December 2004: Time and Tide Wait for Progressive Politicians

Only political fossils would still prefer fossil fuels to tidal power
December 1, 2004

It looks as though Paul Martin is leaning toward supporting B.C. Premier Gordon Campbell’s campaign to lift the federal ban on drilling for oil in the Pacific Coast sea bed.

In his pre-election cabinet shuffle, Martin dumped David Anderson as Minister of the Environment. Anderson had wavered between fence-sitting and environmental protection. On the green side of his personality, he was—and remains—a strong defender of the federal moratorium on Pacific Coast offshore oil drilling.  

Martin replaced Anderson with Stephane Dion, the M.P. for St. Laurent-Cartierville, thus signalling a possible close link with the right-wing governments of B.C. and Alberta, which are dominated by fossil-fuel thinking.

Dion does not have Anderson’s green credentials. Membership in Parliament’s Environmental Committee is the nearest he comes. As evidence of environmental zeal or knowledge, that affiliation has about the same value as membership in the Groucho Marx club.  

But Dion possesses other credentials—as a political scientist, an administrative specialist in the “Yes Minister” zone where politics and bureaucracy intersect, and as a trouble-shooter who devised a controversial way to keep the separatists and distinct-society advocates of  Quebec in check. His Clarity Bill was a remarkable piece of devious political carpentry.

Despite denials, Martin may be ready to turn loose intergovernmental political operator Dion on the task of promoting offshore oil, while he, Martin, displays a token green image through a limited program of wind energy.

But the scent of cultural change is in the air as growing numbers of Canadians come to support a more environmentally-friendly industrial strategy. If Martin gets a whiff of it, he and Dion might really “go green” instead of just pretending. They might then out-manoeuvre Campbell and his bush-league team of stubborn, simple-minded believers in a “free market” fantasy by maintaining the ban on Pacific offshore drilling.

Pacific offshore oil, like Atlantic offshore oil, would have to be heavily government-subsidized. Opponents of Pacific oil argue persuasively that most of the jobs it provides will be short-term, that much of the money will flow out of the country, that offshore oil production in an earthquake zone is a bad idea, that oil-spill pollution is a serious danger, and that losses to tourism, fishing, and quality of life far outweigh the gains.

Luckily, a less destructive and more rewarding political/economic strategy is within reach. It is the building and installation of wind, tidal, solar, and micro-hydro equipment for export and local use, and fuel-cell hydrogen generation for cars and electrical power plants in many urban and rural-community locations.

But public support for clean air and water, no matter how widespread, carries no weight with Premier Campbell and his acolytes. They regard environmental concerns as extreme, freaky, and hostile to business. The E-word made members of the Campbell government so nervous that they slashed the province’s Environment Ministry to the bone and re-named it the Ministry of Land, Water and Air Protection.

Such actions confirmed Campbell’s position on the extreme conservative end of the political spectrum, as far to the right as George W. Bush on most issues. He nevertheless badly underestimates the political storm that he will create if he tries to ram through the development of B.C. offshore oil. The storm will strike even more forcefully if he hides behind the sort of token “public consultation” that is designed to deter genuine debate and bypass knowledgeable economic and scientific opinion.  

For politicians who have the smarts to see a short distance down the road, the renewable-energy economy is coming into view.  It has two parts: 1) the generation of electricity and heat from wind, sun, ground heat-exchange and water-flow, without any new power dams; and 2) the manufacture of wind-power and tidal-power hardware for export.

The energy revolution can generate thousands of blue-collar and high-tech engineering jobs and revitalize scores of communities that are now under economic stress. It can solve the energy shortage that looms inexorably a few years ahead.

Should Canada and B.C. gamble on an attempt to squeeze the last juice from the oil age by drilling offshore? Should they make this move despite risk of pollution and damage to the web of sea life, and the certainty of heated and divisive political infighting and the possibility of legal action by First Nations, with widespread popular support for the plaintiffs’ cause?   

Or should B.C.and Canada take a bold step now toward full-blown renewable power? This is the more reasonable and viable option.

Native people hold unquenched thousands-of-years-old rights to the life-system that binds together sea, land, and salmon-rivers. Large numbers of non-Aboriginals will back the native people if they refuse—as they almost certainly will—to be brushed aside or bought off with trivial bribes.   

The birth of a renewable-energy economy is assured.The only unknowns are how long it will take to develop, and how it will unfold in detail. Doubters therefore resemble the skeptics who scoffed at the Wright brothers and predicted that “they’ll never get that thing off the ground.”

Overshadowing the whole debate on alternative energy is the incontrovertible fact that the world is rapidly running out of cheap oil and faces the dangers of oil-driven warfare and industrial collapse. Given this reality, the energy revolution offers hope for peace and survival. If we are smart enough to seize the opportunity, we can shape the framework of a transformed social and industrial policy built on safe, clean, renewable energy. Trusting in the blind force of the market and an insatiable thirst for costly, contaminating, and diminishing fossil fuels is no longer a viable option.

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“By 2010,” says Rita Bajura former director of the U.S. Department of Energy’s technology centre, “fuel cells could account for as much as one-tenth of the $50-billion-per-year (U.S.) global market for power-generation equipment. At stake are thousands of manufacturing jobs and millions of dollars in tax revenue.”

She says nations are in a race for the fuel-cell market. Will Premier Campbell put forth a serious effort to enter B.C. in this critical race? Not likely. Campbell’s policy is driven by three beliefs which comprise one doctrine: 1. Always buy from the cheapest global source. 2. No political interference with business. 3. Private enterprise good, public enterprise bad. But dawning economic thinking suggests that Bajura and other alternative-energy proponents are right, and Campbell wrong in clinging to his reactionary three principles.

Extracting offshore oil would require federal cooperation as well as millions of federal dollars. Why pursue such an economically dubious, politically controversial, and environmentally damaging venture when B.C.’s bountiful tidal power could be harnessed much more easily and productively?

The development of this source of clean electrical power would also create a  great new B.C. manufacturing industry—the production of the Davis turbine. This gadget, resembling a giant egg-beater, activated by the force of the sea-tides, is the invention of the late Barry Davis, a brilliant B.C. engineer who had earlier helped design the Canadian-built Avro Arrow jet plane. The Davis turbine could tap tidal power without the building of dams or causing harm to sea-life. Field trials have shown that this turbine works well, and that it is a more reliable generator of energy than the wind turbine since the tides, unlike the wind, are always in motion.

Martin Burger, CEO of Blue Energy Canada, Inc., says his company’s technology, using the Davis turbine, could create thousands of Canadian jobs in factories making tidal-power equipment for the world market.

So far, however, the publicly-owned B.C. Hydro has made only token efforts to hook up with solar and wind power, and has shunned tidal power completely. A capable and foresighted—and less ideologically dogmatic—provincial premier attuned to changes in the world environment would move promptly to mobilize B.C. Hydro to cash in on the burgeoning energy revolution. This does not mean waiting for private wind-power companies to scramble for customers and connections. It means developing a whole-system industrial strategy. Campbell will never do this, because in his neoliberal mentality public enterprise is something to be curbed, not extended. He calls it “political interference” in the market.

He and his colleagues, their minds clouded by their privatization doctrine, fail to understand that the economy of B.C. and the economy of the whole country constitute a dynamic system of interrelated parts. With their outdated mindset, they fail to understand that “political interference” to harness cheap, non-polluting, renewable sources of energy would be the kind of competent economic management that British Columbia—and all of Canada—urgently need for a prosperous and environmentally sustainable future.

(George E. Mortimore, Ph.D., is a Victoria-based social anthropologist and writer.)