Transparency, Accountability, and Open Data

March 25, 2010

This is part three of my series on the open data scene.

I think it’s fairly non-controversial to say that ‘transparency’ and ‘accountability’ have become the watchwords of contemporary democracy. More than ever, it seems, citizens want to see what their governments are doing and understand how they make their decisions. It also seems that there is an increasing sense of direct ownership of government. Citizens are no longer content to delegate the business of governance and politics to elected representatives every few years in a general election – they want their elected representatives to act as the interface between two living, organic forces: decision makers on the one hand, and citizens on the other.

It should come as no surprise, then, that the language of transparency and accountability has made its way into the open government scene. Governments generate and use an immense quantity of information to make decisions that profoundly affect our daily lives. The fundamental principles of a just, democratic society suggest that we should at least get to peek at it. This take on open data forms a very distinct thread of conversation inside the open data movement. Basically, this interpretation is a modern reinterpretation of the age-old axiom “Knowledge is power.” I call it ‘available data’.

There is an interesting accusatory tone that pervades the available data discussion in Alberta. All too often, I hear the scenesters cast government as a secretive entity that jealously hoards information behind tall firewalls. Tales are told where government is imputed with shady motives and ascribed with the intent to subvert the desires of its citizens by withholding the very information that gives them their power.

Having worked most of my admittedly-short professional career as some kind of researcher, I find this accusatory tone and unflattering depiction of government troubling. It highlights the powerful feelings of disenfranchisement and marginalization in civil society, but it also underscores the complete ignorance of the tremendous (and tragically underutilized) information resources that governments have been placing at the disposal of citizens for decades. I have worked as an archival, historical, political, and policy researcher for the Legislative Assembly Office, political authors, and non-profit organizations. This work has acquainted me with the vast, impressive network of government libraries and archives across the province. These institutions are mandated to act as the custodians of government information, and their services are available to any citizen in the province. They are the repositories and guardians of every scrap of paper, every table of data, and every government report, and they work for the public.

That being said, the management of public information is a constantly evolving process, and there is still a lot of work to be done. Chris Moore, the Chief Information Officer of the City of Edmonton, pointed out to me that the culture of information sharing and preservation that exists for physical has not yet been fully embraced for digital media. For instance, a government employee will consciously preserve and share their paper documents, but they might not think to do the same for the files on their computer. Nonetheless, these kinds evolutions do not really require big-idea conferences like ChangeCamp or the Open City Workshop. These evolutions must be led in-house by progressive CIO’s like Chris Moore, although it certainly helps him accomplish these tasks when he can point to a large gathering of open data scenesters supporting his initiatives.

There’s one last aspect of the available data conversation that I would like to address. I’m sure the scenesters reading this post have been jumping up and down and shouting that at best, I’m describing translucent government. They would probably argue that a truly transparent government should not require its citizens to dig through dusty archives and vast libraries to find the information that will allow them to hold decision makers accountable.

I take their point well, but I largely feel that their frustration is misdirected. It’s hard to blame the real world for being so darn complex, so the caricature of secretive government takes form. The truth of the matter is governments have tremendously complex operations and they must make exceedingly complicated decisions. It is inevitable, then, that the information they generate and use will mirror these overwhelming complexities. As a professional researcher, I have already vouched for the general openness of the system. Now, I will vouch for the incredible amounts of legwork that finding information can sometimes require. I will also vouch for the even-greater amount of time that must be expended making sense of the data. These are tough challenges for the common citizen and the hobbyist policy wonk to be sure, but these are the natural challenges of vast and complex data and not the inventions of nefarious governments.

At the same time, like I said above, there is progress to be made, and another genre within the open data scene is hard at work on these challenges. They are busy innovating new ways to make this information easier to find and easier to apply so that real people can use it to do new and exciting things. These open data scenesters will be the focus of my next post.

Until then!

Hypergovernment – humane governement services for the digital age

March 19, 2010

This is part two of my series on the open data scene.

Customer. Service.

The mere mention of these two words has been to known to send the most serene and pacific individuals into nervous fits of panic, anxiety, and rage. No one likes standing in the waiting queue. No one likes spending hours on the phone listening to bad hold music. No one enjoys working their way through volumes of obscure paperwork. There is something exasperatingly Kafkaesque about it all that makes us question our own humanity at the most fundamentally desperate levels. And nowhere is this horror more pervasive than in government departments and agencies that serve citizens.

This lamentable state of affairs is not necessary, insists a group within the open data scene. According to them, new media and cutting-edge information technologies could positively reinvent the way governments deliver services and take feedback from their citizens. No longer would we have to rely on the postal service, telephone, or carrier pigeon for reporting broken street signs and potholes. No longer would we have to set aside a whole afternoon at the Bureau of Bureaucracy on the other side of town for a simple permit or application. No longer would we have to run through the gauntlet of secretaries and receptionists to get a simple question answered. According to the scenesters, new media and information technologies could rid us of these headaches and usher in an era of convenient and humane government service.

I call this genre of open data ‘hypergovernment’. It’s government service for the digital age, where fiber optics cables are the new telephone lines and waiting queues. It’s government service at light speed – literally. An example I’ve heard thrown around a few times at open data events is Fix My Street. Fix My Street is an internet service that lets citizens report potholes, grafitti, excessive garbage, and burnt-out street lights – the quintessential citizen complaints – to their municipalities from the comfort of their own internet browser.

Hypergovernment scenesters are already hard at work dreaming up the next incarnations of services like Fix My Street. One interesting notion along the same lines is a service where citizens submit geo-tagged pictures of problems in their neighbourhoods. Currently, municipal workers have difficulty knowing whether multiple pothole reports at one street address indicate many potholes, or the same pothole reported many times. This might mean the difference between one work crew and ten workcrews. Photographic reports tagged with precise GPS coordinates could clear up this confusion and help municipal workers dispatch an appropriate level of response to fix the problem.

Overall, I think these kinds of initiatives would be fantastic. Government operations would become more efficient and citizen satisfaction would surely improve. Furthermore, easier opportunities for citizen feedback might encourage more citizens to engage and interact with government. Sure, these service aspects of government aren’t the sexiest, but they are also the most common form on interaction with citizens. If they become more painless, it’s probable that less citizens will be deterred from participating in civic life. Who knows… reporting potholes might give someone a taste for a more active engagement in their community. But even without the potential of increased civic participation, hypergovernment initiatives promise the possibility of humane, painless, and convenient government services in the digital age.

School of Open Data

March 15, 2010

Talking about open data is a lot like talking about rock music.

No, really, I’m serious. ‘Rock’ has become one of music’s most nebulous categories. It is hardly a genre of its own anymore – it has mushroomed into an enormous heading with diverse styles and divergent movements. There’s alt rock, prog rock, punk rock, rap rock, hard rock, and the list goes on… The music of Oasis is nothing like the music of The Offspring, and the fans of Sam Roberts rarely have much in common with the fans of Slayer.

How is this anything like open data? Well, round up five people interested in open data, ask them what it’s all about, and you’ll likely end up with five different answers. Maybe more. There are conflicting interpretations of what exactly ‘open data’ entails. There are inconsistent views on how it should be used by governments and communities. There are divergent opinions on why it is important in the first place.

Two weekends ago, the City of Edmonton held an Open City Workshop. It was a billed as a chance for citizens and governments to come together, discuss open data, and build a plan for the way forward. The conversations I participated in were very stimulating, but they fell short of these goals. The way forward was not built. Instead, participants spent these discussion sessions realizing that they were approaching open data from radically different perspectives. Over all, to get back to the metaphor, it felt a lot like having a ‘rock music’ workshop. The event brought the different scenesters together and gave them the chance to learn more about each other’s style, but that was about it.

So, keeping with the metaphor, I’ve decided to help the open data movements in my small way and provide a scenester’s handbook to the open data scene. Over the next few days I’m going to sketch out the five open data genres that I’ve identified. Here’s a sneak peek of what to expect:

  1. Hypergovernment – This open data genre wants to integrate new technologies into government service delivery and citizen feedback so that government operates at light speed, literally.
  2. Available data – This genre is focused on dousing the firewall around government data so that government becomes more transparent and accountable to citizens.
  3. Functional data – This genre wants government data presented in formats that facilitate innovative uses of this information by outside application developers.
  4. Collaborative data – This genre is interested in providing citizens with the tools and capacity to input their data directly into the dataset used by governments.
  5. Community data – This genre is curious about the potential of open data outside of government and for use within the community.

Each post will go into what these genres mean by ‘open’ data, how they want to use it, and why they think it is important. I will also offer some of my own thoughts on the merits and drawbacks of each genre as well.

Stay tuned!

Schools for rent?

March 13, 2010

There has been a lot of noise lately about the closure of schools in inner-city Edmonton. Despite the fact that school closures are decided by school boards, MLAs Brian Mason and Hugh MacDonald have taken it upon themselves to shout loudly about the issue in the Legislature. Unsurprisingly, they have placed the blame squarely on the shoulders of the provincial government, even though education funding is probably the least important factor driving these closures. There are a multitude of infinitely more-important societal issues driving these school closures, specifically the continuing demographic shift towards surburbia. Daveberta has written an excellent post that explores these issues in more depth, so I won’t harp on them here.

Edmonton Public Schools, whose trustees are ultimately responsible for deciding the fate of these schools, have also been busy on the school closures front. They have been holding a series community meetings to discuss the challenges these inner-city schools present to the school board and gather feedback from the affected communities. Trustee Sue Huff has done an excellent job chronicling the closures issue on her blog, and I urge everyone invested in the closures to read her posts, contact their school board trustee, and attend one of the community meetings.

I strongly anticipate that Edmonton Public Schools will have to close some of its schools. Even in a good fiscal year, it doesn’t make sense to fund a school with full administrative and academic staff for only a handful of students. This is not an effective use of our tax money. So, if these schools will be closed, we should start asking ourselves what we should do with them. For whatever reason, a lot of people seem to worry that these schools will be torn down and forever lost to their communities. In fact, most school closures result in the building sitting empty for a few years until its reopened.

At this point, I want to offer a simple idea for consideration: rent office space in any school that is closed and would otherwise sit vacant, and whenever possible, rent this office space to non-profits serving the community in which the school is based. The schools up for closure are predominantly in low-income neighbourhoods or neighbourhoods with increasingly senior populations. These are areas of the city with the greatest need for non-profit community services, and the organizations that provide these services often have trouble finding cheap rental space for setting up shop. This scheme would have the added benefit of retaining – if not strengthening – the school’s traditional role of community focal point.

It’s a win-win setup. The future doesn’t have to be so bleak for these inner-city neighbourhoods and their schools.

Let’s Hang Bill 44 from the Rafters

March 4, 2010

I have a novel idea: our legislature should retire bill numbers like the NHL retires jersey numbers.

For hockey fans, there’s a special significance to the number 99, for instance. It is hung in tribute from the rafters of the arena. It evokes wistful smiles of legendary exploits in bygone decades. It has become almost sacred – the hockey community could never tolerate this number on the back of another player. It is no longer a mere placeholder on the team roster. It is a symbol of epic proportion.

Something struck me this past weekend at the Reboot Alberta conference: Bill 44 has made a similar impact on an entire generation of Albertans. Of course, Bill 44’s imprint on our collective political psyche owes itself to an entirely different kind of fame – Bill 44 is more notorious than celebrated. It evokes stinging memories of frustration with impervious governments and regressive moralities. It has become almost mythical – the citizens of Alberta have only to mutter “Bill 44” and immediately a sympathetic and knowing nod is elicited from their audience. It is no longer a mere placeholder on the legislature’s order paper. Like jersey number 99, it too has become a symbol of epic proportion.

A conspicuous sense of disaffection permeated discussion at Reboot Alberta. I know, no surprises there given the crowd. But what was very curious was the way in which participants sometimes struggled to articulate their exasperation with the Progressive Conservative dynasty. Many spoke passionately, losing themselves in their words, slipping deeper into disjointed ramble, sacrificing coherence for catharsis. And just as their audience was on the verge of abandoning them, they would utter the famous phrase: “you know, Bill 44,” and immediately everyone would be back with them in the same place. And this phenomenon is not limited to the Reboot Alberta crowd. Even those among my friends that have what could be generously characterized as a passing interest in politics will express the whole gamut of their political disaffection with the words “Bill 44”.

I strongly suspect that the mythical significance of Bill 44 will be recorded by historians when they write the Downfall of the Dynasty. Furthermore, I strongly suspect – at least for the next several years – that the 44th bill of every legislature will recall those tense and torrid weeks in the summer of 2009 when Albertans took notice and stood up. Heck, even the world peered briefly into our small corner of the globe when #bill44 became a trending topic worldwide on Twitter. So, in a purely psychological way, Bill 44 is already hanging from the rafters of the legislature. Wouldn’t it be grand it we could actually put something up there?

Guinea’s Crumbling Junta: A spark in a powder keg

December 13, 2009

Something is rotten in the Republic of Guinea, and before long, the world might catch a whiff of the stench.

The small west African nation (not to be confused with its neighbour, Guinea-Bissau) has been having a rough go at it over the past year. Last December, Guinea’s long-time president and big man Lansana Conté was declared dead. A mere six hours later, televisions and radios across the country announced that a military junta calling itself the National Council for Democracy and Development had dissolved the constitution and taken control of the state. The junta presented themselves as a cleansing presence, one that would wash a quarter-century of corruption under the Conté regime out of the country’s institutions so that Guinea could successfully transition to democracy. The junta pledged to shepherd the country through this transition, organize democratic elections within a year, then return to their barracks. They also promised that no member of the junta would stand for election or interfere with the results.

At first, the junta was able to galvanize popular support for their regime within the country. This popularity was due, in no small measure, to Captain Moussa “Dadis” Camara, their brazen, flashy, and outlandish frontman. After drawing lots with a rival officer, Captain Camara was installed as President of the Republic, and immediately, he set to work publicizing the new regime on national television. Crackdowns on corrupt officials and the country’s powerful narco-barons became the subject of carefully orchestrated nightly media spectacles. A typical show would involve Captain Camara, surrounded by armed soldiers, lambasting those arrested in front of a live studio audience of visibly anxious foreign dignitaries. These nightly appearances of the “Dadis Show” became all the rage in Guinea and were devoured by the national television audience. “It’s as if you’re at the theatre. It’s astonishing. I’ve never seen anything like it,” commented one veteran European diplomat. (Click here to watch an example. It’s in heavily accented French, but Captain Camara’s angry exclamations transcend the language barrier. Skip to 0:58 to watch him really fly off the handle.)

Now, the junta’s future is uncertain. The “Dadis Show” is off the air, there are worries that the junta may decompose into violent factions, and serious discontent towards the regime is brewing. Popular support for the junta crumbled in August when Captain Camara dropped hints that elections would be delayed, and that he would likely present himself as a candidate for president in them. This prompted a large protest that filled the capital city’s 35,000 seat soccer stadium on September 28th. In response, the junta ordered its security forces to brutally disperse the demonstration, resulting in over 150 deaths, 1,200 injuries, and reports of gang raping by the soldiers. The International Criminal Court is currently investigating the incident and sanctions have been imposed on the junta.

Fast forward to two Thursdays ago, when Captain Camara was rushed to a Moroccan hospital with multiple gunshot wounds to the head. It seems his Aide-de-Camp Lieutenant Toumba Diakité, had a change of heart and a change of loyalty. General Sekouba Konaté, the officer that lost the presidency to Captain Camara in a draw, is currently in charge of junta and a ferocious manhunt in on for Diakité. Several soldiers have been arrested, and there have been eyewitness accounts of civilians shot while fleeing military patrols. It is unclear at this point whether Captain Camara will return to Guinea.

What is clear, is that the assassination attempt has infused the junta with a deep sense of suspicion. Regardless of whether Captain Camara returns, and regardless of who remains president, it is likely that paranoia will lead to purges and infighting. The junta could break apart into feuding posses loyal to a dozen or so rival strongmen. This raises the spectre of civil war, especially along ethnic lines, a chilling possibility highlighted by revelations that Captain Camara recently hired mercenaries to train a militia for his own Kpelle ethnic group. Observers have speculated on several scenarios, and all of them involving some degree of further destabilization in Guinea. This is a troubling outlook for a region that has seen more than its share of violence.

Over the past two decades, coastal west Africa has seen four brutal and inter-connected civil wars. Between 1989 and 2007, two wars in Liberia, one in Sierra Leone, and another in Côte d’Ivoire produced a combined total of twenty-seven years of bloodshed and civil strife. To further complicate matters, each country had a hand in their neighbours’ conflicts. Liberian rebels were trained and supplied in Côte d’Ivoire. Many of these rebels then crossed over into Sierra Leone to participate in the conflict there. Guinea, under the Lansana Conté regime, then backed their return into Liberia for that country’s second civil war. Once this conflict ended, they spilled over into Côte d’Ivoire where many of them were originally trained. Both Liberia and Sierra Leone have held democratic elections since then. Rebels in Côte d’Ivoire are in the process of being disarmed, demobilized, and reintegrated, but the peace remains very fragile in all three countries.

Now, peace and order in Guinea have become precarious. Lieutenant Diakité, the would-be assassin of Captain Camara, remains at large in a region of fragile regimes that hosts an extensive migrant workforce of battle-hardened, unemployed ex-civil warriors with axes to grind across four countries. The cycle of violence is poised to recommence, spilling from country to country across the region once more. Guinea’s crumbling junta is a spark in a powder keg.

This is not simply a regional problem, either. It could easily become another immense humanitarian challenge. The region is small; it is roughly the same size as Alberta, which isn’t that large in the global scheme of things, but it has eleven and a half times the population. And, this region has been through four bloody and brutal civil wars in the past two decades. This is an astonishing concentration of misery and violence into one tiny corner of the world. This should not be tolerated by the human community.

If that’s not reason enough, the region is an important exporter of vital commodities. Guinea is the world’s leading exporter of bauxite, the mineral from which aluminum is refined. Liberia is an important producer of iron ore and rubber. Sierra Leone is a leading exporter of rutile, a titanium ore. Côte d’Ivoire is the world’s leading exporter of cocao and an important coffee producer. These commodities will all be important to the global economy as it pulls itself out of recession.

There is certainly something rotten in the Republic of Guinea, and the world should take notice.

Full Speed Ahead for Global Shipping

October 18, 2009

Jeff Rubin is at it again. The unconventional former world-markets whiz from CIBC has made another one of his wild, out-on-a-limb forecasts. Rubin has made a name for himself making bold and often unsettling predictions that have a knack for proving themselves accurate – or at least as accurate as economic predictions can be. Over the years, he has anticipated fluctuations in the interest rate and Canadian dollar with surprising precision, projected the decline in the Ontario real-estate market, and predicted soaring energy prices in the 2000s. Now, in a new book entitled Why Your World is About to Get a Whole Lot Smaller: Oil and the End of Globalization, Rubin has declared that peak oil will lead to the collapse of global shipping and global industry along with it.

The basic premise of Rubin’s argument is simple. The global supply of oil is tapering off while global demand for oil continues to rise. As a result, oil prices will continue to inch upwards with gathering momentum as oil becomes increasingly scarce. Skyrocketing (triple-digit) oil prices in the upcoming decades will inflate shipping costs to the point that it becomes no-longer viable to produce commodities on one side of the planet then ship them half-way around the globe to consumers. Rubin expects agriculture to be the hardest hit. The collapse of global agriculture has especially worrying concerns for Rubin, and he argues that peak oil presents a tremendous threat to food security for food importing countries. The United States, for example, imported $6 billion worth of food from China last year which, Rubin quips, “brings a whole new meaning to having Chinese food delivered.” Rubin’s inner-futurist leads him to the conclusion that new, decidedly anti-global forms of production will prevail when the scarcity of oil forces humanity to abandon shipping their meals across the globe.

Rubin is no doomsday prophet, however. In fact, he finds hope in the collapse of global shipping and global agriculture. According to Rubin, triple-digit oil prices will provide the disincentive necessary to force consumers to abandon their energy-intensive lifestyles that rely so heavily on the gas-guzzling transoceanic container ships that have become the backbone of the global economy. In his vision of a post-petroleum-dependent world, local food economies will thrive again. He explains that “Not only does replacing foreign food with local food save energy, but in the process it reduces carbon emissions – a double win in an economy that not only has to contend with triple-digit oil prices but that will soon put a price on burning oil as well.” Rubin likes to think he has found the silver lining to an otherwise disturbing global economic collapse.

Part One of my loosely joined series on global food has already detailed how new research continues to disprove Rubin’s assumption that replacing foreign food with local food will save energy and reduce carbon emissions. Rather than repeat all these facts, figures, and explanations, I will briefly summarize the key points. Global shipping is enormously more efficient at moving enormous quantities of food cargo than the small highway trucks and old farm pickups of the local food economy. Even though the distances involved are further, global shipping allows food production to occur in the world’s least energy-intensive locales, and considering production is where the bulk of the energy is expended, our food arrives in our supermarkets with smaller carbon emissions overall. Global agriculture owes its creation to a search for the most economically efficient way to feed humanity’s appetite. The same benefits of a global scale already apply to environmental efficiency as well.

Another important factor Rubin seems to ignore in his local food utopia is the question of how local food would be transported once peak oil has rendered gas prices prohibitively high. Does he expect the horse-and-buggy to make a comeback? Or, perhaps he expects wheelbarrows will conquer the abandoned highways? These antiquated modes of transportation could never provide the transport capacity humanity needs to feed itself. The reality of the situation is that local food economies are just as vulnerable to peak oil, if not more so than their leaner, more efficient global counterparts. There is no silver-lining here.

While Jeff Rubin’s argument that peak oil is desirable can be discounted by this new research, his argument that peak oil will have inevitable and profound impacts on global shipping still stands as a problem that deserves serious attention. Can global shipping continue to thrive in a world of triple-digit oil prices? I submit that it can for two reasons. First, the processes of economics dictate that global shipping is better positioned to absorb input-cost inflation. Second, the processes of innovation dictate, or at the very least suggest that fresh ideas and new technologies will help global shipping use their oil more efficiently and more environmentally.

Hopefully, readers will not be scared away by some economic terminology. Price elasticity of demand is the measurement of how demand for a commodity responds to changes in prices for that commodity. In other words, the likelihood that a shopper will leave the product on the shelf once they discover the price had increased. The peak oil premise is founded upon this economic concept, and the security of transporting food through networks that rely heavily upon oil, a commodity notorious for its price volatility, has increasingly been called into question, and not just by Rubin. The major short-coming with this food security narrative is that different price elasticities exist for different types of oil consumers. A weekend traveller or commuter-of-convenience, for instance, is more likely to drop out of a bidding war for oil than a large institutional transporter that requires oil to fuel an important and necessary economic activity. Sadly, little economic research has been conducted on this question, and it is hard to say how much sooner the weekend traveller or commuter-of-convenience would drop out of the bidding war. One hundred dollars sooner? Fifty dollars sooner? One dollar sooner? Nonetheless, the basic premise remains sound. The North-American car lifestyle will die out long before global shipping does. And once it does, remaining oil supplies can be concentrated on industries we rely upon to feed ourselves while innovation and technological advancement transforms humanity into smarter, less dependant oil users.

Global shipping is at the forefront of this innovation and technological advancement. Bold strides have been taken in this direction, and they have been well documented. A recent BBC article recounts some of these exciting new developments in the world of ship-building. For instance, the world’s largest container ship, the Estelle Maersk, makes use of several innovative design features that increase her efficiency and allow her to travel farther on each fill-up. Internal funnels on her engines capture waste heat to drive power-boosting turbines that reduce fuel consumption by 10%, kind of like the world’s largest supercharged street racer. Additionally, cutting-edge hull design, computerized systems control, and an extra-slippery coat of silicon paint make her one of the sleekest, most efficient ships ever built. All together, these technologies reduces her fuel consumption 25% when combined with new, smart sailing practices. Other innovations for global shipping are in the works, including kites to harness nautical winds, and as new discoveries are made, new technologies will continue keep global shipping on the cutting edge of efficiency.

Jeff Rubin’s book is engaging food for thought, and it raises important questions about the security of our food supply and the future of our global food economy. Sadly, his book fails to recognize the folly of local food economies as a solution to clear and present ecological concerns. Furthermore, it fails to recognize the innovations that have been made in global shipping and the promise they hold that efficient global economies might continue to benefit the residents of our small planet. They say that necessity is the mother of all invention, and the vast appetite of humanity has already required us to invent global agriculture. Now, the fragility of our world is requiring us to invent new ways to fuel our food. Hopefully, these inventions will prevail before our world and our food security comes crashing down around us.

Save the Planet – Buy Global Food! Debunking the food miles myth

October 4, 2009

Lately, I’ve been hearing a lot about food miles and the environmental benefits of local food. I hear about it from friends and on the radio. I read about in newspapers and on the Internet. Every environmentally conscious consumer, it seems, has fallen for local food and farmers’ markets. And when I tell them that I don’t buy into the local food logic, and that I believe global food is the key to sustainability, I invariably get some kind of suspicious, even dirty look. I watch them wonder: How could anyone deny that local food is our environmental salvation? How could anyone endorse the psychopathic, planet-murdering global food consumer lifestyle?

My reasons are hard to explain, and they rarely withstand the full onslaught of slick, local food slogans. This is probably a case of what my roommate would call “unsexy truths” – it’s nearly impossible to distill my logic into buzzwords and mantra. Local food advocates only need a handful of words to explain how global food economies require longer transportation networks and, as a result, have larger carbon footprints. This argument, the so-called ‘food miles’ concept, seems intuitive. It just makes sense.

The case for global food, on the other hand, needs more than a handful of words. It’s technical and full of complexity – there is no poetry in global food. It does not capture the imagination of the conscientious consumer, and quite often it will dull the passions of concerned citizens. This is unfortunate, for it will either exasperate the listener’s attention span or, worse yet, lead them to the conclusion that it is merely a desperate and sophisticated attempt to confound the no-brainer logic of food miles. To this I say: there are rarely no-brainers in subjects as complex as agronomy, ecology, and economics, and solutions rarely fit inside a greeting card. The truth is not always simple and sexy, but it can be beautiful in its complexity. And this beauty will not let itself be seduced by the lazy mind.

For the last fifteen years, food miles have been the load-bearing pillar of the local food movement’s architecture. The desire to slow the insidious progress of climate change by reducing food transport distances, and thus carbon emissions, have been a driving factor behind the resurgence of farmers’ markets and local food products in supermarkets. In the past few years, however, the utility of food miles as a measure of environmental impact has been increasingly called into question by agricultural and environmental scientists. New research continues to expose fissures in the food miles argument.

Broadly speaking, the food miles concept relies on three assumptions that are increasingly being proven false. First, food miles assumes that the distance travelled by an agricultural commodity is more relevant in assessing environmental impact than the mode of transportation used and the quantity transported. Second, food miles assumes that transportation from producer to retailer is the most significant phase, environmentally speaking, of an agricultural commodity’s lifecycle. Third, food miles assumes that energy efficiency and carbon intensity in production are constant across all geographies, terrains, and climates. This post will walk you through an explanation of how each of these assumptions rarely holds true.

In 2005, the British government’s Department for Environment, Food, and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) conducted a study of the environmental impact of food transportation in the United Kingdom to determine whether food miles would make a useful measurement for the government’s Sustainable Farming and Food Strategy. The results of the study are fascinating, especially the revelation that food miles, when crudely conceptualized, are almost meaningless and that when analyzed closely, the food miles travelled by global food commodities were actually less harmful to the environment than those travelled by local food commodities. How is this possible, you might ask? It certainly seems to run against common sense.

In fact, it is not too difficult to explain these findings. Put simply, the fuel efficiency and cargo capacity of different modes of transportation matters a whole lot more than the actual distance travelled. A container ship, for instance, can move one tonne of food over one kilometer with less harmful emissions than a light ground vehicle (DEFRA’s fancy terminology for a pickup truck). Global food economies have the most efficient modes of transportation (container ships, freight trains, and heavy highway trucks) as their backbone while local food economies rely exclusively on the less-efficient pickup trucks, minivans, and automobiles. In one startling example, the DEFRA report demonstrates that a British consumer driving 10 kilometers to purchase green beans from Kenya actually expends more carbon per-bean than during the transport of these beans by airplane from Kenya. Had these beans been delivered to the retailer from a local producer by pickup truck, the carbon expended would likely have been even greater.

Sure, a local food advocate might say, these behemoths of global transportation might be more efficient per-tonne per-kilometer, but overall they contribute more harmful emissions because of the sheer volumes they carry and vast distances they travel. They might have marginally smaller carbon footprints per-capita, but in absolute terms the carbon footprint of global transportation far exceeds the carbon footprint of local transportation. The problem with this line of reasoning is that it forgets that humanity’s total appetite will remain constant, if not grow thanks to raising levels of prosperity in the developing world. Reducing the importance of global modes of transportation would only increase the prevalence of less-efficient local modes of transportation. If we could wave a magic wand and replace the existing global food economy with local equivalents, it would eliminate the enormous carbon footprint of global food transportation. Unfortunately, it would produce an even large carbon footprint resulting from a veritable army of farmers in pickup trucks (many of which aren’t the most environmentally friendly vehicles). This argument has recently been made by David Owen in his new book Green Metropolis.

These findings certainly cast doubt on the relevance of food miles and the sustainability of local food overall, but ultimately they will likely become little more than a footnote in the rapidly growing anti-localization literature. Their relative unimportance results from the same factors that disprove the second food miles assumption, that transportation is the most impactful phase, environmentally speaking, of an agricultural commodity’s lifecycle. Recent studies criticizing food miles all point out that transportation accounts for a very small percentage of an agricultural commodity’s total carbon footprint. A 2007 study by Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, for instance, found that over the entire lifecycle of the average agricultural commodity consumed in the United States, only 11% of green house gas emissions occurred during transportation. Furthermore, the stage of transport most derided by local food advocates, where commodities are delivered from producer to retailer across vast distances, accounted for only 4% of emissions. Clearly, the second assumption upon which food miles rests (that transportation is the most impactful phase, environmentally speaking, of an agricultural commodity’s lifecycle) does not hold true.

The real culprit is production itself, the stage of the commodity’s lifecycle that occurs before it even leaves the farm. The Carnegie Mellon study found that 83% of emissions occurred during the production phase, highlighting the importance of energy efficient and low-carbon intensity agricultural production. This is where the food miles concept makes another oversight. It fails to consider that longer transport distances are generally a beneficial trade-off for more efficient and less intensive production. Several studies have addressed this question in great detail, and their findings are very illuminating. These studies all point out that local variations in geography, terrain, and climate have profound impacts on the efficiency and intensity of agricultural production. A 2008 study from the University of Toronto found that strawberry farms in hot and sunny California produce, on average, 17 times more strawberries than their equivalents in Ontario. A similar study done by the Cranfield University in the United Kingdom found that 12,000 cut roses produced in Kenya’s favourable climate generated 6,000kg of carbon dioxide while their Dutch competitors required 35,000kg for the same quantity. The DEFRA study (mentioned above) found that British farmers generated 2,394kg of carbon dioxide during the production of a tonne of tomatoes while their Spanish counterparts generated only 630kg. Another study conducted by the Lincoln University in Christchurch, New Zealand came to similar conclusions regarding lamb, apples, dairy products, and onions. For example, the study found that 2,849kg of carbon dioxide are generated during the production one tonne of lamb in the United Kingdom while only 688kg of carbon dioxide are generated during the production of one tonne of lamb on New Zealand’s clover-studded slopes and the subsequent transport of the meat 18,000km to the UK by boat.

This is, essentially, the logic behind global agriculture and the reason that food miles are little better than a “marketing fad” (to quote Pierre Desrochers, author of the University of Toronto study). The distance travelled by an agricultural commodity is not more relevant in assessing environmental impact than the mode of transportation used and the quantity transported. Transportation from producer to retailer is not the most significant phase, environmentally speaking, of an agricultural commodity’s lifecycle. Energy efficiency and carbon intensity are not constant across all geographies, terrains, and climates.

That being said, do not get the impression that I am categorically against local food production. There are some cases where the local agricultural commodity will prove to be the most environmental. A Spaniard should eat Spanish tomatoes. A New Zealander should eat New Zealand lamb. A Californian should eat California strawberries. The important issue here, and this is one place where I can agree with local food advocates, is that consumers put more thought into the provenance of their food. It is one economic activity that is universal to all human beings, and conscientious consumption holds incredible power to remodel the world in which we live. We should all ensure that our consumption patterns will contribute to a sustainable future. Just don’t take for granted that local food is always the answer and that food miles really mean anything.

Quo Vadis Greenpeace?

September 19, 2009

Greenpeace must be feeling pretty good about themselves right now. Wednesday, after 30 hours of protest, negotiation, and media attention, the environmental group reached a compromise deal with Shell Canada to peacefully end their demonstration at the company’s Muskeg River mine north of Fort McMurray. A group of approximately 20 protestors had entered the isolated facility Tuesday morning, chaining themselves to the mine’s heavy equipment and unfurling a large banner reading TAR SANDS: CLIMATE CRIME. In a surprising move, Shell Canada agreed not to pursue criminal charges, and after an exchange both sides lauded as frank and amicable, the protestors vacated the premises, no doubt satisfied that their mission had succeeded admirably.

And why shouldn’t Greenpeace feel good about the outcome? They managed to hit Shell Canada for the limits in the high-stakes game of civil disobedience and direct political action. Their anti-oil sands message was broadcast loud and clear, and their participants managed to dodge the legal repercussions that are normally anticipated as a kind of battlefield attrition during showdowns of this sort. If that’s not reason enough for Greenpeace to take their celebration to the streets, their adversary’s response certainly must be. Shell practically complimented them on their performance. Paul Hagel, the company spokesman, readily acknowledged the serious impact of climate change, calling the protestors ‘reasonable critics’ of the oil sands industry. Even more shocking, he virtually threw his company’s endorsement behind the environmental group. “We come on an even foot with Greenpeace,” he concluded.

This has got to be one of the most unexpected receptions Greenpeace has ever received from a victim of their political antics. It’s not every day that an energy giant like Shell transforms guerilla protestors into passionate citizens with legitimate political concerns. This rare display of empathy presents Greenpeace with a tremendous opportunity, not to celebrate the utility of direct action and civil disobedience, but to adopt a more positive advocacy role. The beneficial outcome of their Muskeg River mine protest does not vindicate their methods, nor does it promise these methods will deliver further victories. Instead, Greenpeace should take Shell’s magnanimity as an invitation to engage themselves in the legitimate political process. According to John Abbott, Shell’s Executive Vice President of Heavy Oil,

We hope in the future Greenpeace pursues opportunities for open dialogue and civil protest versus these types of illegal actions… Shell has agreed not to pursue criminal charges against the protestors because it does nothing to further the climate change conversation. We rely on democratic processes to determine Canadian CO2 policy and other important matters.

An olive branch has been extended to Greenpeace, and they find themselves in a terrific position to prove themselves a responsible, respectful, and ultimately more meaningful member of civil society in Alberta.

For most mainstream Albertans, it’s hard to take Greenpeace seriously. Their numerous stunts have tainted the organization’s reputation in the eyes of many citizens and politicians, even among those that share their environmental concerns. Direct action and civil disobedience remain contentious forms of political expression for good reason. It’s a stretch to argue that the political conditions in Alberta are oppressive enough to legitimize these forms of protest. Radical activists will tell you that sometimes it’s alright to break the rules when the rules themselves are unjust. That is hardly the case in Alberta, at least where the freedom of expression is concerned. The gay community has no trouble expressing their dissatisfaction with discriminatory legislation or celebrating their lifestyle with the rest of their community. Pro-life campaigners have no institutional barriers preventing them from renting large obtrusive banner advertisements in our subway stations. Cyclists have no qualms in exercising their legal freedom to ride bicycles en masse and raise awareness for bike-friendly lifestyles. Bob Barker wasn’t stopped at the airport when he flew here to discuss the ethical treatment of our zoo elephant. Heck, they even gave him a podium and a microphone. The point here is that avenues for political expression exist in our province that do not require the abuse and disruption of private property or the defiance of public laws. Countless civil society and special interest groups use them to bring attention and awareness to their issues without unnecessarily breaking laws or unreasonably disrupting the activities of their fellow citizens. Greenpeace does not need to break the rules to get their point across because the rules are not stacked against them. Alberta may not have the perfect democracy, but at least it’s not Nigeria.

Nonetheless, for Greenpeace and their sympathizers, direct action and civil disobedience remain squarely in that grey area between right and wrong. Greenpeace acknowledges the existence of legitimate avenues for political expression in Alberta and, to their credit, they actively and admirably pursue them. Their reports on environmental issues effectively articulate environmental concerns, and they remain influential fulcrums of debate on environmental policy. Still, Greenpeace zealously retains their programme of direct action and civil disobedience. (Less than one month ago, Greenpeace brazenly advertised a ‘climate defenders camp’ where interested individuals could learn “the defence of the planet through civil disobedience”.) They do not justify these actions on the grounds that the rules are exclusionary, however. Instead, their villain is the nebulous mass-hypnosis of oil culture, and their actions are justified as a kind of political wake-up call. They argue that climate change constitutes the clearest and most present danger to humanity. If so, let’s argue about it, with dialogue and reason instead of stunts and antics. That is the burden of democracy. In a society of free-thinking individuals, the right course of action will prevail only when it has been recognized as such by society itself through reasoned and engaging debate. Climate change, and environmental concerns generally, has become one of the most important mainstream political issues across the globe, and environmental policy is increasingly laying the groundwork for a sustainable future. Humanity does not need a wake-up call – it needs a respected and reasonable voice articulating environmental concerns from inside the debate instead of lobbing rocks from outside the arena altogether.

Direct action and civil disobedience, aside from being unnecessary and indefensible in our society, have the additional drawback of incinerating any political goodwill towards Greenpeace’s agenda. These forms of political protest appear unreasonable and unjust, especially when alternate and legitimate avenues for expression exist. Imagine if oil industry advocates in Alberta pursued similar strategies against Greenpeace with such blatant disregard for the law and rights of their fellow citizens. Imagine if Greenpeace fundraisers canvassing on the streets of our cities were systematically targeted and accosted by pro-oil activists. Imagine if Greenpeace meetings were frequently interrupted by chanting crowds in hardhats and oil-stained coveralls. Imagine if slick oil executives chained themselves to the doors of Greenpeace offices, calling for the shutdown of the environmental movement. The public’s estimation of the oil industry would plummet and Greenpeace would be extremely reluctant to appreciate their concerns.

The reality is that both the oil industry and the environmental movement have an important role to play in Alberta’s economic future, and if this future is to be prosperous and sustainable, some kind of constructive relationship between the two will have to develop. In the short and medium term, Alberta’s economy would be well served if both our vast deposits of natural resources and our vast store of knowledge in resource extraction and processing are harnessed. The long term sustainability of this economy hinges of the judicious use of our bounty, however. For this to happen, environmental concerns must be integrated into our political discourse, and this will only occur when those concerns are articulated by respected and authoritative members of society. Greenpeace should actively pursue this role, and the cordial resolution of the Muskeg River mine protest should be taken as an indication that Alberta’s oil-sands industry is prepared to welcome their input as reformed, respectful, and responsible advocate.

Danger! High Voltage: The politics of power lines in Alberta

June 29, 2009

I have something of a confession to make: I am hopelessly addicted to the computer game Sim City. There’s a special gratification that comes from realizing a grand vision, from managing the affairs of an entire society, from building bridges, providing homes, growing industry, and developing commerce for a bustling metropolis. Oh, and the awesome power! It’s intoxicating, having the total authority to build what you want, when you want it, and wherever it pleases you. Sometimes, in the course of bulldozing a small inner-city airport or razing an entire tract of housing to lay down a new power line, I’ll amuse myself with a silly notion: what if my virtual society was not merely some digital fantasy, but a real city with real citizens? How would they react to the destruction of their homes and businesses simply because they stood in the way of progress? Would they stoically surfer the burden of advancing the common good, or would they rise up and revolt? Then, I chuckle to myself.

I know, this must sound ridiculous, but there’s a certain degree of sinister pleasure that is derived from the act of governing without accountability. It certainly makes things easier when you can build and bulldoze without having to suffer the protestations of community action groups and special interest lobbies, when the worst you have to fear from a bad policy decision is what my municipal politics professor liked to call “people voting with their feet”. The sad reality is that public governance becomes infinitely more complicated when you are dealing with real individuals that have divergent opinions and the right to be heard. In real life there is debate and there is controversy.

A few weeks ago, while reading the Edmonton Journal, I came across the first signs of this public kind of controversy over Bill 50, the Electric Statutes Amendment Act, and some power transmission upgrades. Earlier this month, the Alberta Electric System Operator (AESO), the body that oversees Alberta’s power grid, released their 10-year plan along with cost projections for proposed power projects in the province. Perhaps the most shocking revelation was that roughly $14.5B is required for necessary upgrades to our provincial transmission system’s capacity. These upgrades involve additional high-capacity lines between Calgary and Edmonton as well as additional high-capacity lines connecting the Industrial Heartland northeast of Edmonton, Fort McMurray, and southern Alberta’s wind farms to the grid. The construction and operation of transmission lines is financed entirely by private Transmission Facility Operators, and their costs are recouped through transmission rates charged to electricity consumers. According to one article in the Journal, the proposed upgrades could translate into a $14.50 increase in the average Albertan’s monthly power bill, effectively doubling the rate paid for electricity transmission.

It is evident from letters written to the Journal that ratepayers harbour deep suspicions regarding these proposed upgrades. Parrish Tung, from Elk Point, compares them to a private restaurant that receives public money to increase its ability to turn a private profit. He writes:

Here are two different scenarios:

-Suppose I own a restaurant. My business is so good that I need to add a new stove to increase my production. As such, I ask my town to charge all residents $10 per month so that I can improve my service. What do you think of that?

-We now will have to pay more money on our power bill so that the power company can increase its capacity to sell power and make money. What do you think of that?

What is the difference? Not much.

These suspicions seem to deepen with regards to a proposed intertie with Montana mentioned in the AESO’s 10-year plan. Ray Lutz, in his letter, writes “Alberta taxpayers should not have to pay for transmission lines to enable privately owned electrical generating companies to sell their power to the U.S.”

The AESO’s 10-year plan is only half of the transmission upgrade controversy, however. Two day before this plan was released, Bill 50 was introduced in the legislature. Bill 50 threatens to change the way transmission infrastructure projects are approved. Currently, the AESO must approve all proposed transmission infrastructure projects, after which the Alberta Utilities Commission holds a public ‘needs’ hearing to determine whether or not, well, the project is needed. Basically, these hearings gather input from the public at large along with the province’s electrical system operators and owners to weigh the proposed project’s benefits against its social, financial, and environmental costs. Bill 50 proposes to allow the Minister of Energy to designate any project a Critical Transmission Infrastructure project, which would result in this project bypassing the ‘needs’ hearing and heading directly to the ‘siting’ hearing where the exact placement of the transmission lines is determined.

Opponents to the transmission upgrades – largely wary ratepayers and landowners along the proposed infrastructure corridors – as well as the opponents of the provincial government have taken these issues as an opportunity to deride the Progressive Conservative administration and Alberta’s power industry. A picture is being painted where greedy power suppliers and transmission facility operators are eyeing the lucrative energy markets south of the border, sticking Albertans with the bill for a multi-billion dollar extension chord, and using their government cronies to deflect popular opposition to their scheme. Feedback from Albertans, like the above letters, for instance, shows that this perception has traction, and some in the media have understandably predicted that transmission upgrades and Bill 50 promise to become the autumn’s high-voltage issue.

When asked why Bill 50 was introduced with only a week remaining in the Spring sitting, the government responded it was so Albertans could spend the summer familiarizing themselves with this complicated issue. I would like to contribute some insight and hopefully dispel the popular apprehension towards transmission upgrades outlined above. These upgrades are not part of any nefarious corporate plot, and while they would require rate increases and the assembly of private lands, they are absolutely necessary. Corporate greed versus the ratepayer is not the discussion Albertans should be having this summer. Rather, they should be discussing whether the powers granted to the provincial government in Bill 50 are the most responsible manner in which to proceed with essential investments in our transmission infrastructure.

First, it is extremely critical that every Albertan understands why these upgrades are absolutely necessary. Alberta’s recent boom in population growth and industrial development, especially considering the energy intensive lifestyles of the digital generation, have placed an enormous burden on a provincial power grid that has not seen any significant investment in the past twenty years. To put this in perspective, demands on the power grid have increased by the equivalent of a city twice the size of Red Deer every year since 2001. Our transmission lines are running dangerously close to over-capacity, increasing wastage through line loss and raising the specter of rolling blackouts throughout the province. When power lines are forced to carry excessive amounts of electricity, electrical energy is transformed into heat and power is lost. This so-called line loss is increasingly becoming a problem in Alberta. Last year, $220M worth of electricity was lost this way, the equivalent of power for 350,000 homes. Increased line losses are not nearly as frightening as the prospects of rolling blackouts, though. When total transmission capacity is used, but demand continuously increases, the power must be shut off somewhere to prevent a literal meltdown of the power grid. The AESO orders different sub-units of the grid to take turns shedding load with power cuts, resulting in homes, businesses, and essential services going without power. Line loss and the risk of rolling blackouts are the dangers that come with a power grid dangerously close to over-capacity. This is the reality facing Alberta, and this is the reason these upgrades are necessary. This is not a case of the power industry charging us for frivolous transmission projects to line their own pockets. These upgrades to Alberta’s transmission infrastructure are essential, and they cannot be put off any longer.

Second, all Albertans must understand that everyone benefits from paying into a dependable, effective, and safe power grid. Whether at home, at the office, or at the factory, the lights should come on when you flip the switch. Now, some Albertans seem to deny that they should have to pay for, or indeed have any responsibility towards the power grid. They seem to think that the grid, and any upgrades required to it, should be the responsibility of the power generators, since they are the ones making money from having it around, after all. This simplistic view of the power grid belies its true function, however. The power grid is not merely an extension of the power plant. It is its own entity that allows both consumers and producers to efficiently buy and sell from the electricity marketplace. It functions like our province’s highway system. I hate to break it to you, but our highways were not built for road trips to the mountains. They were built to move goods throughout the province, from producer to market, and from market to consumer. Now, let’s apply the logic from the above argument to highways. Would it make sense to view the highways as an extension of factory and farm, and required producers to pay for them exclusively? Of course not. These highways are a public good, just like our power grid, and whether they are paid for through taxes or through publicly regulated rates, they must be maintained collectively and equitably. In Alberta, transmission rates are charged on a per-use basis. Agricultural and residential land owners, who have come out most vocally against increases to the transmission rates, might be surprised to learn that in 2008, they paid only 4% and 16% of the total transmission costs respectively. The big payers were commercial and industrial power users who paid 19% and 61% respectively. All Albertans must accept that they are responsible for their fair share of the power grid, and that increased rates are simply the unpleasant side effects of growing a dependable, effective, and safe power grid.

Third, apprehensive Albertans should reconsider their skepticism towards the proposed intertie with Montana. The simple fact is that interties are good for the grid and good for the economy, and Alberta remains one of the least connected jurisdictions in the North American power system. Our symbiotic relationship with British Columbia does a good job of illustrating the benefits of an intertie. The majority of Alberta’s power generation is provided by coal and natural gas power plants. Unfortunately, these forms of generation, unlike hydroelectric generators, for instance, cannot be shut down and restarted efficiently. The principle here is similar to the principle that makes idling your car engine at a red light more efficient than shutting off your engine and restarting it when the light turns green. Thus, every evening, when the demand for power tapers off, our coal and natural gas power plants are left running throughout the night. Rather than squander this power, however, we export it to British Columbia whose hydroelectric dams are easily powered down or brought back online with the simple closing or opening of a valve. The intertie allows the water level of the hydroelectric dams in British Columbia to rise overnight while using power from Alberta that would have otherwise been wasted, benefiting the power systems in both provinces. This arrangement further benefits Alberta since the export of this electricity brings money into our province. Again, an analogy with highway infrastructure helps render publicly funded interties more palatable. Border crossing infrastructure, even though it is intended to facilitate the export of goods to other provinces and other countries for private profit, remains publicly funded because it brings money into our province. Interties strengthen the power grid and strengthen the provincial economy, and the insular mindset that has greeted the proposed intertie with Montana should be abandoned.

Clearly, these proposed upgrades to our power grid’s internal and external connectivity rest on a sound case, even if they would require increases to transmission rates. At this point, the Montana intertie remains a mere proposal, but upgrades to the internal grid, especially along the Calgary-Edmonton corridor, have been on the table for a number of years. Unfortunately, these much needed projects have remained bogged down in regulatory quagmire as the load placed upon the grid increasingly reaches critical levels. Stubborn landowners along the proposed corridors have exploited the existing regulatory regime to slow down the approval of these projects. They do not want power lines crossing their property, and rather than waiting for the siting hearings, they have used the needs hearing to stall the process, thereby getting two swings at the same ball. While their concerns are understandable, there must be some point at which the needs of the many outweigh the preferences of the few. Imagine a busy avenue with constant congestion that is lined on one side with sprawling residential lots. The city decides to offer the property owners fair market value for a portion of each lot so that they can add another lane to the avenue. Is it reasonable to allow the owners of these residential properties to continuously reject offers from the city or, more to the point, delay the question? Evidently, Bill 50’s provisions allowing the government to bypass the needs hearing and head directly to the siting hearing would be instrumental to breaking up the existing deadlock between regulators and landowners. Perhaps, in the case of regulatory impasse, infrastructure improvements should be elevated to the domain of public policy. If so, we must consider the degree to which we are comfortable with our government holding this function.

Earlier in Spring session, the government passed Bill 19, the Land Assembly Project Area Act, which allows the government to designate an infrastructure corridor then freeze development and compel landowners to sell their property along this corridor. This could conceivably be used to bypass a siting hearing for transmission lines, which are specifically mentioned in Bill 19.  Once Bill 50 passes this autumn (which it surely will), the government will find itself with an awesome arsenal of powers to use in the improvement of the province’s electrical infrastructure. Essentially, Bill 19 empowered the government with the authority to bypass the siting hearings while Bill 50 will empower them with the authority to bypass the needs hearing. Come autumn, they will have legislated back-doors to the public portions of the regulatory process. This is a tremendous amount of power to have at the disposal of government technocrats, and it was no accident that I began this post with references to the computer game Sim City. It provides an easy, if not amusing way to conceptualize the powers contained within Bills 19 and 50. There is one important difference, however. In reality, these planning decisions could be exposed to public scrutiny and, the government could be held accountable for them. Thus, any consideration of whether the government should be empowered to direct electrical infrastructure improvements must be made alongside considerations of this government’s transparency and accountability.

The issue here is not whether the power industry is trying to fleece ratepayers out of their money. Alberta’s power grid is overdue for an upgrade, and ratepayers – whether agricultural, residential, commercial, or industrial – should be prepared to pay their fair share. Thus far, regulatory impasse has stalled these critical upgrades, but the government stands ready to break the deadlock. It proposes to do this by empowering itself with the ability to circumvent either or both steps of the regulatory process completely. Albertans have until autumn to decide whether their government could exercise this tremendous power with transparency and accountability. It certainly gives us something to think about every time we flip a switch this summer.