The Trans Mountain Expansion Project Open House or Blair’s Adventure in Wonderland

As promised, I attended the Trans Mountain Expansion Project (TMX) Ministerial Panel Public Open House in Langley. I went in with an open mind and left the event feeling that I now know what it is like to be the ant at a Sunday picnic. After a good night’s sleep I realized that it could better be described as “Blair’s Adventures in Wonderland”. Like Alice in Lewis Carroll’s book, I spent the afternoon in a world where established facts didn’t matter, where the NEB submission was used as a starting point for people’s imaginations and where post-normal science was the norm.

Let’s start with the setting. The room chosen was easily big enough for the 100-150 people who attended and the people who ran the event were very pleasant and welcoming. They were so welcoming that they allowed the folks from Pipe Up Network to set up a table with a full set of displays and two people staffing it, right inside the main entrance of the meeting room itself so everyone had to pass them to get in/out.

The crowd was made up of the demographics you would expect from an afternoon meeting on a work day (i.e. a lot of retirees, a lot of activists and very few people, like me, who took time off work to attend). As for the attendees, well they were pretty much unanimous in their opinions and were not very welcoming of anyone who might disagree. By my count there were about 33-34 presenters. Only one was definitively for the pipeline and he was a representative of an engineering firm doing work on the pipeline. He read a surprisingly informative presentation about the geotechnical work associated with the pipeline which was met with a steely silence from the crowd and then left at the first break. The remainder of the presenters were firmly in the “no” camp and repeatedly demanded shows of hands from the crowd in order to make their numbers clear (and possibly marginalize alternative views).

I got there early and was one of the first in the room. Since the speaker’s list was based on when you signed in that left me number four on the list of speakers. It was not an ideal position as I did not get the opportunity to hear many speakers before I spoke and therefore couldn’t adjust my points to reflect the biases in the room. The Chair indicated that there would be time at the end for follow-up comments but at the end of the day exhaustion had set in and no option for further comments was presented.

As expected my presentation had little effect on the folks in the room, but as I will explain later this doesn’t really surprise me anymore. I said what I wanted to say, but as presentations go it was not my best. As you can imagine, in that room my nerves got the better of me and during the only heckling of the day (surprise, surprise the only person heckled was the scientist) I froze up. It was in the section where I discuss energy alternatives and I eventually skipped that part (after what felt like an hour, but was probably no more than 20 seconds, of excruciating silence) when I recognized that my stutter wasn’t going to let me utter that combination of words. Upon completion of my remarks I was met with silence. Polite applause followed all but two of the presentations, you can guess which two.

As I noted, the only heckling during the afternoon involved a women and man who did not believe my, fully referenced, information about renewable energy and were not afraid to let me know it. At the end of my presentation the panel was polite but the crowd was a lot less so; in particular two people in the room stood out. There was a man with a beard who stared angrily at me and every time I looked in his direction. Eventually I just avoided looking in that direction. The second was a woman who, at the end of my presentation, gave me a look of such antipathy that you would have thought I had murdered her entire family in cold blood.

Throughout the day the general feeling I got was that these people were convinced in the rightness of their cause and had an absolute lack of acceptance for alternative views or for data that might contradict their preferred narrative. From the time I sat down after my talk to the end of the day the only strangers who spoke with me were the woman next to me who asked a polite question during the break and a gentleman seated directly behind me with whom I had a brief conversation. He was there with a hydro-geologist from a local university (who gave her presentation and left). He expressed doubts about something I said in my talk (about where BC gets its oil). It was clear from our discussion that he had no clue where the fuel in his gas tank actually comes from. As for the rest, I may as well have been a leper or a shunned member of an Amish community.

Besides the general lack of politeness in the group, what really struck me was how much the event represented an Alice in Wonderland-quality adventure in “post-normal science”. To explain, the concept of post-normal science was posited by a pair of philosophers Funtowicz and Ravetz in their paper “Science for the Post-Normal Age”. The premise of their work is that in some fields science should be based on “assumptions of unpredictability, incomplete control and a plurality of legitimate perspectives” (i.e. on feelings and values in lieu of testable hypotheses and reproducible data). Funtowicz and Ravetz distinguished between scientists they call “reductionists” (traditional scientists who break problems into smaller pieces and try to address each piece) and those they call “humanists” (who see the big picture and don’t get bogged down with messy data). Funtowicz and Ravetz didn’t think of science as involving competing theories supported by data but rather as an interactive dialogue. Their adherents took their work one stage further and reached a point where they viewed reproducible data as suspect and viewed science through a prism where values trump data. This “democratization of science” placed less value on information developed through observations and experiments and more on what people felt in their hearts to be correct. It thus represents a sort of Through the Looking-Glass vibe where you should ignore what your lying eyes are telling you and trust your gut and most importantly your heart.

Most of the presenters talked of their deep and abiding love of nature (fisheries etc…) and then went on to talk about the evils of American-owned corporations, how Kinder Morgan was not a good corporate actor and that any economic activity that generated a profit was suspect. This was not a Conservative crowd. One particularly entertaining gent (probably 16-18 years old) talked about how he came from a background of wealth but that wealth was not a good thing and we don’t need to build things and should live with less. I love how the rich guy is always the one demanding that I should live with less.

Most of the “research” presented was from “Googling” a topic or from some “incredible documentary”. There was no thought that a deeper understanding could be achieved through a deeper, more time-consuming, investigation; by actually reading the NEB submission; or that an “expert” might have a bit more information than they could obtain through a couple hours of self-directed internet research. I can’t even count how many times I wanted to tell people that the information they were providing was simply wrong.

Now don’t get me wrong, there were some strong presenters in particular Kim Richter, a Langley Township Councillor who spoke as a private individual, who made excellent points about risks to our community’s groundwater. Another standout was former Langley School Trustee Cecelia Reekie who spoke powerful words about the need for reconciliation with our indigenous cousins. A couple of the representatives from Pipe Up presented good information although Rex Eaton might wish to look at the routing of oil-by-rail trains before he talks about his fears that the pipeline approaches the edge of the Fraser River in Surrey.

As for the rest, it was clear that few had read the NEB submissions since none appeared to recognize that there would be two lines and that the lines would predominantly carry different products. To the best of my knowledge, none recognized the existence of the Sumas pipeline to the Puget Sound. They clearly all imagine that fossil fuels currently are delivered to BC via unicorn as most insisted that tankers in the Salish Sea would be a disaster while ignoring the 50 year history of tankers in the Salish Sea and the massive refining presence in the Puget Sound. Several repeated the credo that renewable energy could be implemented almost immediately with enough will, ignoring what every expert will tell them that it will take decades of herculean effort and buckets of cash. The consensus in the room was that a single massive pipeline was going ship bitumen and only bitumen and that virtually all of that bitumen was going to be shipped to China where most of it would be processed in Chinese refineries and then sold back to us as gasoline and diesel even though the NEB documents make it clear that this is not correct.

I didn’t try to keep count but if I hear the line “every pipeline leaks” one more time it will be one too many. I won’t go into comments about the difference between an “unintended discharge” and a “spill” but the whole idea of an unintended discharge amused the crowd to no end. To clarify, a “spill” has a very specific technical/regulatory meaning in pipelines so the companies use the terms “discharge” and “release” to distinguish between a “reportable spill” and a release of material at volumes below those that are reportable as “spills”.

Ultimately what I take from this meeting is a realization that there exists a core group of activists whose minds are made up and who are uninterested in facts. They were there to declare “their truth” to the panel and did not care about the actual truth. As a scientist I have always found that expression troubling. I live in a world where there is truth, there is fiction and then there are measures of uncertainty. When we are uncertain about a course of action we attempt to balance risks (admitting that everyone’s risk tolerances vary) and come up with an optimal solution. Not all will agree on the solution but the process is open and we are accountable for it. As such, I do not believe that individuals can have their own unique truths. They can have opinions, backed by varying levels of certainty, but not “truths”.

The problem with this crowd is that it was full of people with their own truths and those truths were based on foundations of sand. Most problematically many of the presenters assured the Panel that if cabinet approved the pipeline that they were going to physically block the pipeline. These people are never going to accept any project ever no matter how many others agree with the project. They want to live in a modern society but will fight any effort to pay for that society or provide it with the raw materials necessary to keep it functioning. Not only do they “have their own truths”, they have no respect for the idea that our society is built on a foundation of compromise and if one small group decides not to abide by our social contract then the entire edifice stands a risk of collapse. These people represent the self-certainty of the uninformed, they wander around in a Dunning-Kruger haze and want us to acknowledge their “truths” while never bothering to put in the intellectual effort to find out what is really true. They represent the worst of the progressive movement: left-wing ideologues and demagogues who seek  not to have a rational discussion, but simply to state their demands and insist that we accept those demands immediately and without complaint.

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26 Responses to The Trans Mountain Expansion Project Open House or Blair’s Adventure in Wonderland

  1. CriticalThought says:

    >I went in with an open mind

    Let’s be honest here, you went in with your set of facts and your interpretation of those facts – ie. your opinion, just as much as the “the worst of the progressive movement” went in with their opinion. In other words you went in with a bias, just as much as they did.

    >They want to live in a modern society but will fight any effort to pay for that society or provide it with the raw materials necessary to keep it functioning.

    This is a misleading statement. We already have a functioning society, and how do you know how they see a functioning society is the same as how you see a functioning society? Something tells there’s a difference between how you would define components of a functioning society in comparison with their definition. Furthermore, there are many scientists that call for a reduction to the expansion of Alberta’s bituminous deposits… you commit yourself to a false dichotomy by saying accept expansion of the deposits or don’t live in a modern society. You don’t need to expand the operations and exports to live in a modern society.

    As a critique of the article, while you make clear that there are distinct definitions used by industry classifying discharge, and release when discussing spills it wouldn’t hurt to go one step further and actually provide those definitions for the reader.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Blair says:

      You are wrong, I went in with my serious doubts about Kinder Morgan which I have discussed at length in this blog. As I have written, I am for Energy East, against Northern Gateway and still on the fence with Trans Mountain. I also went in knowing where the liquids that fuels my vehicle comes from and the relative risk of pipelines vs. oil-by-rail.

      “how do you know how they see a functioning society is the same as how you see a functioning society?”

      That is simply a ridiculous statement. I think we can all agree that as a minimum a functioning society is one where we have general services, hospitals, police etc… where people can get food and water and shelter. In the imaginary world these folks live in they would eliminate fossil fuels without a viable replacement. Then food wouldn’t get delivered to the stores, ambulances wouldn’t pick up the sick and injured and they would starve to death in weeks all the while claiming we don’t need to build anything, anywhere…..

      I don’t claim we need to expand the development of the bituminous sands, rather I want the existing production transported in the safest manner possible with a volume of it getting to the Puget Sound to reduce the amount of fossil fuels travelling on the rails in the Columbia Valley and along the headwaters of the Kootenay River. Get it off trains and into pipelines. I also want to see a steady and adequate flow of refined fuels to the west coast so we aren’t held hostage every time a refinery in California has a hiccup.

      As for providing definitions for spills, the post was 2000 words long and I had to stop adding to it or risk it being unreadable. I explained that there are differences. My readers, the informed lot they are, can probably do the leg work if they are really interested. For your education a reportable spill has to exceed 1.5 cubic meters of product although the spill reporting criteria has varied over the years. There are additional qualifications for produced water etc… but once again I am not looking to write a novel here.

      Liked by 3 people

      • CriticalThought says:

        >You are wrong…

        Sure. I have gone through a small number of your blog posts to become more familiar with your ideology and though I still remain … not entirely convinced, I am willing to accept your statement.

        >That is simply a ridiculous statement.

        It’s not, when you keep that statement within the context of which it was meant – rather unfortunately you didn’t, and subsequently built a strawman with its own ‘ridiculous satement[s].’ Needless to say, I think you missed the point. Moving on.

        >I don’t claim we need to expand the development of the bituminous sands, rather I want the existing production transported in the safest manner possible.

        From this statement am I correct in assuming that you have committed yourself to the belief that the bituminous sands will expand regardless of climate policy, and therefore posit that pipelines are ‘the safest manner possible’ in which to be transported? If that’s the case, I partially agree. However, if Alberta is to follow the climate policy and emissions caps then I must disagree as a) the capacity to support foreseeable production is currently present: and b) I have yet to be convinced that oil by rail in BC as more disastrous than oil by pipeline in BC. For example, I have yet to see actual data on just how much oil has entered rivers and streams due to derailment compared to pipelines. I may be mistaken, but I currently believe the volume of oil per incident entering streams and rivers across Canada is far greater from pipelines than from trains. Is this incorrect?

        >As for providing definitions for spills, the post was 2000 words long and I had to stop adding to it or risk it being unreadable.

        I disagree, but perhaps you know your target audience better than I do. It certainly would have been appreciated, but maybe that’s just me.


      • Blair says:


        With regards to further development of the oil sands, what I have written previously, is that with the lower oil price, most of the completely new development will cease, but there are numerous projects where investment in the ground has gone beyond the point of no return and those developments will be completed. As such, production will increase and that production will need to go somewhere. As that capacity increases beyond the ability of the current pipeline system to transport it will need to move somehow, and that will be rail.

        So in the end most of the oil sands will need to stay in the ground, but our plans have to acknowledge the reality on the ground and that reality is a measured increase in production.

        Finally, while you may not be convinced that oil-by-rail is less safe, the statistics on the topic are clear and irrefutable. Even opponents of pipelines agree. Your spill numbers are based on absolute numbers not relative. Up until the last 5-10 years there was virtually no oil-by-rail and thus comparing 5 years of rail transport to 50 years of pipelines, yes there has been a larger volume of spills from pipelines. If you look at spills per volume transported the numbers go the other way.


  2. First off, congratulations for taking the time and the mental energy investment to go to the hearings. As someone who regularly sits on Public Hearing panels, I cannot tell you how valuable it is for contrary voices to show up and talk. These hearings are often one-sided, and after a constant repetition of a small group of messages, it is refreshing to hear an opinion that counters it (even if you don’t agree with that position) just to help frame the argument better. Your time there was not wasted.

    Also, welcome to politics. I know you want policy decisions to be more science-based, so do I, but I get the sense you spend too much time digging in to the science, and not enough time understanding the human nature of why we choose policy paths. I suspect this is why my reaction to reading your work is so often: “wow, he really dug deep into that point – too bad he missed the point”.

    I don’t mean that to sound as critical as it is, and I think you are trying to merge worlds in an interesting way. But the challenge you have is a tough one, reflected by the general lack of hard scientists in politics – Andrew Weaver and (the invisible man) Richard Lee are the only examples I can think of in BC.

    The disagreement with the people in the room isn’t over what “the truth” is (2,500 years of western philosophy aren’t getting us any closer to that), it is over the loftier goals they want to see expressed through society. In that sense CriticalThought’s comment on the definition of a “functioning society” is not ridiculous; it is rather the central point. Science can inform policy, and should inform policy, but it exists concomitant with this valuable debate over what we want from public policy. Hence, politics.


  3. Blair says:

    Thanks for the comments.

    I think the difference in opinion about “functioning society” was that I was being being literal and he/she was being figurative. If a magical being eliminated all fossil fuels today, within 6 months > 90% of the human population would be dead and much of our ecosystem would have been destroyed with it as the dying used whatever resources possible to delay their demise.

    Put another way, as I describe, there are no alternative fuels for container ships, railways and transport trucks so if we went to zero fossil fuels, the ships and trains that bring us food would not do so, the trucks that deliver the food to market, would not do so and the ambulances that pick up the sick would not do so. One can argue about what other features might exist in a “functioning society” like CriticalThought does, but that is only window dressing. Absent the availability of food and water our society would not function. That was the point I was making in my post.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Rod Hailey says:

    Good post


  5. Bob Jones says:

    Sadly here in BC, at least in the lower mainland, your experience is not surprising.
    The largely foreign funded radical environmental agenda has pumped millions into their anti oil sands campaign over the last decade. There’s no secret. They quite open about it and even publish the means and methodology to accomplish their goals…
    In case you aren’t away of the or unsure of the extent of this industry I’ll give you a couple of links (you may have them already)
    IFPF 9th Annual Conference Report
    Building and Sustaining Coalitions: Finding Common Ground for Education, Environment and Human Rights Advocacy
    The Tar Sands Campaign 2008 Rockefeller Brothers
    The Tar Sands Strategy MJ Marx Corporate Ethics International 2008


  6. Bob Jones says:

    Sadly the science and technology of the O&G industry has been reduced, by the radical environmental agenda, to a campaign of lies, hyperbole and hysteria…
    Our current government has unveiled a direction, since January of this year, to subvert the regulator and has instructed all ministers to consider the environment and native concerns priority when dealing with any energy projects in the country.
    Despite all the blatant, and subtle anti oil activities the following must be the most disturbing…it puts us clearly on the path to join the banana republics such as Venezuela:

    “Members of the media are invited to attend an event to celebrate a new era of climate action in Canada and a new alliance between Environmental Defence, Équiterre and the Pembina Institute. The April 14th reception will be co-hosted by the Honourable Catherine McKenna, Minister of Environment and Climate Change and François-Philippe Champagne, Member of Parliament for Saint-Maurice–Champlain and Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister of Finance.”


  7. Doug mackenzie says:

    Done a couple public hearing junkets for oil company permits. Every crowd seems to have a few special cases in attendance. More people like yourself need to speak up at these things so that regulators come to fact-based conclusions.


  8. Deanna says:

    To go in there and present to such a crowd at all, even if you did get the jitters (understandably) in the face of such ignorant opposition, was incredibly brave. I agree with the others, we need more folks like you. I myself am an environmentalist, of a sort, but have always taken the time to learn how things ACTUALLY work before jumping to foolish, possibly even damaging, conclusions. I also care about a viable economy. As it is, I remain in favour of oil sands development in Alberta, assuming the cleanest practices possible are followed (as MOST producers and developers do, only a handful of bad apples are ruining the others’ reputations) because strong efforts are made to ensure worker safety, good pay, community development, conservation of natural areas through the aforementioned clean practices and reclamation, and efficient production…. Can the same be said at all for producers in countries such as Venezuela, who currently ship in their product to Quebec – who pose some of the greatest opposition to Energy East – in huge numbers of less-than-ideally-inspected-and-repaired tankers? No, sadly, it cannot. I have never met anyone in any camp or industry who doesn’t believe we should move to less-pollutive energy. The main difference, as you have indicated, is in whether or not those individuals have educated themselves regarding the time and cost investment required to achieve the level and efficiency of energy needed to support both our current and future demands.
    At any rate, I fully applaud what you took the time to do, and the courage required to do it. Bravo, sir.


  9. Morley Sutter says:

    I too would like to applaud your presence and presentation at the recent pipeline hearings. I also applaud your breadth of knowledge about science i.e., being aware of “Post-Normal” science.

    Have you ever considered the possibility that “Post-normal” science is involved in development of the concept of CO2 as the “control knob” of climate change (AKA Anthropogenic Global Warming and labelling CO2 as a Toxin.
    It seems to me that particularly the latter action is a product of acolytes of post-normal science.


  10. Margie says:

    HuffPost BC, in a August 2015 article (about British Columbia energy needs) by Blair King, estimated: “To replace the energy currently provided by gasoline and diesel fuels only, we would need to find the energy equivalent to almost 15 Site C dams!”
    Whether it is Site C dams, or Run of River, wind farms or solar farms, wave and tidal power or nuclear energy, there is no single replacement for fossil fuels, and change is going to take decades, not years…
    Of course, mankind could possibly discover how little we actually know about how the world works – and the world will start to cool again, and most of us northerners will wish it was warmer. There is really no pleasing everyone…


  11. CriticalThought says:

    It appears I can reply only so many times so unfortunately I’ll have to continue the discussion in a new comment here.

    >… As such, production will increase and that production will need to go somewhere.

    How long do you foresee continued expansion of Alberta’s bituminous sands?
    “Canada [currently] has enough capacity to handle [a] 45% increase in oil sand production…” (
    If Canada is to hold itself to its commitments, continued expansion beyond 2050 falls outside of those commitments:
    Stranded carbon assets and all that.

    >So in the end most of the oil sands will need to stay in the ground, but our plans have to acknowledge the reality on the ground and that reality is a measured increase in production.

    Again, I’ve acknowledged this previously and is directly acknowledged above. The argument is that if most of the oil remains in the ground then Canada has the capacity to deal with increased production without the need for more pipelines.

    >Finally, while you may not be convinced that oil-by-rail is less safe, the statistics on the topic are clear and irrefutable.

    Stats are just numbers and don’t tell use anything without interpretation. As with any data, it is how we interpret those numbers that defines them. Assumptions must be reasonably justified, etc. In other words, while the stats on the topic are ‘clear and irrefutable’ the application(?) of those stats are not. Stats, while undoubtedly important, are not the be-all and end-all as I’m sure you are well aware of. For example:

    >… yes there has been a larger volume of spills from pipelines. If you look at spills per volume transported the numbers go the other way.

    Is it not easier to clean up smaller spills than larger spills? Please correct me if this is wrong because the following is based off of this simple assumption. While trains spill more per volume transported they tend to be less voluminous spills, and therefore are less damaging when they occur compared to those from pipelines. Analogously, if I were to transport oil via small bowls and a tea spoon sloshed out for every ten bowls transported, I could easily clean up those minor spills. Now if I transport the oil by milk jugs, and for every 10,000 jugs transported I spill 100 milk jugs worth of oil… While the per volume stat is clear, it remains that that single stat is misleading. That spills of 100 jugs is far more difficult to contain and remediate than an individual tea spoon.


    • Blair says:

      Last question first, the critical consideration is where the spill occurs. A huge spill at Long Lake (Nexxen) will have virtually no long-term ecological effect, while a much smaller spill (Husky) causes huge issues. So what matters most is the location of the spill and as I wrote in my previous post most oil-by-rail runs along rivers while pipelines do not. Thus oil-by-rail poses a much higher risk per barrel transported.

      As for how much of the oil sands will be developed. I don’t think any new projects will be developed, but there is a lot of work in progress. Money invested in the ground will be generating oil in the foreseeable future.


  12. rogercaiazza says:

    I have a lot of empathy for your experience. You nailed it when you said “the general feeling I got was that these people were convinced in the rightness of their cause and had an absolute lack of acceptance for alternative views or for data that might contradict their preferred narrative”. I went to a public hearing on New York State’s clean energy standard which implements 50% renewables by 2030 with an added component included to subsidize nuclear units that are losing money. Everybody but me was either in the camp that global warming is going to kill us and we don’t need nuclear or global warming is going to kill us and nuclear can save us. Nothing could be said to dissuade any of those in attendance that the any other viewpoint was even a legitimate issue to discuss. If I had managed to speak the response would have been the same as yours. Thanks for giving it a shot.


  13. Margie says:

    In continuation from above: Blair, while your ‘About’ page is excellent, perhaps a Widget in your sidebar could contain a brief summary of your credentials in the publishing world? Or a page with links to same?


  14. Blair, from a fellow (but non-chemist) resident in Langley, a minor footnote to your excellent essay:

    A glossy notice about this hearing did appear in my snail-mail box – and presumably those of other residents in my building – but not until a day or so after the hearing. And I don’t recall seeing any such announcements via twitter from @NRCan (“promoted” or otherwise).

    By contrast, at this point I’ve lost count of the number of @NRCan “promoted” tweets I’ve seen regarding the planned Aug. 9-11 Trans Mountain Expansion Discussion in Burnaby and/or the same two-day event planned for a few days later at SFU’s Vancouver campus.

    Consequently, I can’t help wondering how many other voices in Langley were unheard by the powers that be at @NRCan.


  15. Pingback: When anti-pipeline activist pretend that facts don’t matter | A Chemist in Langley

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