On motivated reasoning and the Site C Dam

As I have written numerous times, the intention of this blog is to advance the cause of evidence-based environmental decision-making. As a scientist my personal process involves collecting as much information as I can about an issue and then using that information to come to a decision. An important thing to understand is that this is an iterative process. As I get more, or differing, information I need to be ready to change/refine my opinion. That is, my opinions/decisions are driven by the data not the other way around.  As I have described at this blog, my opinion on the Site C Dam has been built this way. I have looked at the project and evaluated the pros and cons and have come to the conclusion that the positives outweigh the negatives.

Mine is not the only way to look at the world. One unfortunate way to look at the world is called motivated reasoning. In motivated reasoning you come to a conclusion based on emotions or preconceptions and then work to find information that conforms to your belief pattern while ignoring any evidence that contradicts your world view. On the Site C debate there are a lot of people who have come to their conclusions based on motivated reasoning. The project was planned and started under the auspices of the Liberal government and partisans who dislike the Liberals have decided that Site C must be bad because the Liberals like it. There are also the NIMBYs/BANANAs out there who simply don’t want anything built anywhere.

The motivated reasoning of the opponents of the Site C Dam makes it incredibly hard to have a reasoned discussion/debate with them. They have no firm underlying basis for their opposition to the dam so they use any shred of information that advances their cause and are just as quick to abandon a line or argument when the need arises. There is an old joke about corrupt politicians: they won’t stay bought. This is the case with many of the people I encounter in the Site C debate, they bring out an argument, have it thoroughly debunked and abandon it for a bit. As soon as they think it acceptable they then bring out the same argument again and act as if it was never addressed in the first place. It is like a game of whack-a-mole because just like in that game I knock down an argument and they resurrect it a few days later and demand that I address it again. Should I fail even once to respond they then jump on it as an admission that they are right and I am wrong. Want some examples? Let’s go through the greatest hits:

Site C is all about getting water for the US

I start with this one because it is literally the most ridiculous. The NAWAPA was abandoned in the 1960’s and just because Lyndon LaRouche, tried to resurrect the project in the 1980’s doesn’t make it a real plan. This project is deader than a Norwegian Blue.

The land that will be flooded by Site C is enough to feed 1 Million people

No, the area to be flooded by the Site C Dam could not feed 1 million people. This is a bizarre claim that runs contrary to agricultural research. The farmland to be flooded by the Site C Dam is somewhere between 1,600 hectares and 12,000 hectares. So how many people will that amount of land feed? As I have written previously according to food researchers:

The minimum amount of agricultural land necessary for sustainable food security, with a diversified diet similar to those of North America and Western Europe (hence including meat), is 0.5 of a hectare per person.

If you are only counting calories, then a really efficient farm (with year-round growing seasons) can provide the minimum calories (absent any food variety or critical minerals or spoilage or loss to insects etc.) to support 5-6 people per hectare. Unfortunately for the Peace River District, they don’t have a year-round growing season. While it is very rich land it has a relatively short growing season (about 4 months). So pressing the absolute limit and giving the activists the benefit of every doubt the 12,000 hectares they claim will be “flooded” could possibly feed 72,000 people with an absolute minimum vegetarian diet of grains and fruit. Using the mean numbers from agricultural science the 3,800 hectares of agricultural land being flooded could potentially feed 7,600 people. Using the numbers I hear the most, the 1,600 hectares of farmable land could feed 1,600 people with a standard western diet after losses for wastage, spoilage and pests. This gives us a potential range of 1,600 – 72,000 people that could theoretically be supported by the land to be flooded. Neither of those numbers are anywhere near one million. We are talking being off by orders of magnitude folks?

Flooding the land for Site C will put our food security at risk

According to research prepared for the Peace Regional District, in 2011 there were approximately 4.6 million hectares in British Columbia’s agricultural land reserve (ALR)  and 27% of BC’s ALR was in the Peace Regional District. Of that 4.6 million, in 2011, approximately 2.6 million hectares of land was being farmed in BC with 825,000 of that land being farmed being in the Peace District. According to the official numbers that means the Site C Dam will flood approximately 0.4% of the agricultural land in the Peace District or 0.2% of the agricultural land in BC. We currently have almost 2 million hectares of ALR that we aren’t even bothering to farm (including 426,000 in the Peace District) and the activists claim we will go hungry if we flood around 5,000 hectares of it in the Peace?

Site C is simply a run-of-the-river project.

This is a particularly bizarre claim coming from Robert McCullough and repeated endlessly by the Peace Valley Environment Association. The reason I find this claim to be bizarre is that these are the same people who argue that the reservoir is so large and damaging. The reservoir is expected to be over 100 km long and almost 500 m wide. The top 1.8 m is useable for electricity generation. That represents almost 100  million liters of water which is equivalent to approximately 40,000 Olympic swimming pools worth of water. What sort of run-of-river project has that much storage capacity? So while Site C’s reservoir is indeed 0.4% of the volume of the Williston Reservoir, the Williston Reservoir is one of the 10 biggest reservoirs on the planet. Certainly, the Site C dam takes advantage of the Williston Reservoir to allow it to produce more electricity than a similarly-sized dam elsewhere but that is a plus not a minus. The reservoir is of sufficient size that even in drought years BC Hydro expects it will be able to produce 4000+ GWH of power a year.

Renewables are/will be cheaper than Site C

The Deloitte report, BC Hydro and even the McCullough report all agree that at this time renewable are not cheaper than Site C. Both Deloitte and McCullough count on continuing cost decreases to eventually make those technologies price-comparable but both Deloitte and McCullough are careful not to include the costs of connections to the transmission grid to their numbers. The Site C budget includes a tremendous amount of money to connect to the grid but the activists never ask the renewable alternatives to include those costs into their equations. As I have previously noted once you account for transmission costs the renewable are still miles behind the price-point obtained for Site C.

This is a common thread in the “renewables will be cheaper” argument. They take the general case in other areas and then pretend that it will apply in the particular case of BC while completely ignoring the specifics that apply in BC. You can’t ignore the limitations imposed by British Columbia’s geography when trying to talk about renewable resources. Our coastal climate means solar only works in a few interior locations. Wind is found far from population centers and our geothermal is locked in hard rock formations in the mountains. All this  is ignored as the activists put the sunniest spin on the story while reassuring us that we can always rely on our American cousins if we need more energy in the future. The Clean Energy Act was intended to ensure we don’t need to depend on the US to keep us warm in winter. I think we should keep it that way.

BC Hydro is bad at forecasting

This is the favourite of the anti-Site C crowd. BC Hydro has consistently missed their forecast numbers therefore Site C will not be needed. Even the BCUC preliminary report said as much. What the activists forget to mention is what the BCUC actually says about the topic. The BCUC points out that BC Hydro has every reason to forecast conservatively  because our entire province depends on them for electricity. It they are going to err they should do so on the conservative side because the alternative (missing low) means brownouts and not having the power necessary to run our hospitals, schools and nursing homes.

Moreover, as I have pointed out previously, the future load forecasts were made prior to the signing of the Paris Agreement. This is the one place where I really don’t understand the BCUC preliminary report. Section 3(c) of the Terms of Reference could well be described as the Paris Agreement section since it asks the BCUC to look at factors since the 2016 demand numbers were made. The Paris Agreement is the biggest energy news since that July 2016 forecast was made. That the preliminary report completely omitted this feature is simply mind-boggling.


I welcome good discussion on the Site C file where we put the pros and cons on the table. The problem is when dealing with people, who as my mom used to put it, have made up their minds and don’t want to be confused with facts. When motivated individuals are willing to ignore the facts it is impossible to convince them of anything and this is the case with most of the activists who have been attacking me for the last several months. They aren’t interested in facts or arguments and they aren’t willing to actually present an argument that can be challenged with facts. Instead they will continue to play whack-a-mole and count on the fact that they have the numbers to completely drown out the few people who are willing to try and have reasonable discussions on the topic. That is why I didn’t go to the Vancouver BCUC meeting and am not going to the next one. I have made my case. The BCUC can listen to me, or not, but ultimately this will be a political decision. I can only hope that the folks in charge can filter out the noise so we can have an evidence-based decision on this file.

Author’s note:

Okay folks just too funny, this post by the Peace Valley folk was posted simultaneously with my blog post. It is literally a list of many of the fallacies I have repeatedly debunked at my blog.

This entry was posted in Canadian Politics, Climate Change, Site C, Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to On motivated reasoning and the Site C Dam

  1. Speaking of those who exhibit and/or facilitate motivated reasoning …

    This morning, CBC’s Sunday Edition gave 20 minutes of airtime to Andrew “climate change is a barrage of intergalactic ballistic missiles” Weaver this morning. Inter alia he’s rolling on the “extreme events” bandwagon and acting as super-salesman for electric vehicles. In Weaver’s view we all have to roll onto the zero-carbon economy bandwagon.

    For some reason Enright let him ramble on about how wrong Kinder-Morgan would be, but didn’t ask him about Site C (which Weaver once supported but is now against it)



  2. Morley Sutter says:

    “Motivated reasoning” is also called “post-normal science” and is widespread.
    I should like to ask Dr. King if he does not realise that motivated reasoning is used by those who believe in anthropogenic global warming wherein CO2 air concentrations control the temperature of the world?
    The US Environmental Protection Agency also seems to have engaged in motivated reasoning when they ruled that CO2 is a toxic gas.


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