An Environmental Scientist responds to the signers of the Prime Minister’s Youth Council “Letter to the PM” about the Trans Mountain Pipeline project

Last week selected members of the Prime Minister’s Youth Council (PMYC) wrote an open letter to the Prime Minister asking that he cancel the buyout of the Trans Mountain pipeline. While young, these representatives have a strong public appeal and an even stronger media presence which allowed their letter to make national news. A number of interested observers challenged them on their letter and in my case I was blocked from conversations immediately upon asking some very simple questions. Since this story hasn’t really gone away (and has even morphed somewhat) I, as an Environmental Scientist, have decided to write this blog post to challenge the signatories of the letter to respond to my criticisms of their letter.

One of the complaints of the PMYC signers has been “ageism”: that we did not take them seriously because of their age. Well I disagree. I believe that by questioning their work we showed that we were taking these young people extremely seriously. The ageist response would have been a condescending nod of the head and a gentle smile while ignoring their suggestions. We, instead, looked at what they had written and decided to take them seriously. The problem is that in policy discussions when you write a letter of this sort you need to present a supporting rationale. The letter provided three points summarizing why they are calling on the Prime Minister to cancel the buyout of the Kinder Morgan Trans Mountain Pipeline expansion (TMX) project:

  1. Buying and building the Trans Mountain pipeline project violates your promise to protect British Columbia’s coast. No amount of technology can undo a spill in the Salish Sea, and a spill would crush the cultures and livelihoods that depend on the health of the Sea.
  2. Buying and building the Trans Mountain pipeline project is setting up the Paris Agreement for failure… Buying the Trans Mountain pipeline project undermines the Paris Agreement and locks Canada into decades of reliance on fossil fuels.
  3. Buying and building the Trans Mountain pipeline project is in violation of UNDRIP and the Liberal Party’s plan to renew nation-to-nation relationships with Indigenous Peoples. Forcing this pipeline through the lands of First Nations that do no consent entrenches the violence of colonialism and moves us away from reconciliation. Free, Prior and Informed Consent for any development projects on traditional Indigenous territories is an essential component of moving forward with reconciliation.

In the following sections I will address these claims point by point and pose a simple question for the signatories to the PMYC letter.

Protecting BC’s Coast:

This first claim is one I have addressed in detail. It is the claim that caused me to challenge the letter in the first place. To summarize my previous assessment: blocking the TMX will do nothing to reduce the demand for crude oil in the Pacific Northwest. Rather, if the TMX is blocked the crude oil necessary for our continued existence on the West Coast will still need to flow. It will simply flow via less safe means, specifically:

  • Explosive Bakken crude will flow in even greater quantities along rail lines that run the virtual length of the Columbia River and through the heavily populated communities of the Pacific Northwest.
  • Canadian oil trains will run in greater numbers alongside the Thompson and the Fraser Rivers and through every community along that route. A spill in either river will risk salmon runs that serve as the food source for, and are held sacred by, dozens of First Nations communities in British Columbia.
  • Instead of highly-regulated Canadian tankers bringing Canadian crude to California and Asia we will see the Puget Sound and Semiahmoo Bay full of tankers coming out of the Middle East and registered in whatever jurisdiction has the lowest safety standards.
  • The eventual risk to the Salish Sea won’t be the one major accident every 2000+ years described in the TMX risk assessments, it will be orders of magnitude higher.

Any cold-eyed analysis of the relative risks in the transportation of fossil fuels shows that the TMX reduces our regional risks of oil spills. Blocking the TMX will increase the likelihood of a disastrous rail spill that could spell the end of a major fishery or result in the deaths of dozens of innocents. Blocking the TMX also increases the likelihood of a marine spill from a foreign-flagged tanker. The challenge faced by the signers of the PYMC letter is one I have asked numerous times before: Show us a safer way than the TMX to get the fossil fuels we need to run our society to the West Coast.

Climate Change:

The PMYC letter presents as support for its claims about climate change a single flawed analysis from an anti-pipeline NGO. This report has been used by many to claim that the continued existence of Canada’s oil industry is incompatible with our national goal of fighting climate change. That claim is both simplistic and wrong. Canada has prepared a Nationally Determined Contribution (NDC) as part of our commitments under the Paris Agreement and nowhere in that NDC does it include Canada eliminating our oil industry. The reason for this is simple. Canada will still need oil for the next several decades as we transition to a low-carbon future. A functioning oil industry is one of the economic drivers that will allow us to pay for our transition and as such Canada’s NDC accounts for the continued existence of the oil industry.

To imagine that Canada can meet its Paris Agreement goals absent a fossil fuel industry (and the fuels it provides) is simply magical thinking. Activists will claim we need to stop producing oil but don’t then explain how our economy will operate without that oil? The answer is: it will not. We will instead need to import the oil necessary to run our economy. In doing so we will be diminishing our economic capacity for no practical climate change gain. Given our need for oil to run the economy, every plan to meet our Paris Agreement commitments includes the continued existence of our oil industry and accounts for the climate change effects via offsets. That is where the Oil Change International Report gets it wrong. Carbon offsets allow Canada to offset our additional emissions and still have a tax-generating oil industry in a post-Paris Agreement economy.

Moreover, what the PMYC letter doesn’t acknowledge is that real plans to fight climate change have been written and these plans require the pipeline to be built in order to be fully implemented. Alberta’s Climate Leadership Plan is the best way to get Alberta to make the real, and incredibly expensive, changes to their economy necessary to meet our Paris Agreement goals. By eliminate the TMX we will effectively lose Alberta’s support and that will make it even harder for Canada to achieve our climate goals.

This is a challenge we, as Canadians, face. We cannot naively demand the end to the oil industry without looking at how that elimination will effect our ability to pay for the changes we need for our economy. The PMYC letter writes that buying the TMX locks Canada into decades of dependence on fossil fuels. Well that is not correct. Canada is locked into our carbon economy because that is the world we currently live in and we can’t simply make a wish and have that dependence disappear. Eliminating our reliance on fossil fuels will be a multi-decade-long struggle that will take all our economic and political might to achieve. So I ask the PMYC letter signers this: what practical effect do you believe eliminating our oil sands make on our national emissions and how would you suggest we pay for our transition off fossil fuels when you eliminate entire tax-generating sectors of our economy?

First Nations issues:

As I have written before, I have studiously avoided the First Nations’ file in my TMX discussions. I am not an expert on issues surrounding First Nations sovereignty (or consultation) and have been careful to “stay in my lane”. That being said assessing relative risks is my lane and that is what needs to be considered in this discussion.

The Crown owes the same fiduciary obligations to all First Nations and has to consider cumulative risks to each First Nation associated with a project. I have been repeatedly informed on Twitter that each First Nation is sovereign and has the right to make decisions for itself. While that is true the Crown is left with the challenging task of finding a compromise when a project’s risks affect two or more First Nations differently. There is an old quote often attributed to Oliver Wendell Holmes “the right to swing my fist ends where the other man’s nose begins.” This quote has never been truer than in the TMX debate. As I have tried to explain, the pipeline debate is all about relative risk. Closing a door somewhere means that another door must be opened somewhere else, or put another way the Squamish Nation’s ability to swing their arms ends where the Cheam or Semiahmoo First Nations’ noses begin. The TMX debate is about finding the safest way to move a material that is critical to our shared wealth over land. It is not possible to achieve zero risk to all communities and so the  Crown has to balance the risks.

So my final question to the PYMC signers is this: how would you suggest the Crown balance the relative risks to differing First Nations posed by our society’s reliance on fossil fuels? Recognize that inaction (or the status quo) represents a decision to allocate risks every bit as much as a decision to build the TMX does. The only difference is that in planning the current pipeline route the desire has been to minimize risk to the nearby communities. While I agree the current process has not been a perfect one; it has, at least, been a transparent one. The allocation of risks associated with the status quo has not involved the balancing of risks and is anything but transparent. How would you, as the leaders of tomorrow, deal with one First Nation’s demand to have no risk when doing so puts another First Nation at significant risk? Because that is the problem the Crown is facing right now. A rail spill on the Fraser, the Thompson or the Columbia could have massive negative consequences for dozens of First Nation communities. How would you balance those risks?

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14 Responses to An Environmental Scientist responds to the signers of the Prime Minister’s Youth Council “Letter to the PM” about the Trans Mountain Pipeline project

  1. Ruud Hommel says:

    I made comments to the shipping issue earlier.
    Just two more links:
    Also, USA and Canada may decide which ship classifications are allowed in PS.
    Just refuse miserable tubs. End of problem, but while you would loose one argument, you’ve got plenty valid ones left.


  2. You are correct that it is impossible to grow (or maintain) our current level of economic activity while reducing the amount of fossil energy we burn.

    I think you are wrong that it is possible to transition to low carbon energy (with or without help from fossil energy) and maintain (let alone grow) our current level of economic activity due to the physics of alternate energy density and other qualities. This issue is hotly debated and many agree with you. I say in response, point to a single country, or province, or city, or town, or block, or house, anywhere in the world, that has a modern lifestyle with zero dependence on (direct and indirect) fossil energy. They don’t exist because it’s not possible.

    It is too late to avoid very bad consequences of climate change regardless of what we do. It is not too late to make the future less bad for our children if we dramatically reduce carbon emissions.

    We thus have a choice. Continue business as usual for a decade or two longer until oil depletes and then suffer dire climate consequences. Or reduce our lifestyles and shrink the economy now to make the future less bad.

    I suspect the young authors would vote for the latter, as would I.

    The problem is that every single political party, including the greens, is in denial about the nature of our predicament and thus we don’t even get to vote on the matter.

    Some people therefore do what they can to block business as usual.


    • Ruud Hommel says:


      Where did you get the notion that there’s only oil left for two more decades?
      Just google “world oil reserves left” and you’ll get a plethora of articles proclaiming 50 years and more. Personally I believe there will still be much oil stranded after the transition to renewable energy and a good thing that is. We’ll need the resource.
      Then there’s natural gas and gas to liquids/solids processes.

      Your argument of pointing to even a single home that’s zero dependent on fossil energy is wrong.
      There are existing buildings that fulfill these criteria, but those buildings are not without some appliance or part that’s not made of plastic. So, not reliant of fossil energy but reliant on a fossil commodity for further production of articles we deem necessary.
      Sure we can make plastic out of renewable trees, but it’s a bit more expensive.
      I also find the argument unfair as at present, like “now”, very much effort is put into reaching this “non fossil energy reliant” situation. It’s an effort in progress. The western world may get there eventually, but for undeveloped countries this will be too expensive for a long time to come.

      The choice you offer is mute. Any reduction of manmade carbon dioxide emission will be negated by methane emissions caused by thawing permafrost, which is already an irreversible process.
      It’s a lie to the youngsters that your professed “bad consequences” may be mitigated in any positive way.
      Bad times are ahead and the only mitigation of effects lie in a great movement of people and production facilities, but we’ll not see that happen in time.

      Please watch the attached video and you’ll feel much better.

      There’s a “but” though. It will not happen in the timeframe he mentions.


      • We need to define depletion before debating how much oil is left. I define depleted as the point at which the cost to extract oil exceeds the price that our economy can pay and still grow.

        I think there is ample evidence that we are very near the point of depletion.

        It now takes over 3 dollars of debt to generate 1 dollar of growth. This is a direct consequence of higher energy prices driven by rising extraction costs driven by depletion of low cost reserves. Our global debt backed fractional reserve monetary system cannot function without growth. We have bought a little time by buying growth with unrepayable debt to compensate for expensive energy.

        There is zero evidence that renewable energy can generate economic growth at a faster rate than debt, and plenty of sound thermodynamic reasons to expect it is impossible.

        So it may be true that there is 50 years of oil still in the ground, but if we can’t afford to extract and burn it, the quantity is effectively zero.

        Other evidence that we are near the point of depletion includes Saudi Arabia having to implement austerity measures and planning to IPO a portion of their “reserves”; Venezuela with the largest unconventional oil reserves in the world is in the process of going bankrupt; and almost every oil fracking company in the US is losing money.

        I should have been clearer on my point about fossil energy dependency. I was referring to the fossil energy required to produce the concrete, steel, lumber, copper, glass etc. needed to construct, maintain, and service the house and it’s renewable electricity sources, and the diesel required to plant, harvest, and transport food, and the natural gas for fertilizer to grow food, and the diesel required to transport everything else we depend on to survive. I’m not familiar with the net zero program, but a quick look suggests it focuses on electrical energy consumption, which is not the problem we need to worry about.

        With regard to climate, you may be right. I think (hope?) we could still influence the degree of bad we face. We might be able to adapt to 2 degrees. We cannot survive 6 degrees. I think it’s worth the effort to try but the reality is we’ve done nothing expect talk.

        Here is a summary I wrote that better explains our predicament:


      • Breaking news. Saudi Arabia has backed away from its IPO, probably because it does not want an independent audit of its reserves.


    • JTRoberts recently made an important and insightful observation which I paraphrase and elaborate here.

      Oil is a non-renewable resource that we extract from the earth. Oil companies are motivated by profit so they start with low cost reservoirs and as those deplete they move to higher cost sources like water injection, off-shore, tar sands, and fracking.

      All economic activity depends on energy, as the laws of thermodynamics explain, and as the near perfect correlation between GDP and energy consumption confirms.

      Oil is the keystone energy because oil is required to extract or capture all other forms of energy.

      The cost of oil can be viewed as a tax on economic activity. Our economy is configured to operate profitably on $20 per barrel oil. Most energy efficiency gains have already been captured making it impossible for our economy to operate profitably on oil over $20.

      Thus, as the cost of extraction due to depletion of low cost reserves pushes the price of oil above $20, the difference must be made up with debt.

      At today’s $70 oil, which we burn 96 million barrels per day, that works out to 96 * 365 ($70-$20) = $1.8 trillion, which is about the rate that global debt is increasing.

      If you believe we have many years of oil left, then you must also believe that debt can increase exponentially for many years without consequence on the value of money.

      Money has value because we have confidence that the debt which created the money will be repaid with interest, which can only occur when the economy grows, which can only occur when the quantity of energy we burn grows, which due to rising extraction costs, can only occur when debt grows faster than the economy.

      Do you see our predicament?


  3. Beverly says:

    While at first read I applaud most of the points made by the environmental scientist, I am rather disturbed that his name isn’t published with his letter. I like to fact-check things, and the first thing I check out is the author of the paper. I imagine he has little appetite for negative feedback from those unwilling to hear the points he makes, but accountability and credibility go hand-in-hand. By not publishing his name, it weakens his accountability. Just one person’s opinion.


  4. Joe says:

    Blaire, your title, “An Environmental Scientist responds…”, can be interpreted as the response of some other environmental scientist than you whose response you are hosting. One suspects that Beverly would have expected an article by you to be titled “I respond…”


    • Beverly says:

      Thank you both Blair and Joe for clarifying the author once and for all. Joe, you are right, that was exactly my interpretation. I have no previous history with Blair’s blog, but now that we’re acquainted, I expect I will be following him a bit more closely.


  5. Pingback: Revisiting the question anti-pipeline activists can’t answer about the Trans Mountain pipeline | A Chemist in Langley

  6. Pingback: Once again a group of health professionals gets the science wrong on diluted bitumen and the Trans Mountain Pipeline Expansion project | A Chemist in Langley

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