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Monday, November 12, 2012

The End Days of Assad

What in the World is happening with Syria?

The National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces elected a leader, Mr. Mouaz al-Khatib, the Damascus native and moderate Sunni cleric who was chosen at the Doha conference to lead the new 63-member body.  The Gulf Cooperation Council recognized the new body as the legitimate body representing the opposition in Syria and within hours, the Arab League followed suit with the U.S. State Department quickly endorsing these new arrangements 

Reading the political tea leaves to decipher what this means essentially shakes this out as the creation of an entity that can assume power once the Assad regime either relinquishes power or is eliminated in some manner.  Naturally, the coalition was made up of a group of 63 people who represent different groups within the opposition and is structured in such a manner as to minimize a the potential for a totally radical new regime to emerge once the Assad Government ceases.  This also has the added feature of creating a more palatable group to funnel a higher quantity of financial resources combined with aid of a far more lethal nature.  After all, these thing will have to be explained to government policy makers and subsequently to the public... at least to some degree.

It's important to weight these developments with a convergence of other developments and comments from the chief allies of Damascus, namely Russia and China.  China, of course, is fully enveloped in a once in a decade leadership change, this means tricky foreign policy initiatives are likely to be placed on the back burner, at least until the new leadership is fully recognized and consolidated in their approach.  Without hesitation, Moscow quickly commented that "such alliances must act based on a platform of peaceful regulation of the conflict by Syrians themselves, without interference", urging the opposition to drop its stated refusal to negotiate with the regime.  In my opinion, this is hardly a forceful declaration of an impending international crisis that would have to be driven by Putin... it seems as though Syria is not a political hill Putin is willing to die on if I am reading the political tea leaves from Moscow with any degree of accuracy.

Besides, from the Russian perspective, both the economic and strategic importance of Syria has diminished over the decades.  Mother Russia now holds the high Arctic as far more strategic, recognizing the immense hydrocarbon resources in close proximity to their homeland and deep water naval assets.  The Middle East looks like a money pit guarded by a ticking bomb to the Russians, whereas the high Arctic must look like a bloated treasure chest in a region where they have unchallenged navigable superiority and all the most important strategic cards in their hands.  It only makes sense that Putin, being a man who has demonstrated his wisdom in matters political and in matters economic, will likely rattle sabers and complain, but at the end of the day, he will preserve his political capital for the big battles down the road... the ones that will be worth trillions in wealth to the Russian people.

The alliance and recognition required to facilitate more direct aid have given the opposition an enormous boost.  Substantially more indirect resourcing from the West can accelerate quickly as the opposition is now officially recognized.  This also paves the way for the provision of more lethal aid.  Turkey has taken in the vast population of Syrian refugees.  Turkey has also been repeatedly shelled by the Syrian Army, even a Turkish Air Force fighter was shot down by Syrian military forces.  Turkey has been stung repeatedly in this.  Turkey is now publicly discussing talks with NATO about the possible deployment of Patriot surface-to-air missiles to guard against further spillover of Syria's conflict. NATO alliance's Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen, made no specific remarks on the possible deployment of Patriots, but he has stated that NATO will not abandon Turkey if Syria continues illegal intrusions into their country.  This is the first major sabre rattling seen from NATO; interesting it would happen so close to the recognition of the opposition, and that both of those would happen less than a week after the US election was over.  Connect the dots... one does not usher in a huge ground breaking power sharing agreement between factions that have been fighting a revolution in Syria, and all in just a couple of days.  I think Hillary has been a very busy as she finishes up her tour as Secretary of State.

Some would view the deployment of Patriot missile systems as a method of establishing specific "no fly" zones in key areas.  This would have the attraction of not having to deploy NATO military aircraft to enforce limited "no fly" zones, forcing the Syrian Air Force to retreat from areas where humanitarian efforts are established.  These areas could be extended to provide strategic cover for opposition forces.  Syrian Army shelling of Turkey lays the groundwork for a potential NATO Patriot screen.  Syrian artillery has also fired into the Golan resulting in the Israeli Defense Forces sending a rocket back at the Syrian artillery position, deliberately missing them of course, but landing it close enough to deliver a message… don't even think about coming into the Golan.  The Israeli's then filed a complaint with the UN representatives in the area, but to no avail.  They Syrian Army lobbed artillery back into the Golan, this time landing in a Israeli military outpost.  The IDF sent back another rocket, although this time with precision.  The rocket landed a direct hit on the Syrian position, no reports of casualties have yet been seen on mainstream media.  All of these things seem to be adding up to a shifting reality; Western powers are putting the pieces together on the board to support a far more serious operation to unseat Assad.

Even the UK Prime Minister suggested Mr. Assad could go into exile recently, but this would be an unattractive option from Mr. Assad's perspective since it is likely that no matter where he goes, he could be legally subject to international tribunal for crimes against humanity.  The situation in Syria remains complex, the killing continues, but the one thing becoming evident is the timing between the U.S. election and a lot of mechanical requirements to launch a far stronger effort to dislodge Assad.  It almost seems as though the election ended and the plans were immediately put into effect.  It could be argued this represents the ability of a second term President to be more decisive in post election actions while using, as he is famous for, the full range of national security options available.

I suspect there will, over the days ahead, be far more lethal aid placed in the hands of the opposition.  It is likely that increased funding will flow, and if this is met with only token resistance from Russia and China, it could pave the way to an end of this ugly and unnecessary violence in Syria.  Even though Iraq and Lebanon may not be wholly supportive of the revolution in Syria, it is highly likely their concerns will tend to remain somewhat muted as the Arab League, NATO, and the GCC now have far greater alignment.  It seems likely there are more backroom deals to be made, and some "front of the house" sabre rattling will be required to add the element of window dressing for the Russians and the Chinese to save face, but the reign of Assad will likely be coming to an end at an accelerated pace.

Of course, the mainstream press does not typically report on other options that have been discussed here and there… options like an extraction operation to take Assad to an international location where he may be placed in the hands of an international tribunal or even the possibility that Assad could meet with a sudden and unfortunate event… certain circles might press for a political "assassination".  My viewpoints on the basket of options available are entirely mute.  I stand in silence as to the best pathway as I prefer to simply try and create a modest assessment of what is taking place.  In my humble opinion, I see the end game close at hand for the current Syrian regime.

Saturday, November 10, 2012

Veteran's Day Message 2012

Veteran's Day Message 2012

Fresh from the excitement of the U.S. Election, I'm pleased to see the democratic system of the United States transition power (in this case retain it) in a peaceful manner as has been the hallmark of the great union since George Washington rejected the notion of being a King or President for life.

George Washington left his service as President imparting words of wisdom to the new nation… among those words he said, "The basis of our political systems is the right of the people to make and to alter their constitutions of government. But the constitution which at any time exists till changed by an explicit and authentic act of the whole people is sacredly obligatory upon all".  Clearly, President Washington was a man who understood the value of democracy and the rights of the people.  He was also a man who suffered terrible hardships of war to enshrine those values. 

In the United States election, I watched as partisan politics generated a fever pitch in the months leading up to the election.  Even the news channels seemed to have a stronger partisan flavor than usual.  Immediately after election, the conversations quickly turn to the problems ahead and how there will be great conflict in a nation so evenly divided.  In part, this is probably due to the pain of defeat, which is very real.  Especially for the candidates and their campaign workers and the thousands of volunteers who have placed countless hours of their lives into a cause they dearly believed in.  But the pain of an election defeat quickly dissipates and the business of the union continues.

I always harbor a strong sense of optimism at election time because I would like to believe that true patriotism is always prepared to blossom in the hearts of those who will head to Washington to govern the nation.  Patriotism itself should guide the larger needs of the nation and infuse a sense of collaboration in all hearts.  But the optimism, like the pain of defeat or the ecstasy of victory, also tends to dissipate as the omnipresent tasks ahead of the people are ever larger and more complex in a shrinking World.

The optimist believes the best days are still ahead of the United States.  President Obama will be focused on shaping the policy environment that will usher in new jobs, a growing economy, and a shrinking level of military conflict around the World.  Of course, the challenges are not easy nor will they be solved overnight. Hopefully, words of optimism and courage shall guide the republic and be a constant companion of political leaders in the weeks, months, and years ahead. 

On a personal note, I'm cheering for President Obama because, Like former President Clinton, I believe his policy direction will pay dividends for the great republic.  The global economic and security challenges this administration has faced have been historic.  The President, however, is not without fault.  During his first two years in office, he tended to undervalue the coin of the realm… trust.  Trust between Republican and Democrats alike.  Politics do not need to be a blood sport.  People who do not involve themselves with the machinations of the political intricacies of the beltway believe their representatives are assigned the job of looking after the republic and that they will do that work to great effect. 

There will always be reason to distrust the patriotism of those who, under any pretense, may endeavor to weaken its bonds.  The division of political beliefs have spanned ever wider, creating large chasms that may disturb the republic.  It is clearly a matter of great peril, that any circumstances should be furnished for characterizing parties by demographic or geographic discrimination. 

The manipulative leaders of divisive policy endeavor to excite a belief that there is a real difference of interests and views. This is an expedient manner for a party to acquire influence within particular districts or parties.  Altogether too often, they will readily misrepresent the opinions and aims of other districts or parties.  Citizens should actively shield their hearts against the jealousies and divisiveness that spring from attempts to divide.  Such actions render hostilities between citizens who ought to be bound together by fraternal affection. 

I point no fingers at any party, instead, I caution people as citizens of the republic, thereby incorporating both the innocuous practitioners and the sublimely effective highly capitalized practitioners for whom financial capacity dwarfs the ability of the average person to compete for an understanding of their opinions.  For the republic to be effective, a union of the government for everybody is indispensable and must be demanded of our elected representatives.

Some political entities exist to organize a strong faction, and to endow it with extraordinary force powered by wealth.  The danger of such entities is their proclivity to pretend they delegate the will of the republic while representing the will of their own interests.  In many cases, such entities are driven by a minority of republic, making the public administration the mirror of the ill-concerted and incongruous projects of their self serving goals.  This is in stark contrast to transparent and well thought out plans that are evaluated by common counsels; modified by mutual interests and a sense of the fraternal good for the entire republic.

Unfortunately, the aforementioned political entities will seek to carry a popular issue such that it enhances their ability to become powerful organizations.  Their leaders are often cunning and ambitious.  Left unchecked, their ability to subvert the power of the people for their own purposes endangers the well being of the republic.  It is only through the constant opposition to such extremism that the public good will be served.

The baneful effects of the spirit of political party has, as part and parcel of the very human nature of such organizations, the goal of domination over another.  This is sharpened by the spirit of revenge natural to opposing parties or political entities.  Left unchecked, the miseries imposed over the weaker entity, over time, will incentivize people to seek the security of the absolute power of the party or entity, expressed in our current system as partisan politics and control over key institutions. 

Having no recourse, and left to prosper without dissent, leaders of powerful factions, having accumulated more fortune than their competitors, may seek to elevate their powers at the expense of the public good.  Let these words stand as a grim reminder that public interest, the very foundations of democracy, become challenged whenever such polarization is allowed to run rampant over the larger needs of the republic and the people.  As this election ended, leaders on both sides pontificated the need to work across the aisle and engage each other in the spirit of the public good.  May we be fortunate to see these words translated into actions.

I believe the policy issues of the day, such as managing the finances of the republic, restoring geopolitical stability in the Middle East and elsewhere, the restoration of the economic engines that provide jobs, and a thoughtful dialogue about climate change constitute challenges every bit as large as the greatest challenges the republic has ever faced.  In few instances, except during the great wars or during the civil war when the cousins battled each other for the very existence of the union itself, has more been at stake for the people of the republic.  Accordingly, it is up to the people to demand, through their votes and their constant attention to government, a non-partisan spirit that shall not wane with the passing of some weeks or months. 

This applies equally to all parties and political entities, all of which owe their very right to exist to the blood of the patriots shed across the centuries.  Let the sacrifice of the many patriots be cherished and valued, for in their sacrifice the republic came to exist and survives to this day.  Failure to arrive at political solutions for the overall public good, even at the expense of the power of the political party or entity, is to heap the ultimate disrespect upon the cherished memories of the many patriots who have fought and paid with their blood and with their lives, for the free republic that now faces these challenges.

I wish every success to the President of the United States, to his staff, and to the Congress as the elected representatives of the people.  And I'm equally sure that, in the most fundamental sense of patriotic duty, this is also the wish of the people of the republic.  I also admonish both parties for their partisan mischief over the last years, and I am very hopeful their desires for the future of the republic can, and shall, be placed above any and all forms of partisan posturing.

As it turns out, this is a rather rare election for me because the President is also my cousin.  President Obama and I are 9th cousins, two times removed!  I believe I shall, perhaps, write to the President and ask him to send his cousin some inauguration tickets.  This will likely be the only chance I ever have to see a cousin sworn in as President of the United States for a second term.  But I would also like to look back on such an experience knowing it was also the day a new journey on the path of bi-partisan politics began in Washington. 

Interestingly, our common ancestors are from the Canadian side of our family tree that ties us together as cousins.  POTUS has Canadian lineage he can be proud of!  If I get the inauguration tickets and, possibly, the chance to converse with the President… I'll be sure to point that out to him.

In the meantime, dissolving all such fantasy of inaugural attendance, I turn my attention to the important duties of respecting our honored dead and the glorious living who have made the ultimate contract and compact with their fellow citizens, to defend freedom and liberty at all costs, and to pay any price to insure it, up to and including their own life if necessary.  Let those brave men and women occupy our thoughts as we, the free from around the World, gather to remember and honor these brave people.  Let us remember they have provided the very democracy where we prosper and thrive.  If you know a Veteran, or if you have a Veteran in your family, maybe take a moment to thank them for their service.  Those words mean more than you can ever imagine; it was for you whom they dedicated and sacrificed some of the best years of their lives.

Friday, November 2, 2012

The E-President Poll predicts an Obama Win

In the last U.S. Presidential election, I invented a fun tool designed to measure the e-bay factor.  It's a poll that looks at how much money people are willing to pay to have a piece of the candidate.  The more items for sale the larger the demand.  If the market has a larger demand AND a higher price, it's a hands down winner. The fascinating part is that it had a 100% predictability record in the 2008 U.S. election, both in the primaries and the general election.

e-President poll is not scientific, in fact, it's about as subjective as you can get.  I just do this for fun.  Still, it seems to have a good track record to predict the Presidency!  So here we go again.  Keep in mind, the last election did not feature a sitting President, so owning a piece of the candidate made for a relatively equal playing field in 2008.  In this election, if you bought Obama, you'd be getting a Presidential autograph and if you buy a piece of Romney, you won't know if it's a Presidential autograph until after the election... could turn out to be the autograph of somebody who ran and lost, so value is harder to appreciate.  This means more measures should be introduced, so I added active bids.

Active bids is the range where the "buy it now" signs tend to either fall off or we see multiple bids on items with regularity.  In other words, this is where the market becomes quite active for both candidates, indicating a measure of liquidity.  In this area, Obama holds roughly a 4:1 advantage over Romney.  Unfortunately, this is a new measurement, so I can't compare it to the 2008 data.  Obama's Active Bid Range starts just shy of 400 and strengthens into the 350 dollar range whereas Romney starts at 100 and strengthens into the 75 dollar range.  Interestingly, a lot of items for sale this year are signed baseballs.

Active Bid Range 3.99 : 1 Obama

Item count is another category, and compared to the 2008 election, where Obama's item count was 3.7 times higher than McCain; the range has narrowed in this election with Obama posting 2.8 times the item count Romney has.  This is a troubling statistic for the incumbent president as one would expect an incumbent President's item count separation to be wider.  I think this reflects a much stronger candidacy from the Republican ticket.

Item Count 2.87 : 1 Obama

The value predictor... or how much people will pay to "own" a piece of the candidate has also changed between 2008 and 2012.  Obama's cash value has slipped from 2008 when it was 2,500 down to 2,125 in 2012.  Romney, on the other hand, posts nearly 400 bucks on top cash value pre-election compared to a mere 108 bucks for McCain back in 2008.  This means Romney is a stronger candidate than McCain according to valuation figures. and the ration has vastly changes down from 23:1 in 2008 to a mere 6:1 advantage for Obama in this election.

Cash Value 6.08 : 1 Obama

My analysis is as follows:

Obama will win the election, although due to lower bid values and a tighter range, and compensating for an incumbency, it looks to be that the polls are correct, this will be an exceptionally close election.  The bottom line will be how the swing states go, and on that count, I believe the map of the United States will look very red, but most of the key swing states will be blue; placing President Obama over the top in the Electoral College, but it could be tight... with a possible electoral college win of less than 30.

A narrow active bid range is also troubling, but I feel the margin is wide enough to make it easy to call the race.  Obama enjoys both a far larger base of active bids and the quality is superior.  Romney, apparently, isn't as easy to sell on e-bay.  I was going to try and use Hillary as a potential marker to adjust for incumbent vs. non-incumbent, but even though she is Secretary of State, she is also a failed candidate and her e-bay numbers were in the tank... so not a good way to go.

I'm going to apply a 4:1 rule for incumbent vs. non and look at an amalgamated difference on the ratios posted in item count, valuation, and active bids.  Bear with me... it's a guess.  But using this as my only attempt at a data normalization attempt, I arrive at a predicted victory by Obama of approximately 3.2 (+/- 3)  In other words... it won't be pretty, but Obama wins in 2012.  

Sunday, October 14, 2012

Northern Development : My View

Port of Prince Rupert

The Port of Prince Rupert is the first major port on transoceanic cargo shipping lanes from Asia to North America.  This places Prince Rupert in a highly strategic location with one of the deepest ice free ports in North America a full 1 to 3 days shorter shipping time from the major ports of the Asian Markets.  The reason for that is really quite simple, the Pacific shipping lanes run from Asia to the southern coast of Alaska and then turn south.  

Prince Rupert is the very first stop on that trip.  The ports of Vancouver, Seattle, San Francisco, Los Angeles, San Diego and on into Mexico adds time to the voyage, and quite naturally, expense. The Prince Rupert Port connects up with CN Railway and container traffic is then moved from Prince Rupert's state of the art facilities through to Edmonton and into the core of our region.  From there, the cargo can be moved to the Edmonton International Airport (EIA), transferred to trucks, or it can move on down the rail lines leveraging strategic rail partnerships that can move cargo across Canada, the United States, and through rail partners on into Mexico and Central America.  By leveraging other North American rail partnerships, cargo has access from our region all the way to the Panama Canal where it can then be moved in either direction across Atlantic/Caribbean and Pacific shipping lanes, serving the breadth of the South American Continent.  This presents a clear competitive advantage for commercial interests across the Pan Pacific region as a great entry point to the Americas... hence the slogan "Port Alberta".

North American Rail
Continued development of capacity from Prince Rupert to Edmonton will be constrained, simply stated, by railway limitations.  There is only so much cargo traffic that can be moved via rail on existing tracks.  Hence, the idea of moving bitumen via rail to the Port of Prince Rupert is viable but only if other forms of cargo are displaced.  This, of course, will only happen based upon the economics of doing so.  For now, the economic case is clearly not there or we would be seeing very long trains hauling Alberta bitumen to Prince Rupert every day.  Accordingly, pipelines are all the rage and are likely to remain the preferred option for landlocked Alberta oil.

Canada / US Major Pipeline Networks
Solutions to challenges, however, are not always linear nor obvious.  Now some eyes have turned to the north, to the High Arctic.  Climate change is causing the Arctic shipping lanes to open faster, wider, and for longer periods of time.  If this trend continues, and it certainly seems likely, the Canadian perspective taken from the Arctic Bridge could gain some momentum with the port of Churchill, Manitoba being strategically placed to receive circumpolar shipping.  The extent of this economic viability has been questioned based on a longitudinal lack of interest by rail carriers due to the difficulties and expense involved with rail construction and maintenance in Arctic tundra environments.  That said, some organizations have a strong belief the Arctic Bridge can become economically viable in the near future.  What happens will ultimately be driven by economics.  But there will be some amount of strategic geopolitical thinking involved.... let's skim that a bit because it ties into the bigger picture in an interesting way.

Arctic Bridge
First, the Churchill option (i.e. the Arctic Bridge) brings obvious questions of facilities combined with the navigational challenges posed by the Canadian Arctic.  In a nutshell, the Russian Northeast Passage is far more economical for large cargo transportation for key reasons.  Namely, the depth of the Northeast Passage is far greater than Canada's Northwest Passage and second, and perhaps more importantly, the Russians simply have a lot of polar class icebreakers to open the way when the temperatures turn Arctic waters to ice.  Canada is limited to three, the Americans to one, whereas the Russians have thirteen and they're building more.

Nuclear Powered Ice Breaker Russia
In fact, the Chinese even have a polar class icebreaker called the Snow Dragon and a polar class research ship for good measure.  They'll probably build more... but why? China recognizes the vast economic advantage of shaving massive shipping distances by leveraging the Arctic.  As their economic growth continues, so too will their need to deliver ever increasing product to European countries and the trans-arctic route will save money while establishing transit routes independent of canals.  From their perspective, such an arrangement would be both economically and geo-strategically wise.  Almost, shall we say, a communist central party no brainer!

Chinese Polar Ship Snow Dragon
Arctic shipping is currently dominated by oil and gas from Russia.  Ships with reinforced "polar class" hulls and icebreaker abilities can effectively shorten the vast Asian transportation routes.  As an example, from Yokohama to the port of Rotterdam, it can be reduced from 11,212 nautical miles to about 7,825 nautical miles, which is approximately 30% shorter. While that sounds great on the surface, the cost of Arctic class ships are more than double normal cargo ships, so the economics are just not there yet from the perspective (and the balance sheets) of the shipping companies.  That said, an ice free Arctic, or more succinctly put, an ice free Russian Northeast Passage, changes the equation while shifting the importance of the Suez Canal.  This is an attractive proposition in the geo-strategic political interests of the Chinese and of others.  It also creates a rather interesting political situation for the Russians to ponder.

Just how comfortable are the Russians with the continued economic rise of the Chinese and what ramifications do they see for global security?  More particularly  how does this measure up in the Kremlin vis-a-vis Russian security and global influence?  These questions will be weighed of course, but they will also be considered by the Russians in lieu of their vast resources in the Arctic.  Naturally, the Russian Federation is working feverishly to solidify their claims in the Arctic from the Lomonosov Ridge to the Mendeleev Ridge, extensions of continental shelves... and according to the Russians, it would quite naturally be their continental shelf.  The race to make strong claims to Arctic riches is well underway... but it's not a one sided affair, and there are many competing interests.

Topographic features of the Arctic showing ridge features

The Russians, quite naturally, say the extensions are theirs but Canada, Greenland, Denmark, and the United States all have their own interpretations.  The stakes are considerable as some estimates indicate about 90 billion barrels of oil and 1.7 trillion cubic feet of gas exist in the Arctic.  Hence, every circumpolar nation is working hard to establish their claims.  Above all other considerations, one thing is undeniably certain, when nearly a quarter of the remaining hydrocarbons on the planet exist in the Arctic, you can be sure the major powers will not sit on the sidelines.

Map of Arctic Oil Reserves
All of this will be settled as Arctic development moves forward, in the meantime, as alluded to earlier, the Chinese are likely to continue developing their Arctic capacity and will likely be joined by other countries that were never even thought of as Arctic nations... places dominated by palm trees and warm weather.  But more on that in a later post.  So much more is open for discussion in the Arctic and there will be a myriad of interesting policies with global implications for circumpolar nations in the coming years.

I have been spending more time in the Arctic establishing contacts to create what I call an alluvial influence zone that stretches from Alaska through Canada and on to Greenland, Iceland, Denmark, and Finland.  It's my belief that what happens in the Arctic over the next few decades will have enormous importance to Canada.  But here's a twist, I think it will be quite important to Alberta.  I believe that because we are positioned as Canada's gateway to the Western Arctic.  Our influence in the Arctic may become as important to our Province as the oilsands.  The oilsands are vast, but they are also finite.

This won't happen overnight, but it will happen.  It's also important to keep in mind that the Arctic, while holding vast hydrocarbon wealth, also has enormous resources of minerals, ore, and rare earth elements... not to mention diamonds.  This is not limited to oil and gas, the vast array of Arctic resources is staggering.

Those who create the strong relationships in the Arctic will be in a position to prosper as Arctic economic development grows.  As the easy to get resources are consumed, the harder to secure resources in the Arctic will become increasingly important.  This is a lesson not lost on the circumpolar nations nor on companies like ExxonMobil who are in the Arctic laying the foundation for their strategies.  Shell is already drilling in the Chukchi Sea with three wells going to above TD (total depth) during this drilling season.  Those wells will be completed at the start of the next drilling season.

Shell's Kulluk Drilling Rig in the Chukchi Sea
From way down south in Devon, Alberta... I can see the Northern Lights and they are sending a shining signal of opportunity.  I look a few miles down the road and see the largest major airport that happens to service the Canadian Western Arctic.  I see Devon well positioned to deliver a business park that can capitalize on the development of the Arctic and our positioning at the footsteps of the Western Arctic Gateway.  I can see the realization of a twinned of Highway 19, new business infrastructure that capitalizes on the growth in the Capital Region, the oilsands, and the Arctic.  I can see value added business growth that adds high paying skilled jobs to our workforce, and in all of that, I can see Devon grow, become more successful, and generate the kind of lifestyle and revenue base that will allow residents to have all the things they dream of... things like an indoor swimming pool!

I also recognize that we have to continue our work of laying the foundation for growth, which we are doing.  In parallel, I am establishing relationships that will facilitate our ability to sell into a powerful expanding growth market with a uniquely positioned municipality on a number of levels.  I see huge success for Devon and the best part is, the foundations have been built... this won't take long.  I've been working on developing and expanding our Arctic relationships for a number of years now.  I believe that we have a chance to carve out a role in the development of the Arctic by virtue of our position on the doorstep of Western Canada's Arctic Gateway and by virtue of being there way ahead of our neighbors.  Where the Arctic has not even crossed the minds of our neighbors, I have been meeting with government officials from the NWT, Yukon, Alaska, Greenland, Denmark, Iceland, Finland, and the United States.

One of the messages given to the meeting of the second Arctic Imperative Summit by President Grimsson of Iceland was not to ignore the Arctic.  He said that over the last eight years the United States Government had sent a high level delegation to visit Iceland precisely zero times while the Chinese had been there six times in the same period.  Just a few days before his arrival in Alaska, the Chinese Polar Class Ice Breaker Snow Dragon visited Iceland.

Groat with Iceland's President  Grimsson
At the second Arctic Imperative Summit I met with the President of Iceland, the Lt. Governor of Alaska, the Senator from Alaska, the Foreign Minister of Greenland, Ambassadors from other Circumpolar nations like Finland... and of course, the leaders of several indigenous corporations who will have a powerful voice in Arctic development.  These circumpolar leaders along with corporate leaders like URS Flint, ExxonMobil, and the Carlyle Group, along with think tank leaders from the Brookings Institution and the Hoover Institute all know one very important fact about Alberta....  they know Devon is geo-strategically positioned on the doorstep of the Western Canadian Arctic Gateway!

Groat with Alaska Lt. Governor Mead Treadwell 
I looked around the room and could find no elected officials from Canada.  I could, however, find the Chief of Canadian Defence Staff, representatives from Northern Economic Development, senior fellows from Carleton University, and economic analysts from our embassy... but no elected officials.  As luck would have it... I plowed the way at the Arctic Imperative Summit.  Others can play catch up next year.  But for now, the one thing circumpolar leaders know about Alberta besides our oilsands wealth... is a guy from Devon, Alberta!

Groat with Corporate and Municipal Leaders

Thursday, June 7, 2012

ELA closure : a rescission of national scientific capacity?

National priorities and federal budgets require deep thought.  Quite often, rounds of "strategic" budget cuts correlate to the timeframes near elections where political power and philosophical beliefs have shifted.  This is usually done through the widely expected manouvres undertaken with the authority of a public mandate.  When the public mandate has provided the justification for budgetary cutbacks, what may be hidden behind the cloak of the public mandate is often left to quietly disappear from the political landscape.

Yet there are times when certain changes may not be in line with the public view of how the governmet should strategically proceed.  Such instances often emerge over programs or funding expectations for projects or undertakings that are viewed by strong interest groups to be quite important.  In addition, depending on the ability of the interest groups, their ability to convey this information to the public in a way that is easily understandable can create a tremendous support mechanism to preserve these special areas or projects.

As our federal government begins the process of making budgetary recissions, the cutbacks are generating loud complaints from across the public landscape.  The most recent cutback that seems to be generating global interest is the reduction in funding required to sustain the Experimental Lakes Area (ELA).  The petition to save the ELA is growing rapidly.  At quick glance, we see Doctors and Scientists from every Province and State plus 48 countries around the World, and it's only been up for a matter of days.

The ELA website has the following description of what it is all about:

The Experimental Lakes Area (ELA) occupies a unique position, not only in Canada but in the world, as a dedicated research facility for ecosystem-scale experimental investigations and long-term monitoring of ecosystem processes (Anonymous 1990). Located in a sparsely inhabited region of southern Canada, the ELA is relatively unaffected by external human influences and industrial activities. As such, it serves as a natural laboratory for the study of physical, chemical and biological processes and interactions operating on an ecosystem spatial scale and a multi-year time scale.

The ELA includes 58 small lakes (1 to 84 ha) and their drainage basins, which have been set aside and are managed through a joint agreement between the Canadian and Ontario governments. Only research activities, or activities compatible with that research, are permitted within or adjacent to these watersheds. Data records from these watersheds began in 1967 and experimental studies began in 1969.

While the ELA is operated by the Central and Arctic Region of Fisheries and Oceans Canada (DFO) from its Freshwater Institute in Winnipeg, Canada, research at this unique facility is jointly conducted by researchers from DFO and from a variety of partner organizations.

Besides being an incredible academic resource, a place where great research is nurtured and scientists are nurtured, the contributions to science have been many, the publications have been compelling.  Above all, it is the only place in the World where scientists can carry out "whole lake" experiements.  The impact of closing something like the ELA will be felt deeply in the Canadian academic community and it will send reverberations around the World.  Current research opportunities at the ELA include;

  • Strategies for combating harmful algal blooms
  • Regulation of air pollution to reduce acid rain
  • Designing reservoirs to minimize greenhouse gases
  • Effectiveness of proposed measures to lower mercury contamination in fish
  • Environmental impacts of aquaculture and escaped genetically-modified fish
  • Impacts of hormones present in sewage effluent on fish health
  • Evidence that flame retardants degrade into banned toxic chemicals
  • Toxicity of antimicrobial nanoparticles ─ commonly used in clothing ─ to aquatic life

Much of our national research agenda and tremendous facilities like ELA and the recently closed Polar Earth Atmospheric Research Laboraty (PEARL) can easily be sustained for decades to come by revisiting our funding commitment to basic scientific research.

The gain involved in retaining facilities and the academic research community for Canada are measurable in many ways besides immediate economic impact.  The considerations of national scientific capacity in the future cannot be disassociated from current budget changes.  Something worth thinking about.

Saturday, April 28, 2012

Climate Change and Arctic Methane

Arctic Ocean Latitude 71 degrees North
April 15, 2010, Image Credit: NASA/JPL

I recently noticed a fascinating article in the Edmonton Journal written by Margaret Munro of the Postmedia News entitled "Scientists eager to drill in Arctic Waters for answers about methane".  The article goes on to outline a project being undertaken by the Integrated Ocean Drilling Program for the expressed purpose of gathering a deeper understanding of the ramifications of methane coming out from the permafrost under the Arctic.  

Glaciologists, geologists, and environmental researchers of different disciplines have been pondering very large questions related to the planetary environment and what the potential impacts could be to humans.  Of particular interest recently, the impact of methane hydrates coming out from the permafrost beneath the Arctic.  Since methane is probably 20 to 25 times more potent a greenhouse gas than CO2, there are considerable ramifications associated with this research.  Methane has a short half life compared to CO2, so it dissipates faster, this offsets the sheer quantities that could be released into the atmosphere.  With estimates of methane hydrates being discussed in vast numbers, understanding the risk imposed by climate change in the Arctic is not a subject to be taken lightly.  

Image Courtesy of:
Gordon Groat
Ph.D.(abd), M.Sc. (hon), M.A., B.G.S. (IPE), A.A.Sc.
Taken from CO2 and Climate Change
According to Gregory Ryskin, associate professor of chemical engineering at Northwestern University, "explosive clouds of methane gas, initially trapped in stagnant bodies of water and suddenly released, could have killed off the majority of marine life and land animals and plants at the end of the Permian era" — long before dinosaurs lived and died. Ryskin believes that methane may have been the driving force in previous catastrophic changes of the earth's climate, where 95 percent of marine species and 70 percent of land species were lost in - geologically speaking - the blink of an eye.

The most troubling estimates suggest that once triggered, this cycle could result in runaway global warming, sometimes referred to as a tipping point.   While our scientific evidence is still limited in scope, it is important to consider what we know from looking back in time.  It seems prudent to be cognizant of strong geologic evidence that suggests something similar has happened at least twice before.  The most recent of these catastrophes occurred about 55 million years ago in what geologists call the Paleocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum (PETM), when methane burps caused rapid warming and massive die-offs, disrupting the climate for more than 100,000 years.  The granddaddy of these catastrophes occurred 251 million years ago, at the end of the Permian period, when a series of methane burps came close to wiping out all life on Earth.  More than 94 percent of the marine species present in the fossil record disappeared suddenly as oxygen levels plummeted and life teetered on the verge of extinction. Over the ensuing 500,000 years, a few species struggled to gain a foothold in the hostile environment. It took 20 million to 30 million years for even rudimentary coral reefs to re-establish themselves and for forests to re-grow. In some areas, it took more than 100 million years for ecosystems to reach their former healthy diversity.

Earth image courtesy of:
Climate change... if it is anything, it is definitely controversial.  It is also a scientific field that is relatively new and requires additional investment to produce the scope of data required to properly evaluate the impact of methane release.  It should also be noted that methane emissions from tropical areas far surpass, in scale, the emissions of the Arctic.  Nevertheless, methane release due to climate change in the Arctic is worthy of scientific investigation.  The science is not settled on this matter, but it is of considerable importance.  

At the very least, it seems logical to establish baseline measurements of methane in the Arctic simply because the vast potential amounts of methane warrant our investigation for the purpose of understanding changing levels of methane.  This is required in order to reduce the chance of misinterpreting changes in methane levels as climate change continues.

To further understanding of the ramifications of global climate change impacts due to methane release from the Arctic, there is a need to establish increased scientific monitoring and research in the subject.  Rising surface temperatures should motivate the international scientific community to consider these questions.  Appropriate considerations imply the need for deployment of scientific measuring instrumentation, improved international collaboration, and the integration of traditional indigenous knowledge.  

One particularly revealing comment made by an indigenous elder of the Arctic was "in our generational memory, we have never seen the ice melt so much, we have never seen so much open water".  This prompted the interviewing scientist to ask if that meant one generation or two perhaps.  The question was not easily understood by the elder.  After some more questions, the elder replied that by generational, they meant thousands of years.  This underscores the the critical fundamental knowledge carried by the indigenous people of the Arctic.  There are literally thousands of expressions to describe different ice conditions, many of them not easily translatable into English, at least not to their satisfaction.  Thankfully, as research in the Arctic moves forward, more and more participation and collaboration is taking place with indigenous peoples.

This raises the question of what to do with the research.  It's critical to place the best science we possibly can gather into the hands of decision makers.  The policy makers and governments that have jurisdiction in many areas of the Arctic reside thousands of miles away from the Arctic.  This poses a fundamental problem that can possibly be overcome by hybridizing the structure of decision making in the Arctic.  

By leveraging the model of the Arctic Council, where indigenous people have a seat and a full voice at the decision making table, the outcomes can be tailored to the decision making requirements of the region.  Of course, full diplomatic, governmental, and organizational representation is advantageous for everybody, but there may also be room for an international body where all interested scientists and people who wish to share in a democratic and open manner can come together to form the best decisions possible.

When considering methane, or any other scientific endeavor in the Arctic, it is important for us to remember that the great frontier left in the World today is the Arctic.  This means our investment, our intentions, and our results will be measured in the centuries to come.  Given the enormous impact of climate change upon the entire planet, and given the rate of climate change is highly accelerated in the Arctic, it might just stand to reason that the most important decisions we make in Canada and the rest of the Circumpolar nations will be among some of the most important decisions that will be taken in the 21st century.