Day two at ISSRM got off to a great start with MTU environmental historian Nancy Langston‘s rich tale of mining waste, public health, indigenous culture, wetland ecosystems and politics around Lake Superior. Her stage presence was engaging but also graceful; she almost danced the story. This was followed by two data-rich reflections on the challenges of survey methodologies by Rich Stedman and Doug Jackson Smith (a great follow-up to Josh Fergen’s talk yesterday), after which I hopped over to session D in our Energy Landscapes mini-conference to learn about biomass fuels and ecosystem service perceptions. After lunch, our culminating mini-conference panel was a great success, ably chaired by Tom Beckley after I came down with laryngitis. Great observations were offered up by all panel members to get things started, including some questioning the vocabulary of the session title itself: landscapes, transitions, etc. About thirty in the audience provided great prompts for the panel, covering different energy source trade-offs, useful theory, viable policy settings, important social questions and more, offering optimistic and more apocalyptic scenarios. The final parallel session of the day had Tom recounting the NB Electricity Futures Citizen Jury, and Chris Clarke talking about psychological distance in acceptability of shale gas (complementary with Anne Junod’s description of the ‘Goldilocks zone’ yesterday). A very ‘energetic’ day.
John Chilibeck’s cover piece in the Monday (May 23) Telegraph-Journal, ‘Critic Calls for Closer Look at Plans for Mactaquac Dam’, was worth reading, and I hope the folks at NB Power did. (T-J has a paywall, so I can’t link to it.) The critic in question is Saint John lawyer Rod Gillis, who:
… grilled NB Power before regulators on past refurbishment projects [and] believes the Crown’s utility has a poor track record of going hundreds of millions over-budget on big projects. He says the only way the public could be assured Mactaquac won’t become a huge financial liability to rate-payers and taxpayers would be for the government to set up a royal commission or judicial inquiry on the utility’s final proposal, expected this November.
In support, he detailed poor decisions, delays and cost overruns in Belledune, Coleson Cove and Point Lepreau, which are all well-documented failures, leading to a $5 billion debt for the utility. He is sceptical that the current process will do anything but further NB Power agendas. I agree wholeheartedly with Mr. Gillis.
In response, Energy Minister Donald Arsenault argued that a new process was unnecessary because:
… NB Power is following an open, transparent and independent process, free from political meddling.
I can say little about the independence of the process, but I have to question on what basis the Minister sees it as open or transparent. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen such a stingy approach to information-sharing in a public context, particularly the kind of information the people in the area are crying out for, based on our SSHRC-funded research:
- who would own the land uncovered if the dam was removed?
- how might post-dam remediation proceed and how long does it typically take to stabilize and green up?
- what is left down there, in terms of infrastructure, cultural sites, or sediments (and their associated environmental legacies such as chemical residue or toxins from upriver industry and agriculture)?
- how do the First Nations communities feel?
Moreover, this is not simply a local issue: the decision will affect citizens in the entire province. How are they being engaged? In a fall 2014 survey we did with 500 New Brunswickers, 27% said they knew nothing about the Mactaquac situation, and 41% said “not much”. Only five people said “a lot” and 29 said “quite a bit” I wonder if things have improved since then for the other 93%.
When former colleagues and I made a submission to an Australian House of Reps inquiry about adapting agriculture to climate change, the submission was scanned and posted online immediately, the evidence we gave when invited to appear in front of the committee during public hearings was transcribed into Hansard, and the final report from the process cited both sources (and more) as evidence for recommendations. The NB Commission on Fracking did the same thing. Compare this to what is happening under Mactaquaction, which is being run by a PR company – that fact itself indicative of a desire to control information and manage message. NB Power CEO and President Gaetan Thomas is quoted in Chilibeck’s article as saying:
“…at the end of the day, people will feel they were part of the process because they contributed to this discussion.”
Maybe, but they could also feel that the consultation has been disingenuous and wasted their time because they cannot see the inner workings. What is happening to the information being solicited from the website survey and the public meetings? NB Power should make all input (citizen and expert) public – anonymized where appropriate – to open up their process and avoid later accusations of tokenism or cherry-picking. Mr Gillis’ suggestion would also subject the preferred decision to the interrogation needed to support its ‘independence’ from political influence: as we know from the last NB election, some decisions are more popular than others. Chilibeck’s article includes the news that NB Power will “continue to accept written feedback until May 31”: I think better to put it here, for transparency.
It has been wonderful to see the investment NB Power has made in biophysical science, with the Canada Rivers Institute, but their engagement with and investment in social science has been laughable. Unfortunately, as a result of their lack of trust in people they risk looking untrustworthy themselves. It’s not open and it’s not transparent, and it matters.
The short documentary from our October 2015 citizen jury on electrical futures in New Brunswick, led by Tom Beckley at UNB, is now available for viewing online. Another great product from the UNB Media Production team, who also did our Mactaquac Revisited houseboat tour video in 2013. The Energy Transitions team is looking forward to its next meeting at this year’s ISSRM in Houghton, Michigan, where I am co-convening a stream of 5 sessions on energy landscapes and transitions.
On Sunday, 12 New Brunswickers deliberated based on a ‘crash course’ on energy the day before, and settled on what they hoped for a 2040 energy mix for the province. This was part of the NB Electrical Energy Futures Jury that culminated data collection in our energy transitions research project funded by SSHRC in 2012. The mix is described in a letter to the Minister of Energy and Mines for New Brunswick, and is now the subject of a press release by UNB. Organizer and colleague Prof Tom Beckley spoke to CBC Fredericton about it on Wednesday morning.