Telegraph Journal censors opinion piece “Lessons learned from the NB Power – Hydro Quebec deal”

I’ve been writing articles on energy and politics for the past four years.  This is the op-ed article that the Telegraph Journal wouldn’t publish.  It is the 8th on the deal between  NB Power and Hydro Quebec.

I sent this article to my opinion page editor on March 8, 2010.  Some communication followed.  On the 15th, I wrote indicating that I would interpret no response as a negative to publication.  I included my thanks for the opportunity to have published articles in the past (more than 80, I think) but will not be writing again for the TJ under these conditions.

I have not heard back that they would or would not publish.   Sadly, we have a problem of media concentration that is unparalleled in the free world, when virtually all of the print media in New Brunswick is owned by one industrialist family, the Irvings.  This concentration affects the politics of the province and the level of democratic communication.

To be fair to the paper, they have published letters  and op-ed pieces against the deal.  However, that doesn’t really compare to the constant barrage of editorials and front page news articles that trumpeted the public relations framework of the government.  One can expect a newspaper to exhibit a bias at times, but where it becomes problematic to society is when the owners of the papers are the beneficiaries of the government deal they are promoting through their media.   That’s what we call a conflict of interest that is beyond acceptable levels to our democracy.    On Wednesday, the 24th of March, Premier Graham announce the end of the deal.

Is the NB Power–HQ deal a little clearer now that four months have slipped by?   Are we getting answers?  A parallel might be drawn between the changing reasons given for the Iraq war and this humble deal.

Initial spin suggested that the Iraq war was about weapons of mass destruction, or bringing democracy to people formerly living under a dictator.  That changed as journalists woke up and realized the inconsistencies.  Actually, the Iraq war was about oil, the geopolitics of the Middle East – control of which countries get a share of the diminishing oil supply in coming years.  American soldiers aren’t leaving the Middle East in the near future.

Logically, the NB Power sale was never about the debt of NB Power, and it wasn’t about reducing carbon based electricity and its pollution.  The Premier is selectively worried about debt, abandoning the debt reduction work of Bernard Lord, and becoming the deficit king of New Brunswick.  Further deficits are promised until 2014 including Mr. Graham’s plan to waste a billion dollars twinning Route 11 in the twilight of the petroleum age.

If the goal was to reduce our use of carbon fuel in our electricity mix and stabilize the volatility of fuel in our expenses, then a simple power purchase agreement with Quebec for roughly 7 TWh per year would have sufficed.  But that isn’t what happened.  The deal was exceptionally complicated, and to make matters worse, the public relations campaign purposely did not release much information or answer questions leading to a frenzy of concern among a large number of New Brunswick residents.

The government’s handling of the deal isn’t getting much better but the newspapers of the province are ensuring that proponents of the deal are given excellent coverage in all papers.  A quick guess is that 9 out of 10 stories covering the deal have been favourable.

The Irving family owns virtually all of the daily and weekly newspapers in the province and most of the largest industries.  They will benefit the most from this deal, to the tune of roughly $40 million a year.  Is the favourable media coverage given related to the benefits obtained from this deal?  Perhaps this is just a coincidence.

Many are questioning the independence of the media and searching for ways to create an independent media who ask the right questions.  Are the interests of the Irvings aligned with the interests of the province? On a recent CBC panel on media concentration, three political parties acknowledged the problem, calling for a review and changes to the ownership of media in New Brunswick.  According to host Terry Seguin, “The Liberal party declined our invitation to participate”.

The media campaign has had some success in promoting panic about NB Power’s debt.  As well, the tactic of the PR campaign has been to always compare the proposed deal to doing nothing.  Alternative ideas aren’t to be discussed.

Some of the basic questions that are not being asked or answered are:  Why is there no cap on inflation in this deal?  After all, HQ’s costs are largely immune to inflation, being largely long-term debt on power dams.   Does the lesson that Newfoundland is painfully learning with their contract until 2041 mean nothing to us?  Professor Donald Savoie is worried about inflation, but Jack Keir isn’t concerned.  In fact, why would we use a CPI based price adjustment mechanism at all?  Cost based regulation plus a profit is a much more responsible method.

Why are large industries being given a permanent untargeted subsidy on rates without EUB consideration and approval?  For example, why do profitable businesses like Molson-Coors, among others, require lower rates?

What will be the role of the public regulator who can’t examine 80% of the cost structure of the utility and can’t address industrial rates?  I suppose that they will still be able to calculate the rate for gas and fuel oil each week, so it may keep someone busy.

When changes are made to the deal but benefits to industry remain, it indicates clearly what is the central part of the deal.  The size of the bailout is close to two Atcons per year.  The 41 industrials get the savings up front and when the deal goes sour, they are given an exit ramp to find other sources, while the citizens of New Brunswick are on the hook forever.

Based on public opposition, legislative hearings are now scheduled but no changes in the deal are planned.   We should remember that although Quebec has ten times our population, it has 100 times the political clout in Ottawa.  As Newfoundland found out, there will be no political salvation for New Brunswick if any error exists in the deal.

Food forum puts initiatives on the menu

Published in the Times Transcript, Moncton on March 19, 2010

“The grain grown to produce fuel in the U.S. (in 2009) was enough to feed 330 million people for one year at average world consumption levels,” Lester Brown, the director of the Earth Policy Institute, told the Guardian newspaper, underlining the level of folly related to our world food system.

When the economy contracts like in 2008, it affects people. More people are unemployed, but still need food. We can view “the food system” as an economic issue — it costs us $152 on average each month to retain our weight and not starve. Given the population of New Brunswick, that’s $1.4 billion per year we spend. For a family of 2.2 persons, that is $4,012 per year out of your budget. Of course, these are averages and can vary.

For farmers, the business is changing. The 2006 census figures show 2,776 farms in New Brunswick, down more than eight per cent from 2001. Farmers say that the average age of those feeding the people is becoming critical. We know it’s important to look at demographics, and especially the farm scene, before it’s too late. Across Canada, statistics also tell us that the size of farms is growing, becoming more focused on the industrial agriculture export model. Even with this productive model, there are a billion people in the world who are food insecure.

Looking forward, can an industry that relies on cheap oil to plant, harvest and transport food large distances to market be really sustainable when oil production declines?

I just read a report from Kuwaiti professors who indicate peak oil will happen in 2014. Some say we’re already there. When the cost of oil rises again, what will it mean for farmers who are already financially stressed? What will the industrial agriculture export model do? Will sending food around the world be practical? Where will our lettuce and tomatoes come from? If the world’s population cannot be supported by the present model without oil, is there an alternative that will enable us to adapt?

There are groups who are resisting the commodification of food. Henry Saragih, General co-ordinator of La Via Campesina, a group that represents small farmers around the world, says “in our model human beings work the land to produce food to satisfy the needs of local communities and at the same time protect our common goods like land, water, native seeds, and also our local culture and our history.”

All over the world, conflicts between the industrialization of food and the family farm are playing out. So far, industrialization is winning.

Against this backdrop is the local food concept. Can we have a stronger and more resilient local economy when we produce more food for a local market? Can we encourage urban dwellers to produce some of their own food either on their own land or in community gardens? How can municipalities help? Can we strengthen our local food systems so farming is chosen by more young people? In addition to the resilience that such a change would bring to our communities, the partnerships of farmers and eaters builds community links, something lacking in our society that identifies us only as consumers.

Some of the partnerships possible are CSAs (Community Supported Agriculture) where citizens contract with local farmers to buy produce, taking on some of the risks but also some of the benefits. A second type of partnership might be governments using creative financing or leasing land to young farmers to reduce the entry barriers for them.

There’s a local food forum planned this Sunday 12:30-4:30 p.m. at the University of Moncton’s Student Center, free admission. The purpose is to share information and build strategies on local food and issues related to food security. It will be of interest to farmers, restaurant and tourism operators, NGOs, and local interest groups. The general public is also welcome.

The food forum was a great success bringing together a diverse group to talk about the problems and solutions that are possible. / RRM