On the UBC Site C Dam assessment report and fighting climate change: Part I

Like many of you I obtained a copy of the most recent report out of the UBC Program on Water Governance on the Site C Dam titled “Reassessing the Need for Site C” (Link to the full study).  As many of my readers know I have had a strong personal interest in energy policy having written a lot about what it will take to achieve our climate change goals in a post-Paris Agreement future. My recent blog post  On fighting climate change and what it will mean for BC/Canada’s energy politics looks at the topic and demonstrates a strong need for a lot of extra electricity supply if we are to meet our national climate change goals. As a consequence I was interested in what these UBC experts (okay only one is from UBC) had to say on the topic. As I will discuss in this blog post I was more than a little disappointed in what I found. To achieve their conclusion that Site C is not needed the authors dismissed a lot of respected research that suggests that we will need additional electricity in our fight against climate change. The problem is they did so without presenting a strong rationale.

Let’s start by directly addressing the topic at hand. On page 36 of the assessment the authors recognize that the literature exists assessing projected electricity needs under a Paris Agreement future. Specifically they write:

As shown, the DDPP predicts an increase of 800 TWh/year in electricity generation by 2050, of which 440 TWh/year is projected to be new large-scale hydroelectric. The TEFP predicts an increase of 1550 TWh/year by 2050, of which 460 TWh/year is projected to be new large-scale hydroelectric. For context, this is equivalent to developing ninety (90) Site C Projects in Canada by 2050.

Notwithstanding their differences, both studies find that meaningful reductions in greenhouse gas emissions over the reference case are accompanied by substantial increases in electricity requirements, which would be met mainly by an unprecedented build out in large-scale hydroelectric development across Canada.

These studies suggest that, in a low-carbon future, the Site C Project would inevitably be needed even if BC Hydro has overestimated needs in the short- to medium-term. To explore this proposition, it is worth examining some of the key assumptions in the two studies, including in relation to projections of total electricity requirements, as well as hydroelectric requirements.

They then spend the next 17 pages trying to discount the conclusions of the Government of Canada’s Mid-Century Long-Term Low-Greenhouse Gas Development Strategy, the Deep Decarbonization Pathways Project (DDPP) and Trottier Energy Futures Project (TEFP). I must admit it takes a certain amount of hutzpah for these three authors to claim they are better informed than the Government of Canada, a global collaboration of energy research teams and the Canadian Academy of Engineering, respectively but I appreciate gumption so let’s see how they did. I will not be addressing GDP/oil production sections as they are outside my area of expertise but will point out that others have already challenged their assumptions on this topic.  Moreover since I am not writing a novella, and have a real job, I won’t be able to assess the entire section in this one blog post.

Electricity Prices: The authors challenge the DDPP  and TEFP on energy prices. They do so by suggesting that demand could be lower in 2050 due to higher prices which could result in consumers choosing to not switch fuels. As discussed in the report the DDPP does indeed suggest that rising prices will result in energy efficiency changes that represent 100 MT of reduced emissions but the author’s economic argument apparently ignores the anticipated regulatory requirements (and government mandates) that will be placed on consumers as part of our governments’ climate change policies. BC has already signed onto the International Zero-Emission Vehicle Alliance and has a carbon tax and the City of Vancouver has introduced its Renewable City Strategy. These approaches present direct challenges to the authors’ points. Put simply part of the process of fighting climate change involves making fossil fuels (and energy) more expensive and then limiting consumer choice so they can’t shift to lower cost (but dirtier) alternatives. That is a feature of the system not a bug that can be ignored.

Demand-side management: okay I am going to admit they have me confused in this one. They start by pointing out that DDPP and TEFP both apply demand-side measures then suggest that because the reports don’t spend enough time discussing the contributions of the various demand-side measures (which in the Canadian context almost always means regulatory change) that they won’t work? There is a robust literature demonstrating that when regulatory change is initiated it can accomplish a policy goal; so a huge discussion of this topic seems pretty unnecessary. For those wishing to challenge me on this topic try buying some leaded gas for your car or re-filling your air conditioner with CFCs then get back to me.

Distributed generation and Nuclear: Both these sections go into balancing which technology might be best for future energy generation but neither directly address the electricity demand figures, which is the critical point of consideration in this section.

Solar PV: I have discussed solar photovoltaic electricity on this blog a number of times (most recently here) and there is a simple reason that the plans for BC do not include a massive upgrade in solar PV, the term is “solar insolation”.  Industrial solar is simply not on the table for most of BC because our combination of climate and position on the globe precludes it.

Wind: The study argues that wind energy costs will decline and should therefore be assumed to represent a greater percentage of future energy supply than even the overly optimistic estimates presented in DDPP and TEFP. This argument misses a critical consideration involved in building wind infrastructure in BC: transmission of the generated energy. Later in the report the authors bemoan the cost of transmission lines for Site C but for some reason apparently believe that wind will not need similar transmission lines. I have already written a post describing a combined wind and pumped hydro project of the type suggested by the assessment and can assure my readers that the costs the authors of the assessment are hoping to achieve are not achievable once you inject transmission requirements into the mix. You can’t argue against Site C because of expensive transmission costs on one hand while ignoring the same issue when talking about massively dispersed wind generation.

Pumped Hydro: The authors argue that the absence of discussions of pumped hydro storage at existing hydroelectric facilities represents a fatal flaw in DDPP and TEFP but that argument is problematic. Pumped hydro doesn’t represent additional capacity, it represents storage of energy generated somewhere else. Pumped hydro simply takes energy generated by some other process (wind, solar etc.) and stores it in the form of water. Moreover, there is a reason existing hydro facilities don’t include a pumped hydro capacity, that reason is that pumped hydro needs reservoirs and our existing dams are built in places where reservoirs downstream are mostly not practical.

As for upgrades at existing facilities, absent a few already planned upgrades the existing systems are pretty much at capacity. For most of our dams it is not the number of generator units that represents the limiting feature but the size of the reservoirs behind the dams (amount of water to be converted into electricity). The whole reason Site C is being added to the existing Peace dam network is to increase the reservoir volume behind dams in BC.

Large-scale hydroelectric – Wait a Minute…: It was at this point in the exercise that I recognized the apparent bait and switch that had occurred in this section of the report. The section started with a couple half-hearted attempts to challenge the electricity demand requirements set out in the DDPP and TEFP but quickly descended into challenging how that needed electricity would be generated. In doing so the authors appear to be distracting the reader as to the actual point of those reports: that if we are to meet our climate change goals we will need substantially more electricity by 2030 and 2050. If you continue reading the section you discover that the authors never actually go back to challenge the electricity requirement numbers from DDPP or TEFP They simply migrate to a section on low-carbon electrification in BC while completely ignoring DDPP or TEFP; then 12 pages later they come up with a conclusion:

The increases in electricity requirements in the DDPP and TEFP, which are on the order of 130% and 220% above current requirements by 2050, are not defensible based on the information provided in these analyses.

But their assessment never actually challenged the energy requirement numbers from these two reports. They essentially side-stepped that entire topic. Somehow they just forget to challenge the underlying assumptions of DDPP and TEFP after page 42. It is like they believe that after the five pages of discussion about generation alternatives and nine pages of discussions about BC Hydro projections that readers will completely miss the fact that they never actually presented any solid information that challenges the overall electricity demand numbers presented in DDPP and TEFP. They challenge the suggestions of how the electricity will be generated (and in my opinion do this poorly as discussed above) but never actually show why the electricity requirement numbers presented by DDPP and TEFP for a post-Paris Agreement energy environment “are not defensible”.

To repeat, the conclusions of DDPP and TEFP  that in order to achieve our climate change goals we will need to increase our electricity supply on the order of 130% and 220% above current requirements by 2050 remain unchallenged in this assessment. This is almost exactly what I have written previously on the topic. The numbers haven’t gone away and this report makes no significant effort to show otherwise.

Unfortunately I am running out of time to finish this blog post as my lunch break is well over so I will not go into their examination of the MKJA MK Jaccard and Associates Inc  (Jaccard) Report at this time (possibly more on this in a later blog post). I will point out, however, that the studies being covered in that section pre-date the Paris Agreement and in some case completely underestimate more current estimates. As an example, the authors cite a BC Hydro load forecast that predicts that electric vehicles will make up only 13% of the private vehicle fleet in 2036. If that is the case then BC has no chance of meeting its climate change goals. Under BC’s zero emission pledge  we are supposed to be 100% zero emission vehicles by 2050 and given the lifetime of the average vehicle if we are only at 13% in 2036 we stand zero chance of being at 100% in 2050. Moreover afterall that the author’s still agree with the Jaccard report conclusion while only wondering about its actual timeline:

based on the MKJA study, deep reductions in British Columbia’s GHG emissions would result in substantially more electricity demand. However, the extent of this increase in demand and its timing remain highly uncertain.

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Coupling nuclear energy facilities with underground storage/hydrogen generation: turning nuclear’s perceived weaknesses into opportunities

As someone who has written a lot about renewable energy and working towards a post-fossil fuel future I have been disheartened by the strong anti-nuclear stance of much of the environmental community. As has been noted more times than I can discuss (but was best summarized by Brad Plumer at Vox.com) nuclear power and renewables don’t have to be enemies. Moreover as Jesse Jenkins and Samuel Thernstrom have recently written the most cost-efficient deep decarbonization systems require some dispatchable low-carbon baseload. In their paper on the topic they point to nuclear energy as being a prime example of a low-carbon technology that can be used to fill the need for baseload power. The nuclear industry does have its critics in the renewable energy community with Dr. Marc Z Jacobson being a notable example. The arguments made by Dr. Jacobson against nuclear include issues like nuclear proliferation, thermal pollution from cooling tower return water and the potential for disruptions to power supply by terrorists? I have addressed two of these (terrorism and nuclear proliferation) in a previous post and today I want to address the final one “thermal pollution” and its associated issue water use.  More specifically in this blog post I want to see if we can turn some of the biggest criticisms about nuclear energy into opportunities in a post-fossil fuel energy system.

Coupling Nuclear power facilities to underground thermal storage systems

One of the most commonly discussed complaints about nuclear power is water use. There is a stat I have read in blogs and articles by anti-nuclear activists, that about 40 percent of the nation’s fresh water use goes toward energy generation. To be clear, this water is not consumed, rather enters the system at one end and leaves the plant at the other to siphon off heat (via once-through cooling systems). The water is not chemically changed it is just used to dump thermal energy. It enters at a lower temperature and leaves at a slightly higher temperature. Technically the water is used but not in the manner most associated with industrial process where the water is consumed and doesn’t re-emerge on the other end. In some places this warmer water is good for the environment (manatees love the heat) but in others it can be a serious problem. Thermal waste is a serious concern for the nuclear industry but it is a problem that provides a wonderful opportunity in a post-fossil fuel economy. If that heat was treated as a valuable commodity rather than a waste product nuclear could turn a recognized weakness into a strength. This could be done by coupling nuclear facilities with thermal storage facilities.

Coupling nuclear with thermal storage is not a new idea as scientists have previously suggested linking nuclear to thermal storage blocks and even underground storage. Unfortunately, in my research to date most of the cases  I have found involve storage of the primary heat from the system. In my searching, I have not found a lot of examples of a much simpler idea: coupling nuclear power station process water to underground thermal energy storage (UTES) systems.  I’m sure someone has written a lot about this and assume that shortly after I post this blog I will get a stream of links sent to me but as I write this I cannot easily find plans for these apparently straightforward adaptions to existing technologies.

To explain for the lay reader, underground thermal energy storage (UTES) is a form of energy storage that provides large-scale seasonal storage of cold and heat in natural underground sites. Three common types of UTES are aquifer thermal energy storage (ATES), borehole thermal energy storage (BTES) and rock cavern thermal energy storage (CTES). Essentially what you do is you take waste energy in the form of heat from your system and store it underground until you need it at some later date. Readers of this blog will surely remember the Drake’s Landing solar community in Alberta as I have written about it regularly. At Drake’s Landing the community is connected to a solar energy system which provides electricity during the day but the system also stores excess energy via BTES. The BTES energy is then used in winter to help heat the houses within the community. According to the Drake’s Landing website over the 2015-2016 heating season 100% of the heat required for space heating was supplied by the combination of solar and BTES. Sure setting up a system like Drake’s Landing can be expensive but in the end it provides a useful model for how we can eliminate dependence on fossil fuels for household uses.

So I asks, why haven’t we done this at any nuclear plants? Why are they just dumping their excess heat into the environment when they could instead store it for the winter? By storing that heat the nuclear plants could eliminate their thermal pollution issue and increase the amount of energy generated by their facilities. As for the critics in the 100% Wind, Water and Sunlight (100% WWS) community I can’t see them raising a fuss. After all, in his 100% WWS plans Dr. Jacobson suggests building all sorts of energy generating systems with thermal storage so thermal storage associated with a nuclear plant would not appear to be a major concern for the renewable energy community.

Coupling Nuclear power facilities to hydrogen generating facilities.

My second suggestion is one that has been better studied and discussed but once-again not to the extent I believe it should: the use of off-peak nuclear energy to produce hydrogen. One of the big complaints from the environmental community about nuclear energy plants is that they are not very flexible. They take a while to get running and so need to be kept running most the time. They argue that this is a bad thing as it makes it harder for renewable energy to find a foothold. Moreover, in an electrical system that is heavy with renewables there are peaks during the day when there is virtually no demand for the energy produced by the nuclear plants (see the duck curve). This challenge for the nuclear power industry could potentially provide another useful opportunity in a post-fossil fuel future: hydrogen generation.

As anyone who has followed the energy discussions around climate change knows one of the biggest challenges to moving off fossil fuels is the transportation industry. I have written numerous blog posts discussing the issue (most recent here) and while electric vehicles seem a reasonable alternative for most commuting needs the one place where electric engines are struggling is in the air. Put simply electric storage devices are too heavy and simply don’t carry enough juice to power a modern airliner. One alternative to fossil fuels in the air could be hydrogen but even minimal attempts to use the gas have stumbled on the issue of a limited supply of hydrogen. The problem with hydrogen is that it is not an energy source but rather an energy storage medium. Like a battery, hydrogen acts a carrier of energy from other processes like nuclear, solar or wind power via fuel cells or combustion into electricity.

The Alternative Fuels Data Center of the US Department of Energy has lots of info on hydrogen but notes that a challenge for the hydrogen economy is production near where it will be used. This seems like another opportunity where nuclear can be useful. By coupling nuclear plants with hydrogen generating facilities we could kill two birds with one stone. During the low demand times the nuclear plants could provide energy to the coupled hydrogen facility to generate hydrogen. When demand for electricity ramped up in the evenings the nuclear energy could be used to supplement the renewable supply. In this manner, the nuclear facilities could continue to run at a steady output sometimes producing hydrogen, sometimes producing electricity for the grid, always with little energy being wasted and without the need to ramp up or down, thus reducing wear and tear and increasing capacity.

Once again, the renewable energy community has repeatedly suggested that hydrogen is a necessary fuel of the future and Dr. Jacobson and his team have suggested building numerous facilities to generate hydrogen. But who needs to build new facilities when we have all these nuclear plants waiting to provide the electricity necessary to produce hydrogen.

To conclude, I am by no means a nuclear engineer and I am sure that there are some pretty significant hurdles to my suggestions but decarbonizing the North American energy system is going to be full of technical hurdles. As I pointed out earlier, I’m betting that nothing I have written above will come as a surprise to the informed (like the people at the Breakthrough Institute) but I continue to wonder why I’m not reading about these ideas as part of the battle to preserve the existing nuclear infrastructure and as a selling point for the next generation of facilities. It is clearly time we started talking more about these topics since opponents of nuclear power are making themselves heard and it is time that we turn some of their biggest complaints about the nuclear industry into some of the biggest selling points for keeping the nuclear industry.

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On BC CAPE’s guide to the BC Election: Why physicians should stick to medicine

My father was an MD and I grew up listening to MDs espousing on every topic under the sun. For much of my youth I believed that MDs knew everything because my dad’s friends seemed to have strong opinions on everything. However as I grew older, and more informed, it became apparent that these folks were not as well versed in many of these topics as I was led to believe. After he retired I asked my dad about my experiences and he told me something that has stuck with me ever since. He said: “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. That is how they grew up to become physicians. Because of this, most physicians are simply used to being right and thus 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 a sense of self-confidence that may spill over into fields outside their area of expertise.

The reason I bring this up is that recently I was introduced to a group of MDs who I feel may be overstepping their expertise. The group I encountered was the Canadian Association of Physicians for the Environment BC (BC CAPE). Specifically I was directed to their BC election post “Getting Ecological Health Factors Into the Election Debate“. Now I am all for people expressing their opinions (heck just look at this blog) but reading this post I realized that it could be the poster child for a discussion about the Dunning-Kruger effect. The BC CAPE post presents superficial research on five topics, four of which (Fracking, Carbon Tax, Site C and the Kinder Morgan Pipeline) are in areas well-known to this blog. In all four they present either superficial or very preliminary data as the basis for their arguments. Over the remainder of this blog post I will attempt to briefly describe where they go wrong in each of their arguments.

Hydraulic Fracturing (fracking)/Liquefied Natural Gas (LNG)

The BC CAPE blog post starts by talking LNG and don’t make a good start of it. They provide a discussion of water use and then include a citation for their factoid that does not actually mention the figure it is purported to support. The BC CAPE post then moves on to discuss the biological effects of fracking water. Well I have already spent several thousand words discussing the misleading use of toxicology in discussions about fracking so won’t say much more on this topic except to point out that the papers they cite are essentially irrelevant or represent initial studies where the primary conclusions are that more study is needed. Heck the “babies with congenital heart disease and neural tube defects” paper discusses an “association” between the health conditions and fracking. To be clear in science-speak an “association” is used when you don’t have enough data to even use the word “correlation“. It is not even in the same planetary system as proof. It is used to suggest that more study should be carried out on a topic but that the authors had insufficient data to make any conclusions. Not the basis for a serious policy decision.

The remainder of this section of their blog post is a reminder why non-experts should think twice before talking about areas outside their area of expertise as the physicians go on to conflate the conditions in Colorado and Pennsylvania to those in BC. The problem is that fracking varies greatly based on the geological formations being fracked and the geology of BC is substantially different from the geologies of Pennsylvania and Colorado. If I told a physician that the knee and the ankle were essentially the same because thy were both joints I would get laughed out of their office. So to have them turn around and inform me that fracking in Colorado and Pennsylvania is the same as fracking in the Peace District should draw a similar level of scorn. Finally the CAPE MDs cite the Howarth study “A Bridge to Nowhere”. That study (and the underlying studies upon which it was based) has been so thoroughly debunked that I’m not even going to bother addressing that topic in this post.

Carbon Taxes

Readers of this blog know that I strongly support carbon taxes. However, I do so based on my personal evaluation of the benefits versus alternative means to price carbon. The folks at BC CAPE, meanwhile, don’t even consider the alternatives in their blog post. They cite a Lancet study that says that climate change is bad (okay I am paraphrasing here) and then declare from on high that carbon taxes are the only way to go. Well carbon taxes are one way to approach the problem but a carbon tax is not the only way to address the problem. When this group declares that carbon taxes represent the only approach they immediately demonstrate an absence of rigour in their thought and another reason to discount their opinions without further ado.

Site C Dam

If you are looking for an absence of intellectual rigour the BC CAPE argument against the Site C Dam is what you are looking for. They start with an appeal to authority by citing a letter signed by a group of “concerned scholars“. The problem is that the list is made up mostly of scholars with no expertise in energy policy.  If I was looking for comments on themes of embodiment and liminality or wanted an Australian view on gender and cultural studies then this would be the group I would talk to, but only a handful of the signees actually work in the fields covered by the statement. Appeals to authority seldom have much of an effect on me, but they have even less when the people making the appeal aren’t even authorities on the topic being discussed.

BC CAPE then completely changes direction and moves to the topic of food and farming. According to the documentation about Site C, it is expected to flood around 5500 hectares of agricultural land. To put this flooded area into perspective consider that the Peace River Regional District includes about 1.4 million hectares of land within the Agricultural Land Reserve (ALR), comprising about 27% of ALR lands in BC. There are nearly 825,000 hectares of land farmed in the Peace Region, accounting for 31% of land farmed in BC.  To make the numbers more clear there are approximately 2.6 million hectares of land being farmed in BC. BC CAPE claims that risks to food security represent a reason to not construct the Site C Dam. The Site C Dam will flood approximately 0.4% of the agricultural land in the Peace District or 0.2% of the agricultural land in BC. I know the land up there is rich, but if the loss of this particular 0.2% will risk our provincial food security then we are in much worse condition than I knew.

BC CAPE then shifts gears again to topics of energy supply, a subject about which I have written so many posts I don’t know where to begin but since my last post was on that exact subject why not start there. If BC CAPE is so hell-bent on fighting climate change then they must know that we need to electrify much of our transportation system and essentially eliminate the use of fossil fuels in housing to meet our Paris Agreement commitments. Energy efficiency will simply not do the trick. As for their suggestion that we go to solar power? Well I addressed that topic in my last post as well, the two words of import: “solar insolation”.

The Kinder Morgan Pipeline

Saving the best for last BC CAPE ends by going after the Trans Mountain expansion project (TMX) and once again demonstrates that their research is miles wide and inches deep. They start by making a demonstrably wrong claim:  “The Kinder Morgan Trans Mountain Pipeline Expansion (TMX) project does not take into account the potential health and related economic costs due to the very real chance of an oil spill, air pollution, and climate change.” This is, of course, a load of gibberish. Entire sections of the regulatory filing are dedicated to these topics.

BC CAPE then directs us to a single study about health impacts of the pipeline which doesn’t even explain how this health issue will be influenced by the pipeline. The study presents a tremendous amount of information about the potential harm of benzene and 1,3-butadiene to people but doesn’t explain in any realistic way how this is related to TMX except to point out that these two compounds are found in crude oil and the pipeline will transport crude oil. Literally their comment says:

“If the expansion project goes ahead, a higher level of benzene can be expected to be present in the atmosphere since the increase in pipeline infrastructure releases would be added to the level of benzene already released into the environment through gasoline”

To be clear, these researchers don’t  look at existing concentrations, background concentrations or relative release concentrations they just say that the new pipeline will make things worse. They spend 70 pages talking about how bad this stuff is for you but don’t go through the simplest step of determining whether the releases from the pipeline will exceed a de minimis risk. Honestly is this the best they can do? Will the TMS detectably increase 1,3-butadiene concentrations in the atmosphere? The authors don’t know so and don’t tell us? They just say the stuff is bad and it is in gasoline so we should abandon the pipeline?

BC CAPE moves on to addressing mental illness (apparently this is somehow related only to the TMX and not to rail spills or any other type of spill). BC CAPE then segues to discussing climate change, a topic I have addressed ad nauseam at this blog but was best summarized in my presentation to the TMX Ministerial Panel. On the whole their section is a mishmash of arguments none of which is convincing on its own and together looks like an attempt to make a Jackson Pollock out  of couple spilled jars of paint.


There is a reason why, when I blew out my knee I went to see an orthopedic specialist. He was a great doctor and knew exactly what to do. Similarly there is a reason I do not go to a physician when I want to decide how to best design the casing for a monitoring well that runs through a mixed stratigraphy. I want someone trained in hydrogeology to help me with that task. Physicians tend to believe what they want and the people they trust the most are other MDs. This would probably explain why in their list of “Good Information Sources on the Environment and Health” virtually every reference is to a medical/physician link. Environment Canada and Heath Canada have incredible web sites dedicated to these topics and yet the MDs at BC CAPE are sending people to their pet web sites to get more information?

To conclude this post I am going to paraphrase my father from the introduction of this post. 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 the BC CAPE blog post with a very healthy pinch of salt.

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On fighting climate change and what it will mean for BC/Canada’s energy politics

Over the life of this blog I have written a lot about renewable energy and climate change and one thing I’ve come to recognize is how expensive the transition to a fossil fuel-free future will be. This topic is coming to the fore in BC where we are at the start of an election campaign and one of the big election debates will be about energy policy. Topics under discussion will include the Site C Dam and BC Hydro’s reliance on Independent Power Producers (IPPs).

The Site C Dam is a prime example of a topic where the environmental activists in our province continue to demonstrate cognitive dissonance. They demand that we achieve environmental goals while at the same time fighting against any of the compromises needed to achieve those goals. As I will spend the rest of this blog explaining, the transition to a fossil fuel-free future (and the fight against climate change) is going to require a lot of hard work, sacrifices, compromises and money. Unfortunately, the environmental community believes we can achieve the former without having to contribute any of the latter.

Let’s start with some background. It is almost a year since Canada agreed in principal to the Paris Agreement and Canada is working, slowly towards meeting our Nationally Determined Contribution (NDC). In our NDC Canada committed to reducing our greenhouse gas emissions by 30% below 2005 levels by 2030. In 2014 (latest numbers on Environment Canada’s chart) Canada emitted 732 Megatonnes (Mt) of carbon dioxide equivalents (all numbers from Environment Canada). To achieve our NDC goal we need to get that number down to 523 Mt. That is a reduction of 209 Mt of emissions. So how will we achieve our goal? Simply put we need to electrify everything we can while simultaneously ensuring that the electricity used is low-carbon or carbon-free.

Canada is a special case in the world in that we generate almost 80% of our electrical supply without emitting greenhouse gases. What does this mean? It means that we don’t have much low-hanging fruit to work with to reduce our emissions and meet our NDC goals. Since Canadian electricity emissions in 2014 were 78 Mt, even if we eliminated all our electricity emissions we would only achieve 37% of our goal. This means something else must give and one of the biggest culprits is our transportation sector which represented 171Mt of emissions in 2014. As I have described in a previous blog post, electrifying our transportation system will require a massive upgrade of our electricity generation capacity. By my calculations British Columbia will require on the order of 16,000 GWh of additional capacity for our gasoline vehicles and approximately 11,500 GWh for our diesel vehicles. Overall, using this blog’s favourite measure of energy generation we are looking at over 6 Site C Dam equivalents of electricity just to cover our transportation needs.

Another reasonable place to see major reductions in fossil fuel emissions would be in buildings (cooking, heating and hot water). Buildings generated 87Mt of emissions in 2014. Even with efficiencies, electrifying that sector will require the energy equivalent to 4-5 Site C Dams.

Now nothing I have written to this point is terribly controversial. Some may quibble about EV efficiency numbers but regardless of whether you agree with me, or feel I have overstated the numbers, the conclusion is the same: to achieve our Paris Agreement goals we will need a huge increase in our electrical generating capacity. This raises the question: why aren’t we hearing any of this from any of our politicians. The answer is simple, because none of our energy regulators have gotten around to producing new load forecasts that incorporate our Paris Agreement commitments. The last time BC Hydro did a major load forecast it did not include the need to electrify transportation or buildings, rather the 2012 load forecast assumed that 5% of light duty vehicles will be electric in 2020 with that number rising to 20% in 2028. Those are incredibly low numbers if we are going to address climate change.

As for natural gas, the 2012 forecast never envisioned the possibility that cities like Vancouver would seek to completely eliminate the use of natural gas. So when DeSmog Canada shows interviews of Harry Swain saying that we won’t need the electricity produced by the Site C Dam, the correct response is to point out that Mr. Swain’s work (and expertise) pre-dates the Paris Agreement and is not relevant in a post-Paris Agreement world.

As for Mr. Swain’s suggestion in his many DeSmog Canada interviews that we switch to alternatives like geothermal I will simply point you to what the environmentalists said the last time the government tried to make it easier to explore for geothermal energy. To save you the read, I can summarize by pointing out that they were almost unanimous in their opposition to the bill.

I know that someone is going to ask: what about solar energy? To that I simply point to  a solar insolation map of BC (also here is a simplified solar insolation chart of BC and a link to  spreadsheet from Natural Resources Canada for the entire country here) and remind you that Prince Rupert has one of the lowest average levels of solar insolation in North America. The term you should think about is regionally-appropriate renewables and frankly except for the extreme southeast, and limited parts of the Okanagan and maybe the Peace, solar simply isn’t the right approach for BC.

BC has three major viable sources of low carbon power: wind, geothermal and hydro (note I do not include tidal or wave energy because while we have a lot of potential these technologies are still not technologically ready to be broadly implemented). In order to develop those resources we will need to make use of the obvious opportunities (like Site C) as well as as many smaller, local projects that we can find. Given the time frames, the only way to develop all those new sources is by bringing in the money available from the private sector. The public sector simply doesn’t have the resources to build all those projects in the time  available and if you are going to need the private sector to invest then you are going to need to use the IPP process.

Now I’m sure my many detractors aren’t going to let me get away with saying the transition is going to be expensive without proof, so why don’t we look at what our friends at the Leap Manifesto foresee it costing. As anyone who has read this blog knows I have a lot to say about the Leap Manifesto having dedicated the equivalent of a novella’s worth of writing to debunking it; but for the sake of argument let’s assume that their estimate of costs is correct (I would argue it is massively low). Using their numbers it would cost Canada $1.8 trillion of investment by 2050 just for the basic energy generation installations. That doesn’t count infrastructure needs; the costs to upgrade our electrical grid; or the costs to decommission existing facilities. As I wrote previously:

Now assuming we spread the costs evenly between 2016 and 2050 (34 years) that comes out to the low-low-price of $53 billion per year to build that infrastructure. Remember we haven’t considered the infrastructure necessary to build that infrastructure (roads etc…) or the costs to do the environmental assessments on all those projects, we are simply talking about the capital costs of the actual units themselves. Talking about environmental assessments, given Canada’s history of welcoming large industrial power facilities, I am quite certain there will be no delays in initiating the construction of all these facilities…just look at how smoothly Site C has been progressing in BC. There have been no added legal costs or anything like that have there?

To close this post let’s reiterate a few facts: fighting climate change is going to be a very expensive, electricity-intensive project that will take a huge political will; the expenditures of massive financial resources; and cooperation between the private and public sectors. This is not something that can be accomplished by governments alone and it will mean making huge sacrifices and compromises. We need to massively ramp up our electricity supply and in doing so we need to ensure that much/most/all of that new capacity is low carbon. We must recognize that no matter how cheap solar PV panels get, solar will be no more than a marginal source of energy in a province this far from the equator.

By 2050, we will need to be self-sufficient in  low carbon energy because our neighbours to the south and east are fighting the same battles that we are. We won’t be able to simply dip into Alberta or Washington’s energy supplies when the wind is not blowing. Sure we will be able to get more power from the Columbia River Agreement but that won’t make a dent in our 2050 energy needs. To meet our climate change goals, we need to dive headlong into geothermal, wind and run-of-river hydro. We are going to need to take advantage of the massive financial resources of the private sector and to do that we must give them assurances that we will buy the power they produce, hence IPPs.

To build those new sources we have to accept that energy is going to get a lot more expensive but that is the price of completely converting our energy system from one based on carbon to one that is essentially carbon-free. That means we are going to have to get used to high energy prices and that our government is going to have to find a way to shelter the poorest among us from the sticker-shock. Most importantly, the environmentalists are going to have to learn to compromise. You can’t build geothermal if you aren’t allowed to drill where the geothermal is located. You can’t electrify our system without upgrading our electric grid and building new transmission lines. It is time to decide if you want to fight climate change or not because our environmental community appears to think that they can get rid of fossil fuels without building anything to replace the power generated by fossil fuels.

Author’s Note: This post has been revised to provide better detail on solar insolation in BC.

For a very good resource on renewables in BC I would head over to the Clean Energy BC website.

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Why is Canadian Blood Services making it so inconvenient to donate blood?

This Saturday, at 2 pm, I was where you can find me pretty much every eight weeks at that time: at the Walnut Grove Lutheran Church attending the only mobile blood donor clinic held in North Langley. I have attended this clinic almost every time it has been run since it opened in the early 2000’s. Over that time I have seen a lot of changes and recently I have come to wonder what is wrong with the people who run Canadian Blood Services (CBS). Today I watched as donor after donor gave up on the clinic and walked out without donating, this according to the radio ads, during a blood shortage? While I was giving my donation I asked my phlebotomist a few questions and was disappointed with the responses. One thing she did make clear is that the only way things will change is if people speak out, so today I am going to do just that and speak out about the deterioration of services I have seen in the last 15 years giving blood at this clinic.

Let’s start with the good news. The people you encounter at the blood donor clinic are the best. They are always cheerful; they are quick to smile; and are ready to answer any questions. The major problem is that there simply aren’t enough of them. When this clinic opened they used to have eight donation beds and a couple recovery beds. Well in those 15 years this part of Langley has seen explosive growth with the population almost doubling. Given that growth you would expect to have seen a commensurate increase in the number of clinics or the capacity of the existing clinic? Well you would be mistaken. Instead we have seen the exact opposite. In a community that has nearly doubled in population they have held the number of clinics stable and have decreased the number of treatment beds by two (down to six beds). Instead of growing to meet our community’s growth the Canadian Blood Services have decreased our ability to donate by 25%.

All this week I have been hearing ads on the radio informing us that with the storm in eastern Canada there is a national blood shortage. The ads encouraged people to make appointments to donate. Given that information do you think that the CBS expanded its capacity at our clinic? Of course they didn’t. It had exactly the same number of beds as they always do, only this time around they didn’t have the staff to cover the limited number of beds they had available. When I arrived the sign was up informing us that they were down two staff members and that we should expect longer than normal waits. I would have been surprised except this is pretty much always the case with our clinic. I cannot remember a recent clinic where they weren’t at least one nurse/phlebotomist short.

So what does being two staff members short mean? Well during flu season (when lots of people don’t show up) you can often get through the entire donation process completed in under an hour and fifteen minutes. The fastest I’ve gone through is in 45 minutes (but I am a fast bleeder). Today, we sat for almost an hour and a half before we even got to see the first nurse, which brings us to the next problem: streamlining.

Over the last several years the CBS has been “streamlining” the blood donation process. They have automated the questionnaire and no longer require you to fill in the multiple choice exam before you see the nurse. In the process they have made it less efficient for the donor. Apparently, the streamlining is for CBS staff only and not for the donor. Instead I have seen a slower donation process that discourages donors in an era when they should be being as sensitive to keeping as many donors as they can. So what are they doing wrong?  Let’s start with the most obvious flaw: hemoglobin testing.

For those not familiar with the process, before you can donate they have to ensure you have enough hemoglobin to donate. Women often have issues with their hemoglobin levels and don’t even know it. In her life my wife has been rejected for low hemoglobin more times than she has been able to donate. Under the old process they tested you for hemoglobin as the first step in the process right after you registered. Then if you failed you wouldn’t have wasted your afternoon, you’d be in and out in under 10 minutes. Well under the new “streamlined” process the donor does all their interactions with the nurse at the same time which means that today it would have taken my wife almost 90 minutes to have her hemoglobin tested to discover that she couldn’t donate. What brain surgeon thought this idea up? Being rejected for donation is bad enough but wasting an hour and a half sitting in a building with no WiFi, no music and no magazines only to be rejected is just ridiculous.

Going back to hemoglobin levels, as a result of a small proportion of women regularly failing their hemoglobin tests the CBS has changed the rate at which all women can give blood. Now women can only give blood every 12 weeks instead of every 8 weeks. Even worse if you are a young woman (under 24) it is something like every 104 days. My mother-in-law has given blood every 8 weeks for the last decade and has no trouble meeting the hemoglobin levels but she, too, is now cut off. My wife who can have low hemoglobin even if she isn’t giving blood and is just as likely to fail every 104 days. Telling my mother-in-law that she can’t give blood because her daughter has trouble with hemoglobin makes absolutely no sense. Instead of treating women as individuals they treat them like a single group and base their cut-offs on the smallest and weakest of their kind. Why not simply continue as we have by testing hemoglobin and letting those with adequate hemoglobin donate when possible?

As for the waiting process, the CBS does nothing to help us out there either with no WiFi, no music and no magazines. Yes, rather than springing for a WiFi hub for donors CBS doesn’t provide WiFi and for reasons unknown they have eliminated the music and magazines. For years I would bring my used magazines (Discover and Science because I’m a nerd) to donate to the clinics. The clinics collected and shared the magazines so if they did have delays you weren’t stuck being bored. Well sometime in the last 3 years they decided to stop collecting or distributing magazines and turned off the music that the phlebotomists used to play in the background to improve the mood. I can still remember listening to an afternoon playoff game being played at a clinic to encourage folk to come in during the playoffs. Once again convenience to the organization takes preference over improving the donor’s experience.

So let’s summarize, during a purported blood shortage CBS didn’t expand their clinic to encourage walk-ins.They allowed themselves to open short-staffed so those with appointments ended up spending over twice as long as normal to donate without any distractions to keep us happy. That being said this clinic never seems to have the staff necessary to allow for a reasonable donor experience. This the only clinic in a growing community full of potential donors. Is it any wonder that the gent in front of me, a man I have seen for over 10 years at this clinic who has donated over 100 whole blood donations, stormed out vowing never to come back. This is exactly the type of donor they should cherish since repeat donors provide the vast majority of blood donations and they effectively blew him off. Meanwhile the young woman before me, making her first donation, wasn’t celebrated once she had donated because the clinic had one, yes that is right, they had one volunteer. My mother was a volunteer during the Red Cross days and historically they had a half-dozen volunteers to help out, keep people happy and celebrate the achievements of the young and repeat donors. Now, thanks to the bureaucracy that is the CBS, our clinic can only field one volunteer for the entire clinic.

If Canadian Blood Services’ plan is to alienate their core donor population while making the first-time donors wonder if this is how blood donations always go then bravo they have accomplished their task. If, on the other hand, their intention is to encourage new donors while making old donors feel special then they have failed miserably. Someone has to get the executives in charge of CBS to attend these clinics to see how frustrating it can be to donate blood outside of the Vancouver core. Remember, the vast majority of growth in the Lower Mainland has been outside of the Vancouver core but you couldn’t tell that from the way CBS runs its clinics. Growing communities like Langley are not seeing the level of service you would expect from an organization that depends on people coming in voluntarily to donate. They provide too few beds and then don’t schedule enough staff to cover the meager number of beds they do provide. The most recent change by CBS is supposed to provide a streamlining of the donation process. This streamlining may have been a success behind the scenes but it has made the actual act of donating blood more complicated, less convenient and frankly less appealing. When your entire business model depends on people happily coming in to donate then shouldn’t making them feel welcome and making the donation experience fast and easy be a priority? If so then the CBS has failed the people of Langley and in doing so are failing the people of British Columbia.

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On renewable natural gas and mindless anti-everything environmentalism

This morning one of my regular foils on Twitter posted a surprising tweet:


(source https://twitter.com/edwiebe/status/832624138103640068)

Mr. Wiebe is an outspoken environmentalist with expertise in the field of climate change and climate modelling so I was a bit surprised by this tweet? What could possibly be so wrong with an advertisement about renewable natural gas (RNG) that would warrant a complaint to Advertising Standards Canada?

I asked Mr. Wiebe about his tweet; specifically what he had against renewable natural gas? He provided a one-word response “Srsly?” [slang for Seriously?]. Now since I really had no clue what he found objectionable I asked again. Mr. Wiebe wasn’t terribly forthcoming regarding his complaint, but to the best of my understanding his argument was against any form of “natural gas” being called a “sustainable energy choice”. Apparently in his mind “natural gas” has to be a bad thing and cannot be sustainable?  In the next few paragraphs I will explain why RNG is indeed a sustainable energy choice and why reflexive environmental negativism, as evidenced in our exchange, is so damaging to the environmental cause in BC.

The obvious first question to ask is: what is RNG? To answer that question I will refer to the good people at Fortis BC (our provincial natural gas supplier):

Renewable natural gas (RNG) is a 100 per cent carbon neutral energy source. When bacteria breaks down organic waste from sources – primarily farms, landfills and wastewater treatment facilities – biogas is created. The gas is captured, purified, and blended into natural gas distribution pipelines and delivered to homes, businesses, transportation fleets, and industry. Customers don’t need to upgrade furnaces, water heaters and other equipment to use RNG.

Sounds pretty cool doesn’t it? Fortis (or any other supplier) traps gas produced by natural processes, that would otherwise be vented into the atmosphere, and makes use of those trapped emissions for energy. Making use of these emissions for energy both replaces the need to get that energy from another source and is a much better alternative to what has traditionally been done with those emissions: flaring biogas like torches in the night or simply letting it waft away like we see at virtually every sewage treatment plant in BC. Imagine harnessing that energy for good? Well that is what RNG is all about.

As anyone familiar with the topic of climate change knows, agricultural and municipal emissions of methane represent a huge source of greenhouse gas emissions (16% of global emissions according to the IPCC). Reducing agricultural and municipal emissions of methane represents a necessary step in achieving our global goal of capping greenhouse gas emissions.

From a climate perspective RNG is considered carbon-neutral. How is this you ask, since it burns a fuel and generates carbon dioxide? To answer that question you have to consider the gases involved. As the atmospheric chemists from the EPA explain:

Methane’s lifetime in the atmosphere is much shorter than carbon dioxide, but methane is more efficient at trapping radiation than carbon dioxide. Pound for pound, the comparative impact of methane on climate change is more than 25 times greater than carbon dioxide over a 100-year period

This means that if we can trap methane before it escapes to the atmosphere and convert it to carbon dioxide (while generating energy) we can actually reduce global climate forcings. This has the effect of reducing the net effect on the atmosphere and meets the definition of carbon neutrality.

As for RNG being sustainable? Well as long as people and animals continue to poo and plants die there will be biological materials that need to decompose. The natural decomposition of human, animal and vegetable wastes generates methane. This is a fact of nature and has been the case since long before humanity began messing with global atmospheric concentrations. Since the plan is that humans and animals will be on the planet for the foreseeable future, we have a sustainable source of the gas.

As for burning natural gas being evil; well irrespective of what some will say, natural gas is not readily-replaceable in our modern society. That is why when the City of Vancouver prepared its “Zero Emissions Building Plan” it left open the use of RNG within the City. The City recognized that it had to allow restaurants, which rely on natural gas for cooking, and existing buildings, that cannot be retro-fitted, to continue to use RNG in lieu of the traditional fossil fuel-derived natural gas. You might ask what’s so special about restaurants? Well there is a good reason why the old adage “they are cooking with gas” is used; because for some foodstuffs gas or wood stoves represents the only way to generate a desired culinary outcome and typically gas does a better job than wood at providing a consistent cooking temperature.

By now you are probably asking: why would someone knowledgeable in the field of climate change say no to a carbon-neutral, sustainable source of renewable natural gas? I asked myself that question and since Mr. Wiebe refused to clarify I had to come up with my own answer. My best guess is pretty simple: some activists have a reflexive need/desire to say No! They seldom find things that they are for, but they are quick to find things that they are against.

I’m not sure what feeds this desire to always go to the negative response but at times it seems to be entirely reflexive. As appears to be the case in this example, it occurs before they even go through the exercise of understanding the problem and balancing the positives and the negatives. It represents their default position. In this case he reflexively considered that natural gas is a “fossil fuel” therefore, by definition, it must be bad and we must fight against it. Let’s ignore the fact that RNG is not a fossil fuel at all,  RNG is a naturally occurring byproduct of ongoing biological processes.

This reflexive need to “get to no” by the environmental community represents an ongoing barrier to the advancement of renewable energy projects and alternatives to fossil fuels in BC. As an example consider that activists have long argued that we should be taking advantage of geothermal energy, but when the BC government proposed a law to enable the drilling necessary to identify possible geothermal projects the activists were pretty uniform in their opposition to the Bill. Hydroelectric power is the obvious baseload complement to renewable energy sources but try telling that to the environmental activists who oppose the Site C Dam or the expansion of run-of-river hydro across the province. I leave it to your imagination what the response would be if the government suggested a new nuclear plant anywhere in Canada…the mind boggles at the outrage. This reflexive negativism explains why politicians aren’t willing to advance novel environmental projects. If you can’t even get political backing from the environmentalists for a renewable energy project then why waste any political capital on it.

As I have written before, Canada has made commitments under the Paris Agreement and to meet those commitments will call for compromises. These are compromises that the environmental activists appear completely unwilling to make. Today’s RNG exchange represents a microcosm  of the bigger problems facing Canadians in a post-Paris Agreement world. We have reflexive and mindless, anti-everything environmentalists who aren’t even willing to clarify what they are actually against. Politicians are just supposed to guess. To close, I will simply point to the conclusion of my discussion with Mr. Wiebe. I asked him to clarify, what was wrong with renewable natural gas and his reply was telling:


In retrospect it appears that he didn’t even know what RNG was when he made the complaint. All he saw was the words “natural gas” and “sustainable” and that was all he needed to make his complaint.

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

Why data in context matters – On reporting about aggressive dogs

This morning the radio and television stations in Vancouver were broadcasting the results of an investigation by Estefania Duran from CKNW. Her story had the click-baiting title “What dog breed is behind the most attacks in Metro Vancouver? It’s not what you think” and presented the results of a investigation that included Freedom of Information requests from the various municipalities in the Lower Mainland of British Columbia.The outcome of her investigation was a graphic that showed that German Shepherds were the dogs most frequently declared by municipal governments as “dangerous” followed by Pit Bulls, Labrador Retrievers and Rottweilers. Wait you must be thinking, one of these things is not like the others? Yes, you read that right; according to this investigation Labs are the breed with the third most incidents standing behind only the Pit Bull and the German Shepherd. Now if this was the entire story then it wouldn’t be a big thing but this one data point is being expanded and stretched dangerously out of context to imply that Labs are an “aggressive” breed. You might ask: how could that be? and why would anyone do that? Well that is what this blog post is going to be about. How, when placed out of context, good data can result in the spread of bad conclusions and can ultimately lead to bad decision-making.

Let’s start with the potential conflicts of interest. I am the owner of a Labrador Retriever. We got our English Black Lab puppy six months ago and she has grown into a great big friendly lug. She joins us daily as I walk the kids to school. Only today, I was informed by a grandmother dropping off her grand-kids that our puppy is the third most dangerous dog out there. Since I hadn’t turned on my radio yet I had no clue what she was talking about and simply nodded but once I got plugged into the media I realized what she was talking about and that this was becoming a “big” news story, at least in our little part of the world.

Now our having a Lab is not a big surprise because Labs have been the most popular family dog in the US for over the last 22 years and in Canada for at least the last 20+ years  with the German  Shepherd coming in second on that list. On our street alone there are five Labs, one golden retriever and three other breeds that I now of. Labs make up 55% of the dogs on our street. So why is this important? Because were population stats included in the story it would change the entire dynamic of the discussions about this story.

Sadly, as Ms. Duran noted on the radio, none of the useful dog stat information is readily available so this next section will depend on info I have picked up where I could. According to a Georgia Strait story, in Burnaby pit bulls that made up only 2% of the licensed dogs in the city but were responsible for 24.7 % of the bites in which the breed could be identified. German Shepherds made up 5.4 % of all licensed dogs and 7.3 % of all dog bites. Anyone notice a slight difference there? Now to be clear I am not trying to be mean to Pit Bulls but by providing the numbers in context a different pattern appears. Per capita, German Shepherds look a bit less menacing but because of their higher numbers they end up with more total attacks.

As for Labs, well getting numbers of dogs by breed is a surprisingly hard thing to do online but a study showed that in Toronto there were approximately twice as many Labs as German Shepherds. If those numbers hold for Greater Vancouver, that would suggest that they might make up as much as 10% of the dog population and yet according to the report there are half the number of aggressive Labs as German Shepherds. When compared to Pit Bulls the numbers are even more telling: Labs are at least five times as popular as Pit Bulls but make up a smaller number of “aggressive” dogs than Pit Bulls.  See how putting the numbers into context makes all the difference?

So why you ask is Blair getting all annoyed by this story? Well my interest is in evidence-based decision-making and this story is already being used to advance/promote bad decision-making. If you go back to the online version of the story, who do they quote? A pit bull advocate; and what does the advocate say? That she “is hoping the new numbers will shift the conversation from breed to owner.” Other folks were also on the band-wagon, with the Georgia Straight running a similar story that once again highlighted the Labs while suggesting that we shouldn’t be banning Pit Bulls.

Now I am going to keep this post short as I just blew my lunch hour writing it and have to get back to my paying job. But I just want to make it clear that putting numbers into context makes a big difference for policy purposes. Since this report has come out I have seen it already used by supporters of Pit Bulls to discourage breed-specific bans. This story has already appeared on Global News and both online and on the radio at CKNW. As I noted, I have already had it mentioned to me on the street. I’m betting that by tonight I will be seeing it on the t.v. news and will hear about it more on the radio on my way home and I’m betting that few will point out the population demographics that underpin the story. To summarize, no Labs are not more aggressive than Rotweilers no matter what that out-of-context numbers appear to imply. There are just a whole lot more Labs out there than Rotweilers and a small percentage of a big population can often outnumber a large percentage of a small population. To conclude, any municipal politician who uses this data to pursue a decision about breed-specific dog bans is barking up the wrong tree.

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