On tanker bans, oil spill response, coastal barges and government doing its job

For the last week my twitter feed has been filled with discussions about the grounding of the Nathan E Stewart and the ensuing diesel spill into the fragile ecosystem of Athlone Island. Now the activist community, never willing to let a tragedy go to waste, has jumped on this to reinforce their demand for a renewed tanker ban off the West Coast. To add a bit of flavour to their demands, some have included a demand that the tanker ban include a ban on barge traffic. As I have pointed out numerous times, a tanker ban would have had no effect on this spill as barges aren’t covered. As for the barge ban, well more on that below. Rather than harping on those topics, however, I am going to use the majority of this blog post to make a plea for a reasonable discussion about our spill response capabilities in the central coast. Before I do that let’s talk about barge bans.

As I have had to point out numerous times on Twitter; Bella Bella is a coastal community with no road links to the mainland. You get there by air or by sea. As pointed out by Tom Fletcher Bella Bella gets its electricity from the former Ocean Falls pulp and paper mill backed up by diesel generators. Now where do those generators get their diesel from? You guessed it: coastal fuel barges. The same means by which the vehicles in the community get their refined gasoline and the cooking stoves get their naphtha. If one were to ban fuel barges the community would almost immediately cease to be tenable. The dock would close as the fishing/crabbing ships would not have any fuel to operate. The airport would close because the aviation fuel used at the airport comes via tanker. The back-up generators would have no fuel so come winter-time when the power line to Ocean Falls went down there would be no power. Heck even the chainsaws most people use to cut firewood would lack the fuel to allow them to operate.

Now I, more than most, understand the risk associated with coastal barges running up and down our coastline. I highlighted the problem almost two years ago in my blog when I wrote:

From a risk perspective, we have been trained to fear oil tankers even though they are highly regulated and have strict maintenance/piloting/tugboat requirements. Meanwhile, we are essentially oblivious to all those container ships travelling without tugs through our “narrow and dangerous” straits. Even more frightening are all those barges being towed along the coast. Few people ask how coastal BC communities get their fuel supplies? Well most are supplied by barges towed to their destinations by tugs. According to the spill response study 48 billion liters a year of fuels are transported by barge in coastal BC. Much of this material is considered “non-persistent” as it represents refined fuels that do not last as long in the environment once spilled. Lack of persistence, does not, however, mean risk-free. That lack of persistence must be tempered by the fact that these barges operate in inshore waters close to shore, so spills are more likely to migrate to land and cause damage to marine and coastal ecosystems. For volume comparisons, the biggest barges can carry 8 to 21 million liters of fuel.

Now that I’ve addressed the ridiculousness of a barge ban let’s get to the meat of this issue: oil spill response times. The biggest complaint about this spill has been the relatively slow response time. West Coast Marine Response Corporation (WCMRC) is the private company with the responsibility to address oil spills on the BC Coast. Following the sinking, WCMRC sent a large team from their nearest response base (Prince Rupert) as well as a local contractors from a closer base in Shearwater (three miles from Bella Bella). Now Prince Rupert is over 300 kms north of Bella Bella and the crew from Shearwater simply lacked the equipment to mount a full-on oil spill response for a spill of that volume. The result was a loss of significant volumes of diesel from the tug’s onboard fuel supplies. Now that the WCMRC crew is on hand they are working to off-load as much of that diesel as is possible and the spill is mostly contained, but in the meantime it is likely that a local clam fishery has been damaged and there are clear indications of ecological damage.

The question that is being asked is: why the relatively slow response? The simply answer is geography. The British Columbia coastline is immense, including inlets and islands it exceeds 25,000 kilometers. Now consider that spill response times assume that response ships will travel at 6 knots (approximately 11 km/hr) and you see the challenge faced by first responders. According to the 2013 West Coast Spill Response Study the current goal for a spill of over 2500 tonnes in that part of the coast is that a response team be on hand within 72 hours. 72 hours is a long time to wait when it comes to containing an oil spill and a lot of people have demanded that we do better, but no one has explained how that might happen.

The problem that many of the armchair quarterbacks out there don’t seem to understand is that oil spill response is an expensive affair. You need to stockpile expensive material in caches available for the first responders and then you need crews and equipment on standby for when the inevitable spill occurs. Right now that funding comes entirely from industry under a “polluter pays principle” where the operators of commercial ships pay into a fund to allow for the operation of WCMRC. I have said again and again, you only get the quality of service that you are willing to pay for; and in spill response this 72 hour response time is what people have been willing to pay for. You want a faster response? Then under the current system that means paying for it in the form of higher fuel and food prices in coastal communities.

Ultimately a “world class oil spill response” is only going to happen in the central coast if the money is there. With the exception of immediately after spills like the Nathan E Stewart, the coastal communities have not been clamoring to pay for increased spill response (and the ensuing increase in costs of living). As for the world class oil spill response associated with the pipelines, those resources are going to go where the models suggest the ships are going to travel. So if the Kinder Morgan Trans-Mountain expansion occurs that would be the south coast while the Northern Gateway would result in a drive to ensure adequate supplies in the north coast. None of these plans will likely do anything about the central coast because the volume of transport is simply not there.

The only way the central coast sees improved oil spill response is if one of our levels of government decides to ante up, because a polluter pays system will never have enough money to provide a world class oil spill response over the entire central coast. The coastline is too long, the population centers too dispersed and the volumes transported are not sufficient to pay for a better service.

When I started writing this blog post I was of the opinion that this was a chicken and egg situation. You aren’t going to get a world-class oil spill response until you increase the shipping volume and you aren’t going to increase shipping volume until one or more of these major projects is approved. Now this is very true for the north and south coasts, but in my research I have come to recognize that, as suggested above, neither scenario addresses the central coast and that is where I think it is time for our two senior levels of government to get involved. The movement of vessels in Canada’s inshore waters is regulated by Transport Canada and as a consequence I think that both the Feds and the Province should be kicking in to address the holes in the current system. While I strongly approve of the concept of polluter pays I think that this cannot be the only funding mechanism for oil spill response on the west coast.

Think of this from a more familiar perspective. We don’t demand that shop-keepers in dangerous neighbourhoods pay for their own policing nor do we expect individual shop-owners to pay for on-call fire-fighting crews. Rather we accept that as communities, provinces and a country that we share the burden. The cost of maintaining oil spill response capabilities in the central coast should not be placed solely on the consumers in those communities (through pass-on charges associated with WCMRC fees). Rather, those fees should be supplemented by government fees to address shortfalls in the central coast.

The best analogy I can think of is the BC Ferries system. BC Ferries, if it relied only on user fees, would operate solely on the short southern coastal routes. However, our government recognizes the need for its service on lesser-traveled routes and provides supplemental funds to cover operational costs. In a similar vein, I would suggest that our provincial and federal governments cough up a subsidy to improve spill response capabilities in the central coast. Polluter pays only works so well and in the case of spill response paying for a clean-up after the fact does nothing to address the damage that could be contained if only spill response capabilities were in place. It is time our senior levels of government stepped up to the plate and took on the responsibilities that the constitution places in their hands: to protect our coast. That means providing a governmental subsidy to top up the quality of our oil spill response capabilities in the central coastal region because irrespective of whether there is a tanker ban or a single pipeline built the central coast is going to be under-serviced by oil spill response capabilities if direct users are the only ones covering the costs of the program.

Posted in Canadian Politics, General Politics, Pipelines, Uncategorized | 1 Comment

A challenge to the climate activists, Leapers and anti-pipeline activists: show us your plans

I started this blog to provide a venue for pragmatic discussions about evidence-based environmental decision-making. The problem with being both pragmatic and evidence-based is that it grounds you in the mundane realities of the world. It prevents you from taking the flights of fancy that seem to be the strength (and weakness) of the environmental community. My colleagues in the environmental community like to think big. They like big ideas and big plans. The problem is that their plans tend to concentrate on the big picture while being light on the details. What is most annoying is when I point out the holes in their plans and the needs to identify achievable goals; I get responses that question my sincerity or dedication to the “cause”. It is as if there is a requirement to put my scientific mind in neutral in order to be considered an environmentalist. Well I am a scientist, a pragmatist and an environmentalist and I want to make real advances not simply generate good in sound-bites.

So I am going to challenge the climate activists, the Leap Manifesto proponents (Leapers) and the anti-pipeline activists. Provide a cogent, evidence-based mechanism to implement one of your plans? You see in all these discussions I keep hearing negatives about my ideas but never any positive, practical alternatives from you. Specifically: in the last year I have presented a cogent, environmentally-balanced and pragmatic viewpoint on pipelines and have been insulted and heckled. I have pointed out specific limitations in the renewable energy dreams of the Leapers (and their 100% Wind, Water and Sunlight acolytes) and have been assured that I must be working against environmental causes. I have poked holes in the numbers of the innumerate climate change activists and have been called a “denier”. I challenge you to present a plan that can actually achieve a goal, heck any goal, because right now all I get from you is platitudes and hand-waving.

Climate Change

Let’s start with climate change since these are the most self-righteous of the activists. As we enter the second year of a post-Paris Agreement world it is becoming increasingly clear that the activists do not have the slightest idea how to achieve the goals they claim are imperative. Under the Paris Agreement Canada’s Nationally Determined Contribution (NDC) (note I have linked to our INDC as the NDC library does not have Canada’s submission), Canada has agreed to:

achieve an economy-wide target to reduce our greenhouse gas emissions by 30% below 2005 levels by 2030.     

Now I will give some credit where credit is due, Canadians for Clean Prosperity have presented a means to possibly get part-way to our 2 degree Celsius NDC by 2030 but it involves a massive rise in carbon taxes coupled with some pretty significant policy changes and even then they only achieve 13-14% below 2005 emissions by 2030?

The issue is that Canada’s INDC was created when the goal was still to avoid 2 degrees Celsius. Since the NDC was produced we agreed to an aspirational goal of 1.5 degrees Celsius. Now consider the research by Dr. Simon Donner and Dr. Kirsten Zickfeld of the University of British Columbia. They have calculated what it would take to achieve the aspirational goal of 1.5 degrees Celsius and have presented it here. Under their model Canadians we would need to emit essentially zero carbon dioxide sometime before the year 2030 or as they put it:

It would require a 90% to 99% reduction in emissions below 2005 levels by 2030. The budget is equivalent to less than seven years of emissions at current (2013, year with most recent data) levels  

Now think of that. By the year 2030 we would need to essentially emit no carbon dioxide? That means no gasoline automobiles, no diesel trains, no container ships, no trans-continental airliners, no diesel transport trucks, all by 2030? In the 14 years between now and 2030 our society would have to invent, prototype and mass produce engines capable of moving all the essential staples of our civilized society around the world. Within that time window we will have to get the entire existing fleet of automobiles, passenger trucks, transport trucks, airplanes, tugs, etc… out of commission and replaced with these, as yet, still hypothetical technologies.

In reality it would take a monumental effort to simply address personal vehicles but to achieve our aspirational goal we have to do away with all fossil fuel-reliant technologies? No a World War II level mobilization will not do the trick, we need at least an order of magnitude greater effort to change virtually every vehicle out there. The activists say words like, “but we have to do it for the future” and my simple answer is: show me how?

Now let’s play devil’s advocate and imagine a scenario where, by some miracle, we achieve that goal, that still leaves us only part-way to our goal since in that same time frame we still need to develop the electrical infrastructure to power those electric vehicles. I will go into more detail on that question when I deal with the Leapers.


In order to electrify all those vehicles we would need to massively ramp up our electricity system? By how much? Well let’s ask the hero of the Leaper movement: Dr. Mark Z Jacobson of Stanford. I have previously described what Dr. Jacobson has to say about Canada in his 100% WWS scenario….that would be the one promoted by the Leapers. As I wrote in my previous post, their proposal is simply not tenable. It is reliant on us inventing new technologies that are subsequently implemented on an industrial scale, all by 2050. Consider it asks for us to have 27,323 0.75 MW wave energy devices when we still don’t have a working prototype for the first unit? It is really hard to industrial facilities to tool up to build something that has not even been invented yet.

Besides being virtually impossible the Leaper approach would be devilishly expensive. Once again, I must give some credit, at least some economists associated with the Leap Manifesto tried to explain how they will pay for all this but they fell sadly short. They have proposed a set of policy alternatives that they estimate would raise $48.85 billion dollars a year. Now this list is essentially a poison pill for any politician who attempts to implement it, but that’s not the half of it since it doesn’t even cover the $53 billion a year Dr. Jacobson indicates it will take to pay for the power generating units for their 100% WWS program. Remember that $53 billion a year was prepared by their own expert Dr. Mark Z Jacobson from Stanford. Virtually every expert who has looked at his numbers suggest his costs are unrealistically low and still those numbers don’t include the infrastructure costs associated with the energy plants and necessary to build that infrastructure (roads etc…). It also excludes the costs or time to carry out the environmental assessments and all the consultations on all those projects or to purchase (or compensate owners for) the land used by that infrastructure.

That $53 billion/year is simply the capital costs of the actual units themselves. And those aren’t one-time only costs since that infrastructure will not last forever. It is well understood that wind turbines and tidal power units have relatively short serviceable lifetimes. Barnacles, salt water and winds take their toll and these units seldom last the 25 years. Yet the Leapers need them to last much longer in order for their numbers to work. Moreover, because of where we would need to install these units we won’t simply be able to abandon them, we will need to decommission each unit and reclaim the land under it. None of these costs are factored into the equation?

So let’s look at what we need by 2050: new technologies to generate power, new technologies to power vehicles and the replacement of all the existing vehicles in use today….all in 34 years in this case? Which brings me to the:

Anti-Pipeline Activists

As I have shown above we aren’t going to be anywhere near ready to get off fossil fuels before 2050. That means we will need updated infrastructure to move that oil, so how do the anti-pipeline activists respond? They simply insist that we should just stop using oil. Now I have addressed that topic in detail and it is not pretty scenario.

Having quickly dispatched the anti-oil pipeline folks, let’s look at LNG. The major complaint about LNG is that it will blow us over our Paris Agreement numbers but as I point out, we shouldn’t let that stop us. There are 1.2 billion people living in energy poverty in the world today and they are not going to sit idly by as the rest of the word advances without them. Each year 4.3 million people a year die from preventable indoor air pollution. Let’s not let some confusion about how we calculate carbon emissions leave those 1.2 billion Indians, Indonesians, Malaysians and Africans using coal to power their future instead of cleaner, lower-carbon, BC natural gas.


It is clear that our nation and our planet are facing some monumental challenges in the next few decades. It is equally true that we are not going to be able to address all these challenges in the time-frame indicated. What does that mean? Well as a pragmatist it means we will have to make compromises. If we know that India has a choice between coal and natural gas, then we should make sure it chooses natural gas. If we know that 100% WWS is not possible, then we had better include hydro and nuclear into the energy mix for our renewable energy future. If we know we are not going to achieve our aspirational 1.5 degrees Celsius target then we should throw it away and fight for a target we can achieve. Wishing for unicorns is not going to make them appear. We need to identify our priorities and work as hard as we can to achieve them. We have to stop chasing rainbows and instead try and chase achievable targets. That means it is time to stop making enemies out of potential allies. It is time to recognize that standing on the sidelines throwing out insults is not getting us anywhere. We need to come up with pragmatic plans to achieve our joint environmental goals.

Posted in Canadian Politics, Climate Change, Climate Change Politics, Environmentalism and Ecomodernism, Leap Manifesto, Pipelines, Uncategorized | 10 Comments

On Lukewarmism, denial and a look at the state of the environmental movement

This weekend was a busy one for me, but I had time early in the mornings (thanks to our new puppy) to spend a little time catching up on what is happening in the environmental world. In the process I caught the attention (and ire) of some of my least-favourite environmental activists: angry anonymous academics, grumpy retirees and numerous anonymous trolls. This blog post started as a light lark about the internecine battles between climate activists but has ended up as a state-of-the-union sort of piece that refutes a lot of malicious slander being directed my way by the likes of Miriam (SouBundanga) O’Brien and her acolytes who have filled my twitter feed with their rubbish, lies and insults. It puts some thoughts together in one place and describes where my mind is on the topic of Lukewarmism, climate change “denial” and the current state of the environmental movement.

As regular readers of this blog know, I am a Lukewarmer. What does that mean? It means I agree with the fundamental science of climate change. I acknowledge that the anthropogenic addition of Tyndall gases into the atmosphere will have an effect on global climate. As such, I agree with consensus (as presented by the IPCC) on the topic of climate change. As a Lukewarmer my primary difference with the alarmists is that I believe that the climate’s sensitivity to carbon dioxide is on the lower end of the consensus scale presented by the IPCC. The basis for this belief is a combination of my graduate-level education in global biogeochemical cycles and my personal knowledge of the early global climate models used to generate the original sensitivity numbers.

I’ve been a Lukewarmer for over two decades (even before Lukewarmers had a name) and in that time my Lukewarmer viewpoint has been consistently demonstrated to be a better representation of climate sensitivity than the alarmists’ views. More specifically, in the last two decades the consensus climate sensitivity estimate has gradually decreased to approximately the point I guessed it would be when I last looked closely at the topic over a decade ago. Conversely, the current consensus climate sensitivity estimate is now much lower than the one the alarmists were using in their discussions of the same era.

In my blog I have repeatedly discussed the policy means by which we can reduce our emissions of Tyndall gases while mitigating the effects of the climate change that is already locked into the system. I have promoted renewable and alternative energy technologies and have highlighted the policy needed to enhance our available renewable energy portfolio. Moreover, as a private citizen I worked to help get a carbon tax enacted in my home province of British Columbia. So I am exactly what I say I am: a pragmatic environmentalist who has worked to achieve evidence–based policy goals.

My pragmatism represents one of my major “sins” in the climate change debate where the two choices are: true believer or heretic. Another is that while I am a progressive on social issues I am conservative on financial issues. I believe in the power of a free market that is overseen by, but not controlled by, a functioning regulatory regime. I believe in the motto “polluter pays” and have worked in a contaminated sites industry for the last 15 years where “polluter pays” is more than a motto, it is how we do business. Most of the alarmist crew are far more left-leaning in the political spectrum. They are mostly comprised of people with the politics of Naomi Klein (and the authors of the Leap Manifesto) who seek to throw out our capitalist system to be replaced by a socialist paradise. They have a stronger belief in the ability of government to manage change than I do and believe that government action is the only way to beat climate change.

As a free-market type, I appreciate the existence of our regulators but have come to recognize their flaws and limitations. I have come to acknowledge that the government is extremely bad at picking winners and losers and that there is no such thing as a free lunch. I do not believe that the government can just magically make money appear. I know that the government gets its money by taxing or borrowing and money spent by government in one area restricts the amount it can spend in another. I recognize that infrastructure takes time to build and that history has taught us that environmental issues are thrown to the back-burner when the economy is bad. This means that maintaining a strong economy is a necessity if we are going to fight climate change. Finally I have crunched the numbers on what is needed to achieve a fossil fuel-free future and recognize that the infrastructure needs are staggering and thus the transition is not going to happen in 5-15 years but will take 30-50+ years and in the intervening time we will need to safely transport fossil fuels across our continent.

Now let’s consider the nature of the climate change debate. Well, the alarmists are not doing too well these days. Certainly the Paris Agreement was passed, but that was more a testament to the pragmatists and the middle-of-the-roaders than the alarmists. The alarmists keep screaming from the tops of hills but the rest of the world has taken to tuning them out? Why you might ask? Well in my opinion, it is because they are too quick to make enemies and so unserious that it is hard to take them seriously.

Consider their use of the term “denier”. Before I go further, a bit of background; I was a young boy when Ernst Zündel published the pamphlet “Did Six Million Really Die” (in 1974). I grew up in a time of the quiet growth of the Holocaust denial movement in western Canada. I was a young activist while the Keegstra case worked its way up to the Supreme Court of Canada and did my small part to support groups who fought anti-Semitism and the rise of Holocaust Denial. I watched as a tremendous effort was made to link a relatively benign word “denier” with the concept of Holocaust Denial. This was not a local phenomena but one that happened world-wide. This linking worked and for many of my generation the term “denier” has a power like few others. Happily, my kids are growing up in an era where (at least where I live) Holocaust denial is restricted to those with recognizably bad intentions. As a consequence many from younger generations do not have the same associations with that word that people of my age do.

Given this background, you can imagine my disappointment when the term “denier” was misappropriated by a core of activists who recognizing its power (a power soaked in the blood, sweat and tears of people I knew and respected) who decided to use it to label their opponents in the climate change debate. I have even less time for the apologists who say, “well look it up in the dictionary” and thus excuse themselves of the implied slander associated with using the term. When I was a young man the “joke” used to be that calling a homosexual a “faggot” was not an insult because if you looked the word up in the dictionaries of the time the definition simply read “a bundle of sticks”. Everyone knew that the word had an incredibly evil use intended to degrade the person being addressed but for some the fact that the dictionaries had not caught up with the common usage meant it was okay to use this vile term.

Nowadays I have mostly given up fighting the historically illiterate activists who insist on using the word but still pay attention to how it is being used. A decade ago, it was used to label a small minority of individuals who actually argued that climate change was not happening, but that, too, has changed. You would think that having misappropriated a term that has so much inherited power you would be careful how you used it….and in this you would be wrong. Instead of being treated with reverence it is bandied about these days like a minor insult just below “racist” but above “sexist”.

So how is the word “denier” used these days? Well a “freelance consultant” with a Bachelor of Agricultural Science (Honours) by the name of Miriam O’Brien (known better as SouBundanga who has a huge online following) called me a “science denier” for no other reason than because I got into a disagreement on the semantics of the term. Locally a transportation planner and campaigner with no education in climate science has taken to calling people “soft climate deniers” in the newspapers and on social media because they disagree with him on transportation options in our community. When he does so what do we hear from the serious people in the activist community? Nothing. A political science grad whose research topics include welfare policy, poverty, inequality and economic security with no apparently no formal training in climate science calls anyone who disagrees with his progressive policy choices climate deniers and what do we hear from the activists? Nothing. Heck, Dr. Naomi Oreskes a specialist in the history of science calls the father of climate alarmism, Dr. James Hansen a climate denier because of differences in how nuclear energy can be used in fighting climate change and once again the great majority of activists in the alarmist camp say nothing.

It is no wonder people have stopped taking the alarmists seriously, since they can’t be bothered to take what each other says seriously. Moreover their infighting is like something out of a Monty Python movie or 1920’s Russia. When Dr. Oreskes condemns Dr. Hansen I keep trying to remember which one represents the People’s Front of Judea and which is the Judean People’s Front? Frankly if the Romans (ooops I mean climate skeptics) had planned it I don’t think they could have done a better job turning the activist fringes of the climate alarmist brigades against each other or making them look more ridiculous. Perhaps it is time that the intellectual leaders of the movement speak out because right now they have become more of a punch-line than anything else. How else to explain how Donald Trump can run a presidential campaign rejecting climate change while Hillary Clinton runs hers without any useful discussion of one of the seminal issues of our generation.

As a pragmatic environmentalist I am deeply saddened. I see the effort of individuals like myself being overwhelmed as progressives have gradually wrest the environmental movement from the hands of environmentalists and scientists and put it in the hands of philosophers, sociologists and political scientists. People who understand little about the complexity of the problems facing us but instead see this as their latest hobby-horse that they can ride to potential political power. In the end it is likely that the fading world economy will take the wind out of the environmental sails and we will once again have failed to make hay while the sun shone; because as history teaches us, when the economy goes down environmental awareness goes out the window. It is not too late to achieve some goals, but given the tenor and the quality of the people leading that debate, I am quite certain that we will have missed this window of opportunity. It reminds me of the old Alberta (Texas?) expression: Dear Lord, please give me another boom and I promise not to blow it only it looks like we took this opportunity and blew it again.


Since I wrote this piece I was made aware of a blog post by the wildly popular climate mouthpiece Miriam O’Brian. I had to be told about the piece because she was very careful (cowardly) not to inform me of its existence or provide any links that might have made me aware of its existence. Here is a link to the blog post which I welcome you to visit. Be warned calling the piece mudslinging would be to give it too much credit. The strangest part of the piece is that she brags about not ever having read anything I have written while asserting strongly and repeatedly that I am a “denier” and making secondary accusations that are simply base and untrue. She quite effectively demonstrates the mindset of the climate activist and her blog post is a learning experience for me.

While she hasn’t read me work, Miriam does take a number of my Twitter comments out of context. Amusingly, since she included links to the comments you can actually follow the threads which show her falsehoods and makes reading her blog even more entertaining. If I were James Inhofe trying to create a parody of an intolerant climate alarmist I would reject her as being too extreme. Few would believe that a person like her really exist, but like Ann Coulter she is wildly popular among her set. I presume this is mostly because she is willing to say such bizarre things and reinforce their biases.

Be sure to read the comments as they include a take from a gent by the name of Ken Rice who blogs under the name “and Then There’s Physics“. Ken works at the University of Edinburgh as an Astrophysicist (don’t worry his training is not in climate science) and he got his knickers in a knot over the fact that I did not show anger at a comment below that used the term “science denier“. As people who have followed this brouhaha know Miriam called me a “science denier” and chrism56 used a literary device where he turned the insult around for emphasis to demonstrate why it was an inappropriate thing to say. Now Ken being a literal man seems unable to comprehend literary devices and claims I am being two-faced on the topic. I would simply point out that anyone with a classical education would recognize the literary device and will leave it at that.

Posted in Canadian Politics, Climate Change, Climate Change Politics, Environmentalism and Ecomodernism, Lukewarmers, Uncategorized | 37 Comments

Why that new study in PNAS does not undercut any “myths” about carbon dioxide and its effect on plant health

This week my Twitter feed directed me to an article by Dana Nuccitelli in the Guardian titled: “New study undercuts favorite climate myth ‘more CO2 is good for plants”. The Guardian article was about a new study out of Stanford, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS). The intention of this blog post is to explain why this PNAS article does not, as Mr. Nuccitelli claims, “undercut” the “climate myth” that “more carbon dioxide is good for plants”.

As anyone who has studied any horticulture knows, it is an accepted fact in the academic literature that elevated concentrations of carbon dioxide are expected to result in increased yields and improved growth in the majority of green plants. There is a commonly accepted proviso to that axiom, which is that increased carbon dioxide concentrations will have little effect on plant growth in conditions where there is an established alternative limiting factor in that growth. So adding carbon dioxide to a plant that is lacking in essential nutrients will not increase growth rate as carbon dioxide does not represent the rate-limiting step in that growth. That doesn’t mean that the increases in carbon dioxide concentrations are not good for these plants (by decreasing water stress etc…), but simply that increasing concentrations of carbon dioxide will not increase crop yields when some other feature limits plant growth.

The effect of increased carbon dioxide concentrations on plant growth is not contentious. Even the folks at Skeptical Science admit as much (admittedly they only do so briefly before quickly changing the subject to start talking about how more plant growth will use up all the soil nutrients and will be likely to increase pest effects both of which are irrelevant to the science under discussion). So what Mr. Nuccitelli calls a “climate myth” in his Guardian article (that more carbon dioxide is good for plants) actually represents a demonstrated scientific fact confirmed in thousands of academic studies and used to increase crop yields in tens of thousands of greenhouses worldwide. Now at least three scientists have had the expression “extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence” attributed to them, but regardless of who said it first, this axiom is very much applicable in the context of this report. Given the extraordinary claim made by Mr. Nuccitelli I was really interested in establishing what is so special about this PNAS study that allows it to “undercut” the globally accepted fact that increased carbon dioxide concentrations are generally good for green plants.

The PNAS article in question has a particularly unsexy title: “Nonlinear, interacting responses to climate limit grassland production under global change. It details the results of a “17 year study of California grassland exposed to full-factorial warming, added precipitation, elevated CO2, and nitrogen deposition”. Let’s start with the praise. Any 17-year scientific study deserves an award just for perseverance and this one is no exception. In the study the authors planted 132 plots of local, grassland plants and then varied how the plants were exposed to carbon dioxide, temperature, water and nitrogen. Then over 16 years they measured above-ground and below-ground net primary productivity (ANPP and BNPP, respectively) in the plots. The results of the study indicated that, in this one study, increased carbon dioxide concentrations resulted in no significant increase in net primary productivity (NPP); increased nitrogen resulted in significant increases in NPP while increases in temperature and precipitation had initially a positive, but ultimately a net negative effect on NPP. Now I was a bit surprised by the conclusion until I noticed that the study was undertaken in a Mediterranean climate biome. This cleared up a lot of confusion for me as I recognized that the results, while interesting, were likely not globally applicable as I will explain below.

The Stanford test site used in the study is located at the Jasper Ridge Global Change Experiment (JRGCE) site in the Jasper Ridge Biological Preserve in California. The site is “located on the east side of the Outer Coast Range of central California near the Stanford campus. Jasper Ridge has a Mediterranean climate with cool, wet winters and very dry summers (ref)”. Now this should immediately perk up your ears since the Mediterranean climate biome is a relatively rare one. Put another way, it is hard to overstate how small the area defined as having a Mediterranean climate really is from a global perspective or how minimally this area (in its natural state) contributes to global NPP. As the JRGCE web site points out: areas with Mediterranean climate are known for being wet and cool in winter and very dry and hot in summer. This means that growth is limited to a very short effective growing season and one that occurs primary in the winter time (as the authors point out, between November and May) when the days are shorter and the sunlight intensity is lower. Plants in Mediterranean climate zones are optimized to survive long droughts in summer and wet winters and include all the classic Mediterranean trees and vines like olives, grapes, figs, etc… (i.e. plants that store winter rains in their fruit and ripen in the hot summer sun) as well as grasses and small annual flowers. That is not to say that areas with Mediterranean climate can’t be very good for growing other crops, but this is thanks to complex irrigation systems intended to extend the growing season into the hot, dry springs and summers. The farms in these areas thus take advantage of the plentiful natural spring/summer sunlight and the availability of industrial fertilizers in addition to the availability of water for irrigation.

As described in the PNAS paper, Mediterranean climate areas tend to be nitrogen limited for plant growth. To explain why, recognize that the climate regime does not encourage the growth of nitrogen fixing plants like legumes that struggle to grow/survive in the hot, dry summers. They instead favour grasses, small seasonal annual flowers and drought-resistant trees and vines. Thus the inclusion of nitrogen in this study presents an obvious way to find a limiting nutrient that would be expected to increase NPP. By including nitrogen in the study the authors have essentially included a positive control that demonstrates that, through their action, they can increase NPP.

The major concern with the Mediterranean climate, from a crop-growing perspective, is that a most of the rain comes in winter, often in short bursts. During the wet, growing season water is not a limiting feature in plant growth, rather the availability of strong sunlight and critical nutrients limit growth. This makes the way the study adds water a bit odd. As described in the paper, additional precipitation was not provided at the beginning or tail end of the rainy season (to extend the growing season) but rather the elevated precipitation was mostly added during, or immediately after, rainfall events. As the study put it: “The precipitation treatment was +50% of ambient rainfall, plus two 10-mm additions after the last rainfall event”. Thus, the increase in precipitation was in individual event intensity and not overall number of wet days. So in this study they took the expression “when it rains it pours” quite literally. Unfortunately this creates an obvious weakness: too much of a good thing. Too much rain will result in excess leaching of nutrients and, as the study showed, the wettest years had the worst NPP results. As well wetness would negatively correlate with sunlight intensity since the sun is not shining brightly when the rain is falling.

It is quite sad that such an important piece of research was placed in such an inopportune location. Doing a study of this kind in an area with a Mediterranean climate basically guaranteed the results observed. As described in the UC Davis web page on the region it is a combination of water stress, nutrient availability and winter sunlight intensity that determines growth in Mediterranean climates. Or put in a way that matters to readers of this blog, carbon dioxide availability would not be expected to represent a limiting feature in the growth patterns in this biome. Adding carbon dioxide would not be expected to have a significant effect on growth rate in this biome and not surprisingly, that is precisely what they saw. So the outcome of the study is confirmation of what any horticulturalist would have told you. That being said, confirmation of theories is one of the tasks we expect our universities to undertake and as such this study would be considered a success.

So let’s go back to the Guardian article in question which claims that the conclusions of this study debunk the “climate myth” that additional “carbon dioxide is good for plants”. Does the study do this? Well the answer to that is a categorical no. Rather the PNAS study demonstrates that in a Mediterranean climate water stress and winter sunlight intensity represent the biggest determinants for plant growth and that in grassland biomes nitrogen often represents the limiting nutrient in plant growth. The study also demonstrates that there can be too much of a good thing (i.e. rainfall in the wet season). The study says nothing about whether carbon dioxide is good for plants…don’t even get me started on what “good for plants” really means anyways.

So going further, does the PNAS study counteract the plentiful studies that show the greening of the northern hemisphere attributed to the increases in global carbon dioxide concentrations? No it does not. Does the PNAS study allow one to dismiss the comprehensive reviews that demonstrate increased yields associated with increased atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations? No the study does not.

Now don’t get me wrong here, I am not claiming that adding carbon dioxide to the atmosphere at the rate we have over the last century is a good thing. What I am saying is that trying to extrapolate a single study from a geographically tiny biome to upend a generation of research on the effects of increased atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations on plant growth might be a step too far, even for the most alarmist of authors. In this case Mr. Nuccitelli, in his Guardian article, has taken a gigantic and unsupported leap from the conclusions (and limitations) of this report. He has taken a small a study in a biome of limited global significance and extrapolated it to global proportions and come up with global conclusions that are not supportable using the data presented. This study does not undercut any “climate myths”.

Posted in Climate Change, Climate Change Politics, Uncategorized | 21 Comments

How reliant are we on fossil fuels in British Columbia?

A couple weeks ago I wrote a blog post that included a thought experiment of a world where fossil fuels had magically disappeared. As many of you know, I write a blog for the Huffington Post Canada and I decided to adapt that scenario for a blog post there. I recognized that the post would not be typical for that venue, but I figured that it would be informative and educational to their core audience. However, after having 32 blog posts accepted (with only one request for additional references) this time the post was rejected outright. When I asked why? I was informed that the:

apocalyptic thought experiment was not a good fit for the blog platform

and that:

Blogs must be based on facts, using concrete examples, and in this case, it was mostly hypothetical. Unfortunately, we cannot verify the scenario that you have conceived.

I must admit, having a thought experiment described as “hypothetical” represented a mildly-amusing tautology but did little to satisfy my curiosity. I was more interested in the fact that the blog editors could not “verify the scenario” that I had conceived. That represents a fascinating conundrum. I presented a  scenario that describes the logical consequences of our current energy system and the editors could not verify what I said was correct?

Oddly, enough, this was the reaction from a number of people who read my original blog post. They questioned my conclusions because the outcome was so apocalyptic. It just didn’t seem right to them. Sadly, this response shines a blinding light on the absence of energy awareness in the general populace. The general populace have simply internalized the role fossil fuels plays in maintaining our society and simply take that service for granted. They appear to have done this to an extent that they don’t even realize how completely we depend on fossil fuels for our day-to-day existence.

As a consequence, I feel it is necessary to present some basic facts about the fossil fuels we use on a daily basis. As I wrote in a previous post:

Depending on your reference, BC’s total energy consumption, inclusive of the energy required to create secondary electricity, was approximately 1,142 PJ in 2000 (ref)…This translates to approximately 317,500 GWh of energy. According to BC Hydro, in 2012 BC Hydro’s total energy requirements were 57,083 GWh (ref). This means that BC Hydro supplied less than 18% of the total energy used in BC and that renewable electricity component represents approximately 17% of our yearly energy needs….Of that over 82% remaining energy about 33% (approx 380 PJ) was supplied via fossil fuels (excluding natural gas); about 26% (approx 300 PJ) was supplied via natural gas; about 20% (approx 225 PJ) was supplied via burning of waste biomass in industrial facilities; and the remaining was supplied via coal and coke (mostly for use in cement plants) (ref).

As described, fossil fuels represent approximately 59% of all the energy used in British Columbia. According to the Globe Foundation Endless Energy Project Report (Globe Foundation)  domestic transportation accounted for 87% of motor gasoline and diesel fuel sales in BC in 2000 (the last year this data was fully compiled). According to the Globe Foundation, in the year 2000 BC had 210,000 light commercial vehicles, 75,000 medium heavy trucks, 10,000 heavy trucks, and 800 ferries and coastal vehicles and virtually every one operated on fossil fuels.

I’m sure someone is going to ask about electric vehicles,well in 2015 plug-in electrical vehicles represented 0.33% of new vehicle sales in Canada. Electrical vehicles represent a rounding error in total cars and personal trucks on the road in B.C. As for hybrid, well they depend on fossil fuels to operate and would stop doing so absent fossil fuels.

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

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

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

Now nothing I have written to this point is very contentious. We all know that every significant means of bulk transportation in the world still relies on fossil fuels and would cease to operate the moment fossil fuels disappeared? So what is so wrong about simply admitting that this is the case? Well to do so would be to admit that we rely on fossil fuels to feed us, clothe us and keep us warm. Instead the activists pretend that we live in a world where we can simply stop using fossil fuels and all will be good. Well the answer to that is: “balderdash” or “poppycock”. In the year 2016 we are utterly and completely dependent on fossil fuels to provide us with the overwhelming majority of the necessities we use every day. Absent those fossil fuels Canadians would starve. That a Huffington Post editor cannot figure this out without verification simply demonstrates how little these gatekeepers understand about everyday energy use.

I have been asked, whether this rejection will mean the end of my blog on the Huffington Post? My answer is: no, you don’t give up on informing people because they are ignorant, you re-double your efforts to inform them. While I enjoy this blog, it has nowhere near the reach of a post on the Huffington Post. So I will continue to write simplified versions of my work for distribution on that system as it is the only access I would otherwise have to that much larger target audience and frankly, that is the audience that most needs to be informed by people like me.

I will leave this post here. I could go on to describe how our electrical and potable water systems also rely on fossil fuels but that would simply be beating a dead horse. Instead I will leave you with the edited version of the post that was rejected. Since I don’t write the headlines/titles of my posts I will simply refer to is as:

The Post that shall not be read 

I have written a lot about fossil fuels and renewable energy. In my posts I have discussed how much  energy we use in B.C. and where that energy comes from . At my blog I have discussed the steps it will take to achieve a fossil fuel-free future and the recognition that this process has to be gradual and will take decades to achieve.

My pragmatic posts have been rebuffed by activists who claim that we are not weaning ourselves off fossil fuels quickly enough. Some claim we should do it immediately. I have explained that doing so is impossible but a lack of energy awareness in that community is not uncommon and energy arguments tend to be ignored.

Now to be clear, I agree that we need to wean ourselves off fossil fuels as quickly as we can; but we need to do so in a controlled manner. To explain why, I created a little thought experiment. In this thought experiment we will assume that a mystical power has arrived on Earth and using some unknown technology eliminated all fossil fuels from the planet instantaneously. What would happen? Since I live in Langley, I’m going to consider this from the perspective of an inhabitant of the Lower Mainland of British Columbia.

On day one without fossil fuels all transportation systems (except Skytrain and a few hundred electric vehicles) would immediately stop. Stores would cease to get new supplies as all supplies are transported from warehouses by transport trucks. No new supplies could get to the warehouses as the railway system depends on diesel; transport planes on aviation fuel; and container ships on bunker fuel or diesel. Soon the folks in the urban areas would be fighting over the remaining scraps in the stores and once those supplies were gone there would be nothing to replace them.

Starvation would not be the biggest concern though as potable water and electrical supplies are dependent on diesel for pumps and the electrical system is maintained by men and women with trucks. We in British Columbia pride ourselves on getting most of our electricity from non-fossil fuel sources but absent those pumps and those trucks within days (perhaps weeks if we didn’t have any storms) our electricity supply would be down as well. With no electricity and no diesel all the pumps would fail and Vancouverites would suddenly discover that living in a rain-forest means nothing if you don’t have access to clean, potable water.

Within a couple weeks, the city-centers would look like a scene from The Walking Dead, with corpses everywhere as the weakest folks lost out in the battles for the gradually diminishing supplies of food and water. Absent the sanitary system, the remaining folk would be fighting dysentery as human waste polluted the limited freshwater supplies. Anyone with the capacity to do so would be moving away from the city-centers as quickly as possible to forage as far as they could roam by foot and on the remaining bikes (the remaining electric vehicles having used their last charge after the electrical system failed).

In the Lower Mainland, the city folk would be streaming out towards the valley where they would discover that virtually everything edible (from plant to animal) had long since been eaten by the 300,000 people who formerly lived in the valley.

Within a few months over 90 per cent of our regional population would have succumbed to the lack of clean water and food leaving a small minority fighting it out over the few remaining crops.

Come winter, absent fossil fuels, the survivors would go back to burning wood for heat and in doing so would add to the ecological devastation wrought by the first wave of city folk cleansing the ecosystem of everything edible.

Certainly, in parts of the developing world, and in portions of the prairies, subsistence-level communities might remain intact but they would be re-building on a planet that had been systematically stripped of everything edible by the 7.4 billion souls who did their best to survive and in doing so wrought an ecological apocalypse.

In television shows like The Walking Dead, the zombie apocalypse addresses our population density before the billions of hungry humans have had a chance to devastate the planet. In a post-fossil fuel world, those 7.4 billion souls would be fighting tooth and nail for every scrap of food. Whatever small, large or mid-sized animals left behind would take hundreds of years to regenerate their populations. The ecosystem that regenerated would look very different than the ecosystem that existed before humans.

Climate change may represent a real threat to humanity, but absent fossil fuels it is likely that 7 billion or more people would pass away in the first six months in this post-fossil fuel world, as would virtually every edible large/mid-sized animal. That is why as a biologist, a humanist and a pragmatic environmentalist I seek a transition away from fossil fuels that is strong, steady and sustainable.


Posted in Canadian Politics, Fossil Fuel Free Future, Pipelines, Uncategorized | 7 Comments

A pragmatic compromise on Energy East that Prime Minister Trudeau could get behind

As anyone who has followed this blog knows, I have kept my ear tuned to the fiasco that is the National Energy Board (NEB) hearings on the Energy East Pipeline Project in Quebec. One fallout of this mess is the fact that today I read one well-placed journalist suggesting that Energy East may “die a long slow death“. In reviewing the submission documents for Energy East I have come to wonder whether this issue has not been a sort of own-goal by both TransCanada and the NEB and whether there is a politically-expedient way out of the mess for our Prime Minister. My answer to those questions is “Yes”. The rest of this blog post will explain why I think there is a compromise out there that might allow the Prime Minister to approve a version of this project while not destroying his political base in Quebec.

To explain how this compromise would work it helps to understand a few things about the Energy East Pipeline proposal. It is my understanding that one of the original backers of the pipeline was Suncor. Suncor is a major producer of western oil and is also the owner of the last remaining refinery in Montreal. One advantage of the pipeline was that it would allow Suncor to vertically integrate its supply chain by allowing the Suncor refinery to use Suncor bitumen sourced from Suncor facilities in western Canada. To facilitate this, Suncor has even indicated that they would spend a billion dollars to add a coker to their Montreal refinery to make it capable of handling bitumen.

The thing about Energy East, however, is that the mainline of the pipeline was always intended to bypass Montreal. As presented in the map of the project the routing of the pipeline skirts the outer suburbs of Montreal (running north of the suburb of Terrebonne). After bypassing Montreal the route returns to run within several kilometers of the St. Lawrence before going north again around Trois-Rivieres. This is important because much of the political muscle against Energy East has been provided by Dennis Coderre and his supporters who are looking to protect Montreal from potential effects of the pipeline. The only part of the pipeline that actually crosses into Montreal proper is the Montreal Lateral  which forks off from the Energy East mainline in Mascouche and goes through the City to the Suncor Refinery.

As Mr. Coderre has pointed out, the City of Montreal went along with the reversal of the Enbridge Line 9B which is now pumping up to 300,000 barrels/day from western Canada and the western US to Montreal. Ironically, for a Mayor who claims to be fighting the pipeline on water quality considerations, enough oil from Line 9B makes it to Montreal that they can actually fill tankers in Montreal which they then ship down the river to the nearby Levis refinery two to three times a week. It is ironic since the act of filling and moving those tankers places the St. Lawrence at much greater risk from spills than a single underground crossing of a pipeline like Energy East would do; but that is another battle for another day.

From a nationalistic perspective, the Enbridge Line is less than ideal since much of the oil travelling down the line is American in origin and runs via the US. From Suncor’s perspective the line doesn’t give them control of their supply chain, so once again we have a sub-optimal outcome. That being said, I am a pragmatist and pragmatically-speaking Montreal is clearly now getting enough supply from North America to avoid the need for them to use Saudi or Algerian oil to make up their volumes.  This essentially eliminates the major argument for the Montreal Lateral.

This brings me to the obvious pragmatic solution to this problem: Prime Minister Trudeau should approve the Energy East proposal with the condition that the approval does not apply to the Montreal Lateral.

Practically-speaking, the Montreal Lateral doesn’t substantially increase crude oil security to Montreal, but it does jack up the risk to the regional water supply and forms the primary basis for political opposition to the project. By essentially bypassing Montreal this decision would defang Mr. Coderre. Should Mr. Coderre continue to oppose the pipeline then he will be shown to be the hypocrite that so many claim him to be. You see for the last decade he has remained silent on the historic Portland Montreal pipeline, the 74 year old pipeline that used to feed the Montreal refinery with oil from overseas and which also crosses the St. Lawrence River. In addition, we have not heard a peep from him about the loading of oil tankers in Montreal to feed the Levis Refinery which also puts the river (and his water supplies) at risk. Should he then complain about an Energy East pipeline (sans the Montreal Lateral) that poses substantially less risk to his community, and its water supply, he would be shown to be the political opportunist that many claim him to be. Myself, I believe he is a political pragmatist. He is likely to take the win and cease being a thorn in the government’s side on this file.

An Energy East Pipeline with the Cromer and Levis laterals intact, meanwhile, still has the ability to provide the Canadian crude necessary to supply the Levis and St. John refineries which is still a big win for Canadian nationalists and reduces the risk to the St. Lawrence posed by the current crude being transported to Levis and St. John via tanker and rail. The removal of the Montreal Lateral, meanwhile, gives the opponents of the project a victory in the battle and provides a means by which the Prime Minister can be seen to both support this national project while being sensitive to the politics of Quebec. Admittedly, for the hard-core environmentalists this compromise would not be enough, but let’s be honest, no compromise will satisfy them. Moreover, as I have written before since they don’t care about facts their minds aren’t going to be changed anyways.

Approving Energy East without the Montreal Lateral represents a less-than-perfect solution for both sides; but one which both sides can live with. This is the kind of solution that a pragmatist like myself lives for: it represents a pragmatic solution that makes the most sense for the most people while acknowledging and respecting the views and concerns of all sides.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

A layman’s guide to the behaviour of diluted bitumen in a marine spill

Having listened to the arguments for and against the Energy East and the Trans Mountain Expansion (TMX) projects one of the things that really struck me was the low quality of the scientific knowledge used in the debates. As I noted in my previous post; it is becoming clear that many of the activists are low information voters who care little about intellectual rigour preferring to spout talking points. As I described in my post about the Trans Mountain Expansion (TMX) project Langley Open House besides not even knowing what the legal filings say the TMX will carry, the activists are also quite uninformed about how diluted bitumen behaves in a marine spill. The intention of this post is to clear up some of those misconceptions by providing a layman’s guide to what the technical literature says on the topic.

Now if you are an activist then you don’t have to read this post. That is because you already “know” that “diluted bitumen sinks”. How do you know this? Because the good people at DeSmogCanada told you so. Unfortunately, such simplistic answers are what you receive when you get your science from a political theorist and philosopher filtered through the lens of a team of public relations professionals. Myself, I prefer to read the actual reports that form the basis of the science.

For those interested in the actual science; here are three documents that will give you a solid initial understanding of the topic. From Canada we have the Environment Canada technical report on the topic:

Properties, Composition and Marine Spill Behaviour, Fate and Transport of Two Diluted Bitumen Products from the Canadian Oil Sands.

From the US we have the National Academies of Science (NAS) report on the subject:

Spills of Diluted Bitumen from Pipelines: A Comparative Study of Environmental Fate, Effects, and Response (2016)

And finally for comparison purposes we have a very recent Royal Society of Canada (RSC) report:

The Behaviour and Environmental Impacts of Crude Oil Released into Aqueous Environments (2015)

The RSC document is not solely about diluted bitumen, per se, but about how all crude oils behave when spilled in aqueous environments. Readers can look at it to determine if dilbit is anything special.

Now the vast majority of the activists I have spoken with like to refer to the US study. It is very funny how parochial Canadian activists can be. They seem to have a base belief that work done in the United States must, by definition, be superior to anything done in Canada. This, however, is far from the truth. You see, the NAS report was intended to address a regulatory purpose and not a scientific one. They didn’t design any experiments; conduct any practical studies; or do any hands-on research. The NAS report represents a state-of-the-literature report that was intended to address a regulatory requirement governing “spill response planning, preparedness, and clean-up”. Because of the nature of their report the authors made a number of inferences (best guesses for the non-technical) that apparently were then run through a political filter that considered the “practical and policy aspects of our [their] recommendations” prior to publication. That is not how science is supposed to be carried out in the scientific community. It is, however, how it is done in the highly-politicized world of US politics and energy regulations.

An examination of the NAS report (and more importantly its list of references) shows that virtually all of the recent practical (in situ and in-lab) results are derived from a limited number of technical papers, the most prominent being the Environment Canada report and a number of original papers prepared by the good folks at Fisheries and Oceans Canada; especially the research group headed by Thomas L. King (no relation). The rest of the NAS report consists of examinations of older work and policy recommendations which, in my opinion, give insufficient weight to the actual science while relying too heavily on speculation based on the general chemical characteristics of the substance. As I pointed out in my previous post on this subject:

My initial expectations were shattered as the literature I had on hand (which was only about 5 years old) made a lot of assumptions that have been overtaken by the most recent literature (the Environment Canada Technical Report).

That is to say, the recent research results demonstrate quite conclusively that depending solely on general chemical characteristics will leave you completely on the wrong side of the current state of the science when it comes to diluted bitumen. The chemistry of these complex mixtures is still too confusing to trust basic theories based on general features like the presence of selected functional groups. As such, the remainder of this post will rely on the actual research conducted by people with budgets to get their hands dirty and test the substances under consideration. Because I have already reviewed much of that original research, the next section of this post is mostly made up from an earlier blog post I prepared on dilbit spills which I wrote when I first evaluated the Environment Canada technical report. For referencing purposes any physical data/observations in the next few paragraphs are straight out of the Environment Canada technical report, although I will add some additional details (which are referenced).

Let’s start with the basics, what is dilbit? Dilbit consists of a mixture of 20% to 30% diluent and 70% to 80% bitumen. The bitumen is exactly what you think it is and the diluent is typically a light-hydrocarbon mixture (like naptha) called “condensate”. The condensate has a specific gravity in the 0.6 g/mL to 0.8 g/mL range and the resultant dilbit has density/specific gravity that ranges from around 0.92 g/mL to about 0.94 g/mL. Since we know that freshwater has a density of 1 g/mL and that seawater density ranges from 1.025 g/mL to 1.033 g/mL that means that when spilled any dilbit will initially float. I’m saying nothing new here. What is new is what happens as the diltbit weathers. Historically it was believed that as the dilbit weathered the diluent would all evaporate away and the resulting evaporated mass would sink. Well, the research says that this is not the case.

Laboratory studies by Environment Canada show that even with a 26.5% evaporation rate (thus with pretty much all the diluent evaporated) the resultant evaporated dilbit still retains a specific gravity (at 0oC) of 1.021 g/mL. Thus the material would not sink in marine spills, as we were previously led to believe, but would actually remain afloat. More interestingly, when lighter oils are hit with breaking waves they form small droplets that lack the buoyancy to float and will often remain entrained in the water column. The dilbit did not act in this way. Rather when the experimental dilbit was exposed to the wave pool, it formed much larger droplets which they called “oil balls” that quickly resurfaced and coalesced into a surface slick. This actually makes dilbit easier to skim off the surface early in a spill event.

The Achilles heel of the dilbit, however, appears to be sediments in the water. Oils exposed to silty water will form oil-particle aggregates (OPAs) which under certain conditions will sink to the bottom. Remember the DeSmogCanada report? This is what they are talking about. In the Environment Canada research when they mixed the spilled dilbit with high concentrations of a very fine type of clay called “kaolin” virtually all the bitumen either dispersed or formed OPAs and sunk to the bottom of the wave tank. Similarly, when the bitumen was exposed to very high concentrations of diatomaceous earth the same thing happened. When the dilbit was exposed to sands, however, the OPAs were not formed and the material instead formed droplets that were highly resistant to sinking and floated strongly on the surface.

Now what the good people at DeSmogCanada failed to apparently understand is that concentrations of clays and silts that high are not typically seen in Canadian nearshore environments. As Environment Canada pointed out, in the Burrard Inlet spill of 2007 virtually no OPA was formed. So while the intertidal zones were badly oiled, the subtidal marine harbour sediments were virtually unaffected by the spill.

Modelling exercises have been done by Fisheries and Oceans Canada using our local conditions and for the approximate sediment load and characteristics of the Douglas Channel. The result was a conclusion that approximately 20% of the diluted bitumen would form oil-particle aggregates which would sink below the sea surface, with little of that material actually sinking to the sea bottom. Coincidentally, that is pretty much the same behaviour one would expect from a typical crude oil spill. A stochastic model of an oil spill in the Salish Sea suggests that the majority of the oil would stay on the surface, and accumulate on the shoreline, rather than dispersing into water column. Once again a spill would be a tragedy, but the behaviour of the diluted bitumen would be no different from a similar crude oil spill.

Now in freshwater environments the effects will not be nearly as clear-cut. Since freshwater is less dense than seawater whether the bitumen will sink or float becomes far more dependent on the source material and ambient temperature. As the NAS study indicates highly-weathered Cold Lake Blend will retain a density less than 1 g/mL (it will float) while Access Western Blend will reach a density above 1 g/mL (it will sink). We also have to consider environmental conditions. Consider the Kalamazoo spill which occurred during a heavy rainfall event where the river was filled with sediments. In that case the events conspired to produce a scenario where a huge percentage of the material formed OPAs and sank to the bottom. What is most interesting about that case is that under those conditions a typical crude oil spill would likely have behaved in a very similar manner. At those sediments levels OPAs were inevitable.

To conclude this post I want to make something abundantly clear. Any oil spill, be it crude oil or diluted bitumen, represents a tragedy and catastrophe (after all consider that the Fisheries and Oceans model of a Salish Sea spill determined that most of the spilled material, not captured by the recovery efforts, would “accumulate on the coastline”). The point of this blog post, however, is to establish whether a diluted bitumen spill would be a uniquely catastrophic situation. Since that is what the anti-pipeline activists fighting Energy East and TMX keep insisting. In response to that question the answer is clear: diluted bitumen does not represent a singular, existential threat to the environment.

This fact is very important because when we are talking about Energy East and TMX we are not talking about a scenario where we either have or do not have oil being transported. Rather we are talking about whether we have Canadian oil or foreign oil transported and how it is moving. The refineries in St John and Quebec still need raw materials to operate, and those raw materials are being shipped via tankers that run through Canadian coastal waters and, for the Quebec refineries, down the St. Lawrence River. Similarly, the oil that supplies the refineries in the Puget Sound has been coming via tankers through the Salish Sea for 20+ years. Both Energy East and TMX will also displace a lot of oil currently being transported by rail.

What the research clearly indicates is that dilbit is not uniquely dangerous to the environment, rather the research says the opposite: that dilbit in a marine environment behaves in a very similar manner to crude oil. As discussed in the research, dlibit is slightly stickier than crude so forms OPAs slightly more effectively than crude. This means that in high sediment environments dilbit will likely sink a bit faster than other crudes. But as a consequence of its stickiness dilbit does not disperse into the water column as readily as some crude oils, instead it forms bigger, more buoyant oil balls that are less likely to be broken up by ocean surfs and are more readily recoverable from the surface.

I will say this again (because I cannot say it enough) any oil spill is to be avoided which means we should be shipping oil in the safest manner possible. On the topic of spills there is one fact upon which all the references agree. For convenience I will simply quote from the RAS:

the overall impact of an oil spill, including the effectiveness of an oil spill response, depends mainly on the environmental characteristics, the conditions where the spill takes place and the speed of response.

Ultimately the government of British Columbia’s point in this discussion is critical. Any increase in the volume of oil transported, be it crude or diluted bitumen, should only occur if it is accompanied by a significant increase in resources for oil spill planning and response. Having plans in place and the resources to carry out those plans immediately at hand will make all the difference in the case of a spill be it diluted bitumen, crude oil or even bunker fuel from a passing freighter.

Author’s note: I have edited the section on the NAS as a regular reader suggests I was being too harsh about it. In my original version I called it: “re-hash of the Canadian work with a lot of guesswork attached” . My re-write clarifies that the NAS was a report aimed at a regulatory purpose and lacked the original content of the Canadian work. My apologies if anyone was offended by the original wording.

Posted in Canadian Politics, Chemistry and Toxicology, Energy East, Oil Sands, Pipelines, Trans Mountain, Uncategorized | 10 Comments