called Royal City / Green City, where we are going to get people into a room to talk about where our environmental policies are, and where they need to be. We are bringing together some subject matter experts to provide inspiration, and perhaps to push us in uncomfortable directions. We will also be asking all attendees to react to what they hear, and push the City. It is completely free and open to everyone, whether you work, live, study or play in New West. We do ask that you register ahead of time so we can properly plan for the numbers who will arrive, because this will be an interactive event. You can register here:
Maybe to get the creative juices flowing, I want to challenge the three- (or increasingly four-) pillar idea model of sustainability. This has become the standard model of suggesting sustainability is a balance between three competing forces – protection of the environment, growth of the economy, and maintenance of societal standards. Diagrammatically, it usually looks like this (copied from Envision2032):
This has always caused me to itch, because I have never felt it accurately reflects the interdependence between the three pillars. Without a sustained environment, we cannot have an economy or a society. Take that one pillar away, the other two disappear. Similarly, our economy exists within, and is defined by, the structures of our society. It cannot exist without a societal structure, which is, in turn, defined by the environment in which we live. In my mind (and I’m not the only person to suggest this) the three pillars should be drawn like this:Actions, technologies, and organizations impact our economy, which in turn shape our society, which in turn impact the greater natural environment. When we shape policies, when we evaluate the worth of technology or price individual actions, we are using economic tools to adjust the shape of our society. If that re-shaping supports the protection of the natural environment in a way that doesn’t constrain future societies from access to natural resources, then we can call those actions “sustainable”.
Clearly, I’m not a philosopher, so come out on October 25th and tell me how I am wrong!
This is part 3 on my reporting out on what I did at the 2017 UBCM conference. Part 2 is here.
My third day at UBCM had less of an educational component, more of a political one.
One aspect of UBCM is an opportunity for Local Government elected types and staff to meet with Provincial Government elected types and staff, so we can raise important issues, lobby for support for our initiatives or programs, or learn about how provincial government programs are going to impact us. These meetings are arranged ahead of time, and with hundreds of local governments in attendance and only so many provincial folks to go around, the scheduling is pretty difficult. Meetings are generally 15 minutes to a half an hour, and rarely result in immediate action on issues – especially this year with a new government so early in their mandate.
Part of having a collaborative approach on Council that extends to working with senior governments, we split up responsibilities for these meetings among the Council Members attending UBCM, with the Mayor taking the lead at most meetings. I was able to take part in meetings regarding transportation topics, on the future of childcare in New West and the provincial role in supporting it, and on several community energy and emission reduction initiatives.
Several members of New West Council and a few of our planning staff also had a sit-down meeting with representatives of AirBnB. Clearly, AirBnB are working all levels of government in Canada to assure their business model is not regulated out of existence, and (unlike Uber), this is an area where Local Governments can exercise some regulatory control, through Zoning and Business Licensing. They came prepared to talk to any city who would listen, including providing local stats. In New Westminster (according to AirBnB, there are 130 active hosts, with the average host opening a room for 54 nights a year, for a total length of stay of between 4 and 5 days. The case they were making is that AirBnB contributes to the local economy (guests frequent local restaurants, pubs, and stores) and make housing more affordable for some people, by providing a “mortgage helper”.
We were pretty frank with AirBnB, we are concerned about the impact on our affordable housing stock, about violations of our business license and zoning laws, and about some livability concerns expressed by community members. We had a good discussion about other jurisdictions (such as Nelson and Tofino) and the strengths and weaknesses of their attempts at regulating this platform. It should be no surprise that some concerns that AirBnb raise about different regulatory models are very different that the concerns we hear in some parts of the community. There is also, I think, a bit of a disconnect between AirBnB’s interest in operating within a better regulatory framework, and the limits they put on how they could help local government with that framework- often citing (debatable) privacy issues.
This is a topic I am interested in, and am not getting a lot of traction in my calls for the City to take a more proactive approach. I think there is a role for supporting expanded BnBs in our community (Really, AirBnB is just a platform, not the core business), especially as we have so few Hotel Rooms, no “Hotel Tax” to support our Tourism efforts, and so many heritage and cultural aspects that should make us a popular destination. But with our rental vacancy rate below 0.5%, renovictions burgeoning on crisis, and so many challenges maintaining our affordable housing stock, the answers here are not easy.
Wednesday was also the first day of Resolutions for UBCM 2017 – but I’ll talk about those in a follow-up post.
The afternoon saw several “Provincial Cabinet Town Halls” which were an interesting model for engagement by the new government. There were four Panels (Health and Safety; Investing in People; Infrastructure and Economic Development; and Job, Resources, and Green Communities), each headed by 5 or 6 members of the new Provincial Cabinet. They gave a brief intro to their Mandate Letters, and where they see their files helping Local Government, then the floor was opened in a Town all style for us to grill them on any topic we liked.
I attended the Jobs, Etc. session, where the Ministers of Agriculture, Energy & Mines, FLNROrd, Environment, and Jobs&Trade were in attendance. The introductory conversations were pretty high-level, with Minister Popham clearly excited about protecting the ALR, Minister Mungall equally excited about the future of mining and green energy in the province, and Minister Donaldson proud of the provincial response to the wildfires of the summer (and giving significant props to his predecessor John Rustad for working hard to not let the transition impact firefighting efforts).
Questions given to the Ministers were wide-reaching, including yet another visit from the same Mayor from a certain agriculture-focused municipality clutching pearls over marijuana taking over prime farmland already overwrought with freeways and million-square-foot factory greenhouses (though she didn’t put it that way), to concerns about the future of northeast BC’s ample natural gas resources.
On that final point, I recognized a place where our senior governments are sending mixed messages. Where the Federal Government (in defending the Trans Mountain Pipeline Expansion) is saying downstream greenhouse gas emissions of pipeline products are not our problem, because they are burned elsewhere, the BC Government (including, alas, the new government) are insisting that we need to support LNG because it will reduce overall emissions in the downstream by offsetting coal in the target markets. Am I the only one who sees the contradiction here?
The annual UBCM Conference was in Vancouver last week, and I attended for only the second time in my term as a City Councillor. I reported here, here, and here on my impressions from last year, but I was among those going into this year with different expectations, what with a fresh new provincial government, and one that has emphasized the importance of working with Local Governments. Indeed, I expect many local government types had expectations going in they were unrealistically high, but let’s see where this went.
I will drag this out across a few blog posts, as it was a jammed week. I’ll try to keep it concise, though this may get pretty wonkish for some regular readers. There was a lot to learn this year, and since the citizens of New Westminster pay my registration, I think it is important to report out so you know what you got for that money.
Monday is a bit of a pre-conference day, as the conference in earnest begins on Tuesday, but I attended two education sessions on Monday, and am glad I did.
The morning session was on Cannabis Regulations from a Local Government Perspective. There were presentations from the new Minister of Public Safety and Solicitor General Mike Farnworth, Provincial Health Officer Dr. Perry Kendall, and Sukhbir Manhas, a Lawyer specializing in Municipal Law who put the legal framework in perspective. This was followed by a Panel Discussion with four Mayors from around the Province and a bit of a Q & A session.
It is clear that marijuana for recreational consumption will be legal federally in July of 2018. We also know that the federal government will be responsible for the regulation of production of marijuana, and the provinces will be responsible for regulating wholesale and retail distribution of product, regulating consumption, and for enforcement. It is not clear what role Local Governments will play, except in that we are “Creatures of the Province”, and will be given our roles either through direct regulation or by a local desire to fill a regulatory gap left by provincial action.
It was an interesting session, with a lot of topics discussed, but short version is that the Minister made the commitment to open public consultation and to engaging Local Governments in a constructive way to address our concerns. There will clearly be economic impacts of any regulation. But the Minister was warned by other jurisdictions with which he has been consulting (including Washington State and Colorado) that revenue generation cannot be the driver of regulation, or the important public policy implications can fall by the wayside while short-term costs of setting up the regulatory regime are often underestimated. There will be revenue, but perhaps the message is that we shouldn’t be in a rush to spend it until we understand its character.
Dr. Kendall gave us some interesting perspectives about the public health implications of different policy directions – what age is the right age to permit cannabis use? What to do about public smoking rules, and what to do with multi-unit buildings? How to manage edibles? How do we provide the right price-quality-convenience balance that we effectively cut organized crime out of the supply chain? Legislation must balance these out if we wish to have the best public health outcomes. He presented this compelling graph:
In short, if your interest is in managing public health impacts, a well-regulated market is better than a completely unregulated market (like cigarettes used to be) or blanket prohibition (like Cannabis is now) – but finding that middle is the delicate balance we need to strive for. The Centre for Addiction and Mental Health have provided some pretty good guidelines, and research in existing and potential policy tools, but we have yet to see what advice the federal government will be taking.
Mr. Minhas and the Mayors’ Panel both discussed some of the challenges and opportunities for local governments coming out of this, and the importance of us coordinating with the province prior to next July. We need to be ready for the inevitable change that is coming, if only so we are ready to address the inevitable community concerns in areas that Local Governments have jurisdiction – land use, business regulation, and nuisance management. Our tools are limited, but are most effective if we get ahead of the curve.
Unfortunately, there is lots of evidence, especially from the Q&A session, that this is an area where many local government attitudes lag far behind the progressive public policy work of other jurisdictions and even public perception. From the lame Cheech & Chong joke that opened the session to one long-serving Mayor of an certain agriculture-intensive Lower Mainland Municipality expressing fear that her City will become the “Pot Capital of BC” (causing me to question if she would feel that worried if it became the Craft Brewing Capital of BC, or the Winery Capital of BC?), it is clear that attitudes about cannabis will not change as quickly as the regulation of it will – which suggests some difficult conversations ahead.
My second session on Monday was on Green Innovation and new Environmental Policies. We had a presentations from Jonathan Wilkinson, the Parliamentary Secretary to the federal Minister of Environment and Climate Change, and from George Heyman, the new provincial Minister of Environment and Climate Change Strategy. They talked mostly of senior governments’ commitment to meeting the Paris Agreement goals to reduce emissions, and both acknowledged the role local governments will need to play to meet those goals.
A statistic oft repeated during UBCM was that local governments in Canada are responsible for about 66% of infrastructure, create about 50% of all emissions, but only receive about 6% of all tax revenue. This results in some pretty obvious math: if we want to reduce emissions, we need to update that infrastructure, which is going to cost money.
Which brought us to the topic of grants. There were some details on the Federal Build Canada Infrastructure Fund, and the process being developed through the Provincial Government to make these funds available to local governments. These funds may be applicable to help us fund a few projects in New Westminster where we are planning to reduce the emissions by updating our infrastructure (Canada Games Pool is our single largest emission source) or wish to shift the community to lower-carbon energy sources (The proposed District Energy Utility for Sapperton would replace gas-fired boilers for and expanded RCH and could provide ample carbon-free baseload heat for dozens of high-density residential and commercial developments).
This was followed by Panels on actions that some Local Governments are taking to reduce emissions or modernize their energy supply – from embedding energy sustainability in their OCP (done!) to helping strata complexes bring electric vehicle charging on-line, to implementing the Step Code to promote more energy efficient buildings.
Actually, there was a lot of talk about electricity and the transportation sector, from private cars to transit to heavy trucks. Some question whether the advances in vehicles are too fast compared to our ability to provide the infrastructure to support the shift. According to BC Hydro, if all of the 2.4 Million light-duty vehicles in British Columbia could be replaced with EVs today, and it would only result in a 19% increase in base load. As EV charging predominantly happens when other loads on the system are not high, (i.e. at night), this is less of a problem at the generation end than some may have you believe. On a per-year basis, the average Tesla uses about half the electricity as the average hot tub. Let that sink in for a bit.
The reality is we cannot build the plugs for all these vehicles fast enough for it to become a problem in the short term.
I also learned this: EV or PEV or ZEV or CEV = PHEV + BEV.
In the electric car world, that’s a funny joke.
Finally, I want to note that today’s two sessions were informative, but I couldn’t help but notice I saw 23 presenters and panelists over the two sessions. Five of them were female, while two others were visible minorities.
With all of the excitement around elections, renewed commitments to transit funding somewhat confounded by unclear priorities around the application of road tolling, it is easy to forget the Pattullo Bridge is falling down and scheduled to be replaced very soon. At this point, it is unclear how the replacement will be funded, but it is clear right now that the existing structure is unlikely to be carrying traffic in 2023, so unless they get busy planning the replacement, we will be entering uncharted territory.
The need for an EA is mandated by the province, and the EA itself is run by the Environmental Assessment Office, not by Translink. It is a fairly tightly regulated process, with a structure and firm timelines, so if you at all care about the Pattullo (and I think most people in New West fall under this category), you might want to take your chance to comment while they are open. I thought I might outline the process a bit here, not to tell you what to comment on, but to help you understand the process so your comments have the best chance of being heard.
The first stage of any EA is the pre-application stage when the terms of the EA are determined. The primary purpose of this stage is to evaluate what impacts (positive or negative) will be created by the project, and what are the potential targets of these impacts – so “sediment in the river” is a potential impact of construction work, and “fisheries habitat” is a potential recipient of that impact. The second stage is the actual “Assessment”, where these potential impacts are assessed to determine if they are real, and then to make adequate mitigation of these impacts a condition on moving forward with the project. To have a project (any project, be it a bridge, a mine, or a pipeline) refused an EA certificate would be very unusual. The more likely process for an EA to kill a project would be to create conditions that make the cost or hassle of mitigating an impact so high that the proponent will decide not to proceed. I don’t think that will be the case here.
By necessity, an EA has to have a project to review. So the proponent has to provide a project description to hang the assessment on. It appears, from the preliminary documentation provided by TransLink to the EAO, that project is “a new four-lane bridge funded primarily by user pricing” and “located north and upstream of the existing bridge, its approaches will connect to McBride Boulevard in New Westminster and the King George Boulevard in Surrey” , which is consistent with the public consultation work TransLink has done to date and with the MOU between TransLink, Surrey, and New Westminster. This is important to recognize, because comments like “they need to build 8 lanes for future capacity” or “they should build the bridge in a different location” are not relevant to the EA. Those arguments were made, and discussions had, over the last 5 years while the project was being developed, they are not the current plan, and the EA is not the process through which a radical change of plan will come about. In essence, the question in the EA is not “how best to connect Surrey to New West by roads”, it is “what impact will this 4-lane bridge proximal to the existing one have”. Comments addressing the first question are interesting, but not relevant to this process.
So the comments the EA needs right now are pretty limited, but foundational to the EA to come. Have TransLink and the EAO appropriately identified potential impacts? How do you think the proposed project will impact your life, the livability of your neighbourhood? What concerns you about the project as proposed? If you want TransLink (or other parties, such as the Ministry of Environment) to address something as part of this project, now is the time to ask, so it can get into the EA early, and the proponent has an opportunity to properly address it.
Picking a random example, I have talked in the past about how the Pattullo is an iconic structure. It has significant heritage value for the City of New Westminster. It is hard to finds a picture or photo of the City over the last 75 years that doesn’t feature the large orange arch defining the skyline. There is a value to that for our community. I don’t know how the EAO or TransLink can address that value, or what kind of mitigation can happen, but if we don’t raise that as an issue important to our community now, it will not get into the EA review, and an opportunity to discuss that aspect of the design of the bridge will be lost.
There is another issue that I hope will become clearer as the project EA proceeds, and this might be a bit wonkish. How valid are the traffic modelling assumptions baked into the assessment?
Transportation Planners and City Planners understand that traffic is impacted by induced demand. If we build a 4-lane bridge to replace an existing 4-lane bridge, there will be no more than a marginal increase in traffic counts (perhaps induced by a wider, safer, bridge configuration). That small increase in traffic is fundamental to a bunch of other impacts that will be measured – air quality impacts, noise and vibration, economic impacts, etc. However, if the traffic numbers coming out of this model are based on false assumptions about traffic, then all of the resultant data will be similarly flawed, and mitigation will not be appropriate. With all due respect to our regional transportation planners, the last two major bridges built in this region have completely failed to reach modelled traffic volumes – let’s not three-peat that mistake here.
So if this bridge is being built to accommodate future expansion to 6 lanes, how does that increase in traffic capacity (and concomitant induced demand) change those impacts, and (more importantly at this stage) is that being assessed as part of this project?
Then we have to raise the uncomfortable subject of tolls. The MOU and Project Definition both call for a tolled bridge, and the recent election seemed to indicate the province is now cold on the idea of bridge tolls. There is some time (this bridge will not be built until 2022 at the most ambitious rate) for the region’s Mayors to work up a regional road pricing scheme as envisioned in the 10-year plan, but that is something different than specific tolls on this bridge. As we have learned from recent experience, tolls significantly decrease demand for bridge infrastructure, so if this EA is based on traffic models based on toll aversion behavior of drivers, is that base assumption still valid? This is the type of thing we need clarity on right now.
Finally, there is an area of the EA where the cumulative impacts of multiple concurrent projects can enter into the assessment. The idea here is that one project may have a small, but acceptable impact on a valued part of the environment, but 10 similar projects on the same river will have a bigger impact. However, this is a transportation project, so cumulative impacts may be thought of in a different light. What impact will the (potential) cancelling of the Massey Bridge have on regional transportation (and the resultant traffic modelling?). Perhaps more important, what impact will SkyTrain/Light Rail in Surrey have on regional transportation patterns, and the assumptions feeding the transportation plan?
So that is long way of saying, if you care about the Pattullo Bridge and the impact its replacement will have on New Westminster, do a bit of reading here, and take the time to provide some comments to the EAO before the end of business on July 26. Then hold tight and wait until early 2018 when the full EA process starts.
You may have heard of anecdote of the Texas Sharpshooter. He is generally portrayed as a cocky fella standing in a farmyard shooting at the side of the barn. Once his bullets are exhausted, he walks over to the barn, identifies the tightest cluster of bullet holes, and draws a bulls-eye around them. He then speaks glowingly of his targeting skills.
About five years ago, the Premier was in a tough political situation with the Kinder Morgan pipeline expansion project. She didn’t know which way the political winds were going to blow as she approached her first election. She needed to telegraph general support to satisfy her political contributors, but didn’t want to be caught wearing that approval if things went south. So she pragmatically hedged her bets. She said she would approve the project only if 5 conditions are met. In other words: “I could be convinced”.
At first, the conditions sounded reasonable and concise: Federal environmental assessment approval, Adequate spill protection for land and sea, First Nations agreement, and financial benefit for BC. Five bullets shot towards the barn. It took 5 years for her to finally saunter over there and draw the targets, now declaring them hit.
The problem with what she describes as her “consistent and principled” stand on this project is that it wasn’t any stand at all. One of the conditions was a sure thing (the NEB approval of the project, and I could go on another entire rant about that one – I have in the past!), but the other 4 had no actual measures! They were phantom targets, a blank barn wall waiting for bulls-eyes to be painted.
To use “World-Leading” as the measure for the spill prevention and response plans is, of course, ridiculous. It would be difficult for the nations of the world to have a spill-prevention-off or an Oil Clean Olympics. That said, I have worked on both the Federal (marine) and Provincial (land-based) consultations as part of my previous job. I have reviewed what other jurisdictions do, have read and critiqued position papers, have attended workshops and spill response exercises, and have conferred with experts local and international. That there are major gaps and unaddressed concerns with the spill prevention and response plans is not a controversial opinion.
No plan is perfect, but for them to earn the moniker “World Leading”, I would think you would at least meet the standard set out by Washington State, and it is clear these plans fall far short of those measures. There are places in the world where shipping Afrimax tankers full of diluted bitumen is against the law – a spill prevention measure that really can’t be exceeded. We do not measure up to many other jurisdictions yet, not even close.
But it’s OK. The Premier has drawn the target around the collection of half-baked plans the Province, the Feds and Kinder Morgan have, and has determined they meet her vague test of “World Leading”.
The First Nations condition included the meeting of legal and constitutional requirements, which will be measured by a judge, I guess, but also included undefined opportunities and benefits for First Nations. Despite the Premier’s confidence, we don’t know if the legal and constitutional issues are fully addressed, as many of the groups along the route appear to still be opposed to the project, nor has it been made clear who or what opportunities or benefits agreements have been made. This was tweeted out by a reliable newsgatherer during the announcement:
So I guess the target was 50% of First Nations. Nice to find out after.
Finally, the economic benefit to BC was also never provided a measure. It sounds like the Premier negotiated with Kinder Morgan to assure pipeline jobs go to British Columbians first (which probably violates NAFTA and TILMA, but I digress), and Kinder Morgan will contribute $25-50 Million a year to fund various local environmental programs in the Province, providing the Premier many opportunities to stand in front of banners with her Haida print shawl in the future. The amount is significant, unless you compare it to the $1.5 Billion subsidy to oil pipelines recently announced by Trudeau.
Again, this target was never defined or openly discussed until the day it was announced as being hit. If it sounds like I wanted more, maybe it is because hard negotiations to get money out of oil companies is apparently a BC Liberal strength when it serves their purposes. But that’s just politics.
Recently, a poll was released that showed 54% of BC are in favour of the pipeline. My Facebook algorithm keeps spamming my feed with that poll, and it always seems a shockingly small number to me. This was a poll conducted by the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers, an organization with extremely deep pockets that has served as the primary public speaker in favour of the project. Not only have they and others spent hundreds of millions of dollars on print, internet, radio and tv ads trying to convince us this pipeline is a great idea, They no doubt were able to frame the poll questions in as favourable a light as possible to push towards their desired result. Yet they still only got 50% plus the margin of error in support. Describing this support as anything but tepid would be disingenuous.
However, the Premier has clearly done the math. The ridings in Greater Vancouver and Vancouver Island that most opposed to this project were not likely winnable next election anyway. This approval may even boost Green Party support enough in areas like North Vancouver to assure a few quiet, obedient Liberals can still squeeze through. The great thing about drawing your targets afterwards – the real strength of Texas Sharpshooter politics – is the flexibility. We can have no doubt if polls showed an electoral advantage to opposing this project, those targets would have been drawn on another part of the barn, and our “consistent and principled” Premier would be standing in opposition to the project now. Like she was only a year ago: