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The Fight for Peak Oil Information

In my quest for information on Peak Oil from the British Columbia Ministry of Transportation and Infrastructure, another roadblock (no pun intended) has been thrown in front of my adventure. Apparently I need to know the title of the documents I’m requesting under Freedom of Information to get the fee waived – not just a general topic.

The Request for a Fee Waiver

You may remember that my initial request for any documents about peak oil or any related topics was met with a response as seen in the image to the right, which I discussed in this post. I challenged the request for payment as allowed under the act, with this email on the 16th of March…

Regarding the response to my request for information, file 292-30/TRA-09-013 please forward this request for the fee for this search and document production to be waived to the appropriate persons. Thanking you.

In reference to the request, I am surprised that there would be one thousand sheets of documentation to be found regarding peak oil considering that a search on the Ministry’s website reveals no documentation on the topic. Considering how much public discourse has taken place regarding Climate Change and recent oil price changes, the impacts from Peak Oil on the operations of the ministry would be of interest to the general public. In that regard I would like to request that the fees for this request be waived under Section 75 (5)(a & b) of the Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act.

I am not requesting this information for any reasons of personal gain, rather I believe that it is a matter of public interest that the Ministry’s plans for dealing with Peak Oil and the effects on traffic, types of vehicles or other impacts to transportation and the cost of maintaining our road network are made public.

Peak Oil is an issue that is gaining media attention across the world, respected media outlets such as the New York Times, National Geographic and others have featured stories raising the question of how our society and lives will change. For the ministry, I would consider that it is important that the impacts on traffic volumes, level of service, infrastructure and spending are being examined by provincial and federal authorities and a plan is in place to deal with the inevitable changes.

Peak Oil and the impact on the Province’s transportation network are directly related to the environment, particularly where new or expanded roadways are proposed by a policy of predicting increasing traffic volumes rather than the possibility of decreasing traffic volumes. Additionally, the public has not been made aware of the details of plans that the Ministry of Transportation might be implementing to meet Provincial Greenhouse Gas objectives – and an acknowledgement that peak oil has the potential to alter the use of our road networks would change the means in which the province might meet this environmental objective. Additionally, as oil resources are depleted, we have no indication as to how the Ministry intends to fund the road network or offset the increased cost of building roads from asphalt, an oil by-product.

As a Civil Engineer with an interest in Peak Oil, I will be able to review and disseminate the information obtained from this request through several channels, including academic at Universities and in writing peer reviewed papers, professionally through APEGBC and other professional networks, and personally through my contacts with the media and on my website which is read by about 10,000 people a month. I believe that all of these issues represent information that should be made available to the public to allow for an informed discussion about a situation that impacts the lifestyle and transportation of every person in BC.

For these reasons, I hope you accept my request to waive the entire fee of $805 for ministry staff to research and copy the documents that are available.

Please contact me if you have any further questions.

MOTI’s Response – DENIED AGAIN

Following this email, I received a letter back from the Ministry on the 16th of April 2009 stating (emphasis in original)…

We have denied your request for a fee waiver. You have not demonstrated that the records you requested are a matter of public interest. Under the Act, it is the records that must relate to a matter of public interest, not whether or not a particular issue is of public interest.

This is the most blatant sidestep on the matter of whether or not there even is any documentation within the Ministry of Transportation on the topic of Peak Oil. If I don’t know of any documents – how can I request them?

Section 75(5)(b) of the Act states:

Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act

the head may excuse the applicant if, in the head’s opinion… the record relates to a matter of public interest, including the environment or public health or safety.

Interestingly, Order 332, which guided me in my request for a waiver states (emphasis mine), seems to indicate that it is not just the record, but the subject of a record…

The head of the public body must examine the requested records and decide whether they relate to a matter of public interest (a matter of public interest may be an environmental or public health or safety matter, but matters of public interest are not restricted to those kinds of matters). The following factors should be considered in making this decision:

(a) has the subject of the records been a matter of recent public debate?;
(b) does the subject of the records relate directly to the environment, public health or safety?;
(c) could dissemination or use of the information in the records reasonably be expected to yield a public benefit by:

(i) disclosing an environmental concern or a public health or safety concern?;
(ii) contributing to the development or public understanding of, or debate on, an important environmental or public health or safety issue?; or
(iii) contributing to public understanding of, or debate on, an important policy, law, program or service?;

(d) do the records disclose how the public body is allocating financial or other resources?

If the head of a public body, as a result of the analysis outlined in paragraph 1, decides the records relate to a matter of public interest, the head must still decide whether the applicant should be excused from paying all or part of the estimated fee. In making this decision, the head should focus on who the applicant is and on the purpose for which the applicant made the request. The following factors should be considered in doing this:

(a) is the applicant’s primary purpose for making the request to use or disseminate the information in a way that can reasonably be expected to benefit the public or is the primary purpose to serve a private interest?
(b) is the applicant able to disseminate the information to the public?

Starting to Get Annoyed…

The very point I’m trying to make about the Ministry of Transportation’s possible lack of research into this matter is being validated by the fact that the insist that I pay to find out whether or not they have done any work on the issue. This isn’t a game – the Peak Oil clock is ticking. The Ministry of Transportation has a responsibility to be planning, designing, informing of and funding the future of the provinces transportation network. From what I’ve seen so far, the focus has been on Transit spending and some action on Climate Change through the Live Smart programs.

My question for the Ministry of Transportation – Has anyone actually examined the records that I have requested to see if the subject of the records, or the information in the records meet the conditions outlined in Order 332 as being sufficient to justify the waiving of a fee for the production of the data. If not, why am I receiving letters that go against this order? I have until the  7th of May to respond before they consider the request dropped – I’ll keep you updated of my progress.

Mike Thomas

Mike Thomas P.Eng. ENV SP, is the author of UrbanWorkbench.com and Director of Engineering at the City of Revelstoke in the Interior of British Columbia, Canada. If I post something here that you find helpful as you navigate the world of engineering, planning and building communities, that’s wonderful. But when push comes to shove: This is my personal blog. The views expressed on these pages are mine alone and not those of my employer.

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