Understanding environmental complexity: when initial impressions are wrong – wrapped banana edition

I have spent my week on twitter in a series of quite interesting discussions about, of all things, bananas. This started thanks to a tweet from a local journalist showing a pile of individually wrapped bananas with the comment: “you gotta be kidding me”. On the surface it seemed like a fair concern. We all know about over-packaging and so it is a reasonable reflex to assume that this was just another case of unnecessary packaging. The problem is that in this case (like many in the environmental field) initial impressions can often end up being wrong. Sometimes when you dig deeper into an issue you discover unexpected truths. This banana case provides a useful example of how looking deeper into a story can show our initial impressions to be wrong on complex environmental topics.

So why might wrapping a banana be a good idea from an environmental perspective? As we all know, bananas can be extremely perishable. In warm weather a banana seldom lasts more than a week in my house. Refrigerating bananas doesn’t help a lot either. So why is this the case and how do they ship these perishable fruit from the orchard to market? Like many of my posts we need to start with a quick chemistry lesson.

The secret to banana ripening is a chemical called ethylene (ethene for chemists). Like many fruits, bananas emit ethylene as they ripen and the more ethylene a banana is exposed to, the faster that banana will ripen. A rotten banana emits large (relatively speaking) amounts of ethylene and can thus increase the rate of ripening of any bananas nearby. This is common in fruit and explains the old expression “one rotten apple ruins the barrel”. So to defer ripening you need to keep your bananas from being exposed to or emitting ethylene. In the shipping industry they do this by shipping bananas green, cold and in a controlled atmosphere with low oxygen levels and elevated carbon dioxide concentrations.

When the preserved bananas reach their destination they are sent to a local ripening facility At the ripening facility they are gently warmed (really they are allowed to return to ambient temperatures in a controlled manner) and they are exposed to a precise amount of ethylene (it is injected into a sealed exposure room). Once exposed to ethylene the race is on to get the bananas to the store to be sold and eaten before they go bad. Unpackaged bananas have a shelf life of about 15 days.

This brings us to why a banana company might want to package bananas. To answer this question let’s go to a useful article on the topic: Effect of packaging materials on shelf life and quality of banana cultivars which explains:

 Banana remained marketable for 36 days in the high density polyethylene and low density polyethylene bags, and for 18 days in banana leaf and teff straw packaging treatments. Unpackaged fruits remained marketable for 15 days only…. It can, thus, be concluded that packaging of banana fruits in high density and low density polyethylene bags resulted in longer shelf life and improved quality of the produce followed by packaging in dried banana leaf and teff straw.

So by packaging bananas (and protecting them from additional ethylene exposure) a distributor can more than double a banana’s shelf life from 15 days to 36 days. This is a very significant improvement. As Nick Eagland pointed out to me, outside of the distribution channels there is an entire literature on life-hacks which describes how individual consumers use cling wrap to get the same effect.

I am not the first person to address this issue and a previous writer, interested in the topic, went to Del Monte (the distributors of the bananas in question) to ask them why they do it. In an interview on the topic Del Monte explained that beyond extending lifespans the packaging had another use:

the product serves another important role, namely the ability to now offer healthy alternative snacks to consumers in locations when they were previously not available due to the highly perishable nature of bananas.

Everyone knows that there is an obesity epidemic and healthy eating could be an important step forward to address the health and economic consequences on society. A great example of the positive contribution that the Del Monte CRT [“Controlled Ripening Technology”] single finger bananas is the fact that now school children, when they go to their school vending machine, can choose a banana instead of, let’s say, a chocolate bar or potato chips (which coincidentally also use plastic wrappers).

So here we have an example of a business decision, that both extends the shelf life of a banana and contributes to improving nutritional opportunities for kids…seems like a no-brainer right? But we are not finished because besides being good for kids this may also be good for the global environment?  How you ask? Well for that we have to remember that each banana is the result of a long production chain and each step in that chain has a large fossil fuel (carbon) footprint. Thus every banana that goes into the trash is wasted fossil fuels and thus wasted carbon emissions.

Here is a link to a discussion of the carbon footprint of your average banana. The most recent research indicates that the carbon footprint for bananas are in the 1.27 kilogram to 1.37 kilogram CO2 per kilogram of bananas. You read that right, each banana results in the generation of more than a banana’s weight in CO2 emissions. Pretty terrifying right? Actually this isn’t bad by food standards. Consider that grass-fed beef can have a carbon footprint of over 25 kilograms of CO2 per kilogram of beef. That doesn’t mean we aren’t getting better according to Agriculture and Agri-Foods Canada:

in Canada the mean carbon footprint of beef cattle at the exit gate of the farm decreased from 18.2 kg CO2 per kg LW [live weight] in 1981 to 9.5 kg CO2 per kg LW in 2006 mainly because of improved genetics, better diets, and more sustainable land management practices.

As for the other fruits? The lowest CO2 fruit are likely apples. Local apples can have a carbon footprint as low as 0.108 kilograms of CO2 per kilogram of apples. Want organic apples? That will increase it to  0.176 kilograms of CO2 per kilogram of apples.

What is even worse is food waste. In retail stores wastage of fruits and vegetables represents a huge environmental cost. One study identified that the fruit & vegetable department of a grocery store contributed 85% of the wasted mass and 46% of the total carbon footprint of wastage from the store. So if the use of a few milligrams of plastic wrap can save kilograms of wasted CO2 emissions, that seems like a pretty good deal for the environment.

Now it is clear that packaging is not the ideal solution for most retail outlets. Most consumers are going to want to (and should) buy unwrapped bananas and avoid throwing out old bananas by making banana bread. But for convenience stores and locations where people will buy and consume individual bananas, the individual wrapping of bananas seems to be an environmentally sound practice. It reduces wastage, extends shelf-life and can have a net effect of reducing overall carbon emissions. So an example of a counter-intuitive result that is ultimately true. So the next time someone gives you a quick and easy answer to a complex question consider that the real answer might be a lot more complicated and your knee-jerk response may be the wrong one.

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

Looking at the science linking BC forest fires to climate change

A State of Emergency has been declared in British Columbia because of all the forest fires, and the usual suspects have started their usual game of blaming the forest fires on climate change. The problem is, as I will demonstrate in this blog post, the science is pretty clear that climate change cannot be blamed for this two-year uptick in fire activity. This is not to belittle climate change as a long-term threat to our forests. I cannot make this clear enough, climate change will eventually increase our fire danger. But we can’t blame climate change for everything, all the time. There are lots of moving parts in nature and this fire season is likely due to some other natural or anthropogenic feature, one we have to correctly identify if we are to avoid a repeat next year.

Now I can already hear my detractors saying: “but Blair climate change is an existential threat to our nation. We have to take advantage of the public interest to help us fight climate change”. My response is simple:

The argument being made is inconsistent with the state of the science. When you argue against the science you undermine your credibility.

But let’s think of it in a scientific manner: if climate change is not to blame for the two-year increase in forest fire activity then blaming it on climate change will mean we are missing some important other factor. Think of this as the wrongfully convicted murderer theory of environmental policy. When you wrongfully convict someone of murder you may feel better that someone is in jail but since it is the wrong person that means the real murderer is still out there running free. So identifying the actual cause of the forest fires becomes a really important topic. Why is this true? Because when climate change eventually increases our fire risk having it build on whatever is actually causing our current fires would make a bad situation even worse. So let’s look at what the science says about this topic.

The first misconception we have to clear up is the belief that climate change means everywhere in the world will get hotter and drier. This cannot be farther from the truth. Climate change is predicted to affect different areas differently. Most dry areas will get drier and many wet areas are going to get wetter. In B.C. the global climate models (GCMs) indicate that in the early years of climate change we will have wetter winters AND wetter summers. This will have the effect of initially reducing our risk of forest fires. Consider the most highly regarded of the papers on the topic of climate change and wildfires: Climate-induced variations in global wildfire danger from 1979 to 2013. The paper’s abstract reads like it should provide overwhelming support for the premise that climate change will increase our risk of fire. But a careful read of the paper shows that global trends will not always be seen regionally.

Since I want to make it easy just look at Figures 3 and 4 in the paper. Figure 3 displays “Global patterns of fire weather season length changes from 1979 to 2013“. Looking at B.C. on Figure 3a you see that the length of the fire season has significantly shortened between 1979 and 2013. Figure 3b “shows regions that have experienced changes in the frequency of long fire weather seasons (>1σ above historical mean) during the second half of the study period (1996–2013) compared with the number of events observed during the first half (1979–1996)”. Looking at Figure 3b we see that B.C. has experienced a shortening of the fire season between the start and end of the study period. Figure 4, meanwhile, reinforces the fact that the fire season has decreased in British Columbia over time.

The other thing I have heard is: “the paper says that globally fire incidence is expected to increase”. Well that can be true without it meaning that B.C. will get more fires. Rather the GCMs indicate that B.C. will initially have shorter fire seasons. Why is this the case? Well the simple answer is that as we have warmed B.C. has become wetter. Let’s look at a graph of long-term change in precipitation in BC. Virtually every part of B.C. has seen significantly increasing amounts of precipitation in the last 113 years. Moreover, that precipitation has increased across every season. Winter, spring, summer and fall have all been getting wetter. Now I have already had several people on Twitter argue that the time-window ends in 2013? Considering it is a 113 year time-frame this is an incredible minor quibble, but just to satisfy the pedants let’s look at what has happened in the last 5 years. The data shows that the last five years were even wetter than the 5 years before. The data makes it clear, the wet trend continues. So that argument is simply wrong.

The next argument I have repeatedly heard is that because it is warmer (even though it is wetter) we will still get more fires. Well here is a paper that considers that issue: Fuel moisture sensitivity to temperature and precipitation: climate change implications. What does the paper conclude? That the argument will eventually be true but that it is not true right now. Given the current increase in precipitation compared to the current amount of heating, the precipitation exceeds the values necessary to avoid the increase in fire risk associated with warming. This is why Natural Resources Canada (NRC) has concluded:

This complex combination of influences makes it difficult to identify clearly whether any measurable changes in the patterns of wildland fire over the last few decades can be linked directly to climate change. Nevertheless, pattern changes do appear to be underway.

In Canada’s northwestern boreal regions, for example, the annual amount of forest area burned by wildland fires rose steadily over the second half of the 20th century. Some of this increase has been attributed to climate change.

By contrast, in Canada’s southern boreal forest, the annual amount of area burned seems to have decreased during the 20th century. This trend might be the result of climate change causing greater amounts of precipitation over time in these regions.

However, analyses of fire history suggest that it is the effect of climate variability on precipitation regimes that is the primary reason for the decreasing fire activity in southern regions.

In reading the NRC conclusion recognize that none of B.C. is in the “northwestern boreal region”. We are in the part of the country where we have seen decreasing fire activity.  What the NRC and the Flannigan et al. paper make clear: in the long-term (by the 2091-2100 fire regimes) climate change, if it continues unabated, should result in increased number and severity of fires. However, what the data says is that right now this signal is not yet evident.

So to conclude this post lets sum the story up: the science is pretty clear, climate change will increase our forest fire danger, but it is NOT responsible for this year’s forest fires. Why is it so important to make this clear? Because in the last two years we have had a significant jump in forest fires and figuring out what is actually causing the increase in area burned is pretty darned important. We need to determine what changes in forest condition, forest management or whatever has resulted in the last two years of fire behaviour. Understanding that the last two years’ fire seasons are due to something other than global warming frees us to figure out what actually has caused the increase. Most importantly, we need to figure this out before the effects of global warming actually start influencing our fire seasons.

Posted in Canadian Politics, Climate Change, Climate Change Politics, Uncategorized | 25 Comments

No, Kinder Morgan did not say that the Trans Mountain would cost $9.3 Billion to complete

By now I should really be used to the bad reporting associated with the Trans Mountain Expansion Project (TMEP). Daily, I see reporters simply repeating talking points presented by Dogwood and Greenpeace employees who are paid to produce a constant stream of negative quotations about the project. But every now and then the reporting gets so egregious that even I sit up and wonder what is going through the media’s minds. This was one such week. Let’s look at a handful of headlines:

  • Cost to twin Trans Mountain pipeline now $1.9B higher, Kinder Morgan says (Global TV)
  • Cost to twin Trans Mountain pipeline could be $1.9B higher, Kinder Morgan says (CTV TV)
  • Cost to expand Trans Mountain Pipeline now $1.9 billion higher, Kinder Morgan says (the Canadian Press)

The problem with these headlines is that they are all completely false. Now to give credit where credit is due, in the Global TV piece Keith Baldrey explained a lot of what I will discuss below, but his clarification failed to make it into many of the written reports. As well some articles (like the Globe and Mail) came a lot closer to the truth but even the Globe headline missed the mark. It also doesn’t help that the $9.3 billion is exactly what activists like Robyn Allan and Dogwood are claiming but this information is simply not true. Because it is late and I am short on time I am only going to do a quick short-take to explain what Kinder Morgan actually said.

This story all goes back to Kinder Morgan’s United States Securities Commission document for shareholders (called a “proxy statement”) about the proposed sale of the TMEP to the Canadian Government. The document is required for shareholders in cases like this to provide shareholders with a comprehensive understanding of the company’s financial position so shareholders can make an informed decision about whether to approve or decline the sale of the TMEP to the Canadian Government.

Part of the financial documentation is an examination of the books to provide shareholders an understanding of what they would be looking at under a number of different plausible scenarios. To ensure independence Kinder Morgan had TD Securities do the analysis as presented on page 25 of the proxy statement:

TD Securities performed a net present value analysis (“NPV”) on the assets that are the subject of the Transaction, which estimates the present value of projected future free cash flows.

Now for those of you not familiar with the term an NPV is a sort of stress test. It looks at how cash flow will vary under various scenarios. As a measure of conservatism the NPV normally looks at worst-case scenarios to see if the company is able to handle the costs when major projects go sideways. The reason they use stressful scenarios is not because that is what the auditors expect but rather because the normal scenarios have already been well-examined by this point in a business cycle. We already know that if the pipeline is built on-time and on-budget it will be profitable for the shareholders.

The three scenarios presented were (page 26 of the proxy statement):

TD Securities considered the following three scenarios: (1) a base line scenario where TMEP does not proceed, (2) a scenario which assumes the completion of TMEP based on capital costs of CDN $8.4 billion and an in-service date of December 31, 2020 and (3) a scenario which assumes the completion of TMEP based on capital costs of CDN $9.3 billion and an in-service date of December 31, 2021.

Now look at the language there. The proxy statement does not say that Kinder Morgan expects the TMEP to cost $9.3 billion, TD Securities simply used that number as a worst-case scenario to see how that expense and timeline would affect the company’s cash flow. The conclusion of the analysis was that the company would have sufficient cash flow under all three scenarios but would have differing stock values. That is it. The analysis made it clear to the shareholders what the company’s stock would be worth under the three adverse scenarios to decide whether the stock price they were being offered in the sale was a fair price.

As for the actual expected cost of the project TD Securities was explicitly clear in their analysis

The Company did not update its original cost and schedule estimate for the TMEP because of uncertainty affecting the TMEP during the period preceding the announcement of the Transaction.

I don’t know how the proxy statement could be any clearer. Kinder Morgan did not provide an update of its original cost or schedule for this analysis. What this means is that a headlines that says: “Cost to twin Trans Mountain pipeline now $1.9B higher, Kinder Morgan says” is a complete misrepresentation of what the proxy statement said. Frankly it is exactly the opposite of the what the proxy statement says.

I can’t repeat this enough: the proxy statement explicitly says that Kinder Morgan did not provide an update of the costs and anyone who claims otherwise is spreading misinformation. I know Ms. Allan continues to claim that TD Securities wouldn’t pick numbers out of the sky (or “numbers that have no bearing on reality” in her words)…and they didn’t…they looked at a worst-case scenario. That is what a stress test does and what TD Securities was paid to look at. The NPV evaluates the worst cases not the best. For anyone to look at a worst-case scenario and say: this is the expected cost and costs could go much higher…is simply slinging unsubstantiated mud.

Now I realize that journalists are busy and reporters don’t get to write the headlines but let’s make a basic assumption in this case. Journalists, if your story simply repeats what is being claimed by Dogwood or Greenpeace (or their proxies) then it is pretty safe to say that the story is not complete and it is time to either look at the documents yourself or talk to someone else who has looked at the documents.



Posted in Canadian Politics, Climate Change, Oil Sands, Pipelines, Trans Mountain, Uncategorized | 3 Comments

An Environmental Scientist responds to the signers of the Prime Minister’s Youth Council “Letter to the PM” about the Trans Mountain Pipeline project

Last week selected members of the Prime Minister’s Youth Council (PMYC) wrote an open letter to the Prime Minister asking that he cancel the buyout of the Trans Mountain pipeline. While young, these representatives have a strong public appeal and an even stronger media presence which allowed their letter to make national news. A number of interested observers challenged them on their letter and in my case I was blocked from conversations immediately upon asking some very simple questions. Since this story hasn’t really gone away (and has even morphed somewhat) I, as an Environmental Scientist, have decided to write this blog post to challenge the signatories of the letter to respond to my criticisms of their letter.

One of the complaints of the PMYC signers has been “ageism”: that we did not take them seriously because of their age. Well I disagree. I believe that by questioning their work we showed that we were taking these young people extremely seriously. The ageist response would have been a condescending nod of the head and a gentle smile while ignoring their suggestions. We, instead, looked at what they had written and decided to take them seriously. The problem is that in policy discussions when you write a letter of this sort you need to present a supporting rationale. The letter provided three points summarizing why they are calling on the Prime Minister to cancel the buyout of the Kinder Morgan Trans Mountain Pipeline expansion (TMX) project:

  1. Buying and building the Trans Mountain pipeline project violates your promise to protect British Columbia’s coast. No amount of technology can undo a spill in the Salish Sea, and a spill would crush the cultures and livelihoods that depend on the health of the Sea.
  2. Buying and building the Trans Mountain pipeline project is setting up the Paris Agreement for failure… Buying the Trans Mountain pipeline project undermines the Paris Agreement and locks Canada into decades of reliance on fossil fuels.
  3. Buying and building the Trans Mountain pipeline project is in violation of UNDRIP and the Liberal Party’s plan to renew nation-to-nation relationships with Indigenous Peoples. Forcing this pipeline through the lands of First Nations that do no consent entrenches the violence of colonialism and moves us away from reconciliation. Free, Prior and Informed Consent for any development projects on traditional Indigenous territories is an essential component of moving forward with reconciliation.

In the following sections I will address these claims point by point and pose a simple question for the signatories to the PMYC letter.

Protecting BC’s Coast:

This first claim is one I have addressed in detail. It is the claim that caused me to challenge the letter in the first place. To summarize my previous assessment: blocking the TMX will do nothing to reduce the demand for crude oil in the Pacific Northwest. Rather, if the TMX is blocked the crude oil necessary for our continued existence on the West Coast will still need to flow. It will simply flow via less safe means, specifically:

  • Explosive Bakken crude will flow in even greater quantities along rail lines that run the virtual length of the Columbia River and through the heavily populated communities of the Pacific Northwest.
  • Canadian oil trains will run in greater numbers alongside the Thompson and the Fraser Rivers and through every community along that route. A spill in either river will risk salmon runs that serve as the food source for, and are held sacred by, dozens of First Nations communities in British Columbia.
  • Instead of highly-regulated Canadian tankers bringing Canadian crude to California and Asia we will see the Puget Sound and Semiahmoo Bay full of tankers coming out of the Middle East and registered in whatever jurisdiction has the lowest safety standards.
  • The eventual risk to the Salish Sea won’t be the one major accident every 2000+ years described in the TMX risk assessments, it will be orders of magnitude higher.

Any cold-eyed analysis of the relative risks in the transportation of fossil fuels shows that the TMX reduces our regional risks of oil spills. Blocking the TMX will increase the likelihood of a disastrous rail spill that could spell the end of a major fishery or result in the deaths of dozens of innocents. Blocking the TMX also increases the likelihood of a marine spill from a foreign-flagged tanker. The challenge faced by the signers of the PYMC letter is one I have asked numerous times before: Show us a safer way than the TMX to get the fossil fuels we need to run our society to the West Coast.

Climate Change:

The PMYC letter presents as support for its claims about climate change a single flawed analysis from an anti-pipeline NGO. This report has been used by many to claim that the continued existence of Canada’s oil industry is incompatible with our national goal of fighting climate change. That claim is both simplistic and wrong. Canada has prepared a Nationally Determined Contribution (NDC) as part of our commitments under the Paris Agreement and nowhere in that NDC does it include Canada eliminating our oil industry. The reason for this is simple. Canada will still need oil for the next several decades as we transition to a low-carbon future. A functioning oil industry is one of the economic drivers that will allow us to pay for our transition and as such Canada’s NDC accounts for the continued existence of the oil industry.

To imagine that Canada can meet its Paris Agreement goals absent a fossil fuel industry (and the fuels it provides) is simply magical thinking. Activists will claim we need to stop producing oil but don’t then explain how our economy will operate without that oil? The answer is: it will not. We will instead need to import the oil necessary to run our economy. In doing so we will be diminishing our economic capacity for no practical climate change gain. Given our need for oil to run the economy, every plan to meet our Paris Agreement commitments includes the continued existence of our oil industry and accounts for the climate change effects via offsets. That is where the Oil Change International Report gets it wrong. Carbon offsets allow Canada to offset our additional emissions and still have a tax-generating oil industry in a post-Paris Agreement economy.

Moreover, what the PMYC letter doesn’t acknowledge is that real plans to fight climate change have been written and these plans require the pipeline to be built in order to be fully implemented. Alberta’s Climate Leadership Plan is the best way to get Alberta to make the real, and incredibly expensive, changes to their economy necessary to meet our Paris Agreement goals. By eliminate the TMX we will effectively lose Alberta’s support and that will make it even harder for Canada to achieve our climate goals.

This is a challenge we, as Canadians, face. We cannot naively demand the end to the oil industry without looking at how that elimination will effect our ability to pay for the changes we need for our economy. The PMYC letter writes that buying the TMX locks Canada into decades of dependence on fossil fuels. Well that is not correct. Canada is locked into our carbon economy because that is the world we currently live in and we can’t simply make a wish and have that dependence disappear. Eliminating our reliance on fossil fuels will be a multi-decade-long struggle that will take all our economic and political might to achieve. So I ask the PMYC letter signers this: what practical effect do you believe eliminating our oil sands make on our national emissions and how would you suggest we pay for our transition off fossil fuels when you eliminate entire tax-generating sectors of our economy?

First Nations issues:

As I have written before, I have studiously avoided the First Nations’ file in my TMX discussions. I am not an expert on issues surrounding First Nations sovereignty (or consultation) and have been careful to “stay in my lane”. That being said assessing relative risks is my lane and that is what needs to be considered in this discussion.

The Crown owes the same fiduciary obligations to all First Nations and has to consider cumulative risks to each First Nation associated with a project. I have been repeatedly informed on Twitter that each First Nation is sovereign and has the right to make decisions for itself. While that is true the Crown is left with the challenging task of finding a compromise when a project’s risks affect two or more First Nations differently. There is an old quote often attributed to Oliver Wendell Holmes “the right to swing my fist ends where the other man’s nose begins.” This quote has never been truer than in the TMX debate. As I have tried to explain, the pipeline debate is all about relative risk. Closing a door somewhere means that another door must be opened somewhere else, or put another way the Squamish Nation’s ability to swing their arms ends where the Cheam or Semiahmoo First Nations’ noses begin. The TMX debate is about finding the safest way to move a material that is critical to our shared wealth over land. It is not possible to achieve zero risk to all communities and so the  Crown has to balance the risks.

So my final question to the PYMC signers is this: how would you suggest the Crown balance the relative risks to differing First Nations posed by our society’s reliance on fossil fuels? Recognize that inaction (or the status quo) represents a decision to allocate risks every bit as much as a decision to build the TMX does. The only difference is that in planning the current pipeline route the desire has been to minimize risk to the nearby communities. While I agree the current process has not been a perfect one; it has, at least, been a transparent one. The allocation of risks associated with the status quo has not involved the balancing of risks and is anything but transparent. How would you, as the leaders of tomorrow, deal with one First Nation’s demand to have no risk when doing so puts another First Nation at significant risk? Because that is the problem the Crown is facing right now. A rail spill on the Fraser, the Thompson or the Columbia could have massive negative consequences for dozens of First Nation communities. How would you balance those risks?

Posted in Canadian Politics, Climate Change, Uncategorized | 13 Comments

On using chemophobia to try and sell hot dogs

As a parent of young kids, in the middle of a hot summer, I am a natural target demographic for hot dog advertisements. My kids love hot dogs and I don’t want to guess how many they have consumed in the last 12 months. Yes, I know hot dogs have any number of negative stereotypes: “too full of nitrates”, “meat of uncertain provenance”, “processed meat and colorectal cancer”. Well my counter is that hot dogs are tasty and a good way to get protein into young, growing bodies. Given that my family’s diet is heavily skewed towards fresh fruits, vegetables and whole grains and my kids share my dislike of most beans; finding a form of protein they will eat has been a challenge. So, I will continue to serve them hot dogs as part of a well-balanced diet. But that isn’t the point of this post. Besides being a parent, I am also a Chemist and my concern is the way marketers use chemophobia as the basis of their marketing campaigns. This lazy ploy plays right into the hands of the people who want to put them out of business and works towards creating a less-informed and science-fearing populace.

Chemophobia is the fear, distrust, or dislike of anything seen as a “chemical” and some companies run entire advertising campaigns centered on the concept. The one that most recently caught my eye was by Maple Leaf Foods. It is a real pity because what Maple Leaf Foods has done behind the scenes is pretty great. Read their new “Food Manifesto” and it is hard not to be pleased: they have simplified their products while working to reduce their impact on air, water and land and advancing the cause of food security. This is great stuff and represents reasons why my family would want to eat Maple Leaf Foods products over their competitors. But instead of highlighting these solid advances they have gone forward with an entirely cynical and misleading advertisement campaign.

Look at the current Maple Leaf ad campaign. Maybe it is just the channels my family watches, but I have been absolutely overwhelmed with dumb ads about kids at a spelling bee:

This is boilerplate chemophobia. It might as well have been designed by the Food Babe. You might wonder why I bring up the Food Babe? Well do you think it is a coincidence that BHT was featured in one ad? Anyone who has followed the chemophobia movement knows all about the food babe and her battle against BHT. It is a chemical that has been demonized, not because it is unsafe but because it sounds unsafe. For anyone who has followed this topic this is like waving a sheet at a bull. It is textbook chemophobia.

The problem is the chemophobia movement has been repeatedly shown to be entirely bogus. It has even generated a parody counter-movement: the ban dihydro monoxide (DHMO or water to the rest of us) movement. But to make a point let’s consider how absolutely ridiculous the Maple Leaf Foods advertisement campaign really is. Let’s look at their top top arguments:

  • Eliminating ingredients that are hard to spell: lead is a very short word that is really easy to spell and yet I don’t want it in the food I give my kids. Ascorbic acid (Vitamin C) is a really scary sounding, multi-syllabic word and yet I look to ensure my kids get enough of it each day.
  • Only natural ingredients: cobra venom and arsenic are both natural compounds that I definitely don’t want my kids to encounter. Ibuprofen is a lab-created compound that I absolutely want my kids to have when they get a fever.

Lets go back to that list from the commercials. Did you hear the last one they wanted us to stop using? It was dextrose. Dextrose is a simple sugar (d-glucose). It is one of the most natural “chemicals” out there. It is the basis of human metabolic pathways. Can you name a compound less benign? Perhaps DHMO? As for the alternatives for compounds like dextrose? Well this is what the CEO had to say:

part of what company chief executive Michael McCain bills as the “single biggest brand strategy initiative” in the 91-year history of the company, one which will see Maple Leaf switch 44 meat products that contain multi-syllabic preservatives and flavour-producing additives over to using basic ingredients such as lemon juice, salt and vinegar.

So what are they replacing evil chemicals like dextrose with: lemon juice (citric acid), salt (sodium chloride) and vinegar (acetic acid). Call me crazy but sodium chloride has more syllables than dextrose so by their logic we shouldn’t be using it should we? I can imagine the exact same commercial being run with the same kids and asking them to spell acetic acid. I imagine the same stunned response as that kid responding to dextrose. Put simply, this advertising campaign is playing on the public’s ignorance of household chemistry. People trust compounds when we use their common name while mistrusting compounds known by their chemical names. In doing so it is fostering an anti-science agenda and systematically making us all more jaded in the process.

What is more bizarre is that this entire campaign literally plays into the hands of the very people who want to see large food processing companies, like Maple Leaf Foods, destroyed. The “science is scary” crowd don’t like any processed foods so feeding their ignorance with this type of ridiculous ad campaign only helps those campaigners.

Companies like Maple Leaf Foods, with campaigns like this, are metaphorically pushing boulders off a hillside oblivious to the fact that their company is metaphorically located at the bottom of the hill. Sure they may get some short-term gain but at the cost of public confidence in our food system and building up the prestige of the people hell-bent on destroying them. Most importantly, it makes obvious supporters (like myself) look to alternative producers even when I would naturally gravitate to good food at a reasonable price. I’m not going to claim that I won’t buy Maple Leaf Products (because I probably will), but when two comparable products look back at me from the shelf I am going to pick the one that isn’t run by craven marketers who play on the lowest instincts of the public.

To conclude, if Maple Leaf Foods were to ask me, I would tell them that they should be talking up the truly positive aspects of their new programs. They should be creating commercials that emphasize how they are helping improve food security for the poor and lowering impacts on the land while generating cleaner water and less waste. All these are great topics to highlight a beneficial and forward-thinking company. It is a pity they instead decided to go with this anti-science dreck. They should really be ashamed of themselves.

Posted in Canadian Politics, Uncategorized | 3 Comments

Let’s be clear, the actions of the self-styled “water protectors” will place the Pacific Northwest at greater risk of a major oil spill

My Twitter feed erupted this week with the news that protesters, led by Mike Hudema of Greenpeace, had rappelled beneath the Ironworkers Memorial Bridge to block the movement of an oil tanker from the Westridge Marine Terminal. Looking at Mike’s Twitter feed he had this to say:

“No one should need to spend almost two days suspended from a bridge trying to protect something as essential as water”

I care deeply about protecting our west coast marine and freshwater ecosystems and have taken a particular interest in the Trans Mountain Expansion (TMX) file. Thanks to that research I am concerned that these well-meaning “water protectors” may inadvertently be doing the opposite of what they hope. That is, instead of protecting our shared waters they are likely putting those waters at much greater risk. The rest of this blog post will explain why I feel this is true.

As my regular readers know, one of my areas of practice is risk assessment. An important thing to understand in risk assessment is that all activities have risk and thus it is vitally important to identify and compare the likelihood of competing risks. I fear this is where the “water protectors” have erred. All their discussions about risk deal solely with the risk posed by the export tankers from Westridge, but none of their analyses appear to consider the necessary alternatives if the TMX is not completed. By omitting this consideration they end up making bad decisions and pushing for bad policies.

The first thing we need to recognize is that our society is completely reliant on fossil fuels. Every scrap of food we eat and every drop of water we drink has a carbon footprint. I can’t think of a single part of my life that doesn’t rely in one way or another on fossil fuels. Now I recognize that we, as a society, must wean ourselves off fossil fuels, but that is not a simple task. As I have explained if we undertake herculean efforts and dedicate a historically unprecedented percent of our national gross domestic product to the task we have a reasonable chance of weaning ourselves off fossil fuels in 30-50 years. Even then it is likely closer to the 50-year than the 30-year timeline. What this means is that British Columbia and Washington have, and will have, an ongoing need for fossil fuels for the foreseeable future.

So how much oil does BC need? As described by Business in Vancouver: B.C. consumed 192,000 barrels a day (bpd) of refined fuels in 2015. That works out to 70 million barrels of oil a year and almost all of it was imported, in one way or another, via the Trans Mountain pipeline.

Now if we only cared about about BC then maybe the activists may have a point but we live in the Pacific Northwest and share the Pacific Northwest with our neighbours to the south. Washington State has a voracious appetite for crude oil. In 2017, Washington imported approximately 213 million barrels of oil and the way they have been getting their oil is changing. In 2003, 91% of the crude oil used in the Puget Sound came by tanker (from Alaska) while the remaining 9% came via the Trans Mountain pipeline. In 2017, just under 46% of that oil came via tanker, 26% came by rail and the remaining 28% came from the Trans Mountain system.

Looking at that increase Washington now moves almost 55 million barrels of oil a year by rail. From January through March 2018 almost 20,000 rail cars of crude oil traveled for hundreds of kilometers along the banks of the Columbia River to feed Washington’s thirst for crude oil. This represents a weekly  average of 1,525 rail cars carrying 1,038,382 barrels of crude oil with 91% of that oil being the highly explosive light oil coming from the Bakken oil fields of North Dakota.

Now we know by now that  oil-by-rail has a 4.5 times greater risk of incident so every barrel we get off the rails is worth over 4 times its value in risk reduction. Moreover, as I have detailed, that oil-by-rail spends most of its route running alongside fragile river valleys or running through communities where people live. That makes rail even more dangerous to human and ecosystem health than the simple 4.5 given by the simple math.

As for the oil shipped to Washington by tanker? In 2003 almost all of that imported oil came on American tankers moving Alaskan crude. Those tanker numbers are decreasing because the Alaskan oil fields are going dry. Absent the TMX those Alaskan ships will be replaced by tankers out of Saudi Arabia and the Middle East. Those are ships that do not have to pass regular inspections from Canadian or American authorities because they are foreign-flagged. They will end up being less-safe tankers that won’t be required to follow the safety rules that the NEB placed on Canadian tankers as part of the conditions of the TMX.

Now I know what the activists are going to say: “but 7x more tankers“…..if I never again hear this simplistic refrain I will be a happier man. This tired factoid completely ignores the added precautions associated with the TMX project. The NEB required a detailed risk analysis of the TMX. The critical document on this topic is the report Termpol 3.15 – General Risk Analysis and intended methods of reducing risk which evaluated the risks of the project. It concluded that “with effective implementation of risk reducing measures most of the incremental risk resulting from the project can be eliminated”. To put a number on it:

  • Without the project the risk of a credible worst case oil spill is estimated in 1 in every 3093 years….If all the risk reducing measures discussed in this report are implemented the frequency will be one in every 2366 years.
  • This means that after the Project is implemented, provided all current and future proposed risk control measures are implemented, the increased risk of a credible worst case oil spill in the study area from the Trans Mountain tanker traffic will be only 30% higher than the risk of such an occurrence if the Project did not take place. 

By increasing the number of tankers by 7 times, but also implementing the changes that were ultimately mandated by the NEB, the risk of a spill is less than one event every 2000 years. So no, the risk does not increase by 7 times, it increases by barely 30%. Moreover, remember that 30% is multiplied by a near-zero number. 30% more of near-zero remains almost-zero. Essentially, they are saying that the project provides no significant increase in risk over those risks we accept every day.

Now I understand that I have lost a lot of you with all these numbers but here is my point. If the activists manage to block the TMX project, the crude oil necessary for our continued existence on the West Coast will still need to flow. It will simply flow via less safe means, specifically:

  • Explosive Bakken crude will flow in even greater quantities along rail lines that run the virtual length of the Columbia River and through the heavily populated communities of the Pacific Northwest.
  • Canadian oil trains will run in greater numbers alongside the Thompson and the Fraser Rivers and through every community along that route. A spill in either river will risk salmon runs that serve as the food source for, and are held sacred by, dozens of Indigenous communities in British Columbia.
  • Instead of highly-regulated Canadian tankers bringing Canadian crude to California and Asia we will see the Puget Sound and Semiahmoo Bay full of tankers coming out of the Middle East and registered in whatever jurisdiction has the lowest safety standards.
  • The eventual risk won’t be one major accident every 2000+ years it will be orders of magnitude higher and for what point? To satisfy Greenpeace’s voracious appetite for free media coverage and need for massive inflows of cash to fund their ill-considered campaigns.

Let’s make it clear. Any cold-eyed analysis of the relative risks shows that the TMX reduces our regional risks of oil spills. Blocking the TMX will increase the likelihood of a disastrous rail spill that could spell the end of a major fishery or result in the deaths of dozens of innocents. It also increases the likelihood of a marine spill from a foreign-flagged tanker. As I have written previously, what is most frustrating, from my perspective, is that the activists have even managed to convince some of the First Nations communities on the Fraser River that the pipeline is a greater risk to their communities than oil-by-rail. This means these First Nations are now fighting a project that has the potential to significantly decrease the risks to their communities. As someone who cares about human and ecological health, this is the saddest part of the entire story.


Posted in Canadian Politics, Pipelines, Trans Mountain, Uncategorized | 20 Comments

On the CCPA’s ridiculous suggestion that price gouging explains BC gasoline prices

There has been a lot of misinformation about gasoline prices in the lower mainland but few recent pieces have got the story quite as wrong as the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives‘ (CCPA) take by their economist Marc Lee. In the last week I have seen him in the Sun; all over Twitter; and even on the night-time news discussing his analysis. I have taken him to task on Twitter (which he has studiously ignored) but there is only so much you can say on Twitter so I wanted to put a bit more detail into a reply here at my blog.

To boil it down Mr. Lee argues that elevated gasoline prices in the Vancouver region are the result of “price gouging” by oil companies and that the solution to this problem is regulation. As I will show in this blog he is completely wrong on both points.

Let’s start with what we know about the BC refined fuel market from an article in Business in Vancouver

Provincially, B.C. lacks refining capacity. B.C.’s two refineries produce only 67,000 barrels per day (bpd) of gasoline and diesel, whereas B.C. consumed 192,000 bpd in 2015, according to the CFA [Canadian Fuels Association]. The Parkland Fuel Corp.  refinery in Burnaby produces 55,000 bpd and supplies about 25% to 30% of Vancouver International Airport’s jet fuel supply. Alberta’s refineries supply about 100,000 bpd to B.C., and about 30,000 bpd is imported from Washington state refineries, according to the CFA.

The United States has broken their petroleum market up into five Petroleum Administration of Defense Districts (PADDs). The West Coast of the US, including California, Oregon and Washington, make up PADD 5. Geography defines PADD 5 as it is mostly bordered on the east by mountains. In fact the only (non-rail) major east-west connection on the west coast is the Trans Mountain pipeline. As the US Energy Information Administration (EIA) puts it:

Because PADD 5 is isolated, in-region refineries are the primary source of transportation fuels for PADD 5. In 2013, PADD 5 refinery production was sufficient to cover about 91% of in-region motor gasoline demand, 96% of jet demand, and 113% of distillate demand. Heavy reliance on in-region production further complicates the supply chain when disruptions occur. When disruptions occur, all of these factors noted above combine to limit short-term supply options, lengthen the duration of supply disruptions, and cause prices to increase and remain higher for a longer period than would be typical in markets outside PADD 5.

So we have a problem. BC is short 30,000 bpd in refined fuel supply and it relies on Washington State refineries which sell into a PADD 5 market that is also significantly short on supply. Even more problematically, most of the big refineries are owned by oil companies that have long-term contracts for most of their production. We can only buy our 30,000 bpd out of the left-overs and we are competing with Oregon and California (that are also under-supplied) for whatever the Washington refineries have to sell.

This represents a classic supply/demand problem. We have a limited supply and numerous, competing parties all providing demand. This is a formula for an increase in price. So no, our increased fuel prices are not the result of gouging, they are an example of a market working exactly the way it is described in the textbooks. In response to this type of signal the two choices to reduce price are to reduce demand or increase supply. The current Trans Mountain pipeline expansion project is intended to address the supply side of that ledger.

Now Mr. Lee’s argument is that the only way to address the “price gouging” is through regulation. The problem with his suggestion is that regulation only works when the government has control of at least one end of the supply/demand equation. The BC government controls neither.

This leaves Mr. Lee’s argument in a pickle. The BC government would have to set a regulated gasoline price. If it set the price too low the Washington refineries would simply sell their limited excess supply elsewhere. This would leave us dry. The government’s only choice, to ensure supply, would be to set the price at a level where we can compete with California and Oregon for the limited supply out there.

This leads to the major problem with a regulated gasoline price. Regulated markets don’t react quickly to price fluctuations. In this case the market would be locked in at a high price and the regulated market would not have the ability to fluctuate downwards to quickly address market drops. Thus regulation would guarantee that prices will remain high and we could not take advantage of short-term supply options to lower gas prices.

As presented, the CCPA’s arguments are simply hollow. The analysis presented by Mr. Lee, an economist, strangely ignores the supply and demand characteristics of the regional market and instead goes with “price-gouging”. An examination of that market demonstrates that a supply and demand analysis does a far better job of explaining our gas prices. Moreover, Mr. Lee’s suggestion to solve the problem (regulation) represents exactly the wrong approach to addressing our elevated gasoline prices as it would lock in high prices and not provide a means (or incentive) to lower those prices.

Before I finish I have two quick notes. During the 11 o’clock news Mr. Lee made the point to argue that the way we can tell supply is not an issue is that we have not seen empty gas stations. This comment actually made me laugh out loud. Apparently Mr. Lee completely forgets the dry stations in the interior in 2016. But that isn’t what made me laugh. What I found ridiculous was that in a story where Mr. Lee is complaining that we have been consistently massively overpaying for gasoline he simultaneously argues that we should be seeing empty gas stations. Those are two mutually exclusive statements. As an economist he must know that the only reason we would see dry pumps would be that we choose not to pay high prices. It is like Mr. Lee completely forgot that he was an economist. His argument runs counter to everything they teach in school.

My final quibble with Mr. Lee’s article is his pointing out that one proof of the gouging is that Parkland had “record profits”. Those record profits are simply a result of Parkland having grown significantly bigger. The quarter Mr. Lee cites (and is repeated on Global at 11) is the first one after Parkland essentially doubled in size. When you are twice as big it is likely that your total profit will be higher. This is not due to gouging but rather to simple mathematics.


Posted in Canadian Politics, Pipelines, Uncategorized | 3 Comments