Search This Blog

Monday 27 June 2011

Mayday - NL

This is a video I shot and cut of the Mayday-NL Rally on Saturday, June 25th. While I have no preconceptions about it changing anyones mind, I did feel it was important to be there, and I'm glad I can share the experience with those who couldn't make it. It was simply a bad decision.

Thursday 23 June 2011

Of Hurricanes and Hydro Projects.

So it feels like I've been writing about Igor and Muskrat Falls quite a lot lately. But in all fairness to me, and I have to be fair to me :), these are two significant issues currently being discussed that have serious potential to impact all of NL. The other issue is the closure of the SAR Sub-Centre and I'll have more to say, and hopefully show, about that following the rally on Saturday.

Igor Vs O'Brien Vs The Packet
As I mentioned in previous posts here, here and here this issue seems to be something that would be straight forward but yet is not. One would think that the Minister responsible for public safety and communities in NL would be completely open about improving the emergency response based on a significant event such as Igor. If you haven't read it I first suggest you go read this week's edition of The Packet, especially the front page story, the editorial, and the letter to the editor. Oh and also the editorial in today's Telegram. I think you'll see a few unfortunate comments by O'Brien that lead me to feel less then reassured when it comes to the next big storm.

To summarize he has said the following:
  • He wouldn't change a thing.....yet they are conducting an internal review. 
  • Everything went according to plan.....yet there is no actual plan. 
  • He is open to suggestions on improvements.....yet he has openly attacked the only suggestion to come forward to date: to call in the Feds earlier.
  • He has defended the work of staff and volunteers....yet no one ever said anything negative about the contributions of staff or volunteers.

Bottom line and last comment on O'Brien and the Igor response. The staff and volunteers with Salvation Army, Red Cross, fire departments and so on deserve nothing but respect, and for the Minister to drag them into this conversation is a despicable attempt to shield himself from valid criticism. We need to all work together to improve the response. That means good analysis of past actions and constantly improving planning and partnerships with first responders. Period.

Assumptions can be very costly...
I spent just over 4 hours at the Holiday Inn in St. John's yesterday for the NALCOR AGM. It was an enlightening experience. There was a very specific feel to the event as the focus was obviously on the Muskrat Falls project. President and CEO Ed Martin gave a lengthy and detailed presentation on the rationale, details, and financing of the project. The basic crux of the rationale is that power demand in NL is continuously rising and that by 2019 we'll have to turn the lights off because we won't have the power supply We need. Based on that forecast, he says, we need a greater supply of energy, and fast. When they forecasted the two main options for power supply, Muskrat Falls and an Island option of smaller projects, the difference comes out about $2 billion in favor of Muskrat Falls. Therefore it's needed and it's the cheapest option. But...

What happens if those forecasted demand numbers are wrong? They are looking pretty far into the future, 2067 in all I think it was. He indicated that the demand has been rising an average of 2.3% per year since 1970 and they are only forecasting a conservative 0.8% per year until 2067 so the numbers should be reasonable right? Well check the letters to the editor section of today's Telegram and you'll hear a different story. Maurice Adams argues that the increases in the past are inflated because they went back so far. In fact the demand in 1992-95 was about 7500 Gigawatt hours, and in 2011 guess what it is? About 7500 Gigawatt hours. Take a look at this picture I shot of the slide concerning the demand increases. Apologies for the quality but if you click on the image you will get the full size.

If you can see the detail there was indeed constant demand increases from 1970 to 1990 or so. Then the graph levels a little, heads up and then back down again. So over that last 20 years the average increase in demand should be near zero. To be fair we have had the closure of two pulp mills and the Vale Inco site will be coming on line in the near future, but the forecasted demand indicated on the right side of the chart seems to indicate that we will always need to find new sources of energy to meet our insatiable need for huge amounts of power.

My issue is largely that I have a difficult time taking these numbers at face value. I'm not willing to get into a $6 billion dollar project that could double our rates based on a possible forecast. Martin also says that by 2017 our rates are going up by 37% regardless of any mega-hydro project. Again I have doubts about those kinds of assumptions that involve the commodity markets and some pretty big assumptions.

In the end I still want more detail and I need more convincing. The numbers still do not seem to provide the rationale for the cash. There are too many gaps, and I applaud Martin for saying that they still have work to do to nail down the numbers. But I can't help but wonder if we'll be willing to come back down once we've gone half way up that mountain.

Tuesday 21 June 2011

Welcome back Igor

Following a story and an editorial in The Packet the story of the Provincial response began to make the media circles and was one of the topics for conversation on Openline as well. I've had some strong feelings about the response that developed at the time the event took place and this story just helped drag some of it out of me and onto the page here and here, and I figured that would likely be then end of it. Apparently not.

As it made the rounds in the Media the Minister of Municipal Affairs decided he'd had enough and started doing one of the few things he seems to like to do besides pose for pictures beside fire trucks, and that is attack the folks asking the questions. He called in to VOCMs Backtalk, calling the Editor at The Packet "irresponsible" but not once stating how. Apparently he has now written a letter to the paper that will be posted in this Thursday's edition of The Packet, where he repeats his attack, and again without rationale.

Of course this kind of public conversation tends to draw the attention of local bloggers, myself included. Over at Labradore there's this entry, and over at The Sir Robert Bond Papers there's one here, here, and here. Now Bond and Labradore are known anti-PC, or at least anti-Danny in their general approach, but that doesn't affect the quality of the details, just the tone of their arguments.

There's just one more blog to make note of on the issue of Igor, and that's Geoff Meeker's. Geoff writes Meeker on Media for The Telegram, and he writes about issues as they relate to media in NL. I'm a regular reader and I thoroughly enjoy the fact that he often includes interviews in a question and answer format. Geoff's latest offering provides the appropriate backstory, first person detail, and a very focused point. So go read his latest on Minister O'Brien and The Packet here.

So this Igor story just keeps coming back. it's not surprising when there are certainly folks out there who feel it could have been handled a little better, and a Minister and Government who seem to think everything went perfectly. There is always room for improvement. Always. Especially when it comes to emergency planning and response. There's an old saying that goes something like this: "Those who don't understand history are doomed to repeat it." Unfortunately I don't think the Minister understands, and we're the ones who will pay the price when Hurricane Igor's cousin comes to visit.

Friday 17 June 2011

Missing the Point

Hurricane Igor is making a comeback, at least in the news anyway. There are criticisms coming forward around the Provincial Government's response and the delay in engaging the military and the Coast Guard. My 2 cents started with this entry but today it's necessary to add a few more items based on this mornings news reel.

First to the Premier
Today's edition of The Telegram has a front page story 'Premier defends Igor response' and in it Premier Dunderdale says that calling in the Federal resources too early could have made things worse.
"When you just start pulling in people from all over the place without any planning, without any reliance on your own emergency plans and your own emergency response plan, then what you do is create chaos."
The point of my previous post was exactly that we don't have appropriate plans. Either they don't have an appropriate emergency response plan, or they completely ignored it. Whatever the answer the Province did not handle this as well as they could have but both the Premier and Municipal Affairs Minister Kevin O'Brien seem to think everything went like clockwork.

And Now over to the Minister
For those of you who listen to the CBC morning show for the St. John's area, you will have heard Minister O'Brien defend the Provincial response in conversation with John Furlong. (Available Here) The conversation displayed a few interesting things. First is that the Minister was obviously irritated by the gaul of Furlong to ask questions about the response and to even bring up the name of Rev. Squires. Rev. Squires is from Catalina and he has been very outspoken on the Igor response. I got the impression that O'Brien was holding himself back from saying something quite nasty about the Rev.

When asked about the response the Minister touted how the bridges were open in 10 days and that there were staff on the ground and help in place in a few days following the storm. He talked up how well organized and prepared the response was. Furlong attempted to get at the point that people needed help during and immediately following the event and not 3 to 10 days later, but the Minister went back to saying how the provincial staff didn't need defending and that the response was great. To be perfectly clear Furlong then asked if O'Brien would change anything if he had it all to do again. He said he wouldn't change a thing. Personally I would have changed quite a great deal but that's just me.

Until next time...
So we had the largest storm in living memory, maybe ever, and there were communities and people cut off and without power, medical help and food for days, but neither the Minister responsible nor the Premier see anything wrong. I have a suggestion for the people of NL: you had better be ready to take care of yourself when we have another huge storm, because the Premier and the Minister are missing the point.

Thursday 16 June 2011

Hurricane Igor Part 2?

Assumptions must be made in order to problem solve and think fast during emergency situations. Not just blind assumptions, more like educated guesses. One of the things that people tend to assume is that when it comes to something as serious as an emergency response that 'someone' will have thought about that, and it will be taken care of appropriately. In the case of Hurricane Igor and the response in areas like the Bonavista Peninsula, that would have been an incorrect assumption.

Municipal Responsibility
All municipalities in the province are required to have an emergency management plan in place by May of 2012. So up until that time it is completely voluntary. Sure the Province suggested that communities have a plan in place but it will not be required until the middle of next year. Luckily many municipalities are ahead of the Province and have had plans in place for years, but some haven't. During Igor municipal fire departments and other volunteers were often the front line of defense and assistance and they need to be recognized for what they did. But I can't help but wonder if they could have been helped a little better if more municipalities had better, and more up to date plans? Did you assume they had a plan?

The Canadian Red Cross and the Salvation Army were both out front during the Igor response as well. They too are to be thanked. But again I recall some confusion over who was doing what, and where. Can't help but ask if these organizations communicate with municipalities and the Province to jointly prepare for this kind of thing? Did you assume they were doing that?

Provincial Efforts
We get some pretty serious storms and we have had a few moderate scale disasters but Igor was different because the area affected was so large. Pretty much everything West of Gander was hit in some way or another. This certainly added to the difficulty in responding appropriately, but so too did the lack of preparation. Over at The Packet they have a series of articles related to the response to Hurricane Igor including this editorial. The information they have collected seems to indicate that the response was not quite as effective as it should have been.

To be fair, hindsight is indeed 20/20, and I have no intention in faulting the people who were involved in the amazing efforts during Igor. However I have to ask the questions about our level of preparedness. I guess I assumed we were ready, didn't you? I assumed that there was a plan that identified specifically who would do what and when. And that each major region of the province had such a plan. That's not quite how it worked. There was certainly confusion over who was doing what, how much the province could/would help and when would they be willing to ask the Feds for help.

When we look at the Provincial ability to respond the first thing to notice is that we don't even have enough Provincial staff to respond to on the ground issues. We have Fire and Emergency Services staff (maybe 8 to 10 people) who are largely responsible for safety certifications and training. They are not first responders. Although I know that during Igor some of them went above and beyond to help people in need. But in terms of Provincial Staff that's pretty much it. Sure we have HRLE staff to help with getting food and supplies to people during the cleanup and the aftermath, but the largest section of information on emergency services available on the Provincial Government website is about damage claims and their processing. Important for sure, but not much help when the disaster is occurring. The role of the Province has to be to coordinate the local resources!

The Feds.
According to the information collected by The Packet there were Coast Guard and Military resources on offer as the rain was falling from Igor. Yet they were not engaged for about 3 days later. At the time there seemed to be an issue with the Province having to ask them for assistance. And if and when they were asked, the help came with a price tag. So perhaps the delay in the request was related to financial concerns. Personally I say go help people and we'll figure out the bill afterward. But I guess not everyone feels that way.

Round two?
So now a year has almost passed and we can look back at Igor and recognize that we took a good beating but I assume we'll be ready for round two right? Well......many towns still won't have an emergency plan, there are no regional emergency plans, the province hasn't acquired any new resources or passed any new regulations. There are resources available, but we just aren't doing a very good job of organizing and mobilizing them. The Province has to take the lead and ensure there are plans and resources available for Hurricane Igor Part 2. Because things are always bigger in the sequel, and this one could be coming soon to a community near you.

Update: CBC NL also has a story over here on some of the issues with the Igor response. That page also has some interesting links on the side to other related Igor coverage.

Monday 13 June 2011

New ideas for old problems

I love quotes. I use them in presentations, articles and occasionally in conversation (but rarely because they make the user sound pompous). They are often taken out of context and used for purposes that the originator had never intended. But sometimes I just can't help myself. When used properly a great quote can encapsulate a feeling or an idea like very little else. And so, knowing that it was perhaps never intended to be used in this way I would like to invoke the memory of Albert Einstein, who is quoted as having said "We can't solve problems by using the same kind of thinking that created them."

In that one sentence it is obvious why we continue to struggle with the same issues again and again. It's because we try to deal with them by using the same solutions again and again. I'm not sure why we can't seem to get out of the rut of trying the exact same processes to fix the same problems and actually expect to get a different result. As a quick note I want to be clear that the problems we face in NL are complex and varied, and that they are not easily solved by anyone. But, we seem to be unable to try new things. Politicians keep dragging out the old tried and true ideas of blaming others (i.e. Ottawa), or throwing money at it and somehow hoping that the situation will fix itself.

As individuals we are intelligent, passionate and innovative. I have seen people display some incredible problem solving abilities that have left me in awe. And I'm not talking about PhD Grads, I'm talking about people who can solve problems by applying knowledge, experience and courage to problem. As a collective I have wondered if we have lost our passion or our fighting spirit. But I know that we are a passionate and intelligent people. But yet we seem to be largely unable to break out of the standard box of ideas.

In part I should say that it is not always regular people who are afraid to try new things. It is often politicians who are afraid their popularity will suffer for trying something new. Because the one thing that new ideas bring with them is risk. But without risk there can be no reward. We need to stop listening to politicians when they tell us things we know are not accurate. There are very few simple solutions, and certainly we have to try new things if we ever wish to make things better.

One of the biggest issues we currently face is a near complete lack of planning, creativity and willingness to try anything. The current administration has put a great deal of effort on not doing what needs to be done. Seemingly because they know it's hard and messy work and will not be popular with everyone. This can be said for issues like the municipal, agricultural and forestry sectors. Then there's the fishery. The approach there seems to be to wait it out until the industry just dies an unnatural death.

This is not an attempt at a partisan argument. A good idea is a good idea, no matter what person or party brings it forward. And I know there are people in this province who have new and innovative ideas on how to make things better, because I hear them on Open Line and I read them in the Letters to the editor of the Province's papers. But is anyone listening?

It seems only fitting that I also end with a quote. John Cage was an American composer, philosopher and poet, and in this one quote he states the simple reality of how we should feel about new ideas. "I can't understand why people are frightened of new ideas. I'm frightened of the old ones." To expand a common phrase we don't just need to start "thinking outside the box," we need to set the box on fire and get on with addressing the issues!

Friday 10 June 2011

Life after oil.....yeah right.

So for those of you who may have been living under a rock for the last two days take an hour or so and go watch this session video over at The Harris Centre website. If you have seen it or read about it then you should have a basic understanding of the story; oil money will run out, and we will be in BIG TROUBLE! Dr. Locke is generally accepted as perhaps the most public and respected economist in NL, and in the past he has been seen as kind of close to the current administration, so when he is out front talking about the serious trouble we're headed for, people tend to pay attention.

It's the debt stupid!
If you think of the Province as a household you can get a pretty good understanding of what the debt situation is. If you owe student loans (as I do), credit cards, financed a vehicle, and have a mortgage, they are all forms of debt. And while the provincial debt has many different aspects to it the basic idea is that as a province we owe money that has to be paid off. And just like interest on credit cards, there's interest on our provincial debt. And the higher the debt the more we have to pay in interest costs. The recent budget forcasted the provincial budget to be $8.5 Billiom and Dr. Locke is forecasting that unless we change our spending habits our debt will rise to about $17 billion in ten years. Thats almost double. He suggests we should be aiming to maintain debt levels of about $5 billion to be sustainable. He indicated that over the last few years Government expenditures have risen equal to the increase in revenues, about 4.5% but that there was no actual plan to deal with the longer term issues.

Is oil the new cod?
Questions in the session surrounded the idea that NL has replaced a single industry economy built on the cod fishery to a single industry economy built on oil. And I think we all remember what happened in 1992.

What about Muskrat Falls?
A while ago Dr. Locke was engaged to do a little bit of work for the government regarding the possible economic impact of the development of Muskrat Falls. Because of this involvement with some of the forecasting he did not include the project in his presentation linked above. So that means that you can add another $4 billion (plus interest) on top of the numbers he presented. That would put the debt over $20 billion in 10 years.

What do you say Mr. Minister?
The morning of the presentation Dr. Locke was on Open Line and when he was done Finance Minister Marshall was next on the air and he repeated how he has been telling people the same story for years (that oil would end) and that the government was doing what needed to be done. Apparently spending like drunken sailers is the solution to rising debt. Who knew? The Minister has said we are diversifying into and "energy powerhouse." First I think he may misunderstand what diversify means, and second how will that help if Muskrat Falls won't really make us any money?

In an article in The Telegram today Marshall responds to the presentation by saying “What we’ve done since we’ve been in power, we’ve ensured that our level of spending is in line with our revenue. In other words, we live within our means,” So he recognizes that oil money will end but has still matched the spending with the revenues instead of keeping some to deal with the future debt issues. Nice. Oil revenues currently make up about one third of our provincial revenue. So if you knew that in the next few years your salary would be cut by 30%, how would that impact your current spending?

Rose coloured glasses?
One of the best quotes from the session actually came from Jo Mark Zurrel, Chairman of the St. John's Board of Trade. "We've got the highest unemployment rate in Canada, We've got the highest per-capita debt in Canada, yet all the news stories we see and all we hear from our leaders is that things are going great..." Indeed.

All in favor?
Basically we mostly seem to agree that oil money is great but it's a declining revenue stream and that we need to pay down the debt and diversify the economy beyond oil. How about agriculture, or forestry, small business, technology, or how about that fishery?

I think maybe the Navigators said it best:
"Now that the oil is on our shore we better take the time, to develop it more carefully or else you're going to find, what could have been the answer to our poor economy, has changed our way of living and destroyed our fishery."

Wednesday 8 June 2011

And so it begins...

Many in NL, and across Canada have expressed serious concerns regarding the authority and direction of the current Harper led administration. I added my voice to those with concerns with this article and today we see the first significant piece of evidence that indicates the contempt that Prime Minister Harper has for NL. When the campaign was in full force the Canadian Conservative Party spoke about issues around keeping Canadians safe. Apparently NL doesn't fall within Harper's definition of Canada.

This article over at the CBC indicates that the NL Maritime Rescue Sub-Centre in St. John's is going to close. This centre is run by DFO and will see the loss of 12 jobs and the work move to other areas in Nova Scotia and Ontario. To put it in perspective the story reports that the site responds to an average of 500 emergency situations involving 2900 per year for the areas offshore of NL. These responses will now be coordinated from an extra 1400kms away, at least.

In part this is an issue of job cuts from a federal department in a province that already has a minimal federal presence anyway. But the real concern here is the safety of those folks who have chosen a career in the offshore. They will now have to place their lives in the hands of others who might not know the North Atlantic quite as well as the 12 people who are about to lose that responsibility. This move is being touted as a part of a much larger initiative to save $56 million from DFO, a department that could use more investment, instead of less. Whatever the attempted explanation, there is no justification for the removal of vital safety services from what is already a very dangerous environment. Shame on the Conservative Government of Canada. Lets just hope this isn't a sign of things to come...

Tuesday 7 June 2011

Scary Times and one Brave Soul

So we finally have a majority federal government, and in this case it's pretty darn scary.

Prime Minister Harper finally got what he wanted, complete control over the Government of Canada. He and his conservative party have been eagerly awaiting the day when they could push through most any legislation that they wish. While some argue that a majority government is a good thing, and can streamline the legislative process. Unfortunately streamlining is not always a good thing. The beauty of minority governments is that it is a delicate balancing act between all the parties, and therefore balancing the wishes of the majority of voters. What we have now is a party who only has support of just under 40% of the population but yet get to rule as they see fit.

Unfortunately for us folks who live in Atlantic Canada that likely means serious cuts to two of the federal departments that a actually have offices, and do actual work around here; ACOA and DFO. The Telegram has a story in todays edition that touches on the cuts. And the funny thing is that apparently the St. John's Board of Trade is supportive of this approach... So I'm guessing that none of the Board of Trade members have taken advantage of ACOA funding in the past right?......yeah.

Thankfully there has been at least one brave voice in the wilderness pointing out just how dangerous this party and government might be for Canadians. Her name is Brigette DePape and she put her job on the line to let people know just how she felt about the current administration. She has been criticized by political leaders and news writers alike but when it comes down to it she showed more backbone with a simple sign then the majority of politicians recently elected. The best commentary available on her silent protest was by Jian Ghomeshi over on the CBC Radio program Q. We should all go have a listen here, and if we're lucky a little of her gumption might just rub off on a few of us.

Monday 6 June 2011

Tidy Towns in NL

June 5-11th is Environment week, and that really means something here in NL. As a people who developed over time with such a close relationship with nature, NLers tend to have a good understanding of the importance of our environment.

That certainly seems to be the case down in Trinity Bay North on the Bonavista pensula. The local paper is The Packet and this good news story fills in the details on the recent efforts and partnerships to make the town a little more tidy. Trinity Bay North is not the only town working toward tidiness, and there's even a program that evaluates their success.

I was already aware of the Tidy Towns program when I was asked to step in as a last minute replacement judge in 2010. But I don't think I fully realized how seriously towns considered the program, or just how much work they put in place to keep their communities beautiful. After a week of visiting communities around the province, and meeting with municipal staff and volunteers, it was truly amazing to see just how beautiful our communities are. And it's not just the absence of litter and trash, or the cleanliness of parks and playgrounds that are important. The overall picture includes culture, history and of course the people themselves. Call me crazy but I've always felt that there's very little quite as beautiful as a well stacked pile of wood!

For the Tidy Towns competition there are population categories, and for 2010 the category that I was judging ended with the beautiful and historic Town of Bonavista with the winning score.

Here's a shot of Mayor Betty Fitzgerald, My partner judge Sheila Tulk, and Town Manager Calvin Rolls standing in front of one of the many, amazingly restored historic buildings in Bonavista.

For 2011 I am delighted to again be a judge for Tidy Towns, and this year will be a new category and all new communities to visit. I am looking forward to seeing the incredible work going into keeping our communities beautiful and meeting lots of community volunteers along the way. I am hoping to post a short series of articles and photos during the evaluations, to show just how amazing communities in Newfoundland and Labrador really are.