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The question isn’t about whether to use rail or pipelines. It’s about how to reduce our need for both. (Credit: Dieter Drescher via Flickr)
By David Suzuki with contributions from Ian Hanington, Senior Editor
Debating the best way to do something we shouldn’t be doing in the first place is a sure way to end up in the wrong place. That’s what’s happening with the “rail versus pipeline” discussion. Some say recent rail accidents mean we should build more pipelines to transport fossil fuels. Others argue that leaks, high construction costs, opposition and red tape surrounding pipelines are arguments in favour of using trains.
But the recent spate of rail accidents and pipeline leaks and spills doesn’t provide arguments for one or the other; instead, it indicates that rapidly increasing oil and gas development and shipping ever greater amounts, by any method, will mean more accidents, spills, environmental damage — even death. The answer is to step back from this reckless plunder and consider ways to reduce our fossil fuel use.
If we were to slow down oil sands development, encourage conservation and invest in clean energy technology, we could save money, ecosystems and lives — and we’d still have valuable fossil fuel resources long into the future, perhaps until we’ve figured out ways to use them that aren’t so wasteful. We wouldn’t need to build more pipelines just to sell oil and gas as quickly as possible, mostly to foreign markets. We wouldn’t have to send so many unsafe rail tankers through wilderness areas and places people live.
We may forgo some of the short-term jobs and economic opportunities the fossil fuel industry provides, but surely we can find better ways to keep people employed and the economy humming. Gambling, selling guns and drugs and encouraging people to smoke all create jobs and economic benefits, too — but we rightly try to limit those activities when the harms outweigh the benefits.
Both transportation methods come with significant risks. Shipping by rail leads to more accidents and spills, but pipeline leaks usually involve much larger volumes. One of the reasons we’re seeing more train accidents involving fossil fuels is the incredible boom in moving these products by rail. According to the American Association of Railroads, train shipment of crude oil in the U.S. grew from 9,500 carloads in 2008 to 234,000 in 2012 — almost 25 times as many in only four years! That’s expected to rise to 400,000 this year.
As with pipelines, risks are increased because many rail cars are older and not built to standards that would reduce the chances of leaks and explosions when accidents occur. Some in the rail industry argue it would cost too much to replace all the tank cars as quickly as is needed to move the ever-increasing volumes of oil. We must improve rail safety and pipeline infrastructure for the oil and gas that we’ll continue to ship for the foreseeable future, but we must also find ways to transport less.
The economic arguments for massive oil sands and liquefied natural gas development and expansion aren’t great to begin with — at least with the way our federal and provincial governments are going about it. Despite a boom in oil sands growth and production, “Alberta has run consecutive budget deficits since 2008 and since then has burned through $15 billion of its sustainability fund,” according to an article on the Tyee website. The Canadian Taxpayers Federation says Alberta’s debt is now $7 billion and growing by $11 million daily.
As for jobs, a 2012 report by the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives shows less than one per cent of Canadian workers are employed in extraction and production of oil, coal and natural gas. Pipelines and fossil fuel development are not great long-term job creators, and pale in comparison to employment generated by the renewable energy sector.
Beyond the danger to the environment and human health, the worst risk from rapid expansion of oil sands, coal mines and gas fields and the infrastructure needed to transport the fuels is the carbon emissions from burning their products — regardless of whether that happens here, in China or elsewhere. Many climate scientists and energy experts, including the International Energy Agency, agree that to have any chance of avoiding catastrophic climate change, we must leave at least two-thirds of our remaining fossil fuels in the ground.
The question isn’t about whether to use rail or pipelines. It’s about how to reduce our need for both.
Addressing H5N1 concerns9:34
Alberta health officials have confirmed an isolated, fatal case of H5N1 or avian influenza, federal Health Minister Rona Ambrose said Wednesday.
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But officials repeatedly emphasized that there is no risk of transmission between humans.
The infected person, an Alberta resident who recently travelled to Beijing, China, died Jan. 3.
The case was confirmed in a lab test last night. It’s the first such case in North America.
The person first showed symptoms of the flu on a Dec. 27 flight from Beijing to Vancouver aboard Air Canada flight 030. The passenger continued on to Edmonton on Air Canada flight 244, after spending a few hours in the Vancouver airport, and was admitted to hospital Jan. 1. The symptoms of fever, malaise and headache worsened and the patient died two days later. The Public Health Agency of Canada was notified Jan. 5.
There were no respiratory symptoms, said Dr. James Talbot, Alberta’s chief medical officer of health.
The diagnosis at the time of death was an inflammation of the brain and the linings that cover the brain. “That is one of the ways that H5N1 patients die,” Talbot said.
It is not known how the patient contracted the disease. The patient did not leave Beijing, did not travel to farms and did not visit any markets.
“Virtually every case has a pretty strong link to a close contact with birds,” Talbot said, though he noted there are other settings in which a person might catch H5N1, such as a restaurant that kept live birds for slaughter.
Rare in humans
Dr. Gregory Taylor, deputy chief public health officer, said the avian form of influenza has been found in birds, mainly poultry, in Asia, Europe, Africa and the Middle East.
There have been fewer than than 650 human cases of bird flu in 15 countries over the last decade, primarily among people who have spent time around infected birds, he said.
“The illness [H5N1] causes in humans is severe and kills about 60 per cent of those who are infected,” Taylor said.
“No other illnesses of this type have been identified in Canada since the traveller returned from China. This is an isolated case.”
The officials added that the patient was otherwise healthy and it’s not yet clear how the person contracted H5N1.
Speaking to Evan Solomon, host of CBC News Network’s Power & Politics, Taylor said the patient was relatively young.
“This was a relatively young — well, a young person compared to me, with no underlying health conditions,” he said. Taylor is 58.
Risk of getting H5N1 low
Officials emphasized that this is not a disease transmitted between humans.
There were two people travelling with the infected person, whom officials are following for 10 days to ensure they don’t have any symptoms. They are also going to notify the other passengers from the flights between Beijing and Edmonton, and are following a group of the patient’s “close contacts.”
Talbot said family members of the victim are being monitored and treated with medication, but noted that there’s no sign they are sick.
Officials created confusion by referring to the patient as “him” and “her” in order to avoid identifying anyone. Officials said that they would not identify the sex, age or occupation of the patient. They also refused to say whether the infected passenger was an Edmonton resident or whether the patient went to hospital in Edmonton, although the final leg of the flight ended there.
Talbot said reports that the patient was from Edmonton are erroneous.
Ambrose, who phoned into a news conference in Ottawa, said Canadian officials are working with Chinese authorities on the case, as well as the World Health Organization.
“The risk of getting H5N1 is very low. This is not the regular seasonal flu. This is an isolated case,” she said.
An Air Canada spokeswoman said in a statement the airline is co-operating with officials, but referred any questions on the matter to the Public Health Agency of Canada.
Source: World Health Organization
Figures for all countries except Canada are current as of Dec. 10, 2013. Canada’s one case was reported on Jan. 8, 2014.