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

The Extinction Rebellion are the homeopaths of the climate change community

We have had another week of the Extinction Rebellion (XR) “raising awareness” by blocking roadways, gluing themselves to bridges and airplanes and generally behaving in a manner intended to get lots of publicity. Having watched and listened to XR leadership, I remain frustrated by it all. While XR likes to shroud their actions in the mantle of “the science” as I showed in my last post their major claims aren’t supported by the science. Stephen Colbert coined a term: “truthiness” which he defined as “the quality of seeming to be true according to one’s intuition, opinion, or perception without regard to logic, factual evidence, or the like”. XR does a similar thing I will call “scienciness” which involves using the language of science to say things that aren’t true, but sound like they should be true. In this they remind me a lot of the practitioners of Homeopathy. They use a lot of sceincy-sounding words but when you dig more deeply you discover that most of what they are saying has no foundation in scientific fact.

What do I mean by this? Well, consider their favourite argument that billions will be killed this century (the whole extinction part of XR). Here is Roger Hallam making the claim on the BBC:

“I am talking about the slaughter, death, and starvation of 6 billion people this century—that’s what the science predicts.”

The reputable science says nothing of the sort. The IPCC certainly doesn’t say this nor does any reputable scientific organization. The closest explanation of this argument I can find is from Rupert Read on the BBC:

The risk of catastrophic and irreversible disaster is rising, implying potentially infinite costs of unmitigated climate change, including human extinction” – the Eco-extremists at the International Monetary Fund.

However, Mr. Read’s argument is simply an example of exceptionally bad scholarship. Let’s start with his source. The quotation is from a paper by Signe Krogstrup and William Oman titled: Macroeconomic and Financial Policies for Climate Change Mitigation: A Review of the Literature. Now admittedly both individuals work at the IMF, however, the work is not from the IMF nor is it the position of the IMF. Rather, the article includes a massive disclaimer which says:

IMF Working Papers describe research in progress by the author(s) and are published to elicit comments and to encourage debate. The views expressed in IMF Working Papers are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily represent the views of the IMF, its Executive Board, or IMF management.

Reading the article itself you discover that the authors have made a general point and attributed it to a previous work:

There is growing agreement between economists and scientists that the tail risks are material and the risk of catastrophic and irreversible disaster is rising, implying potentially infinite costs of unmitigated climate change, including, in the extreme, human extinction (see, e.g., Weitzman 2009).

The problem is the paper they are drawing from says no such thing. It is taken from the 2009 paper On Modeling and Interpreting the Economics of Catastrophic Climate Change by Martin Weitzman. In that paper Dr. Weitzman discusses extremely unlikely risks to explain how the statistics makes it impossible to rule them out altogether.

The point of the Weitzman article is that these risks are essentially nil, but are not exactly nil. Weitzman argues that

Perhaps in the end the climate-change economist can help most by not presenting a cost-benefit estimate for what is inherently a fat-tailed situation with potentially unlimited downside exposure as if it is accurate and objective

This is not what is being argued by Krogstrup and Oman.

To understand what Weitzman means by a “fat-tailed risk with potentially unlimited downside exposure” consider that there is a similarly low chance an asteroid will destroy the earth in the next decade. If you were following Mr. Read’s logic our only response would be to abandon all other activities while developing a protective system around our planet, but science-based policy doesn’t work that way. We don’t spend all our time trying to eliminate de minimis risks.

As for the topic of our biodiversity crisis, the XR web site says this:

The Intergovernmental Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) report produced in 2019 shows the biodiversity crisis is on a par with the threat posed by climate change. The main direct causes of biodiversity loss are habitat change, direct exploitation (e.g., fishing, hunting and logging), invasive alien species, pollution (including nutrient loading), and climate change.

The thing they appear to miss is the IPBES lists ecological risks in order and places climate change as a tertiary risk. We could eliminate climate change tomorrow and it would not have a significant effect on the biodiversity crisis because the primary causes are human land use decisions and human exploitation of species. XR tries to muddy the water but the IPBES is extremely clear on this topic.

The other thing the XR people like is the trappings of science. Consider this Reuters story where the academics try to portray themselves as something they aren’t.

Wearing white laboratory coats to symbolize their research credentials, a group of about 20 of the signatories gathered on Saturday to read out the text outside London’s century-old Science Museum in the city’s upmarket Kensington district.

The actual list of scientists is a mishmash of academics in the humanities with a smaller number of biologists and a limited number of academics in the natural sciences. What is most amusing is almost none would wear lab coats in their academic work, which explains why they would think wearing a lab coat in public makes them look like real scientists.

As someone who had to wear a lab coat in my lab, the thing to understand is that no serious scientist wears their lab coat in public. A lab coat is intended to protect the wearer from dangerous chemicals and in doing so it thus poses a serious risk to anyone who comes in contact with that lab coat. To explain, 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 unless you want to expose your colleagues to nasty contaminants. To do so would be like a surgeon wearing blood-soaked scrubs around the hospital. Admittedly, some old-school academics used to wear a spare lab coat to teach, but that was usually to protect their clothes from chalk dust and the result was their offices were always full of chalk dust that came off their coats. These poser academics wearing lab coats “to symbolize their research credentials” are doing so much in the same way as my son wearing his Whitecaps jersey symbolizes his soccer prowess.

Earlier in this post you heard me talking about homeopaths. Well, in my opinion, the homeopathy’s relationship to medical science effectively parallels XR’s relationship to climate science. Put another way, XR activists are the homeopaths of the climate community.

Homeopathy derives from the science of the early 1800’s. That would be the era of luminiferous Ether and pre-dates the establishment of the germ theory of disease. It was an era when blood-letting was still regularly practiced and is based on an entirely faulty understanding of the chemistry of liquids. Most Homeopathic tinctures don’t even contain the active ingredient being used to treat the malady because the process of making the tincture dilutes the active ingredients completely away. Because homeopathic remedies are made up of either clean water or sugar pills, Homeopathy only works via the placebo effect.

So why are so many willing to trust Homeopathy? Because practitioners can really talk up a good story. Take a read of this word salad from a Homeopath

Homoeopathy does not search out the disease in material human organism, but penetrates deep into the plane of Will, Intelligence (understanding/judgement) and Memory to reach to find out subjective individual symptoms, and find out homoeopathic indicated potentiated medicine.

You can read that sentence a dozen times and get a dozen things out of it, but none are real because Homeopathy is all about convincing users that there is some unknown scientific truth behind their sugar pills.

In a similar way, XR is all about confusing and scaring the public with information that is not supported by any reputable academic or institutional bodies. XR doesn’t believe the IPCC because it isn’t extreme enough for them. They claim to follow the science, but in reality they simply like the sounds and trappings of science but don’t want to be constrained by the limitations of the science. Their credo is scienciness. They are the homeopaths of the climate change community. They try to sound like they have a scientific basis for their extraordinary claims but any detailed examination of their claims show those claims to be full of gibberish.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Taking a serious look at the unserious demands of the Extinction Rebellion

As anyone who watches the news knows, the good folks at the Extinction Rebellion (XR) have been increasing the intensity of their protests in the last few weeks. An organization that started in the UK has now exported its message, and tactics, to North America and our authorities have utterly kowtowed to them.

Having given lots of notice that these radicals were going to illegally block traffic on major commuter routes, our brave men and women of law enforcement, under the direction of our craven political class, abandoned their role as protectors of the law and instead served as protectors of the lawless. Look at the pictures from Edmonton where a handful of activists managed to close a major bridge while the police physically protected these lawless protesters from the public they were harming.

In what sane world can a handful of lawbreakers behave in such a manner? Honestly, if these people walked into a bank and demanded all the money in the vaults (to help fight climate change of course) I honestly believe our opportunistic politicians would be providing them a police escort and asking if they needed bags to help carry the money away.

Given the newfound prominence of XR it seemed rational to try to understand what the organization stands for. What I discovered is an utterly bizarre group of misfits that is proposing simply ridiculous solutions to our global climate crisis. The mass media, meanwhile, has completely ignored what the XR actually stands for and has given this organization all sorts of free publicity and far more positive press than it deserves. Frankly, the easiest way to discredit XR is simply to take them seriously and look at what they are actually demanding. In this blog post I will do just that and let XR speak for itself.

Let’s start with some things I believe/understand. I accept that climate change is a serious threat to the ongoing health of our shared planetary ecosystem. Combined with the effects of human land use and human exploitation of natural resources (very different topics from climate change) climate change represents a contributing factor in a possible sixth great extinction.

I agree we need to fight climate change and if you agree with me that we need to fight climate change there are a lot of organizations you can support from the political to the activist NGO’s. All these organizations provide a megaphone for various activist approaches to fight climate change.

If you choose to follow XR instead of one of these mainstream groups then it has to be because XR stands for; something different than the run-of-the-mill activist groups and XR does indeed stand for something different. What it stands for can be identified by its Three Demands:

1: Tell the truth Government must tell the truth by declaring a climate and ecological emergency, working with other institutions to communicate the urgency for change.

2: Act Now Government must act now to halt biodiversity loss and reduce greenhouse gas emissions to net zero by 2025.

3: Beyond Politics Government must create and be led by the decisions of a Citizens’ Assembly on climate and ecological justice.

Demand 1 – Tell the Truth

The first demand is utterly unexceptional. Lots of groups are looking to declare a climate emergency. There is nothing particularly special here that sets XR apart.

Demand 2 – Net Zero by 2025

Demand 2, however, should really raise a lot of warning flags. I would ask every reader look at the nearest calendar. In my house the calendar is directly above this computer and I can I see it is October, 2019. XR is demanding we achieve a fossil fuel-free status by 2025! These people are demanding we get off fossil fuels in a little over 5 years.

I want to say that again because it should be the the first thing anyone talks about when discussing XR. They are demanding that we GET OFF FOSSIL FUELS BY 2025.

I don’t understand why the first question every reporter asks a representative of XR is how they could conceivably demand we get off fossil fuels by 2025? When they say “extinction” do they mean of the human race?

Let’s look at this in the context of British Columbia. As I detailed in a previous post: fossil fuels represent approximately 59% of all the energy used in British Columbia. According to the Globe Foundation Endless Energy Project Report (Globe Foundation) domestic transportation accounted for 87% of motor gasoline and diesel fuel sales in BC in 2000 (the last year this data was fully compiled). I’m sure someone is going to say: “what about electric vehicles”? In 2015 plug-in electrical vehicles represented 0.33% of new vehicle sales in Canada. Electrical vehicles represent a rounding error in total cars and personal trucks on the road in B.C. As for hybrids, well they depend on fossil fuels to operate and would stop doing so absent fossil fuels.

As for transport trucks, the ones that carry the containers of foods and other necessities from the farmers, docks and rail yards to the warehouses? At this time Canada has exactly zero electric transport trucks carrying long-haul routes. Admittedly Mercedes Benz is testing a potential electric transport truck but that truck currently has a maximum range of 200 km which means it would just barely be able to go from Vancouver to the valley to pick up a load of food and return to town. As for carrying loads of food over the Rockies? Not a chance. Moreover, that is a single prototype. If you took the current generation of transport trucks off the road entirely, the store shelves would go bare in days.

Having addressed personal vehicles and commercial trucks, how about freight trains? Care to guess the number of electric freight trains that exist in Canada?  I’ll give you a hint, it is a round number that is one less than 1 (ref). So absent fossil fuels there won’t be any trains to transport food or necessities from the dockyards and farms to the rail yards either.

Well we’ve addressed trucks and trains how about electric container ships or electric cargo planes? That is an easy one are there are exactly zero of either operating in this world. There are some suggestions that a new generation of container ships could be designed to operate using  some form of hybrid electrical/sail/biodeisel but that is still on the drawing board and we don’t even have a prototype out there.

As for home heating, according to the National Energy Board, in British Columbia 58% of households rely on natural gas for heating.

Given this understand how can anyone take seriously a group that DEMANDS that over the span of 5 years we eliminate 59% of all energy used in BC and replace it with alternatives (most of which do not exist). I can’t repeat this enough XR DEMANDS that we replace virtually every car, hot water heater, furnace, truck, train, plane etc…in 5 years? How can anyone take this group seriously and why are reporters not holding these people to account for this ridiculous demand?

Moreover, this is not even their most ridiculous demand since we still have to look at Demand 3

Demand 3 – Citizen Assemblies

For those wondering, many of the founders of XR were classically educated academics in the UK. So needless to say they studied their Greek history and know about the history of Athenian Assemblies and the Athenian idea of being ruled by citizens chosen by lot. This is how XR proposes we solve our climate crisis.

XR proposes that a group of citizens will be chosen by lot and they will be trained in the field of governance and then they will be given the job of solving climate change. XR is sort of hazy about how this assembly will be chosen. They also are quite vague about how this assembly will deal with the whole “we have no alternatives for critical technologies” or even how an assembly will achieve this aim in 5 years.

What XR is not vague about is that they believe that a randomly chosen group of citizens, given a few hours of education, will do a better job of understanding energy transition than the hundreds and thousands of experts who have spent decades becoming knowledgeable in their fields of study.

Now admittedly the XR folks aren’t fans of expertise, because experts and specialists keep trying to explain to them that their demands are impossible. So it can be understood why they would want a group of average citizens (who may not be as well informed) to come up with the solutions instead.

The next time you go to the grocery store, look around. Imagine that every person in that room is taken aside and put in a room and given instruction by the XR zealots. Do you imagine that group of people will somehow be able to address (fix?) the global lack of technology and infrastructure necessary to eliminate our dependence on fossil fuels, and do it all in 5 years from today?

The funny thing is the XR folk don’t seem to be the types to leave it to citizen panels to built the airplanes they like to fly in; the university office buildings they have their offices in; or even to take over their positions as grad students in classical Greek philosophy. No those are jobs for experts. Instead XR just wants its Citizen Assembly to re-design our entire technological state and determine how our economy transitions from one utterly dependent on fossil fuels to one that doesn’t use fossil fuels at all…and do it all in five years. So not a really challenging task after all.

Conclusion – Stop taking these unserious people seriously

After their day of action I made a point of listening to the representatives from XR as they made all sorts of grandiose claims about their protests. But the one thing I didn’t hear was reporters making them present a cogent defense of the basis of their protest. For some strange reason reporters didn’t press these disruptors about what would happen if their demands were met. How were they going to feed our population in a world of 2025 where fossil fuels were no more? How were they going to choose their citizen assemblies and how did they expect a group of average people to address a global lack of infrastructure or technology

I deeply wish the media actually took these people seriously and asked them some serious questions. Because when you take a serious look at XR, and its list of demands, it becomes clear how completely unserious they are. While they are great at protesting and super at creating interesting visuals for the evening news, they are completely unserious when it comes to coming up with a solution to climate change. Rather, their biggest skill appears to be alienating unconvinced voters so as to make it harder to actually come up with workable solutions to this global problem.

As informed citizens we need to speak up when the media give groups like the XR a free pass. We need to hold our politicians accountable when they instruct our police to support the lawless as they break the law. There is exactly one reason why a handful of protesters managed to close a major thoroughfare in Edmonton. It is because some craven politicians in city hall were more afraid of the reaction of these protesters than they are of Edmonton voters. Perhaps Edmonton voters should keep that in mind come next municipal election day.

Posted in Climate Change, Climate Change Politics, Uncategorized | 12 Comments

Why environmental professionals and policy specialists are often frustrated with the climate strikers

What parent hasn’t experienced this situation? Due to circumstances outside your control you are going to be late for a family commitment. You got out of the house late, or an accident on the highway has you stuck in traffic. In either case, you simply aren’t going to get to that commitment in time and from the back seat comes a plaintive cry: “dad, you have to drive faster, we are going to be late!”.

We all know that a child who is going to be late for their soccer game, doesn’t understand that all the cars are moving at the same speed and there is nothing you can do. They are concentrating on their own issues. They don’t understand what it will take to get to our destination. They only want to get there faster because “our coach said we HAVE to be there by 5:15 pm“.

We have all been that parent. We can cajole. We can try logic. But all we get from the backseat are complaints that we are not going fast enough and are going to be late. As parents did we appreciate those moments? Of course not, we are doing our best and are struggling within the limitations of the world around us.

Well that is what it likes to be an environmental professional being lectured by the children of the Climate Strike about energy policy. They are the metaphorical kids in the backseat, demanding that we go faster without any realization of what it will take to achieve the outcomes they seek.

Now I know a lot of you are going to say that my analogy trivializes the risks associated with climate change and my response is that you are missing the point. Demanding that we “drive faster” while providing no other insight as to how to achieve that goal simply does not help. Like the coach example, they often point out that their position is supported by the IPCC. But the IPCC projections won’t bend space-time to allow us to reach our goals on time.

I know people talk about moving the Overton Window and “enhancing public awareness”, but the reality is that polls agree we are already at a state where people want to fight climate change. The hard part is figuring out how we can achieve that goal. I keep listening to the demands from the Climate Strikers and it is all about stopping all fossil fuel use now and blaming the previous generations for the conditions of the present. I read that:

What Thunberg and her fellow protesters want from their governments is to “keep fossil fuels in the ground, phase out subsidies for dirty energy production, seriously invest in renewables and start asking difficult questions about how we structure our economies and who is set to win and who is set to lose,” 

What I don’t hear is a recognition that we currently have a transportation (and thus food supply) system that is utterly dependent on fossil fuels and will be for the next 20+ years. We simply don’t have widely available fossil fuel-free options for transport trucks, container ships, cube vans or airplanes. Were we to “keep fossil fuels in the ground” our food supplies would quickly dry up and people would starve. This means to fight climate change we need to figure out how to address non-transportation uses while we innovate in the transportation field.

In addition, climate change, while an important priority, is not the only priority for world governments. Climate change has the potential to kill millions in the future, but energy poverty is killing millions today. We live in a world where 1.1 billion people live in energy poverty and each year 4.3 million people a year die from preventable indoor air pollution directly resulting from that energy poverty. Governments in developing nations are going to prioritize the health of today’s people over those of tomorrow.

The thing climate strikers have to understand is that there are no short-cuts to cutting our carbon emissions. It is easy for climate strikers and their activist supporters, who go to bed well-fed and warm in Canada and Europe, to tell the world they should use less energy. But the governments of China and India still have deep poverty and hardship to fight and will ignore those cries because they are dealing with louder and more pressing cries of citizens who need food and shelter today.

The climate strikers talk about how our emissions are going to condemn them to a life of squalor and misery, except that is not true. Kids today enjoy their lifestyles because generations before them built the world we have now. We have a smaller percentage of humans living in abject poverty than we have had in history. By virtually any measure you can identify the lives our kids enjoy is better than the lives their great-grandparents lived.

Moreover, if we actually implemented the changes they demand these same children would be on the streets protesting those changes. Any attempt to completely change-over our economy, in the timeline presented, would necessarily take massive resources away from other priorities. It would mean less money for schools, universities, hospitals, sports facilities, roads and sewers. As long as the battle is in the abstract these students are all for it, but tell them that they won’t have seats in university, that the sports and music programs in their schools are being shut down and that their grandparents can’t get the surgery they need and all of a sudden priorities change.

There is a reason we don’t leave complex policy decisions to well-meaning children, it is because while they may be well-meaning they are not trained to understand the consequences of their demands.

Consider Ms. Thunberg’s recent trip across the Atlantic. No one can deny that the young lady endured discomfort and not insignificant risk to cross the Atlantic in a sailboat. But unfortunately her journey typifies the empty symbolism of the Green movement. You see, her highly symbolic trip actually resulted in higher emissions than if she had simply jumped on a trans-Atlantic flight with her dad.

Assuming she took an economy flight with her dad, the return trip would have resulted in 4 total Atlantic crossings (2 each way). By sailing, however, the trip has resulted in a minimum of 6 crossings as two crew that traveled with her on the ship to the US will be flying back to Europe, while 4 crew from Europe will be flying over the help bring the sailboat home. The net effect of this trip was a substantial increase in total emissions for the trip.

This is what happens when you seek simple solutions to complex problems. It was a gesture, but one that generated a net excess of emissions. Just like clearing rain-forests to build palm oil plantations for biofuels; cutting US low-land forests to provide wood pellets for UK power plants; and shuttering nuclear plants in Germany and then needing to use more coal to replace the lost nuclear power. All these bad ideas were implemented because well-meaning people suggested solutions but didn’t understand the complexity of the problem they were attempting to address.

Now I recognize that we need to raise the bar when it comes to our fight against climate change. We need to do more, but as someone who has been working to bring about change I have had just about enough of being blamed for things outside my control and being told it’s my fault that we are not going to meet a deadline that literally didn’t exist when we were designing our plan to meet a different deadline.

So no it is not misogyny, it is simple frustration at being told again and again that we are not doing enough by people who don’t understand the topic enough to understand what it will take to achieve this goal.  

Do I resent the climate strikers? No of course not. I am simply tired of being told I need to drive faster by individuals who don’t yet understand how to drive.

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

Is shale gas a major driver of recent increase in global atmospheric methane? Not according to the most recent observational and satellite studies

Ah, the scientific method. We all remember it from our school days. Observations are made. Observations lead scientists to develop hypotheses intended to explain the observed phenomenon. Those hypotheses are subsequently tested against experimental data. A hypothesis that is found to be in contradiction of the data, no matter how compelling that hypothesis may be, must be discarded and new hypotheses generated that better reflect the data at hand.

You may ask why I am starting this post with a simplified explanation of the scientific method? The answer is because last week we had a classic example of a compelling hypothesis being confronted by a wealth of data from a well-conducted empirical studies and the hypothesis being found to be lacking. In this case we are talking about Cornell Biologist Robert Howarth‘s latest paper: Ideas and perspectives: is shale gas a major driver of recent increase in global atmospheric methane?

As anyone who has read this blog knows, I follow the BC liquid natural gas (LNG) debate pretty closely and Dr. Howarth’s is a name easily recognized in this debate. I can’t count the number of times I have heard the expression “natural gas is a bridge to nowhere which I have debunked in the Canadian context. I have repeatedly demonstrated that Dr. Howarth’s research is simply not applicable to BC LNG. My opinion is consistent with the peer-reviewed academic literature on this topic.

This week I was directed to Dr. Howarth’s his latest work. This new article looks at the global increases in methane concentrations and concludes that:

shale-gas production in North America over the past decade may have contributed more than half of all of the increased emissions from fossil fuels globally and approximately one-third of the total increased emissions from all sources globally over the past decade.

Now let’s admit, that is a pretty interesting hypothesis. We know global methane concentrations have been increasing and we know that the US is extracting a lot more natural gas, these two must be related mustn’t they? As Dr. Howarth puts it:

Shale gas makes up 2/3rds of all new natural gas development over last decade. An emissions rate of 3.5% for full lifecycle (which should surprise no one) gives you about 10 Tg per year of new atmospheric methane. My paper is entirely consistent with this, giving me confidence.

In his paper Dr Howarth presents his hypothesis and supports this hypothesis with some very interesting isotope analyses. Now when I say “interesting” I don’t mean “convincing” because it really isn’t all that convincing to those familiar with this type of analysis. A friend (who happens to be a geochemist) I spoke with on the topic pointed out that isotopic fingerprinting of shale gas is simply not as clear cut as Dr. Howarth suggests it should be. That being said this blog post is not about whether Dr. Howarth got the isotope argument right, it is about a more fundamental issue: whether Dr. Howarth’s general hypothesis can stand up when confronted with actual data about methane concentrations in our atmosphere.

The thing Dr. Howarth glosses over in his paper is that methane is a highly studied gas globally. We have satellites and ground stations that can detect methane signatures and our governments monitor methane concentrations in the atmosphere on an ongoing basis. We know a LOT about what is happening on this topic.

In the US, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration maintains a Global Greenhouse Gas Reference Network that includes the Earth System Research Laboratory methane tracker. If releases from North American shale gas extraction were increasing, that should be evident in all the methane sampling and observations. Especially, if as suggested by Dr. Howarth, the North American shale gas extraction were responsible for one-third of the global increase in methane over the last decade.

As a scientist, I decided to go look at the data from the methane tracker and was surprised to see that there is no signal of massive increases in methane emissions that would be necessary to tip the global balance. The spike is simply not there.

For those of you who don’t want to wade through the data, a peer-reviewed article was recently published in Geophysical Research Letters, by Lan et. al., (2019) titled: long‐term measurements show little evidence for large increases in total U.S. methane emissions over the past decade that summarizes the results. The “Plain Language Summary” for this paper says:

In the past decade, natural gas production in the United States has increased by ~46%. Methane emissions associated with oil and natural gas productions have raised concerns since methane is a potent greenhouse gas with the second largest influence on global warming. Recent studies show conflicting results regarding whether methane emissions from oil and gas operations have been increased in the United States. Based on long‐term and well‐calibrated measurements, we find that (i) there is no large increase of total methane emissions in the United States in the past decade; [my emphasis] (ii) there is a modest increase in oil and gas methane emissions, but this increase is much lower than some previous studies suggest; and (iii) the assumption of a time‐constant relationship between methane and ethane emissions has resulted in major overestimation of an oil and gas emissions trend in some previous studies

So we have Dr. Howarth’s hypothesis that says that US fossil fuel emissions of methane are responsible for “one-third of the total increased emissions from all sources globally” while the people responsible for looking for this spike says that fossil fuel emissions have seen “no large increase” in US emissions in the last decade. These are two mutually exclusive statements. Sounds like time for more data.

In his paper Dr. Howarth refers back to an earlier paper A large increase in U.S. methane emissions over the past decade inferred from satellite data and surface observations by Turner et al., (2016) from which Dr. Howarth draws this information:

Since virtually all shale-gas development globally through 2015 occurred in North America (mostly in the United States but also western Canada), we conclude that at least 33 % of the increase in methane fluxes came from North America. This is consistent with the work of Turner et al. (2016), who used satellite data to conclude that 30 % to 60 % of the global increase in methane emissions between 2002 and 2014 came from the United States.

The Lan et al., (2019) paper notes the existence of the Turner et al., (2016) paper and questions some of its conclusions. That being said, the Turner et. al., (2016) paper includes an important qualifier that Dr. Howarth seems to have missed. Turner et al., (2016) write:

The U.S. has seen a 20% increase in oil and gas production [US EIA2015] and a ninefold increase in shale gas production from 2002 to 2014 (Figure 1, bottom), but the spatial pattern of the methane increase seen by GOSAT [Greenhouse Gases Observing Satellite] does not clearly point to these sources [my emphasis]. 

The Turner paper literally says that the satellite data they used did not see the methane increases in the vicinity of where the shale gas was being extracted. This is pretty darned important. If the increase in methane, is as large as Dr. Howarth indicates it should be (i.e. enough to significantly effect global numbers) this should be visible in the satellite data…and yet it isn’t.

To summarize: Dr. Howarth’s hypothesis is that shale gas extraction has resulted in a massive increase in North American methane emissions. According to Dr. Howarth’s hypothesis, that massive increase is so intense that it could be responsible for “one-third of the total increased emissions from all sources globally over the past decade”.

But the Global Greenhouse Gas Reference Network sees no large increase in US methane emissions and the GOSAT satellite did not see increases in methane in the areas where “a nine-fold increase in shale gas production” was taking place.

The empirical data does not support Dr. Howarth’s hypothesis. Rather the empirical data makes it clear that shale gas is not the source of the increased North American emissions. From a Canadian perspective this makes a lot of sense. In Canada shale gas is being extracted under tight regulatory regimes that do not allow the practices that were the norm a decade ago. Most natural gas wells are “green completed” which avoids the venting and flaring that were the norm in the past. 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 conclude; in this story we have a compelling hypothesis that has been confronted by a whole lot of very solid empirical data and that empirical data says that the hypothesis is wrong. As we know from our understanding of the scientific method, when confronted by data that contradicts the hypothesis, the hypothesis, no matter how compelling, must be discarded. Dr. Howarth’s suggestion that shale gas is responsible for the increase in global methane emissions simply isn’t supported by the empirical data available at this time.

Posted in LNG, Uncategorized | 6 Comments

Why political demands we radically speed up decarbonization represent wishful thinking

This blog post started as a potential Twitter thread that got out of hand. It grew out of recent demands by major political organizations that Canada increase its pace of decarbonization. First it was the Canadian pact for a Green New Deal which demanded we:

cut Canada’s emissions in half in 11 years while protecting cultural and biological diversity.

Then the Green Party’s Mission Possible, which is looking to establish our new target of:

60 per cent GHG reductions against 2005 levels by 2030; zero emissions by 2050.

Most recently we have the Assembly of First Nations calling on the other levels of government to:

reduce emissions in Canada by 60% below 2010 levels by 2030 and reach net-zero emissions by 2050.

It is like each organization is attempting to claim the moral high ground and trying to outbid their rivals to prove their environmental plan is the Greenest.

The problem with these demands is they betray a lack of understanding where greenhouse gas emissions come from and what it will take to achieve our decarbonization goals. It is unclear whether this lack of understanding is a political ploy or reflects a true misunderstanding of the scope of the problem we face. In either case, it appears necessary to explain what we face in achieving our decarbonization goals. In doing so I hope to explain why the unrealistic goals of these organizations reflect an unhelpful form of wishful thinking.

The first thing to understand about decarbonization is it is not just about giving up on high-carbon energy sources but replacing them with lower or zero-carbon energy sources. We can’t simply give up on producing food, we have to decarbonize the food production system. We can’t simply give up on transporting food to communities. We have to decarbonize the means by which food reaches communities. We cannot simply give up on heating our homes in winter. We must switch from higher-carbon heating (coal, fuel oil natural gas) to lower-carbon heating like electricity or heat pumps.

Switching over modes of energy generation, and consumption, means replacing existing infrastructure with different infrastructure. In some cases, it means replacing existing technologies with still undeveloped technologies or technologies not currently available in the mass market.

These replacement technologies, and this new infrastructure, won’t simply materialize overnight. They need to be designed, tested and built. Each step in that process consumes time and resources. Moreover, since these technologies often depend on similar supply chains, accelerating the development of one may limit our ability to develop another. As an example, there is not enough lithium available to create all the batteries needed for a complete transition to electric vehicles and for battery back-ups for electric homes.

Also recognize that Canada does not operate in a vacuum. Other jurisdictions are also seeking to reduce their carbon footprints and so are also laying claim to limited resources to achieve their goals. Every electric automobile built in North America, and sold in the United States, is one less North American electric automobile available for purchase in Canada.

It is also important to understand that supply chains are limited. As has been demonstrated in the last decade, trains that are moving one commodity are not available to move another. This is why we have had massive backlogs in grain transportation for the last 10 years.

Going back to our initial challenge. Building infrastructure takes time. Right now, Metro Vancouver is planning for an upgrade to the transit system. Given the limitations of our planning processes they anticipate the newest major transit infrastructure won’t be completed for over a decade.

Yet here we have political groups demanding that we completely upend our national energy system within a decade.

Understand, to achieve a 50% reduction in GHG emissions means replacing all that energy with some other form of energy, likely electricity.

Before you can replace that energy with electricity you must build facilities to generate that electricity. That means building thousands of individual solar, wind, tidal, wave or hydro units and each one of those units involves planning and financing. You can’t just say I am going to build a wind facility and then do it the next day. You must identify appropriate sites; you must get the appropriate permits; you must carry out environmental assessments and adjust your plan to reflect the results of the assessments; you must secure financing; you must undertake First Nations consultation and you must incorporate the results of that consultation in your project.

Each “must” step above takes time and that list is just the steps before you start construction.

Now let’s look at the scope of the problem. As I described previously, a 50% reduction in our greenhouse gas emissions would require we

  • Essentially eliminate the personal vehicle
  • Eliminate our oil sands and natural gas industries
  • Retrofit every household in Canada that uses natural gas for heat and/or hot water
  • Eliminate all our fossil fuel electricity capacity
  • Build the electrical capacity to provide the power for all those EVs, hot water heaters and heaters and
  • Build an entire electricity transmission system to move all that power around.

Moreover, we need to do this while

  • Dealing with the massive recession that comes from destroying our oil & gas industry
  • Paying for a massive upgrade to our public transportation infrastructure to deal with the fact we virtually eliminated personal automobiles
  • Paying for massive retrofits for virtually every household in the country that uses natural gas or fuel oil for heating and hot water
  • Paying for a massive increase in renewable electricity capacity to deal with the sudden jump in demands and the loss of fossil fuel electricity infrastructure
  • Paying for the massively upgraded transmission capacity to move all that new renewable electricity from where it was generated to where it is needed.

To understand the complexity, let’s briefly look at one single step: upgrading our electrical grid.

From a planning perspective, building an upgraded grid would involve identifying a route. That route needs to be surveyed which takes time. An environmental assessment would need to be carried out on the new route to identify the potential ecological effects of the project. Since it is a massive project that assessment would have to include seasonal information. Once an initial route has been identified, consultation will have to be undertaken with any affected communities and First Nations. These consultations must be carried out in the spirit of understanding and will likely require re-routing portions of the project. Any re-routing would require subsequent environmental studies. Given all this pre-planning, for a single linear development we are already 2+ years into the process and haven’t put up a single meter of line.

When it comes to construction, we must consider seasonality. You can’t cut trees during the nesting season and you can’t build river crossings during the fisheries runs. Work will also have to slow down or stop during the heart of winter. This adds more time. Ultimately, to achieve our goal we need to build a backbone of high-power transmission lines which will then connect to a series of laterals and we haven’t even started the process on these laterals. This is not the work of a decade; this is the work of multiple decades.

Moreover, that is just the transmission lines, we haven’t even started on all the solar facilities, wind farms, tidal and wave plants.

Do these appear to be a series of steps that are even vaguely possible to complete before 2030? We are talking about completely remaking our economy on the fly. All the while respecting the needs and desires of legitimate interests including our natural environment, our First Nations partners and our global neighbours. This in a country where a motivated local government can’t get a transit line built in under a decade. Don’t even get me started on the costs. If you imagine medical wait times are long today, imagine what they will be after we completely ignore any investment in our medical system for a decade so we can dedicate ourselves to the hopeless task of getting that energy system built.

To conclude, my understanding is that these groups often see their goals as aspirational rather than literal, at least that is what I hope is true. Admittedly, the Green Party claims their plan is “possible” which is why they named it “Mission Possible“. Looking at the steps involved, however; there is simply no way any reasonable group of policy experts could honestly believe we could achieve these goals in a decade and anyone who claims otherwise is either lying to you or is ignorant and neither of those choices looks good on a political party. But even if we imagine these demands are merely aspirational, I don’t see the point. What point is there in demanding the impossible? All it does is cause the hesitant to plant their feet more strongly while feeding red meat to opponents.

If we are going to achieve our climate goals it will be through incremental change. Set tough goals and then work like the dickens to meet those goals. Certainly, we need to set long-term goals and clarify our aspirations but demanding the sun, the moon and the stars is not how you get things accomplished. As for the people saying “it is a climate emergency we have to get this done” my response is: How? We live in a world of linear time and finite resources, simply demanding the impossible contributes nothing.

Posted in Canadian Politics, Climate Change, Climate Change Politics, Leap Manifesto, Uncategorized | 8 Comments