Tuesday in Halifax: a Sable Island update


If you are near Halifax Tuesday night, you can get the latest information about Sable Island’s transformation into a National Park at what promises to be a fascinating meeting.

The 9th annual Sable Island Update, latest in a series of meetings oganized by naturalist and longtime Sable resident Zoe Lucas, will see illustrated talks about scientific and organizational developments on the island. This year’s session will also feature an an extended opportunity to question Parks Canada officials about their new role as federal stewards of the island.

Lucas began the updates a decade ago, when Environment Canada announced plans to abandon the island as a cost-cutting measure, putting its fragile environment, and the valuable but little known scientific work that takes place there, at risk. The annual updates usually take place in the spring, but since April 1 marked the island’s handoff to Parks Canada, Lucas and Mark Butler, Policy Director for the Ecology Action Centre, decided to delay this year’s session in hopes of getting “solid and detailed info from Parks Canada—nuts & bolts, management policy, programs, staffing, etc.”

The Parks takeover got off to a bad start before it began when Environment Minister Jim Prentice speculated about opening the island to private boat tours and hotel accommodations, sparking an angry public backlash from supporters of Sable, including Contrarian. Lucas supports the Parks Canada takeover, and believes a zero-tourism policy is unrealistic. Her talk will include a review of the history of tourism on the island.

No one has done more than Lucas to preserve Sable’s ecological integrity, and no one is better qualified to make recommendations about it’s future. Still, I continue to worry that any significant increase in tourist visitors to the Island will de detrimental to the qualities that make it unique. Tourism floodgates are easy to open, and will be all but impossible to close, so this policy demands extreme caution.

Lucas has four decades’ experience monitoring and studying Sable Island horses, birds, invertebrates, grasses, lichens, mosses, fungi, and fresh water ponds. She conducts regular surveys of beach litter and  cetacean strandings. Her talk will include a brief update on recent goings-on on the island. 

Saint Mary’s biology professor Tim Frasier, a specialist in marine mammals, has a research interest in the use of genetics to better understand, and assist the conservation of, small wild animal populations. His talk will focus on the application of this work to Sable Island horses.

The 9th Annual Sable Island Update takes place 7 p.m., Tuesday, at the McNally Building, Saint Mary’s University, 923 Robie St., Halifax. There is much more information at Lucas’s Green Horse Society website.

Sponsors of the meeting include the Friends of the Green Horse Society, the Ecology Action Centre, Saint Mary’s University, the World Wildlife Fund, the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society, and the Nova Scotian Institute of Science. The photo above was copied from the poster for the event, and I presume it was taken by Zoe Lucas.


Six things the NDP did right – part 2

Here is the final instalment of my four posts on the NDP government’s mistakes and successes. Mistakes here and here. Successes, part one, here, part two below. Between now and election day, I’ll post a selection of reader responses, more of which are always welcome.

4. Wilderness protection


Two hundred years from now, few Nova Scotians will know whether the provincial government balanced its books in 2013, or how much power rates increased between 2009 and 2013, or even who Darrell Dexter was. But they will know that a significant amount of Nova Scotia’s spectacular wilderness areas was permanently protected for the benefit of people and wildlife.

Building on a foundation laid by Mark Parent, environment minister in the Rodney MacDonald government, the NDP has taken Nova Scotia from a mediocre record of wilderness conservation to a position of national leadership.

The Protected Areas Plan for Nova Scotia, released in August, capped several rounds of public and stakeholder consultations to identify lands worthy of protection. It increased the total percentage of protected lands in the province from 9.4 percent (second lowest among Canadian provinces) to 13 percent now (second only to British Columbia, at 14 percent). The total will grow to about 14 percent as new sites are protected over the next few years. The newly protected lands include 700 kilometres of coastline and about 2600 lakes and watercourses.

The plan won praise from the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society, Nova Scotia Nature Trust, the Assembly of Nova Scotia Mi’kmaq Chiefs, the Nature Conservancy of Canada, and the Ecology Action Centre, whose wilderness co-ordinator, Raymond Plourde, lauded the government for “hard work and steadfast support for conservation.”

Extending the percentage of protected areas to 14 percent of the province assumes the government to be sworn in next month will continue the plan. The Liberal Party platform [PDF] says the party “support(s) the protection of land,” but at least one Liberal candidate, Lloyd Hines, running in Guysborough, has called for a halt to further land protection.

The Mining Association of Nova Scotia accused the government of putting future economic growth at risk by permanently protecting land from economic use. It will lobby the incoming government to allow land swaps, so mining and quarrying companies can access the protected land.

5.  A five-year highway plan

For decades, Nova Scotia governments have tried to control budget deficits, some more successfully than others. Nova Scotia has another kind of deficit we rarely hear about: a highway infrastructure deficit. The province has about 23,000 km. of roads, and for years, we’ve been wearing them out faster than we fix them.

Paving and politics are deeply entwined, which means road construction and maintenance decisions haven’t always reflected objective criteria. The Dexter Government took several useful steps to arrest and begin reversing the decline of our highways:

  • It produced and published a five-year plan for highway and bridge maintenance and construction. The plan’s annual updates are readily available on the Department of Transportation and Infrastructure Renewal website. Four instalments have been produced so far. They are not perfect. They are vague about the timeframes for multi-year, 100-series highway expansion projects, but they represent a big improvement over plans drawn up on a napkin in the minister’s back pocket.
  • The province improved its criteria for maintaining paved roads. In the past, when paving decisions weren’t based on pure politics, they were prioritized on a worst-first basis. Roads in the worst condition got paved first. This sounds logical, but it ignores a key fact about highway engineering. At a certain point in their lifespan, paved roads begin to show signs of deterioration. If early steps are taken to repair the damage—by sealing cracks, applying a mixture of stone chips and asphalt, micro sealing with a thin layer of asphalt, or applying a single layer of asphalt—major reconstruction can be delayed for several years.
  • The Dexter Government took two bold steps to rectify the costly consequences of non-competitive bidding on major highway jobs. It purchased a paving plant and deployed it in rural counties where a lack of competitive bidding led to construction costs that were much higher than in neighbouring New Brunswick. The government established a provincial chip-seal crew for the same reason. Predictably, the paving cartel went ballistic and hired a PR outfit to plant horror stories with business-compliant reporters bemoaning delays and cost overruns in the civil service paving crews. But paving bids plummeted by amounts that dwarfed the provincial overruns.

[View Larger Map]

The interactive map above, cribbed from the department’s website, shows that highway projects are still over-concentrated in government ridings. To some extent, this is inevitable given the NDP sweep of rural ridings in 2009. But the steps outlined above represent a serious effort to address highway deterioration that a new government would be imprudent to abandon for short term political gain.

6.  The Maritime Link

The natural gas industry, the wind power industry, the province’s two opposition parties, and a bogus citizens’ group that is really a front for the gas industry have had a field day parlaying voter resentment over recent power rate increases into skepticism about the wisdom of developing the Maritime Link to receive electricity from Muskrat Falls in Labrador. The quality of their arguments has ranged from shallow and self-serving to intellectually dishonest.


Simply put, the government that takes office next month would be nuts to pass up the chance to open a power corridor to Labrador, site of the largest untapped hydro resource on earth. [Disclosure: In 2011 and 2012, I carried out writing projects for Emera involving the Maritime Link.]

Historically, the big problem with Nova Scotia’s electrical system is a lack of diversity. When oil was cheap in the ’50s and ’60s, we over-committed to oil-fired power plants, only to see the price of oil increase almost tenfold in the 1970s. We repeated the mistake in the 1980s, replacing all those oil-fired plans with coal plants. This made sense at a time when coal was cheap, mining it created local jobs, and no one had heard of climate change. But the last big mine closed in 2000 2001, and since then we’ve sent hundreds of millions of dollars a year to coal brokers in faraway lands, with no local local economic benefit. Once again, we found ourselves at the mercy of  wild swings in the price of imported fossil fuels.

The obvious solution is to diversify our electricity supply, and increase our access to market priced electricity, so we will never again find ourselves shackled to world prices for fossil fuels. In short, the solution is a little coal, a little natural gas, a little wind, a little hydro, eventually a little tidal, and occasional purchases from the North American grid—something we can’t do today, because our slender electrical connection to New Brunswick is too frail to support significant imports.

The Maritime Link serves this strategy in several ways:

  • It assures Nova Scotia a 35-year supply of clean, renewable energy sufficient to meet eight to 10 percent of our current electricity demand (and much more than that in the first five years, owing to a quirk in the arrangement with Nalcor, the Newfoundland energy utility).
  • Because Muskrat Falls is the small first step in a series of massive hydro developments planned in Newfoundland and Labrador, the Maritime Link will give us preferred access to that additional clean renewable energy when it comes on line.
  • When Newfoundland’s lamented contract with Quebec for power from the massive Churchill Falls generating station expires in 2041—not that far off in utility planning terms—the Maritime Link will also give us preferred access to that clean renewable energy.
  • Because Newfoundland has its eye on the massive electricity demand in New England and New York, construction of the Maritime Link will lead to construction of a robust transmission corridor between Cape Breton and Boston. This, too, can only increase our options for power purchases and sales at market prices.
  • At the moment, we have maxed out the capacity of our electricity grid to absorb intermittent power sources like wind. Hydro power makes an ideal backup for wind power because, unlike coal-fired plants, it can be ramped up quickly when wind turbines tapers off due to diminishing winds. The Maritime Link will enable further expansion of clean, renewable wind power in Nova Scotia.

These advantages are so solid and so varied as to make Nova Scotia’s embrace of the project the obvious choice. Against them, the project’s critics, all of whom have some vested interest in a competing fuel source or in defeating the current government, draw comparisons to the spot price of whatever fuel source is cheapest at the moment. They pretend we can base 35-year power planning decisions on the assumption that prices will stay that low for three decades.

This is rank nonsense. Every serious energy planner knows the only reliable thing about fossil fuel prices is that they are sure to gyrate wildly, while trending relentlessly upward. Last year, the prospect of tapping massive shale gas deposits made natural gas the darling of the day, but now gas prices have gone up again, and some energy experts contend the shale gas bubble is poised to burst.

By contrast, hydro projects look expensive at the start, but like the sweetest of bargains five or 10 years into their decades-long lifespans. The notoriously low price Hydro Quebec pays for power from Churchill Falls—currently one-quarter of a cent per kilowatt-hour—was actually above the market price when the contract was signed in late 1960s. All the costs of building a hydro development are payable up front, but because they use no fuel, hydro plants go on producing for decades at stable prices that look better with each passing year. Can any of the Maritime Link’s naysayers claim coal and gas prices will not increase over the next 35 years?

When analysts pick over the bones of the NDP’s almost certain defeat in next week’s election, they will focus on the issue of electricity rates. The NDP government has been honest about the short-term costs of converting Nova Scotia’s electricity system from its decades-old over-reliance on imported fossil fuels to a diverse mix of renewable sources, and it made the right decision committing to the Maritime Link. Opposition parties have pandered to public resentment over recent power rate increases, while offering magical promises to freeze rates and lower renewable targets (in the case of the Tories), or to abandon energy efficiency and adopt deregulation strategies that have proven disastrous in other jurisdictions (in the case of the Liberals).

That this contrast—honesty and sound decisions vs. pandering and magic solutions—will see the NDP driven from office is surely the most dispiriting aspect of recent public discourse in Nova Scotia.

Halifax press corps flunks Sable Island 101

Reporters attending Parks Canada’s Sable Island announcement this morning at the Halifax Citadel were apparently in stenography mode. Or perhaps they had been instructed to fish for soundbites on more urgent stories, like the confusion around environmental and salvage measures for the grounded bulk carrier MV Miner.

Whatever the cause, they came ill-prepared to probe the most contentious issue surrounding plans to make Sable Island a national park: the Harper Government’s impulse to promote private sector tourism development on the island. Environment Minister Jim Prentice touched off a furore in January, 2010, when he first announced plans to make Sable a national park or a national wildlife area. As the Halifax Chronicle-Herald reported:

”Sable Island would be well-protected, and it would be an area that we would encourage visitors to come to and they would be well taken care of while they’re there,” he said after a news conference at Citadel Hill in Halifax.

He said he expects private businesses would transport people to the island, about 290 kilometres southeast of Halifax near the edge of the continental shelf

Prentice’s threat to unleash tourism entrepreneurs on Sable has dominated public discussion of the issue ever since, but reporters apparently didn’t bother to google the subject before proceeding to the Citadel today. They didn’t ask a single question about the tourism promotion flap. In fact, they hardly asked any questions about Sable at all. According to one person present, there were “two questions on MV Miner, one on HRM’s proposed stadium, and two or so on Sable.”

“[H]onestly, that’s the first I’ve heard of it,” a reporter confessed.

“Why have you chosen this windmill to tilt,” another asked.

Adventure tourists from the “expedition ship” Polar Star visited Sable in October, 2009, one of four or five such cruise ship visits to the island. (Photo: Zoe Lucas, Sable Island Green Horse Society)

“Tilting at windmills,” of course, is a figure of speech derived from Miguel de Cervantes’s novel Don Quixote, in which Quixote jousts with windmills he imagines to be giants. I assume the reporter used it metaphorically to imply I am attacking imaginary enemies, or fighting futile battles.

The enemy is not imaginary, nor is the battle futile. Moreover, the issue is too important for reporters to arrive at a news conference ill-prepared.

It’s important because Sable is one of the province’s premiere natural landscapes, a category that has steadily dwindled (most recently with the province’s egregious failure to buy Pollet’s Cove when it had the chance). Sable has many remarkable features, including terrain, vegetation, wildlife, and habitat, and a unique location. It is the only island lying roughly 100 miles off the east coast of North America, a vantage offering significant opportunities for scientific research on air quality.

The Sable National Park announcement where no one asked about tourism. (Alex Boutlier photo)

Most people with deep knowledge of Sable recoil at the idea of encouraging private sector tourism promotion because of the damage unrestricted visitation would cause. But people are people, and when they see a gorgeous landscape, the impulse to develop it is hard to resist. The need for constant vigilance in protecting natural treasures is what gave rise to the national park systems in the US and Canada.

Sable is unique in that creating the usual park infrastructure and encouraging normal park tourism would be highly destructive of its many fragile natural elements. I would have preferred a custom-made solution for Sable rather than a National Park. People who take the opposite view worry that a one-off solution would always be vulnerable to change or abandonment in a way that a National Park will not be. I hope they are right. Some people with very deep commitment to Sable — specifically Sable resident Zoe Lucas of the Green Horse society, and Mark Butler of the Ecology Action Centre — hold that view, and I have to concede they may be right.

Still, Prentice’s comments were so reckless and disturbing, they need to be challenged throughout the process.

There was no public consultation before this park decision was made. All consultation came after bureaucrats, meeting privately, chose a park over a national wildlife refuge. That made the post-decision public consultation look like window dressing, but hundreds of Sable lovers weighed in anyway, and they overwhelmingly opposed accelerated tourism development. The hapless bureaucrat who had to report the results of these consultations at a public meeting said the message had come through loud and clear. I hope it will be enough. But with pro-development ideologues running the country, one never knows.

Reporters assigned to this story in future may wish to consult:

  • The balanced discussion of the tourism issue on Zoe Lucas’s Green Horse Society website, the definitive source for information about Sable.
  • The Hands Off Sable Island Facebook page I started to protest Prentice’s reckless speculation.
  • Previous Contrarian posts on the issue here, here, here, and here.
  • Park’s Canada’s FAQ page for Sable’s designation as a national park, which includes various tips for would-be Sable tourists.
  • The federal-provincial MOU that kicked off Sable’s process leading to Sable’s designation as a national park.
  • The official Visitors’ Guide to Sable Island by the Canadian Coast Guard, which currently controls access to the island.
  • The report [pdf] of Ottawa’s after-the-fact public “consultation” about Sable’s park designation, in which officials were innundated with pleas to restrict tourism.
  • The Nova Scotia Museum’s extensive Sable Island website.
  • The Maritime Museum of the Atlantic’s Sable Island website.
  • The Coast’s coverage of the Sable Park tourism brouhaha.
  • Nature Canada’s comments on the Sable Park tourism brouhaha.
  • Incredibly, officials did not release the federal-provincial agreement signed yesterday, but promise to do so soon, at which point I will link to it.
  • The original Herald article sparking the issue is no longer archived on line.

A final notes: There is a rational case to be made for limited Sable tourism. Zoe Lucas and others make it eloquently on the Green Horse Society page devoted to the national park designation.

[L]imited tourism has not had a negative impact on the island, and some people feel it has been a positive force. Individuals who have seen Sable first-hand have been able to share with others their enhanced appreciation of the island as well as their understanding of the critical role of the Station. Many have subsequently supported efforts to ensure that year-round environmental stewardship for Sable Island is maintained.

I agree with this, but Prentice was not proposing “limted tourism.” Plenty of people would leap at the chance to open up the island to commercial exploitation. Sable’s fervent cadre of supporters need to guard against that. And senior Halifax reporters need to do their jobs.

[Disclosure, I visited Sable twice as a reporter in the 1980s and 1990s. Both trips included a few hours on the island under the watchful supervision of Zoe Lucas and then-station chief Gerry Forbes.]

NSP meets its customers – feedback

Getting this done (or almost done), together with pressing client chores, have kept contrarian from blogging much these last two weeks, leaving a backlog of unacknowledged feedback on the NS Power customer consultation, and the recent outbreak of hurricane hysteria. After the jump, reader feedback on NS Power.

Continue reading NSP meets its customers – feedback

UARB rejects wood supply worries

In contrarian‘s view, the strongest arguments put forward by environmentalists in the NSP biomass application hearings dealt with wood supply.  The UARB gave them short shrift.

Black River Wind Ltd. argued that pressure to supply the proposed plant would encourage NewPage to adopt unsustainable forestry practices.

The Ecology Action Centre praised recent improvements in NewPage’s forest management practices. It argued that a smaller biomass generator, designed to run on wood waste generated by NewPage’s existing forestry operations, could be a useful component of the campaign to wean NSP and its customers off dirty coal, but concluded that a boiler of the size proposed would overtax Eastern Nova Scotia’s wood supply.

The UARB concluded that harvesting practices were beyond its jurisdiction, adding,  “The Board assumes that other authorities who have responsibility for the harvesting of the forest will ensure appropriate regulations and guidelines with respect to harvesting biomass are in place.”

Continue reading UARB rejects wood supply worries