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Canada's power policy dammed . . . er, damned

Power: Journeys Across an Energy Nation

By Gordon Laird

Viking, 347 pages, $35

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Gordon Laird is a young, enterprising journalist who isn't afraid of packing active verbs into his sentences or tackling big, complicated subjects. And in Power, a very ambitious and sprawling look at Canada's vast energy industry, the Toronto-based reporter has managed to combine some very fine writing with incisive fact-finding.

Although the corporate shenanigans of Quebec Hydro, the bankrupt politics of uranium mining or the hazards of offshore drilling rarely make dinner conversation or our newspapers these days, Laird's book might change that for a day or two. He argues that Canada is the most energy-intensive economy in the world, and the globe's second-largest belcher of greenhouse gases. We are not only a power-obsessed people, but a people who have allowed our energy obsessions (from oil sands to dammed landscapes) to define our politics for decades. Yet Canada's vast energy network now looks like some twisted Soviet archipelago, Laird writes: "Power built Canada's first century, but will it undo the next?"

To answer that question, Laird visits some pretty unusual places. He flies onto an offshore rig (the Rowan Gorilla 111) and hears compelling tales about perfect storms and the lives of roughnecks. He walks the radioactive landscape around northern Saskatchewan's Uranium City, a one-industry town that died as quickly as it grew. In the high-Arctic desert of Ellesmere Island, he encounters the phenomena of global warming, including mysterious ice melts and bleeding ozone layers. On Sable Island, he discovers acid fog levels at nearly double the standard for city breathing warnings. And in Peace River country, he visits notorious oil-patch saboteur Wiebo Ludwig in jail. All in all, Laird treks some 70,000 kilometres in search of power tales (and probably racked up one hell of gasoline bill in the process).

But Laird wisely uses his exotic jaunts as sharp hooks for bigger fish. His fascinating chapter on Uranium City, for example, lays out the grotesque economics of atomic energy. "Why does a country that claims to be a world-class nuclear power continue to neglect uranium dumps, which after almost fifty years, remain a clear public and environmental hazard?" The answer is simple: For decades, the Canadian government ran the show and was producer, regulator and marketer. Unlike the U.S. government, which has come clean on its nuclear legacy, Ottawa, home to eternal secrets, remains as mute as ever.

Laird doesn't make an obvious point of it, but his book also explains how Big Energy has no respect for rural people or aboriginals. In Alberta, the oil and gas industry often harms, displaces and devalues the property of farmers with impunity. In Quebec, that province's Hydro monopoly flouts the law (and changes the law when necessary) to put transmission lines in people's backyards so a nationalist government can make some dollars selling juice to Americans. In the Arctic, nearly 57 per cent of all Innu tested have blood levels exceeding Canadian mercury guidelines, thanks to urban-based coal-fire plants.

The message here is clear: Power in the public interest routinely deprives rural Canadians of their land rights, as well as their civil liberties, so that people in New York or California can run their air conditioners all day.

Laird's forays also tell Canadians a lot about the morally bankrupt state of the nation's politics. His chapter on aboriginals battling the federal government for lost or stolen oil and gas revenues is a sad and accurate account of a government in limbo. Even Laird is amazed by what he finds: "In one courtroom the feds are pretending that Indians don't exist, then in another the feds are suing the Indians, and in yet another courtroom the feds are claiming money on behalf of the First Nations." Alice's adventures in Wonderland were simpler than this.

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Power also astounds the casual reader with a number of startling revelations. Jim Ramsay, president of Nunavut's minor hockey league, notes that the North's hockey season is just getting shorter because the rinks keep melting. I had to read that one twice. Here's another corker: A 1991 study found elevated levels of childhood leukemia within 25 kilometres of the Pickering and Bruce nuclear stations. But the federal government, uranium's best friend, discounted a 40-per- cent increase in leukemia as, you guessed it, "insignificant."

And folks in Ontario will like this one: Every year, electrical consumers pay a $165 surcharge on their electrical bill to pay down debts incurred by money-sucking nuclear plants.

In the end, Laird's fascinating and compelling tales highlight the arrogance of Canada's power ideology as well as its inflexibility. Quebec still thinks a mammoth hydro system is better than small locally controlled ones, despite all the lessons of the 1998 ice storm. Both the federal government and Alberta are totally enthralled by the $51-billion expansion of the oil sands, even though smarter technologies might displace the project within 50 years.

Unlike the Europeans, who understand the importance of smart design and energy conservation (a true business opportunity), Canada has banked its future on staggering inefficiencies and huge environmental liabilities.

Moreover, the nation can't ever curtail natural gas or hydro exports to the United States now without first imposing big reductions at home, thanks to free trade. In addition, the nation sits on top of some of the world's most damning science on global warming, yet Ottawa dithers on greenhouse reductions. Last but not least, Canada remains one of the few nations in the world without a credible alternative energy program.

None of this brazen thoughtlessness is good news or even makes for sound economics. As Laird concludes at one point: "It's not clear who is advocating for citizens and consumers and it's even less clear who is ultimately accountable for air quality and greenhouse gas emissions."

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Although Laird's reporting is consistently careful and fair (the engineering wonders of the oil sands are indeed awesome), one finishes this book feeling disquiet. It appears that Canada's energy establishment has bolted into the 21st century with all the vision and finesse of a Soviet planning council high on vodka.

Contributing reviewer Andrew Nikiforuk is the Calgary-based author of Saboteurs: Wiebo Ludwig's War Against Big Oil .

Pollution in your own back yard

In the backyard of the house I rent in downtown Toronto is a large Japanese maple. It is a glorious tree, a rangy delicate thing that has grown well beyond its usual two-metre height. During the summer of 2000, this tree took seriously ill: its branches were dying off and its burgundy and green leaves curled up -- the whole top part of the tree resembled a mass of brown claws, grasping for the sky.

A tree doctor was called and, it turned out the branch die-off could be easily remedied by a replanting -- the roots needed more room to grow. The leaves, on the other hand, could not be helped. "That's leaf burn," the tree doctor said. "Pollution settles on the leaves and burns with sun and moisture." I'd read about foliage burn before -- sometimes referred to as a harbinger of more serious airborne pollution, usually found near smelters and other large industrial plants. But not in my back yard . . .

Smog is a big question across Canada; the federal government estimates that air pollution contributes to the premature deaths of five thousand people across the nation's eleven largest cities each year. . . . Estimated smog-related deaths actually exceed nation-wide fatalities from breast cancer (4,946), prostate cancer (3,622) and motor vehicle accidents (3,064), as per 1997 statistics. The federal government estimates that about 20 million people -- two thirds of the population -- are exposed to harmful levels of airborne pollutants, mostly derived from energy production and transportation. -- from Power: Journeys Across an Energy Nation by Gordon Laird (Viking, 2002).

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