This week was a busy one in the Energy East pipeline debate with Denis Coderre and his merry band of municipal politicians stepping out of their jurisdictional depth to come out against the pipeline and our Prime Minister saying he will be a referee in a process where he ultimately has to be the decision-maker. I’ve written several posts on the subject (“A Chemist in Langley’s take on Energy East” and “Debunking more Myths and Fables about the Energy East Pipeline” and a short-take at the Huffington Post I Support The Energy East Pipeline As A Pragmatic Environmentalist). As well this week comedian Rick Mercer had his say on the topic in his weekly rant. All week I have been reading criticisms of both my writing and Mr. Mercer’s rant. The most popular response to Rick Mercer’s rant was a counter-rant by another comedian Scott Vrooman. This counter-rant was almost humorous in its lack of depth. Jen Gerson of the National Post had the best description I have read to date:
To which Mr. Vrooman replied “Know your place, children” implying that Ms. Gerson was treating him like a child.
Now the problem with Twitter is it does not allow for detailed discussions so I will use this blog posting to expand on my criticisms of the empty platitudes expressed by Mr. Vrooman (and the similar ones directed my way, by other activists) in the last week.
Let’s innovate our way out of the problem:
One of the first lines in Mr. Vrooman’s rant to catch my ear is one I hear every day from anti-pipeline activists. As Mr. Vrooman put it:
“so maybe it is time to innovate our energy system beyond just digging up a bunch of crap and setting it on fire”
Now it is hard to express how sublimely ridiculous this platitude really is. Apparently Mr. Vrooman and his fellow anti-pipeline kin believe that all the energy scientists in the world have been sitting on their hands for the last 30 years just waiting for their clarion call. They have been waiting for activists like him to get involved so they can “innovate our energy system” and a miraculous breakthrough will somehow occur.
The reality is that alternative and renewable energy has been a research priority for decades now. Ever since the first IPCC report it has been clear that we need to move our economy off fossil fuels and both the private and public sectors have been pouring billions of dollars into energy research. In 2014 Global investment in renewable energy sources rose almost 17 percent year-on-year to $270.2 billion in addition governments around the world have spent billions more in basic research and we still have a world economy dominated by fossil fuels. Literally tens of thousands of the best minds in our world have been dedicating their lives working on this problem. From Elon Musk to the scientists at UBC, dedicated experts have been working tirelessly trying to find energy solutions. So why have we not been able to innovate our way out of this to date? Not because of a lack of funding, that’s for sure, but rather due to the difficulty of the task.
Think of this from a scientific perspective. We need new energy technologies to help lift us out of our dependence on fossil fuels…but what will they be and what do we need to know? It is not like there is a map and by following directions we will get there. To achieve our energy goals we need to do a lot of fundamental research in hopes of further breakthroughs in topics such as novel materials; biological intermediates; and in the interface of electro-chemistry and electronics. There are so many different topics to study and only so many dollars out there. Frankly, if it was as easy as the energy activists say we would have solved the problem several times over by now.
Now consider that even in the most ambitious scenario the research dollars are limited and every research dollar used on the energy problem is a dollar pulled away from other pressing priorities. Also recognize that frankly a lot of those other priorities are pretty compelling in their own right. Climate change is still a hard to understand threat (as I will discuss in a future post) but childhood cancer, well that is a direct threat that affects children in every community, every day. It is pretty hard to convince the public that in order to address climate change we will need to give up on cancer research, but to achieve the goal these activists have set means not funding those other research priorities so we can “innovate our energy system beyond just digging up a bunch of crap and setting it on fire”.
Getting off fossil fuels is doable
The next of Mr. Vrooman’s points that sounds good as a sound bite but fails in the light of day is the line:
“Re-shaping the economy is difficult, but difficult isn’t impossible and the alternative is morally indefensible“
This is another of the platitudes I have heard countless times in the last week. My response has been to suggest that the speaker actually try running the numbers. Mr. Vrooman indicates on his profile that he used to be an economist so maybe he will do a better job than me because when I ran the numbers for Canada the result was sobering. As I wrote in my post More on 100% Wind, Water and Sunlight and the Council of Canadians “100% Clean economy” by 2050 goal the costs to transition off fossil fuels will be in the billions and billions. Let’s look at the 100% Wind Water and Sunlight approach (which I discuss in detail at these blog posts) which the activists keep pointing me to. Just to achieve the wind part of 100% WWS in Canada will cost 2.4% of Canada’s GDP for the next 16 years. That is before we figure out how to pay to adapt the electricity transmission system, the millions of solar panels needed or any of the energy storage technologies necessary to make the technology work.
The simple lesson from my assignment in applied economics is that it is easy to say that something is “doable” is an absolute sense but the task suggested is doable only under the condition that we essentially abandon all non-energy infrastructure and research for the next 16 years or so.
Humorously, the activists tout the job gains associated with the development but it is easy to create millions of hypothetical jobs when you have trillions of hypothetical dollars to pay for them. The only problem is that in the real world we don’t have trillions of dollars to dedicate to this task.
Activists claim that by getting rid of “fossil fuel subsidies” we will be able to pay for the transition away from fossil fuels, but that is a mugs game. While the IMF pegged fossil fuel subsidies at $1.9 trillion, the problem is that only $480 billion of that represents real subsidies and those aren’t the types of subsidies the activists think they are. That $480 billion is not money going to the big oil companies; it is developing countries subsidizing the price of fuels to cushion energy prices for the poorest of their citizens. The other $1.4 trillion, meanwhile, is not really a subsidy in the traditional sense. As Brad Plumer explains:
The IMF report argues that governments should be taxing fossil fuels appropriately in order to take account of the air pollution and climate damage they cause. Earlier economic modeling has pegged these “externalities” at around $25 per ton of carbon dioxide. So, the IMF estimates, the failure to price these fossil fuels correctly amounts to a subsidy of some $1.4 trillion worldwide.
As Mr. Plumer points out, any attempt to eliminate those “subsidies” without protection of the poor, will be socially unacceptable. What this means to you and me is that if the government stops “subsidizing” fossil fuels that money will not be available for renewable energy technologies, but rather will be needed to protect the poorest of the poor from the huge price spikes in energy and food related to the removal of those “subsidies”. What this means is that there is not some magic pot of money out there that can be used to develop renewable energy technologies. That money will have to come out of existing funding sources and will necessarily push out lower priority research topics.
Unfortunately for the activists, there are other priorities out there as well. As I note above, I’m pretty sure that if you told all the cancer researchers out there that for the next 20 years or so we were going to give up on cancer research in order to address climate change, well they might have something to say about it. We also can’t afford to ignore critical infrastructure for two decades while we concentrate solely on energy infrastructure. Now add elimination of mental health research, vaccines research, research on crop improvements…these are the things that will need to be re-prioritized in a world where energy research and infrastructure represent priorities one through 10.
Montreal’s crude oil supply
My final point will address one of the most frustratingly inane topics I have had to address these last week: the repeated argument by activists that the Energy East pipeline poses too much of a risk to Montreal and its water supply. Now if you knew nothing about the City of Montreal this might make sense, but those who know the City know that Montreal is currently home to three large oil refineries with a combined capacity of 386,000 barrels per day (bpd). These refineries receive crude oil on a regular basis via an existing pipeline: the 74 year old Portland-Montreal pipeline (PMPL) as well as by rail. The Montreal lateral of Energy East, that Dennis Coderre is fighting so valiantly to stop, represents a modern pipeline designed to replace a 74 year old pipeline (the PMPL) and the rail system that gave us Gogamas, Galenas and Lac Megantic and which crosses the St. Lawrence River immediately upriver from Montreal’s biggest drinking water intake. So on one hand you have a brand new pipeline with all the most recent anti-corrosion and leak detection/prevention technologies and on the other hand you have a 74 year old pipeline combined with a rail link that has already caused more than one disaster….and the activists (and Denis Coderre) are pushing for the former over the latter…I find this almost too absurd to say much more.
This post is getting a bit long so let’s end it with a few words about the activists who we keep seeing on the news. You will notice that they aren’t made up of working moms and dads but mostly of professional activists, university students, university professors and well-to-do retirees. Most of the activists are in occupations that are protected (or incorrectly think they are protected) from the actions they want us to take. It is really easy for a millionaire author or a tenured university professor to say “leap and the net will appear” because they already have a soft landing place ready for them. As for the rest of us, the folks who live paycheck to paycheck, that type of leap is more likely to result in a painful, and possibly terminal, landing.