People have historically chosen to settle and develop land that is often subject to periodic weather disruption. This is true of settlement across Canada and North America as well as the world. In some areas of the world, we have even chosen to develop land that is subject to periodic seismic disruption. The motivating factors for choosing these locations are quite similar.
Affinity for Disruption
Areas that are subject to periodic weather and seismic disruption, are often locations with rich soil enabling higher agricultural productivity or locations with amenities for trade like rivers, or seaports. The benefit gained from settling these lands is seen to outweigh the possibility of disruption by infrequent weather or seismic events – even if those events threaten to be catastrophic. In North America and Canada, often cities were created in areas with natural harbors or excellent river access, which enhanced the development of those cities.
In many areas of Canada, parts of cities were built on flood plains and surrounding land was often reclaimed using engineering technologies and levees were constructed with filling and drainage of areas. As decades passed, periodic weather events that were referred to as “one in 100-year events” created damage that prompted municipalities to enhance the measures they were taking to maintain these reclaimed lands.
In a sense, municipalities were gambling that their land would not be negatively impacted to a large degree by periodic events.
What were the odds?
Colin Rennie, Professor of Civil Engineering at the University of Ottawa, tells the BOE Report the odds in this gamble are not as good as they were perceived to be.
“By definition, a one in 100-year flood event has a 1% chance of occurring in any given year. The river discharge of the one in a 100-year event is usually estimated based on statistical analysis of the river discharge measured over several years. If a structure is built within the floodplain at the 100-year flood line, then over a 50 year period there is a 39% chance that it will be exposed to a flood.”
So the odds were not good to begin with and added to this Rennie says: “The probability of a flood occurring is even greater if climate change is increasing the frequency of flood events.”
It seems as decades pass and fifty or even seventy years go by without an extreme weather event, cities may make the choice to disregard cautions to building on floodplains, bolstered by overconfidence in technology and lured by the funds they can obtain by selling the land to developers or farmers. It’s a trade-off as the municipality can generate much needed revenue for public buildings, infrastructure, or for programs and services and at the same time increase their tax base.
Floodplain buyer beware
The risk is that the purchasers of property on a floodplain are the ones to experience extreme loss if and when a periodic extreme weather event occurs. Such is the case in the Lower Fraser River basin in B.C., and specifically in the area around Abbottsford that is referred to as the Sumas Prairie. The term Sumas Prairie is a bit misleading. It refers to the area that was once Sumas Lake, a century ago in 1920.
Yes, the area around Abbottsford that experienced devastating flooding due to an atmospheric river weather event was once Sumas Lake. It was drained in 1920 to create rich farmland that a couple of generations have enjoyed and profited from as “One of the most productive agricultural regions in all of Canada “ according to Tamsyn Lyle, a thought leader on flood management in Canada and principal with Ebbwater Consulting.
“We knew there are atmospheric rivers and we’ve known for a long time that this is going to be a big concern for winter flooding in BC and as someone who pays attention to this – you can (could) see it coming,” Tamsin Lyle speaking on CBC’s The Fifth Estate.
Atmospheric rivers have always impacted BC but what has changed is that they are increasing in frequency and severity. According to a Jan 2019 article in Geophysical Research Letters titled “Atmospheric Rivers Increase Future Flood Risk in Western Canada’s Largest Pacific River”, the authors concluded that “The present‐day frequency of landfalling atmospheric rivers (ARS) on the Canadian west coast is projected to increase nearly fourfold by the late 21st century, with a proportionate increase in extreme rainfall events.” ARS have always affected the Fraser River basin, which is described as a “snow-dominated watershed in British Columbia, exposed to landfalling ARS, originating over the tropical Pacific Ocean that bring sustained, heavy precipitation throughout the winter months.”
The increase in severity and frequency of ARS has changed the risk involved for populations living in that floodplain area. However, municipalities and provincial governments have been slow to respond to the increased risk. In the previously mentioned program, Tamsin Lyle pointed to repeated warnings to the B.C. provincial government and the way they failed to act and assist municipalities.
“I think there’s a lot of different people that have to take ownership of the problem…when we are looking at this kind of scale. I think the province from about 20 years ago has a lot to answer for in terms of downloading the responsibility from the province – who had the better capacity to look at the problem at scale – to local governments who don’t have the capacity and don’t have the expertise.”
In the case of B.C. municipalities like Abbotsford, it is apparent there were warnings to plan for increasing periodic weather events. A look at Tamsin Lyle’s webpage shows her many papers and presentations to the B.C. government urging flood mitigation strategies dating back eighteen years and she is just one of several voices.
When the levee breaks
The Lower Mainland and lower Fraser River basin of B.C. contain a system of dikes and levees to maintain the land and keep floodwaters at bay. Unfortunately, it is often the case with municipalities that updates are neglected due to a lack of ability to petition various levels of government for the substantial amount of money needed to update when they lack the financial means to pay for multi-million dollar upgrades.
As time passes, the possibility of a one in 100-year event drifts out of focus, even as the probability of an event increases. Municipalities continue to rely on existing infrastructure to maintain the area, and provincial governments ignore the growing problem even when they are presented with reports like the Lower Mainland Dike Assessment of 2015 identifying critical limitations and substandard design needing updates.
According to Tamsin Lyle, “We’ve known about these problems- in fact, one of my colleagues this morning said the Sumas area is one of the most studied flood problems in all of Canada. And yet we still didn’t do anything better.”
However, an interesting perspective on “one in 100-year” or periodic weather events has emerged.
Climate change: cause or aggravating factor?
There is a current tendency to identify all periodic weather events as purely the result of climate change. Periodic extreme rain-induced flooding is not new to the Lower Mainland and Fraser River basin in BC that was affected by the recent atmospheric river. Events date back to the early 1800s according to a 2004 report by D. Septer produced for the B.C. government entitled “Flooding and Landslide Events Southern British Columbia 1808-2006”- covering, in part, an era predating the current climate crisis.
The risk of viewing the B.C. flood as purely caused by climate change is that politicians are using periodic event risk as a political tool to leverage votes, gain power and advance their agendas. This is a dangerous and cynical misuse of the very real concerns of managing climate risk.
Debate about a flood emergency or about climate emergency?
In the case of BC flooding, we saw the Prime Minister of Canada visit the devastated area, and pander to climate fears. In an emergency debate in the House of Commons on Nov 24th, Prime Minister Trudeau said the extreme weather seen this year in British Columbia shows the impacts of climate change have arrived “sooner than expected, and they are devastating.”
During the debate, Vancouver Island Green Party MP Elizabeth May went further saying “We have entered the world of a climate emergency” and asked NDP leader Jagmeet Singh to support cancelling the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion and a B.C. LNG project as climate change action.
Federal politicians are quickly characterizing the damage from a periodic weather event as evidence of climate catastrophe. Rather, it seems that poor planning, lack of government response to repeated warnings of inadequate infrastructure, overly aggressive logging, and removal of the forest that would retain heavy rains on the landscape exacerbated the impact of an atmospheric river.
Certainly, the forest fire season of 2021 compounded the effect of forest removal but the 2004 report on flooding and landslide events in Southern British Columbia 1808-2006 chronicles flooding events in the 1800s of similar magnitude predating the existence of this year’s BC forest fires, recent extensive logging practices and the current effects of climate change.
The messaging of climate catastrophe is amplified by third-party groups – like Greenpeace -that are closely associated with some federal ministers. The message is then misdirected to climate shaming and GHG emission finger-pointing to diminish certain regional interests. In a recent statement, Keith Stewart with Greenpeace Canada seized an opportunity to include the hydrocarbon-rich prairie provinces in climate fear messaging, warning:
“The Prairies aren’t immune to climate-fueled wildfires and droughts. The best policy for the federation is to help each other through a rapid transition to green energy.”
Petroleum powers the cleanup
As fleets of hydrocarbon-powered heavy equipment are mobilized to clean up the landslides, to pump floodwaters, shore up dikes, and transport army and civilian personnel and supplies to the area for clean up, is this really the time to campaign for policies and taxes that make those hydrocarbons more expensive, harder to produce locally and stop our ability to produce and transport them effectively?
The production of electric-powered heavy equipment in adequate numbers to respond to the type of emergency we are seeing in B.C. and the infrastructure to power them won’t be available in reliable numbers and reliable working condition for ten years or more and are going to be costly. Are we going to make heavy equipment more expensive to operate and add a scarcity of hydrocarbons to disaster response risk in the near term?
Climate fear equals votes
The risk of politicians catastrophizing about climate is that their research and investigation of the science of climate ends at the point where it no longer serves to get them elected or re-elected or help them obtain high polling numbers between elections. They turn climate concern into a rallying cry to disrupt energy security and the Canadian economy for their own political gain.
This is a view echoed recently by Nick Nanos, who warns, “Good policy for the federation may become victim to a good political strategy for the Liberals, that’s what we have to watch out for.”
Are we seeing the emergence of a Green oligarchy in Canada – officials elected because they profess Green policy and leverage climate fears, rather than proposing policy that will build and develop the economy of all areas of the country? Are we seeing a gradual devaluation of the hydrocarbon industry in Canada?
We have seen the federal government increasingly adopt an oppositional stance to the industry- subjecting new projects to develop the industry with overlapping, increasingly complex, and even redundant regulation and even vetoing them after approval. In Canada, it takes at least ten years to see a new project through the regulatory process compared to two to three years in the U.S.
It seems incongruous to roadblock the hydrocarbon industry, even blaming it for climate ills, while the very same industry is the source of health, wealth, and prosperity in Canada.
As proponents of the hydrocarbon industry speak up with well-researched and scientifically sound conclusions of how hydrocarbons benefit the Canadian public and the world, certain federal politicians and their third-party supporters catastrophize and demonize the industry and enact increasing regulatory demands.
There is already a diversion of Canadians’ concern for the devastation that is happening in BC to focus on shutting down oil and gas projects – implying they are the direct causes of the periodic weather events that have affected B.C.
Canadians’ growing appetite for energy
It is important to note that the Federal end game is increasingly focused on curtailing not only GHG emissions but also hydrocarbon projects and stalling & stopping the essential development that our growing population needs and wants for energy security.
For evidence that our growing population needs energy security, consider how Canadians across the country have embraced the digital revolution and energy abundance.
We cherish our internet and cloud-based computing advantages based on armies of computer servers that consume huge amounts of energy. Not only does the average Canadian own at least one cellphone but increasingly so does every child. We have PCs in schools and most of our children don’t walk to school- they ride in cars and buses- consuming more energy than previous generations who walked.
We expect air conditioning in our schools, our cars, our public transit, public buildings, and our homes. Every household has a PC or several of them as well as constant internet connectivity with smart devices and security. We increasingly connect socially via the internet and access social media at surprising rates on our digital devices. We want to be free to embrace energy-intensive bitcoin.
The expectation of Millennials, Gen X, and Boomers alike is to be free to jet to global destinations for vacations once or twice a year at least. We expect to drive to vacation properties in areas that are increasingly remote and adjacent to dense forest and insist on constant connectivity while there.
We are supporting space tourism with an ever-increasing number of rocket launches and want to access satellite-based internet technologies deployed from even more rocket launches. We are equally attached to online buying from international sellers who consume vast quantities of energy shipping to our homes. Our companies globally source materials daily and our retail outlets source basic needs like food and clothing internationally- all to save us money and support our high standards of living.
If you think Canadians want to give up an hour of these advantages, just spend an hour on the tech support line of an internet provider. You will hear Canadians of all ages getting very emotional about interruptions of their internet and their energy-gobbling digital life.
So how do we resolve the issues of control over our way of life and energy security with the power of political overreach related to political power plays?
Another National Energy Program?
Consider the history of the energy power play in Canada. In 1930, natural-resource rights were transferred by the federal government to the Prairie provinces, Manitoba, Saskatchewan and Alberta- the rights to minerals and hydrocarbons. (Under the Constitution Act, 1867, the original provinces of Confederation retained ownership of crown lands and resources within their boundaries.) However, a current intent to wrest control and co-opt the wealth of natural resources from resource-rich provinces and Indigenous peoples in the name of a climate emergency is in play. There is a negative and intense focus to exert control over oil and gas resource development. Perhaps, it is appropriate to call it “The National Energy Program 2.0-This time it’s personal.”
In the 1980s, the NEP was a nationalization program that sought to increase Canadian ownership and control of the petroleum industry in order to gain a greater share of energy revenues, under the guise of guaranteeing both the supply and affordable price of Canadian natural gas and oil.
It included a two-price system that mandated lower prices for Canadian consumers, including low natural gas prices to encourage Canadians to switch away from oil- an approach the current liberal regime will most certainly like to recycle and adopt as part of their 2022 Climate plan- now due out in March 2022.
In the original NEP, federal taxes on the operating revenues of oil and gas companies were increased and federal export taxes were added – certainly an attractive option for the current federal government to adopt since they are hungry for funds to pay for their 2020 /2021 pandemic spending.
It’s important to note the Western Accord in 1985 eliminated the NEP by removing oil price controls, abolishing several federal taxes, and re-encouraging foreign investment. However, there is the risk that the new climate imperative will create an opportunity to alter the Accord.
Already, foreign investment is waning in the face of federal policy uncertainty and related risk and it is weakening the Canadian energy industry, making it vulnerable.
In addition, the federal government seems unwilling to acknowledge and promote the fact that Canadian provinces and Indigenous peoples are developing hydrocarbon resources in an incredibly environmentally responsible manner. There is a reticence to promote Canadian hydrocarbons as solutions to reduce carbon emissions globally.
The provinces and Indigenous peoples need support and refined regulation, not more federal control. Prairie provinces contribute huge amounts to federal tax coffers, to CPP, and more while extracting significantly less of the revenue back as they support other Canadian provinces financially.
It will be interesting to watch the conversations about energy develop in the coming months ahead of the March 29, 2022 deadline for the federal Climate plan. Is anyone ready for NEP 2.0?
Maureen McCall is an energy professional who writes on issues affecting the energy industry.