Debunking some Viral Climate Change Alarmism

As my regular readers know, the emphasis of this blog is evidence-based, environmental decision-making. I care that reliable scientific data is being used to make informed policy decisions. As such, I try to push back when science is abused by individuals attempting to sway environmental policy. Few topics see this type of behaviour more than in the climate change debate where a whole school of activists have decided that apocalyptic language is the key to achieving their goals. These Chicken Little’s regularly make extraordinary, and generally unsupportable, claims and are seldom called out when they do. Today I am going to examine one recent example to demonstrate why I believe this approach is so misguided.

The example comes from my Twitter feed. In it a literature teacher from a high school in Paris made a series of simply ridiculous claims. Instead of being rightly ignored, this post went viral. Here is the post which at current count has received almost 136,000 retweets and almost 250,000 likes.

Needless to say when I first saw the tweet (when it still only had a few dozen retweets), I responded:

What to say? Virtually none of these statements is correct. The oceans are not being killed, forest cover is increasing, fertile soil is at similar levels to what it was decades ago, the insect story is not true… apocalyptic claims do not help the fight against climate change

I was quickly attacked with the common response asking me to prove that what I claimed was true, my favourite being

WHERE IS THE EVIDENCE THAT THESE AREN’T TRUE?

While you have to admire the all caps tweeting, anyone familiar with the scientific method knows it is up to the person making the extraordinary claim to prove their thesis; or as Carl Sagan put it: “extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence“.

Perhaps spurred on by my request, the author provided a series of tweets to support his claims. As I will demonstrate, these tweets (while appreciated by his followers) did nothing to support his opinions. Instead, it appeared they were offered safe in the knowledge that few of his followers would ever bother to read them.

In the next sections, I will briefly show why these references don’t support his contentions. I will then conclude with my take of why viral disinformation like this doesn’t help in the fight against climate change. Those not interested in the debunking feel free to go straight to the conclusion, as for the rest of you:

1) The oceans are being killed

In each of these cases the author (Ben) starts with an issue of concern to the scientific community, and then turns up the rhetoric to an 11. We can all agree that: “Overfishing, acidification, coral & seabed destruction, plastic & chemical pollution, ocean anoxia, phytoplankton, etc...” are serious issues that need to be addressed. However, we also know that none of these is indicative of the oceans “being killed“. Instead, each represents an ongoing challenge that reduces the quality and diversity of life in our oceans.

Looking at the references he uses to support his claim: the Forbes article is about overfishing; the Geochemical article is about microplastics; the Cell article is about ocean wilderness; and the PSMag article is about marine plastics. The one thing they all have in common is none supports Ben’s general argument that the “oceans are being killed“. They talk about risks to certain populations or sub-populations within the oceans but none of them support the general premise that the oceans will die in any real sense. They simply don’t support his wild rhetoric.

Forests will soon be gone

As for these citations: the Science Daily (20,000 scientists) article does not mention forests at all while the Academic.oup (Biosciences) is a particularly egregious misstatement. He presents the line “especially troubling is….deforestation” in his tweet; however this is another example of why ellipses are so often used by the unscrupulous. Here is the entire section in the original article:

Especially troubling is the current trajectory of potentially catastrophic climate change due to rising GHGs from burning fossil fuels (Hansen et al. 2013), deforestation (Keenan et al. 2015), and agricultural production…

The article does not claim that all forests are disappearing due to climate change, but rather that deforestation of some forests is increasing GHG emissions. I can’t imagine that careful use of ellipses was accidental. As for the PNAS article, it isn’t even about forests. So once again what appears to be deliberate misuse of irrelevant articles to support an unsound premise. Anyone sensing a trend?

In response to this tweet I pointed readers to two recent high-profile sources a study from NASA and article in Nature. Both detail the fact that in the last few decades the planet has greened and forest cover has increased. To be clear, we aren’t talking about obscure journals or organizations. This is NASA which is specifically tasked to study this problem and an article in Nature (one of the highest profile journals in the world). These are sources an activist who claims to care about forest cover should be familiar with.

Fertile Soil Is Disappearing

Now we all know that farming and land use practices have degraded our topsoil but Ben doesn’t even try to support his claim in this tweet. Instead he just provides a Guardian article that says that they aren’t doing enough to protect topsoil. It doesn’t back up his position that “fertile soil is disappearing” but any reasonable observer would have realized that this would be the case by now wouldn’t they? As a note, while the degradation of topsoil is a critical environmental concern, recent changes in farming approaches (like no-till farming) are making great strides in protecting our precious topsoil.

Megafauna risk extermination

This time Ben links to a thread of his own that warns of the issue while never indicating the technical basis for his concern. No links, no problems for his supporters; 703 of them re-tweeted his claim. Apparently none noticed that he failed to actually provide support for his case.

Admittedly this is the one claim that is closest to being true, large mammals are in trouble thanks to human encroachment on their habitat, but still Ben’s claim is a massive exaggeration.

Insects are vanishing

In this case the first link is to the article that is the source material for my last blog post where I showed that the article algorithm wasn’t able to support the hypothesis. The second is a link to an article that talks about loss of insect biodiversity in a small portion of Germany. Neither supports his greater claim of a global insect apocalypse.

You must get the point by now. In each case presented, the references proffered to support his statements do nothing of the sort. Given the length of this post already I will end the debunking here.

Conclusion

One might ask what an activist has to gain (except lots of “likes” on Twitter) by posting such a ridiculous list of claims. I’ve been informed (by another activist) that they do this to open the Overton Window. For those not familiar with the term here is a good definition:

The Overton window is the range of ideas the public is willing to consider and accept — ideas a politician to could successfully campaign on. This window shifts over time, as it’s subject to the trends of social thought and norms. All social reform movements have to shift the Overton window to make progress. 

The problem is that you don’t open the Overton Window by attempting to mislead. There is a reason why the story of the “Boy Who Cried Wolf” resonates so strongly in our society. It is because virtually every culture agrees that repeatedly making false claims destroys your credibility. You don’t open the Overton Window by deliberately misleading the public, you slam the window of discussion shut. People tune you out and politicians avoid you for fear that your dishonesty will stain their reputations. That is why so few professional scientists are willing to step up to support these people. It is always young graduates (with no reputations to protect) and retired professionals and academics (who can trade in on their history) who tend to speak out on these files.

The fight against climate change is going to be a long, hard struggle and as I have said time-after-time you win these fights by being known as the person everyone trusts to shoot straight. If you sell your reputation for momentary social media glory you will burn out just as quickly. Fighting climate change isn’t going to happen in one day. It is about incremental change. Going from coal, to natural gas to a mostly renewables energy system will take time and a lot of money. Developing new battery technologies that will allow long-range trucking and rail to electrified is a daunting and expensive challenge. These are how climate change will be beaten. Not by viral tweets that misinform and mislead but by the action of leaders everyone is willing to trust.

Posted in Climate Change, Climate Change Politics, Environmentalism and Ecomodernism, Uncategorized | 3 Comments

Why sample design matters or Why that “Insects are Vanishing Paper” does not tell us much about world insect populations

As followers of this blog know, one of my big interests is evidence-based, environmental decision-making. I care that good scientific data is being used to make informed policy decisions. As such the recent “insects are vanishing” meme that is spreading through my social media feeds has me concerned. Most of these stories derive from a single paper that recently came out in “Biological Conservation” titled Worldwide decline of the entomofauna: A review of its drivers by Francisco Sánchez-Bayo and Kris A.G.Wyckhuys. This paper provides a classic example of how a search algorithm designed to answer one question can result in a skewed output dataset when asked to answer a different question. Now most of the time this type of study has little effect on public policy; unfortunately, this study is the exception to that rule. As such it is important to understand what this paper did both wrong and right and what this paper can and can’t tell us about global insect population trends. Ultimately this is important because of how it informs future environmental policy decisions.

Reading the paper it becomes clear that the authors appear to have started their work simply seeking to understand the general drivers that influence insect population decline, where those declines are being observed. Somehow over the course of their research (and possibly the peer review process) they decided to extrapolate their results to make more globalized generalizations. The problem was that their initial dataset was not the appropriate tool to make these types of generalizations. The result is a paper that makes broad claims that are unsupported by the underlying data.

What do I mean by that? Well let’s look at the search algorithm used in their study:

we performed a search on the online Web of Science database using the keywords [insect*] AND [declin*] AND [survey], which resulted in a total of 653 publications. 

They then used tools to winnow down that initial list of 653 papers to a smaller group of

73 reports on entomofauna declines in various parts of the world (Fig. 1) and examines their likely causes (Table S1). Because the overwhelming majority of long-term surveys have been conducted in developed countries, particularly in the northern hemisphere, this review is geographically biased and does not adequately cover trends in tropical regions, where information on insect biodiversity is either incomplete or lacking (Collen et al., 2008).

The problem with the reporting on this paper is that it ignores all these provisos and instead makes huge claims based on scant evidence. So let’s start with the biggest failing of the paper: the original search algorithm.

The search algorithm looked only for papers that included some variation on insect, declin[e] and survey and then used that collection of papers in their further analyses. The problem is that is a pretty limited dataset. Would this search algorithm find a paper like:

Increasing abundance and diversity in the moth assemblage of east Loch Lomondside, Scotland over a 35 year period? No of course it wouldn’t.

The search algorithm only looked for papers where populations were declining not where they were increasing or were observed to be relatively stable. To be absolutely clear here, I don’t know if global insect populations are decreasing, increasing or stable, but this search algorithm won’t help anyone find that information out. It only looked for studies that found declining populations.

To help my readers understand let’s use a different example. Imagine you did a search of newspaper headlines for [Vancouver Canucks] and [loss*] and [2018]. That search would give you a list of Vancouver Canucks losses. Does that mean the Canucks never won a game? No, but that wasn’t what you were looking for.

Going back to the paper, they provide an incredibly important proviso in the methodology section but this proviso is virtually ignored in the reporting of its results. I included it above but it bears repeating.

Because the overwhelming majority of long-term surveys have been conducted in developed countries, particularly in the northern hemisphere, this review is geographically biased and does not adequately cover trends in tropical regions, where information on insect biodiversity is either incomplete or lacking (Collen et al., 2008).

Take a look at the geographic distribution of their papers:

Talk about a Eurocentric paper. Any Biologist will tell you that most insect diversity is observed in the Tropics and yet the article’s data density in the Tropics is virtually non-existent. Looking in their Supplemental Data we find that the paper includes less than a handful of papers dealing with the Tropics.

Let’s think about this. Is there any field of study where we would extrapolate ecological conditions in Europe to indicate global conditions? Europe is a horrible model for any ecological study because Europe has been heavily populated, intensively farmed and disturbed for centuries. If you were looking for the worst place to extrapolate world ecological trends from, Europe would be an excellent choice.

So you are probably wondering why I care some much about this topic? The answer is because when you use bad data as an input into a policy development process you get bad policies as an output. The one thing this paper makes clear is that human land use decisions are the biggest driver of insect population declines, where they have been observed. Sure climate change is a minor driver but the bigger problem is how humans manipulate our environment to make it more comfortable for other humans.

I have said time-and-again at this blog that one of my biggest concerns is habitat preservation and with insect populations we have another topic where habitat preservation appears to be the key. The paper makes it clear that preserving habitat is the single best way to help protect insect populations. To do that we need to reduce our ecological footprint by densifying our populations and changing our farming practices. From a practical perspective we need to stop relying on biofuels that eat up valuable potential wild spaces to produce liquid fuels or biomass for electricity. We need to stop building huge solar farms and even bigger wind farms that eat up valuable potential wildlands and instead massively increase the number of small solar collectors and “small wind” vertical turbines in our urban environments.

This is the Ecomodernist mantra I have repeated throughout my blogging. We need to change the way humans make use of the planet. We need to use a smaller part of it more intensely so we can leave a larger area for nature to do its thing with minimal human interference or influences.

As for all these blaring headlines about the insect apocalypse; well this paper is not supportive of them. Only in the activist press could a study with this limited reach and breadth be used to extrapolate world conditions.

To conclude, I can’t say it enough. I don’t know whether insect populations planet-wide are increasing, decreasing or are stable. But neither do the authors of this paper and neither do the activists who are using the headline from this paper to beat decision-makers over the head. Good environmental decision-making needs good data and while this paper helps describe certain phenomena, mostly in Europe, it does little to add to our understanding of worldwide insect conditions. Moreover, what it does tell us is that if we want to keep our insect populations healthy we need to change the way humans interact with our natural environment. We need to reduce our ecological footprint and give nature the space it needs to thrive.

Posted in Environmentalism and Ecomodernism, Risk Communication, Uncategorized | 2 Comments

On the Achilles Heel of these Climate Damages Lawsuits: Municipal Zoning Bylaws

By now everyone has heard about West Coast Environmental Law’s (WCEL’s) Climate Accountability Letters campaign. This is the campaign where a group of enterprising lawyers are:

asking your municipality (or regional district) to send “Climate Accountability Letters” to 20 of the world’s largest fossil fuel companies asking them to pay for climate costs that are being incurred by your community.

The theory goes that if enough communities get involved it will somehow stop these companies selling fossil fuels? Yes, I agree the premise is a bit confusing. Given that our society is not in a position to operate without fossil fuels getting rid of all the suppliers seems like a bad plan. Sort of like cruising at 40,000 feet in a jumbo jet and simultaneously demanding that the pilots turn off the engines.

Admittedly, the plan doesn’t really have to make sense since the ultimate goal appears to be “the possibility of a class action by all BC local governments against some fossil fuel companies“. Now given that the group initiating this process is also the legal team that would likely lead that class action lawsuit (and generate all those fees) it is understandable why they might be encouraging this action. That being said, I would like to suggest a few holes in the logic of this approach.

To be clear, I am not the first person to take on this topic and some very good writers have poked massive holes in the WCEL’s arguments. If you have not yet seen it, read this piece by Terry Etam at The Orca called Dear Victoria City Council which highlights some of the mathematical flaws with the WCEL argument.

I have also seen the topic discussed on Twitter. Most of the arguments there decry blaming a supplier of a necessary good for the consequences of using that good. But that is a story for another day.

Instead in this post I want to point out one argument I have not seen elsewhere. In my view, this argument is one of many reasons why any community that decided to go the class action suit route would get absolutely toasted in the courts. I am talking about how historic community zoning decisions will torpedo any future lawsuit.

Anyone who has followed the US class action lawsuits on this topic knows that there is a pretty high bar to cross to win this type of case and hypocrisy makes that bar much higher. Who can forget the City of Oakland exposing itself to massive lawsuits because it simultaneously claimed that climate change was an existential threat in a lawsuit while claiming it wasn’t in a bond issue.

So we know hypocrisy plays in the courts and where do our municipalities really display their hypocrisy on the climate change front? Well that would be their zoning bylaws. The zoning and re-zoning of land is one of the most important powers a municipal government has and how a municipal government zones its lands strongly expresses how that municipality feels about a particular issue.

If a municipality felt that climate change was an existential threat then that should be reflected in their zoning decisions. You wouldn’t zone a car-dependent development if you felt that cars were killing the planet would you? Allowing a subdivision to be developed where every commuter had easy access to transit and the ability to walk to all necessary amenities would seem a minimum requirement for a community that wanted to blame others for the effects of climate change on that community.

Let’s also remember that the basis of these lawsuits is that the fossil fuel companies knew about climate change for decades and did little to address the issue. Well here is a secret, so have local communities. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) was formed in 1988 and its first report was produced in 1990. That means that any land use decision since 1990 would have to be considered in a lawsuit. Anyone want to guess how many car-dependent developments have been approved in Victoria or any of the other signatory municipalities since 1990? I’m not sure, but I’m pretty sure that during any class action lawsuit every one of those developments will be presented as evidence that the communities are the authors of their own misfortune. Unless these communities can demonstrate that their last 30 years of land use decisions have unanimously been intended to increase density and eliminate reliance on automobiles and trucks then there will be issues at trial.

I can hear a lot of people saying, “so what, at least if enough communities do this it will cripple the oil companies“. My response is to point out that when the court finds a lawsuit is frivolous or unwarranted the result is often that the person/group who brought the lawsuit ends up being dinged for the entire cost of the lawsuit. Look at what happened to the City of Burnaby when it lost its most recent Trans Mountain lawsuit. The City paid its own lawyers over $1 million so we can only surmise that it had to pay a similar amount to Trans Mountain’s lawyers. That is over $2 million poured down the drain for zero public good. Imagine how much more good that $2 million might have done if simply donated to the food bank.

Anyone notice a trend here? The only people who are most assuredly paid in this fight are the lawyers. So can you really blame a team of lawyers for suggesting that communities should initiate big class action lawsuits? They get paid no matters who wins. As for community leaders, the upside of this process is pretty hazy. Admittedly a lot of the people initiating these processes are municipal politicians who likely won’t be around when the bill collector comes knocking. But residents of these communities will still be there; and when the piper comes around asking for his due it will be their pockets that will be emptied pay for a politician’s stunt from 2019.

Needless to say, as a taxpayer in the Township of Langley, if my council takes up the discussion of climate accountability letters and class action lawsuits I will be making a presentation to council. I have no intention of lining a team of lawyers’ pockets for a meaningless gesture. I will continue to work to fight climate change at the local level by encouraging the Township to get improved transit in our area and to build more walkable developments but I will fight any attempt to shift the blame to someone else. As a consumer of fossil fuels I am the one responsible for my actions and as communities we are all responsible for our car-dependent communities. I know it is the current practice to look for others to blame for the wrongs of the world, but the truth is that you and I are to blame and trying to get someone else to pay for decisions made on our behalf, by our community leaders, is simply the wrong approach.

Posted in Canadian Politics, Climate Change, Climate Change Politics, Uncategorized | 5 Comments

Debunking more activist talking points about BC LNG: on “illegal dams”, electrification, and LNG as a bridge fuel

The thing I really don’t understand about the activist class in BC is their intellectual incoherence. They argue that climate change is an existential threat to our planet; but that we should only fight climate change using a small suite of their preferred technologies. They argue that we should care about greenhouse gases; but only those emitted within the borders of Canada. They argue we should electrify our economy; but only if we do it in their preferred manner. They have a parochial view of the world that ignores the international nature of the fight against climate change. On few topics, do they show all these failing at once, but topic of BC liquid natural gas (LNG) is certainly one example.

In this blog post, I want to blow up a few of the latest myths and painful arguments being foisted on the public by the anti-LNG activists out there. Specifically, I want to deal with the LNG topics of “illegal dams”, electrification and LNG as a bridge fuel.

On “Illegal Dams” in the BC Northeast

By now anyone interested in LNG in BC has heard of Ben Parfitt from the CCPA. Ben is the CCPA’s point man on the LNG file. A former investigative journalist, Ben has really made his mark. In particular over the last year he has concentrated on “illegal dams” in Northeastern BC. I put “illegal dams” in scare quotes because, as I will point out in this post, if you want to be technical about it, most of these “dams” aren’t what you and I would consider a dam and most of the “illegal dams” were built following the rules of the day and most of the identified infractions involve catching up with the paperwork associated with a recent regulatory change.

So let’s start with the “dam” thing. Being from BC when I think of a dam I think of structures like the Revelstoke or WAC Bennett dams. Massive structures that stick out of the landscape. An unregulated dam is a terrifying thought as a dam failure would surely result in massive destruction and casualties. But that is not how the regulator sees it. Under the Dam Safety Regulation (DSR) of the Water Sustainability Act (WSA) a dam is defined as:

(a) a barrier constructed for the purpose of enabling the storage or diversion of water diverted from a stream or an aquifer, or both, and

(b) other works that are incidental to or necessary for the barrier described in paragraph (a);

What that means is that a hole in the ground where water from a shallow aquifer can pool on the surface can technically become a “dam” under the DSR. As Ian Fife explains most of the “dams” described by the CCPA in their reports are simply water retention ponds created as part of road-building. To explain: much of the BC northeast is soggy with very shallow groundwater. In order to build roads in these areas the ground has to be built up. To build up ground means you have to find aggregates and fills to use as road base material. When that material is dug up, the resulting holes fill up with groundwater and runoff and voilà this structure becomes a “dam” under the DSR.

As for the dams being “illegal”, in February 2016, the WSA replaced the old B.C. Water Act. Under the Water Act dam owners could extract water from their ponds without special permits. Under the WSA dams owners now need to have a water licence to draw water from their ponds. So technically, until the owners complete all the water licensing paperwork for each of their ponds they are illegal dams in CCPA parlance. Understand, this type of thing always happens when a new regulatory regime get enacted. Older projects are almost always in noncompliance with the new rules and are gradually all brought into compliance with the new rules. Only in the activist community would this type of thing warrant the level of furor we have seen to date.

To summarize, most of these “dams” are not really dams they are at-grade water retention ponds, dug to supply the material needed to build roads, that contain exposed groundwater and because they were built before the WSA was enacted they do not currently have an associated water permit.

As for the Lily Dam Ben uses as his example in virtually every one of his stories (Ben has written no less than 5 reports for the CCPA about the Lily Dam). It is a very special case. As I mentioned previously, most of the retention ponds are at-grade structures (holes in the ground where the water level is at or near the regional grade). However, if the sides of the water retention pond exceed the arbitrary 15 meter height limit described in Part 5 of the Reviewable Projects Regulation of the Environmental Assessment Act (EAA) then that “dam” becomes a reviewable project under the EAA.

So how can a water retention pond exceed 15 m in height? When it is built on a hillside. As for the Lily dam here is how he describes it:

The main report before the EAO in support of Progress’s Lily dam project (Progress Energy Lily Dam – Project Description) describes a nearly 23-metre-high earthen structure, or a dam roughly as tall as a seven-storey apartment building.

Now let’s look at this “towering earthen structure” that is worth so much of Ben and the CCPA’s time:

This is not a mighty dam, with a massive reservoir built on a raging river; it is a mid-sized retaining pond built into a hillside over a dozen miles away from the nearest human habitation. Its height is not due to it being built upwards (like you would expect for a dam) but rather due to the supporting structures on the slope upon which it sits. As for its danger to the local community these were addressed by the Environmental Assessment Office in the Dam Inundation Assessment (the assessment of what would happen if the dam failed). That report concluded:

1) the determined flood inundation zone does not impact any permanent residences, seasonal cottages or known recreation areas.

2. Once the flood waters enter the Sikanni Chief River [the nearest downgradient water body], the flow dissipates rapidly to approximately 4 m3/s. This is anticipated to have a negligible impact on the river flows and height, and the mapping was terminated at that point.

3. Considering the above, there is no identifiable population at risk from the d-042-K Dam, other than through unforeseeable misadventure.

For those of you who don’t read legalese the assessment established that if the dam failed the result would be no risk to human or ecological health. The water would run down the hillside and would have insufficient volume to negatively affect the nearest fish-bearing stream. The only potential harm would be if someone was standing immediately downgradient of the dam when it failed and that would be highly unlikely as there are no communities anywhere near the dam.

So this “not quite a dam” doesn’t actually dam a river; its failure would hurt no one; and its massive height is based solely on it being built on a hill. Is there any wonder the Environmental Assessment Office chose to exempt it from requiring an environmental assessment certificate. Yet this is the poster child used by the activists for dangerous, illegal, LNG, fracking dams.

As for the other “dozens” of illegal dams described by the CCPA, only the Lily and the Town dams meet the EAA review requirements and both have been given exemptions because they don’t pose any real risk to human health or the environment. The rest are, as previously described, are mostly small at-grade water bodies that pose a negligible risk to the local environment.

On Electrification of LNG

Now Ben was not satisfied with banging the drum about illegal dams, he is also all astir about the use of electricity to power BC LNG. This latest is the topic for his recent report How clean is a BC that subsidizes accelerated fossil fuel extraction? In this report Ben argues that the electrification of our LNG supply chain is a bad thing. Here is Ben in the Vancouver Sun:

The government wants us to believe that using hydro power to electrify LNG production somehow reduces emissions. But all that electrification actually achieves is to save gas from being combusted in BC so that it can be piped out of the province and burned somewhere else.

Talk about being parochial and missing the point. Let’s remember that the CCPA is an organization that argues we should be fighting climate change. It manages to do so while simultaneously making the unscientific argument that we should only consider domestic emissions when considering BC LNG.

The problem with the CCPA’s argument is that GHG emissions are global and we know that Asia will be needing (and using) natural gas for the foreseeable future. The only question is what natural gas will it be using? Will it use high-carbon natural gas from Qatar or lower emission natural gas from British Columbia?

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.

To put numbers to that argument consider those from my blog post: On the global climate change math supporting BC LNG using the Pacific Northwest gas (PNG) project as an example:

doing the simple math the PNW LNG project has a 18% lower greenhouse gas intensity versus our average competitor… If the British Columbia government can electrify the process then the PNW LNG project can operate at an intensity equivalent to 80% of our competitors. What that means is that if consumers in Asia use British Columbia LNG the global emissions for the LNG will be 20% lower than existing LNG sources. If this LNG replaces coal as an energy source the global benefit of using BC LNG is even greater. So from a global perspective this is also a slam dunk, we sell our LNG to Asian clients and in doing so prevent the emissions of millions of tonnes of carbon dioxide that would otherwise have come from using coal or dirtier LNG sold by our competitors.

Ben can make his parochial local claims until he is blue in the face, but Kasumu et al. makes it clear. BC LNG (especially BC LNG using clean hydro electricity for the compression and transmission steps) will radically reduce Chinese (and thus global) GHG emissions. BC LNG generated using clean BC electricity will reduce global GHG emissions even more. There is no doubt about that fact.

Natural Gas as a Bridge Fuel

To conclude, I want to quickly point to an even more gob-stopping example of an activist losing the thread. This would be the article: The Inevitable Death of Natural Gas as a ‘Bridge Fuel’ by Justin Mikulka at DeSmog blog. The author argues in the article that natural gas is failing as a “bridge fuel” because after having used natural gas to break its coal habit the US is now building more renewable energy infrastructure and therefore has less need for natural gas.

Apparently the author doesn’t understand that the entire point of a bridge fuel is that it will be used until it is not needed. Once you cross a bridge you shouldn’t need to use it again. If LNG is no longer needed then that is a good thing not a failure.

Conclusion

Reading back over this post I see another classic example of how the activists work. They count on their supporters never actually following up or looking deeply into the information they present and they love to make mountains out of mole hills. For the last year I have read again and again about all these “illegal dams” in northern BC and only after seeing Ian Fife’s post on the topic did I spend the time necessary to look into the topic myself. What I found is that the water retention pond down the street would qualify as a “dam” under the DSR and that all these dams are not an existential threat to northeastern BC instead they are essentially just another 50 or so water features in an ecosystem with countless small water features. As for BC LNG, it is a valuable way to help fight climate change.


Posted in Canadian Politics, Environmentalism and Ecomodernism, Site C, Uncategorized | 1 Comment

On the “shocking” revelations in the BC Hydro IPP review and the reality that the fight against climate change is not going to be cheap

This week A Review of BC Hydro’s Purchase of Power from Independent Power Producers came out and to no one’s surprise it revealed that BC Hydro is paying too much for all that intermittent, low-carbon power purchased under the 2007 Energy Plan–Vision for Clean Energy Leadership that informed the 2010 Clean Energy Act (CEA). These policy decisions were the provincial government putting their money where their mouth was when it came to fighting climate change and represents a sign of exactly what we should expect as we continue our fight against climate change.

To put it bluntly BC Hydro, in 2019, is suffering because they are ahead of the curve and got locked into intermittent renewables which is exactly what the environmental activists say we should be doing country-wide. When you read “run-of-river” in this review you could just as easily read “wind” or “solar”. Because of this, BC Hydro’s problems in 2019 are going to be mirrored across the country and that is the price we may need to pay if we are serious about fighting climate change. Moreover, it is guaranteed to be the price we will pay if we decide to go 100% renewables in our fight against climate change.

Let’s start with a little history. In 2007 as part of its Energy Plan (2007 EP) and in the subsequent Climate Action Plan (CAP) our Provincial Government committed us to a path of electricity self-sufficiency. As described in these plans, electricity self-sufficiency was deemed a major priority. The reason for this was self-evident to the authors of those plans; but seems to be lost on the politicians of today. In a world where fighting climate change becomes our defining political battle ensuring we have a steady domestic supply of low-carbon electricity is exactly the reason why we have a government-owned utility.

The two plans foresaw a future where we will need to use more electricity for transportation and residential uses and will need to ensure that we have the domestic capacity to meet those needs. Recognizing that the government of the day couldn’t pay for it all the power, CAP foresaw that we would need to bring in external partners to meet our future electricity needs. Thus the reliance on Independent Power Producer (IPPs). It also acknowledged that paying a bit more to provide flexibility of supply and energy security represented sound governmental policy and not a mistake. As I wrote in a previous post: it is a feature of the system not a bug.

This brings us to the reason for the CAP and the CEA: our desire to fight climate change. By now we all know that the way to fight climate change is to reduce our reliance on fossil fuels, and how do we do that? We need to electrify everything and then make sure that the electricity we move over to is of the low-carbon variety (like run-of-river hydro, solar, wind or large reservoir hydro). Reading that list you see a common feature in three of those choices (run-of-river hydro, solar and wind) they are all intermittent power sources. The problem with intermittent power sources is they are intermittent. Some days the winds will blow and you will have lots of electricity and some days it won’t and you won’t have enough. In order to deal with this challenge you have to over-build capacity; build some storage capacity into the system; and provide some back-up for when the storage runs out. In BC we have done two of these things, we have built a lot of intermittent capacity and have the back-up (in the form of large-reservoir hydro) but we don’t have the storage.

Absent the storage this means that when the intermittent is producing at full capacity we are going to have too much electricity that we will need to get rid of somehow. Due to an absence of capability to move it eastward much of this electricity gets dumped on the southern market at a reduced price. This is the same thing that can happen elsewhere. In California they can get a situation where they literally have to pay other states to take their intermittent electricity while other localities like Denmark often can sell it to an integrated market but that doesn’t always work as the Germans can explain.

So unless we can come up with a way to store the excess electricity provided by all these intermittent sources we will need to subsidize our excess capacity. As for complaining about IPPs? Well if you are not willing to build it yourself, then you are going to have to provide the people who do with security that their investment is sound…and this means long-term contracts. These contracts are the price of doing business and while we are losing money now, that doesn’t mean we will continue doing so.

Ultimately money is the challenge, but then we have been told time and time again that fighting climate change is going to cost money. Ideally, this should be done by increasing electricity prices to drive down demand and spur innovation but we live in BC where raising electricity prices is tangled in politics. This means that BC Hydro has not been able to drive up the price to pay for our government’s desire to fight climate change.

If the government isn’t going to allow BC Hydro to charge what it needs then it is going to have to use some of that carbon tax money to help BC Hydro cover the difference. Realistically the whole purpose of the carbon tax is to help force a move towards electricity and away from carbon-intensive energy sources. It seems logical that some of the carbon tax revenue be used to help BC Hydro achieve this goal.

To close this post let’s reiterate a few facts: fighting climate change is going to be a very expensive, electricity-intensive project that will take a huge political will; the expenditures of massive financial resources; and cooperation between the private and public sectors. This is not something that can be accomplished by governments alone and it will mean making huge sacrifices and compromises.

If the activists are right, by 2050, we will need to be self-sufficient in low carbon energy because our neighbours to the south and east are fighting the same battles that we are. We won’t be able to simply dip into Alberta or Washington’s energy supplies when the wind is not blowing and the sun not shining. We are going to need to take advantage of the massive financial resources of the private sector and to do that we must give them assurances that we will buy the power they produce, hence IPPs.

To build and operate those new sources we have to accept that energy is going to get a lot more expensive but that is the price of completely converting our energy system from one based on carbon to one that is essentially carbon-free. That means we are going to have to get used to high energy prices and that our government is going to have to find a way to shelter the poorest among us from the sticker-shock. If we want BC Hydro to keep providing power we need to figure out a fair way to pay for it and simply raising rates is not the answer.

Ultimately this report is telling us what policy experts have been saying for years. Fighting climate change is not going to be cheap and if you want to fight climate change then the government is going to need to invest money in order to do so. Anyone who claims that switching to intermittents will be cheap and easy is simply selling you a bill of goods and anyone who says that BC is the only case of this needs to look at California, Germany and Denmark. They are all leading the charge on integrating intermittents into their power grids and the result has been higher priced energy. BC Hydro is suffering because we are asking it to achieve two mutually exclusive goals: provide a low carbon grid full of intermittents to help in the fight against climate change while keeping prices low. Carbon tax revenues can help it achieve these two mutually exclusive goals.

Author’s note:

Just quick follow-up about the report. It is simply stunning to me that a report on this topic completely ignores the entire topic of climate change. The entire purpose of the CEA is to help in the fight against climate change and yet the report fails to include the term even once. A word search finds it once in an appendix but nowhere in the body of the text. Talking about the CEA and BC’s energy future while excluding the overriding energy topic of our era is simply incomprehensible and a report that ignores climate considerations in energy prices really needs a serious reconsideration.

Posted in Canadian Politics, Climate Change, Climate Change Politics, Fossil Fuel Free Future, Renewable Energy | 10 Comments

Questioning the PBO’s math on the value of the Trans Mountain Pipeline

The Parliamentary Budget Officer (PBO), Yves Giroux, produced a report this week on the estimated value of the Trans Mountain Pipeline (TMP) and the Trans Mountain Pipeline Expansion Project (TMEP). This report has a lot of people up in arms because it indicates that the Government of Canada “negotiated a purchase price at the higher end of PBO’s valuation range“. The problem with this conclusion is that the PBO specifically notes that it omitted some pretty important considerations in calculating its numbers. In this blog post I want to go into detail about why I believe the PBO report severely undervalued the TMEP and that the government may well ultimately win out big on this project.

Let’s start with the easy part, what the PBO appears to have done right. The PBO used two types of analyses to assess the value of the purchase:

  • Discounted cash flow (DCF) analysis: Assessing the value of the TMP and TMEP based on the present value of future cash flows it is expected to generate.
  • Comparables analysis: Assessing the value of the TMP based on key valuation metrics of similar companies in the same industry

These analyses come up with a lower and upper bounds for the purchase. As the report notes:

The Parliamentary Budget Officer (PBO) estimates that the TMP and TMEP have a value of between $3.6 billion and $4.6 billion. As such, the Government negotiated a purchase price at the higher end of PBO’s valuation range. PBO’s financial valuation assumes that the pipeline is built on time and on budget.

Now for the part the PBO missed. Let’s start by making it clear, the PBO is completely forthright about what it did. My concern is that because only a tiny percentage of the people who discuss this report will actually read it; the result will be a false narrative becoming the dominant one. As I note, the PBO admits its approach is flawed right from the outset. It literally says so in the Executive Summary:

However, PBO’s valuation does not include related assets that were bought as part of the acquisition, including multiple pipeline terminals and the Puget Sound Pipeline. Therefore, PBO’s valuation would be understated relative to the total value of all the assets bought as part of the purchase.

So what does the PBO not think is worthy of consideration? Just a second pipeline and a massive amount of incredibly valuable real estate. You see the Government of Canada didn’t just get a single pipeline for their $4.4 billion, they got two pipelines, four terminals and a lot of ancillary lands. As described in the NEB submission:

The Edmonton, Burnaby and Sumas terminals are located on lands owned by Trans Mountain. All three terminals are zoned as industrial sites. Details for the terminal sites are:

  • Edmonton Terminal – about 49.1 ha (121.4 acres)
  • Burnaby Terminal – about 76.3 ha (188.6 acres)
  • Sumas Terminal and pump station – about 80 ha (197.7 acres)
  • The Westridge Marine Terminal is located on about 6.2 ha (15.4 acres) of land owned by Trans Mountain, with the exception of a small portion of land, located between the railway and the shoreline, which is leased from Canadian Pacific
  • Trans Mountain also owns sufficient lands for most of the pump stations required for the project.

As I wrote on Twitter, this is where it becomes clear that the PBO is situated in Ottawa and its civil servants appear to have no clue about property values in Western Canada.

Let’s consider the Burnaby Terminal. It is located on Burnaby Mountain just down the hill from SFU. It is proximate to all sorts of transit and represents some of the most valuable land in the Lower Mainland. A much smaller, 19 acres, block of industrial land nearby (called the Saputo property) sold recently for $209 million. They got $209 million for a lot one tenth the size of the Burnaby Terminal. Sure if the Burnaby Terminal were to close there would be clean-up costs, but looking at land value alone that property could be worth as much as $2 billion. So why does the PBO say that the terminals shouldn’t be counted as assets? Apparently because their value is “inextricably linked” to the Trans Mountain. Pardon me, but real estate prices in Burnaby are not “inextricably linked to the pipeline” they are set by the market and the market would salivate over that hunk of land.

As I hope to discuss in a later blog post, I can envisage a scenario where the TMEP fails and the current TMP continues to operate as a light oil/refined fuel pipeline that essentially terminates at an expanded Sumas facility in Abbotsford. Under this scenario virtually all the TMP crude flow would then be redirected to the Puget Sound via the Puget Sound Pipeline. To replace Line 2 (the heavy crude line in the TMEP), Alberta would ship bitumen to the coast on rails using CanaPux™ to be loaded at a re-purposed coal export facility at Roberts Bank.

This alternative approach would massively increase rail transport through our communities; increase tanker traffic in the Salish Sea (absent the protections of the TMEP) and increase the greenhouse gas emissions of the resulting crude. But it would rely on existing infrastructure and would therefore bypass the need for further assessments. By going this route it would allow a savvy owner to sell off the Burnaby Tank farm and Westridge Marine terminal for their real estate value.

But back to this post. As I infer in the previous paragraph there is another important asset missing in the PBO’s calculations: the Puget Sound Pipeline.

At the Sumas delivery point in Abbotsford, BC, the Trans Mountain Pipeline connects with the Trans Mountain Puget Sound Pipeline, a system that has been shipping Canadian crude oil products since 1954 to Washington state refineries in Anacortes, Cherry Point and Ferndale. This 111 kilometres (69 miles) pipeline system is made up of  16 to 20 inch pipe and has the capacity for up to about 240,000 bpd (28,600 m3 per day) depending on petroleum types transported and the balance of deliveries between the two destinations – Anacortes and Ferndale

The Puget Sound Pipeline Puget transported approximately 191 thousand barrels/day (mbbl/day) of mostly light crude in 2016, comprising approximately one-third of the collective capacity of all refineries in the Anacortes and Ferndale area. Not only that but the Puget Sound Pipeline is capable of being expanded to approximately 500 mbbl/d from 240 mbbl/d today simply by adding a few pump stations. The pipe is big enough, but it has never been expanded because there was not enough source material in the Trans Mountain to justify its upgrade.

The PBO chooses not to include the value of this pipeline, apparently because:

The Puget Sound pipeline system is significantly shorter than the TMP and transports less product, therefore, its cash flows and valuation are expected to be only a fraction of the TMP’s .

Remember the current Trans Mountain moves a maximum of 300,000 barrels per day (bpd) and the Puget Sound Pipeline moved 191,000 bpd in 2016. Now I do admit that 64% of the total volume moved is less than 100% but it certainly represents a large fraction of the total volume moved down the pipe. From an income perspective, by my calculations, the Puget Sound Pipeline brings in between $20 – $30 million a year. While not a massive value certainly nothing to sneeze at when calculating value for the TMEP. If my math is right it represents around 10% -15% of the income generated by the Trans Mountain system as a whole. So not a huge chunk, but still pretty significant addition that was excluded from the calculations.

To conclude let’s look at what the PBO said and what we now know. According to the PBO, ignoring the real estate value of the terminals and the Puget Sound Pipeline the TMEP is worth between $3.6 billion and $4.6 billion. Thus the $4.4 billion paid for the TMEP is at the high end of the range. However, were you only to add the land value for the Burnaby Terminal (let’s charitably call it $1 billion) then that valuation goes from $4.6 billion to $5.6 billion. That ignores the value of the Puget Sound Pipeline, as well as 200 acres in Abbotsford etc… Thus, using more complete numbers one could argue that the Government of Canada got a great deal.

The only problem with my numbers? They ruin the narrative being pushed by activists that the government got fleeced by an evil Texas-based company. The truth meanwhile is that it looks like the government did a pretty reasonable job and if it plays its cards right could make a pretty penny from this project.

Posted in Canadian Politics, Pipelines, Trans Mountain, Uncategorized | 4 Comments

New research puts a stake into the heart of the “Bridge to Nowhere” argument against BC LNG

As someone who has followed the BC LNG debate pretty closely, I can’t count the number of times I have heard the expression “natural gas is a bridge to nowhere. This expression derives from an infamous article by Cornell Biologist Robert Howarth. I have repeatedly argued that Dr. Howarth’s research is not applicable in the context of BC LNG. My opinion is consistent with the peer-reviewed academic literature on this topic. Today I was directed to a new research article that I hope will finally put a stake into the heart of this horrible metaphor. This new article concludes that, even in the Marcellus Shale, natural gas “exerts a net climate benefit compared to coal” or as I put it: the climate math says that BC LNG has the potential to help in the global fight against climate change.

Let’s start this piece with a brief discussion of BC natural gas. When it comes to issues around natural gas, geology matters. In BC, most of our natural gas is very deep and sour. As the BC Oil & Gas Commission puts it:

B.C.’s geology provides a natural advantage over other areas of the world where hydraulic fracturing takes place closer to the surface, as natural gas in B.C. is found deep underground, in some cases over four kilometres, and beneath impermeable layers of rock.

Look at that sentence again. I admit one thing I often fail to really comprehend in geology is just how deep these formations are. In the Montney the gas is located 4 kilometers beneath the surface. Think of that number again. We are talking about 4000 m of rock. If you were to start walking down the street at average human walking speed it would take you 48 minutes to travel the depth of this gas…all through layers and layers of virtually impermeable rock. This is why fracking really can’t do anything to affect our drinking water aquifers which are typically very shallow. Sour gas, meanwhile, is poisonous and as a result it is dangerous to vent. As a consequence, venting and flaring of gas is strictly controlled in BC.

These two considerations are very important because the deeper the gas the more buffer zone to prevent infiltration of methane and fracking fluids into our drinking water aquifers and the nature of sour gas means that our regulators are far more cautious about fugitive emissions as any releases can have serious medical consequences for anyone near a drill site. So when someone from places where the gas is much shallower complains about fracking all I can do is to shake my head and say “geology matters”.

But one of the biggest arguments against BC LNG has been based on the research by Dr. Howarth at Cornell. As I noted, Dr. Howarth is a Biologist by training but has made a name for himself criticizing natural gas development. Most of his work has been heavily critiqued (as I detail in a previous blog post) with some of his biggest critics being his own colleagues at Cornell. Arguably they aren’t really his colleagues because unlike him they are trained geologists. Even though actual geologists sharply critique his work, his most famous paper, the Bridge to Nowhere article, seems to always be part of the arguments used by opponents of BC LNG.

Because of its apparent importance in the debate I keep a look-out for newer research on the topic and was very interested in a new study by Ren et al.Methane Emissions from the Marcellus Shale in Southwestern Pennsylvania and Northern West Virginia Based on Airborne Measurements“. This new study effectively puts a stake in the heart of the “Bridge to Nowhere” argument and hopefully will put to bed the argument that BC LNG is worse than coal for powering Asian economies.

The new study uses airborne measurements combined with direct sampling to calculate an estimate of the methane emission rates of the Marcellus Shale. Their plain language summary says:

In this study methane (CH4) emission rates were estimated for the southwest Marcellus Shale based on airborne observations. A mean emission rate of ~21 kg CH4/s was observed from a 4200 km2 study area. A significant portion (~70%) of the emitted CH4 was found to originate likely from coalbeds. Our mean estimated emission rate of 1.1% of total natural gas production indicates a climate benefit of natural gas combustion compared to coal, but the full range includes values above the 2.4% break-even point for the CH4 global warming potential over a 20-year time horizon.

So what does that mean? Well the numbers they get are about a third of what Howarth uses in his paper and their best estimate is less than half of the 2.4% necessary for natural gas to be an effective alternative to coal in our fight against climate change.

What is even more interesting is that their study doesn’t even consider another recent paper titled Temporal variability largely explains top-down/bottom-up difference in methane emission estimates from a natural gas production region by Vaughn et al. This paper came out while the Ren paper was in production and makes the cogent observation that the flights used by researchers (like Ren et al.) to measure methane only happen during the day (usually in the middle of the day). This coincides with when maintenance on natural gas facilities (which requires that they flush their systems) are typically occurring. As such, it is likely that this type of sampling overestimates total emissions.

For an analogy it would be like traffic counters only working during rush hour and then extrapolating that rush hour conditions exist over the entire 24 hour day including the middle of the night.

In particular, it would explain why sampling often finds intermittent super-emitters that drive the averages higher. It is likely that many of the “super-emitters” cited in other reports simply represent one-time flushing being done for maintenance purposes. This is important because these outliers have a massive effect on the statistics and may grossly overestimate total emissions.

The interesting additional feature of the Ren et al. paper is that as part of their work the authors collected air samples for further chemical analysis. By comparing the chemical composition of the collected gas (specifically the correlation between methane and ethane/propane) the authors were able to determine that as much as 66% of the observed methane in their observations were derived from coal beds and not from oil and natural gas operations.

This new analysis helps explain the discrepancies between the work that was done in bottom-up analyses and the top-down work. In particular it explains the recent NASA research showing increases from fossil fuel sources in global methane budget. It appears that in the Marcellus Shale, at least, coal mining may actually be the primary source of anthropogenic methane in the atmosphere. The serves as another reason, (as if we need one) to reduce or eliminate the mining of coal in that area.

As someone who believes in evidence-based decision making the recent research makes it abundantly clear that the climate math strongly supports BC expanding its LNG industry. As I have noted in the past, the most recent research on this topic demonstrates conclusively that when replacing coal in Chinese energy facilities, BC LNG produces lower total, life-cycle emissions.

Even more importantly, in the current market, BC LNG would not be replacing coal when exported to China. Instead BC LNG would mostly be replacing Chinese synthetic natural gas (SNG) and on that topic the climate math is even more categoricalBC LNG is much, much cleaner than Chinese SNG from a life cycle perspective. 

Finally as this new research shows, the alternative argument used by the opponents of BC LNG, that natural gas is a bridge to nowhere, has been staked in the heart. Using the activists’ own top-down methodology these independent researchers have confirmed that even in the Marcellus Shale natural gas is a climate benefit over coal. The anti-LNG activists simply don’t have a leg to stand on.

Addendum:

I posted a comment about the Ren paper on Twitter and was surprised to receive a very quick reply from Dr. Howarth himself. Needless to say, he was quick to discount my initial analysis. When I asked him to correct me, (even going so far as to give him the benefit of the doubt that I might not have interpreted the article correctly) he blocked me. His response made it clear that I had indeed hit the nail on the head.

Credit: cover image from BC Oil & Gas Commission

Posted in Canadian Politics, Uncategorized | 3 Comments