Saturday, October 29, 2011

Site C and Natural Gas

Follow-up to my last post...

Money is pouring into Kitimat. There are at least 2 players (Shell and KM) now with plans to build LNG plants (that's Liquified Natural Gas). We're talking billions of dollars here. There will be a pipeline connecting the gas fields of NE BC to the new plants, and a shipping terminal to enable tankers to come in and out of the port at Kitimat. Destination: Asia.

To transport natural gas you need to compress and refrigerate it. That's what the plants are for. The freighters will be specially-designed as well (these are not oil freighters). Compression/Liquification requires enormous amounts of (electrical) energy. Estimates of the energy required are a bit hard to come by, but apparently are well in excess of 3,000 GWh by 2015 and another 3,000 GWh by 2017. Expect these figures to rise.
OK, so where is this electricity going to come from? BC does not currently have this kind of spare supply.

1 giant windmill = 5 GWh.
Site C = 5,100 GWh (~1000 windmills).

So we have a few options here:

1. put up 600 windmills to generate 3000 GWh. Turbines must be placed at least 10 blade diameters apart due to the turbulence they create. If I take an average blade length of 30m, that means the mills must be put 600m apart. Usually they would be put much further apart so you don't get something like this:

[a large windfarm with minimal spacing.]

Large windfarms are typically spread over 100's of square kms. For some perspective, 600 windmills is a very, very, very large windfarm. It would be up there amongst the biggest in the world.
2. Use site C. Although this likely will not be enough.

3. Use the natural gas itself. Build a thermal generating plant.

The end result will likely be some combination of all three. There are already wind operators eyeing the opportunity.

Some points to consider:
- Any wind farm or thermal plant built by a 3rd party will have to sell their electricity to BC Hydro.
- BC Hydro's deals are supposed to be vetted by the BC Utilities Commission and backed by a sound business case. Lately we've been seeing quite a bit of interference with how BC Hydro is run...but I'm sure our government will allow BC Hydro to negotiate the best deal with KM and Shell. Right?
- KM and Shell could always build their own generating plant, and would then not have to deal with BC Hydro. However, they would have to pay the carbon tax on any fuel they burn. note: there is no carbon tax applied to exports of fossil fuels (good thing too, or that coal terminal out at Roberts Bank would be out of business...)
- any of these alternatives mean that the new infrastructure is for the exclusive benefit of industry. Locals would not see a single electron from these new sources. Of course, they would benefit with jobs. One assumes that KM and Shell would invest in the local community as well (donate to arts and culture, that sort of stuff). All good, right?

This is what the landscape looks like when you want to be an energy super-power. We've all got a price. What's yours?

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Natural Gas vs Wind Energy

Last Friday was the (First Annual!) New West Doc Fest's opening night, which I attended (kids in tow). We had a good time, the boys really enjoyed the MeatHead short (film student production about reducing your meat consumption).

The main movie, Burning Water, is about natural gas extraction in Alberta, and the effects of new technology ("fracking", or hydraulic fracturing) on the environment (specifically, on nearby aquifers wells - thanks Dad!). A thought-provoking movie, it showed the very real conflicts between a community - indeed, an entire province - which relies extensively on the oil and gas company funding, and the individuals who are negatively impacted by activities of those companies. If you can't drink your water anymore thanks to that nearby gas well, do you rock the boat? Do you alienate your neighbours? Do you move out? What about if nobody cares, including the government? After watching this movie I can better appreciate Weibo Ludwig's situation. It seems it is not until a large group of people is impacted, that the community decides enough is enough, and acts. A few "canaries" in the coal mine isn't enough. We're not there yet in terms of fracking (or the Tar Sands, for that matter), that's clear. Especially since the decision makers we keep electing  prioritize short-term economic gain over longer-term environmental pain.

The discussion afterwards with Matt Horne from the Pembina Institute was enlightening as well. Not very encouraging, unfortunately - the economic drivers behind exploration and the regulatory framework that currently exists are heavily stacked in favour of expansion in drilling / fracking.

One of the questioners at the end commented that northeastern BC was a great resource for wind energy, with somehow the implication being that putting in wind farms would displace the need for natural gas extraction. I think this may be a common way of thinking...unfortunately it is wrong, and Mr. Horne didn't speak to this at all. So here are my thoughts:

1. electrical energy is not a substitute for natural gas, and cannot displace it.
2. wind power is locally uneconomic. Especially given BC's current electricity prices.
3. electricity is difficult to transport. The existing electricity "pipelines" from NE BC to SW BC, Alberta, and the US would need major upgrading if we were to expand the trade. Of course, electricity is not transportable at all to overseas locations.
4. wind farms have their own problems - industrialization of the landscape, noise issues, bat/bird impacts...there is large local opposition to them where they are put in.

Let's look at some of these points in detail.

Natural gas is basically methane. Like electricity, you can use it directly for heating, cooling, and cooking. You can also use it to generate electricity in thermal generating plants. And because thermal plants can be turned on and off at the drop of a hat, they will be required as part of our (national) energy mix even as we move towards including more and more intermittent sources of electricity like wind, tidal, and solar.

In addition, though, natural gas is a feedstock or basic ingredient for producing methanol, which has many, many industrial uses (it in itself a feedstock for many plastics and pharmaceuticals). It's also a major ingredient in the production of ammonia-based fertilizer (via the Haber-Bosch process).

So even if we were to base our lifestyles around renewable electricity, we would still need natural gas.

Wind farms are expensive and transmission lines even more so. So to envision turning NE BC into a giant wind farm for the use of the lower mainland is (currently) unrealistic; it is way too expensive. We would have to be collectively willing to pay way more than $0.07/kWh for our hydro. And with the current flap about smart meters and dual rates, this is a political non-starter. Don't get me wrong: I think our electricity costs are way too low. But our decision makers are not talking about this.

If you are planning to serve a local market and/or one that is hard for the current system to reach - like the Haida Gwaii - then you don't need long transmission lines, and you could displace the diesel generators currently rely used. Wind is likely still more expensive than said generators (until the price of diesel goes up), but at least this is a starting point. So putting up some wind farms in NE BC to serve the local area may be reasonable - and I believe this is what is already being planned/started. But the population there is quite small, and unlikely to be able to afford this, more expensive, form of electricity without subsidization (aside for discussion: who should pay the subsidies?) Then, because not many people live up there, you will not displace much fossil fuel use this way, and you certainly won't affect the demand for natural gas - that is driven globally, and not (all) by energy markets.

Wind turbines do not produce much electricity, because wind is such a diffuse energy source (like solar). It takes 1000 windmills (!!) to displace the average power plant. Are we collectively willing to industrialize the entire Fraser Valley (which is a crappy wind resource) with wind farms (and you won't fit 1000 windmills in there)? Keep in mind that unless you want to pay for transmission lines (0.75-1.5 million $/km through flat farmland, considerably more through mountains) your wind supply must be local!

I won't go into detail about the impacts of windmills. Just use google to find out what's going on in southern Ontario and you'll understand the level of public opposition that we'd have to contend with if we were to start down this path here in BC.

In summary, turning NE BC into a giant windfarm for SW BC's benefit would be hugely expensive and would not stop the pressure to extract the natural gas. So what's the point? What do you want to achieve, and is there a better way to do it?

There is a lot of money to be made in exporting natural gas. The growth economy demands more and more energy every year. There is enormous pressure on BC to export every resource we've got. Because shipping it is difficult, the market tends to be local, and gas is currently cheap here. But it is very expensive elsewhere. Unlike oil, natural gas is not easily tradeable globally. But that is changing with new pipelines, trucks, and container ships. So companies are gearing up and investing in the ability to sell this resource to high-paying customers overseas. The BC government gets royalties from this. But, right now, those royalties are low, and not wisely invested, in my opinion. So most of the $ goes to the companies and we see little benefit. For a lesson in how to deal intelligently with natural gas royalties, consult Norway.

Of course, on the downside, natural gas is a fossil fuel, and when burned or processed releases sequestered carbon dioxide. Burn enough of it and we send ourselves back to the Eocene, when the poles were warm enough to support rainforests like we've now got here in coastal BC. Not only that, but methane (ie. natural gas leaks) is a far nastier greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide.

So you see this is not an easy problem, and there is no happy end. My druthers? Leave the stuff in the ground, and learn to do with what we already have. This means getting away from the growth economy. Looks like we are headed that way anyways, at least for the next few years...and it is not pretty.

Saturday, October 22, 2011

Plug-in Electric Cars - Solution or Posturing?

I've written about electric cars before; I don't believe that these things are going to solve very many problems. note: I'm talking about the no-gas, plug-in variety here, not those battery/gas hybrids that you currently see driving around.

I've made the point that we cannot simply convert all of our transportation network to electricity and expect to keep motoring; there isn't enough electricity to do this without making some very difficult decisions about new sources (lots of big dams, or a nuclear plant - renewables can't provide enough).

I recently came across this article, which points out a few more reasons why you shouldn't expect electric cars to catch on any time soon.

Here is a summary:
- electric cars are simply too expensive, and the author of the article gives reasons why the price will not come down. A huge portion of the cost ($10-$15k) is in the batteries, and the problem with these is the large amounts of metals they require (30% of the cost). These are commodities that are not going to decrease in price as demand increases. And, since they require oil to extract, the cost of the batteries is dependent on the price of oil.
- electric cars are currently sold with large subsidies, offered both by governments and by the car companies themselves. Neither are economically sustainable, especially once sales increase.
- charging infrastructure is going to be very expensive to retrofit. If you have a garage, you can put a plug there, but if you are parking in the street or in a parkade, then this is much more difficult to arrange.
- Maintenance costs and resale values of these vehicles suck. Batteries last a mere 4 years, so buying a used car means you'll soon have to shell out $10k for a new battery.

The article points out that today's hybrids, with their much smaller batteries, make more sense from a cost perspective. Because of their much lower costs, they will (in fact, have already) achieve more market penetration, thus displacing more oil than pure electric cars likely ever will.

My conclusion: fully electric motors are great for public transportation and freight, where you can run overhead lines or 3rd rails and thus avoid the big batteries. They are also good for small devices that don't go far - scooters, carts, bikes. Small, cheaper plug-in cars (ie. not the Chevy Volt) can be used in specific situations, like in fleets with central management and constrained driving ranges (think golf course, university campus, downtown city core). But full plug-in car technology can't be economically scaled up to our current use model of 30+km private commutes and cross-country holiday drives. So, for instance, demanding that developers put charging stations in every parking spot in an apartment block is probably not a good idea.

Another interesting point that the article makes is that electric cars will not slow down oil consumption. Here's the argument:

If you buy a fully electric car, it may slow down your personal consumption, especially since the high cost of the car will additionally curb your ability to spend on other consumer durables made using oil. But your lower use will not keep any oil in the ground. There are not enough of you to affect oil prices in any meaningful way. Below a price of about $120-$150/bbl, demand for oil is increasing, driven mostly by demand in developing countries, because economic growth in our current world economy requires growth in energy use. (Above a sustained $120-$150/bbl we enter a whole new world, and it probably isn't one where we'll be worrying about what car to drive.)

The real reason why plug-in cars are a consideration at all is that governments and car companies can use them to make it look like they are doing something to address environmental and/or oil supply concerns. I'll let you judge the reality.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Mountain Biking by Bus

We have recently discovered mountain biking - the kind of mountain biking where you zip through the forest on what used to be called "hiking paths".

This past summer, we rented bikes and biked up and down the forest trails at Lost Lake in Whistler, and had a great time.

Now it turns out that there is excellent single-track riding practically in our back yard! There is a whole system of trails on Burnaby Mountain, which is completely transit-accessible. Just take your bike on the SkyTrain and get off at Production Way. Buy yourself a daypass for $9 (student/senior $7) - this is your "lift pass" (of course, if you have a monthly or yearly pass, you won't need to do this!). Bus 145 will ferry you up to SFU, your bike goes on the front, on the rack (note: the bus driver won't help you put your bike on; it's not part of their job). If there's more than two of you, you'll have to split up because the buses only take 2 bikes. Take the bus all the way to the top, to the transit loop at SFU. The trails you'll want are the ones that head back downhill from University Dr. E; this is the ring road around SFU.

[Youngest Son screamin' down the trail]

Mom and Dad stick to the blue trails, but Younger Son is game for the black diamonds. Gear Jammer is fun, Mels Trail has got up and down bits. Most of the trails dump you on Gagliardi Way, which you ride down to Lougheed and then to Production Way station, from where you get the bus back up. Careful at the intersection of Gagliardi and Broadway, this is a busy intersection!

Alternatively, for a good workout, you can bike back up the hill on the Pipeline and Powerline trails.

The runs take about 30 mins and it takes 10-12 mins to the top, with buses every 15 mins. You do need a decent mountain bike with front suspension and good brakes (preferably disc brakes), and obviously, a helmet. Pads not required unless you're doing the black runs.

Ladies, there are no "facilities". Gents have got the bushes.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

NWT's Surprising Politics

I've just ranted about the recent provincial election results in PEI, Ontario, and Manitoba.

But not about the results in the Northwest Territories. Why not?

Well, the NWT (and indeed, Nunavut) is a bit of a special case. It doesn't have any political parties! I think this is probably why it hasn't been in the news. You can't spin the election into a contest, with party A vs party B, and winners and losers. Makes for crappy copy, but (I think) better government...

The NWT is divided up into 19 areas (ridings or constituencies), and a single person is elected in each of them. Since there are no parties, the voters vote for a person, who is directly accountable to them. There's no party telling this person what to do, or deciding what his platform is going to be, or what the spending priorities are. It's all up to this one person. Each representative is elected by the same plurality system we use provincially - "first past the post" - so if lots of candidates were to run in a riding, you would get the usual vote-splitting problems that we now have (ie. people could get elected with low % of the popular vote). But in practise this apparently doesn't happen - hardly ever more than 2 candidates run in  a riding - maybe because the population is so small.

The NWT Legislature (those 19 reps) vote amongst themselves to elect the Premier, and 7 reps are similarly elected to form Cabinet. In these votes, the candidates have to obtain 50% or more support from their colleagues. So this sometimes requires more than one ballot (ie. a run-off). The Premier doesn't choose his cabinet, but he can (re)assign their portfolios.

There's no "opposition". Bills are passed by majority (ie. more than 50% support) vote in the Legislature. If the majority doesn't like important bills (like the budget), they can call a vote of non-confidence, and bring on another election. So it's in the interest of the Premier and Cabinet to bring forward bills that are favourable to a majority of MLA's.

So there's no "party platform", and the elected Legislature doesn't have an agenda. What's usually done is that at the beginning of the session, the Cabinet gets together and crafts a "consensus statement", outlining what they would like to do.

Apparently, despite repeated attempts by political parties to run candidates, this has not caught on and the system remains nonpartisan.

Sounds interesting, eh? I'm loving the parallels with New West's local politics! And I'm envisioning a whole new provincial model...anyone with me here?


Thursday, October 13, 2011

Smart Meters

Yeah, I know, Pat J said it all. Mostly. But I want to rant, too!

There's been a lot of press about "smart meters" lately. Basically a lot of fuzzy thinking and fear-mongering, as far as I can tell. Of course, it doesn't help that the whole decision-making process surrounding the roll-out of these things appears to be cloaked in secrecy (thereby providing a petri-dish for conspiracy theorists).

In any case, the main purpose of electricity meters is to measure how much your household uses, so that BCHydro can bill you accordingly. Right now, this is done by sending someone over to your house periodically to "read the meter".

There are several things that could be improved about this system:

1. the meter could be made so that it could register your use in time periods. So, for instance, it could count up how much electricity you use in the morning, in the afternoon, and at night. Since this is easy to do in software, you can imagine having a "programmable" meter. This way, BCHydro could encourage people to use energy during overall low-demand periods by making the electrons cheaper then, of course publicizing when those times are.

2. the meter could be (periodically) connected to the internet, making the meter maid / man redundant, as they say in Britain. Also, if the meters are programmable, software updates could be "pushed" to your meter; BCHydro could tune the time-buckets without having to send someone over to your house with a USB stick. Also, smart meters make it much easier to determine if the power is out to your house - all you have to do is ping said meter. Right now, power outages are determined by driving a truck around the neighbourhood to see if the lights are on.

3. the meter could communicate with the appliances in your house (provided that they were programmable) to let them know when electrons are cheap. So, for instance, a programmable fridge or freezer could be told to run a titch warmer during high-demand times - saving energy without letting the food go bad. A washing machine could be programmed to wash at night. Any plug-in electrical vehicles could be used to "even out" demand a bit by letting BCHydro "use" their batteries while they are plugged in.

If we wish to encourage energy conservation, then clearly point 1 should be implemented.

Idea number 2 is a convienience for BCHydro, and it would have to make a business case for this, and either build it into the meter or not. Much of the hoo-ha has been that this business case has never seen the light of public scrutiny.

Item number 3 is not one that is going to save huge amounts of energy, and clearly our appliances are not in any kind of shape to take advantage of this stuff. The turnover on big appliances like water heaters, washing machines, and fridges is on the order of decades, so the possibility of having this happen is years out and shouldn't be driving the discussion. Besides, it is very unclear to me that BC requires this type of "moderating" of demand, because our electricity comes mostly from hydro, which is a very flexible source and can be turned on and off at the drop of a hat (it is much more dispatchable than a coal/gas/nuclear/oil - fired plant).

But in order get people interested in saving electricity, the most important thing is a rate scheme that makes peak electrons more expensive than non-peak ones. Yep, most people would see this as an increase in energy costs. Which it is. But guess what, pain in the wallet is the only thing that will cause us to conserve energy. And make no mistake, we need to do this. Our entire economy is built on growth. Growth requires an increasing energy supply. More widgets, more computer programs, more people = more electricity required. So, in an effort to stave off paving over ever more of our wilderness, BC Hydro is bound to encourage us to waste less. And, with bascially the cheapest electricity on the planet, believe me, we waste.

What I really don't get though, is that we are now giving everyone smart meters, basically at huge cost to the taxpayer, and not jacking up hydro rates to finance them. This makes absolutely no sense to me. In fact this is all backwards. You should instead implement a new rate scheme first, and offer "smart meters" for sale.  People who think they can save money (and aren't afraid of the Dr. Magda Havas WiFi waves) can implement one on their own dime. For low-income households you can supply "forward-financing" schemes, where the device is paid for out of its own savings, over time.

Variable rates are a fact of life all over most of the rest of the developed world. In Europe, they've employed a "low-tech" method for metering for decades: most houses have 2 meters on them - one for night use and one for day use. Those aren't provided by the government, either - consumers happily pay for 'em!

Monday, October 10, 2011

Provincial Elections - Crap Results Again

With the recent spate of provincial elections (PEI, Ontario, Manitoba), we can once again see the results of our shitty "first-past-the-post" electoral system. Here, in detail:

PEI:
Popular vote: 52% Liberal, 40% PC, 3% NDP, 4% Green.
The seats: 22 Liberal (that's 81% of the seats!), 5 PC (19%).

In a more fair, representative electoral system, we would've seen:
14 seats Liberal
11 seats PC
1 seat Green **
1 seat NDP **

Exercise for the reader: explain to your kids how these results are obtained, and how they are fair, without using the phrase: "well...that's the system, honey".

Manitoba:
Popular vote: 46% NDP, 44% PC, 7.5% Liberal, 2.5% Green.
The seats: 37 NDP (that's 65%), 19 PC (33%), 1 Liberal (1.75%)

In a more fair, representative electoral system, they would've elected:
26 seats NDP
25 seats PC
4 seats Liberal
1 seat Green **

Amazing, eh, how a split popular vote (I mean, how much closer can you get???) results in a majority government? Getting 44% of the popular vote in Manitoba is apparently a disgrace and cause for resignation. Contrast that with our Federal results, where a mere 40% of the popular vote gets Mr. Harper a majority government. Oh man, I love this system.

Ontario:
Popular vote: 38% Liberal, 35% PC, 23% NDP, 3% Green.
The seats: 53 Liberal (50%), 37 PC (35%), 17 NDP (15%)

In a more fair, representative electoral system, they would've elected:

44 seats Liberal
41 seats PC
28 seats Liberal
4 seats Green **

The voter turnout in Ontario has now dropped below 50% to an all-time-low, despite all kinds of new "convienient" ways to vote (lots of advance polls, mail-in balloting, etc). I say, there is no deep mystery in why people don't vote. Your vote only matters if you live in a swing riding. For the rest of ya, you might as well stay home. That, and the fact that your MLA isn't really representing YOU at all, they are mere tools of the party and only serve as bums-in-seats for the small group that makes the decisions.

How any of these results are in any way reflective of the "will of the people" is completely beyond me. It slays me when the leaders get up and proclaim that "the people have given them a mandate"!

No. The system has given them a mandate.

But apparently nobody gives a rat's patootie about any of this, because we all keep voting down any reasonable proposed changes.

** Note: in all proportional representation ("PR") systems there is a threshold, below which a party doesn't get any seats. That's usually around the 4-5% mark, so in the above examples it'd probably mean that in PEI, the NDP and Greens wouldn't have gotten any seats, and in Manitoba the Greens would've been shut out also (with the other parties then getting those seats instead).

Thursday, October 6, 2011

Thank you Steve Jobs, or Why I Love my iPhone

Before the iPhone, I wasn't really an Apple kinda girl. But my iPhone has
revolutionized my travels. It's my travel info-portal. I can:
  • check bus schedules online,
  • check if the bus is actually coming,
  • change my bus itinerary on the fly, minimizing waits
  • book the nearest available Modo car
  • check up-to-date YVR and BC Ferries schedules
Here is RMD's list of iPhone Apps for the Car(e)less:

iTransitVan - an App that lets me check schedules at my favourite stops online, lets me find nearby stops and shows the schedules there

m.translink.ca - Translink's mobile portal (still only in beta), the best part of which is the next bus page. You have to know your stop number (this part is clunky but I'm hoping for improvements in saving favourites), but once you type that in and hit map view it shows you where the buses actually are! It is hooked up with all the GPSes on the buses...you can watch your bus approach...fascinating.

google maps - this one is still the best for route planning on-the-fly. Of course, it knows where you are, so it can tell you how to get to where you want to go. Very useful. Translink's site is too clunky.

m.modo.coop - Modo's mobile portal. Very handy, lets me see which cars are nearest me and their availability. I can also view my favorites. And book online, of course! (I'm sure ZipCar and Car2Go have their own Apps!)

m.bcferries.com - BC Ferries' mobile portal, with current schedules and real-time ship position info.

www.yvr.ca/en/mobile - YVR's mobile site. Up-to-date flight arrival and departure info!

During our recent travels to Ontario and Quebec, I easily found similar transit schedule applications in the cities we visited. So finding our way around a new city was a total breeze!

Steve, thank you.

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Citizen Initiatives and Referenda

Because of the recent HST referendum I started researching the differences between a "referendum", a "citizens' initiative", and a "recall". These 3 things are different, it turns out, and have different rules. The rules are laid out in 2 pieces of legislation, which I summarize briefly below.

Referendum Act

This act summarizes the rules for running a referendum. A referendum is a public vote on a question that the government has decided it wants public input on (note: not a question that voters have decided they want to give input on!). As an example, in 2009, BC had a referendum on a new voting system called "STV".

Summary of the rules:
- in order to pass, 50% of the votes cast need to be in favour of the question.
- the referendum is binding on the government that called it.

These rules can be changed on a case-by-case (ie. referendum-by-referendum) basis, through separate acts of the Legislature (ie. they have to be voted on by MLA's). For example, they were indeed changed for the STV referendum; the threshold for passing was changed from 50% to 60% (as well as some other changes).

Another referendum, which passed, was the Recall and Initiative referendum, in 1991. This was instigated by the Socred government, which fell before they could enact the Act into law. But the subsequent NDP government decided to honour the results anyways, and duly proclaimed the...

Recall and Initiative Act

This act lays out the rules for how citizens can petition the government to force a public vote on any specific issue. It also lays out the rules for recalling sitting MLAs. BC is the only province to have such legislation!

The rules for turning a citizen-led initiative into a public vote are as follows:
- 10% of the registered voters in every constituency must sign the petition
- the signatures must be received within 90 days of the "start" of the petition
- once the signatures are received by the Chief Electoral Officer, and (s)he decides that the criteria have been met (ie. valid signatures, correct threshold, the petition is worded properly), the petition goes to a special committee of the Legislature (I've not yet managed to learn how membership on any special committee is determined, but presumably these are non-partisan), and this committee must decide either to refer the bill to the legislature for a vote into law, or to the electorate for a referendum vote. The committee may not change the wording of the question. One or more of the following rules may be changed, however:
- initiative votes, if required, are held at minimum every 3 years, specifically in 2009, 2012, 2015,...
- in order to pass, 50% of the total registered voters must vote in favour of the initiative, and 50% of the registered voters must be in favour in 2/3 or more of BC's constituencies.

If the public vote is successful, then there is a requirement for the petition (now a bill) to be voted on by the Legislature. It is only made into law if the bill passes.

For the recent HST referendum, the last two conditions were in fact changed:
- the date for voting was moved forward (to 2010)
- the conditions for passing were altered to 50% of overall votes cast in favour (no constituency limit).
These changes were made by a special act of the Legislature and apply only to the HST referendum we just had.

It is pretty clear that without the last change in particular, no initiative would ever pass. It is basically impossible to have 50% of registered voters vote in favour of anything. Heck, it's problematic these days to get 50% of registered voters to even bother voting!!!

Note further that the first 2 conditions are also almost impossible to achieve. Since 1995, there have been 7 tries at getting an initiative to a public vote. Only a single one has managed to achieve the signature threshold, and that is the recent HST initiative. Getting enough signatures in the extremely limited timeframe requires an army of at least 6500 volunteers working for a solid month to collect the signatures.

I conclude that the Initiative Act is flawed and basically useless. It only serves to bring issues to the attention of government, but getting a public vote to happen is still completely at the whim of the party in power. It's another tool, like a letter-writing campaign, a petition, or chaining yourself to the doors of the Legislature...I'm not sure it's any more effective.

(Note: Recalls have different, but equally stringent, criteria. Since 1995, 25 have been submitted, and 23 have failed, most because of insufficient signatures or because they were never submitted. There was one that "failed" because the MLA in question resigned when it looked like the recall was headed for success. Currently the BC Legislature website lists a 24th recall is in progress in Mission, but I suspect that's on the ropes.)

There's of course a larger discussion we should probably be having, though...how does "direct democracy" fit in with the idea of a "representative democracy"? I mean, we elect people to represent us in government; we pay these folks to educate themselves about the issues, to debate and discuss, and finally to come up with a decision. Surely this is a better approach than allowing the general public (who are typically not educated about the issues) to decide public policy?

Unfortunately, it seems to me that people have no confidence that they are actually being properly represented by their MLA. In many cases, they didn't vote for that person, and don't even support the policies of the party that the person is a member of. Then, it really appears to most people that the party, rather than the constituents, control the MLAs. No wonder voters don't feel represented. The HST referendum was as much a show of resentment over Gordon Campbell's style of government, as it was a vote about tax policy. Is this a good way to decide important policy issues?

So maybe the real problem is that we first need to "fix" the representation part, and maybe reduce the level of control that the party exerts over the individual MLAs, and that the Premier's Office exerts over the government itself...and then we wouldn't need referenda?

Oh right, we voted on this already. That was that STV referendum to change the electoral system into something more representative - and it failed.

Saturday, October 1, 2011

Send $ Now.

You think BC is climate-aware because we've got a carbon tax? Uh-uh. More like:


click here: Voters Taking Action on Climate Change to help draw attention to the serious amounts of CO2 we are exporting.
Thanks to Stephen Rees for bringing it to my attention.

Go on, send them 20 bucks. You know you should!