Well it seems that with the re-commencement of the NEB hearings on the Energy East project and the Trans-Mountain consultations all I seem to be talking about these days is pipelines. As a pragmatic environmentalist I find this disheartening, not because of the discussions, but because of the absence of intellectual rigour and honesty in the discussions. As a supporter of evidence–based decision making, I am sick and tired of sitting idly by as activists make outrageous claims that are either demonstrably wrong or unsupported by any data. In doing so these people are actually putting human health and the environment at increased risk from spills and accidents. The problem is: I’m really not sure how the supporters of evidence-based decision-making have a chance when confronted by these activists. The following post will explain where I am coming from.
Yesterday I had my first experience with being interviewed on cable TV with a spot on Power & Politics on CBC where I spoke in an interview paired with Daniel Cayley-Daoust an anti-Energy East activist who was introduced as representing the Council of Canadians. A link to the full episode is here (we come in at about the 4 minute mark). What I found very surprising about the interview was how Mr. Calyley-Daoust repeatedly made statements that were demonstrably untrue and he seemed utterly unfazed when this was pointed out to him. He initially made a statement that was demonstrably wrong and when confronted with the facts simply repeated the misinformation twice. His first statement (at 6:41 minutes) was that:
…we [presumably the Council of Canadians] are arguing that we already have enough [pipeline] capacity for our current needs and we need to face our addiction to oil….
I challenged him on the point and his initial reply was surprisingly precise (at 8:00 minutes) he said:
….and right now the pipeline capacity is good into 2022 to 2023…
I challenged him again and once again he said (at the 10 minute mark):
….there have been multiple studies that show that for the quantity of oil we want to produce in the next few years we’ve got the capacity right now. I don’t think it’s a rail versus pipeline debate, it is about reducing our overall need…
His repeated statements represent a load of hogwash. Anyone with the time can go to Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers (CAPP) website and download the 2016 CAPP Crude Oil Forecast, Markets & Transportation report and see that we don’t have a single pipeline supplying crude to the Irving Oil refinery in Saint John and that the majority of the crude going to the Quebec refineries travels partially by rail. Don’t trust CAPP? Then go to the NEB website where they show the same thing (only in less user-friendly formats). The problem is that either Mr. Cayley-Daoust knew this information and chose to disregard it, or did not know this information but felt comfortable spouting off incorrect information unconcerned with establishing its veracity when confronted with his error.
Really I can’t decide which is more troubling? The individual introduced as representing the Council of Canadians either lacks the intellectual rigour to find out where the oil used in eastern Canada comes from, even as he acts as their spokesperson on the file; or that he knows the truth and is willing to mislead the public about it on live television? Since Mr. Cayley-Daoust claims that the pipeline capacity exists, he can then ignore the relative risks of pipelines versus oil-by-rail in subsequent discussions and thus he sounds almost rational. Ultimately, this allows him to claim that the pipeline poses increased risks to communities while ignoring the greater risk posed by the alternatives by simply ignoring, or not knowing, the truth.
In a similar vein, on the irrationality of the anti-pipeline crew, was a discussion I had online with a Mr. Graham Chivers on Twitter. Mr. Chivers who styles himself as an expert in mechatronics is a regular commentor on the topic of pipelines. This morning he demanded that:
I pointed out to him the difficulty that halting all hydrocarbon transport would have on Canadian society and the economy and he seemed nonplussed. It is amazing to recognize how little these modern environmental activists understand. As I discussed in a previous post, if we eliminated all fossil fuels tomorrow we would witness the complete collapse of our society and an absolute ecological apocalypse as it happened. Any transition has to be gradual and accompanied by increases in alternative fuels and the development of new transportation technologies to fill the existing technology gaps.
Continuing our discussion Mr. Chivers later demanded that I provide “the unsubsidized cost of a barrel of #DilBit?” To be clear he didn’t want the price of bitumen on the open market but the actual cost of production for a barrel of dilbit? I pointed out to him that different facilities produce bitumen under differing cost structures and this expert in STEM and “climate” appeared to believe that I was keeping this cost of a barrel of bitumen a secret. I explained that there are low cost producers and high cost producers and gave some ranges of costs and he still didn’t get it. I replied by asking his “what is the price of a car” to produce an analogy that he might understand and he still didn’t get it. We concluded our discussion when he informed me that:
Honestly how do you debate a person who cannot even understand that different facilities using different technologies to extract different grades of materials from different geographical locations might have differing cost structures? That doesn’t rise to the level of funny, it is simply sad and irrational. Yet his colleagues were re-tweeting our exchange excitedly as they assured each other that he was teaching me a lesson because I could not produce this mythical number?
My final example of the day addresses the latest lunacy from the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC). The NRDC has started a program to try and get a “tar sands oil tanker moratorium in U.S. and Canadian waters”. This being their way of fighting Energy East: by eliminating one of the major markets for the oil. I was directed to this program by the friendly people at For the Coast. For the Coast is another of those innumerable anti-oil groups that spring up on the west coast when someone (usually a foreign pressure group) has some money they want to spend on professional activists. Like “Tanker Free BC” these folks broadcast to their acolytes while blocking any alternative viewpoints on their feeds. By living in their own little information-free echo chambers they can avoid discovering what the rest of the world (including other less extremist environmentalists) have to say on any topic.
What got me banned at Save the Coast was my pointing out how impractical the NRDC plan really was. To explain: the NRDC wants to single out and ban the transportation of one grade of oil (bitumen) that comes from one single country (Canada). In a prior post I discussed how international trade agreements work with respect to the environment (More on the Trans-Pacific Partnership and the Environment). One of the major points of that post was to explain that these trade agreements are typically designed to discourage non-tariff barriers to trade. Well, not surprisingly, NAFTA has a number of these provisions, as the people from the NRDC must surely know. To single out Canadian bitumen for a non-tariff barrier like the tanker ban would immediately run afoul of NAFTA.
Now I recognize that President Obama is at the end of his final term, but even a President in his last year is not going to throw that kind of hand-grenade into the room knowing that his likely successor was going to be a Democrat. Were President Obama to do as the NRDC asked, Canada (and TransCanada) would file a complaint under NAFTA and there is simply no way that the US could win that fight. You see daily the U.S. imports crude oil with similar characteristics from places like Mexico and Venezuela via tanker. Any oil tanker embargo that targeted Canada while ignoring those other countries’ oil would necessarily fail and then the US would be out millions/billions of dollars in fines. It is clear the NRDC knows this fact; it is thus pretty clear why the tanker ban website has a big “donate” section on its bottom. It couldn’t conceivably be a legitimate plan; rather it appears to simply be a way to generate donations for their coffers.
Now let’s consider what the people on the pro-side of the debate have working for them. They, too, have a large and well-funded infrastructure but they have one important limitation: they have to tell the truth. You see, like myself, most of these people are members of professional organizations and have what are called “revocable professional designations”. For those of you not familiar with the topic let me provide some detail. I attended university, completed and successfully defended my thesis, and was awarded a PhD. Once awarded a PhD, it is mine for life and can only be removed through processes that take the word “onerous” to another level. In essence a PhD is an irrevocable designation, and mine, regardless of any further achievements or infamies.
The essentially irrevocable nature of a PhD makes it a pretty useless degree for compliance and regulatory purposes. Instead in the professional fields we have revocable professional designations. I have written a lot about the value of revocable professional designations in this blog post. Suffice it to say, that misbehaviour on my part, irrespective of whether it occurs on the clock or off the clock, can result in my professional organization withdrawing my professional designation. Without that designation I cannot practice in my field. Needless to say I value my designation highly and am careful to never cross the line. While Chemists and Biologists are tough on their people, the Engineers are even tougher. To even bad-mouth another engineer can get you stripped of your P.Eng or P.Geo. Now most of the people working on the pro-side of this debate are professional engineers or geoscientists, their work is covered under the rules of their professional organizations and their ethics enforcement mechanisms. As such, they don’t dare lie or misinform the public.
To summarize this post, what we have is an incredibly lopsided battle in the field of pipeline politics. On one side are pipeline proponents who are restricted from misleading the public thanks to a code of ethics that prevents them from even saying bad things about many of of the people on the other side. On the anti-side of the debate are people who are often being paid to generate an outcome and have no restrictions on how they accomplish their goals: from civil disobedience; to lying; to deliberate ignorance; all is open to them. Often they attack not to win, but simply to generate press and donations. Unfortunately, the press is often unaware of the realities of this lopsided battle and assumes that each side starts the day with equal amounts of credibility. The result is like the Moscow Olympics in 1980 where clean athletes from Europe (the US and Canada boycotted the games) played sports against the first generation of steroid enhanced iron curtain athletes in what has been called “The Chemist’s Games”. The clean teams never stood a chance.