Digging into that paper that “associates” VOCs in indoor air and tap water samples with Northern BC LNG wells – a likely example of spurious correlations

This week I was directed to a new paper in Science of the Total Environment titled Volatile organic compounds (VOCs) in indoor air and tap water samples in residences of pregnant women living in an area of unconventional natural gas operations: Findings from the EXPERIVA study. The study was cited in a CBC article with the entertaining title: Homes near fracking sites in B.C. have higher levels of some pollutants, study finds. Needless to say this study was jumped on by opponents of BC LNG.

I previously blogged about the challenges of disconnecting theory from data. In that post, I discussed the concept of spurious correlations. Spurious correlations occur when two unrelated observations are incorrectly linked via a statistical analysis. The classic example is the purported link between pirates and climate change. This happens because statistics (especially the non-parametric statistics with small sample sizes used in this article) are prone to false positives. The easiest way to evaluate whether a correlation is likely spurious is to ask a simple question: what is the theoretical link between the two observations?  If no link can be established then it is likely the observed correlation is not real.

As I will demonstrate in this blog post, there is no viable mechanism to justify the relationship (or association as they call it) identified between the observed VOC concentrations and the presence/location of unconventional natural gas (UNG) LNG wells. For those who don’t remember their statistical jargon “associated” is the word you use when your result is not statistically significant but the correlation coefficient is slightly elevated. As I will demonstrate in this blog post, any “association” identified between VOCs and and UNG well proximity in this report is almost certainly spurious.

In the paper, the authors examined indoor air and tap water at the households of 92 pregnant women in the Peace River Valley. One-week indoor air and tap water samples were collected from each home. In addition, the authors used an Oil and Gas Commission database to identify LNG wells in the vicinity of each residence. The results from the air and water sampling was then compared to the LNG well data to see what nuggets might fall out. They had no specific hypothesis, they just threw all the data at the wall to see what the statistics said was relevant. The “Highlights” of the paper were:

Density of UNG wells was associated [my emphasis] with indoor air chloroform, acetone and BTEX.

Density of UNG wells was associated [my emphasis] with tap water trihalomethanes.

The Conclusion includes this line:

Our results also show that even when accounting for the region of residence and/or other known sources of exposure to VOCs, concentrations of acetone, chloroform and total trihalomethanes were associated with UNG well density/proximity metrics

For those unfamiliar with water treatment, chloroform and trihalomethane (THMs) are generated by chlorinated water when it is exposed to organic material. As the organic material reacts with the free chlorine it produces TCMs and/or chloroform. Every household with chlorinated tap water will have these compounds at some concentrations in the air and water with siltier water or water further from the original source generally having higher concentrations than water closer to the source or from pristine clean water.

Now the “associations” identified in the article surprised me because my reading of the fracking literature had never identified “acetone, chloroform or THMs” in fracking fluid or in LNG wells of any sort. Rather, anyone familiar with chloroform knows that it is avoided in most oil and gas uses because of its carcinogenic nature. Its use is typically restricted to labs where it can be handled in fume hoods.

For those who work in the industry, the bible for fracking fluid contents is the EPA’s Analysis of Hydraulic Fracturing Fluid Data from the FracFocus Chemical Disclosure Registry 1.0. The FracFocus chemical disclosure registry provides public disclosure of hydraulic fracturing chemical additives used in more than 55,000 wells by over 600 companies.So what does FracFocus say about “acetone, chloroform and THMs“? Not one of the three even makes an appearance in the document. So what does the paper say?

Hydraulic fracturing wastewaters and produce waters contain a number of VOCs, including acetone, xylenes (Lester et al., 2015) and chloroform(Akob et al., 2015),which are used as powerful solvents by the oil and gas industry (Luek and Gonsior, 2017)

Going to the reference Luek and Gonsior one discovers they say nothing of the sort about acetone or chloroform. Rather chloroform is only mentioned twice with the second instance being where it is identified as among a list of “suspected laboratory and field contaminants and inconsistent with contamination due to hydraulic fracturing activities”. In Lester et al., there is no mention of chloroform or THM and acetone is noted as being used as a cleaning solvent not part of the fracking solution. Akob et al is not a primary reference but rather refers to another report by Hays and Severin which reported finding chloroform in only 1 of 1330 samples in one run and only 2 of 60 well locations where solvents were observed and this was potentially attributed to reuse of fracking water. Acetone was identified as being used in numerous wells as a solvent that occasionally appeared in some wells and not as a standard fracking additive. Put simply, “acetone, chloroform and THMs” are not used in fracking fluids and in BC fracking does not involve the use of municipal water so they wouldn’t be an accidental byproduct. This poses some challenges to the “associations” identified in this article.

With respect to the household water sources the authors detail that 60% of the participants were on municipal water supplies. As the authors note:

Inclusion of Dawson Creek or Fort St John as the city of residence (covariate associated with both water treatment process generating trihalomethanes, and density of UNG wells) in the models did not change the associations between well density/proximity metrics and tap water concentrations of total trihalomethanes.

According to the authors the relationship between the fracking and water quality is

It is known that an increase in organic matter entering a water treatment play may lead to an increase formation of trihalomethanes (Xie, 2003). Interestingly, wastewaters generated during hydraulic fracturing contains high concentrations of dissolved organic matter… Surface and groundwater contamination events linked to UNG operations have been documented in the scientific literature…Furthermore, increases in the concentration of trihalomethanes have been observed in drinking water facilities in Pennsylvania, potentially because of the high levels of dissolved organic matter in hydraulic fracturing wastewaters discharged into surface water resources (EPA, 2016). Given these documented events, it is therefore possible that the density and proximity of UNG wells is contributing to the high concentrations of tap water total trihalomethanes in the EXPERIVA study.

So here is the thing. The authors evaluated the proximity of the dwellings to local LNG wells. The analysis did not consider the proximity of LNG wells to municipal supply sources. The City of Fort St. John gets its potable water from 5 shallow wells in Taylor on the Peace River. Dawson Creek gets its water from the Kiskatinaw Watershed northeast of Tumbler Ridge. The residences (and associated LNG wells) are not related in any way to the water source locations. The authors don’t explain how an LNG well, 2.5 km from a dwelling, can affect tap water that is supplied via a piped municipal water supply sourced 175 km away (in the case of Dawson Creek) to that dwelling.

So let me put this all in one paragraph, to understand the logic underlying their identified “association”. Dawson Creek gets its water from a watershed 175 km to the north of the city. The water is pumped to a modern and highly advanced multi-stage water treatment facility. The water is then pumped into a utility system that transports the water to individual dwellings. If the “association” was real it would mean that a fracked LNG well which was installed sometime in the last couple decades, located something like 2.5 km from the dwelling, generated enough organic material during its original installation to have affected said water to the extent that the dwelling’s water is now generating excess THMs and chloroform. In order for the “association” to be correct the organic material generated from that well either migrated the 175 kms to the water system’s originating watershed or migrated overland to overwhelm the Dawson Creek water treatment plant and thus caused the water to generate excess THMs and chloroform. Does anyone else imagine that a better explanation for this fairy tale would be “spurious correlation”?

And it gets worse. As I noted earlier, LNG wells don’t generate “acetone, chloroform or THMs” so how are these compounds getting to the indoor air from the LNG wells? There is no plausible mechanism by which an LNG well can cause an indoor air problem kilometers away…indoors no less!!! The observed VOCs in the indoor air are, however, typically associated with the tap water concentrations but as we have discussed, the tap water is not related to proximity to any LNG wells in the study.

This post is getting a bit long so I will simply highlight some other gems from this article.

The report relies on self-reporting by the participants. Self-reporting without auditing is known for its lack of reliability. Consider that according to the paper:

It is important to note that other household products containing chlorine (e.g., toilet cleaners, bleach, detergents) can lead to VOC emissions indoor (Odabasi, 2008). In EXPERIVA, only one participant confirmed storing this type of household products in their residence.

If I read that correctly, it appears to say that of the 92 households surveyed only one stored household cleaning products in their house? I can go around my house and find three different types of household cleaning products that include chlorine (toilet cleaner, laundry bleach and Vim household cleaner) yet only one of the 92 households had any chlorine cleaners of any kind? That seems…unlikely???

With respect to air sampling the study includes zero duplicates and zero regional background samples. Recognize that the authors are attributing indoor air concentrations of VOCs to outdoor sources (LNG wells). Therefore these concentrations should be higher in the outside air…but the researchers chose to collect no samples to compare indoor versus outdoor air concentrations, nor did they collect duplicates from different locations in the same houses.

Were I preparing a report on indoor air for a regulator the absence of a background sample or duplicates would result in my sampling regime to be deemed deficient and I would be sent back to reproduce my work. That the peer reviewers failed to address this issue is simply problematic.

The report also doesn’t consider how old the LNG wells are or when they were installed. The VOCs considered in the study were all quite volatile and would be subject to rapid deterioration in the natural environment. The VOCs would only be an issue immediately after a well was fracked so a well installed a year prior would simply not generate these VOCs. So even if these VOCs were found in the fracking water [they aren’t] their presence would only be expected for a very short time after installation. That consideration was never included in the analysis.

I think I can stop here because from the information I have provided above there is simply no way anyone could credibly argue that the associations observed in the article are real. The critical VOCs identified as being “associated” with “UNG well density/proximity metrics” do not appear in fracking formulations in BC and the” UNG well density/proximity metrics” used to generate the association between tap water and dwellings does not account for the actual source of the drinking water source for 60% of the sample locations. The UNG locations used to generate the “association” were incorrect. How could that result in a real association?

Posted in Uncategorized | 2 Comments

Why Climate leaders sometimes build pipelines – understanding the climate implications of the Trans Mountain Pipeline Expansion Project

One of the most common refrains of the activist community during our recent federal election was the line “climate leaders don’t build pipelines“. As I will explain in this blog post, this refrain, while catchy, is wrong.

I have written numerous blog posts about the Trans Mountain Pipeline Expansion Project (TMX) debunking activist claims about heavy oil, Asian demand for heavy oil, southern resident killer whales and tanker traffic to name a few. But the biggest activist talking point about the TMX is that it will have an oversized climate impact and will increase Canada’s global greenhouse gas emissions. In this blog post I will explain why these claims are not true.

The only way the TMX can increase global GHG emissions is if it spurs enough additional production to negate its emission reductions over other transportation mechanisms. This was the argument put forth by Dr. Marc Jaccard is his submission for the City of Vancouver to the National Energy Board in 2014. The problem with that submission, and all the arguments made by activists since then, is they fail to explain where all that new production would be coming from.

Last week I posed a pretty simple question to the activist community:

Here’s an incredibly simple question for all the anti-#TransMountain activists to answer Since you keep claiming the @TransMtn will increase GHG emissions, please identify which current/planned production that will be made viable/inviable by the new pipeline? #cdnpoli

The activist response…crickets…. I posed the question again to specific individuals and organizations who are leading the fight against the TMX and the closest to a useful reply was this:

Here’s your specific proof It’s basic economics that facilitating cheaper/ faster transport is going to support an increase in production.

The problem with that answer is that it is wrong. The economics of the TMX project are not “basic”. Rather they are complex and driven largely by factors outside of a simplistic supply/demand model.

Unlike light oil in the Permian Basin, if an oil sands producer wants to increase production they can’t spend a couple million to hire a rig to drill a well that is producing oil 2 weeks later. Oil sands projects are long term investments. As such they don’t respond to the same short-term incentives as other production.

Oil sands projects undergo an incredibly long and complex approval process. Consider the now cancelled Teck Frontier Mine. It began its regulatory journey in 2008 and wasn’t nearing completion of that journey in 2020 when it was cancelled. During its initial regulatory run it required multiple regulatory filings:

An environmental impact assessment was submitted to Alberta Environment and Parks, the Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency, and the Alberta Energy Regulator (AER).

Applications were submitted to the AER under the Oil Sands Conservation Act (OSCA), and AEP under the Environmental Protection and Enhancement Act (EPEA), and the Water Act for provincial approvals.

Approvals will be required under the federal Fisheries Act and the Navigation Protection Act for activities that may affect fish and fish habitat and navigable waters.

Approval from the Alberta Utilities Commission will be required for the cogeneration facilities and from the Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo for parts of the camp.

Ancillary approvals under the Public Lands Act, the Municipal Government Act, and the Historical Resources Act were also required.

Recognize the Teck Mine was not the exception, that is the typical requirement to get an oil sands project up and going. What this means is that it is quite easy for outsiders to establish what projects are in the process because all this regulatory information is publicly available.

It also means that we know EXACTLY what production is in the planning pipeline [pun intended].

Oil sands projects are also massively expensive and are only viable in select financial conditions. Returning to the Teck Frontier Mine. It was a $20.6 billion dollar project. As a big project it needed big oil prices to be viable. Estimates for a break-even West Texas Intermediate (WTI) oil price for Frontier ranged from US$65 a barrel to more than US$80.

This brings us to another major misconception from the activists community. That because new oil sands production costs are high therefore the old production must be equally high. As was reported in a recent article:

Canada’s resources are really expensive to extract, in addition to having a super high carbon intensity,” said Caroline Brouilette, domestic policy manager at Climate Action Network Canada.

This couldn’t be further from the truth. Existing oil sands projects produce exceptionally inexpensive oil. Let’s look at the top three producers:

Suncor identifies two break even prices: an “Operating Breakeven” of $30 WTI which covers operating costs + asset sustainment & maintenance capital. Their Corporate Breakeven of $35 WTI = operating breakeven + full dividend

CNRL has an operating breakeven of $28 per barrel WTI with a free cash flow (full dividend) breakeven of $30

Cenovus has a free funds flow WTI break-even of US$36/bbl

Much of the oil sands production pays for itself and generates a generous dividend at a WTI equivalent prices around $36/bbl…and the WTI has been below that value for only a couple months in the last 10 years.

These aren’t projects that live and die on the $2 – $3 dollar savings made by the presence or absence of the TMX. They are projects that can afford to keep pumping out product and shipping it by rail or US pipeline for decades to come…even as the US Permian and other global sources gets completely priced out of the market.

So I can imagine a lot of you are asking why, if these projects are still making money, does the TMX matter? The quick answer is because the TMX allows producers to get better value for their same production and will generate billions in additional revenues for our federal and provincial governments via increased royalties and tolls.

I go into detail about this topic in an earlier post, but put simply even if the pipeline went massively over budget and cost a lot more than proposed it would still be a financial boon to the Canadian economy by generating more revenue and royalties from the same production.

Going back to my initial point. The one thing the TMX does not do is influence production. Why? Because while it improves transportation costs it doesn’t make any marginal project viable and its absence does not make any existing project less viable….and when it comes to oil sands we have to talk about specific projects we can’t just wave our hands and say “supply and demand”.

Essentially the Alberta oil industry has a strict dichotomy. There are existing greenfield projects and upgrades that will be financially viable irrespective of whether the TMX is built and there are more expensive projects that will never be viable given our new regulatory environment and carbon tax structure.

There are no marginal projects in the works that this pipeline will make viable. Thus the argument that the TMX will generate more production because it slightly reduces the cost of transportation is nullified by the particular realities of the Alberta oil sands industry. The activists’ claim is not supported by the data.

This brings us back to refrain I discussed at the start of my piece that “climate leaders don’t build pipelines“. Well my response is that unless an activist can show me a specific project that will go ahead based solely on the existence of the TMX then that refrain is false with respect to the TMX. As I have shown numerous times at this blog, the TMX will move oil more safely while generating lower emissions than that alternatives (oil-by-rail or oil-by pipeline to Texas and then by ship to Asia).

For politicians and climate leaders the TMX is thus a no-brainer. It will move the same production more safely, while generating fewer emissions and in doing so will generate more revenues and royalties for our federal and provincial governments. The reason Mr. Trudeau supports this project couldn’t be more clear. It makes absolute sense from an environmental, climate and financial perspective. The activists who claim otherwise either haven’t made themselves familiar enough with the Canadian oil industry or simply don’t care about the truth because it disrupts their preferred narratives.

Posted in Canadian Politics, Pipelines, Trans Mountain | 2 Comments

Understanding the rules for exporting plastic waste – what the activists keep getting wrong

As part of my ongoing discussion of plastic regulation in Canada, I ended up in an enlightening discussion on Twitter. It wasn’t enlightening for what it taught me about the handling of plastic waste; rather it was enlightening in that it showed me how little even seemingly well-informed individuals know, and what activists were saying, about the topic.

The discussion began with a pundit on Twitter decrying a tweet about a recent piece in the Financial Post about plastic: Opinion: Don’t ban plastics. They help green the Earth. The article, while imperfect, correctly summarized some of the challenges with moving away from plastics for select consumer uses. A highly-educated individual replied to the thread:

okay okay okay okay okay but… wait… my understanding of this is that it’s not a problem for us because we… wait for it… SHIP. IT. OVERSEAS. We make it other countries’ problem. I just… what! WHAT! WHAT IS THIS CRAP??

I responded by pointing out “Canada has banned the export of such waste under the Basel Convention and has not given any permits for export since the new rules came into force“.

The highly educated individual (and many of their peers) then filled my social media feed with a flurry of old news stories about the export of plastic waste to developing countries and the highly-educated individual concluded with the line:

(Psst – Canada made a deal to give some our garbage to the US which didn’t ratify the Convention and still offshores garbage)

Given this stream of misinformation on my social media feed I thought it would be useful to prepare a short blog post that explains exactly how the new rules apply for the transboundary transportation of waste plastic.

To begin, Canada is a signatory to the Basel Convention on the Control of Transboundary Movements of Hazardous Wastes and their Disposal (the Basel Convention). The Basel Convention is a multilateral agreement intended to “protect human health and the environment against the adverse effects of hazardous waste“. Virtually every country in the world is a party to the Basel Convention with the United States and Haiti making up the elite team of countries that have signed but not ratified the Basel Convention. As described at the Government of Canada web site:

The Basel Convention came into force on May 5, 1992, after being ratified by 20 countries. Canada ratified the Basel Convention on August 28, 1992.

The Basel Convention’s key objectives are to:

– Minimize the generation of hazardous waste and hazardous recyclable materials;

– Ensure they are disposed in an environmentally sound manner and as close to the source of generation as possible;

– Minimize the international movement of hazardous waste and hazardous recyclable materials.

The Basel Convention controls the transboundary movement of hazardous and other wastes through its provisions for “Prior Informed Consent” (PIC) that must be met before any shipment of wastes is permitted. Shipments without proper documentation are considered illegal under the terms and conditions of the Convention. Each Party to the Convention is required to take appropriate measures to regulate the transboundary movement of wastes.

As of 2021, the Basel Convention was updated with the Plastic Waste Amendments. Prior to these amendments plastic waste was not effectively covered under the Basel Convention. Under the amendments non-hazardous plastic waste is now covered including:

  • plastic scrap and waste that is contaminated (e.g., with food residue and/or other non-hazardous waste)
  • plastic scrap and waste mixed with other types of scrap and waste
  • plastic scrap and waste containing halogenated polymers (e.g., PVC)
  • mixed plastic scrap and waste, with the exception of shipments consisting of polyethylene (PE), polypropylene (PP), and polyethylene terephthalate (PET) that meet the criteria described in Basel listing B3011

On January 1st, 2021, the Basel Convention’s Plastics Waste Amendments became effective in Canada. These new rules make will make global trade in plastic waste more transparent by requiring prior informed consent for the movement of plastic wastes. In order to export this material exporters need a permit from the federal government to export their waste and a permit from the receiving country to receive the waste. As of the writing of this blog post Canada has not issued any permits for the export of plastic waste.

What this means from a practical perspective is that as a signatory to the Plastic Waste Amendments, Canada has effectively stopped the export of plastic waste, with one critical exception. Under the Basel Convention Canada can retain its historic bilateral trade in plastic waste with the US. So, yes, Canada does indeed export a small volume of post-consumer plastic waste to the United States.

Now I know a lot of you will say, but the US hasn’t signed onto the Plastic Waste Amendments so if we send our waste to them they can simply export it elsewhere? Except that is not the case. Under the Basel Convention the US can’t export plastic waste to any party that has signed onto the Basel Convention. So no our waste will not go to the US and then flow from there elsewhere.

But what about existing bilateral deals the US has with countries like the Philippines? Yes, it is true that these bilateral deals do exist, except as the US EPA web site points out

The United States has separate bilateral agreements with Canada, Mexico, Costa Rica, Malaysia and the Philippines which cover transboundary shipments of hazardous waste under specific terms.  For example, under the bilateral agreements with Costa Rica, Malaysia and the Philippines, the United States may receive hazardous waste for recycling or disposal from Costa Rica, Malaysia, and the Philippines, but may not export hazardous waste to these countries.

So, no, that loophole is closed. There is no scenario where Canadian post-consumer waste plastic can be exported to the US and then that waste exported to any other country in the world.

To conclude, no matter how many out-of-date news articles highly-educated individuals and activists post on Twitter, Canada does not and can not ship its post-consumer waste plastic to developing countries without the express agreement of both countries. Canada can send some industrial resins to select countries under strict export regulations but we simply do not export our waste plastic be abandoned in developing countries. As such, this should not be a consideration in determining whether we ban plastics in Canada. Similarly, no matter how many times the activists say otherwise, Canada cannot ship our waste plastic to the US to be trans-shipped to developing countries. This is simply a false talking point used by activists hoping that listeners will not know any better.

Posted in Canadian Politics, Uncategorized | 1 Comment

Debunking the claim that there will be more plastic in the ocean than fish by 2050

In my last post I wrote On the proposed Canadian plastics bans – Part 1: How the Government created useful “facts” for its scary headlines and how “facts” are being created, essentially out of thin air, to be used as activist talking points. The fight against plastics is a particularly fertile field for the development of these fascinating “facts”. Today I want to write about another “fact” being used by activists that “unless something changes there will be more plastic than fish in the ocean by 2050.”

I was reminded of this topic by a newspaper story with the unsurprising title: Unless something changes, there will be more plastic than fish in the oceans by 2050. While compelling, does this “fact” make sense? No more than the claim that plastics don’t degrade in seawater or that plastics take millennia to break down. What parent hasn’t given their child a plastic outdoor toy and found it sun-bleached and degraded after a single summer outside? The reality is that plastic decomposes in some conditions and doesn’t in others. I think we all agree that paper decomposes when exposed to sunlight and water and yet they found readable newspapers in landfills that were over 40 years old. That is because landfills are not designed to decompose waste, they are designed to store it indefinitely. You simply can’t use landfill results to judge the biodegradation rate of plastics.

The “fish fact” originated in a report titled “The New Plastics Economy — Rethinking the future of plastics”  by the World Economic Forum, the Ellen MacArthur Foundation and McKinsey & Company. Now here is a funny thing, the report doesn’t explain how they generate this claim in its formal text. Instead, they do so in an endnote. A warning: any time a report’s primary statistic comes from a calculation in an endnote you should take that fact with an extremely large dose of salt. Why? because someone clearly decided it was not reliable enough to go in the main text where it would be actively checked by peer-reviewers.

So let’s look at the endnote in question (number 22)

2015-2025 projection of plastics in the ocean based on an estimated stock of 150 million tonnes in 2015 (Ocean Conservancy and McKinsey Center for Business and Environment, Stemming the Tide (2015)), estimated annual leakage rates of plastics into the ocean by Jambeck et al. of 8 million tonnes in 2010 and 9.1 million tonnes in 2015 (J. R. Jambeck et al., Plastic waste inputs from land into the ocean(Science, 2015), taken from the middle scenario), and annual growth in leakage flows of plastics into the ocean of 5% up to 2025 (conservatively taken below the 6.8% annual growth rate in ocean plastics leakage into the ocean between 2015 and 2025 as estimated in Plastic waste inputs from land into the ocean, middle scenario). 2025-2050 projections based on a plastics leakage into the ocean growth rate of 3.5% p.a., in line with long-term GDP growth estimates (International Energy Agency, World Energy Outlook 2015 (2015)).

Admittedly, that sounds pretty convincing, but maybe let’s look into the sources for the numbers. That initial number (starting point of 150 million tonnes) is from the report Stemming the Tide where they write:

An evaluation of the propensity of waste-collection systems to leak plastic waste into the ocean suggests a figure close to 8 million metric tons of leakage per year. In fact, we estimate that the ocean may already contain upward of 150 million metric tons of plastic, based on global plastic production since 1950.

So the critical initial number is a best estimate by another activist group. Readers are provided no supporting documentation nor of any of the assumptions/limitations associated with the number. It simply appears, as if by magic, fully formed for convenient use elsewhere. The problem is that number is inconsistent with most of the other research in the literature which indicates the likely number is almost certainly lower.

The authors then extrapolate the number based on population and growth rates while literally ignoring that the document they are citing (Jambeck et al, 2015 Plastic waste inputs from land into the ocean) notes that measures are being put in place to reduce those numbers. Apparently, all the work being undertaken to reduce the production and release of plastic waste isn’t relevant to this analysis.

Putting it together we have a number that starts from the imagination [sorry did I write imagination? I meant unsupported estimate] of an activist group and is inflated using unrealistic inflationary factors.

Having established that this number is exceedingly unlikely, let’s throw that analysis to the side and imagine that all the assumptions made in the endnote are correct. Imagine their hypothesis is correct and humanity chooses to do nothing to address waste management in the next 30 years. In that scenario, humanity could potentially have dumped 900 million tonnes of plastic waste into the oceans between 1950 and 2050. Given all those assumptions, will all that plastic still be in the oceans in 2050? Of course it will not.

A recent review on the topic (The fate of microplastic in marine sedimentary environments: A review and synthesis, Harris, 2020) gives us some good answers about what happens to plastics in the oceans. As detailed in the review, plastics initially float but eventually most sink where through various physical and chemical mechanisms they are broken down and converted to microplastics. Those microplastics then degrade and are deposited into ocean sediments. As the review notes:

Thus it appears that most microplastic particles are either not reaching offshore to the deep sea environment, or (if they are) they are not remaining in suspension for any length of time, but rather they are exported to the ocean floor; plastic particles that are less dense than seawater eventually sink as a result of biofilm formation (Lobelle and Cunliffe, 2011), expelled as faecal pellets (Cole et al., 2013), or through flocculation and sinking as aggregates (Long et al., 2015; Bergmann et al., 2017; Michels et al., 2018).

What the review article points out is that microplastics behave a lot like other organic materials that enter the oceans. The review also notes that the approximate 8 million tonnes/year of plastics that enter the oceans are dwarfed by the 12.5 billion tonnes/year of sediment delivered by rivers to the coastal marine environment. Understand the oceans are extremely effective at handling marine sediments. Put another way, every year our rivers deposit sediments with a mass equivalent to almost twice the total mass of fish in those oceans and this has raised exactly zero challenge to marine ecosystems.

The truth is that the sediments (and the microplastics) mostly settle out into the sedimentary basins, fjords and estuaries. A recent analysis by Koelmans et al. (2017) estimates that if the input of plastic to the ocean were stopped, most plastic particles would sink to the seafloor within 3 years and eventually become mostly inaccessible from a biological perspective.

To be absolutely clear here, improperly managed plastics are a significant concern that has to be addressed regionally, nationally and internationally. But that is not what our politicians and activists are doing. For those interested Our World in Data has a truly exceptional summary of what we know about plastics and plastic waste and it includes some truly important insights. It notes that 10% of marine plastics are derived from discarded fishing gear. This gear is specially designed to survive in marine environments and represents one of the biggest threats posed by marine plastics.

Ghost Gear (the term for this marine fishing gear) should be a top international priority for coastal countries like Canada. But as the DFO web page on the topic makes clear, our government simply doesn’t take it as seriously as we should. There is lots about meetings and discussions and little about enforceable international agreements. We should be leading an international movement to create enforceable rules about gear abandonment with significant penalties for countries that do not effectively control the abandonment of gear by their fishing fleets. But instead we are spending political capital banning plastics that have no chance of affecting marine ecosystems.

As for regular plastic waste, instead of wasting millions banning straws in Alberta (which will never get to an ocean) we should be spending money helping the Philippines, Vietnam and Indonesia deal with their management of plastic waste while pressuring China (which contributes 28% of mismanaged plastic waste) to do a better job given their desire to be a global leader on so many other topics.

As I have noted more times than I can count at this blog, good environmental decision-making relies on a foundation of good information. The tendency of activists to create and promulgate bad information does little to help their cause. Claiming that the oceans will have more plastic than fish simply does not come off as a serious claim since most of that plastic will be biologically (and physically ) inaccessible nor will it be “in” the ocean but buried below the oceans. Simply put, it is time to have a dialogue based on reliable and reproducible scientific information, not activist-created talking-points. This will allow for the development of effective and politically-supportable policy alternatives.

Posted in Canadian Politics, Chemistry and Toxicology, Uncategorized | 3 Comments

On the proposed Canadian plastics bans – Part 1: How the Government created useful “facts” for its scary headlines

This fall the Canadian government hopes to get a single-use plastics ban enacted with a plan to get to zero-plastic waste by 2030. To enact this ban, on October 10, 2020 the Canadian government recommended to the Governor in Council that “plastic manufactured items” be added to Schedule 1 (i.e. the List of Toxic Substances) of the Canadian Environmental Protection Act, 1999 (CEPA).

In order to make the argument for their ban, the Canadian government has been presenting information favourable to the ban to the public. As a blog dedicated to evidence-based environmental decision-making, I thought it would be interesting to look at the case being made to support the plastics ban.

Much to my surprise [author’s note: not really] I discovered that the scientific support for such a ban is lacking. The government appears to be relying on activist talking points and decision-based evidence-making for this policy decision. In fact, there is so much bad science on this topic that I have decided to address the issues in numerous bite-sized bits. The first involves a couple oft-repeated “facts” that appears in any number of news reports and documents about the ban.

Looking through the documentation (and news coverage) for the ban, I keep seeing the same, oddly-specific numbers. Here it is from the government of Canada web site:

Every year, Canadians throw away 3 million tonnes of plastic waste, only 9% of which is recycled, meaning the vast majority of plastics end up in landfills and about 29,000 tonnes finds its way into our natural environment.

On March 20th a Google search for the exact phrase “about 29,000 tonnes finds its way into our natural environment” got 327 hits from major news outlets to MP web sites. It begs the question, how was this 29,000 tonnes value derived?

Well, the number appears in the Environment and Climate Change Canada (ECCC) and Health Canada Science Assessment of Plastic Pollution which presents this text:

Of the 4 667 kt of plastics that entered the Canadian market in 2016, an estimated 3 268 kt were discarded as waste (ECCC 2019a). Of that plastic waste, an estimated 29 kt (or 1%) were discarded outside of the normal waste stream (i.e., not landfilled, recycled or incinerated) in 2016, through direct release to the environment or through dumps or leaks. An estimated 9% of the remaining plastic waste was recycled, 86% was landfilled, and 4% was incinerated for energy recovery (ECCC 2019a).

Well there you have it, a source for the number. All we have to do is look for up the reference “ECCC 2019a” in the bibliography. ECCC 2019a turns out to be a report commissioned by Environment and Climate Change Canada called Economic Study of the Canadian Plastic Industry, Market and Waste: Summary Report to Environment and Climate Change Canada which includes this text:

In the model, this fraction is included in the plastics in waste sent to disposal (D1). The second fraction of plastics littered is never collected and considered to be permanently lost into the environment. This second fraction, also called plastics leaked into the environment (LEAK) is estimated in the model. Global estimates of plastic leakage into the environment were prepared by Jambeck et al. in 2015. In this study, the authors estimated that approximately 10,000 tonnes of plastic waste were mismanaged in coastal areas and nearly 29,000 tonnes across Canada.

So ECCC 2019a wasn’t a primary source, rather, the 29,000 tonnes number comes from an earlier work. Moreover, it is combined with another claim I keep seeing in the press: “that approximately 10,000 tonnes of plastic waste were mismanaged in coastal areas“. Oddly that stat gets thrown around a lot as the amount that ends up in the oceans, but from this source it is clear that the number simply means materials lost in coastal communities. Reading the report we are informed that the primary source for the numbers is:

Deloitte. (2019a). Economic study of the Canadian plastic industry, markets and waste-Task 1.Government of Canada, Environment and Climate Change Canada Internal Report.

Well that is unfortunate, the original source is an internal document. Doing a series of searches it is clear that the original report is not readily available to the public. This is quite problematic. We are talking about a policy document that is serving as the basis for a multi-billion dollar policy decision yet the public is not given the opportunity to scrutinize the work and see if it appears reliable.

Not willing to give up here, I decided to try to derive how they got the 29,000 tonnes number. The table block includes a reference to a peer-reviewed study from a reputable journal. But we immediately discover a problem. Going to the cited article (Jambeck et al, 2015 Plastic waste inputs from land into the ocean), we discover that Canada is never mentioned in this study. That is odd since ECCC 2019a specifically says they based their value on that study. How do they estimate Canadian values if the reference they use never mentions Canada?

Looking more closely, the authors in Jambeck et al do prepare an estimate of the percentage of total mismanaged plastic waste in the US (0.9%). If we take the value from the ECCC Summary report of discarded plastics (3,268,000 metric tonnes) and multiply it by 0.9% you get 29,412 which rounds nicely to 29,000. So we appear to have it.

To summarize, the “fact” that has been broadcast high and low by our government is nothing of the sort. It does not appear to be based on a careful examination of Canadian waste and product chains, rather it appears to be based on an estimate of how the Americans handle their waste. The US estimate was just carried over to Canada with no apparent attempt to consider whether Canada is a comparable jurisdiction with respect to waste management. I suppose that is a fair assumption seeing that with respect to all sorts of public service decisions (like medical care, military spending, environmental spending etc..) Canadian and American policies are virtually indistinguishable.

But believe it or not, it gets even worse. That other “fact” I keep encountering is the other half of that earlier quote that “approximately 10,000 tonnes of plastic waste were mismanaged in coastal areas“. This doesn’t even have a pedigree as solid as the 29,000 tonnes value. This 10,000 tonnes number is used all over the place as a “fact” but is reported in the original source as an “estimate”. Moreover, as I will demonstrate, it appears to be a rather poor estimate.

Going back to Jambeck et al. we discover that the US marine plastic estimate is based on an estimate of what percentage of the US population lives within 50 kms of the coast (in the US 40% of Americans live within 50 miles from the coast). This explains why such a high percentage of their waste is estimated to end up as marine debris.

Unfortunately for our fact creators, simply carrying over this US estimate doesn’t work in Canada because fewer Canadians live near the coast. According to government of Canada statistics only about 25% of Canadians live in coastal zones. But according to the authors, these coastal Canadians are especially bad at handling plastic since by the report’s estimates 25% of Canadians are responsible for 34% (10,000/29,000 x 100%) of all the mismanaged plastics. Clearly the authors do not think highly of British Columbians or Maritimers.

Thinking back to that fact it really should have struck me much earlier. Somehow over a third of the waste is reported in coastal areas….in Canada? We all know that Alberta, Saskatchewan, most of Ontario and most of Quebec is nowhere near a coast. There is zero chance that a mismanaged straw in Saskatoon or Calgary is going to end up in the nasal cavity of a Pacific sea turtle.

The reality of oceans plastic is that it is mostly an issue caused by developing nations. A recent study identified that 93% of the trash from 57 Rivers studied comes from only 10 rivers, with the biggest of those being the Yangtze. So if you really want to clean up ocean pollution, a reasonable way to do so would be to invest money in improving waste management programs in these identified jurisdictions. 

Let’s be absolutely clear here. Canadians can still do better. On World Cleanup Day clean-up crews found thousands of coffee cups and water bottles on Canadian beaches. That demonstrates that Canadians have to work harder to keep our own backyard clean. However, concerns about turtles should not be argued as a reason to ban plastic straws in Alberta.

To conclude, the Canadian government’s proposed plan to ban plastics will change all our lives. The ban will upend the food and beverage industries and cost every Canadian in their pocketbook. Given the magnitude of this decision it behooves the government to actually do an analysis of Canadian waste streams and then make that data available to Canadians to decide if their policy decision is justified. Relying on recycled US data that has not even been corrected to address our relative population densities is just not good enough.

Posted in Uncategorized | 11 Comments

Debunking common anti-nuclear talking points Part 1 – Nuclear takes too long to build

In BC approximately 18% of our total energy is provided by clean electricity and 61% of our total energy is provided by fossil fuels (most of the rest is industrial energy supplied by burning biomass). The Pacific Institute for Climate Solutions has calculated that if we are to wean ourselves off fossil fuels BC will need to expand its generating capacity from 15.6 gigawatts (GW) now to 37 GW of capacity by 2055 (or by approximately 20 Site C equivalents).

I am a strong believer in the “all-of-the-above” school for non-carbon energy alternatives. In BC we have a lot of available hydro that can be supplemented by geothermal and wind to help address our long-term electricity needs. As for solar, thanks to our low solar insolation, utility-grade solar simply isn’t the right approach for BC except for the extreme southeast, and limited parts of the Okanagan. The term you should think about is “regionally-appropriate renewables“.

Once you leave BC finding regionally-appropriate renewables gets even harder. I have detailed Alberta’s renewable energy conundrum and the same challenges apply in Saskatchewan and throughout much of the US. There is simply not enough geothermal and/or hydro to supplement wind and solar. In those places nuclear is an important option to solidify their future energy systems.

Nuclear, however, has had a public relations problem in much of the world. A combination of bad planning, over-regulation and anti-nuclear activism has poisoned the well. This has made it extremely hard to hold sensible discussions about nuclear energy.

I can’t do a lot to deal with the challenging history of mismanagement and over-regulation associated with nuclear in the US, but I can help continue the effort to debunk what I feel is the egregious misinformation advanced by anti-nuclear activists in Canada and the US (an example of what I consider problematic, taken from Twitter and anonymized for my protection, is presented below):

The list above provides a target-rich environment that I simply cannot address in one post. So I will do it over several posts.

The first of the tropes I want to address is one I have heard a lot these recent weeks. The suggestion that replacing fossil fuel energy with nuclear shouldn’t happen because building nuclear takes too long. This argument is both factually wrong and makes no logical sense.

First with the facts. Anyone vaguely familiar with this topic can discuss how the French and Swedes and transformed their energy systems in a single generation using nuclear. The activists will take the French and Swedish examples and instead point to the US experience. Admittedly, recent US reactors have been slow to build, but that is because the Americans have failed to take advantage of standardization instead building a series of one-of-a-kind facilities, which obviously cost more.

In direct contrast to the American experience, the Chinese, Japanese and South Koreans have shown that once you find a reactor-type that meets your needs you can start developing the trained workforce and specialized production lines necessary to allow subsequent reactors to be built relatively quickly.

In the last 20 years, Korea has built a total of 13 nuclear power plants. The average construction period for each plant was only 56 months. Japan built a total of eight nuclear power plants since 1996 taking on average only 46 months to build. The Chinese, meanwhile, have taken it to another level. If you want to see how standardization really pays off, look at this table I pilfered off twitter (h/t to John Randall) that uses data from the International Atomic Energy Agency.

It shows that the median time to build a reactor in China is now down to 2080 days (less than 6 years) with recent plants taking just over 4 years. In much of the US you couldn’t complete the approval process for a wind farm in that timeline. So the claim that nuclear cannot be built quickly is demonstrably wrong.

Now I wouldn’t be a good Canadian if I didn’t throw in a “notwithstanding” in my blog once in a while…so here we go.

Notwithstanding that the claim “nuclear takes too long to build” is categorically false, it is also an illogical and wrongheaded argument in the first place.

Let’s use a worst-case scenario: that the approval process took a decade and the construction another decade. Would that be “too slow” to help address our energy needs? Of course not, our energy systems are going to need constant updating and replacement.

Even in my worst-case scenario if nuclear takes 20 years to build, it will still then be available for 50-70 years thereafter and can cover retiring renewables. I say 50-70 years, but frankly, it is hard to say how long a nuclear plant can operate because so many of them just keep chugging along. In the US 20 reactors, representing more than a fifth of the nation’s fleet, are planning or intending to operate up to 80 years. More are expected to apply in the future as they get closer to the end of their operating licenses.

Building energy capacity is not one-and-done it is an ongoing process. Imagine I built 3000 MW of wind turbines in 2021 and started on my ultra-slow 1000 MW reactor. When those 3000 MW of turbines were approaching their end-of-life that 1000 MW nuclear reactor would be there to replace them and could then operate through 2-4 turbine life cycles providing capacity factors 2-3 times higher than the wind projects they replaced.

Here is a simply analogy for those who still don’t get it. Every year our society spends huge sums of money to train new surgeons. Training a surgeon takes, on average, 14 years from the start of university to the end of their residency. Yet I don’t hear anyone arguing that since we currently have surgeons in our hospitals we shouldn’t go through the time and effort of training any new surgeons. No one makes that argument because we all know there will be an ongoing need for new surgeons and there will be a regular turn-over of old surgeons. Every year a number will retire and a number of new surgeons will replace them. The same is true of our energy systems.

To conclude, when I hear an activist make the argument “building nuclear takes too long” I attribute that response to either confusion or ignorance (my better angels preclude me from considering darker motivations). The simple truth is that building enough renewables to replace fossil fuels will take decades and each turbine/solar panel needs to be replaced every 20-25 yrs. Given our ongoing needs there is simply no logic to the claim that we shouldn’t build nuclear plants because they “take too long to build”.

Posted in Uncategorized | 10 Comments

Why an environmental scientist is so often critical of environmental activists

As an environmental scientist, I am regularly asked why I seem so critical of environmental activists and environmental NGOs. My answer is simple: because the people who should be speaking out when environmental activists and environmental NGOs make ridiculous claims are failing at the task. As an example, this weekend the news was highlighted by an environmental protest that snarled traffic in Vancouver. The protestors were members of Extinction Rebellion Vancouver. One of the Extinction Rebellion’s “demands” is:

Act Now: Government must act now to halt biodiversity loss and reduce greenhouse gas emissions to net zero by 2025.

Read that demand again because it should be the first thing anyone talks about when discussing Extinction Rebellion. They are demanding that we GET TO NET ZERO EMISSIONS BY 2025. “Net Zero” means we have to replace every ambulance, fire truck, bus, train and/or transport truck with a non-fossil fuel version. It means we eliminate the essential tools necessary to feed our community, protect the elderly and aid the ill. Moreover, they aren’t asking for this in 10 or 20 years; they are DEMANDING it be done in 4 years.

As I have written previously, Extinction Rebellion’s demands represent nothing less than magical thinking. There is only one means to accomplish their goals in that time frame and that would be to eliminate the vast majority of the human population. Absent genocide, their demands are impossible.

Reading the commentary about the protest, I could not find a single member of the activist community calling out Extinction Rebellion Vancouver for making such ridiculous demands. Where are the serious thinkers in the NGO community arguing that neither magic, nor genocide are acceptable means to achieve our climate goals? The answer is they are either missing or don’t exist.

That is why you see me asking these questions on social media. I am a pragmatic environmentalist with the education and expertise to recognize when activists are making impossible demands. Absent high-profile activists doing this, someone must bring the discussion back from “let’s use magic” to “let’s find what we can do to achieve our goals”.

So where are the environmental leaders who should be doing this task? My suggestion is that they don’t exist. To my mind, today’s environmental movement leaders are the students I helped teach in the 1990’s. These students were brought up in an academic environment I remember well. It was one where universities were building new schools and departments of Environmental Studies and those schools, like my own, were dominated by social scientists and historians with little-to-no interest in the natural sciences and few-to-no required natural science classes in their course loads.

The result is a generation of students who were not taught environmental science. Most lack the ability to crunch the numbers and understand why policies may or may not work in the real world. They use words like “toxic” without understanding what those words mean. When I talk about specific gravity and how it affects the behaviour of an oil spill in freshwater environments and why that differs from a similar spill in saltwater their eyes glaze over. It may as well be Greek to them. Absent a grounding in environmental science they are left to trust their guts on these topics and their guts often get it wrong because this topic is complex and sometimes the informed response is counter intuitive.

That is how relatively intelligent and well-educated activists can “demand” the impossible. They lack the wider experience (and scientific education) necessary to even recognize that their demands are impossible. They let their hearts make their decisions. They seek to “Move the Overton Window” while making a splash in the media; getting “likes” on their social media feeds; and generating donations to pay for their continued activism.

Consider this tweet from Naomi Klein:

When people engage in the fiercest forms of land, water, and planet protection, they do so from a place of love. If they’re trying to stop a pipeline, it’s not because they hate cylindrical metal things. It’s because they love their water. And they’re willing to fight for it.

This is about the fight against the Trans Mountain Pipeline Expansion (TMX). A project that will reduce the risk to our aquatic environments. By fighting the pipeline, they increase the risk to our shared waters. Their love may be real, but their actions will not help achieve their goal. This reminds me of that old expression about good intentions and where they lead us.

Let’s consider some more examples where NGOs should have known better.

Most of you are too young to remember that in the early 1990’s Greenpeace was engaged in an all-out campaign to get the element chlorine banned from use in industrial products. As a Chemistry graduate student at the time this made no sense to me. Chlorine is responsible for preventing hundreds of millions of waterborne infections a year and Greenpeace was trying to get it banned.

What was even more ridiculous to me was that an international organization decided it was possible to ban an element from environmental chemistry. Seriously, it reminded me of the famous Steve Martin “Hostages” sketch where he suggested that a hostage taker demand that the letter “m” be stricken from the English language. His argument, in the sketch, was you had to make one crazy demand when you were in a hostage situation so if you got caught you could plead insanity. Except Greenpeace wasn’t trying to plead insanity, they actually wanted governments to ban the use of chlorine. I suppose no one walked them through the chemistry of table/road salt.

But enough with the 1990’s, let’s look at the present. In 2021, Greenpeace is fighting to prevent the poor in Southeast Asia from getting access to a cheap and effective means to prevent blindness in children. According to UNICEF, approximately 1.15 million children die ever year from conditions associated with vitamin A deficiency (VAD). Golden Rice was designed to address this problem. It is a strain of rice that has been genetically modified to be rich in Vitamin A. Golden Rice will provide a cheap and effective dietary mean to address VAD. Yet Greenpeace has been actively fighting Golden Rice because it goes against their general fight against genetically engineered foods.

Greenpeace has no data to suggest that Golden Rice itself causes specific harm; they fight it because it is genetically engineered, and they don’t like genetic engineering of foodstuffs. Their fight has delayed the distribution of Golden Rice and is directly responsible for untold suffering in the developing world.

Want more examples? Most of my readers know my stance on the TMX. As I have repeatedly shown, the TMX will move existing oil production from Alberta more safely and with a lower greenhouse gas footprint. But fossil fuels are considered bad by the environmental community, so any project to move fossil fuels safely must be inherently bad and so they oppose the project. The result will inevitably mean more oil-by-rail, more emissions, more incidents and worse environmental outcomes.

How about BC LNG? The climate math makes it clear that BC LNG can help reduce global emissions. But once again we are talking about fossil fuels and if you take a parochial view you can claim that exporting LNG will increase our domestic emissions. The problem is that global warming doesn’t care about domestic emissions, it cares about total global emissions and BC LNG will decrease total global emissions. 

It is not just the big-ticket items. Environmentalists have been getting it wrong for years on topics where life cycle analyses say one thing and their intuition says another. On topics from soccer fields, to ocean plastics, to BPA their intuitive approaches fail them. Heck they even got wrapped bananas wrong.

It wouldn’t be a big deal if all their uninformed opinions and direct actions were harmless, but they are not harmless. As I noted above, fighting Golden Rice results in hundreds of thousands suffering needlessly every year. Fighting the TMX will cost the economy while simultaneously putting our communities and watersheds at greater risk, while increasing overall GHG emissions to boot. Each action by Extinction Rebellion increases antipathy towards their cause and decreases the likelihood they will convince the greater public of the importance of their cause.

As a subject matter expert and pragmatic environmentalist, I simply cannot sit idly by while activists and activist NGOs demand policy alternatives that will increase the risk to human and ecological health because it makes them feel good and gets them “likes” on social media. If we are going to make the changes necessary to fight climate change and preserve the ecosphere it will take individuals with expertise and training to speak out when activists and NGOs demand the impossible while fighting against the good.

Posted in Canadian Politics, Environmentalism and Ecomodernism, Uncategorized | 9 Comments

A pragmatic environmentalist’s view on climate change, BC LNG and the Trans Mountain Pipeline project – not either or but all of the above

In the last months, I have taken a lot of flak about my stances on topics like BC LNG and the Trans Mountain Pipeline Expansion Project (TMX). In the last week alone I have been called a “denier” and an “Alberta oil apologist”. But the truth is that as a pragmatic environment scientist I support the fight against climate change. I also acknowledge the need to upgrade necessary infrastructure to move hydrocarbons and for projects to export LNG overseas where BC LNG can be used to reduce global greenhouse gas emissions.

To begin let’s be clear, I believe anthropogenic climate change is real and represents a fundamental threat to our planet. This is not surprising since I am a practicing Environmental Scientist. Unlike most of my critics, I have a PhD in Chemistry and Environmental Studies and have worked as a Environmental Scientist for over 25 years.

In 2008, when Gordon Campbell proposed our BC carbon tax I supported him. For those with short memories, in the 2008 provincial election the NDP fought on the promise to scrap the carbon tax; I worked to protect the tax.

A decade ago I considered myself a Lukewarmer. As I wrote at the time, I was a proponent of the North American school who accept that climate change is real but disagreed with the climate alarmists on estimates of climate sensitivity. In the last decade, the scientific consensus has solidified and these days my views represent the middle of the mainstream on the topic.

In 2015, world leaders passed the Paris Agreement, which I supported strongly at the time. In the Paris Agreement Canada did not commit to trashing our economy nor did we agree to achieving a fossil fuel-free status in less than two decades (unlike the claims of many activists). As I have demonstrated, the claim that we could eliminate our reliance on fossil fuels in the next 10 years does not even rise to the level of laughable. It is simply magical thinking. If we undertake herculean efforts and dedicate a historically unprecedented per cent of our national gross domestic product to the task we have a reasonable chance of weaning ourselves off fossil fuels in 30-50 years. Even then it is likely closer to the 50-year than the 30-year timeline. What this means is that Canada has, and will have, an ongoing need for fossil fuels for the foreseeable future.

I acknowledge that we have to get our energy system off fossil fuels and have written several tens of thousands of words on the topic of renewable energy. As a pragmatist, I have concentrated on the topic of regionally-appropriate renewable energy. That means finding the right technologies for the right regions. I am critical of activists who imagine that a one-size-fits-all approach will work for all areas. Our resources are limited and demanding that BC rely on solar is simply ridiculous. Look at a simplified solar insolation chart of BC. Except for the extreme southeast, and limited parts of the Okanagan (and maybe parts of the Peace), solar simply isn’t the right technology for BC.

I see a need to move towards wind, geothermal and hydro in my home province of British Columbia and have written on these topics at my blog. That is why I worked to advance the Site C dam project. While it is clear the geology of the project may make it unworkable, there is no doubt we will need massive new supplies of hydro electricity if we are to decarbonize our economy. From a national perspective we absolutely need to invest in more nuclear, wind and solar energy.

Like many, I believe there are some low-hanging fruit to fight climate change that should be addressed as soon as practical (sometimes referred to as “Fast Mitigation”). I see the need to concentrate on topics like black carbon and methane emissions. I also believe that getting our kin in lesser developed countries out of energy poverty is a morally necessary goal and by doing so we can help protect a highly stressed ecosphere.

A point seldom discussed by activists is the costs. As I noted, the effort to wean ourselves off fossil fuels is going to be incredibly expensive. That money has to come from somewhere. That somewhere is the Canadian tax base and the way to build that tax base is to take advantage of Canadian natural resources, not to undercut them.

As I noted above, we live in a society that, like it or not, is dependent on oil (petroleum hydrocarbons) and petroleum hydrocarbon-based products. Our food is produced on farms that need heavy equipment to operate. That food is shipped around the world by air, water and rail, all of which rely on petroleum hydrocarbons to operate. Petroleum hydrocarbons also serve as the feedstock of the petrochemical industry, which forms the basis of all the things that make our modern world work. They are the building blocks of our plastics, our computers, the tools we need to keep us healthy and the drugs we take when we are sick.

Given the foregoing, a pragmatist asks a simple question: given we cannot do without a product, what can we do to make the transport of this product safer? In North America the majority of our raw petroleum supplies are located in the interior of the continent and thus cannot be shipped around by double-hulled tanker. Instead, the choices are in order of environmental concern: tanker truck, rail or pipeline; that is it, period. There are no other options. Given the choices at hand, the obvious answer therefore is: invest in the safest, most environmentally benign of the transportation methodologies currently available. Thus, as a pragmatic environmentalist I push towards improving our pipeline technologies and capacity.

My acquaintances on the deep green end of the environmental spectrum, meanwhile, fight these pipelines tooth and nail, and in doing so they appear oblivious to the fact that the fuel has to move somehow. They talk of trying to “strangle” the oil sands not recognizing the economic folly of such an attempt. What is more, they do not even recognize the irony when at the same time they weep and wail about the dangers of transporting fuel by rail. They are the ones who have made oil-by-rail an economic reality, no one else but them.

As for BC LNG, the most recent research on this topic is the peer-reviewed article: Country-Level Life Cycle Assessment of Greenhouse Gas Emissions from Liquefied Natural Gas Trade for Electricity Generation by Kasumu et al. This article demonstrates conclusively that when replacing coal in Chinese energy facilities, BC LNG produces lower total, life-cycle emissions. Moreover, if we can electrify the process then our LNG becomes among the cleanest and lowest carbon LNG on the planet. We have to keep reminding ourselves GHGs are global and it is more important to address global emissions than local ones. If a minor increase in Canada emissions can result in a major decrease globally then the climate math says that is well worth our efforts.

The fight against climate change is going to be long, slow, hard and expensive. It is going to take honest discussion and not trite statements of hope from high-flying celebrities who demand we do one thing while they do another. It is going to take political will and politicians willing to spend political capital to make it happen. The only way to convince those politicians to spend that political capital is to look at all the data and then to make a case that demonstrates that the benefits outweigh the costs and the projected future benefits far outweigh the real human and ecological costs. Trying to argue that it will be cheap and easy with no downside is both intellectually wrong and self-defeating. Activists who stand on the sideline demanding the world while simultaneously ignoring what it takes to fight climate change will never succeed.

Being a pragmatist and realist seeking real, implementable solutions puts me in opposition to groups like the Extinction Rebellion. I view them as an unserious organization more in it for the publicity and personal aggrandizement than actually achieving any significant accomplishments. Virtually all my vocal opponents are activists of this sort; the kinds with zero training in environmental science and no understanding of the complexity of our energy system. These folk confidentially claim that we can achieve the impossible and when I push back they attack me. As a pragmatic environmental scientist I know it is possible to both support our fight against climate change and support our domestic oil and natural gas industries. Or to put it differently, if we want to fight climate change we need the resources to carry out that fight and we have to do our best to protect our ecosphere while we carry out the fight. .

Posted in Climate Change, LNG, Pipelines, Uncategorized | 15 Comments

Why the cancellation of Keystone XL is bad for the climate, the environment and Canada

By now we all know that President Biden has cancelled the Presidential Permit for the Keystone XL (KXL) pipeline. Needless to say climate activists have gleefully celebrated the decision. But as I pointed out on Twitter, cancelling KXL will not reduce Alberta oil production and will not decrease global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. The cancellation of the project is a massive windfall for US refiners and rail interests; a loss to provincial and federal coffers; will increase the GHG intensity of the oil; and will increase the risk to rail communities. Needless to say, I was challenged on my claim so in this blog post I will justify those claims.

The Effect of Keystone XL on Oil Sands Production

One of the big claims by opponents of KXL is that somehow the cancellation of the pipeline will reduce oil sands production. I have no clue where this claim comes from because every objective analysis of this topic has come to the same conclusion as the US government did in their 2014 Final Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement (2014 SEIS) [which was completed under the Obama Administration] or their more recent 2019 Final Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement for the Keystone XL Project (2019 SEIS). This was summarized in the Department of State, Record of decision and National Interest Determination: TransCanada Keystone Pipeline, L.P. Application for Presidential Permit, Keystone XL Pipeline:

The actual increase in GHG lifecycle emissions attributable to the proposed Project depends on whether or how much approval and use of the pipeline would cause an increase in oil sands production. Conclusions drawn from the Department’s market review, detailed further below, indicate that the proposed Project would be unlikely to significantly impact the rate of extraction in the oil sands and is therefore not likely to lead to a significant net increase in GHG emissions. [my emphasis]

As they describe in excruciating detail in these massive assessments, oil sands projects are huge and very expensive and are deemed profitable based on the world price of oil, not the presence, or absence, of a single oil pipeline. The cancellation of KXL will not affect Alberta oil sands production in any meaningful sense.

The Effect of Keystone XL on climate change

The reality of the world oil market is that the US Gulf Coast has a number of highly efficient refineries that will continue to operate as long as a market for their product exists. As such, the two SEIS reports had a primary assumption that much of the oil to be shipped via KXL would be shipped to this market. The 2019 SEIS provided a number of different scenarios and for this discussion I will use the one presented by Keystone when they submitted their permit request:

The primary purpose of the proposed Keystone XL pipeline is to provide the infrastructure to transport up to 830,000 barrels per day (bpd) of crude oil from the WCSB [Western Canadian Sedimentary Basin] in Canada and the Bakken Shale Formation in the U.S. to existing pipeline facilities near Steele City, Nebraska for onward delivery to Cushing, Oklahoma and the U.S. Gulf Coast area.

Later they detail:

This SEIS estimates potential lifecycle emissions under the Proposed Action assuming that the Keystone XL Project would operate at its design capacity of 830,000 bpd [barrels per day].
• This SEIS estimates potential lifecycle emissions for two scenarios under the Proposed Action. Under the first scenario, the Department assumes that the Proposed Action would transport only WCSB heavy crude oil, consisting of 80 percent dilbit and 20 percent synthetic crude oil.
• The second scenario assumes that the Keystone XL Project would transport 100,000 bpd of Bakken light crude oil and 730,000 bpd of WCSB heavy crude oil.

Now let’s get this clear, in the SEIS the authors do indicate that under Scenario 1 and 2

Scenario 1: If other crude oils are fully displaced, emissions could increase by 2.1 – 33.9 million metric tons CO2-eq per year;

Scenario 2: If other crude oils are fully displaced, emissions could potentially increase by 1.7 – 30.3 million metric tons CO2-eq per year

So you might ask how I can claim that the loss of the pipeline will not have an effect on climate. My answer is that these estimates have errors baked into them based on their age and a change in global conditions. When the changes are incorporated into the calculus, the minor increase in emissions identified in the two SEIS reports disappear. First and foremost is the dataset relied on to generate the emissions estimates. Here are the options used in the comparison:

The Canadian estimate is further detailed in the table below:

Now look at the source of those ranges. Readers familiar with my blog will recognize the most recent reference (Masnadi et al,. 2018) from my last blog post where we determined that the results were badly biased by a lack of critical data.

The challenges with the 2019 SEIS is exemplified by it showing Venezuela as having lower emission oil than Canada even though Masnadi has them much higher with a lot more uncertainty. A lot of it has to do with the earlier estimates pre-dating changes in the political/economic conditions in Venezuela (our major competitor for heavy sour oil). That estimate also ignores their significant issues with fugitive emissions of methane.

As for the list of sources for the Canadian estimates. Here are the values they use:

Note the sources, few are recent and none include the improvements in recent years that have had the effect of lowering our GHG intensities. As reported recently:

A new report concludes that when Alberta specific data is used, upstream GHG intensity numbers of oil sands production pathways are 14 to 35 per cent lower than previously published in Masnadi et al.

If the Canadian crude production value dropped by 35% it would be comparable with the best of the other countries. But that is not all. The assessment assumes a significant GHG footprint for operating the pipeline since the early assessments relied on a lot of coal-generated electricity. This runs counter to TC Energy’s commitment for net zero emissions for Keystone XL and Alberta’s movement off coal for electricity. Once you add up all those improvements, the minimal increase in GHG identified in the 2019 SEIS simply vanish.

Finally, the 2019 SEIS ignores what happens on the Canadian side of the border. As we noted earlier, the presence/absence of the pipeline will not affect Canadian production. That means the oil would still have to move, and instead of moving on a clean, electricity-powered pipeline to the US, it would be moving to a different market (likely China or India) and mostly by diesel-powered rail, with all the GHG emissions associated with that means of transportation.

Rail Transport

This post is already getting long so I will be quick with the rail side since this is an easy one. As we have discussed numerous times at this blog, the alternative to pipelines these days is oil-by-rail. As the 2019 SEIS puts it:

Thus, even in the absence of the proposed Project, crude oil that would have been transported on Keystone XL is still being and will be produced and transported to market by rail.

Oil-by-rail is less safe and has higher GHG emissions than a pipeline. These facts are incontrovertible and dealt with in the SEIS reports. With reference to what cancelling the Presidential Permit means to the movement of Alberta crude, consider that a “rail bridge” was already being planned in 2013 under the concern that KXL would be canceled. Remember, the Presidential Permit only blocks the transportation of oil in a pipeline across the border. Nothing is in place to stop oil producers from moving their product from one pipeline location to another via a rail bridge. Admittedly, doing so will increase the cost and GHG intensity of the oil but given the potential profit this project isn’t really a hard one to envision. To be specific, the 2014 SEIS calculated that the total GHG emissions attributed to using either rail or a combination of rail/pipeline would range from 28% to 42% greater (in the transportation step), than moving that same volume of oil by KXL.

Loss of Government Revenues

As I discussed in my previous post, the cancellation of KXL will impact real Canadian GDP and employment and more importantly will decrease optionality:

Optionality refers to the availability of more pipeline export capacity to more downstream markets for Western Canadian oil producers. Optionality allows shippers more opportunities to maximize returns and reduce the netback disadvantage, reflected in the price differential between West Texas Intermediate (WTI) and Western Canadian Select (WCS)

As noted in my previous post:

a reduction in the WTI-WCS price differential of US $5 per barrel would, on average, increase nominal GDP by $6.0 billion annually over 2019 to 2023.

The cancellation of KXL will reduce optionality and will instead leave Canadian producers reliant on the aging Enbridge system and at the whims of US politicians. It will reduce Canadian GDP and move those profits to US rail firms and US Midwest refineries.

Conclusion

As I pointed out on Twitter: by cancelling Keystone XL President Biden will not reduce GHG emissions since the pipeline was intended to move existing production. Rather, the alternatives to KXL will generate higher emissions, at higher risk, while pulling billions from Canada’s economy. Reducing pipeline capacity will make the railways the big winners with the US Midwest refiners coming a close second as they will continue to get Canadian oil on the cheap. The loss of optionality, meanwhile, will cost Canada and Alberta heavily in loss of tax and royalty payments. Cancelling KXL is a massive windfall for US refiners and rail interests; a loss to provincial and federal coffers; will increase the GHG intensity of the oil; and will increase the risk to rail communities. Irrespective of activist claims, it will not reduce Alberta’s oil sands production and it will not decrease global GHG emissions.

As for whether the pipeline was in the US interest lets look at the final paragraph of the Department of State, Record of Decision and National Interest Determination:

Having weighed multiple policy considerations, the Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs finds that, at this time, the proposed Project’s potential to bolster U.S. energy security by providing additional infrastructure for the dependable supply of crude oil, its role in supporting, directly and indirectly, a significant number of U.S. jobs and provide increased revenues to local communities that will bolster the U.S. economy, its ability to reinforce our bilateral relationship with Canada, and its limited impact on other factors considered by the Department, all contribute to a determination that issuance of a Presidential permit for this proposed Project serves the national interest.

Posted in Canadian Politics, Pipelines, Uncategorized | 6 Comments

The GHG intensity of the Canadian oil industry – what the scientific research actually says

Uncertainty is a fact of life in science. Understanding and communicating uncertainty is an essential element of the scientific pursuit. Uncertainty in research comes from the fact that, in most situations, we don’t have perfect information and can’t be absolutely sure of the accuracy and precision of all values used as inputs in our models. Uncertainty can also be the result of research subjects being unwilling, or unable, to share critical details or information. This can leave researchers with the need to estimate missing input values.

The scientific community has developed tools to communicate uncertainty. Every serious scientific study, where uncertainty is a consideration, will include an evaluation of the uncertainty and how that uncertainty affects the certainty of any consequent conclusions. The problem is that outside of the scientific community this information is often lost. Users unfamiliar with how uncertainty is reported will often look at the results only, and in doing so, come to incorrect conclusions. One such example has to do with the relative greenhouse gas (GHG) intensity of various crude oil blends.

I can’t count the number of times I have heard policy experts and activists decrying the relative GHG emissions of Canadian crude oils. Most recently, I encountered a letter/blog post by a Professor of Law at the University of Calgary. He wrote the following in a submission to the Public Inquiry into Anti-Alberta Energy Campaigns:

What appears to be conveniently missing from the Nemeth Report is the fact that, objectively and in absolute terms, Alberta’s oil sands reserves have been – and continue to be – amongst the most GHG intensive in the world….See M. Masnadi et al., “Global carbon intensity of crude oil production” Science (31 Aug 2018), Vol. 361, Issue 6405, pp. 851-853

Martin Olszynski, “Textbook Climate Denialism”: A Submission to the Public Inquiry into Anti-Alberta Energy Campaigns” (January 14, 2021),

The paper he cites as justification for his claim is Global carbon intensity of crude oil production by Masnadi et al., and the figure from that paper he presents in his submission is reproduced below. In the blog post he doesn’t include the title block which I reproduce above the figure.

A non-scientist, looking at this graph, would indeed come to the same conclusion as Professor Olszynski. Looking at the dark blue columns, Canada does indeed appear fourth from the left. Surely that puts our average crude oil upstream GHG intensity “amongst the most GHG intensive in the world“? But that is not what the graph actually shows. Why you ask? Because the graph also includes error [uncertainty] bars.

The error bars are the sticks at the top of the blue columns [that form the letter I]. They provide an indication of the variability (or uncertainty) in the graphed results. As described in the figure title block, the uncertainty bars in this paper represent the 5th to 95th percentiles of the modelling used “to explore the uncertainty associated with missing input data“.

What do this mean? In this paper, the authors did not have access to really important inputs for many of the producer countries and so had to estimate input values in their models. The authors explain this in the Supplemental Materials for the paper which includes the graphic below. It includes the figure above but with colour-coding to distinguish countries where less information is available to derive accurate estimates of oil field GHG intensities.

Canada is one of only 9 countries presented in green, indicating that the data available for Canada is of sufficient quality to come up with relatively accurate estimates. Most of the countries are various shades of orange, indicating that little is known about critical input values necessary to develop an accurate estimate of the GHG intensity of their oil fields. Because less is understood about these countries they have a wider uncertainty band (a larger error bar).

The thing readers need to understand is that when error bars overlap it indicates that the range of statistically possible results also overlap. In most cases this means that in a practical sense the research cannot say, with confidence, that the absolute values are different. Looking carefully, the error bars from 31 of the countries overlap the Canadian error bars in some manner. To make this clear, I have drawn a line from bottom of the Canadian error bar across the graph (see below). What this means is that even though Canada is fourth from the left in the figure, thanks to the error bars Canada’s value could reasonably fit anywhere in the top two-thirds of the countries.   

Given that the Canadian error bar overlaps with 31 of the 50 countries studied, what it means is that the research does not find that “Alberta’s oil sands reserves have been – and continue to be – amongst the most GHG intensive in the world“. Rather, the research used to justify that statement finds that Canadian crude oil GHG intensities cannot be distinguished, with any statistical certainty, from the crudes produced in 31 of the top 50 oil producing countries. The researchers simply don’t have the data to make sufficiently reliable estimates for most major producers and according to this research Canadian crude GHG intensities could be right in the middle of the pack.

Now to be clear, I do not, for a minute, believe that heavy Canadian oil sands crude is among the least GHG intensive in the world, but the data available does not rule this hypothesis out…and it gets worse. The Masnadi report did not evaluate the effect of venting of methane in their analyses and only incorporated estimates of flaring in the development of their emission estimates due to the lack of hard data on flaring. Given methane venting and flaring significantly impacts the GHG intensity of oil fields, this means that the GHG intensity estimates for many of these countries could be significantly worse.

Canada, strictly regulates their venting and flaring and the Canadian estimates for these components are considered very accurate. As for other producers? Well consider this story (Satellites reveal major new gas industry methane leaks) which describes what happened when satellite studies were used to estimate venting and incomplete flaring in Russian oil fields:

Look at all that venting in their conventional oil. Were this venting included in the calculus the GHG intensity for Russia would be far higher. Be assured, Russia is not the only country to vent as the figures in that report showed. Massive methane spikes were observed all over Africa, the Middle East, and Asia showing that the GHG intensities generated for many oil producing countries could be much higher than the values reported by Masnadi et al. More problematically, as researchers discovered in the unintended consequences of antiflaring policies—and measures for mitigation, it appears that some nations are simply venting methane from their oil fields to avoid satellite detection of their flaring. As the authors put it:

viewed through the lens of the multitask problem, these facts suggest that state-owned Türkmengaz, the field’s operator, had been systematically venting natural gas rather than flaring it to evade detection.

Recognize that major Canadian crude competitors like Venezuela and Iran are under international sanctions that limit their oil industries. Venting to avoid detection by international monitoring mechanisms would be a realistic concern with these countries. In other locations, like Libya, Iraq and North Africa, political instability has left many oil fields in the control of non-state actors who may choose to vent to avoid detection (or simply because they do not care about the consequences).

So while it is clear that Canada has a ways to go to reduce the GHG intensity of our crude, the truth of the matter is that Canada may really be in the middle of the pack when it comes to the GHG intensity of our crude. Not only that but we now know that improvements in recent years have had the effect of lowering our GHG intensities. As reported recently:

A new report concludes that when Alberta specific data is used, upstream GHG intensity numbers of oil sands production pathways are 14 to 35 per cent lower than previously published in Masnadi et al.

If the Canadian column dropped by 35% then the lower error bar would overlap pretty much every other country on the graph (except perhaps Ghana, Saudi Arabia and Denmark). Canada would be not be statistically worse than 94% of world producers.

To conclude, I am not making excuses for the Canadian oil industry and do not deny that Canada needs to continue to work to reduce the GHG intensity of the Canadian oil industry if we want to retain a market share as we wean the planet off fossil fuels. But I do believe that if activists are going to attack the Canadian oil industry they should understand what the science really says about the relative GHG intensity of Canadian crudes.

The data is not out there to support the claim that Canadian oil is uniquely bad and deserving of particular opprobrium as has been suggested by activists. Rather, the most recent peer-reviewed research that attempts to quantify global GHG intensities of crude oil producers indicates that our GHG intensities are comparable to our peers and likely a lot lower than some of our most important competitors (once methane emissions are considered in the analysis). Put simply, if you are going to make an argument against Canadian oil, don’t misrepresent what the scientific research says about this topic.

Author’s Note:

I have reworded the paragraph on venting and flaring to correct an earlier version which did not correctly note that venting estimates are incorporated in the development of the confidence intervals. I thank Dr. Yeh (who contacted me on Twitter) who pointed out my earlier incorrect wording.

Posted in Climate Change, Oil Sands, Uncategorized | 10 Comments