More on Coronavirus PPE – This time let’s talk about gloves

I am an Environmental Chemist. My work involves exposure to toxic and/or corrosive chemicals. Prior to my current professional position, I worked at the University of Victoria teaching first year students in their first university laboratory course. As a Professional Chemist now, and an academic Chemist then, the very first thing I teach/taught my staff/students is/was how to correctly use personal protective equipment (PPE). In my last post I wrote about one type of PPE (face masks) this post is about gloves.

Glove safety is a particular bugbear of mine. The reason for this is personal. During my graduate studies a colleague had a nasty accident thanks to not following glove protocol and because of that I spend a lot of time enforcing good glove protocol with my staff. In this blog post I want to share some of the lessons I have learned about glove use and provide some suggestions about the use of gloves during the Coronavirus pandemic.

Gloves can be your friends but you don’t need them for most tasks

Almost every health official on the planet has repeated the same refrain: good hand hygiene is an important way to protect ourselves from the Coronavirus. Virtually every public surface may be covered in virus and good hand hygiene will help protect you from the virus. As the Centers for Disease Control points out you need to:

perform hand hygiene (e.g., handwashing with non-antimicrobial soap and water, and alcohol-based hand rub if soap and water are not available) after having contact with respiratory secretions and contaminated objects/materials.

But in some situations, good hand hygiene is not good enough, that is when you should wear gloves. A good (intact) pair of nitrile or latex gloves provides an excellent barrier from Coronavirus. But gloves are not a panacea and used incorrectly gloves can hurt rather than help.

From what I have seen to date, most people are using gloves incorrectly and in doing so are putting themselves, their families and the people they encounter at increased risk. In the next sections I want to emphasize some of the rules you should consider when wearing gloves.

Always assume the outside of your glove is contaminated

The most important thing I want everyone who reads this post to understand is that you always have to treat your gloves as if they are contaminated. You cannot see the Coronavirus so you have to assume that the outside of your glove is covered with the virus. That means if you touch something with that glove you will have contaminated that surface with Coronavirus.

Yesterday I was waiting to pay for my groceries behind a couple wearing gloves. This couple had done all their shopping wearing these gloves [I had noticed them earlier] and they were at the cashier paying. They insisted on paying with cash (much to the dismay of the cashier) and the gent proceeded to touch every single bill with his gloved hands. Before that I watched the gent pull his wallet out of his back pocket with his gloved hand. He then collected his wife’s purse, once again using the same gloved hand and then pulled out her wallet to get change.

This gent was oblivious to the fact that every object he touched would be exposed to whatever was on the outside of his gloves. His pocket, his wallet, his wife’s purse, her wallet, all these surface were now potentially exposed. By wearing gloves and not following strict glove protocol he potentially contaminated himself, his wife and potentially his kids in countless ways.

What really offended me was that by handling the cash with his gloves and giving it to the cashier, who was not wearing gloves, he put her at added risk. Had he, instead, used one of the Lysol wipes handed out at the door, and not worn gloves, he could have protected himself, his family AND THE CASHIER. That sort of bad citizenship frustrates me to no end. This brings me to my next rule:

Never touch with your glove anything that you may want to touch without your glove

This rule is simply a follow-up on the first rule. If you are going to wear gloves then don’t touch anything with the glove that you want to later touch without your gloves.

In the office I am always all over my field staff about this. The classic example is their pens. My field technicians are constantly writing field notes and have pens everywhere; and where do a lot of people store pens when their hands are full?…their mouths of course. I teach my lab technicians that if they have to touch a pen with a gloved hand, then they should mark that pen and never touch it again without gloves. This rule leads to the obvious next rule

Don’t wear your gloves (or do work requiring gloves) in common areas or in areas where others will be working without gloves.

If you decide to wear gloves for your protection, you need to establish “glove-only” and “glove-free” zones. These areas should be clear and and you should acknowledge others by not wearing gloves in common areas or areas where others will be working without gloves. If you don’t follow this rule then you put unwitting people at risk. We share spaces with others and part of sharing spaces with people is protecting them. This is simply good manners and good citizenship.

In a similar vein, never wear gloves in your vehicle that you wore out of your vehicle. One exception to this can be where you are wearing “clean” gloves to protect an area from unclean hands.

This is often the case, for me, when I am coming home from the field and I cannot be sure that I was able to get my hands clean before getting in my vehicle. In that case I will wear clean gloves in my car, but in this case it is to protect the car from my hands and not the other way around. Once I am home I turn on the water in my sink and then take off my gloves and wash my hands immediately because in this case the INSIDE of the gloves represents the contaminated surface and I want to protect my family from my contaminated hands by wearing clean gloves.

Replace gloves regularly and remove them using correct technique

Since we have to assume the outside of our gloves are contaminated, we should change them regularly and need to ensure they are removed correctly. There is a correct technique to removing gloves, as depicted in the graphic below. If you don’t remove your gloves correctly then you will, once-again, defeat the purpose of wearing gloves.

Photo credit Globus UK

Notice how in the graphic the outside of the glove is only touched by glove and the inside only touched by skin. This is incredibly important because, as we remember, we have to assume the outside of your gloves are contaminated.

Wear the right glove for the task

Another important thing to remember is that nitrile/latex gloves are designed to protect you from exposure to germs and some chemicals. They are not designed for heavy use. If you plan on doing heavy work then wear appropriate gloves.

For our work, our field technicians are dealing with glass jars that can break and cause cuts, so they wear cut-resistant gloves underneath their nitrites. This allows them to get the protection both from cuts and from contamination. If you know you will need to use multiple gloves to complete a task then wear multiple layers of gloves.

Sometime when I know I am going to be jarring multiple soil samples, I will layer on 3-4 layers of nitriles. That way I can pull off one layer and still have gloved hands to handle the next sample.

Gloves only work if you are paying attention

A critical thing to remember is that PPE only works for people who remain aware of the reason they are wearing PPE. Remember that lab accident I talked about from my youth? In that case my colleague was working with organic solvents wearing all the right PPE when his eye got itchy. He reached under his safety glasses, with his gloved hand, and etched his cornea with the organic solvent contaminating his glove.

He had forgotten the most important rule of PPE. PPE is your last line of defense not your first. PPE is there to protect you because every other level of planning and procedures has failed. If you are relying on PPE then you planned your task incorrectly. Figure out how to do the job without PPE, then wear the PPE as a back-up, not the other way around.

To conclude, if you avoid touching things you don’t need to touch; wash your hands regularly; practice social distancing; and avoid places where crowd are accumulating you will do more to reduce your risk to Coronavirus than you will get by wearing gloves or a mask.

Because of my work, I have a box of nitrile gloves in my car and throughout this Coronavirus epidemic I have put on a nitrile glove twice. Both times were to put gas in my car because I have a bad habit of spilling gas from the nozzle onto my hand.

As a safety professional, I trust my good planning and good habits to protect me from Coronavirus, not unnecessary layers of PPE. By doing so I am not emulating that family from my grocery shopping. Their incorrect use of gloves put themselves, their families and that shopping clerk at risk. Gloves will only protect you if you follow good glove protocols. If you don’t you will simply lull yourself into a false sense of security while putting yourself, your family and the people you encounter at increased risk.

Posted in Uncategorized | 1 Comment

Why public health officials advise against masks to protect from the Coronavirus – my thoughts using lessons learned from asbestos exposure

A heated debate has arisen about wearing masks in public to help protect against the Coronavirus. Our health authorities have been advising against general mask use but have not been very effective at explaining why general mask use is not recommended. I am writing this blog post to help explain, using my experience with protecting from exposure to asbestos.

I write as a chemist whose practice involves occupational health and safety (including asbestos and mold abatement, testing and monitoring). Masks and respirators have been part of my work life for decades. I have been fit-tested multiple times and for a decade was the guy sent out to fit-test workers; to run seminars on how to properly wear and maintain masks; and to train others to conduct fit-testing. I did all this in the context of mold and asbestos investigations, remediation and monitoring. This experience directly correlates to the Coronavirus pandemic.

To explain, asbestos, like Coronavirus, is a hidden killer. The asbestos fibers that kill you are invisible. Asbestos fibers are airborne and can get all over your body, but only cause damage if inhaled. Protection against asbestos provides a model for protection against Coronavirus.

As we all now know, Coronavirus is not a typical airborne disease. Primary transmission is understood to be via droplets (also called droplet spread). The current understanding is that a cough can generate thousands of droplets which typically travel no more than 3-6 feet before gravity pulls them down onto nearby surfaces. This is why “social distancing” is an important preventative mechanism.

A potential secondary mechanism of Coronavirus infection is from contact with contaminated surfaces or objects where the droplets spread. This would involve touching a surface that has infected droplets on it then touching your mouth, nose, or possibly eyes. Our current understanding, is that the virus needs to be inhaled to infect an individual so the eye thing is still hypothetical (no controlled testing has been done at this time).

Why Masks are Recommended

Let’s start with some simple facts. Masks, even home-made masks, will stop droplet spread. This is a good thing if you are an asymptomatic carrier of the virus. This is the biggest reason to wear a mask. A mask eliminates the direct air-to-air (inhalation of droplets) mechanism of infection. But a mask poses a risk of creating new mechanisms of infection (more on this later).

To stop droplet spread you don’t need a medical mask. Even a make-shift mask will catch the vast majority of infected droplets. Thus a mask will interrupt the direct transmission of droplets…which is a very good thing. As the health authorities have repeated, if you have Coronavirus, or believe you may have been exposed then you should avoid contact with all others and if you absolutely must venture outdoors you should be wearing a mask.

Why Masks are not recommended

Having established that masks are important for some, why aren’t they good for all? The answer has several parts but they break down to two biggies:

  • Wearing a mask can cause individuals to relax their social distancing while creating a mass of potentially biohazardous materials to be disposed; and
  • Wearing a mask creates whole new mechanisms of transfer (mode of infection) and leads to a host of issues with contact control.

Masks versus social distancing

The first of these is really easy to understand. If we feel that masks are going to protect us from airborne transmission then masks are more likely to reduce our attention to social distancing. We know, social distancing works and any action that reduces that action is bad. But there is a second issue.

If you are asymptomatic and are using a mask to protect the public that mask becomes a reservoir of viral material. If your mask is not replaced regularly it becomes a biohazard and if it is disposed of inappropriately it poses a risk to any individual who comes in contact with it (more on this later).

Mask provide a new mechanism of viral transfer

Now here is the part the doctors have been really bad at explaining. As I noted above, asymptomatic masks wearers don’t just shed virus via airborne droplets. They also shed viral materials when the droplets hit surfaces. But what is not considered is these masks become viral reservoirs. Cough a few times and your entire masks is now covered in virus. Then every time you touch that mask your hands get re-infected. Since masks are uncomfortable mask wearers tend to touch their face more than non-mask wearers. This mask-to-hand transfer mechanism negates a lot of the benefits of regular hand-washing. If you wash your hands then touch your infected mask you now have re-infected hands.

Then we have the unaffected mask wearer. Sure they are protected from direct transfer but should they touch an infected surface (from asymptomatic infected individuals) they run the risk of then transferring that material onto their masks (hand-to-mask).

Even if the mask protects the user from airborne droplets it does so only for a short time. Because these masks are not designed to stop the migration of virus particles through the mask (the weave is too large and the virus too small) if your mask gets exposed then it goes from being a protection to a source of aerosolized virus particles. The virus on the outside of the mask will get inhaled through the mask. So your mask is only of use if you replace it regularly.

To put this in a way more can understand. My kids love their vaporizers. They put the aroma scents into the vaporizers and then inhale the generated vapours all evening. An infected masks becomes a vaporizer for Coronavirus until it is replaced.

Not only is the affected mask a vapourizer, that mask then becomes a new secondary reservoir of infected material. This then recreates the problem we faced earlier, that impacted mask then becomes a source of viral particles that helps defeat hand-washing. When an unaffected person touches their infected mask (because the mask is annoying) and then touches another surface they have created a new mechanism of transfer (hand-to-mask-to-hand).

But we aren’t done yet. One of the saddest parts of the asbestos story was the effect of asbestos on the children of asbestos workers. Not only were the workers affected, but since the fibres got on their clothing, which they wore home, they brought the asbestos problem home with them. This was discovered when children of asbestos workers got lung cancer from exposure to their parent’s laundry.

This begs the question, what happens when those home-made masks come home. If you are using a bandanna as a mask your aren’t going to throw it away. Instead it will likely go into the laundry hamper, and the cycle continues. This creates a completely new mechanism of transfer (mask-to-family member).

Conclusion

To be clear, a lot of these mechanisms of transfer can be addressed. But each involves changing the way we behave. Learning not to touch our faces so the infected mask doesn’t re-infect our freshly washed hands is one thing we can learn. Another is ensuring that clothing worn outside goes directly into the washer (not the hamper) which would eliminate another mechanism of transfer. But ultimately the problem exists that there are not enough masks to go around and any mask that is re-used becomes a potential petri dish serving as a reservoir to re-infect users and their family members.

From my perspective it is easy to see where our public health officials are coming from. An individual practicing good social distancing ,while not wearing a mask, runs a very low risk of direct inhalation but in doing avoids three other mechanisms of transfer (mouth-to-hand; hand-to-mask-to-hand; and mask-to-family member). Moreover, since a make-shift mask provides little protection and an infected mask runs risk of the vapourizer effect while potentially reducing our desire to social distance it is easy to see why some health officials don’t recommend wearing masks.

photo credit from CTV news.

Posted in Chemistry and Toxicology, Uncategorized | 14 Comments

Winding Down BC’s Fossil Fuel Industries – another CCPA report that just doesn’t cut it

This morning I was directed to a new report by the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives (CCPA). As I have written previously, every time I get a notification about one of their reports, I hope that it will present an evidence-based analysis consistent with the quality of the individuals I know work there. Sadly, they always manage to disappoint. I could fill an entire section of my blog with examples of their disappointing reports.

This most recent report was written by two of my favourite foils: Economist Marc Lee and Public policy researcher Seth Klein. The report is titled Managed wind-down of BC’s fossil fuel industries: A just transition to a green economy and it once again crushes my hopes for good evidence-based public policy by this group. The report starts with the following text:

IMAGINE IT’S 2025 AND BECAUSE OF THE ESCALATING CLIMATE CRISIS, Asian governments have declared ambitious new climate action plans, including the elimination of metallurgical coal for steel manufacturing within five years, to be replaced by state-of-the-art hydrogen-powered furnaces 1; and an aggressive transition off of natural gas and toward renewables within a decade.

and honestly that was enough to cause me to decide to write this post.

Seriously how can one single sentence get so much wrong? Believe it or not, there is so much wrong with this first sentence that it will take over 500 words just to explain all the wrongness. So let’s begin.

Like many bad CCPA sentences this one includes a footnote. Let’s start with that. The footnote brings you to a Bloomberg report which says:

Steel could shed its reputation as a climate threat by using hydrogen instead of fossil fuels for as much as half of global output by 2050, according to BloombergNEF. The steel industry could adopt hydrogen for between 10% and 50% of output by mid-century given the right carbon pricing.

You read that correctly, the Bloomberg report suggests that if everything goes right by 2050 as much as half (but as little as 10%) of world steel production could move over from the use of metallurgical coal (coke) to hydrogen-based processes. Yet citing that reference, the CCPA authors argue that we should imagine (very apt language there) that 100% of Asian steel could transition off metallurgical coal by 2030 (20 years earlier than cited in the report and only 10 years from now). How they use that footnote to justify that claim is beyond me. But there is more.

It is entirely clear that the authors don’t understand the use of hydrogen in “green steel”. In “green steel” hydrogen is used as the reducing agent (a chemical not a thermal step). It does so by replacing coke. In traditional steel-making coke serves two purposes to generate heat and in the reduction step. In green steel, electricity (or ironically natural gas) is used to generate the heat while hydrogen is used for its chemical properties only. To make this completely clear, in green steel the furnaces don’t burn hydrogen! There are no “state-of-the-art hydrogen-powered furnaces“. A graphic of the process (from the Kusnir et. al., paper discussed below) is presented here:

The next issue is what the use of hydrogen means for energy use? In a recent evaluation: Adopting hydrogen direct reduction for the Swedish steel industry: A technological innovation system (TIS) study they crunched the numbers and those numbers were staggering.

The change implied for the local electricity system is a large one. The estimated increase is ∼3200 kWh electricity/ton capacity difference of which 2600 kWh are required for hydrogen production (SSAB et al., 2018Vogl et al., 2018). At 1.5 Mt steel per year, this implies 4.8 TWh/y in additional electricity demand for this single facility.

Look again at that energy demand. Consider that the Site C Dam, once completed, is expected to generate 5,100 GWh (or 5.1 TWh/y) so the EXTRA energy for one mid-sized steel factory would require the entire output from the Site C Dam.

You may ask where all that energy is going? Well that is another thing the authors missed. As described in the article Swapping carbon for hydrogen, and how the steel industry can do it:

A steel mill converted from coal to hydrogen that produces 5 million tonnes of steel will require more than 44 tonnes an hour of hydrogen. Not only will vast quantities of additional hydrogen be needed to support the steel industry, but it will also need to be produced using alternative processes. Currently, around 95% of hydrogen is “grey”, – that means it is produced by extracting gas from fossil fuels.

Yes you read that correctly, the hydrogen used in this process is typically generated from natural gas because it is too expensive to generate from water.

Now let’s stop for a moment. I am over 600 words into this piece and I have only critiqued the first SENTENCE of this article. In that first sentence alone the authors have:

  • misrepresented the time frame the Asian market could get off metallurgical coal;
  • confused how hydrogen is used in the steelmaking process;
  • ignored the incredible energy penalty of making steel using electricity;
  • ignored the fact that the hydrogen itself is generated using natural gas; and
  • omitted that natural gas is also often used as an energy source in green steel.

Notice how many of these omissions defeat the entire purpose of the article (you know getting off fossil fuels) since two of the steps involve natural gas.

I am not an expert on a lot of the topics in this report so I really can’t comment on a large proportion of this report. What I can say is that on the issues where I am familiar the information is either simply wrong or profoundly misunderstood. Since we are now over 800 words into this piece I will only do a quick run-through of some other obvious issues that I recognize as being off.

In the report, the authors gloss over how our economy is going to adapt to the elimination of all these natural resource jobs by suggesting that they can be replaced by service industry jobs….except service industry jobs build around the primary industry jobs. In the interior you can’t have service industry jobs if there are no primary industry jobs to bring in the initial funds that keep the communities running. You can’t keep a community operating by everyone cutting each other’s hair.

The authors gloss this over by talking about the jobs being replaced “by attrition” but attrition doesn’t pay the corporate property taxes that keep the community schools open and the community’s water running.

From a larger picture perspective, throughout the report the authors propose spending huge amounts of money while simultaneously cutting the knees out of the economy that would fund the economy. They talk about using public funds to create all this infrastructure then they talk about paying off workers to get them to retirement without explaining where all this money will come from.

In the section about decarbonizing our economy they come up with this one:

In addition, the provincial government should regulate that all existing buildings will need to be off gas by 2040.

I have addressed this canard in a previous blog post and put simply you can’t refit the entire building stock in BC in 20 years. I have also dealt with the energy innumeracy of the Green New Deal that serves as the underlying premise of this report. Similarly, it is not possible to make “a good jobs guarantee for those currently in fossil fuel industries” in an economy that has hollowed out its industrial and resource industries. These are promises we simply can’t fulfill.

My biggest laugh in the entire article (besides the “state-of-the-art hydrogen powered furnaces” was the suggestion that we could replace the fossil fuel industry jobs with

new investments around recycled steel production through electric-arc furnaces, perhaps located in or near a coal-mining community.

Seriously? Metal recycling has a number of natural limitations. Steel is very heavy and to recycle steel you need massive yards where the old steel materials (like bridges, ships etc…) can be deconstructed. Steel recycling facilities are mainly located close to water bodies because moving these heavy materials by water is the most efficient approach. When steel recycling plants are in the interior of a continent, it is because they are co-located with fabrication facilities that make use of the produced steel. No steel recycler is going to pay the huge energy penalty to move used steel over the coastal mountain range to our coal-mining communities to be recycled, nor will they pay the follow-up energy penalty of moving the produced steel back over mountain ranges to the ocean or across the continent to where it will be used.

So here we are again. Another CCPA report that starts with a false (nay impossible) pretense (eliminating metallurgical coal in 10 years) and goes downhill from there. It makes incredible claims and suggests alternatives that are either not feasible (a good jobs guarantee) or and virtually impossible (steel recycling facilities in the northeast). It argues we can pay for everything with the same money be it increased royalties, wind-down funds, infrastructure, money for communities and first nations and jobs. Except economies don’t work that way. You can’t eliminate primary industry and run economies solely on service-industry jobs. The numbers don’t add up any more than green steel can be produced in “state-of-the-art hydrogen-powered furnaces“.

Author’s Note

As a quick note, I do indeed know about the pilot project in Germany where one of the 28 nozzels in a steel mill was converted to using hydrogen which technically makes it partially powered by hydrogen. That would be the facility that expects to have upgraded the pilot test by 2030. That is a LONG!!!! way from Asia manufacturing all its steel using hydrogen in 2030. Moreover, given that Germany has closed (or is closing) all its nuclear plants and going over to coal, that hydrogen will likely be produced from natural gas, using coal powered-electricity.

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

On civil disobedience, uncivil obedience and understanding the limits of legitimate protest

As many of my readers know, I have been environmental activist for a long time. As an activist I learned a lot about what you can and cannot legally do at a protest. It is through this lens that I have observed the unfolding protests around the Coastal GasLink pipeline. Listening to commentary on the news and on my social media feeds, I have come to recognize that many politicians, journalists, and activists don’t understand the responsibilities of protesters and the rights of the public affected by protesters. In this blog post I want to clarify the topic by discussing civil disobedience, uncivil obedience and the limits of legitimate protest.

The first thing to understand is that the right to protest is written into our Constitution. Section 2 of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms describe the freedoms of conscience, expression, assembly and association which together represent all facets of a legal protest. That being said, the Constitution doesn’t give protesters carte blanche. Your right to protest is limited because others around you also have competing rights. While you have an absolute right to conduct a legal protest, there is no “right” to conduct an illegal protest.

To provide a deliberately exaggerated example. Were I to hit a gentleman over the head with a ball-peen hammer and claim it is a protected form of protest, the police and the courts would make short work of my claims and I would go to prison. As a less extreme example, were I in the course of a protest, to elbow someone on the nose causing them to need medical aid, that may be construed by the courts as an assault and I could also be liable to be arrested and charged. Similarly, if I physically prevent someone from entering or leaving a building that action may be considered a form of assault or common nuisance, mischief or causing a disturbance and I may be liable to be arrested and charged on any of these three offenses.

To be absolutely clear here, many of the actions that reporters and protesters were calling a “peaceful protest” at the BC Legislature were absolutely illegal. Just because you don’t hit someone with a ball-peen hammer doesn’t make your protest “peaceful”. The act of physically blocking another individual, who is engaged in lawful activities in a public space, is Common Nuisance and represents a criminal act (under Section 180 of the criminal code) that could send you to jail; set you up for a hefty fine; or give you a criminal record that could limit your opportunities later in your life. Another similar charge is Mischief (Section 430 of the criminal code) which is used when individuals block doors and driveways, particularly on private property.

It has only been the reluctance of our authorities to enforce the law that has convinced protesters that their manifestly illegal actions are legal, “peaceful” protests.

This brings up an important distinction in the protest world. The difference between civil disobedience and uncivil obedience. In his seminal book “Uncivil Obedience: The Tactics and Tales of a Democratic Agitator” noted civil rights activist A. Alan Borovoy explained the difference.

When you protest within the confines of the law you are engaged in uncivil obedience. The Canadian constitution protects uncivil obedience as a form of protest, it does not protect you if you engage in civil disobedience.

Civil disobedience, meanwhile, is the deliberate choice to break the law, on the understanding that it will amplify your protest. It amplifies your protest because you are literally breaking the law. If you choose to engage in civil disobedience you must be willing to accept the consequences of your actions.

So to say it again for those people on my Twitter feed. There is no “right” to commit civil disobedience. I listen with decreasing interest to protesters who argue about their “rights” since most appear to have no clue what a “right” actually means under the law/constitution. Most activists these days appear to believe that they should be allowed to block roads and break the law with impunity. But that is not the case; you can’t legally commit assault or common nuisance or disturb the peace even if you feel your cause is just.

The problem, and the likely reason why so many people are misinformed about civil disobedience, is that the government has trained them to believe that they can use the tactics of civil disobedience without suffering the consequences of their actions. The government has enabled the protesters.

In the case of recent protests in Vancouver, around the Lower Mainland and Victoria the police have chosen to simply stand by to protect the peace, rather than to enforce the right of free passage within our communities. Even when the police do step in it is usually a case of catch-and-release where the police simply hold the offenders then release them without charge. Even more bizarrely, on Vancouver Island the police arrested a man for the act of removing illegal blockades along a public highway. Section 423 (1) of the criminal code makes it a crime to block a highway but the police punished a man trying to open up the highway while protecting those who were blocking it. We truly live in a world beyond the looking glass.  

The whole civil disobedience approach hearkens back to the days of the Clayoquot protests when the protesters blocked the logging roads. As I have written previously, one feature of the protests in 1993, that has apparently been forgotten by our current generation of activists, was the protesters did not simply get to walk away after being picked up by the police. These protesters were arrested, charged, and had to face the consequences of their actions in a court of law. As described in the Wikipedia article on the subject “of the 932 people arrested, 860 were prosecuted in eight trials with all those prosecuted for criminal intent found guilty”.

As I recounted, many of protesters ended up spending a reasonable amount of time in jail. Can you imagine a modern environmentalist discovering that their actions would get them sent to jail? Remember, this was not a Conservative or Liberal government that had them arrested and charged, the government of the day was NDP. You see the government of the day recognized that their role was to ensure that the law was obeyed.

Another important fact that the protesters appear not to recognize is that just because the police choose not to charge you doesn’t protect you from civil liability for your actions as part of an illegal protest. When you break the law you are liable to the criminal system, but you are also subject to the civil system.

Consider the dozens of truckers who spent last week lined up to get into the Port of Vancouver. If they can demonstrate they were financially damaged by the protest they would be in their rights to go after the protesters individually and as a group. This is what happened in Verchere et al. v. Greenpeace Canada et al., 2003 BCSC 660e where truck loggers sued Greenpeace as an organization and its organizers individually for lost wages due to an illegal protest. While this type of case is highly unusual, a motivated group of defendants could really throw a monkey-wrench into activist groups by going after them financially every time they planned an illegal protest that cost an identifiable individual money.

As an example as described in “Guide to the Law of Protest“:

in A I Enterprises v Bram Enterprises, 2014 SCC 12. The Court held that the tort is available in three-party situations in which the defendant commits an unlawful act against a third party and that act intentionally causes economic harm to the plaintiff.

What this means is that under this ruling the truck drivers financially injured by the protesters blockading the Port of Vancouver could go after those protesters for their direct loses caused by the illegal protest.

To conclude a plea for the press. Stop repeating the trope that these protests are “peaceful”. They were only peaceful because the activists brought large enough numbers to cow the government into silence and to frighten employees into avoiding confrontation. You witnessed a series of illegal acts and instead of acknowledging that you implied that what was happening was part of the new normal. Letting bullies frighten the public cannot become the new normal.

As for my activist readers, stop with the vacuous “protest is legal” argument you have been making about civil disobedience. Legal protest is legal and illegal protest is illegal. Do the former your are fine, do the latter and you have no right or justification to complain when the authorities decide to clamp down or when you are served with a civil suit for lost time and wages.

Author’s note: I have edited this document to add the offense of Mischief, which was less of a concern in my day but appears to be the preferred charge in the current era.

Posted in Uncategorized | 15 Comments

Fractures in the Bridge – Another disappointing CAPE report, this time on hydraulic fracking

Regular readers of this blog know of my ongoing frustration with the MDs at the Canadian Association of Physicians for the Environment (CAPE). No group has so consistently disappointed me with the variance between the reports they are capable of producing and their actual output. As I have detailed in previous blog posts, their reports include bad epidemiology, bad takes on projects like the Site C Dam and the Trans Mountain Expansion Project , and bad work on natural gas flaring, fugitive emissions and the climate effects of natural gas.

Given my history with their previous articles, I approached their most recent report: Fractures in the Bridge: Unconventional (Fracked) Natural Gas, Climate Change and Human Health with some trepidation. Unsurprisingly, I discovered it represents another warmed over re-hashing of overblown claims, full of out-of-context citations, thoroughly debunked arguments, and completely irrelevant data from non-comparable jurisdictions. Most of this derives from their failure to recognize the most important factor one must understand when discussing hydraulic fracking:

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.

In the Montney, the gas is located 4 kilometers beneath the surface. That is 4000 m through layers and layers of virtually impermeable 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. This is why fracking really can’t do anything to affect our drinking water aquifers which are typically very shallow (usually less than 50m – 100m in depth). 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.

Much of the US gas is very shallow (like Powder River Basin in Montana) or co-located with liquid fuel deposits (the technical term being “associated gas”) which means it can be vented or flared while trying to get the crude oil. This can result in natural gas being released to affect the public health in the region of the wells.

This is not the case with BC natural gas.

You cannot compare shallow, conventional, associated gas to deep, non-associated gas because they are not comparable and if you do then, by definition, you are either ignorant or attempting to misinform.

Now let’s look at the CAPE report. It has page after page of citations from Pennsylvania and Texas where the Pennsylvania references deal with incredibly shallow gas deposits and the Texas articles deal with associated gas. Moreover almost all their references are in built up areas while BC natural gas is not from near-urban settings. The only Canadian reference they tend to use is the British Columbia Scientific Review of Hydraulic Fracturing (which they call “the Review Panel, 2019”). This brings me to my next complaint. Their inability to effectively reference their work.

When I opened the report I went first to the section titled “Concerns Related to Hydraulic Fracturing” and almost immediately saw obviously wrong statements and/or information taken out of context. Just to be sure I went to the cited references only to discover just how shoddy the scholarship was.

As scientists we are taught about proper citation. If you cite a document, that document should be the source of the information cited. CAPE often fails in this task. Instead the CAPE report often relies on secondary sourcing (i.e. citing a report as if that report was the source of the information but instead the cited document simply reports that information from another source). They also have an issue where they appear unaware of the context of the information they are citing, which results in them citing things out of context or misstating what the references actually say. As an example, the second paragraph in the section starts with the line:

The most commonly used chemical [in fracking] is hydrochloric acid (Sibrizzi and LaPuma, 2016, p14).

Except when you look at Sabrizzi and LaPuma you discover it is a paper about: “Life Cycle Greenhouse Gas Emissions Associated With the Use of Water, Sand, and Chemicals in Shale Gas Production of the Pennsylvania Marcellus Shale” and is not a reference that deals with the general composition of fracking fluids. For that information any reasonable observer would go to the EPA’s “Analysis of Hydraulic Fracturing Fluid Data from the FracFocus Chemical Disclosure Registry” which indicates that hydrochloric acid isn’t even in the top three of chemicals used in fracking fluids.

Fracking fluids are mostly made up of two components: they are 99% water and sand. Depending on the depth of the work the fluid will contain a handful of additives (including hydrochloric acid) added to improve performance and flow. For fracking fluids used in the deep subsurface these will include hydrocarbon distillates because that helps in the process deep down there.

Looking more deeply at that section, the first paragraph took the classic “fracking fluid is toxic” gambit that I addressed in my post On the misleading use of toxicology in discussions about fracking chemicals? Let’s get something straight right away. Fracking fluids are generally not good for human consumption. The reason for this is simple: fracking fluids are industrial mixtures intended to be used under controlled conditions. No one wakes up in the morning and asks themselves: “what shall I have for breakfast this morning: a nice chia smoothie or a glass of fracking fluid?” But that is because fracking fluid is literally being injected into geologic formations full of hydrocarbons. You wouldn’t go out and drink gasoline, so why would you expect that the fluids that are pushed into these formations be drinkable?

It is when discussing water that the CAPE report really goes off the rails. Water is a touchy subject but one where a lot of bad information is out there. As suggested by CAPE the EPA acknowledges that in some shallow US aquifers groundwater has been affected by fracking and even in BC the Review Panel noted that some surface spills have indeed affected small areas of groundwater. But this is not how CAPE represents the issue. They include a highlighted scare quote (p 18) that says:

There have been instances in which contamination of surface and ground water could clearly be linked to hydraulic fracturing activity.

They present lots of information from the United States and imply that it is relevant to the Canadian experience. The truth is that not a single example could be located by the BC Review Panel report of a water user in BC who lost the use of a drinking water supply to fracking. Not one. Thanks to the depth of the fracking in BC the likelihood of affecting a drinking water aquifer is extremely low and the spills that have occurred have all been surface spills that are extremely localized and relatively easy to clean up or are deep in the bush where no one would ever be affected by the spill.

Now go to the “Worker Health and Safety Section”. Apparently CAPE feels we should be worried because employees are exposed to BTEX and diesel exhaust. This is the CAPE people trying to make exposure to gasoline and diesel engines sound scary. Lots of people are exposed to gasoline components, like when we pump gas or walk along a street. I love how they make exposure to sand (crystal silica) sound terrifying. Better avoid sunny beaches. They also make a point that employees are exposed to power tools, because in CAPE’s experience only employees at fracking facilities are exposed to power tools.

The thing to understand is that we have occupational health and safety laws designed to protect employees from workplace risks and don’t need to ban fracking to ensure these laws are followed.

The folks at CAPE even manage to link fracking to auto accidents (see page 22 “Vehicle collisions”). Apparently when you get more jobs and industrial activity in an area you increase the number of auto accidents accordingly. Better avoid fracking, that will save all those unemployed people from potential accidents going to and from work.

I could write another 10,000 words debunking the CAPE report but you get the point. The article is another mis-mash of overblown claims, out-of-context citations, thoroughly debunked arguments and completely irrelevant data from jurisdictions with massively different geologies. It is clear that the authors had an agenda and they intended to write a report to advance that agenda. It is time for the good MDs at CAPE to either figure out how to write a reasonable scientific report or go back to their day jobs as physicians. Because if they tried to publish this report in any reputable source it would get a bench rejection and would be returned to its authors for a complete re-write.


Posted in Uncategorized | 8 Comments

What Chemistry lab safety (and mom’s rules) teach us about how to protect ourselves from the flu or viruses like the Coronavirus.

As my readers know, I am trained as an academic chemist and spent a decade teaching in lab environments. Since I left the academic community, my work has included a lot of time doing occupational health and safety. This practical background has taught me a lot about how to protect myself from dangerous chemicals and this training translates directly to how to protect yourself from nasty viruses like the Coronavirus.

Viruses aren’t magic, like dangerous chemicals, they are only a risk if there is an exposure pathway and there are some simple rules to help interfere with that pathway and protect yourself from infection.

Watching the media it has become apparent to me that the public is missing some of the most important lessons we have been given about how to prevent the spread of dangerous viruses and it all goes back to those lessons your mothers taught you as kids (and we teach in the lab):

  • Wash your hands (and wear gloves)
  • Keep your hands to yourself (don’t touch that)
  • Keep your hands away from your face,
  • Don’t wear outside clothes inside (and keep your hands out of your pockets) and
  • Use your sneeze pockets (or wear a mask).

In the rest of this blog post I will explain why following these rules will increase your likelihood of staying flu-free and will better prepare you in case the Coronavirus makes it to our shores.

Wash your hands (and wear gloves)

The first rule we learn in the chemistry lab is that to protect yourself you have to wear your personal protective equipment (PPE). In a lab your PPE includes your lab coat, safety glasses and nitrile gloves. The reason we do this is because when you work in the lab you are going to come in contact with compounds that can harm you and your PPE is your first line of protection.

From a human health perspective wearing gloves and washing your hands is the absolute best thing you can do to protect yourself from infection. Think about your last visit to a hospital and ask yourself, what were the nurses, orderlies and doctors wearing? Most weren’t wearing masks but all were wearing gloves and scrubs. I will deal with scrubs later but let’s first talk about gloves.

Gloves are the easiest way to protect ourselves from infection. Virtually every public surface is covered in germs and gloves protect your hands from those germs. If you don’t want to wear gloves in public then as the Centers for Disease Control points out you need to

perform hand hygiene (e.g., handwashing with non-antimicrobial soap and water, and alcohol-based hand rub if soap and water are not available) after having contact with respiratory secretions and contaminated objects/materials.

If you are wearing gloves then remember

remove gloves after contact, followed by hand hygiene. Do not wear the same pair of gloves for care of more than one patient. Do not wash gloves for the purpose of reuse.

Remember, during flu season you should assume that every public surface represents contaminated objects/materials. Which brings us to rule Number #2

Keep your hands to yourself (don’t touch that)

As a parent I am constantly reminding my kids to keep their hands to themselves. This builds on our first rule. My kids are constantly running their hands along every horizontal surface. Doing so covers their hands with germs.

During cold and flu season think about what you are touching and keep contact with foreign materials to a minimum. When walking up stairs hover your hand over the hand rails don’t drag your hand over it. If you are going somewhere where you will need a pen bring your own and if you know that you will need to use things like shopping carts then bring wipes (or use the supplied wipes) to clean the surfaces you need to touch.

Now the reality is that we will have to touch things in public which brings us to Rule #3.

Keep your hands away from your face

As we all know, humans evolved on a planet full of germs, and our bodies are well equipped to protect us from germs. Our skin is our first layer of protection. Our nasal passages are designed to trap materials and keep them away from our interior. Our mouth is connected to our digestive system which helps protect us. There is one access point that is not well defended, that is your eyes. It is well-established that viruses can get into your body via your eyes.

One of the worst accidents I encountered in the Chemistry lab involved a completely innocuous series of events. My lab colleague was working with an organic solvent; he had on his lab glasses and was wearing nitrile gloves. Then he had an itchy eye. He reached behind his safety glasses to rub his eye, and etched his cornea with the organic solvent.

The simple truth is, when in public assume that your hands are covered in germs and anytime you scratch your eyes you are injecting whatever is on your hands directly into your system. So in public keep you hands away from your face.

If you are wearing gloves (or have been outside) then you have to assume that your hands are dirty/covered in germs. If you pick up a pen while wearing gloves, then whatever was on the outside of the gloves is now on your pen. If you then put that pen in your mouth whatever was on your glove is now in your mouth. Put the pen in your pocket and your pocket is now a problem.

This brings us to Rule #4

Don’t wear that inside (and keep your hands out of your pockets)

Earlier in this piece I talked about doctors, nurses and orderlies wearing scrubs at the hospital and chemists wearing lab coats in the lab? An easy way to protect yourself from chemicals and germs is to have outside clothes and inside clothes.

Lab coats (or medical scrubs) are intended to protect the wearer from exposures but that means they pose a risk to anyone who comes in contact with them. Lab coats are designed to protect the user from spills by keeping the spill on the outside layer of the fabric. That means the outside fabric of the lab coat is potentially dangerous since any spilled material will remain on the outside of the coat. If you are wearing a contaminated coat and it touches someone, the compounds on that coat will then be transferred to that person.

As such you never wear your lab coat outside of the lab. Clothing used in the lab should stay in the lab. If you are wearing a coat outside, don’t wear it inside. During cold and flu season change your clothes when you get home and put those used clothes in the wash.

Another thing to remember is during flu season try to avoid using your pockets. Remember the comment about pens in the pockets? This goes even more when it comes to flu and viruses. Anything on your hands ends up in your pockets and if you use Kleenexes then your pockets are germ central. Wash your pants/top regularly and avoid putting your hands in your pockets if you can.

Use your sneeze pocket or wear masks

As I noted earlier in this piece, when you go to the emergency room you don’t see the doctors and nurses wearing masks. While some research indicates that the correct use of masks may, in limited circumstances, protect the wearer from illness most studies show them to have little effect. The big thing masks do is protect the rest of the world from you.

If you are sick sneeze into your sneeze pocket and if you are sick, or fear you may become sick, then wear a mask. For those wondering the sneeze pocket is the crook of your arm. When you feel the sneeze coming reach your arm across your face and the crook of the arm will fit naturally over your nose/mouth. Since that portion of your arm doesn’t generally come into contact with other objects it is a safe place to control your sneeze.

As for the masks, recent research from the Journal of the American Medical Association indicates that the fancy N95 masks are no more effective than surgical masks at protecting medical practitioners from exposure to influenza.

The thing to remember is that you shouldn’t assume that the mask will protect you from infection. Masks do indeed prevent you from inhaling aerosols and droplets, but they simply don’t hold a candle to the important three rules:

  • Wash your hands
  • Keep your hands to yourself, and
  • Keep your hands away from your face.

Posted in Uncategorized | 4 Comments

On the IISD’s misleading calculations of Canadian fossil fuel subsidies

There are few topics that raise the ire of activists more than the idea of subsidies for oil and gas companies. Listen to an activist talk and you will invariably hear a comment about oil and gas subsidies and how they should be used to fund schools, hospitals, or universities. The problem is when you look more deeply into the sourcing, these “subsidies” end up being nothing of the sort.

The thing I have noticed while researching these “reports” is how much they remind me of Lewis Carroll’s Into the Looking Glass. In these reports up is down, left is right and when they use a word it means just what I choose it to mean—neither more nor less“. As I showed in a previous article: About that questionable IMF survey claiming $5.3 trillion in “subsidies” for fossil fuels, the IMF subsidy report was only able to create large numbers for subsidies by redefining economic externalities (things like congestion and auto accidents) as subsidies.

This week I was introduced to a newer study on subsidies. This one is by the International Institute for Sustainable Development (IISD), Global Subsidies Initiative. The IISD is a think-tank dedicated to “championing solutions to our planet’s greatest sustainability challenges.” They combine important research on topics like the Experimental Lakes with outright activism like their oil and gas subsidies work (which I will discuss herein).

Before I go further I want to make this clear. The IISD produces important work. Unfortunately, in the case of oil and gas subsidies, they appear to have been captured by their partners in the project (Natural Resources Defense Council, the Overseas Development Institute and Oil Change International). The result is a series of studies that redefines subsidies and in some cases appear to simply make them up holus bolus.

For Canadian subsidies I direct reader to their report Unpacking Canada’s Fossil Fuel Subsidies: Their size, impacts and why they must go here is the list of subsidies they identified:

Subsidy nameWho gives it?Who gets it?How much is it worth?*
Flow-through shares**CanadaOil and gas companiesCAD 265 million
Direct spending & budgetary transfers***CanadaOil and gas companiesCAD 112 million
Crown royalty reductionsAlbertaOil and gas companiesCAD 1.162 billion
Tax exemptions for certain fuels & uses in industryAlbertaIndustryCAD 298 million
Royalty reductions, including deep drilling and infrastructure creditsBritish ColumbiaOil and gas companiesCAD 631 million
Reduced tax for aviation fuelOntarioAviation IndustryCAD 292 million
Tax exemption for coloured fuels used in agricultureOntarioAgricultural industryCAD 248 million
Fuel tax exemptions and reductions QuebecIndustry and other consumersCAD 301 million

Now something important to understand when looking at the numbers (and associated references) above. The numbers, as presented, mostly do not appear in the documents cited. In most scientific reporting when you see a number and it is reported to come from a previous document, you can go to that previous document, search for that number, and find it.

In these documents when the IISD cites a number it represents more of a feeling the authors have than an actual source. Search for $112 million in “Direct spending & budgetary transfers” in the that report and the search brings up zero hits. Rather the $112 million apparently represents a combination of numbers from that document but readers are not actually provided an explanation as to how the $112 million value was generated. You just have to trust that the number can be re-constructed using some variation of the figures from the cited report.

Now let’s look at some of the identified “subsidies”

Flow-Through Shares

In the report the IISD identifies a $265 million subsidy to oil and gas companies from flow-through shares (FTSs). Many will ask: what is a flow-through share? As Kevin Libin explains them:

The idea behind flow-through shares is that weak, often young companies without enough profits against which to write off their considerable expenses can pass those expenses off to shareholders, who can deduct them from their own income taxes.

This means the only way to generate a FTS is for the the company to not generate profits. This eliminates almost all of the oil companies since they are mostly profitable companies and therefore don’t have expenses to pass off to shareholders as losses; rather they are generating dividends for their shareholders.

As for that $265 million figure it is from Finance Canada and as the IISD points out:

Flow-through shares are available to investors in the oil and gas, mining and renewable energy sectors. The data provided by Finance Canada does not disaggregate the tax expenditures related to flow-through shares by sectors.

What does this mean? It means that the $265 million is for the entire natural resources sector not just oil and gas. This means that the $265 million includes renewable energy and mining projects as well as fossil fuel projects. Only a fraction of that $265 million ends up coming from fossil fuel producers. Instead it is almost certainly made up mostly of junior mining companies that are generating big loses looking for new ore bodies.

To state it directly, the claim that the $265 million represents a subsidy to oil and gas companies is 100% false. There are no two ways around it. Based on the composition of the natural resources sector, and the profitability of the various companies that comprise the sector, it is likely that oil and gas companies only get a tiny percentage of that total. What is clear is that $265 million is absolutely not the correct number and represents a massive over-statement of the fossil fuel “subsidy”.

I do not have the time or the enthusiasm to go through the royalty arguments, because, as I discussed them previously. Instead I want to concentrate on another imaginary “subsidy”.

Differing tax treatment for various fuel types

In the table the IISD identifies $1.139 billion in “subsidies” based on tax “reductions” or “exemptions” for fuels used in agriculture, aviation and rail. None of these represent “subsidies” in any real sense, moreover, most represent completely imaginary numbers that have emerged, holus bolus, from the imaginations of the report authors.

What the authors have done is create a mental construct and then used that construct to create magical “subsidies”. The construct is that all fuel taxes should be the same irrespective of why the tax was enacted and therefore any tax lower than the highest available tax is a “subsidy”.

As described in the Alberta report

The Alberta government offers hundreds of millions of dollars per year in tax exemptions and deductions for fossil fuels used in agriculture and industry, including marked fuel for off-road use, locomotive fuel, aviation fuel and propane. These subsidies encourage the continued use of these carbon-emitting fuels while disincentivizing alternatives.

Just because the Alberta government has decided to tax unleaded automotive gasoline at one rate does not mean that their not charging farmers that tax for food production on their farms is a subsidy. Gasoline taxes go into general revenues that are used to help build and maintain roads. Gasoline tax rates are also derived to generate specific policy objectives (like reducing the use of automobiles or to help pay for transit). Neither are relevant for on-farm uses.

Farmers running their combines aren’t using roads so why should their gasoline be taxed for that purpose? The generation of our food supplies represents an essential service and so taxing agricultural fuels to discourage their use also makes no sense. While I don’t want to go into detail on this, I would also point out that reduced taxes for marine fuels meet that same test. Fishing fleets don’t use public roads and they are necessary to feed our country. To expect them to pay the same tax rate as unleaded automotive fuel is simply ridiculous.

Now consider the reduced taxes for rail. Rail transport is a lifeline for our national economy. Trains run on rails paid for and maintained by the rail companies. To insist that rail companies pay the same tax as cars is also specious.

Let’s consider an exaggerated analogy. Some governments charge extra taxes on sugary drinks while not charging those taxes on insulin. Does that mean the government is subsidizing insulin because it isn’t charging the same level of tax on insulin as they do on sugary drinks? Rail is like insulin for our national economy, we can’t live without it. So to expect our governments to tax rail fuel at the same level as unleaded automotive fuels does not make sense.

Finally let’s look at aviation. Our airports are run and maintained by airport authorities and their maintenance and improvements are funded by fees on flights. The government has chosen not to charge aviation fuel with the same taxes as automotive fuel. That is not a subsidy, it is just a recognition that the flying public will pay their taxes through a different tax tool.

Looking at the $1.139 billion in subsidies reported by the IISD in reduced fuel taxes two things become clear:

  1. The suggestion that all fuel types should be taxed at the same rate as unleaded automotive fuel is simply not supportable by any reasonable examination of the facts.
  2. Calling the difference between the rate charged for unleaded automotive fuel and that charged for farm, marine, rail or aviation use a “subsidy” is simply not tenable.

Put simply, the claim that this imaginary $1.139 billion represents a subsidy is not supportable.

Conclusion

The IISD has so much credibility on important topics that when it produces reports like these it leaves me stunned. No serious scholar can look at that $265 million dollar value for flow through shares for “investors in the oil and gas, mining and renewable energy sectors” and declare it entirely as “subsidies for oil and gas companies” and not shake their heads. Similarly, deciding that all fuel uses should be taxed at the same rate as unleaded automotive fuel and declaring the difference a “subsidy” has no basis in any serious analysis.

The saddest part is that having heard dozens of activists cite these numbers in the recent past, I have yet to read a cogent reply from government, academia or industry. Where are the analysts who are supposed to be studying this topic? Why am I not reading their analyses instead of being left to produce my own?

Posted in Pipelines, Uncategorized | 5 Comments

Alberta’s Renewable Energy Conundrum in Charts and Numbers – Why Capacity Factors Matter

Over the holidays I have read a lot of commentary on Alberta’s energy future. I keep seeing individuals demanding that Alberta concentrate on wind and solar for its energy future. The people making these statements are mostly activists and journalists, rather than policy types. As a numbers person, I feel it is incumbent on me to inject some actual numbers into this discussion. This blog post will explain why solar and wind, alone, can’t address Alberta’s energy needs, but rather will serve as part of a larger energy mix.

To understand this topic let’s start with some simple statistics. In 2018, Alberta’s average internal load was 9714 megawatts (MW), its winter peak demand was 11,205 MW and its summer peak demand was 11,169 MW. As for the provinces generating capacity according to the Alberta Electric System Operator on January 1, 2019 their internal capacity was:

Capacity (MW)
Coal5574
Gas7696
Hydro894
Other438
Wind1781
Total16383

For those wondering about the “other” it is mostly biomass with minimal solar. So currently 81% of Alberta’s capacity is made up by the combustion of fossil fuels.

Now for a quick proviso. These demand numbers are current and do not reflect any significant implementation of policies to reduce Alberta’s reliance on fossil fuels for other energy uses. If Alberta chooses to further encourage the use of electric vehicles and reduce the reliance on natural gas for heating and hot water then these demand numbers will necessarily increase substantially.

Another thing to understand about Alberta is that its electricity system is severely limited with respect to import/export capacity. It has interties in three directions: to BC, Montana and Saskatchewan. But these interties are severely limited. As described in a report from the University of Victoria:

Currently, BC and Alberta share a single transmission connection (called an intertie) with a design capacity of 1200 MW. However, due to constraints of the Alberta electricity grid, this intertie is limited to a maximum of 780 MW.

Meanwhile the intertie from from Montana is 300 MW and from Saskatchewan is only 153 MW. That means that at a maximum, Alberta can import 1250 MW. This represents less than 12% of the winter peak load (why I use winter peak will be come clear later in this article).

So here is the renewables challenge: Alberta needs to figure out how to generate nearly 11,000 MW of electricity using only renewables. Well Alberta’s geography doesn’t help it. It has a strictly limited hydro capacity, most of which has already been exploited. It has no access to tidal, wave or offshore wind which leaves: solar, wind and geothermal as its non-nuclear choices.

A further thing to understand about renewable energy generation: it is highly intermittent. There will be days when the wind blows and others when it won’t. The way to address this intermittency is two-fold: storage and redundancy. Storage is easy to understand. Energy can be stored in batteries or in facilities that rely on momentum, compression or gravity. Redundancy is the bigger consideration.

There are two critical features of redundancy: geographic and physical. With respect to physical redundancy you can overbuild solar facilities so they produce excess energy when the sun is shining to make up for the hours when the sun isn’t shining. Geographic redundancy involves building over a variety of areas with the assumption that the wind will always be blowing somewhere and it is always close to midday someplace on the planet. Unfortunately for Alberta geographic redundancy is not on their side. Consider this solar insolation map of Alberta:

As you can see, the only area where utility-grade solar makes sense is a limited geographic area south of Calgary. Unfortunately this essentially eliminates Alberta’s ability to build any significant geographic redundancy into their solar facilities.

Next let’s consider wind. Here is a map of wind capacity factors for Alberta:

Alberta has more geographic diversity for wind but most of the good spots are either in the mountains or in the windy south of the province. For cost-effective facilities it is hard to get the diversity necessary to provide good redundancy.

What does this mean from a practical perspective? Well let’s take a look at the performance of solar and wind facilities in Alberta from this past December. Here is a graph of the Alberta solar generation (next three graphs are courtesy of Reliable AB Energy)

That top line is the nameplate capacity of the facilities while the actual generation is the small peaks. As is evident from the graph, solar production this December was abysmal. As for annual numbers, the National Energy Board has calculated capacity for areas where Alberta has potential utility-scale solar and indicates the capacity factors range from 13% in Collin Lake to 18% at Peigan Timber. These capacity numbers are incredibly problematic. What they mean is that for Collin Lake if you wanted to generate 1000 MW of power you would need to build 7.7 – 1000 MW facilities. These would generate a lot of power during their good days and virtually none on their bad days.

Wind is better but still not ideal.

There are days when the wind does approach its capacity while others, where no power is generated. Overall, in 2018 the wind in Alberta operated at 32% of capacity so once again wind would only work if it was massively overbuilt.

How about the two together? On December 19th, at midday, wind and solar would have done a pretty reasonable job, but for much of December 13th Alberta essentially no electricity from its solar and wind facilities. For a more comprehensive picture lets look at February 2019 (one of the coldest Februaries on record.)

For much of the month, wind and solar capacity were near zero. No reasonable combination of wind, solar, storage and imports would have allowed Alberta to function during that month.

What this data shows is that if Alberta is going to forge a fossil fuel-free path to energy independence, wind, water and sun will simply not do the job in Alberta.

Alberta needs to look at regionally-appropriate energy alternatives. It needs to modernize its transmission system and massively upgrade its system of inter-provincial interties. While Alberta couldn’t reasonably design and build energy storage facilities capable of meeting its demand it doesn’t have to, because British Columbia has already done so through its large-reservoir hydro network.

If British Columbia and Alberta worked together they could create a system that took advantage of Alberta’s abundant wind and reasonable solar resources along with BC’s hydro and wind. The problem with BC is that it needs its hydro to operate, but if it could import from Alberta when the wind was blowing, then it could save that water behind its dams for when the wind was not blowing to sell back to Alberta.

Additionally, Alberta needs to come up with dispatcheable, fossil fuel-free power in the form of geothermal and/or nuclear power plants. I know the latter will be divisive but the alternative (letting Albertans freeze in the dark) would be more divisive. Any activist who is serious about breaking Alberta’s fossil fuel addiction needs to be working towards upgrading Alberta’s transmission system; improving its inter-provincial interties; and developing geothermal and nuclear alternatives to fossil fuels. Water, wind and sun alone will not do the job in Alberta no matter what the activists tell you.

Posted in Environmentalism and Ecomodernism, Fossil Fuel Free Future, Renewable Energy, Uncategorized | 17 Comments

I debunk yet another misleading CAPE article about fracking and BC LNG

As someone who specializes in evidence-based environmental decision-making, I am regularly disappointed by the dismal level of discourse in the environmental field. Organizations and individuals you would expect to provide useful insight end up doing exactly the opposite. No group has disappointed me more than the MDs at the Canadian Association of Physicians for the Environment BC (CAPE).

It has come to the point where when I see a piece by one of their representatives, I assume I will need to spend time correcting the record. Not surprisingly, their latest missive: Most of us are blissfully unaware of how much fracking takes place in B.C. in the Vancouver Sun represents another example of inaccuracies piled on top of out-of-context anecdotes. It leaves me wondering if these individuals are ill-informed, uninformed or attempting to misinform.

My issues with this article starts with the choice of cover photo. The story is about the BC natural gas industry and the photo used is of an oil facility taken near Buttonwillow, in California.

Why is this important? It is important because the photo shows flaring and in doing so implies that flaring is regularly associated with BC natural gas. The truth is that venting and flaring of natural gas is strictly controlled in BC. Flaring is common in US oil fields, where the product being sought is oil, but efforts have been made to eliminate it in natural gas production and routine flaring was eliminated in 2016. As described by the BC Oil and Gas Commission with respect to associated gas:

In 2010, the BC Energy Plan target of eliminating all routine associated gas flaring was achieved. Routine associated gas flaring is defined as the continuous flaring of solution gas that is economical to conserve. Associated (solution) gas is gas produced from a well during oil production.

Certainly the BC regulations allow limited flaring and venting in exploration wells, where the companies are looking for natural gas; but flaring is simply not done at that scale at production wells. Why would it be? The point of a production well is to collect gas for sale, not burn it away into the atmosphere.

Moreover, unlike in the US, in BC most wells used for production are “green completed”. That is the pipelines and connections are prepared before the well is fracked. This allows the gas recovered to be caught for sale and not lost to the atmosphere. Moreover, in BC most of our infrastructure is newer and newer infrastructure is just that – newer – which means that it meets the current generation’s best practices and typically includes in-line monitoring and leak detection. Finally, our gas is being extracted from extremely deep formations which provide less opportunity for seal failures or for gas to migrate to the surface to leak.

Now I would love to Fisk this article, but doing so would take too long so I will only address its most egregious claims. The article starts with an anecdote and goes into a discussion of fracking.

Fracking is an industrial process used to extract underground natural gas deposits from shale rock. The technique involves drilling a shaft vertically for up to four kilometres into the rock, and then horizontally for up to three more kilometres.

Massive amounts of water, combined with sand and chemicals are injected under high pressure into the well, inducing micro-cracking and fissuring of the rock to release the natural gas known as methane.

In the article the doctors note that 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. Sour gas, meanwhile, is poisonous and as a result it is dangerous to vent.

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. Later in the article they write:

The ad fails to inform the reader that the fracking process results in a considerable amount of methane escaping into the atmosphere…And so far, the technology has not been able to prevent these leaks. Because of this, scientists are concluding that fracking natural gas is actually worse for global warming than oil or coal.

As I discussed above, their claim about leaks is simply not generally applicable in the BC context. Thanks to our geology, and our regulatory structure, fracking in BC does not result in considerable methane leaking into the atmosphere. That might be true in parts of the US (where the authors seem to get most of their information) but it is not the case here.

As for the claim that the technology does not exist to prevent leaks. That is simply not true. Certainly leaks happen, but to suggest that leak-free installations are impossible is simply wrong.

As for the point about “scientists” concluding “that fracking is actually worse for global warming than oil or coal” that is also untrue. What they mean is that a couple activist scientists, led by an Ecologist named Dr. Howarth have made that claim and lots of activists with no experience or knowledge in the field have repeated the claim.

Dr. Howarth is something of a feature at this blog since he has produced so much hopeless work on this topic. 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.

Dr. Howarth’s most recent paper claims that shale gas is responsible for the increase in global methane emissions. The only problem with his hypothesis? It runs contrary to a global monitoring effort which includes monitoring points across the continent that failed to observe the massive increase he claimed was occurring. Put simply, the claim that fracked gas is worse for the environment than coal is simply and categorically untrue. Looking further they write:

Each fracking procedure uses more than 10 million litres (36 Olympic-sized swimming pools) of clean water. In parts of the U.S., drinking water wells have dried up due to withdrawals for fracking.

This section combines misinformation with out-of-context information. Certainly fracking can use a lot of water; however, efforts are made to recycle water for fracking so each well doesn’t use “clean water” and in BC water use is also strictly regulated. In BC drinking water wells are not drying up to allow for fracking. This explains why these doctors rely on US anecdotes, because they can’t find any Canadian examples to cite.

Let’s look at the next line:

The ad also fails to mention that the chemicals added to frack fluid to help maximize methane extraction have the potential to cause cancer and disrupt hormonal activity in both humans and animals, through the release of polluting and carcinogenic chemicals into the atmosphere and water.

This paragraph presents a common anti-science game used by anti-LNG activists. It includes the use of the term “chemical” which is code in the anti-science world for “dangerous stuff you won’t understand“. Any scientist knows that everything is made from chemicals, but in the anti-science world “chemicals” are always bad. As for fracking fluids being toxic.

Certainly fracking fluids include compounds that you wouldn’t want to drink….but that is because fracking fluid is literally being injected into geologic formations full of hydrocarbons. You wouldn’t go out and drink gasoline, so why would you expect that the fluids that are pushed into these formations should be drinkable? As for the part about release to the environment. That is simply false. In BC fracking fluid is carefully monitored and captured. In a typical fracking activity no fluids are released to the environment. Later the doctors write:

Fracking also produces large amounts of contaminated wastewater containing both the carcinogenic and hormone-disrupting chemicals initially added to the frack fluid, but also radioactive chemicals and heavy metals released from deep underground. One study showed radium levels (a chemical known to cause cancer) in fracked water 200 times greater than background levels. Some of this contaminated water will eventually leak into the water table.

As anyone familiar with fracking knows, the water generated by fracking in BC is strictly regulated. It cannot be released to the environment. Instead it is carefully managed and eventually either re-used in fracking, or injected into the subsurface into old wells that we used for extraction. Fracking water doesn’t cause harm and there are no records of fracking fluid damaging a drinking water source in BC. The claim: “Some of this contaminated water will eventually leak into the water table” is simply not true.

Higher rates of leukemia have been found among people aged five to 24 living near fracking operations. More babies born with congenital heart defects and higher rates of pre-term birth have been found in people who live close to fracking sites. Research has shown an increase in hospital visits among asthmatics living close to fracking sites.

As for this factoid, I have already written a couple thousand words debunking these claims by CAPE doctors. As I concluded in that post: “Decisions about energy policy shouldn’t be made based on anecdotes and first-person narratives, no matter how compelling they may sound. First person narratives can inform further research but decision-makers need to consider real evidence assembled by people experienced in ensuring that the data is not the result of unexamined confounding variables. Epidemiologists have compiled those results and the current output from those experts indicates that the northeast is not a “sacrifice zone” but rather has absolutely typical diseases incidence rates“.

For all these reasons, a recently published article in the peer-reviewed New England Journal of Medicine called for policy makers to reject the false promise of natural gas.

This appeal to authority appears intended to strengthen their case while omitting the fact that the article in question is simply another opinion piece and it relies on the Howarth paper I discussed earlier that makes conclusions that have been thoroughly debunked by the results of real-world studies. The article concludes with the lines:

Many of us living in urban centres in southern B.C. are blissfully unaware of how much fracking is taking place in the northeastern part of the province, where some rural and Aboriginal community members have described themselves as living in a “sacrifice zone.”

Natural gas is not a clean fuel and the misleading advertising on B.C. Ferries should be removed immediately.

The reference to “the sacrifice zone” deals with a series of presentations made by CAPE around BC that I discussed above. In the presentations they mix anecdotes and bad epidemiology to completely misinform the public.

The article ends where you expect, with a false claim that any serious energy scholar would dismiss. The doctors at CAPE, in this editorial, remind me of the piece of advice my father (an MD) gave me in my youth: “never trust an MD on any topic that is not related to medicine”.

He explained that most MDs were the top students in their classes and the brightest lights in their peer groups. Because of this, most physicians tend to believe that their insights are more informed than those of everyone around them. Professionally, physicians spends their days being more informed than their patients and spend a lot of time explaining things to others. This can lead to an unjustified sense of self-confidence that may spill over into fields outside their area of expertise.

While I trust MDs on matters relating to my health and wellness, I will stick with subject matter experts on topics that are not related to medicine. With this in mind I would suggest my readers do likewise and take any BC CAPE newspaper editorial with a very healthy pinch of salt. As I have shown above, this particular article deserves to end its life on the bottom of a bird cage and the Sun needs to stop printing these pieces without a thorough fact-check.

Posted in Canadian Politics, Chemistry and Toxicology, LNG, Uncategorized | 8 Comments

BC’s Dormancy and Shutdown Regulation – Another example of BC making the right decisions in regulating our oil and gas industry

I have written a lot about the BC natural gas and liquefied natural gas (LNG) industry. I have pointed out how BC produces some of the lowest greenhouse gas LNG on the planet; how we regulate flaring and venting better than most other jurisdictions; and how our industry can help reduce global greenhouse gas emissions. But that is not all.

In this post I want to talk about a groundbreaking new feature of the Oil and Gas Activities Act called the Dormancy and Shutdown (D&S) Regulation. In my opinion, the D&S Regulation represents a best-of-class regulatory tool and should serve as an exemplar for other jurisdictions (are you listening Alberta?) on how to more effectively regulate oil and gas wells to ensure the responsible development and management of our oil and gas industry.

The British Columbia Oil and Gas Activities Act (OGAA) is the legislative tool that controls oil and gas activities in the province of British Columbia. It regulates everything from “wells, facilities, oil refineries, natural gas processing plants, pipelines and oil and gas roads, through permits, authorizations, orders and regulations”.

The D&S Regulation is the most recent regulation for the OGAA and it shows how seriously our government takes the development of a sustainable and environmentally responsible oil and gas industry in BC. The D&S Regulation speeds up the rate at which inactive oil and gas well infrastructure are restored so the land they formerly occupied can go back to its original state. It does so by setting new, stricter, timeline requirements to hold companies to account for timely cleanup. 

The BC Oil and Gas Commission (BCOGC) has a Comprehensive Liability Management Plan (CLMP) to address the risks associated with the approximately 25,500 oil and gas well in British Columbia (all stats from the CLMP). As described in the CLMP:  

  • 40% of the oil and gas wells in BC are “active” (defined as “a well that is producing oil and gas and has a viable operator”)
  • 30% of the wells are inactive (“a well that is not producing oil and gas, but has not been filled with cement or had its wellhead removed and capped and has a viable operator”)
  • 13% have been abandoned (“a well that has been filled with cement and its wellhead has been removed and capped and has a viable operator”) and
  • 17% are wells with a Certificate of Restoration (a CoR this is “a site that has been satisfactorily restored to its original state and has a Certificate of Restoration, certifying it has met all necessary requirements”).  

The D&S Regulation targets those 43% of wells that are “inactive” or “abandoned” and have a viable operator, but which have not yet been restored and and thus have not yet received a CoR. Most importantly, it sets a definitive and mandatory timeline for the decommissioning of dormant oil and gas wells. This is a big deal because unlike in the past, the D&S Regulation forces companies to deal with their environmental liabilities in the here and now rather than allowing them to simply sit on liabilities indefinitely.

This requirement, that companies that are generating income from the oil and gas resource use a portion of their income to do remedial work now, reduces the likelihood that these liabilities will be pushed onto the public purse sometime in the not-too-distant future. Consider the situation in Alberta where companies that have generated profits for decades are now claiming poverty when their environmental liabilities come to roost. In BC that won’t be allowed to happen.

By forcing companies to deal with their environmental liabilities in the present, fair decisions can be made as to the valuation of these companies. Instead of being able to push decommissioning costs deep into the future, companies will now have to account for how they will meet their environmental liabilities. The Regulation thus provides a fair means to ensure that industry, and not the public, has to pay to clean up the mess once oil and gas facilities are no longer generating revenue.

To avoid companies playing games with their numbers, the D&S Regulation sets a high bar for wells to be considered “active”. Companies won’t simply be able to run a well for a day or two to avoid the well being declared “dormant”. Instead the D&S Regulation requires that a well must be used for a total of 720 or more hours in a calendar year over the preceding 5 years to avoid being declared a dormant well (okay there are other qualifiers but this is the big one).

To avoid overloading producers, the D&S Regulation provides some grace for companies with large numbers of historic wells. During the initial implementation of the Regulation producers are allowed to phase their decommissioning work through to 2031 and their restoration through 2036. Given the limited number of practitioners able to oversee the restoration work and the lead time necessary to complete restoration, this is a pretty reasonable compromise.

Another critical consideration is the process ensures affected parties are both informed and allowed to provide input about work done on wells on their properties or within their historic territories. This incorporation of rules ensuring administrative fairness represents a very important, but poorly reported, feature of the environmental law in BC.

As an environmental professional in British Columbia, I am rightly proud of the system the BC NDP Government put in place and successive BC Liberal and BC NDP governments have built upon. This is not a partisan topic but one that our successive governments have come to understand is far more important than petty partisan politics. The BC approach is based on a “polluter pays” principal that ensures that the BC taxpayer is not put on the hook for environmental costs associated with resource development in BC. This differs from the historic approach where companies were able to develop resources and then disappear once the profits were banked.

As I mentioned in a previous post, BC has an aggressive environmental liability regime that prevents producers from offloading their liabilities on the public. The BC model is one that could serve as a model for our neighbours in Alberta as orphan wells make up just over 1% of oil and gas wells in British Columbia. As suggested by the OGC  

The Commission’s Plan is comprehensive, it’s underway and it’s working to reduce the number of inactive and orphan sites in the province, while upholding the ‘industry pays‘ model. It holds industry accountable, addresses unrestored oil and gas sites, protects public safety and safeguards the environment.

From industry’s perspective the environmental regime in BC has the benefit that it provides clear requirements, phased-in timelines and readily understandable means to reduce liabilities and obtain regulatory closure at their sites. Industry can adapt to any set of rules, but really hates situations where the rules are uncertain. BC provides that regulatory certainty in its regulatory regime.

I could write a dozen posts about the regulatory regime in BC and while our regime has its flaws, it is easily the best in Canada for transparency, administrative fairness and balancing the responsibility of the regulator to protect human and ecological health with the needs of our industrial partners to generate the wealth upon which our province depends. This differs it from Alberta where it is unclear what message the government is trying to present. As I wrote on Twitter with respect to the way Alberta does business:

I do not understand how a free market Conservative can demand we socialize risk while privatizing profits. Alberta should be looking at models that ensure that the public purse is protected from poorly financed companies looking to make a quick buck before fleeing/folding

As I have demonstrated above, if Alberta is looking for a better way to handle this topic looking across their western border will give them some great ideas on how to protect their industry while protecting human and ecological health and our shared environmental heritage.

Posted in Canadian Politics, LNG, Uncategorized | 9 Comments