The Lear Jet repo man

June 6, 2009

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Pretty wild story I came across today…
– FlashAddict

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Business has never been better for the fearless pilot who takes back millionaires’ expensive toys.

By Marc Weingarten

June 6, 2009 | It was snowing hard when the bank called Nick Popovich. They needed to grab a Gulfstream in South Carolina now. Not tomorrow. Tonight.

All commercial and private planes were grounded, but Nick Popovich wasn’t one to turn down a job. So he waited for the storm to clear long enough to charter a Hawker jet from Chicago into South Carolina. There was just one detail: No one had told Popovich about the heavily armed white supremacist militia that would be guarding the aircraft when he arrived.

But then again, no one had told the militia about Popovich, a brawny and intimidating man who has been jailed and shot at and has faced down more angry men than a prison warden. When Popovich and two of his colleagues arrived that evening at a South Carolina airfield, they were met by a bunch of nasty-looking thugs with cocked shotguns. “They had someone in the parking lot with binoculars,” Popovich says, recalling the incident. “When we went to grab the plane, one of them came out with his weapon drawn and tells us we better get out of there.” Undeterred, Popovich continued toward the plane until he felt a gun resting on his temple.

“You move another inch and I’ll blow your fucking head off,” the gravel-and-nicotine voice told Popovich.

“Well, you better go ahead and shoot, ’cause I’m grabbing that plane.”

A shot was discharged in the air.

The gravel-and-nicotine voice again. “I’m not kidding.”

“Then do it already.”

Popovich’s first rule of firearms is pretty simple: The man who tells you he’s going to shoot you will not shoot you. So without so much as looking back, he got on the plane and flew it right to Chicago. “My job is to grab that plane,” Popovich says. “And if you haven’t paid for it, then it’s mine. And I don’t like to lose.”

Nick Popovich is a repo man, but not the kind that spirits away Hyundais from suburban driveways. Popovich is a super repo man, one of a handful of specialists who get the call when a bank wants back its Gulfstream II jet from, say, a small army of neo-Nazi freaks.

For the past three decades, Popovich has been one of a secret tribe of big game hunters who specialize in stealing jets from the jungle hideouts of corrupt landowners in Colombia, Mexico and Brazil and swiping go-fast boats from Wall Street titans in Miami and East Hampton. Super repos have been known to hire swat teams, hijack supertankers and fly off with eastern bloc military helicopters. For a cut of the overall value, they’ll repossess anything.

But Popovich is the most renowned of them all — the Ernest Hemingway of super repo men. “Nick is the best of the best,” says Doug Lipke, head of the bankruptcy group for the law firm Vedder Price, who has called Popovich on numerous occasions to retrieve jumbo jets from fat cats with thinning balance sheets. One time, Lipke needed a plane repo-ed from Michigan and flown to Chicago. “All the electrical went out on the plane and Nick was flying at night,” he says. “He flew that plane back with zero electricity — no lights, nothing. There aren’t many guys that would be able to do that.”

Today Popovich, 56, is co-partner of Sage-Popovich, a repossession firm. (Sage is his wife, Pat, also the firm’s president.) Their clients include Citibank, Transamerica and Credit Suisse, and the firm annually earns, Popovich says, “into the low-to-mid seven figures.” That estimate isn’t ridiculous when you consider that the most difficult jobs can net Popovich anywhere from $600,000 to $900,000. Popovich’s specialty is big planes, jumbo jets, mostly; he’s repo-ed 1,300 of them in his career. And that’s just the solo gigs. Throw in the 65 repo men who work for him, and the number reaches closer to 2,000.

His mandate is simple. Someone misses a few payments. The bank wants to recover its plane. There will be an attempt to set up some kind of debt payment plan. Failing that, collateral has to be ponied up. If there is none, then an account executive reaches out to Popovich. But Jumbo Jets are expensive — a 747 will run you anywhere from $125 million to $260 million — and people who try to acquire such toys are loath to give them back. If the deadbeat gets wind that the bank is sniffing around his plane, he’s likely to spirit it away before anyone has a chance to grab it, and then it becomes a cat-and-rat game that can take months to complete.

And times have never been better. When lenders opened the sluice gates of easy credit throughout the last decade, high rollers went out and splurged on Gulfstreams and yachts. When the job goes away, the bonuses dry up and the stock market tanks, it’s a long and nasty downward spiral that leads to Popovich’s door. “Oh, those guys are a real piece of work,” says Popovich of the fallen Masters of the Universe. “We’ve had to fly halfway around the world just to find a plane we were told would be in Dallas. You have to think like a crook to find them.”

These days, Popovich is fielding assignments as fast as he can handle them. “We’ve got a lot of business right now,” he says. “We recently recovered planes from Okun and Nadel.” Popovich is referring to Edward Okun and Arthur G. Nadel, two Bernie Madoff-manqués that have been accused of stealing hundreds of millions of dollars from unsuspecting clients who thought they were safely investing their money ($300 million in Nadel’s case, the largest alleged hedge fund fraud in Florida history). Among the booty that Popovich was hired to return were two Gulfstream IIs and a Lear Jet.

A good super repo man has a skill set that’s some mad hybrid of cat burglar, F.B.I. agent and con artist. And there’s real danger that comes with the job,  not just ticked-off homeowners wielding baseball bats. According to the American Recovery Association, there are, on average, one or two repo-related deaths a year.

In 2006, a Czechoslovakian-made Albatross L-39 combat jet lifted off from Sitka, Alaska, and crashed into a trailer park in the small community of Ketchikan, Alaska. The pilot was found dead 100 yards from the destruction, still strapped into his seat. He had no identification on him. His profession was listed as repo man. In Minnesota, a boat repo specialist named Kim Zarbinksi was repelled when the angry owner of a 40-foot yacht refused to give him his boat. So Zarbinksi resorted to sterner measures. He hired a SWAT team to help him grab the rotten booty.

You want stories? Popovich has volumes. And tells them without a note of bragging or conceit. On a recent warm afternoon, the unfailingly polite repo man and I are strolling through his cavernous warehouse in Gary, Ind. It feels like browsing a Costco run by the Pentagon. There are airplane parts as far as the eye can see — jet engines sit on shelves next to wheel casings and propellers. The detritus of a recent job sits in gigantic vats — hundreds of headphones in one, telephones in another.

Right now the warehouse is overflowing thanks to his most ambitious job to date: “stealing” a fleet of 240 corporate helicopters from a chain of flight schools for a tidy six-figure fee. Nevada-based Silver State was one of the country’s fastest growing companies, mainly because its owner Jerry Airola was constructing a pyramid scheme as tall as the Cheops. When everything collapsed, Popovich was hired to retrieve 240 copters from 51 locations around the country. In 24 hours, Nick and his 125-member crew had to change the locks at all 51 Silver Star schools, then move in 125 flatbeds to haul not only the copters but everything else they could carry — furniture, spare parts, computers, simulators.

“The copters were a mess,” says Popovich. “Some of them hadn’t been flown in months. Once we shipped them all back to the warehouse, we stripped the worst ones for parts for the bank. I figured that at least we were putting them to good use that way.”

Inside his 120-acre, ranch-style compound in rural Valparaiso, Ind., Popovich recalls some of his most notorious adventures in disarmingly soft-spoken and courtly tones. There was the time in the ’80s when he was thrown into a Haitian jail cell. Jail stints came with the job, but this time was different.

Inside the cell, Haitian cops had turned Popovich’s face inside out. The pain was ungodly. His shoes were gone. He was starving. And Popovich was sitting in a cage surrounded by 35 prisoners spitting epithets in his face. His only priority was to avoid getting hurt any worse than he already was. In his experience, that meant behaving like a total maniac, lashing out at the nearest prisoners and threatening to kill anyone that came near him.

The charge was the attempted theft of a 707 jumbo jet and he was facing 20 years to life. The jet in question belonged to a Caribbean tour company that went bust. After a few missed payments, the bank had called Popovich, who had tracked the plane from the Dominican Republic to Haiti. The gig promised to be simple. Popovich even spotted the battered silver-and-blue jet on the tarmac as he taxied into Port Au Prince’s Toussaint L’Ouverture airport on a sweltering February afternoon. All he needed was an hour to check the avionics, an open runway and a flight plan. It hadn’t worked out that way.

By the third day of his imprisonment — sometime after the American embassy politely informed him that the bank employing him wouldn’t put up $100,000 in bail — details started to come back. The tracer fire pinging the plane’s wings like popcorn kernels. Men with bayonets slamming on the fuselage. A police cruiser skidding to a halt right in front of the jet, blocking the runway and preventing Nick from taking off. The cops beating him senseless and throwing him in Penitentier National prison. And now, here he was.

On the seventh day of his incarceration, Haitian President Baby Doc Duvalier was overthrown and the rioting masses swung open all of the cell doors. Bruised, bloody and sleepless, Popovich hobbled out of his cell. As he taxied down the runway for the second time. he couldn’t help thinking that what they said was true: Flying home is always the easy part.

Reared in Hammond, Ind. — just a few miles from his current Valparaiso home base — Popovich got his pilot license when he was 16 because his father thought it might be useful some day. It was the only time he ever said “yes” to Dad. He tried Indiana University for a semester but it didn’t take.

Then in 1975 he met two men named Toby Howard and Billy Day in Wichita while hanging with some mutual friends. A pair of hustlers, they had all kinds of ideas for how to get rich quick. Popovich followed them for six months, hawking faulty tire repair kits that would explode in winter and some multilevel marketing schemes. The contacts he’d make through Howard and Day led him into small-time arms dealing. Popovich bought out a Utah company that had been indicted for weapons violations and turned it into a thriving business. “We built .22 caliber weapons into briefcases with micro switches and laser sightings,” he says. He sold his guns to the Canadian Special Ops and maybe to a few places he shouldn’t have. He mentions something about being “in South America at the wrong time.” He also drops a hint about conducting business in Iraq.

Popovich became a Braniff pilot in 1976. But that was boring. So he quit. He wouldn’t find his true calling until 1979, when a banker friend asked for his help getting back a Cessna 310 from a small-time chartering business. “I flew down there, grabbed it and got paid for it. I didn’t think anything of it,” he says. “I dropped off the plane and the guy calls yelling his head off. He says, ‘You didn’t ask for enough money! Send me a new bill but multiply it by three!'”

A few days later, Popovich found $145,000 in his checking account. A super repo man had been born.

Sage-Popovich now has 65 super repos, ranging from former crop-dusters and commercial pilots to Marines and airport mechanics. One of Popovich’s aces, Ed Dearborn, flew for Air America, the CIA’s covert Vietnam-era airline, and even helped build landing strips in remote jungle outposts in Southeast Asia. A good year is five popped planes; Kevin Lacey, one of Popovich’s best men, grabs 10 when he’s on a roll.

Now that Popovich has worked with some of his guys for 20 years or more, he has learned to take good care of them. When Lacey was imprisoned while attempting to snatch a jet in Brazil a few years ago, Popovich made sure the local hotel shipped edible food to his cell until the legal mess could be cleared up. It was the least he could do, given the fact that Lacey had been dragged in humiliating fashion right through the passenger terminal in handcuffs. “The inmates in Brazilian jails have more guns than the police,” said Lacey. “It’s best to make friends with them quickly.”

Because Lacey is a master mechanic, he is an invaluable resource for lenders. If a plane is sitting on blocks, its windows cracked and its avionics blown out, Lacey can fix it and fly it out. He’s also pretended to be a mechanic on numerous occasions; it gets him inside the plane and up in the air a lot quicker. That plane in Brazil required the use of a “claw hammer and rusty pliers” for Lacey to fix it.

Like most super repo guys, Lacey works freelance and flies just about everything with two wings. He’s certified in eight types of aircraft. The Air Force would be lucky to have him, but the repo game is far more thrilling. And a lot more lucrative.

The money is pretty good, depending on the size of the plane and the complexity of the repo. But for Lacey, the job is its own reward, despite the fact that many pilots consider it an unseemly profession. “My tact and my diligence are my greatest weapons,” he says. “I have to think and react before someone else does, or I’m sunk. Often, they will be on the lookout for you, so you find yourself chasing something while someone else is chasing you.”

The super repo business is extremely time-sensitive; Popovich must calibrate his maneuvers with military precision or else the entire operation crumbles. The minute Popovich gets a call, he has his team prepare a “Repo Book,” which contains all of the relevant documentation necessary to take back a plane. An airport won’t let you fly off with a jumbo jet without all kinds of paperwork: lease terminations, powers of attorney, customs bonds and certificates of insurance. (There’s a reason Sage-Popovich has eight lawyers on retainer.) Within an hour of the initial contact, everything is accounted for, all the way down to the catering for the crew.

While the Repo Book is assembled, Popovich will get his scouts on the ground to figure out where the plane is. The company has people all over the globe who are more than happy to track down an item for him for a small fee. More often than not, the aircraft will turn up in a major airport or commercial hub, and from there it’s easy sailing: Show up, hand over the documentation, get in the cockpit and fly away. Popovich estimates that three-quarters of his jobs go off exactly that way.

The rest are stickier affairs — starring angry owners, armed security, even intransigent airport workers, who will be out tens of thousands of dollars in unpaid fuel, landing fees and maintenance costs if a plane suddenly goes missing. In that case, half the game for Popovich is sneaking on to the aircraft and flying it out before anyone’s hip to what he’s doing. “That’s why you never, ever use the plane’s two-way radio,” says Popovich with a laugh. “People might get wind of your plans before you even have a chance to secure your seat belt. If you need to file a flight plan, you use your cell phone to call the tower.”

One time, he pretended to be a limo driver picking up a client. When airport security turned its back, Popovich slipped off his black overcoat and eight-point chauffeur cap and finagled his way onto the plane.

Aircraft on a runway is a lot easier to grab, but the walk to the cockpit is longer than the Bataan Death March. You might as well radio the tower before walking up to a vacant jet without permission, because you’re inevitably going to get busted. For a repo job in Miami, Popovich commandeered a catering truck from a friendly driver and the crew let him on board unbidden. On numerous occasions he has loaded his guys into a baggage cart, dropped the curtain and driven up to the cargo hold. From there, it’s a slinky stretch on hands and knees from the luggage compartment into the cockpit.

Really tough targets require sterner measures. In 1998, Popovich was hired to repo two jets in the possession of Francois Arpels, scion of the Van Cleef and Arpels jewelry empire. Arpels had leased two Boeing MD-81s for a charter service he started called Fairlines, but failed to make his payments.

“I landed in Paris and contacted Arpels to see if we could work something out,” says Popovich. “Arpels tells me, ‘I’m Francois Arpels and this is Paris. You will never find the planes.’ I looked him right in the eye and told him, ‘Frankie, they are all but gone. Trust me.’ He hated the fact that I called him Frankie. That really got under his skin.”

Using his European scouts, Popovich tracked one plane in Milan; the other was sitting on the tarmac near Terminal One at Charles DeGaulle Airport. The MD-81 was covered in official-looking documentation written in French, so Popovich just ripped everything off and hopped in. Big mistake. The airport cops stopped him as he was taxiing and threw him in a cell overnight. The next day, a French magistrate had handcuffs slapped on Popovich and ordered him returned to Chicago. “I was more determined than ever to grab those damn planes,” he says. “You push me, I push back harder.”

A few weeks later he snuck back into the country, convinced a captain with an Air Afrique fuel bus to fill up Arpel’s Boeing and flew it out. But the Milan plane was trickier. The engine was behaving erratically, and no sane person should fly a bird with a hinky engine. Popovich had a replacement engine in Munich (engine-swapping is a common occurrence in the business) and the only way to get it would be to make the 50 minute flight and pray.

As his pilot Ed Dearborn climbed to altitude, Popovich remembers sitting in the back, furtively stealing looks at that shaky equipment. “The whole time I sat there thinking, ‘If that engine lets go, I’m fucked.'” When they got to Germany and opened it up, the mechanics estimated that another couple of hours of airtime and the thing would have melted down. Along with Nick and his guys.

Popovich even met his wife on a repo. He was casing an exotic car company in Chicago when a leonine blond walked in to the dealership. “We all looked at each other and said, ‘A hundred bucks for the first guy that nails her,'” he says. “Twenty million dollars in business together later, here we are.” The couple’s two boys, Zachary, 18 and Max, 20, work for Sage-Popovich when they can. Zachary attends college and does repos in his spare time.

Popovich’s daredevil days are behind him for the most part; now he’s working with a new generation to do the job. He would like his two sons to go about it a little differently than he did. Maybe a bit more cautiously, for starters. He wants his son Zach to take over the business one day, but “he wants to open a bar in Sun Valley instead.” He has in mind an exit strategy, though he’s not sure when, if ever, he’ll implement it. Life is too good to stop now. Just pick up the paper — every day word breaks of another investor, another pyramid scheme, another crook who has a date with Popovich.

Tooling around Valparaiso in his Bentley, with Bob Dylan playing softly in the background, Popovich tries to put into words just how great it feels to pull off a big repo job. “It’s like a giant chess game, and the stakes can be your life,” he says. “It’s always a different challenge, a test of how smart you are. Can you outfox someone else? There’s always going to be some covert action involved. And you throw a big payoff in there, well, it’s just intoxicating.” He pauses. “Repossessing a giant, gleaming multimillion dollar plane is kind of like courting a beautiful woman. Sometimes the chase is better than the catch.” And the chase is never complete.

http://www.salon.com/news/feature/2009/06/06/lear_jet_repo_man/

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Growing excitement, expectations for green jobs corps

March 2, 2009
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Seeing how much the previous article I posted about wind power drummed up quite a bit of responses, here is another article from CNN that I came across today for further reference about wind turbines and the green economy. Let me also state that while I admit many issues and stumbling blocks remain on how to best address the issues surrounding renewable energy, at least people are starting to take things seriously and actively trying to make a difference for a better tomorrow – on that, I trust that we can all agree upon.
– FlashAddict

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By John D. Sutter
CNN

(CNN) — When Rita Bryer sees 300-foot-tall wind turbines sprouting up from the prairie near her home in western Oklahoma, she can’t help but wonder about the view from the top, where blades the size of semi-trucks spin.

Schools are adding courses to prepare wind turbine mechanics and other green workers.

Schools are adding courses to prepare wind turbine mechanics and other green workers.

“Out here, you can see the wind turbines from 10 miles away,” she said. “Think about how far you’ll be able to see when you’re at the top.”

So, partly out of curiosity, partly because she wants to be part of something new, the 51-year-old is leaving behind a career of odd jobs and oil-field work.

She’s going back to school to become a wind turbine mechanic — one who’ll have to scale the turbines to make repairs.

Across the country, people like Bryer are looking to the renewable energy sector in hopes its “green-collar jobs” will offer them stability in this shaky economy. Some are signing up for community college or apprenticeship programs that train students to be wind turbine mechanics, solar panel installers, fuel-cell engineers or energy efficiency experts.

Video Watch how the green economy is growing in Pennsylvania »

Government support has rallied excitement for the prospect of a green jobs corps, as President Obama’s stimulus package puts about $20 billion into greening the economy, according to the White House.

Video Obama says country will double renewable energy in three years »

In his recent speech to Congress, Obama said the U.S. will double its supply of renewable energy in three years. To do so, he’s calling on a new class of workers to be trained in environmental fields. Green jobs training programs will get $500 million from the stimulus.

At a summit in Philadelphia on Friday, Vice President Joe Biden said people who make $20 per hour before a green jobs training program can make $50 per hour after. On average, the clean-energy jobs pay 10 to 20 percent more than similar work outside the field, he said.

Video Watch how to land green jobs »

Adding to the enthusiasm, Biden cited a recent case in Chicago where a maker of energy-efficient windows intends to gradually rehire 250 workers who were laid off when their window company closed late last year.

There is a “very direct” correlation between the stimulus package and Serious Materials’ ability to reopen the plant, said Sandra Vaughan, chief marketing officer for the California-based company.

But not all signs for green industries are so positive.

Wind and solar companies have cut staff and stalled new projects as the credit crisis has tied up money, meaning banks are less able to invest in renewable energy.

In the short term, that will make things difficult for the newly trained green work force, said Kathy Werle, dean of applied sciences and technology at San Jose City College, in California, which offers associate degrees in solar panel installation.

“Right now, money is so tight. People can’t borrow money to put solar on their homes,” she said.

Werle said she expects Obama’s stimulus plan to help jump-start the industry. Within a year or so she expects the graduates to be able to find plenty of green jobs.

The uncertainty appears not to be tempering student demand for green education, though. Earlier this semester, 260 people showed up for 44 seats in solar panel installation classes at San Jose City College, Werle said.

“Anything green is very popular,” she said.

Meanwhile, some schools that train the green-collar work force are billing their programs as near-guaranteed ways to find stable jobs.

Sidney Bolfing, chairman of the Texas Renewable Energy Education Consortium, an association of community colleges, said nearly 100 percent of his graduates find jobs in the fuel-cell industry — many before graduation.

“Typically all of these students all get jobs,” he said.

Bolfing is so confident in the idea that he markets green-collar careers to high schools and elementary schools in the area.

He hopes that the standard list of childhood dream jobs — astronaut, firefighter, police officer — soon will include things like wind technician and fuel-cell engineer.

Even if there’s trouble in the short term, green jobs are needed to fight climate change and spur economic growth, he said.

“We need to develop these new technologies like there’s no tomorrow,” he said.

Matt Raines, 31, of West, Texas, had a career as an auto mechanic. But that didn’t seem to be going anywhere, so now he is enrolled as a community college’s hydrogen fuel program.

He said local people look at him funny when he tells them about the decision because they don’t understand what he’ll be doing.

“I had one lady who actually asked me if I was building hydrogen bombs. I was like, ‘No ma’am, it’s energy production, green energy,'” he said.

Raines finds the program exciting, and says he’s been contacted about jobs by three companies, even though he is yet to finish his two-year degree.

Maria Kingery, co-founder of Southern Energy Management, a North Carolina company that installs solar energy panels, said schools need to catch up with the changing industry.

She applauded money in the stimulus package that will go to green job training programs, but said “training is going to be a real challenge” in the coming months.

Her company has a hiring freeze in place at the moment because of the economic downturn, but expects to grow in 2009, she said.

Some green jobs are low-tech and require little or no specialized training.

A former construction worker could easily take up a career in home weatherization and energy efficiency, said Bob Logston, owner of Home Energy Loss Professionals (HELP) in Baltimore, Maryland.

Some weatherization steps are as simple as shoving newspaper insulation in a home’s attic, caulking windows and repairing ductwork.

More than $11 billion of the economic stimulus package is intended to help people make their homes more energy efficient, according to the U.S. Department of Energy.

Because of those efficiency provisions, Logston said he expects his business to quadruple.

He employs six people now and expects to hire at least 12 more, he said. He also plans to offer his employees insurance for the first time.

“Everything’s budding, so to speak, everything’s in bloom even though it’s winter,” he said of green jobs in the home weatherization business. “The energy costs are so high people can’t afford” not to increase efficiency.

Part of the trouble with estimating the profitability of green jobs is that no one seems to be able to agree on a definition for the term. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics does not separate data on green jobs or jobs in renewable energy, and economists disagree on how many new green jobs the stimulus package will create.

In such a murky situation, community colleges often network with the local business community to gauge their interest in students from green-jobs programs. Many have banded together to dig up regional knowledge.

“The students always ask, ‘Can you guarantee job placement?’ No, I can’t guarantee it, but I can tell you I’ve spoken with local wind farm managers and everybody I’ve spoken with says there is a need, (and) there will be a need,” said Kimberlee Smithton, director of business and industry services at the High Plains Technology Center in Woodward, Oklahoma.

That school, where Bryer is taking classes, is offering a wind turbine technician program for the first time this year.

Bryer said she doesn’t know how much money she’ll make in the wind business. She doesn’t much care.

“To me, especially, it’s going to be a job — a good job I think I’ll like, and I just look forward to doing it,” she said. “It’s always nice doing something different, not the same old thing.”

The woman who’s always been seen as a rebel because she was the lone female working tough jobs in the oil fields now feels like she’s part of a movement for change

http://www.cnn.com/2009/LIVING/03/02/green.jobs.training/index.html


Wind power helps ski resort during recession

February 27, 2009
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“Zephyr (nickname for the wind turbine) works its magic to produce about a third of Jiminy Peak’s electric needs, shaving $450,000 a year from the resort’s energy bill. To put that in perspective, the energy from the turbine is enough to power more than 600 homes.” – that is some serious savings there to say the least!!!
– FlashAddict

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By Ayesha Tejpar
CNN

HANCOCK, Massachusetts (CNN) — Imagine climbing 276 steps to change a light bulb. That’s all in a day’s work for Rian Harford.

The Zephyr wind turbine towers over Jiminy Peak Mountain Resort in Massachusetts.

The Zephyr wind turbine towers over Jiminy Peak Mountain Resort in Massachusetts.

He’s a mountain operations mechanic at Jiminy Peak Mountain Resort. And that light bulb isn’t just a regular light bulb. It belongs inside an air-traffic warning light that sits 253 feet high upon a wind turbine.

Jiminy Peak, in Hancock, Massachusetts, touts itself as the first ski resort in North America to feature such a structure.

The idea to build the turbine came to company president and CEO Brian Fairbank after years of struggling with the astronomical cost of making snow.

“Somebody suggested we take advantage of the wind. You use the energy the most in the winter,” Fairbank said. “That’s when the wind blows the most.”

But such a simple concept wasn’t so easy to execute. It took more than three years to take the idea from conception to fruition.

Video Watch what it’s like on top of the giant turbine »

Before even placing an order for a turbine, the resort had to study everything from Federal Aviation Administration regulations to the structure’s effect on airplanes, birds and endangered species.

Once everything fell into place, Jiminy Peak was tasked to get 500 tons of parts and equipment up the mountain, via a two-mile-long gravel road.

“Once we got everything to the top of mountain, putting it together only took a couple days, but getting it up there was the biggest challenge,” Fairbank said.

In fall 2007, the $4 million project was complete. The turbine is nicknamed Zephyr, after the Greek god of the west wind. And Zephyr isn’t afraid to make its presence known.

The tower is more than 250 feet tall. The hub adds 10 feet, and the blades extend an additional 123 feet, creating a 386-foot green machine.

Zephyr works its magic to produce about a third of Jiminy Peak’s electric needs, shaving $450,000 a year from the resort’s energy bill. To put that in perspective, the energy from the turbine is enough to power more than 600 homes.

And Zephyr’s power doesn’t stop there. It has also drawn the interest of many visitors. Louise Pinho did her homework to find out how effective the wind turbine really is.

“When you read about what it’s able to do for the resort, that it can take up to 33 percent off of their bills, then you realize that there is more of a need for this,” Pinho said. “With what’s going on right now, we have to have some alternatives to our energy sources that we have available to us.”

But Pinho isn’t blind to Zephyr’s visual and environmental drawbacks. Studies show that wind turbines destroy the habitat that many animals live in. Bats, which play a large role in consuming insects and pests, are an example of a species that’s most affected.

According to Thomas Kunz, a biology professor at Boston University, these bats aren’t necessarily being struck by the blades of a wind turbine. Their bodies are affected by a low-pressure system caused when the blades move through the air.

“They die from hemorrhaging,” Kunz says. In areas close to wind turbines, “80 percent of the bats that we know about today are killed in that fashion.”

Kunz says that specifically, migrating bats seem to be more affected, mainly during their fall migration, which lasts from late summer to early autumn.

At Jiminy Peak Mountain Resort, the turbine produces electricity year round, but more than 60 percent of its output takes place in the winter months.

Regardless, Fairbank is no stranger to negative feedback. Some people in the community didn’t want the turbine to obstruct their view of the mountains.

But he says that only a small part of the community complains. In fact, some neighbors reap Zephyr’s benefit. In the summer, when the resort’s demands are lower, Zephyr’s electricity trickles downhill to power local homes and businesses.

“So all those communities become green when we’re not using the power,” Fairbank said.And when it comes to being green, this Massachusetts resort isn’t new to the game. Since 1985, the company has implemented various environmentally friendly practices. From recycling motor oil to heat lodges to installing waterless urinals, Fairbank says, the business is always looking for ways to conserve.

And that may be paying off. In a time when many businesses are closing their doors, Fairbank said, “we’re 12 percent ahead of our best year ever.”

http://www.cnn.com/2009/TECH/02/27/ski.wind.turbine/index.html


The Canadian Oil Boom – National Geographic Magazine

February 25, 2009
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Very relevant piece done by National Geographic, even more so after going to the Surrey Art Gallery and listening to Edward Burtynsky’s lecture on his photographic work done at the Oil Sands in northern Alberta…
– FlashAddict

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Scraping Bottom

Once considered too expensive, as well as too damaging to the land, exploitation of Alverta’s oil sands is now a gamble worth billions.
By Robert Kunzig
Photographs by Peter Essick

oil_sands_industry
Dust hangs in the sunset sky above the Suncor Millennium mine, an open-pit north of Fort McMurray, Alberta. Canada’s oil sands are layers of sticky, tarlike bitumen mixed with sand, clay, and water. Around a hundred feet of soil must be stripped off to reach many deposits.

One day in 1963, when Jim Boucher was seven, he was out working the trap­line with his grandfather a few miles south of the Fort McKay First Nation reserve on the Athabasca River in northern Alberta. The country there is wet, rolling fen, dotted with lakes, dissected by streams, and draped in a cover of skinny, stunted trees—it’s part of the boreal forest that sweeps right across Canada, covering more than a third of the country. In 1963 that forest was still mostly untouched. The government had not yet built a gravel road into Fort McKay; you got there by boat or in the winter by dogsled. The Chipewyan and Cree Indians there—Boucher is a Chipewyan—were largely cut off from the outside world. For food they hunted moose and bison; they fished the Athabasca for walleye and whitefish; they gathered cranberries and blueberries. For income they trapped beaver and mink. Fort McKay was a small fur trading post. It had no gas, electricity, telephone, or running water. Those didn’t come until the 1970s and 1980s.

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Squeezing Sand for Oil
At the bottom of a mine, a giant shovel devours sand and delivers it to trucks like this three-story, four-million-dollar Caterpillar, which muscle up to 400 tons at a time to extraction plants.

In Boucher’s memory, though, the change begins that day in 1963, on the long trail his grandfather used to set his traps, near a place called Mildred Lake. Generations of his ancestors had worked that trapline. “These trails had been here thousands of years,” Boucher said one day last summer, sitting in his spacious and tasteful corner office in Fort McKay. His golf putter stood in one corner; Mozart played softly on the stereo. “And that day, all of a sudden, we came upon this clearing. A huge clearing. There had been no notice. In the 1970s they went in and tore down my grandfather’s cabin—with no notice or discussion.” That was Boucher’s first encounter with the oil sands industry. It’s an industry that has utterly transformed this part of northeastern Alberta in just the past few years, with astonishing speed. Boucher is surrounded by it now and immersed in it himself.

Where the trapline and the cabin once were, and the forest, there is now a large open-pit mine. Here Syncrude, Canada’s largest oil producer, digs bitumen-laced sand from the ground with electric shovels five stories high, then washes the bitumen off the sand with hot water and sometimes caustic soda. Next to the mine, flames flare from the stacks of an “upgrader,” which cracks the tarry bitumen and converts it into Syncrude Sweet Blend, a synthetic crude that travels down a pipeline to refineries in Edmon­ton, Alberta; Ontario, and the United States. Mildred Lake, meanwhile, is now dwarfed by its neighbor, the Mildred Lake Settling Basin, a four-square-mile lake of toxic mine tailings. The sand dike that contains it is by volume one of the largest dams in the world.

Nor is Syncrude alone. Within a 20-mile radius of Boucher’s office are a total of six mines that produce nearly three-quarters of a million barrels of synthetic crude oil a day; and more are in the pipeline. Wherever the bitumen layer lies too deep to be strip-mined, the industry melts it “in situ” with copious amounts of steam, so that it can be pumped to the surface. The industry has spent more than $50 billion on construction during the past decade, including some $20 billion in 2008 alone. Before the collapse in oil prices last fall, it was forecasting another $100 billion over the next few years and a doubling of production by 2015, with most of that oil flowing through new pipelines to the U.S. The economic crisis has put many expansion projects on hold, but it has not diminished the long-term prospects for the oil sands. In mid-November, the International Energy Agency released a report forecasting $120-a-barrel oil in 2030—a price that would more than justify the effort it takes to get oil from oil sands.

Nowhere on Earth is more earth being moved these days than in the Athabasca Valley. To extract each barrel of oil from a surface mine, the industry must first cut down the forest, then remove an average of two tons of peat and dirt that lie above the oil sands layer, then two tons of the sand itself. It must heat several barrels of water to strip the bitumen from the sand and upgrade it, and afterward it discharges contaminated water into tailings ponds like the one near Mildred Lake. They now cover around 50 square miles. Last April some 500 migrating ducks mistook one of those ponds, at a newer Syncrude mine north of Fort McKay, for a hospitable stopover, landed on its oily surface, and died. The incident stirred international attention—Greenpeace broke into the Syncrude facility and hoisted a banner of a skull over the pipe discharging tailings, along with a sign that read “World’s Dirtiest Oil: Stop the Tar Sands.”

oil_sands_waste
Squeezing Sand for Oil
Sand, water, and bitumen residues are finally piped to a tailings pond, where the water is extracted, cleaned, and reused in the mines.

The U.S. imports more oil from Canada than from any other nation, about 19 percent of its total foreign supply, and around half of that now comes from the oil sands. Anything that reduces our dependence on Middle Eastern oil, many Americans would say, is a good thing. But clawing and cooking a barrel of crude from the oil sands emits as much as three times more carbon dioxide than letting one gush from the ground in Saudi Arabia. The oil sands are still a tiny part of the world’s carbon problem—they account for less than a tenth of one percent of global CO2 emissions—but to many environmentalists they are the thin end of the wedge, the first step along a path that could lead to other, even dirtier sources of oil: producing it from oil shale or coal. “Oil sands represent a decision point for North America and the world,” says Simon Dyer of the Pembina Institute, a moderate and widely respected Canadian environmental group. “Are we going to get serious about alternative energy, or are we going to go down the unconventional-oil track? The fact that we’re willing to move four tons of earth for a single barrel really shows that the world is running out of easy oil.”

That thirsty world has come crashing in on Fort McKay. Yet Jim Boucher’s view of it, from an elegant new building at the entrance to the besieged little village, contains more shades of gray than you might expect. “The choice we make is a difficult one,” Boucher said when I visited him last summer. For a long time the First Nation tried to fight the oil sands industry, with little success. Now, Boucher said, “we’re trying to develop the community’s capacity to take advantage of the opportunity.” Boucher presides not only over this First Nation, as chief, but also over the Fort McKay Group of Companies, a community-owned business that provides services to the oil sands industry and brought in $85 million in 2007. Unemployment is under 5 percent in the village, and it has a health clinic, a youth center, and a hundred new three-bedroom houses that the community rents to its members for far less than market rates. The First Nation is even thinking of opening its own mine: It owns 8,200 acres of prime oil sands land across the river, right next to the Syncrude mine where the ducks died.

As Boucher was telling me all this, he was picking bits of meat from a smoked whitefish splayed out on his conference table next to a bank of windows that offered a panoramic view of the river. A staff member had delivered the fish in a plastic bag, but Boucher couldn’t say where it had come from. “I can tell you one thing,” he said. “It doesn’t come from the Athabasca.”

Without the river, there would be no oil sands industry. It’s the river that over tens of millions of years has eroded away billions of cubic yards of sediment that once covered the bitumen, thereby bringing it within reach of shovels—and in some places all the way to the surface. On a hot summer day along the Athabasca, near Fort McKay for example, bitumen oozes from the riverbank and casts an oily sheen on the water. Early fur traders reported seeing the stuff and watching natives use it to caulk their canoes. At room temperature, bitumen is like molasses, and below 50°F or so it is hard as a hockey puck, as Canadians invariably put it. Once upon a time, though, it was light crude, the same liquid that oil companies have been pumping from deep traps in southern Alberta for nearly a century. Tens of millions of years ago, geologists think, a large volume of that oil was pushed northeastward, perhaps by the rise of the Rocky Mountains. In the process it also migrated upward, along sloping layers of sediment, until eventually it reached depths shallow and cool enough for bacteria to thrive. Those bacteria degraded the oil to bitumen.

oil_sands_fish

Ronnie Campbell hauls whitefish from Lake Athabasca, downriver from Fort McMurray, to use as feed for his sled dogs. Locals say their catches are often covered in unusual red spots, and many no longer eat lake fish. While the cause of the spots is unclear, some believe toxic chemicals, such as those released during bitumen production, are leaching into Alberta’s rivers and lakes.

The Alberta government estimates that the province’s three main oil sands deposits, of which the Athabasca one is the largest, contain 173 billion barrels of oil that are economically recoverable today. “The size of that, on the world stage—it’s massive,” says Rick George, CEO of Suncor, which opened the first mine on the Athabasca River in 1967. In 2003, when the Oil & Gas Journal added the Alberta oil sands to its list of proven reserves, it immediately propelled Canada to second place, behind Saudi Arabia, among oil-producing nations. The proven reserves in the oil sands are eight times those of the entire U.S. “And that number will do nothing but go up,” says George. The Alberta Energy Resources and Conservation Board estimates that more than 300 billion barrels may one day be recoverable from the oil sands; it puts the total size of the deposit at 1.7 trillion barrels.

Getting oil from oil sands is simple but not easy. The giant electric shovels that rule the mines have hardened steel teeth that each weigh a ton, and as those teeth claw into the abrasive black sand 24/7, 365 days a year, they wear down every day or two; a welder then plays dentist to the dinosaurs, giving them new crowns. The dump trucks that rumble around the mine, hauling 400-ton loads from the shovels to a rock crusher, burn 50 gallons of diesel fuel an hour; it takes a forklift to change their tires, which wear out in six months. And every day in the Athabasca Valley, more than a million tons of sand emerges from such crushers and is mixed with more than 200,000 tons of water that must be heated, typically to 175°F, to wash out the gluey bitumen. At the upgraders, the bitumen gets heated again, to about 900°F, and compressed to more than 100 atmospheres—that’s what it takes to crack the complex molecules and either subtract carbon or add back the hydrogen the bacteria removed ages ago. That’s what it takes to make the light hydrocarbons we need to fill our gas tanks. It takes a stupendous amount of energy. In situ extraction, which is the only way to get at around 80 percent of those 173 billion barrels, can use up to twice as much energy as mining, because it requires so much steam.

Most of the energy to heat the water or make steam comes from burning natural gas, which also supplies the hydrogen for upgrading. Precisely because it is hydrogen rich and mostly free of impurities, natural gas is the cleanest burning fossil fuel, the one that puts the least amount of carbon and other pollutants into the atmosphere. Critics thus say the oil sands industry is wasting the cleanest fuel to make the dirtiest—that it turns gold into lead. The argument makes environmental but not economic sense, says David Keith, a physicist and energy expert at the University of Calgary. Each barrel of synthetic crude contains about five times more energy than the natural gas used to make it, and in much more valuable liquid form. “In economic terms it’s a slam dunk,” says Keith. “This whole thing about turning gold into lead—it’s the other way around. The gold in our society is liquid transportation fuels.”

oil_sands_boreal_forest
Beneath a green sweep of fen and forest in northern Alberta lies a promise of wealth—vast layers of hydrocarbons that can be refined into petroleum products like gasoline. Undisturbed until now, these trees may soon fall: This land has already been staked out by prospectors.

Most of the carbon emissions from such fuels comes from the tailpipes of the cars that burn them; on a “wells-to-wheels” basis, the oil sands are only 15 to 40 percent dirtier than conventional oil. But the heavier carbon footprint remains an environmental—and public relations—disadvantage. Last June Alberta’s premier, Ed Stelmach, announced a plan to deal with the extra emissions. The province, he said, will spend over $1.5 billion to develop the technology for capturing carbon dioxide and storing it underground—a strategy touted for years as a solution to climate change. By 2015 Alberta is hoping to capture five million tons of CO2 a year from bitumen upgraders as well as from coal-fired power plants, which even in Alberta, to say nothing of the rest of the world, are a far larger source of CO2 than the oil sands. By 2020, according to the plan, the province’s carbon emissions will level off, and by 2050 they will decline to 15 percent below their 2005 levels. That is far less of a cut than scientists say is necessary. But it is more than the U.S. government, say, has committed to in a credible way.

One thing Stelmach has consistently refused to do is “touch the brake” on the oil sands boom. The boom has been gold for the provincial as well as the national economy; the town of Fort McMurray, south of the mines, is awash in Newfoundlanders and Nova Scotians fleeing unemployment in their own provinces. The provincial government has been collecting around a third of its revenue from lease sales and royalties on fossil fuel extraction, including oil sands—it was expecting to get nearly half this year, or $19 billion, but the collapse in oil prices since the summer has dropped that estimate to about $12 billion. Albertans are bitterly familiar with the boom-and-bust cycle; the last time oil prices collapsed, in the 1980s, the provincial economy didn’t recover for a decade. The oil sands cover an area the size of North Carolina, and the provincial government has already leased around half that, including all 1,356 square miles that are minable. It has yet to turn down an application to develop one of those leases, on environmental or any other grounds.

From a helicopter it’s easy to see the indus­try’s impact on the Athabasca Valley. Within minutes of lifting off from Fort McMurray, heading north along the east bank of the river, you pass over Suncor’s Millennium mine—the company’s leases extend practically to the town. On a day with a bit of wind, dust plumes billowing off the wheels and the loads of the dump trucks coalesce into a single enormous cloud that obscures large parts of the mine pit and spills over its lip. To the north, beyond a small expanse of intact forest, a similar cloud rises from the next pit, Suncor’s Steepbank mine, and beyond that lie two more, and across the river two more. One evening last July the clouds had merged into a band of dust sweeping west across the devastated landscape. It was being sucked into the updraft of a storm cloud. In the distance steam and smoke and gas flames belched from the stacks of the Syncrude and Suncor upgraders—”dark satanic mills” inevitably come to mind, but they’re a riveting sight all the same. From many miles away, you could smell the tarry stench. It stings your lungs when you get close enough.

picture-9

On the banks of the Athabasca River, Suncor’s upgrader plants refined an average of 235,000 barrels of petroleum products a day in 2008. A narrow dike separates the river from ponds that hold water used during the industrial process, which will be cleaned before being reused.

From the air, however, the mines fall away quickly. Skimming low over the river, startling a young moose that was fording a narrow channel, a government biologist named Preston McEachern and I veered northwest toward the Birch Mountains, over vast expanses of scarcely disturbed forest. The Canadian boreal forest covers two million square miles, of which around 75 percent remains undeveloped. The oil sands mines have so far converted over 150 square miles—a hundredth of a percent of the total area—into dust, dirt, and tailings ponds. Expansion of in situ extraction could affect a much larger area. At Suncor’s Firebag facility, northeast of the Millennium mine, the forest has not been razed, but it has been dissected by roads and pipelines that service a checkerboard of large clearings, in each of which Suncor extracts deeply buried bitumen through a cluster of wells. Environmentalists and wildlife biolo­gists worry that the widening fragmentation of the forest, by timber as well as mineral companies, endangers the woodland caribou and other animals. “The boreal forest as we know it could be gone in a generation without major policy changes,” says Steve Kallick, director of the Pew Boreal Campaign, which aims to protect 50 percent of the forest.

McEachern, who works for Alberta Environment, a provincial agency, says the tailings ponds are his top concern. The mines dump waste­water in the ponds, he explains, because they are not allowed to dump waste into the Athabasca, and because they need to reuse the water. As the thick, brown slurry gushes from the discharge pipes, the sand quickly settles out, building the dike that retains the pond; the residual bitumen floats to the top. The fine clay and silt particles, though, take several years to settle, and when they do, they produce a yogurt-like goop—the technical term is “mature fine tailings”—that is contaminated with toxic chemicals such as naphthenic acid and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAH) and would take centuries to dry out on its own. Under the terms of their licenses, the mines are required to reclaim it somehow, but they have been missing their deadlines and still have not fully reclaimed a single pond.

In the oldest and most notorious one, Suncor’s Pond 1, the sludge is perched high above the river, held back by a dike of compacted sand that rises more than 300 feet from the valley floor and is studded with pine trees. The dike has leaked in the past, and in 2007 a modeling study done by hydrogeologists at the University of Waterloo estimated that 45,000 gallons a day of contaminated water could be reaching the river. Suncor is now in the process of reclaiming Pond 1, piping some tailings to another pond, and replacing them with gypsum to consolidate the tailings. By 2010, the company says, the surface will be solid enough to plant trees on. Last summer it was still a blot of beige mud streaked with black bitumen and dotted with orange plastic scarecrows that are supposed to dissuade birds from landing and killing themselves.

oil_sands_bird

Floating among mats of leftover bitumen on a thousand-acre tailings pond, a radar device scans for incoming birds. The fake falcon flaps its wings, and predator calls blare to scare off waterfowl that would die if they landed on the surface and their feathers became soaked with sludge.

The Alberta government asserts that the river is not being contaminated—that anything found in the river or in its delta, at Lake Athabasca, comes from natural bitumen seeps. The river cuts right through the oil sands downstream of the mines, and as our chopper zoomed along a few feet above it, McEachern pointed out several places where the riverbank was black and the water oily. “There is an increase in a lot of metals as you move downstream,” he said. “That’s natural—it’s weathering of the geology. There’s mercury in the fish up at Lake Athabasca—we’ve had an advisory there since the 1990s. There are PAHs in the sediments in the delta. They’re there because the river has eroded through the oil sands.”

Independent scientists, to say nothing of people who live downstream of the mines in the First Nations’ community of Fort Chipewyan, on Lake Athabasca, are skeptical. “It’s inconceivable that you could move that much tar and have no effect,” says Peter Hodson, a fish toxicologist at Queen’s University in Ontario. An Environment Canada study did in fact show an effect on fish in the Steepbank River, which flows past a Suncor mine into the Athabasca. Fish near the mine, Gerald Tetreault and his colleagues found when they caught some in 1999 and 2000, showed five times more activity of a liver enzyme that breaks down toxins—a widely used measure of exposure to pollutants—as did fish near a natural bitumen seep on the Steepbank.

“The thing that angers me,” says David Schindler, “is that there’s been no concerted effort to find out where the truth lies.”

Schindler, an ecologist at the University of Alberta in Edmonton, was talking about whether people in Fort Chipewyan have already been killed by pollution from the oil sands. In 2006 John O’Connor, a family physician who flew in weekly to treat patients at the health clinic in Fort Chip, told a radio interviewer that he had in recent years seen five cases of cholangiocarcinoma—a cancer of the bile duct that normally strikes one in 100,000 people. Fort Chip has a population of around 1,000; statistically it was unlikely to have even one case. O’Connor hadn’t managed to interest health authorities in the cancer cluster, but the radio interview drew wide attention to the story. “Suddenly it was everywhere,” he says. “It just exploded.”

Two of O’Connor’s five cases, he says, had been confirmed by tissue biopsy; the other three patients had shown the same symptoms but had died before they could be biopsied. (Cholan­giocarcinoma can be confused on CT scans with more common cancers such as liver or pancreatic cancer.) “There is no evidence of elevated cancer rates in the community,” Howard May, a spokesperson for Alberta Health, wrote in an email last September. But the agency, he said, was nonetheless conducting a more complete investigation—this time actually examining the medical records from Fort Chip—to try to quiet a controversy that was now two years old.

One winter night when Jim Boucher was a young boy, around the time the oil sands industry came to his forest, he was returning alone by dogsled to his grandparents’ cabin from an errand in Fort McKay. It was a journey of 20 miles or so, and the temperature was minus 4°F. In the moonlight Boucher spotted a flock of ptarmigan, white birds in the snow. He killed around 50, loaded them on the dogsled, and brought them home. Four decades later, sitting in his chief-executive office in white chinos and a white Adidas sport shirt, he remembers the pride on his grandmother’s face that night. “That was a different spiritual world,” Boucher says. “I saw that world continuing forever.” He tells the story now when asked about the future of the oil sands and his people’s place in it.

A poll conducted by the Pembina Institute in 2007 found that 71 percent of Albertans favored an idea their government has always rejected out of hand: a moratorium on new oil sands projects until environmental concerns can be resolved. “It’s my belief that when government attempts to manipulate the free market, bad things happen,” Premier Stelmach told a gathering of oil industry executives that year. “The free-market system will solve this.”

But the free market does not consider the effects of the mines on the river or the forest, or on the people who live there, unless it is forced to. Nor, left to itself, will it consider the effects of the oil sands on climate. Jim Boucher has collaborated with the oil sands industry in order to build a new economy for his people, to replace the one they lost, to provide a new future for kids who no longer hunt ptarmigan in the moonlight. But he is aware of the trade-offs. “It’s a struggle to balance the needs of today and tomorrow when you look at the environment we’re going to live in,” he says. In northern Alberta the question of how to strike that balance has been left to the free market, and its answer has been to forget about tomorrow. Tomorrow is not its job.

oil_sands_grave

In the small town of Fort Chipewyan, Emma Michael stands beside the grave of her sister who, like her mother and brother, recently died of cancer. Michael herself is a breast cancer survivor, and the family is among the victims in a cancer cluster that includes, among other forms of the disease, cholangiocarcinoma, a rare malignancy attacking the bile duct. About 1,200 people live in Fort Chipewyan, an isolated community more than a hundred miles downstream from Fort McMurray and its massive mining operations. For several years residents have wondered if pollution from upstream could be causing local health problems. John O’Connor, a physician in Fort Chipewyan for seven years, was among the first to report the high cancer rate. He says the government has not done enough to investigate. “How could such a small community in such a pristine place have such illnesses?” O’Connor asks. In late 2008 the provincial government completed a cancer study, but Fort Chipewyan community leaders rejected the results before they were made public, complaining the study was poorly done.

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Feature Article Links:

http://ngm.nationalgeographic.com/2009/03/canadian-oil-sands/kunzig-text

http://ngm.nationalgeographic.com/2009/03/canadian-oil-sands/essick-photography

Peter Essick’s website:

http://www.rolphoto.com

Additional Links:

http://www.surrey.ca/Living+in+Surrey/Arts/Surrey+Art+Gallery/Exhibitions/Exhibitions+-+Current.htm

http://www.edwardburtynsky.com/


Road to riches ends for 20 million Chinese poor

February 20, 2009

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If you thought that the economy was bad here, look at what is happening in China…imagine 2/3 of the population of Canada suddenly unemployed?
– FlashAddict

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By Tomas Etzler and Jaime FlorCruz
CNN

JING SHI, China (CNN) — Tang Hui and his family prospered as migrant workers during China’s economic boom, earning $10,000 a year: enough to build a house, send a cousin to school and pay for his grandmother’s medical bills.

Tang Hui lost his manufacturing job in October just days after getting married.

Tang Hui lost his manufacturing job in October just days after getting married.

But those good days are over. The family’s cash earnings have evaporated, snatched away by a manufacturing crash cascading across China caused by falling global demand for its goods.

The nine people in the Tang family are facing an income of zero; their best hope to survive is to grow rice and raise pigs at home in the Sichuan Mountains.

“Farming is really hard. It needs a lot of hard labor,” says 22-year-old Tang Hui, who lost his manufacturing job four months ago. “None of the young people want to farm nowadays. The income is extremely low.” See photos of the hard-scrabble life of Tang Hui »

A Chinese proverb says: “Going on the road to Sichuan is as hard as going to heaven.” Isolated and mountainous, Sichuan is China’s third most populous province; 60 percent of its 87 million residents are poor and live in the countryside, authorities say.

It became the nation’s biggest source of the 130 million farmers who migrated into Chinese cities, especially in the south, to provide cheap labor for factories that churned out products, mainly for export to the United States. The province was also rocked last May by a massive earthquake that killed tens of thousands of people.

Five years ago, Tang Hui left for southern Guangdong province to work in a factory producing handbags and backpacks. He had to drop out of high school because his family was so poor.

There, he earned enough to stash away savings for his wedding. But last October, just days after he got married, his factory abruptly closed down. It was receiving no more orders from its American clients. Watch Tang Hui walk muddy roads to get home »

“I hope the government can help us during this crisis,” he says. “I hope it won’t be like this for too long. Now, there is not even enough money to celebrate the holidays.”

At least he was able to spend the most important Chinese holiday of the year, the Spring Festival, at home in Qingbadong village.

The road uphill to the village was muddy and slippery. The winter rice fields were brown; the slopes were covered in winter fog. “In two, three months,” Tang Hui says, “everything will be green and blooming.”

And the festive mood — the first time in six years the whole family celebrated the holiday together — was short-lived.

Reality is never far away. Many of the villagers are unemployed. The Tang’s next-door neighbors, a married couple, lost their jobs in a Guangdong shoe factory after working there for 16 years.

“A few months without jobs would be disastrous for us,” Tang Hui frets.

Before they ventured out as migrants, the Tangs lived in a wooden shack. Now, they live in a two-story brick house, with 10 rooms, concrete floors, an open fire pit for cooking. Still, it has no running water and one outdoor latrine.  See where Sichuan province is located »

In the past months, about 70,000 factories nationwide have closed. Beijing official Chen Xiwen estimates about 20 million migrant workers have lost jobs. Tens of thousands of villages in the countryside depend on migrant workers’ income.

China analysts say the spike in unemployment has caught China off guard. “The central government is now telling local governments to provide help and job training, re-employment,” says Wenran Jiang, a political science professor and China expert at Canada’s University of Alberta.

Vice Minister of Commerce Jiang Zengwei says China is offering “a one-off subsidy of 100-150 yuan ($15 to $22) to 74 million low-income people … for temporary relief.” Still, it will take some time before such measures make a difference.  Watch few job hopes for Beijing grads »

Some analysts have suggested that a “rural revolution” is imminent amid the economic turmoil. However, Wenran Jiang says such talk is premature. But he also says the central government must do more in the coming months.

“Many migrant workers have lived a very hard and simple life,” he says. “They have some savings for a rainy day like this, so in the short-term they may be able to cope — but if eight or 12 months later things continue to deteriorate, it could turn volatile.”

Most farmers like the Tangs do not get social security. So villagers who lost factory jobs have few choices except go back to farming. But it is not easy.

Farming feeds people but brings little cash. Millions of the jobless are second-generation migrant workers, young people who grew up in cities.

“It would be very hard,” says Tang Hui. “I have never farmed. I don’t know how to do it.”

To cope, China is creating training programs in the countryside. One of the pilot centers is in Chongqing municipality. Some 30,000 workers have so far taken classes in farming, farming machinery repairs, tailoring and other vocational skills. The trainees got a one-time incentive of about $45.

But the Tangs have never heard about such programs. When asked about the central government’s plan to invest billions of dollars in countryside infrastructure as a part of a huge stimulus package, they expressed anger.

“The central government has good ideas and intentions, but the local officials often ignore them. The road in our village was built by the local government but we had to pay for it. Every family had to pay $100 or more. We get nothing from the government,” says Hui’s father, Tang Zhong Min.

In the evening, the family huddles around an open wood stove. The stove and a small portable electric heater are the only sources of warmth during the cold winter nights. A flickering fluorescent lightbulb barely lights the room.

Tang Hui’s wife, Li Xiaochun, is 21 years old. She used to cut leather in a textile factory, and will soon head back to Guangdong with her husband to search for work.

“I think to be at home is better. I didn’t get used to living outside. I didn’t get used to Guangdong. It is better at home,” she says.

Tang Hui then interrupts. “Of course, I also like it at home, but it is better in other places. Coming home is only good during the Spring Festival,” he says.

Despite the uncertainty, they remain optimistic.

“We are young. There must be some factories still open out there. We should be OK to go out and do something,” Li Xiaochun says.

But Tang Hui’s mother is not so convinced. “Of course I am worried. How can they live without jobs, with no money so far away from home?” asks 46-year-old Hu Xiaoju. “But I will definitely go, too.”

For the Tangs and millions of others in China, the road to Guangdong and employment may prove even more difficult then the proverbial road to Sichuan.

http://www.cnn.com/2009/WORLD/asiapcf/02/20/china.economy.family/index.html


B.C. premier Gordon Campbell to change no-deficit law for budget

February 3, 2009

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Very eloquent speech by Gordon Campbell about the reality of the current financial situation in British Columbia and around the world…
– FlashAddict

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By Stephen Hui
Presenting today’s (February 2) economic update with Finance Minister Colin Hansen, Premier Gordon Campbell found himself trying to explain why his government plans two years of deficits.

While Campbell said he is opposed to deficits, he argued they are necessitated by the “seismic shift in the world’s economies”.

Indeed, the premier hates deficits so much that his Liberal government made them illegal in 2001.

Section 2 (“Prohibition against deficit budgets”) of the Balanced Budget and Ministerial Accountability Act states: “The main estimates for a fiscal year must not contain a forecast of a deficit for that fiscal year.”

So, to make its next two budgets legal, Campbell’s government will have to amend its own legislation.

The B.C. Economic Forecast Council has forecast zero economic growth in 2009 and a 2.8-percent expansion of real GDP in 2010.

Here’s a transcript of Campbell’s remarks on his government’s economic update:

This is a very difficult day.

Colin has laid out the picture.

Over the last few weeks the slides haven’t been getting any better.

I’d like to thank Colin, all our deputies and all the officials in finance for the exceptional work they have done in the last weeks.

As you probably all know the general framework for the budget is normally finalized by mid December. That was not possible this year, if we wanted to present a credible budget document in February.

Everything has been changing. Over the last few weeks we have been forced to confront the most difficult decisions I have ever personally faced in two decades of public life.

I have been pretty clear. I abhor deficits.

But the changes have come too fast and too big for me to honestly tell you we can credibly present a balanced budget on February 17th without doing significant harm to critical health services and essential education services.

I know what I have said. I know the clips and I am sure we will all be reminded of them in the days ahead. I wrestled with this decision for many sleepless nights.

I know I will have supporters who counted on me and on us who will be disappointed, some may be angry.

But I hope they will understand that in these unprecedented times we must ALL take action that reaches beyond ideology to protect the services that are essential in the short term, so we are stronger in the long term.

I don’t believe in deficits. I have consistently railed against them for my two decades in public life.

My colleagues in our caucus dislike deficits as much as me. But we are facing a situation we couldn’t plan for. We haven’t experienced anything like it before in scope, speed, scale, suddenness and synchronicity.

It has been a stark reminder that no one can escape the global forces at play.

There’s been a seismic shift in the world’s economies.

It was just a couple of weeks ago that it became clear, that without massive reductions in planned health and education budgets that a credible balanced budget was not achievable.

I meant it when I said, as I have in so many ways, “when anyone talks about a deficit, they’re talking about turning their back on the next generation and sending our problems forward to them.”

That’s true, especially if you allow deficits to build, year after year, as empty debt, with nothing to show for it.

That is why we worked so hard in B.C. to pay down our operating debt.

Through prudent fiscal management and some very tough decisions, we’ve cut that operating debt by 47 per cent from its peak. We’ve reduced it by $7.4 billion over the last five years. But there’s still another $8.3 billion to go, in addition to whatever gets added back in the next two years.

However, today we face reduced economic growth and a precipitous collapse in projected revenues that has thrown all our earlier budget plans out the window.

Maybe we should have seen it coming.

In December our forecast council was forecasting a 0.6 per cent economic growth for ‘09. By January, that had fallen to zero.

It is very difficult to finalize a credible budget when so many parts are moving so fast. To give you an idea, previously the most dramatic shift the senior finance staff had seen was $100 million in one week. This year they saw a shift of $300 million in one day.

Today the jury’s out on whether our growth will be flat or whether we are already living with the “R” word. However, if we want to build confidence, we have to plan for some bad news and work tirelessly to create some good news.

We are determined to present to the public our best assessment of what we face and how we plan to deal with it.

I meant it in the fall when I said, “We don’t need to run deficits” and that we would not run a deficit in this province. I didn’t think we did or would.

Those comments were made in anticipation of the budget that we were actively planning to deliver on February 17. Since then, our revenue expectations have been repeatedly revised and new expenditure pressures have emerged.

The balanced budget we were planning even in December included a provision for reasonable forecast allowance that would have provided the confidence necessary to make it credible.

And here’s the really hard part. The truth is – we could STILL deliver a balanced budget that would comply with our legislation.

But to do that, we would have to cut hundreds of millions out of planned budget increases for health care and education.

We would have to table a budget with absolutely no margin for error and no room to manage in the event our forecasts are wrong.

It would be a budget that hurts more than it helps while aggravating our current economic predicament. In short, it would be a budget that satisfied the law, but that undermined public confidence and our province’s fiscal credibility.

One of the worst things that ever happened to British Columbia’s reputation was the NDP “fudge-it budgets.”

The only thing worse than a deficit budget is a duplicitous budget. That is why we introduced truth in budgeting legislation and Generally Accepted Accounting Principles. No matter how politically tough it may be to table a deficit budget, the heart of any budget’s credibility is its commitment to telling the truth.

As viscerally challenging as this decision is, I believe people expect their government to be honest and transparent about the challenges at hand – that they don’t want us clinging to ideology or dogma at the expense of the public interest.

This is a tough decision and people will judge us for it.

We will be recalling the Legislature on noon Monday, February 9, a day earlier than planned.

We will take that full week, and through that weekend if necessary, to debate the legislative changes necessary to ensure that the budget we table is legally compliant.

Those amendments will effectively suspend the current balanced budget requirement for the next two years.

They will require the budget to be balanced in 2011/12 and thereafter.

They will also require that every penny of future operating surplus is first applied to eliminating the direct operating debt.

The Speech from the Throne will be delivered on Monday, February 16, and the budget will be presented as legally required, the next day.

It will be a budget that protects and increases funding for health and education, consistent with the 2008 budget.

It will be a budget that includes immediate, time-limited investments to support job creation and to help build confidence in these turbulent times.

And I hope everyone hears this: it will NOT be a budget that abandons our obligations to future generations.

Just because we have been forced to present a deficit budget that may be unavoidable for the next two years, does not mean that we will not also manage down spending during that time.

On the contrary, we WILL.

You will see significant reductions in every area of discretionary spending – in travel, advertising, administration, service contracts, grants and contributions and some government programs.

In short, discretionary spending will be kept to a minimum.

A new restrictive spending regime will be put in place. We will do everything we can to protect core services.

We have created a fund out of savings to mitigate impacts on individuals and to make smart decisions to ensure we have critical staff available for key programs. We have also made a purposeful effort to ensure that it is not just the lower ranks of staff that manage through change. The senior executive ranks will be reduced by 20 per cent to contribute to this overall belt-tightening.

This will be the toughest budget we have ever faced.

There is far less room for cost savings in our budgets today than there was seven years ago.

British Columbians have been fantastic in helping us to manage those pressures in their interests.

We will not return to the days of runaway spending, high taxes and endless deficits.

We will not abandon our abiding commitment to fiscal discipline.

This is not about changing priorities. It’s about protecting them.

We will demonstrate the depth of that conviction.

To the extent there is new stimulus spending, it will be focused and limited to the next two or three years.

Every effort will be made to minimize the structural deficit.

That will be evident on February 17.

I regret that we are faced today with this situation.

But I want to assure everyone that we will not only get through this difficult period; we will emerge stronger than ever.

The relative strength of our economy and our strong fiscal position will allow us to do just that.

There is no place better positioned to successfully get through this than British Columbia.

We will use this period to embark on a building program for our province that will create jobs in every region of the province.

We will lay that out in more detail in the days ahead.

Tough as it is today for so many, our fastest route forward is to build stability and confidence in our future. That is what our budget will be all about.

http://www.straight.com/article-199550/bc-premier-gordon-campbell-change-nodeficit-law-budget