So it’s the final throes of summer, school is back in session in just a few short weeks, and the House of Assembly will (probably) be sitting again in a month or two. Columnists, journalists, articlers, and even bloggers and social medialites have noticed a certain fatigue with political writing and debates. I’m sure people will return to being interested in the Muskrat Falls debate again in a month or so, but for now I’m going to (sort of) drop all that political stuff that I usually delve into for another subject that concerns me, but that I haven’t written much about – our environment.

I was raised with a keen sense of environmental stewardship and kinship. This was later honed through (too) many years of environmental science/studies at Memorial (St. John’s), Grenfell, and York University. Coupled with my life experience, and my innate desire to be more environmentally conscious, I’ve looked for ways to reduce my footprint and to encourage others to find ways as well. Not that I’m a chest beating, holier than thou, anti-sealing-tree-hugger (sap’s hard to get out) – but I like to find ways to reduce consumption and waste that work for the everyday person, without radically changing the way we live all at once. Because I believe that’s the only way we can nudge society towards more sustainably living.

Environmental exhaustion

While I was visiting my hometown (Cartwright) this summer, I had the usual (but always cherished) opportunity to get out with my father in speed boat setting nets and rod fishing in our Aboriginal fishery, visiting some of the islands around Sandwich Bay for berry picking and visiting Inuit (and mixed people) stone house sites, fly fishing on some of the best rivers in the world, and generally mucking about. Depending on where we travelled, we used the four-stroke outboard in the bigger boat, and the two-stroke in the smaller boat. The two-stroke is a little older (than me – just kidding dad) and we discussed replacing it, and whether my father should get a four-stroke or a two-stroke.

In discussing the pros and cons of each option, one of the worst problems of the two-stroke engine that’s often discussed is the impact it has on the environment – namely, the exhaust and the noise.  The way the two stroke engine works (at least simple versions like those found in skidoos, outboards, ATVs, and other such small motors), raw oil and gas is expelled from the incomplete combustion inherent in the design (mixed gas and open chambers).  Because there are fewer strokes (yep, two) than the four-stroke design found here, the two-stroke tends to have more “oomph” for its size and number of cycles (not to mention being easier to work on). But the get-up-and-go comes at a pretty big cost. Since gas and lube is being blown out the exhaust you are literally burning money, not to mention spilling all that waste into our rivers, streams, and oceans.

The solution to pollution is dilution?!

I used to think the same thing, considering how small our population is, and how vast our landscape is – but it’s this way of thinking that has led to the tragedy of the commons in countries and oceans all around the globe. All I knew then was that when you warm up your skidoo there’d be a nice black mess on the snow, or your outboard always had a pretty little rainbow bubbling out the back. I wasn’t sure how much of an environmental difference there actually was between two-stroke and four-stroke engines, so I started doing a bit of research. Turns out this little educational piece made by our own ProvGov (starting at p189) sums it up nicely. Two-strokes release 40 times less hydrocarbons, 7 times less carbon monoxide, and over 20 times fewer particulates.

Two-stroke engines spit out one third (1/3, 33%) of the oil and gas you put in the tank. This goes directly into the aquatic environment. When compared to cars (four-stroke engines – p193), “A 70-horsepower two-stroke outboard motor releases about the same amount of hydrocarbon pollution in one hour as a new car does when it is driven 8,000 kilometers”. Wow. Let’s assume the average speed is 80km/hr for that car. That means one hour of boat time is like 100 cars running for the same amount of time in terms of environmental pollution. (Take a gander over here for more detailed pollution information about two-strokes)

But like I said, there’s so few people right?

But I also got to thinking that there must be a higher proportion of skidoos, ATVs, and outboards in this province than most others. So I started doing a bit of research on that as well. Turns out, we have more skidoos per capita than anywhere else in North America – Newfoundland and Labrador has over 101, 000 registered (and who knows how many more unregistered) skidoos. Take that number, and subtract it from Statistics Canada numbers for ATV’s, Skidoos, and amphibious vehicles – 166,000 for Newfoundland and Labrador – and we have about 65,000 more ATV’s, plus 11,000 dirt bikes (reported, anyway).

Now I tried to get the numbers of outboard motor boats for the province as well. But after the cod moratorium it seems people ceased to be interested in collecting that data. The last numbers I could find from StatsCan were reflected on this web page (easier to tease the info out) and pegged the number at 35,584 boats in 1996. Feel free to correct me, but I doubt the number of boats went down overall (despite the fact that Joey told you to burn them all) and despite the fact the cod were all caught – simply because I think more people have them as pleasure crafts now.

Ok…and the impact is?

Well, take that little 100X multiplier above (70hp two-stroke vs car comparison) and let’s look at the number of cars and trucks we have – 318,000 for the whole province. If we have 213,000 skidoos, outboard powered speedboats, dirt bikes, and ATVs (etc) in total, which are 100 times worse at polluting, then it means that our off-road pollution is worse than our on-road impact (especially with Buddy’s Yammie). Just think, if all 36,000 boats headed out on day one of the “recreational cod fishery” for one hour it would be equivalent to 3.6 MILLION cars driving for the same amount of time. That’s roughly the same as the 3.4 million cars on Toronto roads. Are you getting the picture now?

Now let’s imagine day one of the first good snow fall – if all 166,000 skidoos and ATVs head out at the same time (yeah I know these are extreme examples) for one hour the impact would be almost as great as ALL of the cars in Canada operating for one hour at the same time. “Now, now” you say, of course all those skidoos, and outboards (etc) aren’t running at the same time (well, neither are Canada’s cars, but that’s beside the point). Nor are they all two-strokes. But suffice it to say we are doing an incredible amount of damage without even thinking about it.

Besides, it’s not truly a time comparison

When one 70HP outboard goes one hour, it’s like a new car going 8000km. Let’s not forget that the average Canadian commutes 9.4km. So when you pop out for a boil-up in a two-stroke, traveling say an hour each way, you’ve just polluted as much as 1700 average Canadians for that whole day. So regardless of how many of us go out at the same time, we have a considerably higher impact than we should be having (we also drive to work, right?).

This is all without even getting into the direct and indirect impacts on wildlife and fish (also touched on in this piece). Two-stroke engines are considerably louder. I swear my little 10hp two-banger  is louder than a 100hp four-stroke. And every time you cruise around outdoors with a noisy engine, you’re disturbing wildlife. Many species can’t really handle being disturbed too many times before they start becoming at risk of burning precious winter fat. Particularly when we’re talking about at risk species in this province.

So what could we do about it?

We’re not all going to give up our toys (or what are for many of us – especially Labradorians – primary transportation and sustenance vehicles). Further to that, many people aren’t going to willingly give up their machines that have the extra “oomph”, especially if they need the workhorses for wood and so on. People just have a hard time giving up their machines that (currently) have a much better power-to-weight ratio, especially if they cost more to purchase (and given our aging population).

However, we could consider prohibiting or restricting the sale of the least efficient two-stroke engines in this province and lead the way for the rest of the country (and continent). Gas prices in and of themselves will eventually necessitate the purchase of more efficient vehicles, so why not make some legislative moves now to help people prepare? My personal thought would be to impose a pollution fee on the least efficient machines, and put those taxes towards reducing the price of the more efficient four-strokes – to balance them or even make four-strokes cheaper. Then, come tax time offer a rebate if you can prove you need that machine for sustenance or for your work.

That way, when people shop for a new outboard/machine the price reflects the amount of damage they do, encouraging people to make more responsible choices for long term sustainable use of our waters.