Why a rushed BCUC review of Site C will be bad for our pocketbooks and our fight against climate change

July 18th marks a big changeover in BC. Sixteen years of Liberal rule comes to an end and a new NDP government (supported in the Legislature by the Greens) comes to power. One of the commitments our new NDP Premier has made was to submit the Site C Dam project to an accelerated review with the BC Utilities Commission (BCUC). It is my opinion that an expedited review of the Site C project will be bad for our pocketbooks while also having the potential to set back our fight against climate change.

Prior to the Site C Dam being approved it went through an independent environmental assessment by the federal and provincial governments. This Joint Review Panel spent two years looking at the project that included public hearings and the production and review of hundreds of reports. The output from this assessment was a 29,000 page Site C Environmental Impact Statement and an environmental approval certificate that included 77 separate conditions. Now one thing was missing in this review process: the Site C dam was never submitted to the BCUC for its review.

This was a conscious effort at the time. The government passed the “Clean Energy Act” that specifically exempted the project from BCUC review. Why? Well the BCUC is tasked with regulating B.C.’s energy utilities and is responsible for getting the best value for money for BC consumers. The problem is that the fight against climate change isn’t about getting the lowest energy prices for BC consumers, it is about reducing our carbon footprint. A BCUC review based on cost would look at the cost of Site C and look at the cost of a natural gas generation plant and go with the latter.

I can’t count the number of people who have told me that instead of building Site C BC Hydro should just re-open Burrard Thermal. Well re-opening Burrard Thermal certainly makes financial sense but it does not make climate sense. In a province that has the alternative of low-carbon hydro-electric power to turn around and generate electricity using natural gas represents climate negligence. That being said, exporting liquid natural gas (LNG) to countries that would otherwise use coal, makes sense from a global climate perspective.

So, if you are someone who doesn’t believe that climate change is an issue then you might have a legitimate case against Site C, but if you also claim to be concerned about climate change, demanding that we get the lowest cost energy possible only sets back the cause. Rising electricity prices represents a feature of the process not a bug.

I am frequently asked what will happen if Site C is submitted to the BCUC on an expedited review? Well the first thing is that they will not have time to get new data. It took the Joint Review Panel two years to assemble their report. The BCUC can’t repeat this process in 90 days.  Instead they will be relying on the data that was generated for the Joint Review Panel in 2012-2013. I don’t have to remind readers that a little something happened between then and now, notably the Paris Climate Agreement. Paris will have an incredibly important effect on our energy needs. It is going to reduce the options for future developments while increasing our demand for low carbon energy.

As for the availability of imports. Well in a post-Paris world the people we currently import electricity from will no longer have excess power to export. Rather the market is going to be turned on its head with Alberta and Washington going from exporters of electricity to importers and more importantly California, the 800 pound gorilla in the room, needing to fill a huge hole made by its closing of Diablo Canyon which supplies 9% of California’s electricity. This which will only drive up the price of electricity.

As for the individuals who claim that conservation will help us achieve our goals. Well efficiency and conservation cannot replace the electricity supplied by the Site C dam.  We have spent the last 25 years improving our efficiency and the results have been great. The problem is most of the major efficiencies that can be made, have been made. There are no more easy tricks to reduce electricity demand. Moreover it has been projected that the population of BC will increase by 1 million people in the next 20 years.  That increased demand cannot be addressed by conservation and efficiency gains.

An expedited BCUC review is like a family upon hearing they are pregnant planning to buy a new car only to discover half-way through the process that they aren’t going to have one child but instead are going to have triplets. That sleek looking sedan they were looking at with space for just one car seat in the back is no longer going to meet their needs. The data collected for the Joint Review Panel is not going to meet the BCUC’s information needs in a world that has changed so much with the signing of the Paris Agreement. Any legitimate review has to include consideration of our energy needs in a post-Paris future and needs to accept that some energy alternatives (coal and natural gas) are off the table. An expedited BCUC review will do neither. It won’t have the time to conduct the assessment necessary to address our energy needs under the Paris Agreement and, by regulation, it will be required to consider price to consumers and not greenhouse gas emissions. Talk about a guarantee that clean, low-GHG alternatives like Site C will be ruled out.

Any expedited  BCUC review that does not include considerations of our climate change commitments under the Paris-Agreement and the changes the Paris Agreement has made in the energy map of Western North America will almost certainly result in a decision that is bad both for our collective pocketbooks and for the international efforts to fight climate change.

Posted in Canadian Politics, Climate Change, Climate Change Politics, Site C | 2 Comments

On the Wilderness Committee’s sophomoric screed against the oil sands

Recently, I was directed to a sophomoric screed prepared by a climate campaigner at the Wilderness Committee. The paper (or possibly fundraising pamphlet?) “Time’s Up for the Tar Sands” represents some of the worst writing I have recently encountered on the oil sands. Frankly it reads as if an earnest grade schooler was asked to produce a negative article on the oil sands, the writing is simply that bad. What is most amazing is that according to the document itself, in addition to the author, it had three individual editors (Rumnique Nannar, Beth Clarke, Eric Reder). Honestly, this is such a target-rich load of hogwash that I don’t think I can do it credit in under 5000 words. Lacking the energy to write a blog post that long I am going to highlight some of the most egregious prose from this hilariously bad article.

Let’s start with the format. The author refers to the work as a “paper”  but it actually consists of a number of very brief hot-takes on various topics relating to the oil sands (or tar sands as the author prefers). Within each sub-section are the occasional link to a reference section in the back. This may be intended to convince the reader that the paper has some academic merit but a look at the references identifies that most are simply links to news articles, articles from anti-oil NGOs and other opinion pieces that don’t provide any academic heft but rather present the various authors’ opinions, which the Wilderness Committee author treats as if they were facts. What is more troubling is that while the author provides links to other documents for some of his claims, most are not supported with references and many are either deceiving or simply wrong. To demonstrate let’s look at page one.

The author starts with a series of attribution statements:

This freakish warmth has led to drought-fuelled wars in the Middle East and North Africa, the imminent extinction of the Great Barrier Reef and successive super typhoons rocking the Philippines and the South Pacific.

Now attributing various world-wide events to climate change is a common thing for activists, but when push comes to shove, the data actually isn’t there to support most of those attributions. In this case, the IPCC SREX makes this fact abundantly clear, as does the most recent research which steps back from attributing individual weather events to climate change. As for the “imminent extinction of the Great Barrier Reef” and blaming wars in Africa and the Middle-East on climate change those charges have been generally shown to be baseless. While the Great Barrier Reef is under severe stress caused by a number of factors, including climate change, following the end of the latest El Nino event it is now recovering. It’s death is not imminent and the primary cause of the recent bleachings was the El Nino which specialists in the field agree was not caused by climate change. As for the warfare angle, the people who actually study conflict in those regions agree that:

attributing such causal powers to climate “oversimplifies systems affected by many geopolitical and social factors,” and they point out that unrelated geopolitical trends — most notably, decolonization and the vicissitudes of the Cold War — tend to be ignored in climate reductionist agendas…Climate variability is a poor predictor of armed conflict,” he observes, and civil wars in Africa are far better explained by ethnopolitical exclusion and a poor national economy.

The next statement, while referenced to an anti-fossil fuel NGO, is demonstrably not true:

Humanity cannot build any new coal, oil or gas infrastructure — anywhere on the planet — if it hopes to achieve the goal of keeping global warming at a safe level, set at the 2015 Paris Climate Change Conference.

The Paris Agreement makes no such requirement and such a sweeping statement is simply unsupportable. I know that activists love hyperbole but seriously, humanity can’t build any infrastructure? A gas station adding a pump island is too much? Please be serious here. Improving infrastructure can be carried out under our Paris Agreement commitments. The important thing is emissions not infrastructure.

The next claim is made twice in this introduction: “Canada is hellbent on pursuing the world’s dirtiest oil” and”Tar sands oil is the dirtiest and most expensive on Earth.” This is, of course, incorrect. Recent studies by California’s Environmental Protection Agency, Air Resources Board for their Low Carbon Fuel Standard  made the following findings:

  • There are 13 oil fields in California, plus crude oil blends originating in at least six other countries, that generate a higher level of upstream greenhouse gas emissions than Canadian dilbit blends;
  • Crude oil from Alaska’s North Slope, which makes up about 12 per cent of California’s total crude slate, is actually “dirtier” than the Canadian dilbit known as “Access Western Blend”;
  • The “dirtiest oil in North America” is not produced in Canada, but just outside Los Angeles, where the Placerita oil field generates about twice the level of upstream emissions as Canadian oil sands production; and
  • The title of “world’s dirtiest oil” goes to Brass crude blend from Nigeria, where the uncontrolled release of methane during the oil extraction process generates upstream GHG emissions that are over four times higher than Canadian dilbit.

As for the claim that the oil sands are the most expensive oil, that dubious title likely goes to the Kashagan oil field in Kazakhstan but it certainly doesn’t go to oil sands oil most of which can be produced at very reasonable costs.

Honestly, the author even recognizes that what he has written is not the truth. When I challenged him on it on Twitter his response was classically Trumpesque claiming that if he re-wrote the section it would be correct so that should be good enough. The problem is that when you make a definitive statement and it is shown to be incorrect you can’t turn around and say “ignore what I wrote” that is not how these things work. It is either correct or not. If you write “most expensive on earth” then all the words apply not just one.

The next section presents a simplistic description of one type of oil sands development. Certainly the new Kearl oil sands project is a surface mine. It produces low-GHG oil with a solid decommissioning plan. The problem with the introduction is that 80% of the oil sands production is anticipated to be from in situ developments not surface mines. To present a technology used for 20% of the resource  as the primary/only way to extract the entire resource is disingenuous at best and deliberately deceiving at worst.

You get the point, the introduction is simply a hash of obsolete, half-right and debunked talking points. I’m over 1000 words into this post and I am only about 250 words into the introduction. I have barely scratched the surface of this “paper”. The simple problem is that the effort involved in de-bunking bad writing far exceeds the effort required to produce it.Lacking the space I will only present some quickies that jumped out at me throughout the remainder of the document.

Later in the introduction the author link to the famously-flawed “carbon budget” paper titled “The geographical distribution of fossil fuels unused when limiting global warming to 2°C” and authored by McGlade and Ekins. I address that paper in detail in this post.To summarize the IPCC does not say that 85% of our oil sands have to be left in the ground to meet the 2oC goal. Two mid-level academics from the University College of London are making that demand.

The article also repeats the idea that we should leave our oil supply to foreign governments. I address this fallacy in my post: Let’s Have An Honest Conversation About Pipelines And Ethical Oil.

The article dismisses oil-by-rail and suggests that: “Low prices have already caused North American oil-by-rail shipments to plummet.” Certainly oil-by-rail spiked in 2014 and dropped by about half in 2016 but the amount has stabilized and is anticipated to increase with the decrease in Alaskan crude available to the Puget Sound and the US desire to export US Bakken production from the West Coast.

The article even goes as far as to suggest that pipefitters with an average hourly wage of $33.50 /hr should  give up their jobs to work as solar installers who have an average salary of $17.55/hr. An option that is easy to say when you are paid to be an activist by an NGO but is less practical if you have a family and a mortgage.

Honestly, I’m running out of speed here. The truth of the matter is that you would expect that an organization like the Wilderness Committee could make a competent case against oil sands expansion using real data and not a bunch of half-truths and biased references. Instead, they throw out this sophomoric pamphlet that they call an “article” and end it with a request for money. I remember a time when I had a membership in the Western Canada Wilderness Committee and when I would regularly visit their office and bookstore in Victoria and even donated money to the cause. If this is what they are producing these days I’m glad I let my membership lapse a long time ago.

Posted in Canadian Politics, Climate Change, Climate Change Politics, General Politics, Uncategorized | 6 Comments

Imagining a politician debating his former self on Site C

Last evening, while relaxing, I imagined a fascinating debate. It involved the Climate Scientist Dr. Andrew Weaver (Sci W) going up against the Politician Dr. Andrew Weaver (Poli W) on the topic of the Site C Dam. The basis of this debate was a Globe and Mail story where Poli W was recanting the earlier views of Sci W. In reading the commentary from Poli W I couldn’t help but recognize that a debate between the two would highlight both the strengths and weaknesses of our scientific and political debate about climate change, renewable energy and the Site C Dam.

To begin let’s look what the article says about Sci W’s views on the Site C Dam project

“I cannot see what is stopping Site C,” Mr. Weaver said eight years ago. At the time, Mr. Campbell was launching an ambitious climate-action agenda and Mr. Weaver concluded it was time for BC Hydro to get back in the business of mega-projects to produce more emissions-free energy. “They should be carving out their niche with the Site C dam,” he said.

What was missing from the new article was the full context of what Dr. Weaver said back in 2009:

“The only solution, to be perfectly blunt, is to go carbon neutral.” And the only way to do that, he said, is for BC Hydro to get back in the business of mega-projects. “They should be carving out their niche with the Site C dam,” he said.

“I cannot see what is stopping Site C,” Prof. Weaver said. “There are environmental consequences, yes, but there are environmental consequences for everything we do and we have to stop using the atmosphere as an unregulated dumping ground.”

Looking back at 2009 Sci W we have a classic climate scientist approach to a problem. Note the absence of a scintilla of doubt and the absolute certainty in advancing the cause. I can assure you as a someone, who regularly gets lambasted by climate scientists and politicians for my pragmatism; Sci W would have had no time for the complexities and political niceties evinced by Poli W.

Now let’s look at what Poli W has to say:

“What has changed is the economics,” he said in an interview.

In 2009, he was convinced the hydroelectric project would help British Columbia meet aggressive targets to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. He also believed that with a construction budget of $6-billion, Site C was the most economic way to generate more greenhouse gas-free electricity.

“This, at the time, was the cheapest way of getting clean energy,” he said. “There is no question, this is clean energy.”

However, he said it didn’t take long for the math to fall apart. The cost of wind and solar has dropped dramatically, while the construction cost of the dam has climbed. As well, the increased demand that BC Hydro forecast has not materialized – in fact, domestic demand has declined since 2008. And, a federal environmental review panel brought to light the negative impact on the rights of Indigenous peoples in the valley.

“To be blunt, one of the things I didn’t consider back when I was a climate scientist, thinking about nothing but climate science, was the issue of First Nations’ rights and title,” he said…

…We’ve killed this nascent industry that was ready to take off here. These were producers who work in partnership with First Nations in British Columbia.”

So how would the debate have played out? Well I’m guessing that as a scientist Sci W would have directed Poli W to the latest research on renewable energy prices in BC. The easiest place to find useful figures would be BC Hydro’s latest detailed electricity supply option analysis. This analysis is regularly updated (with the latest wind update dated in 2015). Let’s look at what this assessment says about costs of wind power:

Estimated unit energy cost for onshore wind power ($2015): $81 to $301/MWh

Estimated unit energy cost for offshore wind power ($2015): $180 to $635/MWh

These numbers come with an incredibly important proviso:

Note that costs associated with off-site access road improvements and off-site transmission systems are not included in these estimates as it was not part of the scope of this mandate.

As I have previously discussed, at length, access to the transmission system is the Achilles heel of most wind projects. In British Columbia, most of the major wind resources are not located proximate to population centers and as such transmission costs can greatly increase the cost of a project. Consider that the Northwest Transmission Line project is looking to cost over $2 million a kilometer to build. Smaller feeder lines are, of course, much less expensive, but building transmission systems in BC represents no minor task and to not even consider those costs in the calculus would underestimate the price of wind significantly.

For simplicity sake, however, lets completely ignore those transmission costs and just look at the facility costs. To be clear, the BC Hydro wind numbers are higher than the generic US average number presented by Energy BC but since the BC Hydro number considered actual conditions in BC and even differentiated  by region, I am wont to trust the detailed local analysis over the generic US number. Looking above we see that the absolute cheapest of the alternatives (without transmission) goes for around $81/MWh. Now consider that all-in (including transmission and estimated cost-overruns) the “unaffordable Site C” is anticipated to produce firm electricity at a cost of $83/MWh.

Given the above information, I’m sure Sci W would make mincemeat of Poli W’s economic arguments. At this time wind is not cheaper than Site C and unlike Site C, wind facilities have useful lifespans of only about 20-25 years and are notoriously intermittent. To give an equivalent to the firm power supplied by Site C you would need several generations of facilities (with ensuing decommissioning costs) and you would need to massively overbuild since a wind turbine with a name-plate capacity of 2 MW typically produces a generating capacity of 0.6-0.8 MW. As for the flat demand I’m sure Sci W would provide the same argument that I did in my previous blog post. That any scenario where we attempt to fight climate change will result in an increased demand for electricity.

As for geothermal, well while $83/WMh represents the lowest end of the wind range it is above the bottom of the geothermal range (Estimated unit energy cost ($2015): $71 to $398/MWh). That being said, geothermal has its own issues with land use and transmission and even then the average facility far exceeds the established Site C cost. Looking at these numbers Sci W would have a pretty easy argument to make that Site C remains one of the most economical of the green energy alternatives on the board in BC with geothermal coming a close second. Wind, while every activist’s favourite comes a sorry third.

As for the suggestion that Site C is killing off a nascent industry? While that has been the argument made by organizations like the Canadian Wind Energy Association but according to BC Hydro they are still accepting offers and signing electricity purchasing agreements. Admittedly the Standing Offer Program may have issues and is not assigning any volume for 2020 and beyond but that is supposedly contingent on them reviewing their current price and volume targets. Ultimately, it is my understanding that the lack of accepted plans comes down to a simple assessment of costs and BC Hydro simply trying to get the best price for their consumers. There simply aren’t enough low-cost wind projects on the existing map to come close to replacing the capacity provided by Site C.

Realistically the only argument presented by Poli W above that would not be immediately refuted by Sci W would be on the topic of First Nations’ rights and title. This is a topic that typically is ignored in the scientific calculus. The argument used by the climate activists has always been that indigenous peoples are likely to be the ones most harmed by climate change so this project would represent the lesser of two evils.

Author’s note: I am going to take a quick break from the format to be clear here. I do not agree with this argument. Historically disenfranchised and underserved communities and peoples should be the last ones asked to bear the brunt of our battle against climate change. Any efforts to fight climate change have to acknowledge and respect Treaty Rights and look to minimize what we ask of these communities and peoples. 

Returning to our format: in this case I believe that Poli W is clearly on the right track. There are important issues of First Nations’ rights and title that seem to have been poorly managed during this process. I am not a road engineer, but I cannot see why the road could not be re-routed (at a cost) to avoid the sensitive areas under dispute. I understand that BC Hydro has been in negotiation about compensation to the affected First Nations and that some First Nations are in support of the dam but this is a topic about which I know too little to comment further. Ultimately, however, I think the First Nations right’s argument would go to Poli W.

Imagining the proposed debate, I can’t help but think that Sci W would polish the floor with Poli W. Admittedly, Poli W would make up some ground on the First Nations file but on the topics of energy price and economics Sci W seems to have all the supporting data.

Ultimately, however, the Site C file becomes a litmus test on individual feelings about risk tolerance with respect to climate change and climate change mitigation. This is because any clear-thinking individual who believes that we are facing an existential threat from climate change cannot help but support a project that (according to the data) provides some of the cleanest and least expensive low-carbon energy out there. If we, as a nation, decide we are going to meet our Paris Agreement commitments then the demand curve for electricity is going to swing upwards and Site C becomes a necessity. There are simply not enough economically viable wind/geothermal plans in the planning stage to provide the power will will need if we are to carry out a fundamental transition away from fossil fuels in time to make a difference for our planet.

Alternatively, if your view is that we are going to simply mouth words about climate change while continuing to use oil, gasoline and natural gas at current rates then there will not be a demand for Site C power and it becomes a white elephant.

In completing this post I recognize there might be a third position, but to me it is an untenable one. It is the position of many of the activists who keep holding out imagining that some glorious energy break-through is on the horizon that will make Site C unnecessary while simultaneously making these alternative energy projects more cost-efficient. Hoping to be rescued by a unicorn is not a pragmatic approach so I will simply leave that idea there for your consideraton.

Irrespective of all the above, it is my belief that more must be done to get better buy-in of the project from the affected First Nations. As I have pointed out, I’m not a social scientist and I don’ know that part of the file very well; but doing right by the affected parties seems a minimum requirement for the Site C project.

Posted in Canadian Politics, Climate Change, Site C, Uncategorized | 1 Comment

Why BC should not plan to rely on cheap electricity imports in a post-Paris Agreement world

There are a few things in life upon which British Columbians can depend: the sun rising in the east and setting in the west; rain in Vancouver in November; the Canucks frustrating their fans; and people complaining about the price of gasoline. To this list I would like to add one more: that when given enough time in front of a microphone Dr. Harry Swain, former Site C panel chair, will complain about the mandate of his panel. One of his most frequent complaints has been that the panel was not allowed to consider imports or the Columbia River Entitlement in its assessment. Dr. Swain sees that aspect of his mandate as a negative, I, on the other hand, see it as a positive. Why you ask? Well that is the topic of this blog post.

To explain, let’s go back to a topic upon which most British Columbians can agree: that we pay too much for gasoline when compared to our neighbours to the south and the east. That is even when you eliminate our carbon tax. As I have previously described, the reason for this predicament is that BC is utterly dependent on imports from Alberta and the Puget Sound to meet our gasoline, diesel and jet fuel needs; and that dependence has cost us in spades. It is called supply and demand. We have a strong domestic demand and we have no domestic supply, thus we are left at the mercy of the market and as we all know, the market has not been kind to us in this respect. So what does this have to do with electricity and the Site C dam?

Well, in 2007 as part of its Energy Plan (2007 EP) and in the subsequent Climate Action Plan (CAP) our Provincial Government committed us to a path of electricity self-sufficiency. As described in these plans, electricity self-sufficiency was deemed a major priority. The reason for this was self-evident to the authors of those plans; but seems to be lost on the environmental activists of today. In a world where fighting climate change becomes a defining political objective ensuring we have a steady domestic supply of low-carbon electricity is exactly the reason why we have a government-owned utility. The two plans foresaw a future where we needed to use more electricity for transportation and residential uses and wanted to ensure that we had the domestic capacity to meet those needs. Recognizing that the government of the day couldn’t pay for it all the CAP foresaw that we would need to bring in external partners to meet our future electricity needs. It also acknowledged that paying a bit more to provide flexibility of supply and energy security represents sound governmental policy and not a mistake. As I wrote in a previous post: it is a feature of the system not a bug.

In reading the writings of the critics of Site C I can only marvel at how they completely miss that point in their critiques. It is as if they have never had to fill their car’s gas tank. They seem to believe that the energy market will always be over-supplied and electricity will always be cheap. As “internationally respected economist Robert MuCullough” puts it:

In 2013, B.C. Hydro estimated that Site C would cost 2.5 times then current annual market prices. As natural gas and renewable prices have continued to decline, Site C now costs 3.3 times current annual market rates.

Put another way, British Columbia rate payers could save $4.1 billion simply by buying the same amount of power from the United States — even after writing off the $1.75 billion already spent.

Now let’s look at that approach in light of current political/economic conditions. On January 1, 2017, the Province of Alberta initiated its Climate Leadership Plan. As part of that plan Alberta committed to ending coal pollution. This requires that Alberta phase out its coal power plants. On January 1, 2017 coal represented 41% of Alberta’s installed electricity generation capacity. I’m not sure about the rest of you, but I’m guessing that if Alberta is in the process of shuttering 41% of its generation capacity, it will not have a lot of dirt-cheap electricity to export.

As for Washington State, they are in the process of implementing a carbon pricing mechanism while looking to increase their zero emission vehicle fleet to 30% and simultaneously eliminating the use of electrical power supplied by coal. While Washington has been a net exporter of electricity, the vast majority of that has been to California which imported 805 trillion BTUs of electricity in 2015 (latest data available). This would be the same California that is closing its last nuclear plant while projecting increases in electricity prices. California is also starting to price carbon and currently generates 6386 Gigawatt hours of electricity from nuclear (closing) and natural gas-fired plants (whose carbon is being priced). What this means is that electricity prices are not going down in California anytime soon.

So to our east they are foreseeing a crunch on electricity while to our south Washington should just barely be able to supply its own market. To the south of Washington California is going to be desperately searching for massive amounts electricity. These are not the conditions where we, as British Columbians, want to go hat-in-hand looking for cheap electricity to import. As I have pointed out in numerous blog posts, once BC starts acting on our climate change commitments we are going to need a lot of electricity. Moreover, that electricity is not going to be cheap and irrespective of what the activists keep claiming conservation and efficiency improvements will not address this energy shortfall. As for the Columbia River entitlement, that may help a bit, but as I have demonstrated even including that power we will come nowhere close to meeting our increased demands.

To conclude I can’t seem to say this enough. The Site C dam is not a perfect project. It has real flaws but I can’t help but hearken back to what Dr. Weaver, climate scientist, said about the project:

There are environmental consequences, yes, but there are environmental consequences for everything we do and we have to stop using the atmosphere as an unregulated dumping ground.

So to the activists who are fighting Site C I ask you this: you claim that Site C is not needed because we can always import electricity from Washington/Alberta. BC’s 2007 Energy Plan was predicated on a scenario where fighting climate change meant that Alberta and Washington had no electricity to export. Now with Alberta closing its coal plants we are half-way there. Any post-Paris Energy Plan must assume that BC will not be importing electricity. To assume otherwise will leave us incredibly vulnerable to external forces. We already pay through the nose for our gasoline. Do we want to depend on the US for our electricity as well?

My answer to this question is no. I think that the 2007 Energy Plan and the Climate Action Plan represented solid evidence-based policy. The two plans acknowledged the risks and admitted that addressing those risks would be a bit more expensive than simply pretending that those risks don’t exist. It is good government policy to ensure that, when the time comes, BC has the energy it will need to meets its commitments to its populace. I do not think we can rely on the kindness of strangers. I don’t know about the rest of you, but my family’s emergency preparedness plan includes ensuring we have the provisions needed to keep my family provided. The anti-Site C activists’ emergency preparedness plan appears to be to go knocking on their neighbour’s doors asking for handouts. Unfortunately for them if and when that time comes it is likely the neighbours won’t have enough to share.

Author’s note:

I’ve written this before and write it again here. Here is my conflict of interest declaration: I don’t have any conflicts of interest with regards to this file. Neither I, nor my employer, has anything to do with the project. I don’t get paid to blog and I generate no income from this blog. I do not blog for, or on behalf of, my employer. These words are mine and mine alone and I blog in my spare time. I have no more to gain or lose, personally or professionally, from the Site C Dam than any other British Columbian.

Posted in Canadian Politics, Site C, Uncategorized | 3 Comments

No, efficiency and conservation cannot replace the electricity supplied by the Site C Dam

One of the most common talking points used by the activists in the battle against the Site C Dam project has been that energy efficiency and energy conservation can more than make up for the electricity generated from the Site C Dam. This is well-described here:

an increase in population doesn’t necessarily translate into an increase in demand for electricity. B.C.’s population grew by more than half a million people since 2005, while demand for electricity remained more or less flat.

Eoin Finn, a retired KPMG partner, ran the numbers on Site C and electricity demand. He tells us that even though B.C.’s population is growing, “savings from energy efficiency and using appliances that are less energy consuming” have slowed demand.

The argument thus runs: we have absorbed a half-million people into BC in the last decade with no commensurate increase in electricity demand and therefore we can absorb another 1 million in the next 20 years without increasing demand either. As I will discuss in this post, I believe this is a dangerous fallacy. While energy efficiency initiatives are necessary, they will not address our growing electricity needs in the future. This is why we need new projects like the Site C Dam.

Let’s start with where we agree. As presented here since 2005 BC’s population grew by a half-million people while demand for electricity has remained essentially flat. In the next 20 years the population of BC is expected to grow by approximately 1 million (or by 22%). Mr. Finn argues that these 1 million can be absorbed into our population with little increase in electricity demand. This is simply not correct. As I will demonstrate, the problem with this argument is that it ignores the strides we have made in energy efficiency in the last 20 years and assumes that we can duplicate those improvements in the future. This is simply not a reasonable argument to make.

Let’s start by looking at what it has taken to achieve the energy efficiency we see today. Anyone who has lived in BC in the last 25 years knows about the Power Smart program. Started in 1989, Power Smart has been a valuable program intended to drive down individual residential consumption of electricity. Since 1989 conservation efforts have provided the equivalent electricity to power 440,000 homes a year. How has it been done? Through Power Smart programs they bought back old fridges, encouraged the purchase of Energy Star appliances and phased out the use of incandescent light bulbs in our province.

Now as the owner of a 25-year-old house I can point out that since my house was built every appliance has been replaced. That is the nature of appliances, they simply don’t last 30 years anymore. Personally, in the last decade, every non-Energy Star appliance in my house has been replaced with an Energy Star one. Similarly, most of the incandescent light bulbs in my house have been replaced with CFL and, more recently, LED bulbs that use a lot less power. Looking around my house I’m not sure where I can make further efficiencies in electricity use. My children have been raised knowing that they are expected to turn off the lights in empty rooms and my heat and hot water are from natural gas so that doesn’t help either. Looking at my house, and the houses in our neighbourhood, I can see that all the major efficiencies that can be made, have been made. There are no more easy tricks to reduce electricity demand.

On a regional level, given Power Smart initiatives and community standards, virtually every house built in the last decade has all those efficiencies built in. Consequently, Power Smart is starting to miss its goals. It is not for lack of trying, but rather because we have now reached a new state where most houses are pretty darned efficient. Certainly by raising power rates we can drive down demand somewhat (as I have noted previously) but all the big savings are now already incorporated into the system. Some have suggested regulations might be able to further reduce the load but that will be politically challenging and still won’t get us where we want to be. Essentially what I am trying to say is that our transition from inefficient to highly-efficient residential electricity use is essentially complete. Any further increases in efficiency are going to be costly and will not have anywhere near the effect that the changes of the last 25 years have already achieved.

Looking at the information presented above, it is now clear how we managed to absorb a half-million people into our province with little additional demand. But we can’t replicate that miracle with the next 1 million. There aren’t that many two-decade old fridges to buy back and new houses start out with energy-efficient bulbs in all the sockets. This explains why BCHydro load forecasts (caution big file) anticipate sales to the residential sector to grow by about 325 GWh per year (1.7 per cent). That growth is based on projected housing starts. Those houses, however efficient, are still going to need electricity to operate. So even though our per capita electricity use has gone down in the last 25 years, that decrease is the direct result of a major transition from low-efficiency to high efficiency systems.

Another feature of electricity demand ignored by the activists is the effect of reducing our reliance on natural gas in the residential sector. As I noted above, my house and the houses around it are heated and heat their water via natural gas, but that era may be coming to an end in much of the province. Consider the City of Vancouver’s “Zero Emissions Building Plan” which sees heat and hot water moving from natural gas to electricity. Even if new buildings built in Vancouver are built to passive building standards this will result in an increase in electricity demand. The energy savings will come at the expense of natural gas, not electricity. I’m not even going to discuss electric vehicles here as I have addressed them previously, suffice it to say that adding electric vehicles should not be expected to reduce electricity demand in BC.

Ultimately, BC’s residential sector represents 34 percent of BC Hydro’s domestic sales and, as discussed above, our population is anticipated to grow by 22% in the next 20 years. Contrary to what has been suggested by the activists, that growth cannot be accomplished without a commensurate growth in electricity demand. We have made great strides in energy efficiency in the last 25 years and in doing so have driven down our per capita electricity demand. We have reached a level of efficiency that means that further decrease will be potentially expensive and painful and even then will be more than made up for in our moving away from natural gas in the residential sector. So, I say this to the anti-Site C activists. If your argument is that energy efficiency is going to make up for our electricity demands going into the next decade then you had better demonstrate how that can be so. Simply stating that we did it before and therefore can do it again ignores the reality on the ground;, or put another way, when losing weight losing the last 10 lbs is a lot harder than losing the first 10 lbs.

Posted in Canadian Politics, Climate Change, Site C, Uncategorized | 9 Comments

On the costs of fighting climate change and the Site C dam

The other day I was invited to present some information about the Site C Dam for a local news broadcast on Global BC. After a telephone pre-interview, I met a reporter for an interview on tape. After asking all the questions on his list the reporter asked me a very telling follow-up question. He asked if Site C was likely to result in an increase in hydro rates for British Columbians? I think he was expecting me to say no, as that would be the political thing to do, but instead I think I surprised him by telling what I believe to be true: that, in all likelihood the completion of the Site C dam will result in an increase in our hydro rates. To further compound my blasphemy I pointed out that this was not bug of the system but rather a necessary feature. Over the rest of this post I will explain why this is the case and what it means for our fight against climate change.

In the last month, I have spent a disproportionate amount of time talking and tweeting about the Site C Dam project. I have written a lot about the dam and my conclusion from researching the project is that even with all its flaws it still represent a net positive for BC and a necessary project from an environmental perspective.Why you ask? Well, I have strong concerns about climate change and believe that we, as a nation, have to reduce our dependence on fossil fuels. In this I agree with a very well-know local climate scientist named Dr. Andrew Weaver who once said:

The only solution, to be perfectly blunt, is to go carbon neutral.” And the only way to do that, he said, is for BC Hydro to get back in the business of mega-projects. “They should be carving out their niche with the Site C dam,” he said.

That option has been on the drawing board for years and now comes with a price tag in excess of $6-billion. It would be built on the Peace River, just southwest of Fort St. John, and would produce enough electricity to provide power for nearly half a million homes.

“I cannot see what is stopping Site C,” Prof. Weaver said. “There are environmental consequences, yes, but there are environmental consequences for everything we do and we have to stop using the atmosphere as an unregulated dumping ground.”

Since Dr. Weaver made that statement much of the rest of the world has agreed with this proposition and showed their support by signing the Paris Agreement.

So how do we fight climate change? We need to electrify everything and then make sure that the electricity we move over to is of the low-carbon variety (like Site C). Now comes the part you don’t normally hear, because I am here to tell you that if we are going to fight climate change we are going to need to see our energy prices increase. Prematurely retiring exiting infrastructure, building new infrastructure and re-tooling our economy cannot be done at little or no cost to the public. We are asking our society to abandon existing energy facilities that were built with the intention to be used for decades to come. The costs for building those facilities were to be amortized over decades and will come due far sooner than planned. This will cost money. If you want a concrete local example consider the Burrard Thermal Plant.

The Burrard Thermal Plant represents a cheap and inexpensive source of 900 megawatts of conventional natural gas-fired generating capacity. The problem is that even during its historically low 2006 output it still represented Metro-Vancouver’s fourth-largest source of GHGs. If we keep using Burrard Thermal we can produce cheap energy, but we do so by emitting a lot of carbon dioxide. Closing Burrard Thermal makes little economic sense because after recent upgrades it is a highly efficient producer and yet closing it make eminent sense from a climate perspective. By closing Burrard Thermal we guarantee higher hydro rates and yet we have chosen to do so for climate reasons not economic ones.

Earlier in this post I pointed out that raising rates was a feature and not a bug of the system. Why is this you ask? One of the critical means of eliciting a response in our economic system is to provide an incentive/disincentive. Higher energy prices are one of the major ways in which we can drive down demand. Make energy more expensive and people, and industry, will find ways to save energy. Make it cheap and it will be wasted; thus in order to drive down demand we need to make energy more expensive.

Now, from an economic perspective making energy more expensive may be the necessary thing to do but we live in a system of where not all have the same resources. There are people who can easily afford higher energy prices and others who cannot. In order to make this work, from a societal perspective, we need to shelter the poorest by subsidizing their energy costs. This is where the carbon tax comes in. It provides a large source of funds that can be used to protect the poorest from the effects of our fight against climate change. Now the logical reality of this is that if that money is being spent on the poor it will not be available for the middle class. What this means is that middle class energy users will necessarily be the hardest hit by the price increases.

This is the dirty little secret that the activists in the environmental movement don’t want to admit and why my interviewer probably expected me to deny the price increase. Read the 100% Wind, Water and Sunlight articles and they all talk about how their program will add jobs and bring brightness and light but what they never admit is that it will be done at a cost: increased energy prices and increased hardship on the middle class. Alberta can’t mothball their entire coal fleet while building solar and wind facilities at no additional cost. If 100% Wind , Water and Sunlight is going to generate millions of jobs we will need the money to pay all those salaries since all that cost is in energy. It is going to mean higher energy costs and much of that burden necessarily will fall on the middle class.

The same logic applies to Site C, it is not the cheapest energy out there (that would be Burrard Thermal), but it represents one of the cheapest of the clean alternatives. The activists keep arguing that other alternatives like wind, solar and geothermal represent cheaper alternatives but they have yet to demonstrate their case. BC Hydro has estimated the costs for alternative energy sources and all of them come in as equal to or higher in price to the Site C power once you factor storage and transmission costs into the equations and of the low-carbon options Site C is the cheapest base-load energy source. The activists present any number of hypothetical projects but once you include storage and transmission into the equations none can provide the reliable power of Site C at anywhere near its cost. Now comes the important part, because if we are actually going to beat climate change we need to build Site C AND many of the other renewable projects being put out there.

Ultimately fighting climate change means making a number of challenging political decisions. It means admitting that we need to raise hydro rates. It means admitting that we can’t protect everyone from the cost increases which means that the middle class are going to take a bigger hit than would be preferable in a perfect world. It means telling the public the truth and not pretending that this can be done easily. The most important things in the world don’t come easily they take effort and you only build support for these causes by being honest. Lie to the public and watch how the support fades when the truth comes out later.


Posted in Canadian Politics, Climate Change, General Politics, Site C, Uncategorized | 7 Comments

More scare chemistry: on the use of “solvents” in extracting oil sands

As a Chemist I am often asked to comment on “scare chemistry” stories. That would be stories that use the public’s lack of knowledge of chemistry to scare us into doing something that may not be good for us. This fear-mongering is common in the food industry and has created a backlash in the form of the dihydrogen monoxide (DHMO) movement. For those not chemically inclined DHMO is the formal chemical name for water and the DHMO folks have been parodying fear-mongering in the food industry by convincing unknowing foils to agree to try and ban DHMO in foodstuffs etc…

This week’s in scare chemistry, I have been repeatedly directed to a Pembina Institute blog post about the use of “solvents” in the extraction of oil sands. The article “Using solvents in the oilsands: The good, the bad and the ugly” relies heavily on readers not understanding bitumen geochemistry and having a fear of “solvents” to try and scare us about the idea of using “solvents” to make the extraction of bitumen from oil sands more effective and less environmentally damaging.

Now I will admit, having watched way too many procedural cop shows on TV. So even I can sometimes see the word “solvent” and think of a scene in a show where the detective reports that the evidence was destroyed when the body was submerged in solvents. Then after about a millisecond my chemistry education cuts in and I remember that most solvents are pretty benign. Every morning I start my day by running a hot solvent through crushed coffee beans to extract a caffeine mix to which I subsequently add dry fructose and a non-dairy creamer (I am lactose intolerant). I then use the resulting solution to address the fact that I have young children who get up way too early. You see our most effective solvent is one of the most common chemicals out there, yes that would be the pretty innocuous DHMO. DHMO is what we call a polar solvent, because the individual molecules of water (H2O) have an arrangement where the hydrogen and oxygen atoms don’t share electrons evenly. This gives the hydrogen end a slight positive charge and oxygen a slight negative charge. Run heated water through coffee beans and you extract a caffeine-rich solution otherwise known as your morning cup of coffee.

In chemistry we have a simple rule about solvents: like dissolves like. What that means is that a polar solvent will dissolve a polar compound. That is why water dissolves fructose (sugar) so well but does not dissolve oils, which are typically non-polar. This is also why, when you have been cutting garlic, running cold water over your hands will not remove the garlic oil. But put a wee bit of vegetable oil on your hands, rub together vigorously and wash with soap and you, too, can leave the house without being told off by your kids.

Returning to the topic of this post let’s consider how they currently get bitumen out of the ground. Most outsiders knows that the earliest bitumen was mined from surface formations. However, most of the bitumen in Alberta is located deep underground and needs to be extracted using in situ methods. One of the most popular of these is steam-assisted gravity drainage (SAGD). In SAGD two wells pipes are drilled close together one above the other. Steam is pumped through the top pipe which heats the bitumen to a temperature at which it flows down into the lower pipe and is extracted. The process gets the job done but has some serious drawbacks. It uses a lot of energy since it takes a lot of energy to generate all that steam, it uses a lot of water (as steam) and it uses a solvent DHMO that (from a chemical perspective) is about as unlike the bitumen as it can be.

Needless to say Alberta has its fair share of chemists and they long-ago recognized the limitations of this technology. Way back in the early 1980’s scientists in Alberta started experimenting by using hydrocarbons (like ethane) as a solvent in SAGD. By using solvents made of hydrocarbons (i.e. ethane or natural gas liquids) the oil companies could make use of the “like dissolves like” rule in chemistry to enhance the process. While I don’t have time to go into why it has taken so long to go from pilot project to full-scale usage there are now a number projects that use the process and doing so has great benefits. To start, using either pure hydrocarbon solvents in SAGD or a steam-solvent cogeneration has the potential to reduce costs for the production of oil sands oil while cutting the costs per barrel and substantially reducing the greenhouse gas emissions per barrel. As the Expert Panel of the Potential for New and Emerging Technologies to Reduce the Environmental Impacts of Oil Sands Development (Oil Sands Expert Panel) notes:

Several operators are experimenting with solvent-based technologies that do not require steam, which could potentially reduce GHGs related to energy use by 90% and bring per barrel emissions (KgCO2e) to well below the level of U.S. average crude and other international sources.

This new technology has the potential of being a big win-win. Looking at the Oil Sands Expert Report you can’t help but get excited if you are a pragmatic environmentalist. Here we have a technology that could let the oil sands keep operating while keeping us below our Paris Agreement emission commitments. So, what could activists have against it? Well let’s look at the “bad” in the Pembina Institute story. Specifically, the Pembina Institute article points out:

One lingering concern is the potential for surface or subsurface contamination from the injected solvent. Solvent-assisted techniques leave residual solvent underground after bitumen is extracted (between 30 per cent and 50 per cent in the case of Imperial Oil’s technology tested at Cold Lake). While an operation is productive, the subsurface is monitored and the operation is designed to detect any foreseeable solvent loss. How solvent loss is mitigated after detection is not well understood. Furthermore, after production ceases, there is still a risk of solvent leakage, which could contaminate subsurface zones or, in the extreme, release the solvent to surface. This issue is particularly important to those living in the Lower Athabasca Region, where the liability of tailings production steadily increases as projects are developed without proper mitigation measures.  

So let’s unpack this paragraph shall we. In the article the word “solvent” is used in its scariest, freak-out-the-public form. To make it less scary try reading the same paragraph but replace the term “solvent” with “natural gas liquids”. Now for those of you who didn’t click on the link, natural gas liquids can literally come from the exact same formations as the bitumen.

Reading the same paragraph using “natural gas liquids” if I told you that some of those liquids would remain in the formation (back where they came from) would you be as concerned? Now as for leakage, well the reason the bitumen is in that formation is because it is locked in that geological space. It isn’t coming out because that is where it is stuck. If the liquids that naturally occur in those formations was going to be released into the environment, it would have started tens of millions of years ago and would be ongoing today. Fears that the stuff is going to escape ring pretty hollow. Similarly, fears that the liquids are going to get stuck in the formation ring equally hollow. Yes, it would be a waste of good hydrocarbons, but it is not really an environmental concern. Ultimately, by reading that passage using “natural gas liquids” instead of “solvents” it becomes clear the only reason anyone has any reason for fear is because it includes that scary word “solvent”. Try reading this follow-up JWN Energy story on the topic: Here’s what Pembina doesn’t like about solvents in the oilsands using the trick and see how it reads. There really isn’t anything to be afraid of is there.

Ultimately reading back on what I have written I can only be sad to recognize that once again the public’s chemical IQ is still way too low. It is still far too easy for activists to frighten the public. More frustratingly, a lot of the instances of people being scared are by authors who themselves do not have strong chemical understanding. They may not even mean to do so, but by using a loaded term like “solvent” they can freak us out. In this case it is clear that solvent-aided bitumen extraction seems like the sort of technological advance that would address many of the biggest concerns about oil sands extraction and should be something everyone is pushing. It should not be something the general public should be fighting.

Posted in Canadian Politics, Oil Sands, Uncategorized | 18 Comments

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