Monday, July 26, 2010

Who is the real Stephen Harper?

Here's a posting that should bring back some bad memories for Canadians.  While I realize that these comments from Stephen Harper aren't particularly new, they bear repeating.  It always shocks me how many people are unaware of Mr. Harper's speech given to the Council for National Policy.

I always watch with interest and, I must admit more than a little discomfort, when the Harper Conservatives use every opportunity to consistently remind Canadians that the leader of the Official Opposition, Mr. Michael Ignatieff, is an American wolf in Canadian sheep's clothing. After doing a bit of reading this past month, I was reminded of a speech that Mr. Harper gave before he was Prime Minister. I recalled that he referred to Canada as a Northern European welfare state but was unclear about the entire content of the speech or the context in which it was given.

Well, thank goodness for the internet. A quick search turned up the entire speech here. In my mind, this speech is highly significant to Canadians. Because he gave the speech after his tenure as a Reform MP in Ottawa but before he became leader of the Alliance and well before he became Prime Minister, it gives Canadians a glimpse of the "real" Stephen Harper; not the man that Canadians see today who is a creation of the PMO, his political handlers and his public relations personnel.

Mr. Harper gave this speech in Montreal back in 1997 as Vice President of the National Citizen's Coalition. His audience was the Council for National Policy, a right-wing American think tank. I'll briefly explain just what the CNP is and what their agenda consists of at the end of this posting to put the speech and the occasion into context.

In this speech, Mr. Harper makes some very interesting and candid observations about Canada and Canadians that I will quote verbatim followed by a brief comment.

"...Now, having given you a compliment, let me also give you an insult. I was asked to speak about Canadian politics. It may not be true, but it's legendary that if you're like all Americans, you know almost nothing except for your own country. Which makes you probably knowledgeable about one more country that most Canadians."

It would appear that Mr. Harper thinks Canadians are uneducated idiots and buffoons. In fact, we may even be more ignorant than uneducated Americans.

"...First, facts about Canada. Canada is a Northern European welfare state in the worst sense of the term, and very proud of it. Canadians make no connection between the fact that they are a Northern European welfare state and the fact that we have very low economic growth, a standard of living substantially lower than yours, a massive brain drain of your professionals to your country (I assume he included Mr. Ignatieff in this group) and double the unemployment rate of the Unite States. In term of the unemployed, of which we have over a million-and-a-half, don't feel particularly bad for many of these people. They don't feel bad about it themselves, as long as they're receiving generous social assistance and unemployment insurance."

Could it be possible that Mr. Harper thinks that Canadians are a bunch of socialists with an entitlement problem? Apparently, we'd rather sit on our butts and collect EI than actually work. All of Canada's smart people (at least the ones that are motivated enough to work for a living) would rather move to the United States to get away from Canada's loser, sit at home and wait for the government cheques to roll in mentality.

"...Of our two Legislative houses, the Senate, our upper house, is appointed, also by the Prime Minister, where he puts buddies, fundraisers and the like. So the Senate is also not very important in our political system."

I guess that means that the 33 Senators that Mr. Harper has appointed in the past 4 years are not buddies, fundraisers and the like. That makes me feel much better so, I'd like to volunteer my name for one of the coveted appointments. I guess the unimportant nature of the Senate also explains Mr. Harper's appointment of one of the recent Senators for Prince Edward Island.

"...If any member of these political parties votes differently from his party on a particular issue, well, that will be national headline news. It's really hard to believe. If any one member votes differently, it will be national headline news. I voted differently at least once from my party, and it was headline news. It's a very different system..."

It surprises me that Mr. Harper really believes in free votes in the House. Does this mean that he will no longer whip his members when they vote and he will no longer harass the members of the Opposition and their leaders when some members vote against their party?

"...Canada is, however, a troubled country politically, not socially. This is a country that we like to say works in practice but not in theory..."

Again, it seems that Mr. Harper is really sorry that we're a bunch of hoser losers. Not to worry though, he'll take care of things for us.

One thing I completely fail to understand is why the media and the Opposition Parties in the House of Commons don't take every opportunity available to them to remind all Canadians who their Prime Minister really is, what he stands for and what he really believes. It is like the battle in the House of Commons is fought with the Conservatives armed with verbal nuclear weapons and the fighters on the Opposition side of House have a few verbal stones to hurl amongst the whole lot of them and they're reluctant to throw them because someone on the other side could get their feelings hurt.

As I stated at the beginning of this posting, I wanted to put everything that Mr. Harper said in his speech into perspective by giving you a little bit of information about his audience that night back in 1997.

The Council for National Policy (CNP) is an umbrella organization for conservative Christians that was founded in 1981; one of its founding members is Timothy LaHaye, author of the "Left Behind" end times series of novels, who was the head of the Moral Majority at the time. Its membership list was once public but is now confidential. Membership is by invitation only as is attendance at meetings. Even the Christian media is not invited to meetings because the members do not wish to risk public exposure of their policy making. Their website links you to another website called Policy Counsel which contains speeches made to CNP by the elite of the right, for example, James Dobson, John Ashcroft and Steve Forbes are just some of the names that appear on the Policy Counsel website. Funny thing is, Stephen Harper's speech seems to be absent! It's well worth skimming over some of the speeches just to get a sense of the leaning of the organization.

Here is a screen capture of their website:

You have to give Mr. Harper credit for one thing, he sure seems to know how to play to his audience. You've got to give them what they came for.

Since Mr. Harper's government has actually achieved relatively little toward accomplishing their true political goals during their 4 year tenure as a hamstrung minority, in his eyes, I'm sure Canada has changed or improved only incrementally. One question: have his feelings towards Canada and Canadians changed or is he just biding his time until he gets a majority government so he can really put the conservative stamp of improvement and approval on all of us?

As a proud Canadian who loves the country I have grown up in, I find it particularly scary that this same man who, in the past, has presented such vitriolic criticism against Canada, may one day be granted a majority government by an increasingly disengaged electorate and have the unfettered ability to foist his real agenda on Canadians.

Now, I ask you, who is the sheep and who is the wolf?

Saturday, July 24, 2010

Conrad Black - Free at last?

This past week, the mainstream media has been salivating over the Conrad Black story. I have nothing to add; I find the whole story totally irrelevant to my existence on Planet Earth but it has been interesting to read the comments after the online editions of the Globe and Mail, CBC News, The National Post and Maclean's. For some reason, the whole Conrad Black thing has polarized Canadians in the same manner that politics polarizes us; some commenters want to leave him to rot in an American prison and keep him south of the 49th parallel and others are behind him getting his freedom because they feel that he was erroneously found guilty. I could care less either way.

What I did want to add to the discussion was this paper from the Canadian Library of Parliament that was prepared by Tara Gry back in August 2005. For those of you that don't know what a dual class share structure is, here's the definition from the paper:

"Many company founders wish to avoid the dilution of control that normally accompanies the public issuance of shares. One mechanism at their disposal is to issue different classes of shares that confer different voting rights on the holder. These are known as dual-class share structures, or, alternatively, as restricted- or subordinate-voting share structures."

In Canada, there are several examples including Shaw, Bombardier, Onex, Magna, Power Corporation and of course, Hollinger International. The Magna/Frank Stronach story is in the media right now because he has just been paid nearly a billion dollars for his multiple voting shares by the company he founded. As it stood before the deal was struck, Frank Stronach held 0.6% of the total shares outstanding but had 66% of the voting rights.

Back to Conrad Black. Here's a quote from the section of the paper entitled "Disadvantages":

"Hollinger International Inc. presents an extreme example of the detrimental effects of dual-class share structures. Former Chief Executive Officer Conrad Black controlled all of the company’s Class B shares, which gave him 30% of the equity and 73% of the voting power. Holders of publicly traded shares of Hollinger had limited rights to make decisions in terms of executive compensation, board appointments, and mergers and acquisitions. According to a report made public by the Securities and Exchange Commission, Mr. Black appointed the majority of board members, who, in turn, were unlikely or unwilling to oppose his authority. The same report found that Mr. Black exacted excessive management fees, consulting payments, and personal dividends from the company. In all, the aggregate funds taken by Mr. Black and Hollinger’s other chief executives were estimated at 95.2% of Hollinger’s entire adjusted net income during 1997-2003, sums in excess of $400 million."

In my opinion, the actions of Mr. Black over his career as a business leader tell me everything that I need to know about him.

End of story.

Friday, July 23, 2010

China - Now Number 1!

This week, the International Energy Agency (IEA) announced that China had passed the United States in overall energy consumption. While this may not seem seem significant to many, it is a stunning change in the world's energy consumption pattern. The United States had been the world's largest energy consumer for over a century and has been overtaken by a rapidly growing economic powerhouse.

The IEA measures energy consumption in oil equivalents; all forms of energy consumed including nuclear, oil, coal, natural gas and hydro are measured and converted to how much oil would be required to produce the same amount of energy. In the past decade, China has gone from half of the total energy used by the United States to surpass the United States in 2009 partially because of the economic slowdown which hit American industries hard. More importantly, China's rapidly growing economy accelerated its need for more energy sooner than was expected with most energy growth needs coming from the industrial sector rather than consumer demand. The IEA statistics show that in 2009, China consumed 2.252 billion tons of oil equivalent compared to 2.170 billion tons of oil equivalent for the United States.

While these numbers are interesting on their own, looking at them on a per capita basis is more revealing. With a population of 1.3247 billion people, per capita annual energy consumption in China is 1.7 tons of oil equivalent. By comparison, with a population of 307 million people, per capita annual energy consumption in the United States is 7.07 tons of oil equivalent. Should China reach the same per capita energy consumption as the United States, they will require 9366 billion tons of oil equivalent. I realize that my logic here is a bit sketchy however, if we were to inflate the useage of all energy types including oil to the United States consumption standard, China could need 4.16 times more oil than they need now, raising their consumption to 35.87 million BOPD, 45 percent of the world's current daily oil production of 79.948 million barrels of oil per day rather than the 11 percent that they are now consuming.

The dramatic increase in China's energy requirements is being partially met by projects like the Three Gorges Dam which is now producing hydroelectricity after 14 years of construction and will be fully operational in 2011. This dam alone will be able to produce 22500 megawatts of much needed electricity. By comparison, the Grand Coulee Dam, the largest hydroelectric dam in the United States, produces 6809 megawatts of power. China also has 23 nuclear power reactors under construction and has set a target of 86,000 megawatts of nuclear power by 2020 with another 18,000 megawatts under construction at that time. China's current oil consumption is about 8.6 million barrels of oil per day and has grown at nearly 5 percent annually over the past 5 year and by 93% over the past 10 years. Coal provides the vast majority of energy consumption in China with approximately 70% of energy consumed being derived from coal; in 2009, China consumed nearly 47 percent of the global supply of coal using 1.56 billion metric tons. At this point, China's consumption and production of coal are roughly in balance, however, that appears to be changing as China's coal consumption is set to grow at around 10 percent annually. In the first 5 months of 2010, China's People's Daily reported that coal imports had jumped by 114 percent to 69 million tonnes. This compares to 2009 when net imports amounted to 104 million tonnes and 2007 when China was a net coal exporter.

For my next posting on this subject, I will be focussing on China's oil consumption. As a prelude to the subject, here is a chart from BP's Statistical Review of World Energy 2010.

This chart shows that world oil production has not grown since 2004; holding steady at roughly 80 million barrels of oil per day. Many geoscientists believe that, at the very least, the world has reached peak cheap oil if not peak oil itself. Peak oil is defined as "the point in time when the maximum rate of global petroleum extraction is reached, after which the rate of production enters terminal decline."

As a geoscientist, I firmly believe that we have reached (or passed the point) of peak oil and this week's IEA report that China's total energy needs have surpassed that of the United States will have a huge impact on the world's geopolitical picture in the coming years. As well, with China's economy growing at or near double digit rates, this impact may be felt sooner rather than later.


For further information on peak oil, please refer to The Association for the Study of Peak Oil and Gas (ASPO) website located here.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Statistics and Your Privacy

In recent days, the mainstream media has been covering the Conservative government's recent moves to replace the mandatory long-form census with a voluntary long-form. Reactions to this decision have run the gamut from the libertarian viewpoint rejoicing that Canadians can retain a bit more of their privacy to the Liberal Party's response demanding a meeting of the Industry, Science and Technology Committee to force the Conservatives to explain the changes. Maybe the Harper government does have some "under-the-table" nefarious purpose behind the changes. Who really knows? The most interesting response came late Wednesday from Canada's Chief Statistician Munir Sheikh, the head of Statistics Canada. Mr. Sheikh informed the media that he was resigning from his position because he feels that a voluntary survey cannot take the place of the mandatory long-form survey that it is replacing. Here is a quote from his letter of resignation:

"I want to take this opportunity to comment on a technical statistical issue which has become the subject of media discussion. This relates to the question of whether a voluntary survey can become a substitute for a mandatory census.

It can not."

I have to give Mr. Sheikh one thing, he's a principled civil servant who puts his money where his mouth is.

In the past, I have been a recipient of the long-form census. It asked a great number of questions that I was very uncomfortable answering. Perhaps Mr. Sheikh does not mind sharing personal details about his life with the government but I do. There are questions that even my extended family would probably not ask and yet, government invasion into my privacy is seen something that I have to tolerate under threat of law.

Many organizations are lamenting the loss of a source of data that they claim is irreplaceable. I would suggest otherwise. Here is a letter that is given out to households that are forced to participate in Statistics Canada's Labour Force Survey from which the monthly Employment Statistics are compiled. As you can see, I've highlighted the line where Canadians are told that their participation in the Labour Force is required by law:

Along with the letter, participants also receive a nice colour brochure that touts the advantages and importance of the survey and explains how it works.

Basically, participants get called once a month for six months and get asked their employment status, whether it has changed, whether they have looked for a job etc. I've highlighted a small section of the brochure where it states that "...The survey sometimes includes supplementary questions on special interest topics such as energy use, housing, education, retirement, income and expenditures.". This is where I start to get a bit uncomfortable. The government already has access to my income statistics through my annual tax return; I realize that information is not supposed to be shared between government departments but come on, how many times do I have to tell them how much I make? Basically, as outlined below, the Statistics Act states that I have to answer their questions under penalty of law should I be inclined to decline to answer questions about my energy use or education. While the current government has ridded us of the need to tell them how many bathrooms or bedrooms are in our house on the census long-form, apparently, there still is a backdoor into our private lives that is going unchecked.

As stated under the Statistics Act, here are the penalties for refusing or neglecting to answer the questions or answering the questions falsely that are posed to you by Statistics Canada employees or refusing or neglecting to fill in and return a form that Statistics Canada requires you to fill out.

False or unlawful information

31. Every person who, without lawful excuse,

(a) refuses or neglects to answer, or wilfully answers falsely, any question requisite for obtaining any information sought in respect of the objects of this Act or pertinent thereto that has been asked of him by any person employed or deemed to be employed under this Act, or

(b) refuses or neglects to furnish any information or to fill in to the best of his knowledge and belief any schedule or form that the person has been required to fill in, and to return the same when and as required of him pursuant to this Act, or knowingly gives false or misleading information or practises any other deception thereunder

is, for every refusal or neglect, or false answer or deception, guilty of an offence and liable on summary conviction to a fine not exceeding five hundred dollars or to imprisonment for a term not exceeding three months or to both. 1970-71-72, c. 15, s. 29.

Note that you can be fined up to $500 and/or spend three months in jail. I find that totally out of line considering that, in the grand scheme of things, the offence is not that serious. If you don't wish to answer questions posed about your income or other very private issues when Statistics Canada comes knocking at your door, that is not an option under the Statistics Act.

So much for privacy.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Helena Guergis - Free at last, free at last

Here's a screen capture from Helena Guergis' website:

I need not say more.

Well maybe one thing. It will be interesting to see how quickly Mr. Harper returns Ms. Guergis to her post as Minister of State for the Status of Women especially in light of the fact that she was suspended because of the RCMP investigation.

Okay, one more thing. I'd suggest that she not hold her breath waiting, especially in light of the fact that the House is on its 3 month summer vacation.

Monday, July 19, 2010

Brooklyn's Very Own Valdez (times two)

Updated May 2015

The Greenpoint Oil Spill is one of the largest oil spills recorded in the United States, and, interestingly enough, very few people have ever heard of it. I only came across it while searching for a list of the world's largest oil spills. While it doesn't rank up there in the public conciousness with the Exxon Valdez (unless you live in Brooklyn), the spills after Gulf War One or the BP Deepwater Horizon, it is even more frightening in many ways because it took place in a very densely populated urban area.

The Greenpoint neighbourhood of Brookyn, New York City, has for many years had an industrial area located along Newtown Creek which discharges into the Hudson River. From the 1860s, the area became home to the oil refining business. By the turn of the 20th century, many of the 50 smaller refineries had been absorbed into the Standard Oil Trust owned by the Rockefeller family. Standard Oil eventually became Mobil after the breakup of the Trust in 1911 and Mobil became ExxonMobil in 1999. The company used the refineries until 1966; at their peak operation, the complex could refine over 1 million gallons of crude oil daily, producing gasoline, fuel oils and kerosene. Mobil also used the facilities as a bulk storage and distribution centre until 1993. As well, Amoco (now BP) and Paragon Oil (Chevron/Texaco) had facilities in the area. It is assumed that the oil spill did not take place in one event, rather, it took place during nearly a century and a half of industrial activity in the area. Leaking tanks, pipelines and an explosion that destroyed more than 20 acres of the storage tanks in 1919 contributed to the problem. From circumstantial evidence, it appears that ExxonMobil is primarily the responsible party for the majority of the spill volume.

Here's an screen capture from Google Earth showing the Greenpoint neighbourhood. Manhattan is along the left side of the photo and Newtown Creek runs roughly east-west through the centre of the photo. If you zoom in, you can see the abandoned lands where the refineries and tanker farms were located on the banks of the creek and the residential area just to the west of the brownfield.

Here's an air photo showing the Mobil refinery along the banks of Newtown Creek in the 1950s:

On October 5th, 1950 an underground explosion took place in the Greenpoint neighbourhood. The blast was powerful enough to destroy a ten foot section of pavement, shoot manhole covers up to 30 feet into the air, shatter the windowpanes of over 500 buildings and injure three people. Investigations after the explosion showed that gasoline had leaked into the local sewer system and ignited but it would be decades before the massive extent of the problem became apparent.

The spill was re-discovered by accident in 1978 when a U.S. Coastguard helicopter flying over the area happened to notice a plume of black oil flowing out of a bulkhead into Newtown Creek. A boom was set up in Newtown Creek to capture the leaking oil; in the next 6 months, nearly 200,000 gallons of oil was collected. It was originally estimated that an area of 55 acres was contaminated. Studies done in 1979 by the Coast Guard estimated that 17 million gallons of oil-based product consisting of degraded gasoline, naptha and fuel oil had leaked into the underground likely during the late 1940s and that it sat on top of the water table in a layer varying between inches and nearly 25 feet in thickness. In some cases, the hydrocarbons lurked just feet below the ground surface. Fortunately, the toxic layer is capped by an impermeable layer of clay. The source of most of the spill was thought to be Mobil's Newtown Creek refinery. As further studies were done in later years, the affected area was doubled in size and it now appears that up to 30 million gallons of oil and related products may have been spilled. To put the spill of between 17 and 30 million gallons of oil-related product into perspective, the Exxon Valdez spill in 1989 released about 10.5 million gallons of oil according to ExxonMobil.

After the study was completed, the Coast Guard installed recovery sumps that stopped leakage to the surface but did not recover any of the spilled product. Initial actions by Mobil involved setting up small scale oil recovery operations in 1979 and working with the Coast Guard at installing containment booms to capture the oil floating in the Newtown Creek. Initially, no cleanup benchmark was set by the State of New York and no penalties were assessed. Meaningful action on the cleanup did not take place until 1990 when the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation and Mobil agreed to a basic cleanup of the site. Unfortunately, the cleanup only involved remediation of the surface; no obligation was put in place requiring Mobil to clean up the contaminated soils. Meaningful cleanup efforts began on the site in the mid-1990s when Mobil installed new pumps to remove groundwater and contaminants. By 2004, it is estimated that between one quarter and one half of the spill had been recovered although the percentage recovered is difficult to assess. At this point, there are three recovery systems operating in the area, two of the systems are owned by ExxonMobil and one is owned by BP.

The area was tested by an ExxonMobil contractor in 2007 and confirmed the presence of high concentrations of methane gas and benzene. As well, high concentrations of chlorinated solvents have been noted in the area. The concentration of methane gas is high enough in some areas that it has reached the level of being explosive making construction in the area quite dangerous. Fortunately (or not depending on your viewpoint), the EPA reports that in other areas, the methane concentration is so high that insufficient oxygen is present to allow ignition. In light of these discoveries, ExxonMobil has committed to development of a vapour extraction system to reduce the health hazards associated with living in the Greenpoint neighbourhood.

Since 1978, approximately 8.8 million gallons of oil and related products have been recovered from the soils beneath Greenpoint and from Newtown Creek. It is unlikely that more than 70% of the spilled oil products will be recovered and even recovering that amount will take at least another 2 decades.

In February 2007, the New York Attorney General's Office filed a notice of intent to sue ExxonMobil, BP, Chevron and other companies for violating federal acts by creating an endangerment to health and the environment. The non-profit environmental watchdog group Riverkeeper also threatened to sue ExxonMobil in 2004 for failing to properly treat the oil-stripped groundwater they were discharging into Newtown Creek. ExxonMobil reacted by basically shutting down their extraction wells for 3 months until an agreement was negotiated regarding water discharge. In addition, a class action suit has been filed on behalf of Greenpoint residents seeking $58 billion in damages from ExxonMobil, Chevron/Texaco and BP.

While the media was able to grab our attention day after day with the BP Deepwater Horizon spill, this story makes me wonder what lurks beneath the ground in many other areas of North America where refineries have operated for decades. We know that the underground storage tanks in our local service stations can leak and create environmental hazards; decades of refinery spills can add up to something far, far worse.


The EPA report on the Newtown Creek/Greenpoint area can be found here.

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Ixtoc 1 - No longer the biggest blowout in the Gulf

Here is the story behind one of the world's largest maritime oil spills; the Ixtoc 1 oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.

In 1979, Petroleos Mexicanos (Pemex), the Mexican national oil company, was drilling an exploratory well they named Ixtoc 1. The well was being drilled in the Bay of Campeche in the Gulf of Mexico in 50.5 metres of water using a semi-submersible rig. On June 3rd, 1979, the rig lost control of the well and it blew out a mixture of oil and gas which very quickly caught fire.

The drilling crew lost control of the well when they hit a highly porous and permeable (a measure of the interconnectedness of the rock's pores) layer of rock at at depth of 3627 metres. When a well is being drilled, drilling mud is used to serve several functions. First, it lubricates the drilling bit as it cuts through the rock and transports the rock cuttings to the surface where they are removed from the mud as it is pumped back down the hole. The drilling mud also aids in the formation of filter cake along the outside rim of the hole; this protective coating prevents damage to porous and permeable formations by the fluids in the drilling mud. Most importantly, the hydrostatic weight of the column of mud is used to keep the fluids, be they oil, gas or water, in the subsurface. Since the formations encountered at depth have higher pressures than the atmospheric pressure that we experience at the earth's surface because of the weight of the overlying rock (and water), the fluids in the wells have a tendency to push their way to the surface, sometimes quite violently. This is what creates a blowout as we are now seeing in the Gulf of Mexico. The drilling fluids provide a delicate balance between the pressures at depth and atmospheric pressure.

In the case of the Ixtoc 1 well, when a very permeable layer of rock was encountered at a depth of 3627 metres (11,900 feet), the drilling mud flowed quickly into the formation meaning that there was very little balance to keep the oil and gas downhole. The operator decided to trip all of the drill string out of the hole so that efforts could be made to plug off the lost circulation zone, unfortunately, when they did so, they created reduced pressure that resulted in swabbing the porous zone which resulted in immediate and uncontrollable flow oil and gas. Normally, the blowout preventers (BOPs) should have activated and the shear rams should have cut through the drill pipe and sealed off the well. Unfortunately, because the drill string was being tripped out of the hole and the far heavier gauge drill collars were at the level of the shear rams, they were unable to cut through the collars and seal off the well.

When the oil and gas reached the surface it sprayed 30 metres above the platform floor and motors on the deck of the rig ignited the stream resulting in the rig catching fire and collapsing to the floor of the Gulf. Fortunately, the rig was abandoned as soon as gas and oil spray erupted from the well and there were no casualties among the 71 on board. When the rig collapsed, the end result was a tangled mass of 3000 metres of drill pipe and the remains of the rig tangled around the wellhead, which tilted the BOP off its vertical orientation. Fortunately, because the well was not as deep as the BP Macondo well, the use of remotely operated equipment was not necessary. In the case of the Ixtoc well, divers were able to access the BOP stack and attempts were made to shut in the well manually. Unfortunately, it appeared that valves in the BOP could be damaged by the pressure of the flowing fluids and it was decided that it would be better to allow the well to flow oil and gas unhindered into the waters of the Gulf of Mexico. Attempts were made to plug the well including a "junk shot" which forced pieces of metal and balls into the hole to stem the flow of hydrocarbons. Unlike BP, the Pemex junk shot attempt was partially successful; the flow was reduced to 10,000 barrels of oil per day. Pemex also attempted to place a containment dome nicknamed "Operation Sombrero" over the top of the BOP however they could not properly anchor it in place. Both of these techniques are similar to what BP used in far deeper waters at their Macondo well.

Here is a photograph of the blowout after the rig collapsed:

During the 9 months and 22 days that the Ixtoc 1 well blew out, it flowed between 10,000 and 30,000 barrels of oil per day, much of which caught fire and burned when it reached the surface. In total, it is estimated that 3.3 million barrels (139 million U.S. gallons) of crude were released in the spill, making it one of the worst in history. Nearly 500 aerial missions were flown to spread the dispersant Corexit over the spill to assist in breaking it up. Again, in this case as in the BP Macondo spill, it's interesting to note that the use of dispersants is controversial. Dispersants cause the oil to be redistributed throughout the water column; this is very hard on aquatic life such as shrimp and fish, however, it saves water fowl. As many experts have noted, this makes us feel better because we can't see dead fish but the media can expose us to heart-breaking photographs of oil-fouled birds. Unfortunately, dispersants do not work on weathered crude so by the time the crude reached the beaches of Texas in August 1979, dispersants were of no use. About 160 miles of Texas coastline were damaged by the crude. Pemex has stated that about half of the oil was burned immediately when it reached the surface of the water and that about one third evaporated.

Two relief wells were drilled and on March 23rd, 1980, they successfully sealed off the Ixtoc 1 well with cement after 290 days of "production" had reduced the flowing pressure of the oil and gas.

It is estimated that Pemex spent over $100 million to cleanup the spill but they invoked sovereign immunity (i.e. the state cannot be found guilty of a crime) when it came to paying for most compensation claims. In fact, United States businesses sued Pemex for $300 million but their request was refused under sovereign immunity.

Environmental damage was extensive, especially to the beaches of Mexico; bird, fish, squid and octopus populations were particularly heavily hit. In some areas, it was reported that catches in the fishery dropped by 50 to 70% from the previous year. Within a few years, scientists noted that fish catches had returned to normal levels and that there was very little evidence of damage. Fortunately, fewer wetlands were inundated by oil in the portions of the shoreline affected by the Ixtoc spill unlike the fragile Mississippi delta marshes that are being affected by the BP Macondo spill. Scientists that returned to the beaches of Mexico years after the spill and noted that most of the oil had weathered to tar and it no longer appeared to have a marked effect on the beach ecosystem. Fortunately, it appears that the warm temperatures in the waters of the Gulf of Mexico aided in the rapid breakdown and evaporation of the Ixtoc crude.

At this point, American residents of the Gulf can only hope that they get away with as little damage as the residents of the Mexican portion of the Gulf experienced after the Ixtoc 1 blowout. Only time will tell.

In searching the internet, I came across a blog that had some photos of the damage done by the BP blowout that I had not seen in the mainstream media. Here are some photos of the BP Macondo spill that are well worth viewing (if not more than a bit disturbing). These photos made me realize just how sanitized the coverage of this spill has been.

Saturday, July 17, 2010

Human Trafficking on a whole different scale

With this week's story about the possible arrival of a Thai cargo ship of more than 200 Tamil refugees from Sri Lanka, I thought I'd post a quick story about human trafficking on an entirely different scale using a rather more clever way of disguising the cargo.

An English punk rock band, aptly named Criminal Mind, was arrested after they returned from a gig in the Czech Republic. After their third appearance in Paris was cancelled, their Czech contact arranged for a truck and drivers to transport the band and their gear back to England. Upon arrival back in Dover, England, the truck was stopped by customs officials and a search of their truck revealed that four Vietnamese immigrants were hiding inside their speakers. Apparently, their 25 year old Czech driver decided to bring some souvenirs to England with him. The entire band was placed under arrest but were released without charges when it was determined that they had nothing to do with the smuggling scheme and they will now be witnesses against the 25 year old driver who has been charged with facilitating entry by asylum seekers.

One member of the band realized that something was amiss when his partly eaten bag of cheese and onion potato chips went missing during the drive back to England. Another band member said that he saw "little spindly fingers" come out of a speaker, tap him on the shoulder and whisper "shhh".

The bassist for the band, 18 year old Ben Dowling, told reporters that the Customs agent said to them that "...their luggage was fine, but what's with all the Vietnamese in your van?".

The final condition of the speakers was not released although I would have to imagine that the woofers, tweeters and cross-overs sustained some damage during the transportation of the illegal immigrants.

In case you're interested, here's Criminal Mind's myspace page.

Friday, July 16, 2010

Sharing our Canadian Heritage

There was an interesting in the mainstream media late last week about how Canada leads the G8 nations in the number of asylum seekers.

What I always find interesting about reading these articles in various online newspapers are the comments by readers that follow the text. In this particular case, some of the vitriol was quite shocking and along the lines of "send them home, they don't belong here", "they are just here to collect welfare paid for by Canadian taxpayers", "they are going to turn Canada into the same type of sh*thole that they came from" etcetera.

While everyone who comments is anonymous and definitely do not represent a balanced cross section of all Canadians, it does give an interesting sense of where at least part of the Canadian population stands with respect to refugees and immigration policy. Unfortunately for the refugees, many of the innocent refugees and immigrants are tarred with the same brush as those few who are admitted to Canada that do cause problems for themselves after their arrival.

I always try to put the plight of these refugees into perspective. Having lived in Africa, I became close friends with a Tamil couple who were also teachers at the same school where I was posted. They had left Sri Lanka because they had young boys that would have been recruited by the Tamil Tigers and they wished to ensure their safety. The country they had chosen was a move up the economic ladder from their homeland, however, the economy of their adopted country was suffering and they had hoped to immigrate to a developed nation where they would improve their lives and the lives of their sons and where they could establish themselves in a safe environment for the remainder of their lives. They were highly educated and highly motivated and would have made a great contribution to Canada had they chosen to immigrate.

Canadians need to remember that we are all descended from people who were regarded as immigrants by others who were already settled in Canada. I can trace my Canadian origins 14 generations back to the arrival of Louis Hebert and his family who arrived as immigrants in 1617. Like so many other early French settlers, he came to Canada looking for a fresh start and to make his own way in the world. Historians tell us that the early French settlers often owed their lives to the aboriginal residents who helped them adapt to life in New France by teaching them basic agriculture, trapping and fishing. Since that time, there have been many influxes of both refugees and immigrants into Canada; the arrival of the United Empire Loyalists in both Upper and Lower Canada in the late 1700's, the Irish fleeing Ireland in the 1840's because of the potato famine and the Italian immigration of the 1870's and 1880's resulting from the economic and social unrest when Italy was unified. In our lifetimes we had the the post World War II influx of "displaced persons" from eastern Europe and the Baltic States who were fleeing the refugee camps that they had been living in since their homelands were devastated during the war and the influx of Indians during the 1970s after their expulsion from Uganda.

Canada is a great country; in 2009, the United Nations ranked Canada 4th on its Human Development Index (HDI) after Norway, Australia and Iceland. Even the United States is only ranked 13th. The HDI measures life expectancy, adult literacy, enrollment in tertiary education and standard of living related to GDP. Even in comparison to other G8 nations, we have so much to be thankful for.

I really don't think it is too much to ask that we share what we have just as those who were resident in Canada before the arrival of our ancestors shared with them when they landed on our shores with nothing. It is an important part of Canadian heritage as is tolerance.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

The Largest Blowout in American History

The recent blowout of the BP well in the Gulf of Mexico will be one of the great blotches on the face of the oil industry for decades to come.

Surprisingly enough, there was a blowout of even greater proportions onshore in California that flowed up to 100,000 barrels of oil per day for 18 months before it was brought under control. During that time, it is estimated that the well produced more than 9 million barrels of oil. In comparison, if the BP Deepwater Horizon well has flowed 60,000 barrels of oil over the past 85 days, it will have produced 5.1 million barrels of oil.

The Lakeview Oil Gusher blew out on March 14th, 1910. The well had been spudded by a small private oil company called Lakeview Oil Company that ran into financial problems. The well was taken over by the Union Oil Company, now part of Unocal Corporation. The Lakeview well was located between the towns of Taft and Maricopa in south central California, about 170 kilometres north of Los Angeles. Interestingly enough, geology and geophysical input was not used when the location for the well was selected, rather, there was a theory that grass grew red over an accumulation of oil. As well, at that point in time, oil well drilling was rather primitive; wooden derricks were used and there were no blowout preventers to prevent, well, blowouts. When the 2200 foot deep well blew out, it started flowing oil at an uncontrolled rate of 18,000 BOPD and soon reached a production rate of 100,000 BOPD; the plume of oil reached nearly 200 feet into the air. The derrick was completely destroyed and a crater was left behind that made it completely impossible to control the flow of oil. Most of the oil produced either evaporated or soaked into the soil at the site; only about 40% of the oil was recovered and sold. So much oil blew out of the hole that crews had to build 20 foot high dykes around the site to contain the oil and prevent it from flowing into Buena Vista Lake. The massive flow of oil created a lake of about 60 acres in size. Accompanying the oil lake was an plume of oily mist that was noted as much as 30 miles from the well site.

What is rather interesting about the story was that the well was very nearly abandoned, in fact, the drilling crew had been told to stop drilling because it appeared that the hole was dry, however, against orders they kept drilling ahead until they hit an over-pressured formation that obviously contained a lot of oil.

Strangely enough, some people felt that the blowout was a sign from God that oil was meant to stay in the ground to "kindle the hells of fire". You know, maybe they weren't so wrong way back in 1910!

Attempts were made to control the well but the sheer volume of oil made it difficult. What the crew finally did was to place a steel "semi-cap" weighing several tons over the plume of oil and anchor the cap to the ground with steel guy wires. Basically, all this did was control the spray of oil and sediment and confine it to the oil lake rather than letting it spread over a wider area. This sounds like technology that BP should have considered...or perhaps already has.

The well died as quickly as it started when the hole caved in on itself on September 10th, 1911. By that time, it was only producing about 40 barrels of oil per day. Today all that remains are the original well cavity, a few sandbags and some dried oil that has turned to layers of asphalt. Oh yes, and a plaque that commemorates what will hopefully still be the United States greatest oil well blowout.


If you wish to see more photos of this fascinating part of American history, click here.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Should Canadians be taking attendance?

As I posted on Friday, the Senate was about to vote on the 900 page omnibus Bill C-9 which is essentially the budget from March and a whole bunch of other goodies thrown in for good measure. On Friday, Stephen Harper appointed his 34th Senator which gave the Conservatives 52 seats in the 105 seat House, just shy of a numerical majority.

Late Monday night, the Senate voted on the Bill and passed it 48 to 44. When you add those two numbers up, you'll see that the Senate was short a few warm bodies, in fact, 13 Senators were absent from this all important vote.

According to the Globe and Mail, several of the Liberal Senators who are suffering from health issues actually showed up to vote on Bill C-9. However, seven Liberal Senators were absent including Tommy Banks, Sharon Carstairs, Pierre De Bane, Francis Fox, Serge Joyal, David Smith and Nick Sibbeston. Senator Fox had paired his vote with Conservative Senator Claude Carignan so he's given a pass. Senators Banks, Carstairs, De Bane and Joyal were out of the country and Mr. Smith's excuse is not known. Five of 52 Conservative Senators were absent from the vote with explanations ranging from illness to a death in the family.

Here's the voting record showing who voted against sending the Bill with amendments (splitting off sections) back to the House:

...and who voted for:

It is possible that at least 5 of the AWOL Liberal Senators had paired their votes with missing Conservative Senators but that is unknown at this stage. Had the Liberals had full attendance, they, in combination with the three independent Senators that voted their way, could have defeated the Conservatives and Bill C-9 would have been split as was their preference.

Having looked at the attendance record for the House of Commons during voting on this Bill and finding that between 30 and 75 MPs were missing for many of the votes is dismaying. In fact, for the final vote on the Third Reading, 30 Liberal MPs were AWOL. Now we see the same thing in the Senate. Yes, five of the Liberal Senators are out of the country but that's not the point. With Bill C-9 still on the docket, their jobs were not over. The primary responsibility of the Senate is to provide oversight on the business of the House; in this case, some Senators did not meet the requirements of their job.

Here's a quote during the debate last night from Romeo Dallaire:

Senator Dallaire: In that sense, honourable senators, I think that we have a role. Yes, it is part of our exercise and, yes, it is July 12. So what? How many people have a lot of time in the summer to be on leave? I think my place of duty is here. This is the job we are supposed to be doing.

Some Hon. Senators: Hear, hear!

Senator Dallaire: They are not paying us by the hour, or double time and overtime. We are quite prepared to serve. That is the aim of the exercise.

Oh that those Senators missing in action last night took their $132,300 a year (plus perquisites) duties as seriously. I'm starting to wonder if Canadian taxpayers shouldn't have a right to recall Senators and MPs if they habitually miss voting in the House and the Senate. Canadian corporations now reveal attendance records for their Board members; why shouldn't those we pay to govern us be forced to do the same?

By the way, the Senate is on summer holidays until they next meet on Tuesday, September 28th, 2010. A nice, long, well-deserved vacation.