In the last months, I have taken a lot of flak about my stances on topics like BC LNG and the Trans Mountain Pipeline Expansion Project (TMX). In the last week alone I have been called a “denier” and an “Alberta oil apologist”. But the truth is that as a pragmatic environment scientist I support the fight against climate change. I also acknowledge the need to upgrade necessary infrastructure to move hydrocarbons and for projects to export LNG overseas where BC LNG can be used to reduce global greenhouse gas emissions.
To begin let’s be clear, I believe anthropogenic climate change is real and represents a fundamental threat to our planet. This is not surprising since I am a practicing Environmental Scientist. Unlike most of my critics, I have a PhD in Chemistry and Environmental Studies and have worked as a Environmental Scientist for over 25 years.
In 2008, when Gordon Campbell proposed our BC carbon tax I supported him. For those with short memories, in the 2008 provincial election the NDP fought on the promise to scrap the carbon tax; I worked to protect the tax.
A decade ago I considered myself a Lukewarmer. As I wrote at the time, I was a proponent of the North American school who accept that climate change is real but disagreed with the climate alarmists on estimates of climate sensitivity. In the last decade, the scientific consensus has solidified and these days my views represent the middle of the mainstream on the topic.
In 2015, world leaders passed the Paris Agreement, which I supported strongly at the time. In the Paris Agreement Canada did not commit to trashing our economy nor did we agree to achieving a fossil fuel-free status in less than two decades (unlike the claims of many activists). As I have demonstrated, the claim that we could eliminate our reliance on fossil fuels in the next 10 years does not even rise to the level of laughable. It is simply magical thinking. If we undertake herculean efforts and dedicate a historically unprecedented per cent 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 Canada has, and will have, an ongoing need for fossil fuels for the foreseeable future.
I acknowledge that we have to get our energy system off fossil fuels and have written several tens of thousands of words on the topic of renewable energy. As a pragmatist, I have concentrated on the topic of regionally-appropriate renewable energy. That means finding the right technologies for the right regions. I am critical of activists who imagine that a one-size-fits-all approach will work for all areas. Our resources are limited and demanding that BC rely on solar is simply ridiculous. Look at a simplified solar insolation chart of BC. Except for the extreme southeast, and limited parts of the Okanagan (and maybe parts of the Peace), solar simply isn’t the right technology for BC.
I see a need to move towards wind, geothermal and hydro in my home province of British Columbia and have written on these topics at my blog. That is why I worked to advance the Site C dam project. While it is clear the geology of the project may make it unworkable, there is no doubt we will need massive new supplies of hydro electricity if we are to decarbonize our economy. From a national perspective we absolutely need to invest in more nuclear, wind and solar energy.
Like many, I believe there are some low-hanging fruit to fight climate change that should be addressed as soon as practical (sometimes referred to as “Fast Mitigation”). I see the need to concentrate on topics like black carbon and methane emissions. I also believe that getting our kin in lesser developed countries out of energy poverty is a morally necessary goal and by doing so we can help protect a highly stressed ecosphere.
A point seldom discussed by activists is the costs. As I noted, the effort to wean ourselves off fossil fuels is going to be incredibly expensive. That money has to come from somewhere. That somewhere is the Canadian tax base and the way to build that tax base is to take advantage of Canadian natural resources, not to undercut them.
As I noted above, we live in a society that, like it or not, is dependent on oil (petroleum hydrocarbons) and petroleum hydrocarbon-based products. Our food is produced on farms that need heavy equipment to operate. That food is shipped around the world by air, water and rail, all of which rely on petroleum hydrocarbons to operate. Petroleum hydrocarbons also serve as the feedstock of the petrochemical industry, which forms the basis of all the things that make our modern world work. They are the building blocks of our plastics, our computers, the tools we need to keep us healthy and the drugs we take when we are sick.
Given the foregoing, a pragmatist asks a simple question: given we cannot do without a product, what can we do to make the transport of this product safer? In North America the majority of our raw petroleum supplies are located in the interior of the continent and thus cannot be shipped around by double-hulled tanker. Instead, the choices are in order of environmental concern: tanker truck, rail or pipeline; that is it, period. There are no other options. Given the choices at hand, the obvious answer therefore is: invest in the safest, most environmentally benign of the transportation methodologies currently available. Thus, as a pragmatic environmentalist I push towards improving our pipeline technologies and capacity.
My acquaintances on the deep green end of the environmental spectrum, meanwhile, fight these pipelines tooth and nail, and in doing so they appear oblivious to the fact that the fuel has to move somehow. They talk of trying to “strangle” the oil sands not recognizing the economic folly of such an attempt. What is more, they do not even recognize the irony when at the same time they weep and wail about the dangers of transporting fuel by rail. They are the ones who have made oil-by-rail an economic reality, no one else but them.
As for BC LNG, the most recent research on this topic is the peer-reviewed article: Country-Level Life Cycle Assessment of Greenhouse Gas Emissions from Liquefied Natural Gas Trade for Electricity Generation by Kasumu et al. This article demonstrates conclusively that when replacing coal in Chinese energy facilities, BC LNG produces lower total, life-cycle emissions. Moreover, if we can electrify the process then our LNG becomes among the cleanest and lowest carbon LNG on the planet. We have to keep reminding ourselves GHGs are global and it is more important to address global emissions than local ones. If a minor increase in Canada emissions can result in a major decrease globally then the climate math says that is well worth our efforts.
The fight against climate change is going to be long, slow, hard and expensive. It is going to take honest discussion and not trite statements of hope from high-flying celebrities who demand we do one thing while they do another. It is going to take political will and politicians willing to spend political capital to make it happen. The only way to convince those politicians to spend that political capital is to look at all the data and then to make a case that demonstrates that the benefits outweigh the costs and the projected future benefits far outweigh the real human and ecological costs. Trying to argue that it will be cheap and easy with no downside is both intellectually wrong and self-defeating. Activists who stand on the sideline demanding the world while simultaneously ignoring what it takes to fight climate change will never succeed.
Being a pragmatist and realist seeking real, implementable solutions puts me in opposition to groups like the Extinction Rebellion. I view them as an unserious organization more in it for the publicity and personal aggrandizement than actually achieving any significant accomplishments. Virtually all my vocal opponents are activists of this sort; the kinds with zero training in environmental science and no understanding of the complexity of our energy system. These folk confidentially claim that we can achieve the impossible and when I push back they attack me. As a pragmatic environmental scientist I know it is possible to both support our fight against climate change and support our domestic oil and natural gas industries. Or to put it differently, if we want to fight climate change we need the resources to carry out that fight and we have to do our best to protect our ecosphere while we carry out the fight. .