Understanding future demand for heavy oil – Why the Trans Mountain Pipeline Expansion project is a good bet for Canada

In the last couple weeks the campaign against the Trans Mountain Pipeline Expansion (TMX) project has been turned up to 11. My social media feed is full of claims like: “100+ economists sent a letter to @JustinTrudeau confirming that #TMX pipeline is massive boondoggle putting billions of tax $$ at risk.” Needless to say, the letter was not signed by “100+ economists” unless you define “economists” to consist primarily of individuals with no credentials or practical experience in the academic field of Economics. Rather, it was signed by a handful of economists and a lot of anti-TMX activists.

One of the major arguments by the “economists” in their letter (and other activists like Tzeporah Berman) is that there will be no demand for Alberta’s oil in a post-pandemic world. More specifically, the letter argues “decline in world oil markets and the escalating construction costs have undermined the viability of TMX and put taxpayers’ money at risk“.

As I will explain in this blog post, the Canadian oil sands industry (producing heavy oil at low cost from facilities with low depletion rates) makes the TMX a good investment in a world with plateauing and/or decreasing oil demand.

Oil Field Decline and Depletion

To understand why oil sands are a good bet you must first understand the concept of oil field decline and depletion. Put in the simplest terms: oil fields don’t last forever. Each oil field has a finite supply of accessible crude and from the day they start pumping every field has a limited lifespan. Some oil fields (particularly the big Saudi fields) have huge supplies that have lasted for decades and will be there for decades to come. But those fields are the exception, not the rule. As Terry Etam explains:

Natural decline rates on petroleum wells/fields is a minimum of about 3 percent and, for new technology like shale fields, something more than twenty percent. Let’s be fairly conservative and say that global decline rates are 7 percent.

On a 100 million b/d base, that would mean that the world would need to add 7 million b/d of production after just one year to keep production flat. Over two years, the petroleum industry needs to add 13.5 million b/d to keep production flat at 100 million b/d.

Yes, you read that right, a shale well can lose 20% of its production in one year. In order to maintain production, at existing rates, new wells have to be drilled pretty much constantly and through the Covid period that has not been happening.

Meanwhile, on the international front, the majors and super-majors have significantly cut back on their exploration and development budgets and have put major projects on hold. What does this mean to oil sands producers?

Well contrary to the activist claims, it is good news for the Alberta oil sands. Unlike their competitors, oils sands projects have very low depletion rates with very low break-even points. As IHS Markit puts it:

Even in a low price scenario that sees upstream investment fall sharply, production from Canada’s oil sands does not. Output remains stable and companies would chip away at costs over time, experiencing more production gains by upgrading existing facilities. This scenario is a reminder about the unique nature of Canada’s oil sands. “The absence of meaningful [production] declines makes a future without oil sands growth difficult to see.” [emphasis mine]

As noted in that report, much of the existing oil sands production is profitable at prices over $25/barrel while CNRL recently reported their mining and upgrading operating costs declined to a record low of $17.74 barrel. In a world where the drop in supply is expected to exceed the drop in demand, existing oil sands projects, with their low depletion rates and low break-even costs, will be ideally situated to meet the world’s future oil needs, especially since the oil sands produce heavy crude.

On the Particular Value of Heavy Crude

You might ask why I emphasize the importance of “heavy crude” since the activists like to claim that heavy crude is inferior to light crude. That is a common misconception.

Heavy oil is neither better nor worse than light crude. They are distinct products that have similar, but not the same, markets. Heavy crude needs to be refined in specially designed and built high-conversion refineries. These high-conversion refineries include expensive cracking and coking units, designed to break down the longer and heavier hydrocarbons into the smaller units used in gasoline, kerosene and diesel.

The simpler light crude refineries, meanwhile, don’t typically have these cracking and coking units. Ironically, this can mean that the light crude refineries can’t handle the heavier components in the light crude oils and so these refineries end up producing more undesirable byproducts (like petroleum coke) per barrel of input.

What this means is that the heavy oil refineries produce more gasoline/diesel/kerosene per barrel of heavy crude oil than the light refineries do per barrel of light crude oil. As a bonus the complex heavy refineries produce a lot less waste petroleum coke per barrel which also reduces their costs.

This difference is called the “coking margin“. For the last couple decades the coking margin has exceeded the “crack spread” [the difference between the input costs and output value in a typical refinery]. As described in this document for the 10-year period between 1995 to 2005 the USGC Maya coking margin averaged $3.63 per barrel above the average of crack spread of $3.46 per barrel. That number has only increased in the intervening decades. That is why so many refinery owners have invested to increase the complexity of their refineries.

To explain the jargon, the Nelson Complexity Index is a measure of the sophistication of an oil refinery, where more complex refineries are able to produce more heavily refined, and valuable, products from a barrel of oil.

Having invested heavily into building these complex refineries, the owners will pay to get the heavy oil that optimizes their returns. This is why the light-heavy price differential has mostly disappeared in the last couple years.

As for the supply side of the equation, for decades Venezuela was a major exporter of heavy oil but thanks to bad government and lack of investment Venezuela has dropped from exporting close to 3 million barrels a day in 2000 to nearly zero in 2020. That 3 million barrels a day is almost 6 times the volume that can be moved in Line 2 of the TMX. Now let’s look at what has happened on the demand side for heavy crude.

Asian Refining Capacity

One of the most bizarre recent narratives presented by the activist community is that there is no market for diluted bitumen in Asia and that Asian refineries can’t refine dilbit. This is entirely untrue.

Historically the American Gulf coast refineries have been the pinnacle of refining complexity. This is no longer the case. As presented in this document these days Asian refineries are approaching the complexity of the US fleet.

As Reuters recently reported:

Many of the region’s refineries are new and are optimized to process heavy and sour crudes.

So, contrary to what the activists have to say Asia has a lot of refineries that can refine heavy oil. Want some numbers? According to GlobalData:

The global refinery fluid catalytic cracking units (FCCU) capacity increased from 19,926 mbd [thousand barrels a day] in 2014 to 21,050 mbd in 2019 at an AAGR of 1.1 percent. It is expected to increase from 21,050 mbd in 2019 to 22,240 mbd in 2024 at an AAGR of 1.1 percent. United States, China, India, Japan and Russia are the top five countries in the world accounting for 61.2 percent of total FCCU capacity in 2019.

GlobalData’s report reveals

Asia’s FCCU capacity is expected to increase by 542 mbdfrom 8,385 mbd in 2020 to about 8,927 mbd in 2024. Out of the Asia’s total capacity additions, 151.2 mbd is likely to come from the expansion of active projects while the remaining 391 mbd is expected to come from new-build planned projects.

Finally as described in another report:

GlobalData’s report,‘Global Refinery Coking Units Outlook to 2024 – Capacity and Capital Expenditure Outlook with Details of All Operating and Planned Coking Units’, reveals that Asia’s coking capacity is expected to increase by 374 mbd, from 3,489 mbd in 2020 to about 3,863 mbd by 2024

Look at those numbers. Asian refineries can refine over 8 times what Line 2 of the TMX can supply to Westridge Marine Terminal for export.


Let’s summarize the case for the TMX: currently the crude oil market is expected to plateau and then drop. However that drop is not expected to be as steep as the ongoing drop in supply associated with global oil field decline and depletion. Historically, this decline and depletion of existing oil fields has been counteracted by increased investment in exploration and development in the upstream sector. Except most of the majors and super-majors have significantly decreased their investment in exploration and development of new oil fields. The result will be a global decrease in access to new oil fields and in particular to heavy oil. Meanwhile, global refinery owners have spent billions of dollars upgrading their facilities…facilities optimized to refine that increasingly hard to get heavy oil.

Into this world of demand outstripping supply for heavy oil comes the TMX. The TMX will allow Alberta to ship highly desired heavy oil from oil sands facilities that have very low depletion rates, with very low break-even points, to motivated buyers with custom-made facilities designed specifically to refine those heavy crudes. This represents an ideal scenario for Canadian producers. They will have motivated buyers seeking a steady supply of highly-prized oil located where transportation costs to Asia will be minimized, all during a period when global demand for heavy crude is expected to increase. Even in a decreasing market, the strong demand for heavy oil will keep Canadian oil at the top of the order sheet. So much for that letter by those “economists”.

Posted in Pipelines, Trans Mountain, Uncategorized | 7 Comments

Thoughts on living a public life with a stutter and on the value of early and intensive speech therapy

I have always envied people who can simply talk without it being a mental workout. As an advocate for evidence-based, environmental decision-making I often get asked to appear on television or the radio to speak on scientific topics of interest. Each time I do, I marvel at how easily professional communicators speak. I have never known that skill/gift as I lived my entire life with a speech impediment. I am a stutterer.

Thankfully (as I will discuss in this post), intense speech therapy as a child makes my stutter almost invisible most of the time. It only asserts itself when I am caught unawares, am under stress, or have had a bit too much to drink.

As a very young child, I was taught a series of tools to adapt. The tools include being careful with my word choice, avoiding words with multiple consonants too close together, singing words, and sticking to rehearsed scripts.

Practice and repetition also really help. I will typically practice in my head what I am going to say before I say anything. Going over how I will get from the start to the end of a thought before saying it out loud allows me to avoid the traps. The only problem with this approach is with important topics I can try so many variations in my head that I can sometime think I have said something that I have not. My wife laughs that I have most of our important conversations in my head, and forget to share them with my family.

As a child, besides the stutter, I could not make a number of sounds. The worst being the letter R, which I pronounced as a W except in certain sequences. The most humorous (to the older kids at school) was that I pronounced the letters “TR” as an “F”. This lead to a famous joke of telling Blair to say “fire truck” to an adult to see their response.

You may ask why I am writing this blog post and the answer is: because I want to take advantage of current affairs to push for more early-childhood services for kids with speech impediments. Having read the brave discussion of the topic by Joe Biden in The Atlantic (What Joe Biden Can’t Bring Himself to Say) and seeing the Democratic Party highlighting Joe Biden and Brayden Harrington’s speech issues during their convention; I realize that it is time that people with speech impediments forced themselves back into the conversation.

We must speak out about funding for early intervention and restoring/adding funding for speech therapy in our schools. We need to highlight the importance of respecting individuals with speech impediments in order to allow them the time they may need to let themselves be heard.

I grew up in what I now understand was the golden age of speech therapy in schools. I was identified in Grade 1 as needing help and for the next couple years got regular and intensive help from a school-supplied speech therapist until I could roll my R’s and completely assimilate the tools necessary to hide my other speech challenges. I can’t count the number of times I was required to say “Ricochet-rabbit runs rapidly down the road” but every time I got it perfect I got a penny.

Even with all the tools I learned, anyone listening to me will get the impression that something is not quite right. I speak in a halting pace and will stop frequently as I struggle to get words out. This is not because I don’t know what I am trying to say, but because I cannot get the words out. That delay is me trying to find a different way to get ideas out of my head without access to the words I need, but can’t say.

When people say “you should think about what you are going to say before you say it“; It really frustrates me. In order to speak semi-fluently I literally have to think of every word I want to utter before I say it out loud. For me a casual discussion involves a constant effort of thinking about every word before it comes out of my mouth. I simply don’t have the ability to speak quickly and easily like the radio hosts I envy.

Interestingly, one of the parent’s on my daughter’s soccer team is a speech‐language pathologist (SLP). During my first discussion with her at the soccer field she immediately recognized how I was using all the tools she taught in her practice to speak as fluently as I possibly can. As someone who only treats children, she noted how satisfying it was to see that the lessons she teaches being implemented by an adult.

As someone with a speech impediment, I have often felt that my voice was not heard in conversations because I don’t get to the point fast enough. I know my lack of fluency can be tough on people I’m talking to but that doesn’t make my input valueless. My wife and kids are quite used to it and will fill in the gaps at home but sometimes all I need is for a bit a patience in an impatient world.

Earlier in my career, I had a supervisor who simply did not understand the concept of a speech impediment being a real thing. Even after my condition was explained to him, he still reprimanded me for coming to meetings “unprepared” if I spoke in a slow-halting pace, or stopped in mid-sentence before finishing a sentence. This supervisor included comments to this effect in my performance reviews and while I am gladly rid of this man from my life, I can’t help but wonder if his comments delayed my professional development or set back my career.

You might see a trend in this post. It is the importance of intensive therapy as early as is practicable and with giving those with a speech impediment the time they need to express themselves. Unfortunately, our school system no longer places the emphasis it once did on this topic. The hours of intensive one-to-one therapy I received as a child would never be available today. Many kids age-out before they can jump through all the hoops necessary to even qualify for the therapy they need to become fluent. As Speech and Hearing BC puts it:

Speech and language skills influence the trajectory of a child for a lifetime. These skills also link to cognitive development, social skills, and success in academic learning. At least one in ten preschoolers need to see a speech‐language pathologist (SLP) for support in developing age‐appropriate communication skills. It is not unusual for children to be left waiting for months or years to see a publicly funded SLP in BC, due to individual SLP caseloads of over 80 children. Some children will not have access to a SLP before kindergarten due to wait lists

The recommended caseload for one full time equivalent (FTE) SLP is 25‐40 children. Assuming the maximum caseload of 40 children and a prevalence rate of 10% of preschoolers requiring SLP services, BC would require 552 full‐time SLPs to address the estimated need, significantly more than the current 165.

More problematically, outside of the school environment BC’s basic Medical Services Plan does not cover the cost of private speech, language, or swallowing services. Talk about creating an uneven playing field. Making less well-off families choose between speech therapy and paying for other family needs is simply not fair.

Kids with speech issues who are not treated early will lose out for the rest of their lives and if they can’t get the services early in their lives (when it is covered by the school system) they may never be able to afford the treatment they require to develop the skills they will need to succeed over their lifetimes.

From a public purse perspective, getting these kids intervention when they are young will pay dividends over that child’s lifetime. Reducing truancy, better performance and fewer disciplinary problems through their scholastic careers are all observed outcomes of early intervention. I won’t go into what a difference it will make to their quality-of-life both through their school years and in their lives after school. To be clear here, I am not asking our government to break the bank, but directed funding to increase our per capita number of SLPs to a national average would be a great start. Funding speech therapy for young people through medicare would be another great change to make up for all those who got missed by the school system would be great as well.

I can’t say it enough, we need to increase funding for early and intensive intervention for speech impediments in our schools. We need to highlight the importance of giving kids the tools the need and respecting individuals with speech impediments in order to allow them the time they may need, to let themselves be heard.

Author’s note

A lot of people I have known a long time have commented that they never realized I had this challenge….and that is the ultimate point of this post…if you give a child early intervention for as little as few hours a week for a couple years you can get a child who can pass as normal which means they don’t get picked on and they get a chance to thrive.

Posted in Uncategorized | 8 Comments

Revisiting activist myths about the Trans Mountain Pipeline – or Why Climate leaders may sometimes need to build pipelines

Activists are trying to get the Trans Mountain Pipeline Expansion Project (TMX) back in the news. On my social media feed I first saw Dr. Tim Takaro hanging in a tree then watched him as he was replaced by YouTuber Kutis Baute. Meanwhile, I regularly hear activists repeating their simplistic mantra: “climate leaders don’t build pipelines”.

The goal of this blog is to advance evidence-based, environmental decision-making and the Trans Mountain is a particular interest of mine. In this post, I want to revisit some of the faulty arguments made by the opponents of the TMX. In doing I hope to explain why sometimes climate leaders may need to build pipelines.

Myth: we are moving away from fossil fuels so we shouldn’t build any fossil fuel infrastructure

This is a common refrain that is completely misguided since it ignores the timeline to achieve a fossil fuel-free future. Let’s consider a simple analogy. Imagine you plan on retiring in 10-15 years. Would now be a good time to stop upgrading your work computer or to pack up your office? Would you say, “better not buy more coffee for the coffee-maker, I’m retiring in 2035”? I’m guessing you would instead choose to time your last computer upgrade to let you reach your retirement year.

Some activists have argued that the fossil-fuel era could be over in as little as 10 years, but in my mind this argument does not even rise to the level of laughable. 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. In the meantime we will need infrastructure to safely move that product.

Myth: we should be building renewables not fossil fuel infrastructure.

This isn’t a myth so much as a false dichotomy. Renewables produce electricity, they don’t compete with liquid fuels and heavy crude for most of their uses in the short-, middle- and long-terms. Let’s look at each in turn:

Alternatives to fossil fuels – short-term

In the short term fossil fuels are absolutely essential. As I detailed in a previous post, in BC fossil fuels represent approximately 59% of all energy use. According to the Globe Foundation Endless Energy Project Report domestic transportation accounted for 87% of motor gasoline and diesel fuel sales in BC in 2000 (the last year this data was fully compiled). I’m sure someone is going to say: “what about electric vehicles”? In 2015 plug-in electrical vehicles represented 0.33% of new vehicle sales in Canada. Electrical vehicles represent a rounding error in total cars and personal trucks on the road in B.C. As for hybrids, well they depend on fossil fuels to operate and would stop doing so absent fossil fuels.

Alternatives to fossil fuels – middle-term

In the middle-term, there are significant uses of fossil fuels for which alternatives simply won’t be available soon enough. Here is an paper in Science that identifies the uses for which alternative don’t currently exist. Let’s look at some critical uses one-by-one:

Transport trucks: at this time there are no electric transport trucks for long-haul routes. Admittedly Mercedes Benz is testing a potential electric transport truck but that truck currently has a maximum range of 200 km. Moreover, that is a single prototype. If you took the current generation of transport trucks off the road entirely, the store shelves would go bare in days.

Freight trains: Similarly there aren’t any electric freight trains that can operate across the Canadian Rockies (ref). So absent fossil fuels there won’t be any trains to transport food or necessities from the dockyards and farms to the rail yards either.

Container ships and electric cargo planes: There are some suggestions that a new generation of container ships could be designed to operate using some form of hybrid electrical/sail/biodeisel but that is still on the drawing board and we don’t even have a prototype out there for fossil fuel-free cargo aircraft.

Polyacrylonitrile for renewables: One of the most important components for renewable energy technologies is carbon fiber and carbon fiber is made from oil. Research is underway to use biomass to make carbon fiber but that may represent a false choice from a climate perspective. We already know that biomass has its own greenhouse gas issues not to mention the land use concerns of converting food to produce monomers for industry.

Alternatives to fossil fuels – long-term

In the long-term there are simply no alternatives for fossil fuels for petrochemical, pharmaceutical and road uses. The special advantage of petrochemicals is that they provide us with the benefits of millions of years of Mother Nature’s synthetic organic chemistry expertise combined with the input of millions of years of solar energy all captured in the compounds themselves. Petrochemicals represent a treasure trove of stored chemical energy that simply cannot be replaced given our current scientific knowledge and energy systems. So yes, fossil fuels are made of something special and at this point in our technological progress they are simply irreplaceable.

Given we have a long-term need for fossil fuels. Let’s address the specific myths about the TMX?

Myth: the TMX is a carbon bomb that will dump more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere:

This is the biggest myth pushed by activists and is simply not true. The TMX won’t increase the amount of oil production in Alberta. It will simply move the existing production in a safer way. Activists keep making this claim but do so by counting the oil moved in the TMX as if it were new production. It is not.

As detailed by the National Research Council, the estimated rail loading capacity out of western Canada in 2018 was approximately 2.8 million barrels per day and shipments of crude oil by rail more than doubled in 2018 from 146 000 bbl/d in January 2018, to 354 000 bbl/d in December 2018. Any production that doesn’t go by pipeline will simply move by rail at a much higher cost in greenhouse gas emissions. Sure there was a drop during the pandemic but as the global economy returns to normal so will demand.

On the American side of the border just three (Tacoma, Anacortes, or Ferndale) of the region’s six refineries moved over 156,800 bbl/d by rail in 2017 and every indicator is that the volume will be increasing absent TMX. These trains are carrying explosive Bakken crude through some of the most densely populated parts of the Pacific Northwest and along the sides of some of the West Coast’s most important salmon rivers. The TMX can help reduce that volume.

Rail spill risk

We all know that risk of incident is 4.5 times higher for transportation via rail over pipeline and more of the rail route is along the river sides than is the pipeline. Many activists complain about the sourcing of the 4.5 times stat so let’s go to Citylab and the Sightline Institute, both of which warn about the increase in risk of oil spills associated with this increase in oil volumes by rail. There will be more oil-by-rail spills and because our rail lines run along river sides we will have far more risk to salmon habitat, the southern resident killer whales (SRKWs), and the Salish Sea.

Tankers in the Salish Sea

Some have argued the TMX poses a special risk to the Salish Sea. As described in a previous post, if the TMX doesn’t get completed, the refineries in the Puget Sound will still need over 645,000 bbl/d of crude oil. Currently Cherry Point refinery alone sees 500+ tankers a year and Toresco (a committed shipper on the TMX) has said they want to add 120 tankers a year to their Andeavor facility to make up for an absence of supply. Meanwhile, Westridge Terminal will still be sending out a few tankers a month. So in the end we will still see 700+ tankers a year coming in and out of the Salish Sea with 620+ of them running the narrower and much more dangerous Rosario Strait.

Spill risks in the Salish Sea

I have written in detail about the relative risks associated with the project to the Salish Sea. Any cold-eyed analysis of the relative risks shows that the TMX reduces our regional risks of oil spills. Blocking the TMX will increase the likelihood of a disastrous rail spill that could spell the end of a major fishery or result in the deaths of dozens of innocents. It will put more tankers going through narrower waters with less support from escort tugs. That is a formula for increased risk.

The threat to the Southern Resident Killer Whales

I wrote about this in a previous post. If you look at the entire Salish Sea, and not simply the Canadian side of the border, then you realize that the TMX will likely decrease the risks to the SRKWs not increase those risks. If the TMX fails, foreign-flagged ships with lower safety standards will be coming in to the same waters, running through narrower straits while not following the slower speeds recommended by DFO to reduce ship noise. It will be more dangerous and louder for the SRKWs. Meanwhile, more oil-by-rail along the Columbia Gorge puts the whales’ winter feeding grounds at risk. All it takes is one spill in the Columbia River to destroy the SRKWs’ winter feeding grounds.

Funding the Transition off fossil fuels

Put simply, the costs to get off fossil fuels will be enormous. To fund that transition needs a healthy Canadian economy and that includes a healthy oil industry in Alberta. As a Canadian I will point out again that Canadian oil helps support Canadian jobs and Canadian institutions, and provides the funds to pay for our education and medical systems while subsidizing transfer payments.

I want the funds generated by Canadian oil to help fund our Canadian transition away from fossil fuels. I want my personal gasoline purchases to go towards subsidizing medicare and not subsidizing a despot or paying for a tyrant to bomb his neighbour.

I want to know that the oil used in my car was not generated using slave labour in a country without a free press, and where environmental regulations are noted by their absence rather than their application. I want my oil being produced by well-paid Canadians in a country with a demonstrably free press, strong government oversight and a strong tradition of NGOs to watch over the regulator’s shoulder.


To summarize all my points above: the TMX is not a pipeline that will increase oil production in Alberta, rather it will move existing production in the safest, least environmentally harmful manner (via pipeline). Blocking the TMX is not going to reduce our dependence on fossil fuels, rather it will redirect the crude to less safe means of transport while simultaneously reducing our economic ability to fight climate change. Building the TMX will not increase marine risks, it will simply change the risks and in some cases it will reduce the risks. One might say if they cancel the TMX we will end up with the worst of both worlds, a greater risk to the environment and less financial ability to finance the fight against climate change.

The truth of the matter is that real environmental leaders look at our needs in the short-, middle-, and long-term and build infrastructure to address all three. Sometimes that means building fossil fuel infrastructure, including pipelines. Thus, sometimes this means that climate leaders will need to build pipelines.

Posted in Canadian Politics, Pipelines, Renewable Energy, Trans Mountain, Uncategorized | 9 Comments

More chemically-uninformed fear-mongering about the Trans Mountain Pipeline – this time about the dangers of diluted bitumen

In my last post, I presented details of how activists were misrepresenting the health risks of the Trans Mountain Pipeline Expansion (TMX) project due to their lack of chemical expertise. In that post, I noted that it represented another of many examples of activists with no chemical background making false chemical claims about the project. See my post on the Trans Mountain Sumas Pump Station spill for another example. Well wouldn’t you know it, the day after I published that blog post I was sent a link to yet another activist video that fails the chemistry smell test. This one is being distributed by The Tsleil-Waututh Nation Sacred Trust initiative with the particularly unsubtle title:


Needless to say I took the 2 minutes necessary to watch the video and was truly impressed by how much pure chemical wrongness they were able to compress into a 2 minute video.

The video starts with truly ominous music and a quote from the BC government on the TMX.

The BC Government says Kinder Morgan’s proposed pipeline and tanker project should not move forward until the “scientific uncertainties” of diluted bitumen (dilbit) are studied further.

Nothing instills confidence in a production like knowing that the producers couldn’t find a quote that acknowledges that the TMX project is no longer owned by Kinder Morgan. The video then goes on to show lots of messy bitumen with an ominous voice-over that says:

When you wash the sand out of the tar sand in Fort McMurray, you get bitumen and it is tar.

Okay I could have forgiven the activists referring to the oil sands as “tar sands” but seriously, if you are going to present a video titled “What is diluted bitumen” the least you can do is understand the chemistry of bitumen. Bituminous sands consist of a combination of sand and bituminous oils, which are a type of heavy crude oil. As I discuss in a previous post on the topic, there is no tar in bitumen. This is not some pedantic argument, it is simple chemistry.

Tar is not a naturally occurring geologic product. You cannot drill a well to get tar. Tar is a distillation product that is obtained by the high-temperature decomposition of wood products or coal. So when I heard their expert claim that raw bitumen was “tar” I knew I wasn’t dealing with anyone informed about hydrocarbon chemistry.

The next clip of the video introduces their expert on diluted bitumen. Unsurprisingly, their expert is nothing of the sort. The video presents him as having “worked for 50 years in Alberta’s oil industry“, but digging a bit deeper one discovers, via his profile in Common Ground, that:

Steve Bramwell is a retired oil sands worker and a 50 year member of International Electrical Workers Union Local 424, Edmonton.

Yes, you read that right, the chemical expert in this activist video is an industrial electrician. Honestly, I shouldn’t be surprised that the activists couldn’t find an expert in petroleum chemistry to talk about diluted bitumen because if they had one the video would never have been produced in the first place as the expert would have explained all their errors before the video left production.

Not being aware of Steve, prior to viewing this video, I looked him up and he appears to have been featured regularly in activist social media posts about the pipeline. I found another video of him being interviewed by Ben West near the Fraser River titled: Alberta Oil Industry Insider on the Dangers of Kinder Morgan and Diluted Bitumen and find it amusing that he is viewed by the activists as an “insider” given how much basic information he gets wrong.

In the “insider” video he claims there are videos all over YouTube that apparently show dilbit explosions. He makes a special note of discussing one in London, England. Now for the life of me I can’t remember a dilbit explosion video from London, England and a brief search of YouTube failed to uncover said video. The easiest way of knowing these videos don’t actually exist is that (as we will see later) the producers of this video couldn’t find any dilbit explosions to feature in this very presentation.

Steve goes on to explain that in order to dilute bitumen (to create dilbit) they add a natural gas condensate that is “toxic and explosive“.

Let’s stop here for a second. The truth of the matter is that petroleum hydrocarbon mixtures are indeed toxic. That is the nature of the product. We don’t buy gasoline because it is a nutritious drink to go along with our morning toast instead of orange juice; we buy it because it is explosive and rich in important chemical components necessary for our industrial society. Trying to scare people by telling them that oil is toxic is a bit like telling people to be afraid of the sun because it is bright.

Steve then goes on to inform us that “hexane” is a component of condensate and that hexane is “seven times more explosive than gasoline” and that “you need full hazmat to deal with this stuff” Sounds pretty scary right?

The only problem is that hexane is found in all sorts of hydrocarbon mixtures. Steve is correct in that total hexanes make up about 3.88% of the mixture by mass for Western Canada Dilbit. But he appears unaware of the fun fact, that n-hexane (only one of the hexanes observed in gasoline) makes up approximately 3% of gasoline’s volume by mass.

That begs the questions: does Steve mean to say that the hexane in dilbit is seven times more explosive than the approximate same mass of hexane in gasoline? If so that would be false.

Does he mean that dilbit is seven time more volatile than gasoline? That would also be false.

However, if Steve is comparing the hexane in dilbit to the bulk properties of gasoline, without acknowledging that gasoline has virtually the same hexane composition as dilbit, then Steve is either being intellectually dishonest or doesn’t understand hydrocarbon chemistry (I’m guessing the latter based on what I have heard to date).

The truth is dilbit is about as volatile as other crude oil mixtures that are shipped around the planet, and these mixtures are much less explosive than most hydrocarbon gases or refined fuels.

As for the suggestion that you need a full hazmat suit when you deal with a dilbit spill? The truth is you should be wearing a full hazmat suit whenever you deal with any large hydrocarbon spill.

Aren’t we glad they chose to rely on a certified electrician instead of a Chemist to provide them their chemical facts for the video?

The video then presents an excerpt from the 2016 National Academies of Science (NAS) report which I discussed in my previous post. The only problem is that report is out of date. Since the NAS report was completed the Canadian government has spent millions of dollars studying dilbit as I describe in this blog post. That the video relies on out-of-date science really shouldn’t surprise us should it?

Steve then makes another incorrect statement about what happens when a spill hits a river. Once again, we know a lot about what happens when dilbit spills in water and Steve’s version is consistent with his level of chemical expertise (that is, it is mostly wrong).

The video then does a few scare shots of bitumen before cutting to Steve in an interview (the “insider” interview discussed above) where he is asked:

Ben West: The incident that happened in 2007 in Burnaby that was conventional oil?

Steve: that was conventional oil, there was not a lot of explosive gases in that. Luckily it didn’t catch fire.

Here is the formal spill report for the Burrard Inlet spill. As it details, the material spilled in that event was “Albian heavy synthetic crude oil“. As described at Crude Monitor: “Albian Heavy Synthetic (AHS) is a partially upgraded dilbit produced from the Scotford Upgrader.” Put simply, the material spilled was not conventional oil, as claimed, it was a grade of dilbit so much for that “fact”.

The video then takes a particularly impressive turn, by throwing in a line: “Oil & Gas are dangerous enough” and then showing a bunch of disaster porn with burning oil & gas facilities, none of which involve dilbit. Presumably this was how they addressed the problem that the internet has a dearth of videos of dilbit explosions and fires. It is almost as if dilbit is not particularly flammable and in the decades of moving the material across the continent there hasn’t been a spectacular fire they can feature in their videos.

I do have to admit their picture at 1:37, where they show a worker dealing with a spill in a hardhat and waders, tends to run counter to their earlier claim that you need full hazmat suit to address a dilbit spill. They do really need to pick a lane and stick to it.

To end the video they present the famous activist line:

Why would we take on more risk, when we have safer alternatives?

and then show solar panels, wind turbines and an electric train. This is an activist favourite which ignore the simple fact that wind- and solar-derived electricity do not represent an alternative to liquid fuels for most heavy oil uses. As presented in this research paper from Science there are simply too many parts of our economy that are dependent on fossil fuels.

In 2014, difficult-to-eliminate emissions related to aviation, long-distance transportation, and shipping; structural materials; and highly reliable electricity totaled ~9.2 Gt CO2, or 27% of global CO2 emissions from all fossil fuel and industrial sources

That doesn’t even consider the role of heavy oil in the petrochemical, pharmaceutical industries and in building and maintain roadways. Put simply, the “alternatives” they present are nothing of the sort. For the foreseeable future we will need heavy oils to keep our economy functioning.

Amusingly enough, having written this entire piece from scratch, I can almost completely crib my conclusion from my last post to finish this one off. As I wrote [with changes to name the video]: put simply the “What is Dilbit” video being distributed by activists is fatally flawed and should be given no weight in public policy debates about the TMX. That no one has highlighted these flaws before me is simply a testament to the fact that not enough experienced chemists have allowed themselves to be drawn into these regulatory and policy discussions.

That being said, maybe it is time for journalists and regulators to consult with a chemist or two before printing statements or making policy decisions involving significant chemistry content. It is time to stop imagining that expertise only matters in field like engineering and medicine and acknowledge that when the topic of your piece is Chemistry it doesn’t hurt to pass the information by a chemist.

Posted in Oil Sands, Pipelines, Trans Mountain, Uncategorized | 3 Comments

A Chemist looks at a major activist study about the Trans Mountain Pipeline Project and finds a hot mess

It is construction time again on the Trans Mountain Pipeline Expansion (TMX) and the activists are out in force. Interestingly, I saw that Dr. Tim Takaro was back in the news. This time he is up in a tree to try and stop the the building of the pipeline. While Dr. Takaro is variously described in the media as a “Vancouver Physician” or an “SFU Professor“, in my mind he will always be “Dr Butadiene”.

The reason I think of him as Dr. Butadiene is a report he submitted to the Canada Energy Regulator (the CER formerly the National Energy Board or NEB) during the TMX consultation process. The report was: Major Human Health Impacts of the Kinder Morgan Trans Mountain Pipeline Expansion (by Takaro et al., 2015). I use this report as an object lesson on why it is recommended that you consult a chemist before you present a paper involving significant chemistry content. I do so because this report represents a case study in how a lack of chemical knowledge can metastasize to result in bad public policy recommendations.

Now to be absolutely clear, Dr. Takaro is indeed an expert in Occupational & Environmental Health. Just look at his Curriculum Vitae. No seriously, look at that document he submitted to the CER. It has 51 pages. But if you look carefully you will notice the keywords that are missing in that C.V. There are zero instances of keywords like: “hydrocarbons” “gasoline” or “crude oil”. It begs the question, what specific expertise did he bring to the table when he decided to accept the job of writing a regulatory submission on the topic of the toxicity of diluted bitumen? As I will show in the following text, he clearly brought very little.

For the TL;DR crowd – as I will detail below the report is rife with out-of-date references and bad information. It gets the concentration of benzene in diluted bitumen so wrong as to make its arguments about benzene invalid and more amusingly, it gets the chemistry of diluted bitumen so wrong that most of the report is simply moot. Almost half the text is dedicated to a component (1,3-Butadiene) that isn’t found in detectable concentrations in diluted bitumen [hence the moniker Dr. Butadiene].

Now that I have provided that spoiler, let’s start with the stuff they get almost right. The report does establish that benzene is found in detectable concentrations in diluted bitumen. The problem is they get the concentrations (and thus the relative risk) all wrong. Here is what the report says:

Benzene is an important component of gasoline (1‐4%) due to its high octane number, which gives the high compression rates for the fuel to prevent knocking (Kirk et al, 1983). On average, benzene content in premium and regular unleaded gasoline is 2.15% by weight or 1.76% by volume (Madé, 1991). The quantities of benzene in diluent are similar.

Here is the issue: in a scientific document you really shouldn’t be relying on references from the 1980’s unless you are absolutely sure that nothing has changed in the intervening decades. This report didn’t do that.

Unfortunately for Dr. Takaro et al., in 1997 the Benzene in Gasoline Regulations came into force. These Regulations restricted the amount of benzene allowed in gasoline in Canada. What this means is the numbers provided by from the 1983 and 1991 references are wrong and should not have be cited in this report. Since 1997, it has been illegal to sell gasoline with concentrations of benzene over 1.5% by volume so the range of 1-4% provided is simply not valid.

What I find particularly odd is that Dr. Takaro et al. appear to know this since they later cite that very regulation:

Government of Canada regulations on benzene have prohibited the sale of gasoline with more than 1.5% benzene by volume (Environment Canada, 2014) [where the EC report is actually the Gasoline in Benzene regulation].

Can someone explain to me how they can, in one paragraph, claim that benzene makes up 1.76% by volume in premium gasoline then follow that statement by saying it can’t legally be sold at more than 1.5% by weight?

Considering that this submission is supposedly about diluted bitumen, it seems odd that Dr. Takaro et al., fail completely to investigate or report on the actual concentration of benzene in diluted bitumen, instead falsely claiming that diluent has similar concentrations to gasoline.

The truth of the matter is that diluted bitumen has some of the lowest benzene concentrations of all crude oils. The five year average for benzene concentration in Cold Lake Blend is 0.23% +/- 0.03 %. As presented above, in the report they claim that benzene could be as high as 4% in fuels but in diluted bitumen it is over an order of magnitude lower than the concentration presented.

From a chemical perspective this difference is critical. Benzene vapours are generated by all sorts or activities in our modern urban environments and given the negligible benzene concentrations in diluted bitumen, and the design of our pipeline systems, fugitive benzene emissions from these systems would not be detectable. These inconvenient facts totally undermine the entire argument presented in the report.

Now if Dr Takaro et al., were only wrong about benzene then the report might be have been salvageable but the benzene problem isn’t even the biggest issue with this report. As I hinted earlier, the larger issue is the section on 1,3-Butadiene. You see Dr Takaro et al., appear to have missed the really minor point that 1,3-Butadiene is not a detectable component in diluted bitumen. Yes you read that right, half of this report discusses all the human risks posed by the pipeline from emissions of 1.3-Butadiene but 1,3-Butadiene isn’t a detectable component in diluted bitumen.

But you don’t have to trust me on that claim. Pull out your copies of the three primary references used by the activists on the composition of diluted bitumen. Here’s Environment Canada’s technical report:

Properties, Composition and Marine Spill Behaviour, Fate and Transport of Two Diluted Bitumen Products from the Canadian Oil Sands.

Here is the National Academies of Science (NAS) report:

Spills of Diluted Bitumen from Pipelines: A Comparative Study of Environmental Fate, Effects, and Response (2016)

And finally here is the Royal Society of Canada (RSC) report:

The Behaviour and Environmental Impacts of Crude Oil Released into Aqueous Environments (2015)

A search of the three documents won’t even find the the word “1,3-Butadiene”. So one might ask, where did Dr. Takaro et al., get their reference to 1,3-Butadiene in crude oil? Reading the report we find this line:

Anthropogenic sources (i.e., due to human activity) of concern for human exposure to butadiene include the following (Hughes et al, 2001):
– fugitive and combustion emissions from pipelines, pump stations, and storage terminals, during both construction and operations.

Now here is the problem for this report, when you go to that reference (Hughes et al., 1,3-Butadiene: Human Health Aspects) it includes no such claim. A simple text search finds zero references to the words “pipelines”, “pump stations” or “storage terminals”. In the Hughes report we are informed that 1,3-butadiene is sourced from incomplete combustion of hydrocarbons (as vehicle exhaust or from forest fires) or as an emission from a number of industrial processes. The report NEVER SAYS it is found in fugitive emissions from pipelines, pump stations or storage terminals. It doesn’t say that because that is simply not true. In order to be in fugitive emissions it would have to be observed in detectable concentrations in the source material and as the reports above make clear 1,3-Butdiene is not found in detectable concentrations in diluted bitumen.

Admittedly the Hughes report does include a proviso that

As well, very low levels of butadiene itself may be present in gasoline and in liquefied petroleum gas.

and later they write:

Based on data in NPRI, it was estimated that the total release of butadiene from fuel distribution in 1994 was 24 tonnes (Environment Canada, 1996a), although gasoline and diesel fuel contain little or no butadiene (US EPA, 1989).

Remember earlier when I mentioned that it is imperative that you check old sources to make sure they are current. Well here is another example of the importance of that rule.

Historically there was a lot of confusion about the presence of 1,3-Butadiene in fuel mixtures. In 1996 they cleared up the confusion. As detailed in the article (1,3-Butadiene in Gasoline: An Analytical Confusion by Rolf et al., 1996) the original claim that 1,3-Butadiene was in gasoline was based on a misinterpreted chemical analysis. This explains why the EPA does not include any petroleum sources of 1,3-Butadiene (outside of combustion) in their report on the topic. Rather the EPA says this:

Levels of butadiene in gasoline and diesel fuel are expected to be insignificant because butadiene tends to readily form a varnish that can be harmful to engines; therefore, refiners try to minimize the butadiene content. As a result, it was assumed that butadiene is not present in evaporative, refueling, or resting emissions.

Let’s summarize our findings about the Takaro et al., report. A report that has been cited repeatedly by activists and which is cited in over a dozen regulatory documents submitted to the Canada Energy Regulator:

  • almost half of the report’s contents are inapplicable as they address 1,3-Butadiene which is not even found in diluted bitumen; and
  • the remainder regarding benzene is predicated on a massive misstatement of the absolute concentration of benzene in diluted bitumen. That massive overstatement implies that benzene will be observed in detectable concentrations in the fugitive emissions from the TMX system, when benzene is barely detectable in diluted bitumen samples and the emissions in urban settings would not be detectable given the elevated background concentration of benzene in our urban environments.

Put another way, the Takaro et al., report is fatally flawed and should be given no weight in public policy debates about the TMX. That no one has highlighted these flaws before me is simply a testament to the fact that not enough experienced chemists have allowed themselves to be drawn into these regulatory and policy discussions.

That being said, maybe it is time for journalists and regulators to consult with a chemist or two before printing statements or making policy decisions involving significant chemistry content. It is time to stop imagining that expertise only matters in field like engineering and medicine and acknowledge that when the topic of your piece is Chemistry it doesn’t hurt to pass the information by a chemist.

Posted in Chemistry and Toxicology, Pipelines, Trans Mountain, Uncategorized | 2 Comments

Fact-checking the Wilderness Committee narrative about the recent oil spill at the Trans Mountain Sumas Pump Station

Last weekend the Trans Mountain Pipeline had a spill at its Sumas Pump Station in Abbotsford. According to Trans Mountain the

Initial estimates are that 150-190 cubic metres (940-1195 barrels) of light crude was released and was fully contained on Trans Mountain property.

The release is related to a fitting on a small diameter (1”) piece of pipe connected to the mainline. No construction or Expansion Project activity was  underway at the pump station. The incident was identified when an alarm was received at Trans Mountain’s control centre. The pipeline was immediately shut down and crews arrived at the site within an hour of shutdown.

Here are some photos taken by Trans Mountain immediately after the spill, and shared with the media.

For those unaware of how these facilities are designed, the area where the spill occurred is designed to keep spills nearby. It is at a lower grade than the surrounding area, is gravel and asphalt-covered, and surrounded by berms. From the photos it is clear that the vast majority of the spill was contained to a graveled containment area. Trans Mountain has indicated that they have recovered most of the liquids but soil impacts remain and will need to be cleaned up.

Further investigation, after the initial reports, indicated that some oily water had escaped the initial containment and had been released into the adjacent field, which is owned by Trans Mountain. The field is often used by neighbours for grazing their cattle. This field is understood to be home to the monitoring well network used for ongoing monitoring of groundwater conditions near their facility.

Our good friends at the Wilderness Committee presented a press release including the photo below which they distributed to the media for general use.

Looking carefully, one can see four oil spill booms in the ditch leading from the water discharge point. Two are fully soaked and two are partially affected. This is consistent with a release of oily water, likely from the facility’s oil/water separator before it was shut down. What is not visible is a line of spill pads that would be emplaced if there was a major spill to be cleaned up.

A couple days later the Wilderness Committee prepared a mini-video on the spill:

Immediately following the spill the Wilderness Committee’s point man on this topic Peter McCartney (the gentleman who narrates the video known by his Twitter name @Climate_Pete) made it into the newscasts making clearly incorrect claims, like that it was lucky the spill was sweet crude because had it been bitumen it would have been much harder to clean up.

In this blog post I want to fact-check the Wilderness Committee response to this spill as, in my opinion, it shows a clear pattern of misinformation and simple ignorance about this topic.

The weird part about the misinformation is some of the things they have stated are obviously wrong. Less than ten seconds into the video Pete claims “Trans Mountain has spilled 150,000 to 190,000 L of crude into the local ecology.” In the press release he put it: “We’re talking about a major oil spill in a waterlogged field that sits above the Sumas aquifer,” 

Except we know this to be categorically false. As presented in the photos, the spill was mostly controlled in a containment area. 150,000 Liters did not reach “the local ecology“. There was no “major oil spill in a waterlogged field“.

In the video, Pete then goes into a brief discussion about hydrology, which, as I will detail later, is simply wrong. To summarize, the shallow subsurface in this area (where the spill would migrate) is separated from the local aquifer by a layer of silty-clay. Pete doesn’t appear to understand hydrology even as he opines on the subject on various media platforms.

Pete then goes on to say (at around 48 seconds) that there have been 4 spills in the last 15 years in the territory. Except that is not true either. To support this claim he flashes this list of spills from the Trans Mountain web site.

Since the view is not terribly clear I went to the original source and pulled out the page here.

Looking carefully, the dates he has highlighted are from 2005, 2002, 1997 and 1994. Now unless Pete uses a different sort of calendar than me, 1994 is not within 15 years of 2020. Moreover, that spill from 2005 was actually at the Sumas Tank Farm which is several kilometers away, up a mountain from the current spill. From a hydrological perspective it could be on another planet since it is in a different aquifer (more on that later) and is hydraulically separated from that aquifer by hundred of meters of consolidated bedrock.

The records Pete presents show that the last spill at the Sumas Pump Station was 9.4 barrels of oil in 2002. The only other spills at this facility were in 1997 (28.3 barrels) and 1994 (4.8 barrels). For a pipeline that has operated since 1961 that is a pretty decent record. That is four spills since 1961 and absolutely does not represent 4 spills in 15 years.

Besides the erroneous statements, in the video, and in the press release, Pete makes a number of over-the-top claims:

  • this is a disaster
  • the extreme risks to local ecosystems
  • a catastrophic spill
  • a catastrophic oil spill in slow-motion

You can usually tell the difference between an activist and an informed observer by looking at how they approach a topic like this. Over-the-top rhetoric based on superficial or a detailed assessment of the facts is the activist approach. My responses tend towards the detailed assessment of the facts.

The first thing I thought to do was to try to understand what the subsurface looks like in the vicinity of the spill; as that would indicate the level of risk posed by this spill. This being BC we have lots of great resources to do just that.

To get an understanding of the area the first step would be to consult the BC Water Resources Atlas. It provides details of all the local water wells and information about the local aquifer. A search of the Atlas identifies a well in the Trans Mountain-owned field next to the facility that was drilled in 1957 (before the pipeline was completed). When we search the well record for this well we see that the stratigraphy in the area consists of almost 19 feet (5.8 m) of silty clay overlaying a sand and gravel water-bearing layer.

This information is incredibly useful to understand spill behaviour. Silty clay serves as a pretty effective barrier to the vertical migration of spills. In technical language, it forms a confining layer that prevents, or limits, the migration of both groundwater (and any spill) to the useful water-bearing layer (located according to the well record at “19 to 26 feet” (5.8 m to 7.9 m).

The Water Resource Atlas also provides information about the local aquifer, including the Aquifer 21 summary and the Aquifer fact sheet.

Look at that, the Sumas Prairie Aquifer is not hydraulically linked to the aquifer under Sumas Mountain. This is not surprising as the Sumas River would be where that aquifer drained.

These documents indicate that the groundwater surface in the Sumas Prairie Aquifer is at about 2-3 meters below the ground surface (mbgs) and that typical wells in the aquifer draw from around 9 mbgs. This is consistent with what the well log told us and is pretty good news so far. There is almost 6 m of protective silty clay between the surface spill and the aquifer and about 4 meters of that silty clay is water-bearing (but not capable of being used for drinking water).

The next thing to consider is how a spill in this material will be expected to move. For the next little bit I need to get a bit wonky…feel free to skip the next four paragraphs.

The first thing we know is that oil is a hydrophobic liquid with a specific gravity less than 1. That means any spill will attempt to migrate vertically through the vadose zone until it reaches the groundwater surface and then because it is both hydrophobic and less dense than water, will float along the groundwater surface before migrating laterally on that surface until it reaches a water body or naturally degrades.

A silty clay has a hydraulic conductivity in the 10-9 m/s range. That means it is really hard for liquids to flow through silty clay. Even more so if you are a hydrophobic liquid as that material will preferentially adhere to silt and clay particles.

The local hydraulic gradient is defined by the topography. As we know the Sumas Prairie is as flat as a pool table. It has a topographic change of less than 1 m per km (or less than 0.001 m/m). Combining these two facts generates a Darcy Velocity of 1 x 10-12 m/yr. Now when we incorporate the effective porosity of a silt and clay (0.10) we get an Effective Linear velocity of the groundwater in the area of 1 x 10-11 m/yr. This generates a 50 year travel distance of 0.02 m (20 centimeters).

A reminder, this calculation is simply the rate at which groundwater will move through this silty clay. A hydrocarbon plume, being hydrophobic, will have a high retardation factor (yes that is a technical term derived from the French word “retarder”) so will travel at a substantially slower rate than the associated groundwater. Given the nature of the aquifer, there is no reason to believe there would be a vertical gradient so the spill would not be expected to dive. The absence of any large water wells nearby means there are no anthropogenic driving forces involved either.

Okay wonky part done for a bit.

For those of you less interested in the details above, what the former paragraphs explain is that absent an outside driving force, a surface oil spill in the field will not get to the deeper drinking water aquifer. Rather, it will get caught up in the silty clay. That oil which eventually migrates to the groundwater surface (2 meters through virtually impermeable silty clay) will then migrate away from the spill at the stately rate of about 20 centimetres every 50 years on top of the groundwater and separated from the drinking water aquifer by 4 meters of silty clay.

From a clean-up perspective this is about as best a case as possible. To clean up the spill you just need to remove the top few centimetres (to a half meter or so) of impacted silty-clay and ship it away to a facility designed to treat the material.

Admittedly, the process will take time and will cost a bit of money (shipping and treating impacted soil can be expensive) but given the rate that plume would be moving they have a bit of time to deal with the problem.

Let’s be absolutely clear here. Any spill poses a risk. In a different location, with different subsurface conditions, a spill of this kind could indeed be a “disaster”. But the Wilderness Committee is not talking about another spill, somewhere else. It is talking about the June 13 spill at the Sumas Pump Station.

The Wilderness Committee representative, in the press, has repeatedly over-stated the volume of oil that escaped containment, has misrepresented the number of spills that have happened in this area and the risks posed by this particular spill. Admittedly, the last point is likely due to the fact that the organization appears to lack any scientific expertise on this topic. Their project lead is a journalism major and videographer with no apparent training, education or expertise in the natural sciences.

People keep asking me why I care? My issue is that local and national journalists keep going to “Climate Pete” for his take on these events and then simply report what he has to say without ever having an informed eye look over his claims to see if they make any scientific sense. Hearing him say things that are completely wrong is incredibly frustrating for someone who cares about evidence-based, decision-making. At some point the media has to stop giving him free media (earned media???) time to misinform the public. Moreover, it is time that people who actually understand this topic stand up and explain the facts so the public narrative isn’t dominated by misinformation.

Posted in Uncategorized | 10 Comments

Understanding Health Canada’s advice about wearing masks in public – let’s try this again

Yesterday Canada’s chief public health officer, Dr. Theresa Tam provided further guidance on wearing masks to protect against the Coronavirus. Her new advice was Canadians should wear a mask as an “added layer of protection” whenever physical distancing is not possible. In doing so, Dr. Tam reinforced that she was not recommending that people wear masks at all times while in public.

This Health Canada recommendations did not please a minority of MDs who are demanding that masks be made mandatory. I have previously explained why health officials did not initially declare masks mandatory and feel it is time to update my post to clarify why this new Health Canada guidance makes sense in my eyes.

Let’s start with what has been recommended. Coronavirus is primarily transmitted by droplet transmission and those droplets are best transported through coughs and talking. At a distance of about 2 meters your likelihood of being affected by a neighbor’s cough or chatting is considered sufficiently low as to not be a concern.

I have little time for those cough chamber results that indicate that coughs may go farther than 2 meters. Those tests were conducted in sealed chambers with no air flow. We live in a world where air is constantly circulating. Find me a store with perfectly still air and the cough chamber results may be useful, until then I will trust the 2 meter rule.

In a crowded transit vehicle, or in a crowd, keeping that 2 meters distance is not always possible. In those situations a mask should be worn. This is official Health Canada policy and is not really up for debate. When you can’t socially distance you should wear a mask. The question is how to behave when you have room to socially distance.

When MDs argue for mandatory masks wearing they imagine that we are all the Conscientious Mask-Wearer (CMW). The CMW wears a fitted mask that they clean/replace regularly. The CMW practices good social distancing and when they get home they take off their mask and immediately put in in the laundry to avoid it cross-contaminating the household. Most-importantly the CMW practices good hand hygiene.

The CMW keeps their hands to themselves in stores. They only touch items that they will take home with them. They wash their hands regularly and, this is critical, don’t ever touch their mask when out of the house. The reason for this is a mask represents a potential reservoir for viral particles. Every time a wearer touches their mask their hands become potentially infected until their hands are disinfected again. So to be a CMW you have to resist touching your mask and if you touch that mask you need to disinfect your hands immediately. Now I think we can all agree that we should all be that virtuous because in a perfect world we would all be CMWs.

Dr. Tam and our health officials don’t imagine we are all that virtuous so they suggest another safe alternative: the Conscientious Non-Mask Wearer (CNMW). The CNMW knows how to socially distance and avoids crowds when shopping. The CNMW knows to cough into their cough pocket (the crook of their elbow). They do this because the cough pocket doesn’t come into contact with other surfaces and isn’t a place you tend to touch. This reduces the risk of contaminating their hands.

The CNMW also practices good hand hygiene just like the CNMW, but doesn’t have to worry about adjusting a finicky mask so keeps their hands away from their face after cleaning them. From a public health perspective the CNMW does not represent a significantly increased risk over a CMW.

The person Dr. Lam and public health officials are most worried about is the Non-Conscientious Mask Wearer (NCMW). The NCMW wears a mask but generally does everything else wrong. They don’t concentrate on socially distancing (because they are wearing a mask so they are already doing their part). The NCMW coughs into their mask and then adjusts the mask because it is uncomfortable. This makes their mask a potential biohazard. After touching their mask the NCMW doesn’t wash their hands and then touches things with those potentially infected hands. When not in use, the NCMW’s mask goes into their pocket, purse or car (thus cross-contaminating those items).

The NCMW presents a serious concern for health officials. Their hands and mask both represent potential sources of infection. Anything they touch becomes a point contact for touch transfer to others. They will infect PIN pads and doorknobs and their mask is a reservoir of viral particles, ripe for infection. Since their mask went into their pocket/purse/car seat those surfaces are now potential sources of contagion for their families as well.

If the NCMW is not infected, but touches an infected surface, then their habit of touching their mask will transfer the virus particles onto the surface of the mask and will turn that mask into a vapourizer for Coronavirus. Because their mask doesn’t actually block the movement of viral particles (its weave is not fine enough) it increases the likelihood that they will inhale viral particles and become infected.

Herein lies the challenge from a public health perspective. The conscientious wearer and conscientious non-wearer both represent an equal risk to the public but the non-conscientious wearer represents a public health threat.

What public health officials also know is using masks correctly is hard. It takes time and effort to get it right. I train employees to wear PPE and even when their employment is on the line I struggle to get them to leave their masks untouched. Masks are uncomfortable and people simply aren’t used to them.

From a training perspective it is a LOT easier to teach people to cough into their cough pockets and not touch things. This is because it builds on years of training we have all been given since kindergarten. Health officials aren’t training from scratch they are building on what our moms taught us from childhood: cough into your cough pockets; wash your hands; and keep your hands to yourself.

As for the people online who repeatedly claim that it is easy to teach people how to wear masks correctly. I welcome them to wander through my local grocery store and see how many people are wearing their masks correctly. Ask the gent in front of me wearing the gloves (don’t get me started with gloves) who keeps pushing into my personal space while touching every item on the shelf. When you can convince me that we can teach that gent how to do it right then get back to me.

The public health professionals know what they are talking about. Wear a mask when you can’t social distance but when in public at a safe social distance it is just as safe to not wear masks. To be clear, if you see me on a bus; I will be wearing a mask. If the store asks me to wear a mask; I will wear a mask because that is store policy. But in situations where I can safely social distance, I will follow our health professionals’ advice and keep my hands to myself while keeping a safe social distance and not wear a mask.

Posted in Uncategorized | 4 Comments

My review of “Planet of the Humans” – A Michael Moore documentary that does some things well and others really badly but is true to the Michael Moore legacy

Like every interested interested environmental observer, I carved out some time to finally watch “Planet of the Humans” by Jeff Gibbs (executive producer Michael Moore) and having watched it I came out with mixed feelings. The best description I can come up with is that, in my mind, it seems like two completely different documentaries shown sequentially. The first is a really problematic one on wind and solar energy (with a bit on population) and the second is an absolutely devastating critique of biomass/biofuels that reveals a lot of previously hidden ties between high-profile activists and the biomass/biofuels industry.

As a former academic, I predict this documentary will become a “must-view” for any advanced environmental studies class. But the viewing will need to be followed by a careful deconstruction of the work. Because while, contrary to the claims of its critics, the documentary doesn’t outright lie; it doesn’t tell the whole truth either. I have yet to see a critique that can point out more than a handful of true factual errors, which in a two hour film is something. Instead, the film treads a careful line of presenting examples, that aren’t really typical, but implying (without saying this outright) that they are typical. But then again isn’t that pretty much what defines a Michael Moore documentary?

If we are going to highlight complaints, then you have to start by discussing the whole “Chevy Volt” section. My social media feed is filled with reviews and blogs claiming that the Chevy Volt section is out-of-date and misrepresents current conditions. I disagree. That section of the documentary is Mr. Gibbs demonstrating his bona fides as an environmental journalist. He doesn’t pretend this section is current, rather he makes it absolutely clear that it is from the past.

What that portion of the film demonstrates is when others were mindlessly fawning over new technology he was asking informed and important questions. Is an electric car really green if it relies on coal power for its electricity? How much power does that array really produce? Is this concert really running off solar?

That entire section of the documentary was clearly represented as being in the past and so the fact that the Lansing solar array was an old one should not be unexpected. Again-and-again this introductory section shows him asking the insightful question when others were blissfully reporting pablum. For critics to complain that these historical clips somehow misrepresent the current status of technology completely misses the point of that part of the film.

In my opinion the problem with “Planet of the Human” is when it finishes its introduction and transitions to its initial anti-wind and solar phase (from about 18 minutes to about 50 minutes). That section is simply a mess. This is the part of the film the critics can really sink their teeth into because the documentary does a bait-and-switch.

In the anti-solar section the research concentrates on two solar facilities: Ivanpah and the SEGs. The thing the documentary fails to mention is that these aren’t your typical solar PV facilities they are solar thermal and concentrated solar projects. By concentrating on Ivanpah and the early SEGs the producers made a very deliberate choice: to look at the worst of the worst. When Ozzie Zehner says bad things about Ivanpah being not green, he is absolutely correct. It is heavily assisted by natural gas and as such really isn’t all that green. But if you condemned the auto industry solely because of the Ford Pinto then you would miss all the successes as well.

The reality is that any number of well-researched life cycle analyses demonstrate conclusively that solar PV installations can quickly make up the carbon debt generated in their production and produce effective, if intermittent, electricity. Moreover, the vast majority of solar facilities are solar PV and therefore most of the critiques presented do not apply. Yes, the panels do rely on scarce resources and are hard (and often extremely expensive) to recycle and building them in deserts harms the environment, but the life cycle analyses don’t lie. Solar PV is a a valuable source of low-carbon electricity as part of an integrated grid.

The arguments about wind are equally weak. Yes wind is intermittent and yes wind turbines typically are sited in locations that have lots of wind. But all energy generation has trade-offs and the life cycle analyses support wind turbines as well. Modern wind, like modern PV solar, makes absolute sense in a well-designed renewable energy mix.

As for that small section about population control at the 45 minute mark? I’m not sure what he was trying to achieve,but it was painful to watch old, privileged white folk talk about how we need to control population.

I admit, by about the 52 minute mark I was almost ready to pack it in and then the entire film turned around for me.

The next 45 minutes was an incredibly compelling story about the expansion and growth of the biomass industry and the luminaries of the Green movement who have facilitated its growth.

I have written a lot about biofuels since my first post on the topic in 2014 and unlike the solar/wind section of the documentary, almost every fact presented in this section was on point and consistent with my understanding and research.

What I didn’t know was all the extra stuff about all the high-profile environmental luminaries who have been funding, and getting funding from biofuels. The second half of the documentary more than made up for the first half. It was compelling and told a story that I thought I knew but didn’t know well enough.

I can understand why a lot of environmentalists are upset at this documentary because it really pulls back the curtain and what it shows is not pretty. Admittedly, I am going to guess that it cherry-picked a lot, but it is hard to cherry-pick if you don’t have a lot of plump, ripe cherries on the tree.

To conclude, I would suggest that not only does “Planet of the Humans” leave its viewership split, it also leaves me split. The section about wind and solar really annoyed and frustrated me and the section on biomass really informed me. I can see why a lot of high-profile activists would want it hidden from view but that very reason is why it shouldn’t be hidden. As I noted, I’m certain it will be mandatory viewing in Environmental Studies classes next year but it could benefit from a thorough re-editing and trim.

To summarize: this is a pretty much what you expect from a Michael Moore documentary. It does not tell the whole story, all the time, but it has enough of a basis in fact to be worth the watch. It will absolutely split its audience. A lot of people will absolutely hate it and a lot will absolutely love it. Once again, this is exactly how every Michael Moore documentary is received. The only difference this time is the progressive left is getting hit by the blows not the right.

Author’s Note:

An earlier version of this blog referred to another blog that had criticized the film while presenting information I recognized to be incorrect. I contacted that blog owner and he corrected his blog. Given that change the section of this article no longer remained relevant so was removed.

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No Rising Carbon Dioxide Concentrations will not make us Stupider – Confusing Acute versus Chronic effects of Elevated Carbon Dioxide Concentrations on Human Cognition

I am a professional Chemist whose practice includes occupational health and safety and risk assessment. I did my first indoor air assessment involving “sick building syndrome” in 2001 and have done countless indoor air assessments in the last two decades. For those unfamiliar with the topic, the big factor in sick building syndrome is elevated indoor carbon dioxide concentrations. As such, I was quite interested when I read the headline: Rising carbon dioxide levels will make us stupider – If allowed to soar unchecked, greenhouse-gas emissions will interfere with people’s ability to think at Nature.com.

I accessed the underlying paper in GeoHealth titled: Fossil fuel combustion is driving indoor CO2 toward levels harmful to human cognition (Karnauskas, Miller and Schapiro, 2020 pre-print here) and was disappointed with what I found. The paper really could have benefited from a peer-review by someone better informed with the occupational health and safety literature on the topic of carbon dioxide’s effects on human cognition.

I previously had issues with outsiders getting confused about this topic and four years ago wrote a blog post discussing the state of the literature, at the time, on the topic of carbon dioxide toxicity and its effect on human cognition and performance.

Where the authors of the current article struggle is confusing the human response to acute exposure to elevated carbon dioxide concentrations with chronic exposures. A quick examination of the reference list for the paper shows that the studies cited deal with acute changes in carbon dioxide concentrations but the article is purportedly looking what would happen with a chronic increase in atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations.

As any health and safety practitioner can explain, elevated carbon dioxide concentrations represent a health hazard. As I detail in my previous post:

  • At high concentrations carbon dioxide is an asphyxiant that displaces oxygen and kills affected individuals.
  • At moderately high concentrations it has both short-term and long-term toxic effects.
  • At moderate concentrations it is tolerable as your body will adapt to the exposure.

For the purposes of this post we can ignore carbon dioxide as an asphyxiant (any concentration over about 30,000 ppm). At moderately high concentrations, carbon dioxide toxicity is based on the perturbation of the acid/base balance in your blood resulting in acidosis. The initial human response is cellular buffering that occurs within minutes-to-hours. In the continued presence of elevated carbon dioxide renal compensation occurs over around 35 days. What this means is your body will adapt to higher concentrations, over time.

Carbon dioxide is also a potent vasodilator and as anyone who has migraines knows, vasodilators are also associated with headaches. That is the context in which most individuals experiencing sick-building syndrome experience carbon dioxide toxicity. It is the short term (acute) exposure of elevated concentrations in poorly ventilated rooms.

The following references all discuss how elevated carbon dioxide concentrations (Erdmann, Steiner and Apte, 2002 Apte et al, 2000, Wargocki et al, 2000, Seppanen, Fisk and Mendall, 1999) effect human health. All point out that a proportion of the human population reacts poorly to daily variations in carbon dioxide concentrations. This is understandable since, as a vasodilator, it would be expected to have particular effects on people prone to migraines or headaches.

The reason students perform poorly on tests under these conditions is because their brain chemistry is being acutely effected by the vasodilator. People perform tasks less effectively when their heads are pounding and they are tired (the major consequences of exposure to vasodilators).

This is where the paper gets the science wrong. The authors infer that the poor performance, due to acute exposure, will somehow extrapolate to poor performance over the long term. Except, the human body adapts.

I had a long twitter exchange with one of the authors which concluded with her making this statement:

Our fundamental disagreement is that you take the adaptation to be fact, whereas I think there is a relatively small amount of evidence for it, so more work is needed.

This line was the one I found the most confounding of our exchange. The human ability to adapt to compounds like vasodilators and vasoconstrictors is well understood. The classic example of the latter is my daily coffee. Coffee is the other side of the coin to carbon dioxide but is a useful example because so many people are familiar with the effects of coffee on human physiology.

Any long-term coffee drinker knows that their body becomes adapted to coffee. You don’t quite feel right in the morning before your first cup and if you are a heavy drinker then going cold-turkey can be a real headache. I was a two pot-a-day drinker in grad school and after completing my thesis I tried to go cold-turkey. The result was horrible. It felt like my brain was going to melt out my ears, the pain was so intense. I talked to a medical professional who explained that my body had adapted to large doses of coffee and if I wanted to stop I had to wean myself off the beverage slowly over time.

Now unlike coffee drinkers, there aren’t many people who experience prolonged exposure to high concentrations of carbon dioxide. That being said there are two different classes of individuals who have undergone this very unusual experiment: astronauts and submariners.

Both astronauts and submariners spend prolonged periods of time in conditions where it is not possible to completely scrub carbon dioxide down to background concentrations. In the International Space Station (ISS) concentrations are typically in the 2000 ppm – 4000 ppm range and submariners typically encounter concentrations averaging 3500 ppm to 4100 ppm. What they found studying submariners is that during an 11-day cruise, submariners adapt to high CO2 levels, as evidenced by the significant dependence of respiratory disturbance index on CO2 during the final but not initial days of the cruise.

The strange thing about the Karnauskas, Miller and Schapiro paper is that they do acknowledge the existence of this literature based on this citation:

However, null or nonmonotonic effects have been found even in these demanding tasks for two special populations—submariners (Rodeheffer et al. 2018) and astronaut–like subjects (Scully et al. 2019). These results suggest that factors like increased experience with demanding cognitive tasks or physiological adaptation to increased ambient CO2 could potentially mitigate the harmful effects of CO2 on cognition.

In writing this they appear to miss the conclusion of the papers. As presented in Rodeheffer et al (Acute Exposure to Low-to-Moderate Carbon Dioxide Levels and Submariner Decision Making)

In conclusion, our findings failed to replicate the impaired decision-making performance reported by Allen et al. and Satish et al. during acute exposures to CO2 at 2500 ppm; however, our results are in concurrence with more recent research reporting null effects at low-to-moderate levels of CO2 on both the SMS test and on traditional measures of cognitive and neurobehavioral function. Overall, results suggest that there is no effect of acute CO2 exposure on submariner decision-making performance at levels routinely experienced during submarine operations.

As for Scully et al, 2019 (Effects of acute exposures to carbon dioxide on decision making and cognition in astronaut-like subjects) it reported:

at higher CO2 concentrations performance was similar to or exceeded baseline for most measures. These outcomes, which conflict with those of other studies, likely indicate differing characteristics of the various subject populations and differences in the aggregation of unrecognized stressors, in addition to CO2, are responsible for disparate outcomes among studies. Studies with longer exposure durations are needed to verify that cognitive impairment does not develop over time in crew-like subjects.

These two studies appear to contradict the Karnauskas, Miller and Schapiro article citing them. The cited articles clearly state that adapted populations show no detectable deleterious effects. Remember, submarines have operated for over a century and we have been operating in space for over 50 years. If the premise of the Karnauskas, Miller and Schapiro paper were correct then it is unlikely that submariners would be put in charge of nuclear weapons or astronauts would be able to safely operate their complex and incredibly dangerous ships.

If negative effects were to be observed then after 100 years of submarine operation we would likely have seen them by now.

If as suggested in the article “reduction in cognitive function score statistically significant, they were typically rather large—on the order of tens of percent decrease in performance per ~400 ppm CO2 increase” then wouldn’t that mean an astronaut operating at 4000 ppm over months at a time would result in a loss of almost 100% in cognitive function?

As I noted earlier in this blog, human cognition and performance are affected by rapid changes in carbon dioxide concentrations over short periods of time. Not the elevated concentrations themselves. This paper completely misses this fact. It looks at acute changes in carbon dioxide concentrations and infers that chronic changes in carbon dioxide concentrations would have the same effect on cognition. In doing so this article completely ignores that humans adapt to chronic conditions such as the long term changes associated with climate change. So, no rising carbon dioxide concentrations will not make us stupider.

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How new puritans, petty bureaucrats and irresponsible activists risk eroding the public will necessary to fight Coronavirus

Watching and reading the news this weekend three stories caused me a lot of worry. Consider the following three headlines:

What do these three stories have in common? They are all examples of how new puritans, petty bureaucrats and irresponsible activists are working hard to erode the public goodwill necessary to win the fight against Coronavirus.

Like many of you I have spent the last month working from home. As the parent of three elementary school-aged kids, I have had to limit what my children are allowed to do while serving as parent and teacher during the day. Our family also includes a large, lovable dog who requires lots of exercise to remain sane, and this time has been hard on her as we no longer can take her to the park for the play she longs to enjoy.

Children are naturally social beings and keeping my kids away from their friends has been particularly hard. So we, like many, have taken to virtual communication as well as “block parties” during the day. This typically entails us chatting with the neighbors from the safety of the sidewalk and our drive-ways. The kids talking to their friends and sharing their hopes and plans even if they can’t share a hug or throw a ball together.

We know that Coronavirus is primarily transferred through aerosolized droplets that typically don’t travel more than 2 meters (as per the research Exposure to influenza virus aerosols during routine patient care) and in windy conditions can’t go close to that distance up-/cross-wind. Talking to my neighbours from across the street or over a fence, thus, represents a virtually zero risk option to keep community spirit high and provide our kids the socialization they need to grow into complete human beings.

Similarly, with all the parks closed there is a greater need for kids to have space on their lawns and sidewalks to burn off energy; get their Vitamin D; and simply be kids. With the schools and community centers closed, their empty parking lots provide an ideal location for our kids to ride their bikes or roller-blade with the understanding they keep their social distance from others.

This rather long intro brings me to the topic of my piece. How the actions of new puritans, petty bureaucrats and irresponsible activists can sap the communal goodwill necessary to maintain the effort to fight Coronavirus.

As a Chemist I remember the First Law of Thermodynamics which tells us that in a closed system when you ramp up the pressure the temperature rises in response. Our pressure release has been the ability to interact with our neighbours in a controlled and safe manner, entirely consistent with what we understand about the rules of Social Distancing during the age of Coronavirus.

H.L. Mencken once defined Puritanism as “the haunting fear that someone somewhere is having a good time“. During this pandemic there seems to be a thread of Puritanism in some responses to the pandemic. There are some who have claimed that the pandemic is a test from god or our penance for our misdeeds. These new puritans appear to believe that if people are enjoying themselves then we aren’t really fighting the pandemic properly. The result is that instead of laying off on the pressure they want to make things harder.

Let’s look at the “loophole” from the first story:

If you have been enjoying a beer on your driveway with a friend or exchanging pleasantries with a neighbour over the garden fence, Ottawa’s associate medical officer of health has a message for you.

Stop it.

Why does the Health Officer say we shouldn’t have these friendly exchanges?

The problem with beer on the driveway or a chat over the fence is that it can turn into a parking lot or backyard party, said Moloughney.

Even if you have been technically observing physical distancing guidelines, there are still dangers to these situations, including the fact that some people who have COVID-19 do not exhibit symptoms.

We know that if families are separated sufficiently then communicating over a fence will pose no risk, so the only reasonable basis for this argument is a puritan desire to stop safe communication between neighbours. It appears as if the health officer is seeking to make fighting Coronavirus a harder thing not an easier one. As if there is some added virtue to increasing suffering during the time as a sign of piety.

The second story really gets my goat. As I noted, because our local school is closed and the gate is locked to stop cars getting in, the school parking lot represents a great place for my youngest daughter to learn to scooter while my older daughter learns to roller blade, all under the watchful eye of our son who ensures that they all follow the social distancing rules. To imagine that a petty bureaucrat would give tickets to families making use of this open public space simply infuriates me. These officers should be looking at ways to encourage safe, outdoor play not using their “power” to play petty bureaucratic games.

Similarly closing parks for fear that people will fail to social distance completely loses the thread. I’m told they closed the Lac Dubois Grasslands in Kamloops with its thousands of acres of hiking trails. Someone who can’t social distance in an open grassland is likely a greater risk in a city than in an open park. So closing that grassland park will likely do very little to protect the public but it will force more people to use smaller urban areas to get their exercise…imagining that closing parks will keep people indoors is simply magical thinking. We need to make more space available outside not less.

To complete the trifecta I want to point out the opportunists; the activists who are grafting their personal, pet projects onto the fight against Coronavirus. I can think of no better example than the urban activist who decided to create a “social distancing machine” to make his petty case.

Watching him walk into signs and light posts and complain that this is an indication we need better urban design to protect us from Coronavirus was simply maddening. Does he honestly believe that an urban tree will give him Coronavirus? Does he not imagine that an individual not wearing a “social distancing machine” might be able to walk on the other side of the tree to maintain correct social distancing?

I realize he claims that parts of his video were “exaggeration” but it was much more than that. Social distancing in the city is about courtesy and simply taking your time; waiting until the way is clear; or taking another route. It requires lots of goodwill. Something he lacks.

As for his suggestion that there was no space, look at the two pictures of him above and below. Both involved him walking in the exact middle of the sidewalk/crosswalk. In both cases there was lots of room for people to pass in a comfortable manner. The only reason he failed to get full social distancing was by insisting on walking in the exact middle and demanding space on either side. His major issue was that he was being intensely rude, nothing more, nothing less.

As a thought experiment consider this approach with a two-lane road. If I drive down the middle of a two-lane road then no one can go by in either direction. Does that mean the road is too narrow for movement in both directions? Of course not. If I drive in my lane then there will be lots of space for people going in the opposite direction in their lane. This gentleman is not really interested in protecting against Coronavirus, he is simply riding on the coat-tails of the pandemic to advance his personal views on urban design.

The reality of our fight against Coronavirus is that we all need to work together. This pandemic is not a biblical plague set upon us for our misdeeds and making people suffer needlessly to fight it will only reduce the general goodwill and unity of purpose necessary to fight this thing.

Our local leaders have to crack down on the worst instincts of their petty bureaucrats. Tell them to lighten up on enforcing rules about using public spaces, when doing so causes no harm. They need to overlook harmless rule-breaking that helps build community cohesion and failing that, the powers that be should relieve these petty tyrants of their duties. We also need to call out opportunists who are using this pandemic to advance their personal agendas.

The truth is that to beat this thing we we have to help each other find joy in a time of sorrow and we need to find little happy moments in a time of confinement. Spending time with our neighbours isn’t wrong and having a beer on my driveway hurts no one. Social distancing has a practical purpose, to limit the spread of the virus. The point is not to socially isolate people or force us all indoors. We are all in this for the long run and that means making the best of a bad situation. It also means fighting the activists, the new puritans and the petty bureaucrats working hard to erode the social license, community buy-in and public goodwill necessary to win the fight against Coronavirus.

Posted in Canadian Politics, Uncategorized | 9 Comments