I am a pragmatic environmentalist. As an environmentalist I am always on the look-out for how we can make incremental changes to improve the world around us. As a pragmatist, I acknowledge that we need to advance our cause through practical steps that will produce tangible results. Sadly, the pragmatic environmentalist is very much an endangered species in BC. Ironically, the biggest threat to pragmatic environmentalists comes not from the business or political sectors but from their more idealistic kin in the environmental movement, a group I call the “noble cause environmentalists” (NCEs).
We all know the NCEs because they are the activists we see on TV and hear on the radio. They are the ones at the protests, chaining themselves to refinery gates. They are idealists who see the world in black and white and as good vs. evil with themselves on the side of good and anyone they disagree with on the side of evil. As idealists, they tend not to respect pragmatists (often placing us with Team Evil) and are renowned for their unwillingness to compromise. It is that unwillingness to compromise, to accept part of the pie, which is losing the environmental movement their credibility. Historically, I have been hesitant to call out the NGEs on their misstated claims and faulty arguments. Well my thoughts on that have changed over the years. I think we need to start calling out the NCEs for what they are: a hindrance to our goals of achieving a cleaner tomorrow.
So how do NCEs hinder our advances? Let’s start by looking at the Site C Dam. I spent Thursday evening being harangued on Twitter by an NCE from the Sierra Club. He insisted that I did not understand the harm that Site C would cause to our province. Having previously drilled down into the numbers, I explained to him that we will absolutely need the energy produced by Site C (and numerous other projects) if we are to meet our Paris Agreement goals. To me Site C, while flawed, will have a net positive effect for our province. When I asked the NCE what alternatives his organization had to produce a comparable amount of energy as would be produced by Site C; he directed me to his literature. Surprise, surprise, it contained lots of platitudes about moving to a post-carbon society but not a word on how to generate the energy that we will need to replace the energy British Columbia will necessarily abandon by going “post-carbon”.
Then someone brought up the the NDP/Greens’ plan to send Site C back to the BC Utilities Commission (BCUC). Reading their Agreement what stood out for me was that the plan called for them to:
immediately refer the Site C dam construction project to the BC Utilities Commission on the question of economic viability and consequences to British Columbians in the context of the current supply and demand conditions prevailing in the BC market
Notice the trick there? Comparing it to “current supply and demand conditions“. This precludes them considering our Paris Agreement commitments. Moreover, any referral will necessarily depend on existing BCHydro load forecasts (caution big file). They were all produced before Paris and don’t consider what it will take meet our Paris goals. As an example look at their predictions for electric vehicles. They predict that by 2027 electric vehicles will make up 4% of the vehicle fleet in BC with that number moving up to 13% in 2036. It is pretty simple, if only 13% of our vehicle fleet is electric in 2036 then we will have failed to meet our Paris goals, and this is the ambitious goal presented in the forecasts the BCUC will be seeing. If that is the case there is no chance the BCUC will see Site C as being necessary. The deck has been absolutely stacked against Site C under this Agreement.
Our discussions about Site C moved to how Site C is all about the LNG industry and once again I asked: is this a bad thing? As I have already shown that the global climate math strongly supports the development of BC LNG. If BC LNG can be liquefied using electricity, rather than natural gas, then British Columbia would be producing some of the lowest GHG LNG in the world. In a world where India, Malaysia, Indonesia and many other developing countries are building up their electrical systems, either LNG or coal is going to be used, whether the NCEs acknowledge it or not. Given those facts isn’t it better that they use the cleanest, lowest GHG LNG the world can provide?
From LNG he migrated to fracking and another feature of the NCEs came to the fore; their lack of fundamental scientific/technical knowledge. The gent from the Sierra Club kept insisting that Site C was being built to facilitate fracking. I explained to him that fracking is carried out by large rigs using their diesel engines or using massive diesel generators and that fracking pads aren’t typically connected to the electrical grid. Most fracking locations are located too far away from existing power lines to allow them to connect to the electrical grid so the suggestion that Site C electricity will be used for fracking is simply ridiculous. My arguments didn’t sway him. He was not interested in understanding how fracking works. He had made up his mind. I didn’t even mention that fracking is an essential component of most geothermal energy projects.
As for geothermal, I can’t count the number of times DeSmog blog has posted articles with Harry Swain talking about the plentiful geothermal capacity of our interior. Dr. Andrew Weaver of the Green Party has numerous pieces on geothermal energy on his website. Given this, let’s ask a simple question: what have any of these NCEs done to facilitate geothermal development in BC? Well when the former Liberal government tried change the laws to facilitate drilling for geothermal (and simplify the building of an enhanced transmission grid to move that geothermal energy around) the NCEs at DeSmog were against it. Looking at the Green Party election platform there is no mention of any proposals to address the major stumbling blocks that have limited the development of geothermal resources in BC. For those wondering these include how to set up operations in parks (which, unfortunately are where most of the geothermal potential is located) and how to fix our tenure system for geothermal companies.
Over the course of the evening I had several NCEs tweet to me that we don’t need Site C; that we can make up our electricity deficit with solar, wind and geothermal energy. My reply, as always, was: show me how. I have discussed solar photovoltaic electricity on this blog a number of times (most recently here) and there is a simple reason that BC Hydro plans for BC do not include a massive upgrade in solar PV: the term is “solar insolation”. Industrial solar is simply not on the table for most of BC because our combination of climate and position on the globe precludes it. Similarly I have talked a lot about wind and while wind is certainly one arrow in our quiver, the costs of the facilities and their associated transmission lines combined with the intermittent nature of wind means we can’t rely on wind as a primary source of energy.
In my mind the most damaging of the NCEs are the 100% Wind, Water and Sunlight people and the adherents of the Leap Manifesto who not only fight dams but nuclear energy as well. I’ve written thousands of words debunking these plans and would point to Energiewende in Germany where the drive to reduce the use of nuclear has resulted in billions being spent with virtually no reduction in total emissions. Had they spent that money, while keeping their nuclear plants, their emissions would have dropped dramatically but to the NCEs nuclear shouldn’t be on the table. They are willing to cut off their noses to spite their faces.
NCEs aren’t only wrong about Site C, they also seem to not understand the science of pipelines or oil sands. In the public sphere I have been metaphorically eviscerated for my suggestion that pipelines may represent the least worst option when it comes to shipping fossil fuels. My attempts to explain the marine chemistry of dilbit have been met by scorn from people who haven’t even completed first year chemistry. Amusingly, I recently had a dust-up with Ms. Elizabeth May, MP on the topic of pipelines and oil-by-rail. Ms. May was quite certain that bitumen could be shipped in normal rail cars and then transported overseas. I had to explain to her that this was not the case at which point she simply stopped responding to me. Since I have corrected her on this topic more than once, I have no doubt she will continue spreading her misinformation about bitumen-by-rail for the foreseeable future. Since she abandoned the conversation I couldn’t point to the literature about how much lower a risk pipelines pose to our inland waters when compared to oil-by-rail nor that oil-by-rail is far worse than pipelines from a greenhouse gas perspective.
The NCE’s arguments against pipelines aren’t only scientifically unsupported, some of them are simply bizarre. Consider this tweet from a senior bureaucrat from the City of Vancouver:
Does this argument even make any sense? Kinder Morgan is not spending public money building their pipeline they are using private sector money. If Kinder Morgan doesn’t build the pipeline they won’t spend that money building public transit in Vancouver. Moreover, the way the public sector affords infrastructure spending is using tax money. They generate that tax money from private sector organizations spending money in the province and thus paying salaries and taxes. How can someone that senior in a local government not understand this simple truth?
As pragmatic environmentalists, we need to acknowledge that we need to compromise to get to the next phase of energy. We need to develop geothermal, allow the construction of transmission lines and we need to find additional sources for the necessary rare earth metals needed for our low-carbon future. If we are going to make major cuts in our carbon emissions in the transportation sector we need to make up that energy from other sources. When NCEs say that we don’t need clean energy from projects like Site C, then you know they either aren’t serious about addressing climate change or simply lack the depth of understanding of what it will take to achieve the goals they profess to desire.