“Pragmatic”, “hyper-rational”, “reductionist”, “positivist” these are the “insults” sent my way in the last month as I have discussed the Trans Mountain pipeline on my social media feeds. As a scientist, none off those descriptions would be considered terribly nasty, but for left-wing political scientists out there, those words are considered curses. While not all the “insults” apply in my case (I am not “hyper-rational” as defined by political scientists) I do admit to viewing the world with a pragmatic lens. So you may ask what brought on this bout of vitriol? Well I have repeatedly asked a fairly simple question:
In the rest of this post I want to revisit that question and address some of the replies.
Let’s start with a critical consideration. The Trans Mountain pipeline is about moving liquid refined fuels and crude oils including diluted bitumen. We are talking about liquid fuels here. I can’t repeat this enough: liquid fuels. This means any response to my question that includes renewables (solar, wind, tidal or geothermal energy systems) is not answering the question. I have to make this absolutely clear because I cannot count the number of times Mike Hudema (of Greenpeace) has posted a story about a solar facility somewhere and written something like:
In just one hour, our planet receives enough solar energy to power society for an entire year: Panels not pipelines.
Well solar energy cannot replace the liquid fuels to be transported in the pipeline. It is a red herring.
Don’t imagine for a moment this is only a Greenpeace thing. I had a long Twitter discussion yesterday with Mark Worthing from the Sierra Club. When I asked him this question he posted five different links and every one dealt with electricity or natural gas and not liquid fuels. He was unable to present a single way the Wilderness Committee would address our needs for liquid fuels.
Having established that liquid fuels differ from electricity we have to ask ourselves: how are liquid fuels used in BC? Well 80% of the crude oil used in BC is used for transportation purposes. That 80% is made up of gasoline (44%), diesel (29%) and aviation fuel (7%). 96% of the energy used for transportation in BC comes from liquid fossil fuels. Most importantly, there are no non-fossil fuel options for most of those uses. Think about how liquid fuels are used: in aviation (aviation gasoline and jet fuels), in rail (diesel) in heavy commercial trucks (diesel) and in private and fleet motor vehicles (predominantly gasoline).
So let’s look at the alternatives for these sources:
Aviation: there are no viable options for electric transport planes or passenger jets. Certainly there are a number of projects to develop electric planes but none are even in the prototype stage. If we want to continue to rely on modern aviation we have no alternatives to liquid fuels.
Rail: While electric rail is being proposed for some commuter routes, the main use of rail in BC is to transport goods. There are no viable alternatives to diesel for that purpose. The cost to electrify transport rail would leave no funds for any other activities.
Heavy Commercial Trucks: Sure everyone is talking about the Tesla Semi, now for a cold dose of reality. The first prototype is still only starting its road testing and the number that will be available in the foreseeable future is tiny. There were over 61,000 heavy commercial trucks on BC roads in 2013. Tesla is not going to make 61,000+ semis in the next 20+ years especially since there are 447,500 heavy commercial trucks in Canada and many tens of millions world-wide. There is simply no alternative out there, for the foreseeable future commercial trucks will need diesel and without diesel Canadians don’t get the food they need to put on their tables.
Fleet Vehicles: While range anxiety is no longer a huge concern for electric cars, it is still a serious consideration for fleet vehicles. Firstly there are no fully electric pick-up trucks nor are there vehicles capable of carrying the tools and supplies needed in most fleet vehicles. Weight restrictions are a common issue with electric vehicles and even Tesla hasn’t been able to figure out how to make an electric pick-up capable of going off-road. No we aren’t talking of 4×4 driving but simply moving on muddy work roads and in places where a pick-up is needed to get the job done. Absent some new manufacturer there is no alternative for most fleet vehicles, they will rely on gasoline.
Personal Automobiles: personal autos are the obvious place where we can reduce our reliance on liquid fuels but even there we are nowhere near ready to carry out a full EV transition. Right now electric vehicles are primarily used as commuter vehicles. They are typically the second vehicle in a household that is used to commute. Why is this? Because right now the electric market is made up of small and very small cars. I have a wife, three kids and a dog. As a low-carbon family we have a single vehicle and that vehicle has an internal combustion engine because no EV model out there fits our needs. I can’t go visit my family on the island and fit everyone into an electric car. Until they have full-sized, family vehicles that don’t cost $60,000+ we will still need gasoline for cars. Let’s not even get into the issues with regards to availability. In 2017, 235,000 new cars were sold in BC, 2194 of those were electric. A friend tried to buy an electric VW and was told the wait list was 18-36 months. Put simply, car makers aren’t even making enough cars to make a dent on the market in BC we will need that gasoline.
Now I know that all sorts of European countries have talked about moratoriums on the sale of non-EV vehicles by 2030, 2035 or 2040. Well I will tell you a secret. The car manufacturers don’t have the infrastructure to meet those requirements. There is exactly zero chance that every vehicle sold in the UK will be electric in 2030 when the worldwide production capacity wouldn’t even replace BC’s auto needs.
Now we have looked at the numbers what have the activists argued? As I mentioned above, they have three approaches so far:
1) Distraction – as discussed above, this is where they talk about electricity and distract from the fact that electricity cannot replace liquid fuels.
2) Arm-waving: this is where they wave their arms claiming that we should “drive less” or that government will create politically impossible mandates. The problem with their arm-waving is that it is not supported by anything. The government mandating EV vehicles by 2030 means nothing if the car manufacturers can’t build the cars needed to meet the mandate. What will happen is what has happened every time this was done in the past. The government will either extend the deadline or simply eliminate the mandate. The only mandates that have worked in the past are the types that call for incremental improvements and provide detailed timelines. California has been great at doing this but this is not the approach anyone has used to date for electric vehicles.
3) Expand Transit: This is the only legitimate approach, but one that is simply a drop in the bucket. Listen to what Climate_Pete had to say in the most recent “report” from the Wilderness Committee
A massive investment in public transit, revitalization of local manufacturing & tempered expectations about your ability to cross the planet in less than a day would be a good start. Thankfully we’ve produced a paper with somewhat more detailed proposals.https://www.wildernesscommittee.org/publications/zero-carbon-or-bust
The problem is when you read the “report” you get a small section saying we should increase transit availability, that’s it with the policies. As I have written in the past, improving transit will create incremental improvements on our fuel use but are only reasonable in our city cores. This is a classic example of the urban nature of the modern NGOs.They appear to be completely unaware of what life is like outside of the city centers. No government has the money to eliminate the need for private vehicles in Chilliwack, Enderby or Cranbrook. Even in a community like my own (Langley) the density is not there to warrant the level of transit necessary to allow myself (or my neighbors) to forego our personal vehicles.
Now As I have written before, as described by Business in Vancouver: B.C. consumed 192,000 barrels a day (bpd) of refined fuels in 2015. The Puget Sound Refineries need about 630,000 bpd and California needs to import heavy oil. As I have written repeatedly, the Trans Mountain is safer for BC, it is safer for Washington State and it is safer for the Salish Sea than the alternatives. It provides the liquid fossil fuels in the safest means possible and if we use Canadian fuels in the process the profits have the benefits of funding our government, our medical system and any transit expansion the NGOs want to see.
I also don’t want to get into the climate change argument at this time because the truth is that the pipeline is a necessary part of our battle against climate change. In this case real climate leaders DO build pipelines. But that is just another distraction (see above). The simple question I want answered is what is the alternative to the Trans Mountain?
I can’t say it enough, our society is completely reliant on fossil fuels. Every scrap of food we eat and every drop of water we drink has a carbon footprint. I can’t think of a single part of my life that doesn’t rely in one way or another on fossil fuels. Now I recognize that we, as a society, must wean ourselves off fossil fuels, but that is not a simple task. As I have explained if we undertake herculean efforts and dedicate a historically unprecedented percent of our national gross domestic product to the task we have a reasonable chance of weaning ourselves off fossil fuels in 30-50 years. Even then it is likely closer to the 50-year than the 30-year timeline. What this means is that British Columbia and Washington have, and will have, an ongoing need for fossil fuels for the foreseeable future. So please answer me this simple question: