Green Day 2013

The snow that fell throughout the day today gave a decidedly white look to UNBC’s annual Green Day. But inside the Canfor Winter Garden, various activities and displays provided opportunities for members of the UNBC community to get ideas for reducing their personal environmental impact while also hearing of UNBC’s plans related to renewable energy and community sustainability.

President Iwama leads a discussion in the Canfor Winter Garden

UNBC President George Iwama used Green Day to host a conversation about the next phase of UNBC’s energy project. He described how UNBC’s existing bioenergy facilities – the wood pellet system at the I.K. Barber Enhanced Forestry Lab and the Bioenergy Plant that provides heat to the campus – can be connected to the residences and the campus daycare, providing a new platform for education and research on how to implement local energy systems in rural and northern communities. The idea is that this new energy network will provide the foundation for adding additional energy technologies, on-campus food production, and future housing to model sustainable communities. The opportunities for teaching, research, and public education would be unparalleled in Canada.

Green Day was created for conversations like these.

Some of the UNBC students who organized the first Green Day, in 2008.

As UNBC traditions go, Green Day has some history. The first one occurred six years ago, in 2008, less than a year after UNBC trademarked “Canada’s Green University” and only a few weeks after the Government of BC announced its first bioenergy strategy.  Two UNBC professors – Art Fredeen and Ken Wilkening – were the ones who made that first Green Day a reality. They converted a third-year Environmental Studies course that semester into a planning committee, mobilizing students who had a passion for the environment and sustainability. They put together a variety of displays and presentations ranging from air quality and an audit of UNBC’s trash, to local environmental science fair projects and the options for bioenergy in northern BC. Most importantly, they established Green Day as something engaging, informative, and participatory. Every year since 2008, Green Day has been the result of faculty, students, and staff working together. The intent has always been to mobilize the UNBC community around the “Canada’s Green University” trademark; to make it an active part of the UNBC experience.

UNBC has come a long way in the last 6 years and there continues to be discussion of what the green initiative means for UNBC. For me, it starts with where we are: at the centre of a region both incredibly beautiful and incredibly rich in natural resources. So much of UNBC’s programs and research – even the look of the campus – were developed in recognition of our natural environment and the diverse peoples and communities of this place. It extends to more social aspects, including our love of the outdoors for exercise or even to nourish our spirit. So much of the UNBC experience is captured in the green initiative; even UNBC’s official colour is green.

One thing it isn’t, is simple.

That was one lesson learned in the lead-up to the first Green Day, six years ago. “It was a blast,” recalls Art, “but Ken and I had to throw away our carefully crafted syllabus for the course. We ended up delighted with the results and no tears were shed for the syllabus.”

Green lesson #1: there’s no manual for this. Be flexible. Be progressive.

Who knows what could happen before Green Day 2014.


Natural gas, UNBC, and the regulator

It’s not as cold as it has been recently; it’s currently only about -1. But as I’m writing this, my home’s furnace is kicking in now and then to keep things cozy. Like thousands of other homeowners around BC, my furnace burns natural gas that originates from wells in northeastern BC.

But how this gas is extracted has changed dramatically. 5-6 years ago, nearly 90% of BC’s natural gas came from what are known as “conventional” reservoirs. They required that a well be drilled vertically into the earth to access a “pool” of natural gas. Today, the situation is very different. In 2012, 87% of the wells drilled in BC used a different technique called “hydraulic fracturing.” More commonly known as fracking, this technique emerged along with the ability to drill wells horizontally. During fracking, a mixture of water, sand, and other chemicals is injected into wells at very high pressure, fracturing the shale rock formations that hold natural gas so that the gas can be released and flow up the well to the surface. The technique is controversial (it’s feared that fracking can contaminate groundwater and cause earthquakes. It also uses immense quantities of water) but 60% of the gas I’m using this evening to heat my house originated from a fracked well.

Almost on its own, fracking has been a game-changer for the natural gas industry. Whereas once experts feared that BC was running out of natural gas, the new technique has unlocked perhaps 100 years worth of reserves at current rates of consumption. However, it has also meant that new reservoirs are being accessed in parts of North America that didn’t previously contribute energy resources. This has contributed to lower prices for natural gas and led to predictions that the United States will gradually need less gas from Canada (currently, about three-quarters of what we extract in BC goes south of the border). With all of that context, what does the future hold and how can BC’s universities contribute to charting the best course?

This question brought representatives from BC’s Oil and Gas Commission to UNBC today. The OGC is BC’s oil and gas regulator, ensuring that the industry follows BC’s laws concerning oil and gas operations and the protection of the environment. And with the industry in such a period of change (and potentially, growth, if LNG terminals are built on the west coast), questions abound: what are the effects of fracking on local freshwater resources? What are appropriate remediation standards for the particular ecological conditions of the Northeast? What should be done with the carbon dioxide that is released from some shale formations during fracturing operations? What science is most relevant to ensuring the most effective public policy? What public education techniques can be most effective, especially for citizens outside of the gas-extraction regions? To that end, the OGC led a lecture on hydraulic fracturing and water management in oil and gas to a packed room at UNBC today. It was another step towards providing information on the current state of the oil and gas industry. As noted during the visit to UNBC today, the OGC’s role is to regulate, not advocate. And UNBC’s purpose is to educate.

Mayka Kennedy of the OGC leads a lecture on hydraulic fracturing to a packed UNBC Senate Chamber today.

UNBCers have already been engaged with relevant research on such topics as remediation of contaminated sites, effects of oil and gas activity on wildlife populations, and quantifying freshwater resources and river flows especially around Dawson Creek. In fact, it may be the combination of several key UNBC characteristics – excellent research, community connections, and citizen involvement – that give UNBC researchers and students a valuable perspective on the future of natural gas in BC.

By the way, if you want more information on fracking, right down to the statistics on individual wells in BC, see the OGC’s online resource at



Talking about Rural Communities in Downtown Vancouver

A few weeks ago, BC Hydro made news when it was revealed that thousands of trees cut down to make way for a power line extension along Highway 37 in northwestern BC were being burned in slash piles. Critics argued that the timber could’ve been used in mills or pellet plants, but Hydro countered that it just wasn’t economical to transport the logs – enough to fill 16,000 logging trucks! – hundreds of kilometres away. That may be true, but what was most interesting to me was that none of the experts interviewed by the provincial media on this story suggested that community-based bioenergy systems could have used at least some of this wood….if only these local systems existed.

The CanBio conference in Vancouver

I was in Vancouver yesterday for the Canadian Bioenergy Association (CanBio) conference, which wrapped up today. I moderated a session on Energy Independence for Rural and Remote Communities, which attracted 9 presentations from Finland and across Canada. In fact, not a single session attracted more presentations. For good reason. Prior to the start of the rural session, BC’s Chief Forester outlined the fibre story in the province. Dave Peterson suggested there is a significant volume of underutilized biomass in BC largely because the majority of the province’s timber resource – like those trees along highway 37 – lies beyond the economical reach of existing forest products facilities (sawmills, pulp mills, pellet plants, etc.). The Ministry of Forests pegs that boundary to be a radius of 120 kilometres around a facility. Despite decades of effort to locate mills around the province – and support the jobs that come with them – most of BC’s 7.2 billion cubic metres of timber older than 60 years lies outside of those “haul” zones. Amazing.

Generating value from those forests is not an easy thing to do, but community-based bioenergy systems, especially in communities that are off electrical grids or natural gas pipelines, are one solution. If we do nothing, those communities will continue to burn diesel or propane, which happens in at least 25 communities in BC and more than 150 elsewhere in Canada. In encouraging this transformation, presenters at the CanBio conference talked about everything from business cases and effectively handling biomass fuel, to involving local citizens and using biomass energy systems to support local food production. Ultimately, education and local champions were seen to be the two critical factors that would lead to more local bioenergy systems in rural and remote communities. If only some of them existed in northwestern BC before the Highway 37 project.


Prince Rupert: The Port City

When I was pursuing my master’s degree at UNBC several years ago, I completed a few assignments by producing video documentaries instead of papers. Two of them were centered on Prince Rupert: one on the prospect of offshore oil and gas exploration in the Hecate Strait; the other on the expansion of the port infrastructure here to include shipping containers. When I was here then, there was almost a sense of despair in town. The local pulp mill had shut down in 2000, and the promise of port expansion was a glimmer of hope, critical to job creation and revitalizing the community’s sense of optimism. The port expansion opened five years ago (after my video was completed) and it has been successful, setting new records for itself every year. South of the container terminal, the coal port is also setting records for shipments and a new dock for shipping wood pellets is under construction. Rupert’s deep harbour and its location along a trade corridor connecting North America to Asia have been vital to its success, but there are local implications (some residents recently have been complaining about noise associated with the increase in port activity) to consider.

Energy is now on Rupert’s radar and the mood is similar to when the container terminal was on the verge of development. Two big Liquefied Natural Gas (LNG) projects are

Ken Veldman of the Rupert Port Authority shows the proposed location of the LNG terminals

proposed, both bringing natural gas from northeastern BC to the west coast for export, likely to Asia. Both LNG terminals would be located a little south of the city.

UNBC President George Iwama and I are in Prince Rupert and we presented our UNBC update to the regional district directors from Rupert, Haida Gwaii, and the rural areas along the coast. They were particularly interested in UNBC’s track record and aspirations related to bioenergy and local energy systems. It’s especially relevant here, where natural gas is more expensive than in cities like Prince George, and there is no local forest products manufacturing facility. Like many places in northern BC, local energy production is seen to be critical to environmental sustainability and local economic development.

Following us at the Regional District was former Prince Rupert mayor Herb Pond, who now works for the BG Group (formerly British Gas). BG is partnering with Spectra Energy on one of the LNG projects here. He outlined the proposed project timeline (potentially operational by 2020) and job numbers (a peak of 3000 during construction and 400-600 ongoing) that could be expected. Clearly, this project also has potential economic impacts. It also has environmental implications and Spectra’s proposed pipeline to the LNG plant just started provincial environmental review on Nov 15. The trick for Prince Rupert is to build on its experiences with the port expansion to foster economic development, create opportunities for local people, and respect the environment that is so much part of the identity here.



Prince George: Closer to Home

My most recent regional district presentation was in Prince George. As in other communities, the stories of alumni – and the success northern BC is having in retaining them – were perhaps the highlight of the presentation. Providing information to people about UNBC close to home is both easier and more difficult: on one hand, there’s solid knowledge of UNBC informed by a near-constant presence of the University; this is also the crowd, however, for which UNBC is part of everyday life and there are high expectations for continued growth, success, and progress.

It was the same earlier in the day on campus. I was leading a presentation in a small room packed with about 20 faculty and students eager to learn more about UNBC’s efforts to integrate on-campus energy production with housing and food. This was a group for whom local food has become a passion. Maybe an obsession. The group included the student and faculty leaders of the university farmers’ market, the student champion of a new geodesic-dome greenhouse on campus, a grad who has become the local expert on the regional agricultural industry and its marketing and distribution channels, the former Dean spearheading efforts to have a professional agrologist’s certification offered at UNBC, and a student who came from Kenya and now speaks across Canada on local food systems. Not one student in this room was coasting through university. Like the regional district presentation that would follow later in the day, this group had a very thorough understanding of UNBC and its purpose, and the expectations were high as a result. Throughout the conversation, as various ideas were both considered and suggested, a theme emerged: closer to home. For these students and faculty, it was about enhancing the university experience for all students and employees through the ability to grow food right on campus and develop housing that would provide enhanced social experiences in an actual community, as well as teaching and research opportunities.

It was the same at the regional district. They saw UNBC as being close to their home, and this geographic proximity is at the foundation of support for the university and aspirations related to new programs, applied research, or new ways of demonstrating energy production and sustainability. No one really thinks that things will happen at UNBC and stay there. Everyone expects the benefits to flow to the communities and businesses that are close by.

Coincidentally, these two presentations sandwiched an event on campus that was held to mark National Philanthropy Day. You can be excused if you’ve never heard of it, but I think it’s a good thing to celebrate the countless acts of generosity that are at the foundation of so many organizations across Canada. UNBC is one of those organizations and the National Philanthropy Day event provided an opportunity for members of the UNBC community to “vote” for how funds raised at UNBC should be spent. Students, faculty, and staff people used dots to select among green initiatives, student awards, athletics, and experiential learning opportunities. All are worthy of support. All serve to strengthen the potential for UNBC to have impact “closer to home.”



Burns Lake: Splendor sine occasu

BC has among the richest environments on earth and it is the only province that has nature at the heart of its motto. I learned both of those things tonight during the annual Doug Little memorial lecture at UNBC presented this year by Fred Bunnell, a UBC professor emeritus. He spoke about the importance of crown land (in fact, 95% of BC is publicly owned) in shaping our values about the environment. In other words, we care – or we should – because it’s ours. That’s the basis of social license.

I was listening to Fred Bunnell while I was reflecting on my visit to Burns Lake today and my presentation to the Regional District of Bulkley Nechako. We talked about the contributions of alumni, local research that had been undertaken, and more than one director remarked about how access to UNBC had made a considerable difference for himself and his family. Coincidentally, the agenda item that followed my presentation concerned the regional district’s tally of emissions and the progress they were making towards carbon neutrality. Clearly, it was a topic that divided some directors and revealed frustration over the practical implementation of provincial policies in rural and small communities. But before long, examples of local and relevant UNBC research were cited and Burns Lake Mayor Luke Strimbold, himself a former UNBC student, suggested that shared ambitions around local energy and community development made for a natural partnership between the regional district and the University, from which local and practical solutions would emerge. That approach to working with the University has roots in the establishment of UNBC. To this day, it’s the only institution that we northerners created FOR OURSELVES. In other words, communities and their residents care about the role and contributions of UNBC because it’s ours.

Going back to Fred Bunnell, it’s essential in British Columbia that we steward the environmental riches that we have, while sustaining the communities that rely on them. It’s a sentiment at the heart of BC’s motto: Splendor sine occasu, literally translated as splendour without diminishment. It’s our challenge. It’s our responsibility.


Ottawa: Discussions with MPs

As I watched the news coverage of the big Enbridge protest this past week in Victoria, I felt a desire to also protest against the status quo.

I was in Ottawa, far away from northern BC. At night, like in every big city it seems, it’s common for floor after floor of office buildings to have their lights on, despite the fact people left their offices and cubicles hours before. Our society’s wasteful use of precious energy resources is just one example of where the energy status quo leaves much to be desired. We are also reliant on a single customer, hundreds of communities in Canada still burn diesel to produce electricity, and our energy extraction and distribution technologies/techniques aren’t perfect. So what are we going to do about it? Maybe nothing, but likely something.

It’s easy to get down on politicians and their motivation (or lack thereof) for improving things, but I saw a genuine attempt to consider new ideas this week. It was especially evident in a meeting where Conservatives, Greens, Liberals, and the NDP came together to hear President Iwama and I speak about UNBC’s opportunities to build on its existing infrastructure and academic programs to model northern community sustainability. These MPs and staff didn’t have to be there, but they were. They asked good questions. They were impressed. They encouraged us. One of the attendees was a UNBC grad who works in Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development as a policy analyst focusing on the dozens of communities south of 60 that still burn diesel for power generation at great expense. He wore his alumni pin to the meeting and felt that UNBC could help to lead the way to new alternatives for these communities. It’s great that he feels that way about his alma mater.

Ottawa meeting

From left: me, Green Party leader Elizabeth May, President Iwama, Liberal MP Joyce Murray, UNBC grad Patrick Sampson, and Conservative MP Bob Zimmer

Never before has UNBC had such an extensive roster of meetings with government officials during a single trip to Ottawa. It’s due to the work of our local MPs and the deep interest in the topic we were talking about.


Energy Literacy

Until a few days ago, I had never heard the term “energy literacy.” I heard it first from the mayor of Fort St. John in a conversation I was having with her about the level of knowledge most people have about energy and where it comes from. The point was that “energy” often originates a distance away from where people use it and so they may not be aware of the process used to extract, process, and distribute it.

It was a theme repeated later that evening when Peter Tertzakian spoke at UNBC. He is the chief economist of ARC Financial, the largest private energy investment firm in Canada. He used a number of historical events (did you know that the first recorded shipment of oil from the oil sands occurred in 1914?) to describe the evolution of Canada’s energy industry, from the invention of kerosene in Nova Scotia (an event Peter believes saved whales from extinction since they were previously hunted, at least in part, for their oil) to the current status of the natural gas industry.

Peter spent the following morning with me and we toured the Bioenergy Plant and explored UNBC’s early successes in demonstrating a seamless integration of biomass and natural gas on the campus. Later, I repeated the tour with Doug Bloom, president of Spectra Energy, who was at UNBC to top up the company’s cumulative donations to UNBC to an even $1 million. Overall, the feeling I received from these visitors was that UNBC – our location, our academic character, our values as a university, our track record in energy projects, and our aspirations – is uniquely situated to contribute to a higher level of energy literacy in Canada.

Today I’m in Ottawa where President George Iwama and I are meeting with various government officials about UNBC’s proposal to build on our bioenergy plant (already partially funded by the Federal Government) and demonstrate the relationship between local energy production, food, and housing – all part of a new vision of community sustainability.

UNBC President George Iwama, VP Rob van Adrichem with renowed architect, Douglas Cardinal.

UNBC President George Iwama, VP Rob van Adrichem with renowned architect, Douglas Cardinal.

Our first visit was with renowned architect Douglas Cardinal, who is perhaps most famous for creating the Museum of Civilization across the Ottawa River from the Parliament Buildings. What many people don’t know is that, two decades ago, Cardinal also designed a remote Aboriginal community in northern Quebec that is built around a bioenergy plant for heating, using local wood residues. In UNBC he sees an inspired opportunity for building communities that are in harmony with nature; a model for Canada. It represents a new opportunity to re-connect people with energy, their environment, their housing, and food – all of it tied to learning and research. Could energy literacy be far behind?


UNBC Alumni: Staying in the North

When UNBC was first being proposed, 25+ years ago, a critical promise was that students educated in the North would be likely to stay and live here after graduation. For more than a decade now, we’ve known that the majority of UNBC grads do in fact stay after graduation but UNBC only has 1.9% of the university seats in BC and we never really knew – until now – how big a role UNBC was playing relative to the entire BC university system.

The most recent government survey of BC university grads was published in 2011 and assessed the class of 2009. 70% of the UNBC grads of that year were living in the North in 2011. The number is actually so large that it is significantly more than the contribution of all other BC degree-granting institutions combined. That’s right, with only 1.9% of the BC university students, UNBC produced about two-thirds of the university grads working in northern BC that year. Nearly 10,000 BC university grads participated in the 2011 survey, representing more than half of the class of 2009.

As Northern BC considers its energy future, university grads are critical to considering the environmental, social, and economic effects as well as contemplating various options. We know, more than ever, that they’ll come from UNBC.

This video from CKPG in Prince George was also broadcast on the Global provincial news:


Dawson Creek: Passion for the Peace

I have a sister who has lived in Dawson Creek for 30-odd years and I’ve spent a lot of time there over the years. Maybe that’s why I was looking forward to the discussion at the Peace River Regional District yesterday. Or maybe it’s because the members of the RD are so passionate about their area and the University’s role in it. The RD directors are a diverse group and include farmers and people involved in the energy industry. They include the mayors of the regional municipalities as well as representatives of the rural areas around those municipalities. You never get indifference from this group: generally, they are some of UNBC’s greatest supporters but they have high expectations for the University. Good.

The discussion yesterday was no different. The group was impressed with our latest figures that show a terrific level of alumni retention in the North (I’ll post about that soon). As usual, however, some of the best conversations happened after the presentation was formally over. I heard stories of the directors’ personal experiences with UNBC, usually involving a family member who is having (or had) a great experience at UNBC. But there were also pointed calls for UNBC to have a greater presence in the region (both in terms of a staff complement and educational programming) and to be more involved in the oil and gas industry; to not be so focused on bioenergy. Fair enough. Truly, this is a spectacular energy region. The oil and gas activity is a major part of the local economy and is visible everywhere. Also, from the regional district meeting room, the wind turbines to the west of Dawson Creek are plainly visible and I saw a train carrying about 30 replacement blades parked just on the other side of the highway from the regional district office. Earlier, I asked one of the directors what the biggest issue is in the region and “Site C” was the reply, referring to BC Hydro’s proposed new dam near Fort St. John.

Wind turbine replacement blades being transported by train through Dawson Creek.

This isn’t really new for the Peace – it has been an energy centre for many decades – but what is new is the extent to which energy has now also become a dominant topic west of the Rockies and across northern BC. So what role should UNBC be playing? Let’s hear your ideas.