On Wil Horter’s Gish Gallop about Alberta heavy oil and the Trans Mountain

On December 26th, 2018 the National Observer published an article Discount Frenzy: The dirt on discount oil by Wil Horter, the former Executive Director of the Dogwood Initiative. In December 28th, I prepared a reply called Fact-checking the National Observer “Discount Frenzy oil piece. This week Wil replied with his pièce de résistance Myths die hard: Santa Claus and Canada’s oil discount. This final reply, and his original piece, provide an example of a tried and true debating trick commonly known as the “Gish Gallop” which is technically know as proof by verbosity. The Gish Gallop is used when a debater is trying convince his audience that up is down and left is right. My aim here is to show you what he has done and remind my readers the truth about Alberta oil and the Trans Mountain Pipeline expansion (TMX) project.

The Gish Gallop is a presentation technique developed in the creationism debate and has been described as:

the debating technique of drowning an opponent in such a torrent of small arguments that the opponent cannot possibly answer or address each one in real time. More often than not, these myriad arguments are full of half-truths, lies, and straw-man arguments — the only condition is that there be many of them, not that they be particularly compelling on their own. They may be escape hatches or “gotcha” arguments that are specifically designed to be brief, but take a long time to unravel.

The trick with the Gish Gallop is putting out so many “alternative facts” that no opponent can address them all. The form of argument depends on that truism of debate that “the amount of energy necessary to refute bullshit is an order of magnitude bigger than to produce it“. Moreover, the way the Gish Gish Gallop is used (directly in the final piece) is that if you miss one argument then they can claim that you have failed to refute their piece. As the article n the Gish Gallop explains:

This is especially true in that the Galloper need only win a single one out of all his component arguments in order to be able to cast doubt on the entire refutation attempt. For this reason, the refuter must achieve a 100% success ratio (with all the yawn-inducing elaboration that goes with such precision). Thus, Gish Galloping is frequently employed (with particularly devastating results) in timed debates. The same is true for any time- or character-limited debate medium, including Twitter and newspaper editorials.

Gish Gallops are almost always performed with numerous other logical fallacies baked in. The myriad component arguments constituting the Gallop may typically intersperse a few perfectly uncontroversial claims — the basic validity of which are intended to lend undue credence to the Gallop at large — with a devious hodgepodge of half-truths, outright lies, red herrings and straw men — which, if not rebutted as the fallacies they are, pile up into egregious problems for the refuter.

Reading what Mr. Horter has written you see how he played this game. His first article had so many half-truths and strawmen that is was simply impossible, in the space and time I had, to refute all his ridiculous arguments. That is how he “wins”. He simply tires me out by saying so many things that are wrong that I, a private citizen not being paid to do any of this, simply ran out of patience to refute it all.

Look at the start of his second article a classic Gish Gallop follow-up. He positively glows about the fact that I did not refute one of his “big lies”. The problem was my piece was already far too long for a blog post and I had to cut out a lot to make it readable. Not being an expert on that part of the problem I simply left it for the next guy. I am not an expert in economics so I am the wrong person to refute that “big lie” and my unwillingness to wander into that swamp pit of illogic doesn’t make it right.

I’m guessing you are asking: well what do you do when someone plays the Gish Gallop gambit? The secret to responding to a Gish Gallop comes straight out of that old movie War Games. You have to choose not to play. By wasting my time responding to his faulty analogies, bad logic and insults I would get stuck in the swamp and miss my opportunity to give good information to debunk his bad information.

Instead of responding to his half-truths, bad analogies and red herrings, let’s go to the heart of his argument. In this case he really is only trying to make two points: 1) that bitumen is not a desirable product and 2) there is not bottleneck. Both of these are easy to debunk.

The market wants Alberta heavy oil

Anyone who understands the world market knows oil is a fungible commodity. If Canada does not produce it, that supply will be replaced by Saudi Arabia, Nigeria or some other OPEC member-state.

If heavy oil was not desirable then in a global and fungible market it would fetch a significantly lower price and people would not design refineries specifically to process the material.

Except as I showed in my previous piece, the heavy oil discount has essentially disappeared on the global market. Heavy oils, for the last couple months, have been selling for a higher price than light oils. The only differentiator being transportation costs.

Mr. Horter can argue until he is blue in the face that heavy oil is an inferior product, but the market, which is the only thing that matters, consistently says otherwise. He can make all the bad analogies about syrup he wants but his bad analogies don’t trump the simple truth. On the market today (Jan 14, 2019) heavy Maya for delivery to the Gulf Coast is going for $54.56 and WTI for that market is $51.26. Remember WTI has no virtually no additional transportation costs for delivery to the Gulf Coast and yet buyers are willing to pay a 6% premium for the heavy oil. Put simply heavy oils, like Alberta heavies are desirable products.

As for refinery capacity, Mr. Horter make the easily debunked claims about heavy oil refineries indicating there aren’t many. Any observer knows that with the collapse of Venezuela as a reliable producer the world has more refineries tuned for heavy oil than there are heavy oil producers to supply them. That is why this supposedly inferior product is selling at a premium. So Mr. Horter can make all the claims he likes about “quality” but the market has spoken and the market says that it wants Alberta heavy oil and if we can get that oil to market it will sell at a premium.

Just look at the West Coast. The Trans Mountain has been oversubscribed for years now because so many suppliers want the oil and there is not enough capacity to get it there…this brings up point 2: the bottleneck.

There is a bottleneck in our oil transportation system that the TMX can help alleviate.

Mr. Horter uses a graph from an anti-oil NGO from 2016 to argue that in 2016 there was no bottleneck for the movement of Canadian crude oil. Now who do you trust an anti-oil NGO or the NEB, the province of Alberta and the world market which all say otherwise. We already know about the over-subscription of the Trans Mountain. Mr. Horter claims otherwise but, no surprise here, is completely incapable of providing any data to support his argument. So what do we know about the state of oil transportation in Alberta?

We know that the Province of Alberta had to curtail oil production because they have a huge backlog of product and no way to get it to market. They have so many months of supply in the holding tanks that there is nowhere-more to put it. Why else would the province be buying rail cars to ship oil-by-rail to get its product to market?

As for oil-by-rail the figures are sobering. Oil-by-rail is spiking and with the Province of Alberta getting into the game the numbers are only going to go higher. Just look at the NEB numbers:

It is simply inconceivable that the province would be buying rail cars and curtailing production if there was not a bottleneck the TMX could help alleviate.

Conclusion

Re-reading Mr. Horter’s Gish Gallop it is amazing how much time he spends trying to get us to look the other way so we miss the actual story he is trying to sell.

His first argument that heavy oil is less prized than light oil is debunked by the actual market data. He can make all the cases about it being “inferior” because the NEB used a term in a very specific context. But the proof of the pudding is in the eating and heavies are deeply sought after and every single drop that makes it to the West Coast is grabbed at premium prices. Nothing he writes can take away from the fact that the market has spoken and the market loves heavy oil.

As for his second argument? That the TMX won’t help reduce the transportation bottlenecks? The Province of Alberta, the NEB and the rail numbers don’t lie. There is a bottleneck and addressing that bottleneck is the only way to get Alberta a fair price for its highly-prized product.

Remember when someone uses a Gish Gallop, they do so to try and make you forget what the discussion is all about and get stuck worrying about trivia. Don’t let Mr. Horter do that to you. His case is built on two fundamental legs, that no one wants Alberta heavy oil and that there is not a bottleneck. All the data says otherwise. It is pretty hard to argue no one wants a product when every drop of the stuff is bought for a premium price when it becomes available and it is hard to argue that there are not transportation limitation issues when Alberta is curtailing production and buying up rail cars to ship the material to market. Mr. Horter is selling you a pig in a poke. Don’t let him do that. Don’t let him distract you from the truth.

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2 Responses to On Wil Horter’s Gish Gallop about Alberta heavy oil and the Trans Mountain

  1. Luke Hamer says:

    “His case is built on two fundamental legs, that no one wants Alberta heavy oil and that there is not bottleneck.”
    -Small error in the last paragraph. Great work as always Blair, thank you!

    Like

  2. Rod Hailey says:

    Superb article..spot on the Tides funded Observer chain has no veracity whatsoever….
    Refineries can actually make more money by processing heavy sour crude. Over the past 10 years, most refineries in the Gulf Coast and US Midwest have been modified into high-conversion facilities. These refineries crack and coke the heavy crude “bottoms” into high-value products, removing all traces of sulphur to produce expensive low-sulphur fuels. These highly complex facilities are specifically designed to process heavy sour feedstock, such as Western Canadian Select. In fact, refining margins are better with heavy crude feedstock than lighter oil.
    Globally, conventional light oil basins are in decline. As a result, the world’s global oil supply is becoming increasingly heavier.

    Like

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