By Chris Sorensen - Sunday, September 12, 2010 - 0 Comments
Fears over dwindling supplies of energy, ‘peak oil’ and future spikes in fuel prices may be overblown
In June 2008 the price of a barrel of oil briefly hit US$145, sparking questions about an impending global shortage. But then the recession hit, demand dropped and prices plummeted to US$30. There’s no question the economic downturn resulted in idled factories and fewer gas-guzzling family summer vacations in the SUV, but it still doesn’t come close to explaining how the price of a barrel can fluctuate by more than US$100 in just a few months, raising the question of how much the precious resource is actually worth in the first place. The answer, says analyst Peter Beutel, the president of energy consultancy Cameron Hanover, is not much more than $10, based on a pure supply and demand calculation.
Beutel offered the lowball estimate during an interview with CNBC last week, arguing the price of oil is generally elevated because it’s treated as an investment—something bought with an eye to making money, not simply a resource to be consumed. “The volatility comes from speculators,” agrees Frank Atkins, a professor of economics at the University of Calgary.
By Nancy Macdonald - Thursday, August 19, 2010 at 12:40 PM - 0 Comments
Visit a supermarket in Abu Dhabi and you’ll be greeted by row after row of picture-perfect produce, most of it imported. The Indian subcontinent has long supplied food to the wealthy desert capital. These days, though, it’s likely those rows of shiny vegetables and fruit came from an improbable source: Ethiopia, a country practically synonymous with famine. Yes, Africa, where one in three people is malnourished, is now growing tomatoes and butter lettuce for export.
Ethiopia’s biggest greenhouse farming operation is kept hidden from curious, or hungry, eyes; even in Awassa, the southern city where it’s housed, few know it exists. Two kilometres down a dusty private road, past a checkpoint guarded with AK47s, hundreds of pristine, white greenhouses suddenly appear, alien to the setting. Farming in Ethiopia is still done by sickle and ox-driven plough. But inside Awassa’s cool, humidity-controlled greenhouses, vines are fed by a computerized irrigation system, the latest Dutch agricultural technology.
By Tom Henheffer - Thursday, August 19, 2010 at 11:00 AM - 0 Comments
Shuttering a key oil refinery in Montreal—and the city is having a hard time letting it go
Shell’s been trying to close its rusting out, money-hemorrhaging oil refinery in East Montreal for over a year, but it has not been an easy goodbye. The courts are now blocking its exit and the city is desperately fighting to keep its refinery business alive.
After conducting a “strategic review” of the plant last year, Shell announced it was looking for a buyer. But with no takers, the company said in January it would turn the site into a fuel-storage terminal. The province and union then struck a committee to look for buyers to prevent the conversion, and in July the union managed to obtain a court injunction preventing the plant from being dismantled until September. Jean-Claude Rocheleau, the union head that represents the refinery’s workers, says the loss of the plant, which injects about $200 million annually into Montreal’s economy, will be irreparable. “That’s 800 direct jobs and 3,500 indirect jobs,” he says. “If the refinery goes, that is the end of the industry in Quebec.”
By Nancy Macdonald - Thursday, August 12, 2010 at 1:00 PM - 0 Comments
Vancouver aims to be the world’s greenest city by 2020
What will Canada’s greenest city do with its trash? Bury it in a far-off hole? Burn it in a new $470-million waste-to-energy incinerator? Last week, local politicians inched closer to a decision following a heated, five-hour debate at a Metro Vancouver board meeting. The regional body oversees Vancouver’s 21 municipalities, including Surrey, tony West Vancouver and granola-crunching Bowen Island, and they don’t always agree. The hullabaloo over the region’s 1.4 million tonnes of garbage boiled down to whether or not to build a new incinerator. The hiccup: would it be green enough?
By Colby Cosh - Thursday, August 12, 2010 at 9:35 AM - 0 Comments
From the courts to Capitol Hill, America is turning on Alberta oil
Karl Marx said that history repeats itself, first as tragedy, then as farce. The April 20 explosion of BP’s Deepwater Horizon drilling rig in the Gulf of Mexico was certainly an epic tragedy, from the all-but-forgotten deaths of 11 workers on the platform to the eventual fall of CEO Tony Hayward—a man handpicked for the job when his mentor John Browne succumbed to the political after-effects of a refinery explosion. By comparison, the July 26 rupture of line 6B in Enbridge’s Lakehead pipeline system seems a trivial matter. The total volume of crude oil dumped into the Michigan countryside before isolation valves closed the pipe is estimated by Calgary-based Enbridge at 19,500 barrels—somewhere between seven and 13 hours worth of flow from the Horizon wellhead.
By Tom Henheffer - Monday, July 26, 2010 at 3:21 PM - 0 Comments
Shale gas could one day replace coal in power plants and gasoline and diesel for cars and trucks
Mike Markham used to hold a match under his faucet and light the tap water on fire. He’d get a small blue flame or an explosive orange fireball, depending on the day. “I had to check to see if I still had a moustache,” he says. Markham lives on an 80-acre farm in Fort Lupton, Colo. There are about eight natural gas wells within a few miles of his property, which he says are causing methane gas to migrate into his water.
The problem, which also affected about 100 of Markham’s neighbours who get water from the same aquifer, ended this year when the drilling companies changed pipe infrastructure and introduced filters and holding tanks to remove the gas before it entered household sinks. The aquifer is still contaminated, but local concerns about water quality aren’t going to stop the nearby drilling. That’s life on the front lines of what might be the biggest energy revolution in generations.
By Kate Lunau - Thursday, July 22, 2010 at 12:00 PM - 8 Comments
Ontario admits that its much-hyped energy project was broken and would have cost taxpayers $1 billion
In Ontario, a plan to subsidize homeowners’ solar panels has been too popular. Earlier this month, admitting participation has “vastly surpassed expectations,” the Ontario Power Authority cut the price it pays for power generated from ground-based solar panels. Through the microFIT Program, it had been offering 80.2 cents per kilowatt hour over a 20-year period—about 20 times the going rate for power. Now, under a proposed adjustment, ground-mounted projects of 10 kilowatts or less would get 58.8 cents per kilowatt hour.
By Kate Lunau - Monday, July 19, 2010 at 11:07 AM - 0 Comments
In 2013, our sun will hit its solar maximum, creating disturbances that could take out the power grid
In March 1989, six million Quebecers lost power for nine hours after a massive solar flare—an explosion of magnetic energy from the sun—created electric ground currents here on Earth, collapsing the power grid. Another geomagnetic storm, in 1921, brought ground currents 10 times as strong. But the fiercest one ever recorded, called the Carrington Event of 1859, electrified telegraph lines—even setting telegraph papers on fire—and created northern lights visible as far south as Cuba and Hawaii. If such a storm were to strike today, the consequences would be devastating. But NASA researchers say severe space weather could be on the way.
By Kate Lunau - Thursday, July 8, 2010 at 1:20 PM - 0 Comments
Solaren Corp. plans to deliver the first-ever electricity from space starting in 2016.
The sun doesn’t always shine on Earth, but in space, it shines all the time. That’s why some scientists say that, instead of putting solar panels on the ground—where passing clouds, the day-and-night cycle, and the Earth’s latitude all affect the strength of the sun’s rays—we should launch them into orbit and beam the energy back down to Earth. Solar panels in space aren’t as improbable as they sound: Solaren Corp., a California company, plans to deliver the first-ever electricity from space starting in 2016.
By Chris Sorensen - Saturday, June 5, 2010 at 6:23 PM - 177 Comments
Why Ontario’s rush to pour billions into green energy is fraught with risk and could leave consumers on the hook
In Ontario, the frenzied rush to “green” the province’s power grid has reached a new level. It’s now possible for farmers to erect a brand new barn without paying a dime. The barns are being offered by a company called Hay Solar and come equipped with a sloping rooftop covered with solar panels. By selling the power generated by the solar panels to the grid, Hay Solar figures each barn is capable of generating enough revenue to let the company pay off the pricey $750,000 buildings (solar panels are expensive) in 20 years, plus taking a cut for its services. After that, the barns and the solar arrays belong to the farmers.
James Mann, the president of Hay Solar and Mann Engineering, one of the country’s largest solar companies, says it’s an opportunity to kill two birds with one stone by satisfying farmers’ immediate demand for more storage space while finding a new market for the company’s cumbersome solar arrays, which offer a potentially attractive revenue stream but require a daunting up-front investment. While he’s convinced his business model will fly (350 barns have already been promised, but none have yet been built), even he admits the pitch sounds a little out there. “When you give a free barn away, people think you’re from Mars.”
By Kate Lunau - Thursday, May 20, 2010 at 1:20 PM - 8 Comments
A U.S. company has designed an unusual source of diesel
Henry Ford, the father of the modern assembly line, predicted a future where fuel would be mass-produced from natural materials like fruit, weeds, or even sawdust—renewable alternatives to finite fossil fuels. Still, one energy technology being developed by Joule Unlimited, a company in Cambridge, Mass., might have surprised even him: a plant that sweats diesel.
By Chris Sorensen - Tuesday, May 4, 2010 at 3:00 PM - 3 Comments
Getting rid of oil-sands tailings ponds is easier said than done
Alberta Premier Ed Stelmach marked Earth Day by talking tough about the oil sands. He called on oil companies to eliminate, within a “few years,” the murky man-made lakes, or tailings ponds, that hold contaminated water (leftover bitumen, sand and various heavy metals) from the extraction process. The vast ponds, which collectively cover about 130 square kilometres—bigger than the city of Vancouver—have become a focal point for environmentalists and are the subject of a lawsuit after 1,600 ducks died on one of Syncrude’s ponds two years ago.
But Stelmach’s vision was overshadowed the following day when Alberta’s energy regulator approved tailings-pond plans for two oil sands projects, including one that has yet to be built. While the approvals were granted in accordance with new guidelines that require ponds to be treated and drained more quickly so they can be planted with vegetation, it’s still a far cry from having no ponds whatsoever—a goal the industry says will likely require significant investments in new technologies.
By Katie Engelhart - Thursday, April 29, 2010 at 12:20 PM - 0 Comments
How employees are turning their bosses on to sustainability
When Valérie Mac-Seing, a young Montreal lawyer, removed the paper cups and plastic utensils from her office kitchen a few years ago, some of the law firm’s older partners branded her a “green terrorist.” But Mac-Seing and her conspirators, the 25 other young lawyers who had answered her call to form a green committee at the Montreal office of Stikeman Elliott LLP, forged on—brushing off some surprisingly vehement resistance. When Mac-Seing put cloth towels in the kitchen, some of her co-workers started using more paper towels in protest. She also faced some backlash for ridding the kitchen of plastic utensils. But now, four years later, there has been a dramatic shift. Today, Stikeman boasts of its status as Canada’s first national law firm to go carbon neutral. Needless to say, the paper cups have seen their last days.
At the start of the green revolution, the focus was on major energy reductions. Executives hired environmental consultants to advise them on how planet-friendly practices could save them—and even make them—cash. But further change will take some different thinking, says Jeremy Osborn, founder of Good Energy, whose company helps organizations engage their workers in sustainable thinking. And it will come from those who know the business best. Employee engagement is “the last frontier of social responsibility,” he insists. You have to “let innovation bubble up.” But it’s not just that good ideas come from below; increasingly, employees are demanding a chance to share them. In a Monster.ca poll of 3,660 workers in 2007, 78 per cent said they would quit their current jobs to work at a company that was “more environmentally friendly.” That sounds a tad high. But the new generation of twentysomethings entering the workforce has grown up tuned in to pro-environment messages—and they’ve bought into them. A number of executives interviewed by Maclean’s mentioned that young recruits are now asking about green policies during job interviews.
By Jason Kirby - Thursday, April 29, 2010 at 12:10 PM - 10 Comments
Forget hollowing out, our firms are the new corporate marauders
As the loonie surged last month, Viterra, a Regina-based grain handler, did what many Canadians have done lately. It went shopping south of the border. In a $240-million deal, the company scooped up Dakota Growers, America’s third-largest pasta producer. But if the acquisition was seen as yet another example of Canada flexing its newly acquired corporate muscle in the world, to some North Dakotans it was nothing short of a travesty. “It’s like recognizing a bad dream becoming reality,” says Bill Patrie, who helped start Dakota Growers as a farmers’ co-op in the early 1990s. Now he worries the pasta plant, which employees about 300 workers, may face cuts, or that cheap wheat will be shipped in from Canada instead. “The starting point was to add value to durum by the people who grew it. Now under Canadian ownership the objective will just be to buy the cheapest durum possible.”
For the last decade, Canadians railed against rapacious foreigners as they seized our natural resources and grabbed up our corporate head offices. The hollowing out of Canada became a national preoccupation as famous names like Molson, Four Seasons, Hudson’s Bay Company and Alcan fell under foreign control. Now, with the strong dollar and Canada’s relatively sound economy, a remarkable shift is under way. Suddenly, Canadians seem to be the ones primed to do all of the buying. “As industries globalize you’re eventually either a buyer or a seller, and for a decade Canada has, by and large, been a seller,” says Ken Smith, a partner at strategic consulting firm Secor Group. “We’ve never been in a better position to move over to the buy side. There are opportunities not just in the U.S. but in Europe and everywhere where the financial crisis has done some damage.”
By Aaron Wherry - Saturday, March 27, 2010 at 8:30 AM - 58 Comments
Greetings from Montreal, where, for the next three days, we’ll be hanging around the Liberal party’s Canada 150 conference. Herein a running diary of the proceedings. Day 1′s diary is here.
8:29am. Good morning. Montreal is chilly and quiet. In a few moments we will be roused by the dulcet tones of David “The Dodge” Dodge, former governor of the Bank of Canada.
8:36am. For those of you scoring at home, the colour of the lights today is orange. And the subject is Families.
8:45am. This conference was apparently the most tweeted subject in Canada yesterday. The Liberals are immensely proud of this. Continue…
By Jason Kirby - Tuesday, February 23, 2010 at 9:00 AM - 5 Comments
Jeffrey Immelt, chairman and CEO of General Electric, on greed, globalization and what it takes to wake up happy each day
Jeffrey Immelt is the chairman and CEO of General Electric, one of the world’s largest corporations, and a member of U.S. President Barack Obama’s Economic Recovery Advisory Board. Since the financial crisis he’s been an outspoken critic of corporate excess and failed leadership. But he has also faced criticism of his own from GE investors who’ve seen shares fall 60 per cent since he took over in 2001. Immelt spoke to Maclean’s during a visit to Vancouver for the Winter Olympics.
Q: In a speech at the West Point military academy in December, you said we’ve come through an era when business went from tough-mindedness, which is a good trait, to meanness and greed. What did you mean by that?
A: Over a period of time, not enough effort has been put forward to investing in the capability and long-term growth of the productive middle class of the United States. Less money has been invested in research and development and manufacturing, with more of a transition to financial services. When a country from 1980 to 2010 goes from being an export powerhouse to an unbelievably consumption-driven net importer, that’s not a good trend.
Q: Can it be reversed?
A: It’s going to take lots of spending on R & D, and a real dedication to making our workforce more productive again. Seven per cent of U.S. GDP is exports. In Germany, it’s 35 per cent. Germany’s not a low-cost country. Germany is not Mexico. And there’s no reason why the U.S. can’t have some kind of destiny that’s like that.
By Martin Patriquin - Wednesday, February 3, 2010 at 9:50 AM - 28 Comments
Quebec has ambitious plans to sell green electricity to the U.S.
Though it might have looked decent enough on paper, Hydro-Québec’s original pitch to buy New Brunswick’s power corporation fell victim to a uniquely Canadian brand of realpolitik rife with governmental hand-wringing, chest-thumping New Brunswick nationalism, and a soupçon of anti-French sentiment. Still, the new deal, announced last week, which would see Hydro-Québec take over New Brunswick’s power generating plants (but not its transmission lines), is hardly a setback for Quebec’s electricity giant. Even under the new agreement, Hydro-Québec has further entrenched itself in Atlantic Canada.
Yet for all the noisy clamour, New Brunswick is only part of Hydro-Québec’s master plan to become a literal power broker for much of Eastern Canada and, more importantly, the Eastern and Midwestern United States. Already, Hydro-Québec powers a sizable portion of New England and New York state. In the next four years, the corporation plans to move further into the American Midwest, a market of over 66 million people where electricity rates are nearly triple those of Quebec’s. The plan is raising concern in the U.S., but promises a huge windfall for the ambitious corporation; buying up NB Power’s generating capacity only gives it more power to throw around.
By John Geddes - Monday, March 2, 2009 at 3:47 PM - 3 Comments
The place of the National Security Adviser in U.S. politics is not something most Canadians, including federal officials, have thought much about. But after Barack Obama’s recent visit to Ottawa, that should change. As we reported in the March 9 issue of the magazine, the key White House official in setting the agenda for Obama’s meetings with Stephen Harper was General James Jones Jr., the current NSA.
By Andrew Coyne - Thursday, February 19, 2009 at 7:44 PM - 91 Comments
Thoughts on the two leaders’ press conference:
1) They’ll get along fine. They’re similar in some ways: roughly the same age, both policy wonks, both pretty no-nonsense. I got the sense they respected each other. But they’re also different, especially … culturally. Obama’s a member, not so much of the upper class, as the inner: he’s comfortable with the Harvard/New York Times set, people who consider themselves the elite, never mind what anyone else calls them. That’s especially the case in Canada, given the Liberals’ long dominance here — hence the obvious sympatico between Obama and Ignatieff. Harper’s emphatically not of that crowd: as a Conservative, he’s one of the “outs,” at least in his own mind and certainly in his rhetoric.
2) But good relations can’t paper over policy differences, particularly on
a) Afghanistan. As evidence, Obama’s intervention to the effect that he did not “press” Harper to extend Canada’s troop commitment. If he truly didn’t want something from us, he wouldn’t make such a show of saying that he didn’t. Harper, for his part, ducked the question when it was put to him.
b) NAFTA and Buy America. They really weren’t on the same page here. And Obama has constituencies to deliver for.
3) Thought Harper was very strong on Canada being just as vigilant against terrorist attacks as the US. It’s true that at one point we were appallingly lax (no pun intended) on this, but that hasn’t been true for some years, and Americans, especially the American right, needed to hear it from him.
4) Not sure what this Clean Energy Dialogue means, but it’s wholly in keeping with everything we’ve heard from Harper to date: emphasis on technological solutions, carbon sequestration etc. I actually think the two leaders are quite close on this one. Obama is not going to impose a carbon tax, and US public opinion will not stand for any international agreement on global warming that does not include China and India. Which has been Harper’s position: a “Son of Kyoto” that was less stringent, but broader in application, than Kyoto. Remember that it wasn’t Bush who vetoed Kyoto. It was the US Senate. 95-0.
5) That said, Harper certainly didn’t take long to throw Bush under the bus. To listen to him today, you’d think that his government had been champing at the bit to tackle global warming, but was held back by those laggards to the south: “Canada has had great difficulty developing an effective regulatory regime alone … It’s very hard to have a tough regulatory system here when we are competing with an unregulated economy south of the border…. I’m quite optimistic that we now have a partner on the North American continent that will provide leadership to the world on the climate change issue and I think that’s an important development…”
By Pamela Cuthbert - Thursday, October 2, 2008 at 12:00 AM - 12 Comments
Enviro options made of remnants of virgin forests and stitched in sweatshops—uh oh
What’s in your bag? Now that eco-chic is setting the tone for fashion, so-called green options for shopping bags are sprouting like weeds. We’re told by environmentalists to “Just say no!” to those nasty, petroleum-based, disposable bags that sit in landfills, leach into soils, clog lakes and oceans, and kill marine life. But those alternative totes come with their own mess of issues. What’s best? There’s organic cotton and fair-trade hemp, nylon and paper made from recycled materials—even plastic, disposable bags that are made from corn instead of oil.
Some say it’s enough to show up at the store with your own, reusable bag. Many of these are convenient—small and lightweight enough to tuck into your purse or pocket—and strong enough to carry heavy groceries. But just how “eco” is a flashy nylon bag that has been treated with environmentally destructive dyes and shipped around the world? And, given that it’s not biodegradable or compostable, won’t it wind up in a landfill along with the oil-based, disposable ones?
“There’s a hierarchy of bags,” explains Pierre Sadik, a senior policy adviser with the David Suzuki Foundation, who has studied the bag quandary for years. “Domestically made, multi-use cloth bags or fair-trade multi-use bags would be the best.” And organic hemp would top the list, since it’s particularly durable and made from a crop that’s easy to grow and uses little water. “The problem is hemp is a restricted crop in the United States,” he says. “It still has a hippy-dippy reputation because of its association with the marijuana plant.”
Meanwhile, grocery chains are selling reusable bags made of recycled plastics or handing out recycled paper ones. When asked about paying for bags, a shopper at a superstore in Toronto grumbled: “Food is getting more expensive, so now I have to pay for the bags too?”
Sadik rates the lifespan of a bag as key, and advises against using plastic. “Plastic has been with us starting about 60 years ago and all of it is still with us, with the exception of the stuff that has been incinerated.” As for the paper, if it isn’t 100 per cent recycled material, you’re carrying around dead remnants of what tree huggers affectionately call virgin forests. Another demerit point: paper weighs more than plastic, so for recycling transported waste (Toronto sends its waste to Michigan, for example), every ounce increases the carbon footprint.
By Steve Maich - Tuesday, July 1, 2008 at 1:31 PM - 0 Comments
My most recent column isn’t online as yet… but I can tell you it’s…
My most recent column isn’t online as yet… but I can tell you it’s all about the nonsense coming out of congress and elsewhere, blaming “speculators” for the run-up in oil prices. I confess, I have been susceptible to this thinking in the past too. But the evidence is mounting that speculators have little or nothing to do with soaring energy costs. Here”s yet another new story in which the industry’s biggest minds keep telling us to ignore Joe Lieberman and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
Yert another sign of the times, which I came across on Paul Kedrosky’s amazing blog. Also from Bloomberg: If speculators are driving the oil price, why has oil continued to climb when speculative activity in the futures market peaked almost a year ago?
By Jason Kirby - Friday, May 30, 2008 at 4:28 PM - 0 Comments
Who does more for Canada? Ontario, the traditional economic engine of the country, or…
Who does more for Canada? Ontario, the traditional economic engine of the country, or Alberta, the energy dynamo credited with keeping Canada out of the current economic dog house? Both, if you listen to the finance ministers for the two provinces.
Yesterday Alberta’s Iris Evans was in Toronto making her pitch for why Canadians should feel all warm and cuddly towards Oilberta. “When Alberta gains $634 billion a year from GDP of these oilsands,” she told the Economic Club of Toronto, “Ontario gains $110 billion a year.” All told, she said, Ontario and the federal government receive half the taxes collected from the oilsands.
Not one to have his province’s financial fortitude questioned, Ontario Finance Minister Dwight Duncan issued a statement today just to remind everyone who wears the pants around here.