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.