Flu shots save both money and lives

The New Year is upon us and with the New Year comes an event as expected as the swallows return to Capistrano. What would that event be you ask? Well it must be Bill Tieleman’s annual articles against BC’s flu vaccination program. This year’s offerings are titled: Costly, Ineffective Flu Shots Fail Again (in the Tyee) and Flu shots fail again – at great cost – and what if all you hear is wrong? (in 24 Hrs). Last year’s offering was Time to End Expensive, Ineffective Forced Flu Shots (in the Tyee). His previous efforts including December 2014’s (Are Flu Shots as Effective as Billed?) and December 2013’s (More Evidence Against Forced Flu Shots). These are in addition to his similarly themed articles in Vancouver 24 Hrs (2013 and 2014) and his blog (Oct 2013,  Dec 2013 and 2014). As I have written previously, one could almost suggest that he is a one-man content provider for the anti-flu shot brigade. Mr. Tieleman’s yearly pieces are similar in form and content and provide excellent fodder for any class studying the communication of science. As I explained last year, and will explain again this year, his articles provide excellent examples of problematic science communication and for those not able to take a science communication class, I will now examine parts of Mr. Tieleman’s latest articles for you.

Now to be honest, since he keeps repeating talking points it is only fair that I repeat a few things from my last year’s blog on the topic. Let’s start with a simple explanation of one of the critical terms used in these articles: “vaccine effectiveness”. Vaccine effectiveness is the “ability of a vaccine to prevent outcomes of interest in the real world”. To further clarify, if a vaccine has 50% effectiveness that means it reduces the likelihood of getting the flu by 50%. This does not represent a one-time deal, it is a seasonal effect. During the flu season you can be exposed to the influenza virus numerous times a day, numerous days a week, numerous weeks in the year and 50% effectiveness means that over that entire time the vaccine has reduced your likelihood of getting the flu by 50%. So let’s understand vaccine effectiveness is not some one-time event like turning the key in your ignition. Individuals are exposed to the influenza virus repeatedly over the course of the flu season.

In science communication we are always looking for good analogies. An apt analogy would involve some medical device or public safety innovation that had a comparable effectiveness in reducing a negative outcome. Happily for our discussion such an innovation exists, it is called “the seat belt”. A properly used seat belt reduces your likelihood to be injured in the event of an automobile accident. Seat belts aren’t perfect, however; and they won’t prevent all injuries. No seat belt in the world will save your life if you get t-boned by a semi but seat belts reduce serious crash-related injuries and deaths by, yes you guessed it: about 50%. Thus using the same descriptive criteria as is used for vaccines the effectiveness of seat belts would be defined as 50%. As presented by the CDC, the flu vaccine since 2004 has varied in effectiveness between 10% and 60% with an average just under 50%. Funny, I don’t see Mr. Tieleman suggesting that we should be giving up on seat belts in automobiles because they only have an effectiveness of 50%.

Now sticking with our seat belt analogy, as I pointed out above the best seat belt in the world will not save your life if you get T-boned by a semi. Similarly, the best vaccine in the world won’t work if it is designed for the wrong strain of influenza. The problem is that there is not one single human influenza virus, rather there are dozens of strain/subtype variations and experts must pick which viruses to include in the vaccine many months in advance in order for vaccine to be produced and delivered on time. Sometimes they get it wrong and like last year’s vaccine you end up with lower effectiveness. That is not a reason to abandon a good program. Even in a bad year (like 2014-2015 where we saw 23% effectiveness) the result is a substantial reduction in illness rate. This year it looks like we are going to be lucky as it appears that this year’s major strain (H3N2 a particularly virulent form) is in this year’s flu vaccine.

Going back to his standard rant, Mr. Tieleman’s talking points always seem to include a section deriding stats about the number of flu-related deaths. His lines this year:

A group called “Immunize Canada… a coalition of national non-governmental, professional, health, consumer, government and private sector organizations” — including major flu vaccine manufacturers — claims that: “Between 4,000 and 8,000 Canadians can die of influenza and its complications annually.”

Really? Because the Public Health Agency of Canada reports that in 2011-12 there were just 104 deaths; in 2012-13 deaths were 317; 331 in 2013-14; 591 in 2014-15 and 270 in 2015-16. In no year did flu fatalities approach 4,000 to 8,000.

The reason for the identified mismatch is because the flu is not the sole (or even major) cause of death in many/most cases, rather it is a contributing cause and thus the numbers do not match up perfectly. Instead public health agencies rely on regression modelling which allows scientists to peel out the effect of the influenza on increased death rates. In the old days they used to call the influenza the “old man’s friend” because it was the disease that ultimately weakened the severely ill enough to allow them to die of their diseases rather than lingering on with a debilitating ailment in an era prior to the development of effective palliative care.

As for statistics for emergency-room visits, in our modern era doctors don’t necessary see the need to actually submit samples for confirmation of flu strain when an elderly patient with a preexisting condition dies. Thus, only a small percentage of the deaths “attributed to influenza” are actually confirmed as being a caused by influenza. To be absolutely clear here when we are talking “deaths from influenza” (the stat he quotes from the Public Health Agency), we are talking only about cases where a person has died and because there was not an underlying condition a test was undertaken to confirm the diagnosis of “influenza”. In a purely technical sense a death is not recorded as an “influenza” death unless a test was administered that confirmed the actual influenza virus was the cause of the death.

As a personal example, this weekend my wife got bad news about a colleague’s son. This vibrant 30+ year-old man caught the flu and this flu left him dehydrated. When he tried to get up from his bed he fainted, and suffered a head injury in the fall that caused a cerebral bleed. He died later that day in hospital. His cause of death will not be reported as “influenza” even though that is precisely what killed him. Absent the influenza, that otherwise healthy 30+ year old would be alive today. His was an influenza-related death but would not be called “influenza” on the death certificate as his actual death was caused by a head injury related to a fall. A fall he only had because of dehydration caused by influenza.

The final point of today’s blog will be a topic Mr. Tieleman always makes a centerpiece of his anti-flu vaccine tirades: the cost of the vaccine. Like his other points, this is another case of being far too pedantic and thus missing the forest for the trees.

Consider that in the last two weeks of December 2016, the proportion of visits to BC Children’s Hospital Emergency Room (ER) attributed to influenza-related illnesses represented, 22%  of all visits. That is a huge number. An even marginally effective vaccine can cut the number of hospital visits dramatically resulting in less crowded emergency rooms and bundles of saved government money. Taking a look at this resource from the CDC, it shows how incredibly effective the flu vaccine has been at reducing hospital admissions and thus reducing our national medical bill.

But we don’t only have to consider hospital stays because there are other ways in which influenza costs our economy money. According to the research for every 7 healthy children vaccinated 1 case of influenza is avoided. Now consider that number from a policy perspective. Take a class of 21 kindergarten kids. Vaccinating that class would avoid 3 cases of influenza. Now consider that a typical case of the flu usually lasts 7 to 10 days. That represents missing 5 days of school. Those 5 days of missed school are 5 days when the sick child has to be at home under the care of a care-giver; in my family’s case that means me (using sick time from work) or my wife (using her family leave from her her work as a school teacher). Each day our child is sick costs either my employer, or our provincial government (my wife’s ultimate employer) money.

Consider that an average teacher gets paid about $200 per actual school day. Missing those 5 days to take care of a sick child represents a direct cost to our government of around $1000 (to pay for the replacement teacher while my wife is at home on paid leave). Considering the flu shot costs about $20/shot  those 7 shots cost the government around $140. In return they can generate a direct reduction of employment costs by about $1000. That represents $860 in reduced government costs. Don’t even get me started on the cost savings when you also include the doctor’s visits and the hospital and emergency room admissions. Can you show me any other health care intervention that saves the government over 7 times the cost of the program that Mr. Tieleman would like to cancel?

The data is clear: the flu shot reduces incidences of infection and does so at an impressive rate (around 50% effectiveness). In doing so it reduces the likelihood of serious illness for thousands upon thousands while preventing hundreds of deaths a year. Moreover, the vaccine program saves the health care system (and the public purse) a boatload of money. The 2016/2017 seasonal influenza vaccine program exists because there is a public health need for the program. It saves lives and saves money and so as long as Mr. Tieleman insists on slamming this program, I will write blog posts pointing out how wrong he is on the topic.

Posted in Canadian Politics, Risk Communication, Uncategorized | 5 Comments

Electrifying BC’s transportation system, debunking the myths: Part II night charging of vehicles

In my last post I started the process of debunking some of the fallacies being put forward by the electric vehicle (EV) community as part of their program to encourage people to convert to EVs while simultaneously maintaining their NIMBY attitudes towards energy generation and grid strengthening activities. As I wrote in that post, my desire is not to pooh-pooh the transition to an electric-powered transportation system or slow the transition to electric vehicles, both of which I believe are imperative. Rather, my intention is to demonstrate why the transition will need to be accompanied by a ramping up of our electrical grid and electricity supply. In my last post I debunked a widely cited number used to minimize concerns about how much electricity it will take to electrify our transportation system. Today I want to address two more of their talking points. The ones I plan on addressing are:

  • that the median commute is only around 7 kilometers, and
  • a favourite trope that electric vehicles will not have an effect on the electric grid as all the vehicles can be re-charged during off-hours.

These two points are closely linked as one feeds into the other. Specifically, the argument goes that since the median commute is only 7 kilometers EV owners will not need to charge their vehicles during the day. This will theoretically leave all the re-charging to the overnight hours when electricity demand is low and in doing so avoid the need to build up electrical capacity in the system.

Commuting distances

When the attack on me by the EV community began the proponents of EVs were particularly quick to send me to a report  “Electrifying the BC Vehicle Fleet” by the Pacific Institute for Climate (PIC). It is a useful document that make a number of useful points but also makes a number of interesting choices in how it presents data. The biggest weakness (in my mind) is its reliance on a median number for all its subsequent assertions about energy use etc…. As they point out:

In a recent report of BC driving statistics (Norton, 2008), 79% of commuters used a vehicle to get to work. The median one-way travel distance for all commuters in B.C in 2006 was only 6.5 km. This data also shows that a large portion of commuters (40.5%) travel less than 5 km to work, and that only 8% of commuters are travelling more than 30 km one way (Statistics Canada, 2006).

Now anyone who knows math and statistics knows that the median is a useful indicator, but not one upon which you will want to do statistics. When you rely on a median you inadvertently make a lot of assumptions about the underlying population. You assume the population is statistically normal and that the population is not heavily skewed. Since the median is literally the middle value it tells us nothing of interest about the population it is describing. To take an inane example, since females make up 50.4% of the Canadian population the median Canadian would be female. Using that knowledge would anyone seriously suggest that we abandon all services for men? Of course not.

When looking at the commuting population what we want to consider is whether there is a large percentage of that population that commutes a distance substantially greater than the median. As the PIC report points out, 8% of commuters travel more than 30 kilometers, one way to work. Now this might sound like an insignificant number until you realize what that that 8% represents. According to Stats Canada almost 80,000 British Columbians commute more that 35 km to work and another 28,000 commute between 30 and 35 kms to work. This means that in winter time over 100,000 electric vehicles commute greater than 30 kms to work. Given the range limitations on electric vehicles (presented in my previous blog post) that could mean more than 100,000 vehicles that will need to be plugged in during the day.  That reads a bit differently than saying that the median commute is only 6.5 km doesn’t it.

Night-time-only charging of vehicles will not be as prevalent as claimed

One of the biggest selling points by the supporters of EVs is their claim that most of the vehicles will be charged overnight and therefore we don’t need to add electrical capacity. That is frankly one of the big the take-away messages from the Pacific Institute for Climate Solutions study. That, as I will demonstrate below, is likely not going to be the case. As I present above, a significant constituency of commuters are going to exceed the threshold where they will feel comfortable only charging overnight. Much like a driver who doesn’t want to get caught with an empty tank, most commuters are not going to want to get caught with a dead battery in the middle of the road. That means if they even come close to using half their charge on the way to work they are going to want to top up their batteries while at work because if you only have a few kilowatts leeway you are not going to want to risk running out of charge on a cold evening if there is an accident on the Trans-Canada.

Moreover, as a family man I can assure you that our car doesn’t just get parked when the commute to work is done. Rather there are activities to go to: soccer, piano, basketball, shopping, these are the things we do every night and if I have used my entire battery charge commuting to and from work then what will I have in reserve to drive the kids to their activities? Because most EV users have a second, non-EV car  (80% of British households with an EV have a non-electric car as back-up. I’m still looking for Canadian stats) this is not currently much of an issue. They just use the gas guzzler for chores while using the EV for the work commute. But what happens when all the cars are electric? Then you will need to have a charged car available for you after school/work and if the drive to the soccer pitch is more than just a few kilometers that will mean having to charge your car during the day.

In winter electric vehicles need to be plugged in to keep engine (and cabin) warm

As I mentioned in my previous post, one of the big downsides of EVs in winter is the power needed to keep the engine and the cabin warm. Without an internal combustion engine pumping out excess heat, all heat will need to be electric, which will drain your batteries, that is why many sources suggest “preconditioning” your auto.  Preconditioning your auto is a nice way of saying turn on the heat a half-hour early to get the engine and the cabin warm enough for use. The funny part of the article I cite is where they recommend you plug your car in at work to keep it warm. That pretty much rules out the idea that the car will not draw power from the grid during the day. Rather the car will be drawing power during the daily peak, and thus will put added strain on the electrical grid. Moreover, can you imagine the spike around 4 pm on winter workday when all the employees are  preconditioning their cars in preparation for the commute home, right at the start of the evening peak in power use?

Off-hour charging and its effect on our energy supply

Finally, I want to address one of the most-misunderstood arguments about electric vehicles: that by charging them overnight we can reduce demands on our energy system. While that will be true in some cases, it ignores some pretty important points about British Columbia’s energy picture. As everyone who talks energy in BC knows the vast majority of our electricity comes from hydro-electric sources (mostly large reservoir dams). Now the good thing about a dam is that the energy is readily dispatchable, that is energy parlance for energy sources that can be immediately turned on when demand is high and readily turned off when demand slows down. In a dam if you want to get more power you just let water through the generator. Want to reduce the amount of power? Close a water supply. There are limitations, however, you can only generate as much power as you have water behind your dam.

This issue came to a head in California during their recent drought when, due to an absence of water behind the dams, hydroelectric generation dropped by 50%.  To bring it closer to home, in 2015 during our West Coast drought 12 of BC Hydro’s 31 hydroelectric facilities had to be shut down due to lack of water. Now consider the idea of off-peak electricity. Under current conditions, during the off-peak hours, like in the middle of the night, BC Hydro just keeps the sluice gates closed and imports cheap power from outside of the province. Were demand to ramp up overnight (due to charging of EVs) in BC, Alberta and Washington (remember we are in a fossil fuel-free world) then the excess flow from out-of-province would become less available and we would be forced to use our hydro to meet the demand. Ramp up enough demand overnight and we would start putting excess stress on the system, essentially we would use up all the available water behind the dams. Given a multi-year drought we could have a scenario where we simply did not have enough water to generate power. As such, absolute demand for power is an important consideration in the equation. Adding extra reservoirs and more run-of-the-river (as well as geothermal) would provide the cushion necessary to get us through the dry years.

This brings us right back to where I started. Electric cars are a good thing but contrary to what the EV activists claim their mass implementation will have a significant effect on our electricity demand in BC. We will not be able to get away with charging only overnight, the increase in EV numbers will result in increased demand spikes that will require us to increase capacity, even if we could stick to charging overnight the result will draw down the levels of our existing reservoirs and leave us vulnerable to drought.

To conclude, when EV enthusiasts claim on one hand that we need to all move to EVs and on the other hand that we don’t need to build new dams or other power generating facilities you can explain to them why those are two mutually exclusive positions. In order to achieve a fossil fuel-free BC we need to ramp up the production of electricity in BC and we need to expand and strengthen our transmission system.The movement away from fossil fuels will need to be accompanied by a massive upgrade to our electrical grid and a substantial increase in electricity supply. Any activist who tells you otherwise is simply sharing their pipe dream.

Posted in Canadian Politics, Fossil Fuel Free Future, General Politics, Renewable Energy, Uncategorized | 14 Comments

Electrifying BC’s transportation system, debunking the myths: Part I that BC Hydro Load Estimate

A couple weeks ago I was on the receiving end of a surprising amount of vitriol over an old post (Starting a Dialogue – Can we really get to a “fossil fuel-free BC”?) that I subsequently turned into a Huffington Post piece (Dispelling Some Myths About British Columbia’s Energy Picture). The negative comments were coming from the electric vehicle (EV) community (of all places). The members take exception to my suggestion that electrifying the BC transportation system would require the energy generated by 9 Site C Dam equivalents (I will admit that my math was slightly off and I provide a better estimate later in this post). It would appear that many of these people want us all to convert to EVs, but also want everyone to believe that doing so won’t affect our need for electricity. It has the benefit of allowing them to be holier-than-thou about EVs while fighting the projects that might otherwise supply the electricity needed to provide them with juice (like Site C).

The intention of this blog post is to start the process of debunking the fallacies being put forward by these people. My desire is not to pooh-pooh the transition to an electric-powered transportation system or the transition to electric vehicles, both of which I believe are imperative. Rather, my intention in this post is to demonstrate why the transition will need to be accompanied by a ramping up of our electrical grid and electricity supply. To do so, I will need to debunk a number of the recurring myths about the electrification of the BC transport system that have been repeated to me by these EV and anti-development activists. In the next couple blog posts  I intend to debunk a few of their talking points. The ones I currently plan on addressing are:

  • their favourite BC Hydro load estimate for electric vehicles,
  • their favourite commute distance estimates, and
  • their favourite trope that electric vehicles will not have an effect on the electric grid as all the vehicles can be re-charged during off-hours.

For issues of length I will only address the first point in this blog post but promise to finish my thoughts another day. To be clear, in doing so I am not “helping deniers slow GHG reductions” (as suggested by one gent) but rather will demonstrate why we need to invest heavily into our electrical  system by building projects like Site C and as many geothermal, run-of-river and wind facilities as we can muster as well as the grid capacity to transfer all that energy so we can finally get off fossil fuels.

Debunking BC Hydro’s 2008 Load Forecast for Electric Vehicles

Now let’s start with the one number that has been sent my way more times than I would care to admit and has been used by everyone from the Pembina Institute to the President of the Vancouver Electric Vehicle Association to justify not needing to upgrade our electrical system to electrify our transportation system. As reported by the Pembina institute:

according to BC Hydro, if all drivers in B.C. switched to electric vehicles today, the increase in electricity consumption would be approximately 15%, or 9,000 GWh per year.

Now hearing it was from BC Hydro, I expected a well-referenced number that had a detailed derivation. So imagine my surprise when I went looking and discovered that the actual calculation comes from a footnote in the British Columbia Hydro and Power Authority (BC Hydro) 2008 Long-Term Acquisition Plan (2008 LTAP). The actual report says:

If all passenger vehicles currently in B.C. switched to electric plug-in vehicles (EPV), the impact on BC Hydro’s load would be approximately 9,000 GWh11 per year.

That little 11 brings us to the footnote:

11 – Assumptions used in calculation: 2.7 million licensed vehicles in B.C., average passenger vehicle use is 17,000 km/year, and EPVs use 0.2 kWh/km.

Yes, you are reading that right; the entire case being made by our multi-billion dollar utility provider and cited by the EV stalwarts is less detailed than something you would expect in an essay produced by a first year science student…I don’t even know where to begin?

The biggest mind-blower is the bemusing realization that a report from a utility provider completely ignores charging efficiency. Charging efficiency you ask? Remember that when you plug a charger into a wall not all the energy that comes out of the wall is stored in the battery. The efficiency of the transfer depends on the type and age of the battery and the efficiency of the energy transfer mechanism. According to the references I can find, the charging efficiency for a new Tesla is 82%  and a Nissan Leaf has a charging efficiency of 70% – 80%. So if we assumed the average charging efficiency was 75% then that 9,000 GWh immediately jumps to 12,000 GWh and that is only the first of the many problems with the number.

The next consideration not included in the load forecast is the loss of efficiency associated with temperature. You see EVs don’t work as well in the cold due to efficiency losses. The EV folk don’t like to mention that when they chat with you. Of note, I chose the most pro-EV source (the Union of Concerned Scientists or UCS) I could find for these stats because I know if I had chosen any other source I would have got roasted in the comments section. As the UCS article points out in extreme cold the range of electric vehicles can decrease to 60% of its warm-weather range. The best way to address this problem is to plug your vehicle in during the work-day, but that defeats the whole requirement that charging be done in off-hours (a ridiculous assumption that I will address in a follow-up post).

When you talk about efficiency losses in the cold, you have to also accommodate for efficiency losses in the heat. The same UCS article notes that come hot weather electric vehicles also lose efficiency with vehicles dropping to about 80% efficiency as you go over 30 degrees C. Moreover, unlike the cold, in the heat you can’t plug in your car to cool the batteries down.

Having lost efficiency to heat and cold we have another consideration that affects performance of an electric vehicle: keeping the occupants warm or cool. One of the benefits of an inefficient internal combustion engine is that it gives off a lot of heat; heat that can be used to keep the occupants of the auto, and ironically the engine, warm. My parents used to live in the East Kootenays and while heat is an energy wasting byproduct of chemical combustion, it sure helps make the drive endurable when it is -25 degree Celsius in an Invermere winter.The efficiency that electric vehicles show on the roads results in them losing that benefit and thus the battery has to be used to heat the vehicle and the engine. Going back to that UCS article you discover that the act of heating the engine and the cabin can triple the load on the batteries. To give an example of the loss of efficiency  consider this report from Red River College in Manitoba  They tested a Nissan Leaf in a Manitoba winter and discovered that it could only travel 60 km on a charge. Doing the math that brings us to 0.7 kWh/km. That is a long road from the 0.2 kWh/km used in the BC Hydro load forecast.

This is why I view the 0.2 kWh/km number as simply a joke for vehicles being used in urban/cold environments. Only the most efficient, well-maintained vehicle in warm (but not too hot) temperatures manages 0.2 kWh/km. If we assume a less efficient engine say (0.3 kWh/km) the load number jumps up to 16.4 GWh. Look how easy that was; we have already moved from 1.75 Site C dams to 3.2 Site C dam equivalents and we have barely begun our analysis.

I will now go back to the calculation from my old blog post. According to the Globe Foundation’s Endless Energy Report (I used in that post) British Columbia used 380 petajoules (105,555 GWh) of petroleum hydrocarbons in 2000 with 50% (or 52,775 GWh) used in gasoline; 24% (25,333 GWh) by diesel, 20% (21,111 GWh) by aviation fuel; and 6% (6,333 GWh) by heavy oil. I will take this moment to admit my old calculation (relying on Dr. Jacobson’s analysis) was off by a bit since better references suggest that gasoline engines have an energy efficiency of around 30% while diesel engines are around 45% with diesels having the capacity of reaching the 55%-63% efficiency range. Using these numbers the gasoline burned would be the equivalent to 15,832 GWh (3.1 Site C dams). [Note that number ignores the heating effect of fossil fuel combustion]. Hey look at that: 3.1 Site C dam equivalents looks a lot like the 3.2 Site C dams I calculated using the other approach. Two independent sets of calculations coming to the same end result? A good thing to see in any analysis.

Now that 3.2 Site c dam equivalents is a 15 year-old analysis and BC has grown a bit in population in the last 15 years. If we factor in population growth in the last 15 years we move that up to 4 Site C dam equivalents. So the gasoline component of our analysis still has a huge electricity draw and that is only part of the picture because the biggest oversight in this entire exchange with the EV enthusiasts is that they ignore the fact that the BC Hydro load was for passenger vehicles only.

If we are to electrify our transportation system we would need to include pick-up trucks, transport and work vans and all those other vehicles out on the road, not to mention all the other pats of our transportation system that don’t roll on four wheels. The load forecast made the rather broad assumption that we are converting all our cars, trucks and minivans to small, efficient electric vehicles drawing a measly 0.2 kWh/km. I love the idea of a Nissan Leaf but trades people are not going to exchange their work vans to travel in a Nissan Leaf or a Tesla. They need trucks that can carry tools, supplies and goods. A Nissan leaf operating at 0.3 kWh/km is not going to tow a trailer full of tools around town and there is no white panel van delivering groceries to market that can be replaced by an electrical vehicle running at 0.3 kWh/km. Moreover, no tradesperson is going to be able to depend on a vehicle that can only travel 60 km on a charge in winter. I can imagine that discussion: “sorry boss I can only fix one sink a day because my work vehicle can only go 60 kms before it needs to spend eight-hours on a charger”. A lot of plumbers are going to have issues with that suggestion.

Even assuming we can convince all the trades-people/ shipping companies and others, dependent their vehicles for their livelihoods, to live with massive losses of efficiency that dropping diesel for electricity would represent we are still talking about the energy equivalent to 11,400 GWh (2.2 Site C Dams) for all that diesel. So now we are up to a 6.2 Site C dam equivalents. Admittedly a drop down from 9 Site C dam equivalents, but that difference will be swallowed  up by the  aviation and marine fuels (another few Site C dam equivalents) that I left out of my last analysis. Moreover, the entire set of calculations completely ignores the replacement for the natural gas needed for a fossil fuel-free BC (26% of British Columbia’s energy usage or about 83,000 GWh which, with efficiency gains represents another 4-5  more Site C dam equivalents or so).

To conclude this post, yes moving to electric vehicles will reduce the total amount of energy used in BC but the BC Hydro load forecast relied on by Pembina and the EV enthusiasts is so completely out to lunch that it needs to be carefully re-calculated. To have major policy decisions in BC influenced by a back-of-the-envelope calculation that was essentially a throw-away footnote in an old report is not how we should be making decisions. BC Hydro needs to provide a realistic analysis of what it will take to decarbonize our energy system so we can have an informed energy discussion in our province. As I will point out in a later post, that includes ensuring we acknowledge that we will be be using a lot of that electricity during the day and that means building redundancy and extra capacity into our system to account for those anticipated loads. To be clear, this blog post doesn’t mean I agree wholeheartedly with Site C but I do acknowledge that any discussion of the need for Site C, and other similar power projects, needs to include all the data and not just the stuff that activists want us to hear.

 

Posted in Canadian Politics, Fossil Fuel Free Future, Renewable Energy, Uncategorized | 12 Comments

Debunking some activist myths about the Trans Mountain Expansion Project

On Tuesday November 29th the Trudeau government approved the Trans Mountain Expansion Project (TMX). I am someone who has researched the topic extensively and have a very nuanced  view on the project. I also have a strong desire that any discussion about the project be evidence-based. As such I tend to keep my ears open for erronious information and in the last 24 hours I have encountered a number of commonly-held myths that are being spread by anti-pipeline activists. Given my desire to see a pragmatic discussion of the topic I have decided it was time to present a quick post debunking some of the most common myths presented about the Trans-Mountain Pipeline. Without further ado let’s get started on the debunking.

Myth: A Spill in Vancouver Harbour would pose catastrophic human health risk  

Now we all agree that a spill in the Inner Harbour of Vancouver would represent an ecological catastrophe. However, the activists are not satisfied with scare-mongering solely on the ecological sphere and have repeatedly talked about it as being a potential human health catastrophe as well. The basis for this myth is the City of Vancouver (CoV) May 27th Trans Mountain Expansion Proposal Summary of Evidence which, as I wrote about in two posts Questions about the City of Vancouver May 27th Trans-Mountain Expansion Proposal Summary of Evidence and More on that “Toxic Benzene Plume”.

In those two posts I demonstrate that the modelling exercise presented in the CoV May 27th Summary of Evidence represents extremely questionable science. In the second post I described the modeling as both “troubling” and “an outlier”. For those of you not familiar with science-speak that is not something upon which you want to base your evidence-based policy.

To explain in layman’s terms the modelers in the CoV May 27th Summary of Evidence used a sort of bait and switch through the use of a “pseudo-surrogate”. As I explained in my post:

As an analogy, imagine you were tasked with compiling a survey of the animal population of Vancouver. To simplify the survey you didn’t ask your surveyors to try to identify the dogs by species instead asking them to group the dogs by size. For a subsequent risk analysis you then assigned the pit bull as a “surrogate” to describe the behaviour of all dogs smaller than 2 feet tall identified in your survey. Would you then feel comfortable with the outcome of that risk analysis knowing that the analysis treated every Chihuahua it counted as if it were a pit bull for risk purposes? If someone subsequently warned you to stay off the street for fear of being attacked by “surrogate pit bulls”, based on this analysis, would you stay off the street? Well that is what they did in this report with benzene.

I concluded my post with this:

In the academic community there is a simple rule: if a new study runs contrary to a body of research then it is incumbent on the authors of the study to explain the discrepancy. Sometimes the new study is a paradigm changer, but most of the time it represents an outlier of dubious use in decision-making. Unfortunately, the Levelton report does not explain why its results differ so dramatically from the scientific consensus. More troublingly, it does not even acknowledge the existence of the body of research out there, including an almost identical modelling study, that came to such startlingly differing conclusions.

In the programming and modelling world there is an expression “garbage in, garbage out”. In the case of the CoV modelling the information they used as an input was not even close to appropriate for the analysis and as such the conclusion of the study is simply a fairy tail not even worthy of consideration. A bitumen spill in the Inner Harbour would be an ecological catastrophe, but would have very limited human health repercussions and certainly nothing like the repercussions suggested by the City of Vancouver and reported by the anti-pipeline activists.

Myth: Multiple Oil “Spills” on the Existing Trans Mountain Pipeline.

I have heard repeatedly in the last 24 hours that the Trans Mountain pipeline has had numerous spills and is therefore not safe. This myth takes advantage of the rather unusual definition of a “spill” used by the National Energy Board(NEB). To explain, under the NEB definition, a release that occurs into a spill containment facility is still reported as a “spill”. So imagine you had a wonky faucet in your bathroom that dripped into your sealed bathtub. WEre the faucet oil that could potentially be considered a “spill” under the NEB definition. An examination of the data shows that most of those “spills” (almost 70%) involved releases to containment facilities. The point of a “spill containment facility” is to contain releases before they hit the environment and as such these “spills” posed essentially zero risk to human health or the environment. They represented limited releases into systems specifically designed to contain such releases.

As Kinder Morgan points out at their web site, in the last 35 years there have been three reportable spills from the Trans Mountain pipeline which escaped containment (were released into the environment (one the three being the responsibility of a third party the 2007 Westridge spill in Burnaby). Now let’s also remember that absent the TMX, future oil expansion will be along the rails. Now let’s compare those three spills to the three latest Canadian oil-transportation rail spills: GogamaGalenas and Lac Megantic and ask ourselves how many deaths did the three Trans Mountain spills cause and how many deaths have oil-by-rail spills caused?  There are NEB “spills” and there are spills and the two should not be confused. When an activists suggests that a spill occurred the first question they should be asked is : how much of the product escaped to the natural environment. If the answer is none, then that is not what you or I call a spill.

Myth: Increased Risks to the Fraser River

Last night while watching Global News I heard a native leader saying he was going to fight TMX because of the risk it poses to the Fraser River. At that point I wanted to scream into my television set that he was looking at the the problem exactly backwards. As I have detailed in my blog the TMX poses a substantially lower risk to the Fraser River than the alternative (oil-by-rail). The reson for this is that our national railway system was built before our national highway system and as a consequence the rail lines that will carry those oil-by-rail trains mostly run along the sides of rivers like the Fraser. The Trans Mountain, which was built after the Trans-Canada Highway, runs well-separated from the river for most of its route. A derailment of a rail-train has a much higher probability of ending up in the Fraser than a spill from the Trans Mountain and when you do the numbers you come to realize that oil-by-rail is much more dangerous to the Fraser River than the TMX would be.

Additionally, remember that if the TMX is not built the Puget Sound refineries will still need crude oil and that crude oil will come by rail. That rail route runs along the headwaters of the Kootenay River and along the Columbia River. A spill on that route risks polluting those two shared river ecosystems as well. Think I’m overstating the risk? Well look what a happened adjacent to the Columbia River last June. It was only freak luck that the spill was caught before it hit the river. Think that was a freak event? According to the Guardian, including that incident, at least 26 oil trains have been involved in major fires or derailments during the past decade in the US and Canada. Finally if the TMX is not approved that rail traffic is going to increase substantially. The Puget Sound needs its oil and if it doesn’t come via pipeline, it will come via rail.

Myth: Substantially Increased Risks to Orcas

The latest argument against the Trans Mountain has been its purported added risk to the resident Orca population. Originally the argument went: increasing the number of tankers would increase the number of collisions with marine mammals and this could result in the extirpation of the resident Orca community. That trope was quickly demonstrated to simply represent a mis-reading of a single scientific article by someone apparently unaware of BC geography. The paper indicates that the Orcas are at high risk of collision in Johnstone Strait, which would be a problem if tankers were heading in that direction, which they are not. As for the increase in tanker traffic, the TMX tankers would represent an increase of 720 more ship movements in a Strait that sees 23,000 ship movements a year. This at a port that is engaged in a build-out that will expand ship traffic significantly. If acoustics are really a concern for the activists then rather than fighting the TMX, they should be protesting the Port of Vancouver’s expansion plans.

Never a group to let a good idea go to waste, once the collision myth was busted the activists turned to the risks to the resident Orca population posed by an oil spill. This myth comes courtesy of the Raincoast Conservation Foundation who prepared a study “Report on Population Viability Analysis model investigations of threats to the Southern Resident Killer Whale population from Trans Mountain Expansion Project. The study represents a modelling exercise to examine the effect of the TMX on the resident Orcas. Now, much like the City of Vancouver modelling, I was a bit surprised by the conclusions of the analysis and so looked a bit deeper into the methodology and like the Vancouver Study I discovered another case of garbage in, garbage out. The model itself seems sound and the statistical methodology was excellent. The problem with the exercise was the data used to generate the results. In this case the authors chose to use a very interesting source for their spill occurrence frequency input value. Specifically they relied on a “report” called Foschi (2014). Except when I go to the references I see that Foschi 2014 is not a peer reviewed journal article but rather a blog post by an interested engineer.

The blog post that serves as the critical data input for this modelling exercise uses values from the Trans Mountain TERMPOL 3.15 General Risk Analysis and Intended Methods of Reducing Risk (caution large file) to generate a likelihood of an incident. But the modelling exercise appears to use the wrong numbers from that blog post. In Foschi he relies on Table 34 (p83 of 454 on the pdf) to get his risk of oil spills. Now looking at the table the TERMPOL 3.15 authors presented several scenarios, a current (Case 0), a Case 1 (expansion with no mitigation) and then Case 1a and Case 1b (expansion with specific mitigations to reduce risk). Now the intention of the TEMPOL 3.15 report is to provide a description of the appropriate and necessary mitigation efforts associated with the increase in tanker traffic that would come with TMX. The conclusion of the report was that Trans Mountain make use of those mitigations. Those mitigations (including tugs etc….) were subsequently written into the TMX proposal as a requirement for the project.

Given that the mitigation plans were incorporated into the TMX proposal would anyone care to guess which of Foschi’s numbers were used for this modelling exercise? Yes you guessed it, the “no mitigations applied” number (Case 1) for spills. They used the very numbers that the authors of TEMPOL 3.15 suggest are not relevant (since the intention of the work is to describe the mitigations). But that is not all. Because “the reports do not clarify the average volumes or the distributions of those small spills” the authors tested the projected effects of frequencies of larger (>16,500 m3)  and smaller (>8250 m3) spills that are double those stated above” [highlight mine]. So not only did they use the “no mitigation applied” numbers but they then doubled the likelihood of a spill from the “no mitigations applied” scenario. Let me say that again to make it clear, they took a value that was recognized as being 4-5 times too high and then they doubled the frequency of those spills for conservatism. They then took those inflated numbers and inserted them into their model.

This is essentially like looking at the difference between a “no seatbelt” and “mandatory seatbelt” scenario in car crashes. If someone argued that we should ban cars because accidents for passengers without seatbelts is too risky your response would not be to ban cars. Your response would be to point out that seatbelts are mandatory and that modern cars have air bags as well thus any analysis that ignores the existence of seatbelts and air bags is not terribly relevant. Well sadly for the Raincoast Conservation Foundation, their analysis metaphorically argues that people are driving around without access to seatbelts or air bags and therefore driving is too dangerous. The model, which relies on the inflated risk of incidents, thus presents a similarly inflated risk of extirpation of the resident orca population.

Sadly, no one with the expertise to catch this bait and switch had read the report prior to it going to the TMX Ministerial Panel. As a consequence the flawed inputs were used to generate necessarily flawed outputs and those flawed outputs from that modelling made it into the TMX Ministerial Panel final report. So I suppose the opponents of the TMX Ministerial Panel were correct, maybe we should have been allowed to cross-examine presentations because then someone might have had the opportunity to debunk this flawed modelling exercise before it was broadcast to the world and treated as correct.

Looking at this short list of myths it is easily understandable why so many people are fighting the Trans Mountain pipeline. Given the amount of mis-information that is being spread over multiple media platforms it is simply impossible for the common Vancouverite to get a grip on the real risks of the project. Like I’ve said in this post garbage in, garbage out. Public sentiment is being swayed because the truth is being flooded out by the myths.

To conclude this post, I want to be clear, I am not saying that the project must go forward. As I note in my previous post, I have serious reservations about the project, However, I believe we need a fair debate on the topic and fair debates must rely on demonstrably sound evidence and not the scare-mongering that I have heard blasted across my social media feeds.

Author’s note: 

I have updated the text to better explain how the Foschi data was used in the modelling as my initial version was apparently a bit confusing.

Posted in Canadian Politics, Pipelines, Trans Mountain, Uncategorized | 6 Comments

On the Omnibus Changes to the BC Contaminated Sites Regulation

I am going to break one of my rules at my blog today and write briefly about work that is directly in my area of professional practice. My intention in this short piece is to explain in simple language some changes that are coming in the contaminated sites regime in British Columbia. The reason I am breaking my rule is that I have seen misinformation being spread by various groups (the one that set me off was from BC Green Party). It is clear that someone who actually knows what they is talking about needs to step in to ensure that this misinformation does not remain unchallenged.

To provide some background, the Contaminated Sites Regulation (CSR) of the Environmental Management Act (EMA) provides the primary regulatory means by which the government of British Columbia regulates the investigation and remediation of contaminated sites in British Columbia. The CSR was enacted in 1996 and at that time the CSR included a number of Schedules that provide the soil (Schedule 4, Schedule 5 and Schedule 10), groundwater (Schedule 6 and Schedule 10) , vapour (Schedule 11 added in 2008) and sediment (Schedule 9 added in 2004)  standards applicable under the CSR. For the most part (excepting vapours and sediments) the standards presented in these schedules were all developed in the years leading up to the implementation of the CSR in 1996. The standards, where possible at the time, were based on values called toxicity reference values (TRVs) which establish safe exposure concentrations based on toxicity testing. The derivation of these TRVs and how they are used in the assessment of risk (as well as the sources for preferred TRVs for risk assessment) are detailed in Technical Guidance on Contaminated Sites Document  #7.

The Stage 10 Amendments to the CSR also known as the Omnibus amendments (the Omnibus changes) provides the first comprehensive update of the standards in the CSR since 1996. As readers can imagine, science has advanced a bit since 1996. A lot of toxicological research has been done and as a consequence we know a lot more today about numerous chemical than we did in 1996. The Omnibus is an attempt to bring our regulatory regime up to 2016 standards. As part of the exercise the British Columbia Ministry of Environment re-calculated every regulatory standard for every chemical currently regulated under the CSR using the best available science from 2016 (not 1996). The TRVs used in the work are derived from Health Canada and the United States Environmental Protection Agency (US EPA) values including the Integrated Risk Information System (IRIS). We depend on IRIS because the US EPA has been mandated by the US government to maintain the most recent TRVs and they are typically much more recent that the Health Canada values which are not updated as regularly. So let’s be clear here, the point of the Omnibus is to modernize our regulatory standards to scientifically defensible 2016 values. This appears to be a good thing in my mind.

For those questioning the science behind the changes, since 1996 it has become clear that the standards needed to be updated and as a consequence the Ministry of Environment (BCMOE) sought insight from an independent scientific body called the Science Advisory Board for Contaminated Sites in British Columbia (SAB). The SAB was “established as a non-profit foundation under the Societies Act of British Columbia to develop independent science-based tools of benefit to professionals working in contaminated sites management in British Columbia”. While partially funded by the BC Ministry of Environment (BCMOE) it is independent of government and provides a science-based approach to contaminated sites management in British Columbia. In 2010 the SAB provided a review of how the soil standards were derived and provided suggestions for how future standards be developed.

So let’s look at some of the claims made by the Green Party. Their biggest complaint is that the new standards are less protective of human and ecological health. Well the truth is that in some cases acceptable concentrations went up, in others it went down. As an example, the acceptable concentration of benzene in soil at a residential property (with a drinking water use water standard) went down but the acceptable concentration of toluene in that same soil went up. The basis of these changes was the best available science in the field of toxicology, not the whims of the Minster of Environment. In addition, 123 chemicals that were not previously regulated are now regulated. So before the Omnibus perfluorinated compounds (PFOS) were not regulated but thanks to the Omnibus they will be. I’m not sure in what world regulating compounds that were previously not regulated makes the regulations “more lax”

Another complaint by the Green Party is that the process was secretive and there was insufficient consultation. The BCMOE maintains a “Contaminated Sites e-Link Mailing List” (CS e-Link) that emails subscribers regular updates on the comings and goings of the field of the contaminated sites management. Anyone can register for CS e-Link and a casual look at the archive shows that there have been literally dozens of updates provided for interested parties on the Omnibus changes. The CS e-Link archive includes details on how the standards were derived and included multiple opportunities for input and feedback from interested parties. It includes live links to how the standards were derived and all the opportunities interested parties (like the Green Party) had to provide input. It is absolutely laughable to read a statement like:

What is also lacking from the Ministry is evidence that the changes are science-based; I call on the Minister to provide independent and peer-reviewed scientific evidence that justifies the increases to allowable limits of contaminants

There is ample evidence that the work was science-based, there was ample opportunity for the Green Party technical specialists to provide feedback on the proposed changes and had they actually had anyone paying attention there would have been ample opportunity for the BC Greens to have sought face-to-face meetings on the topic. As the BC Liberal caucus points out dozens of organizations and groups had face-to-face meetings with the BCMOE on the topic. Simply put all the information was there, the Greens simply didn’t appear to care enough about the topic at the time.

The best analogy I can think of is that the Green Party (and the other activists) are acting like someone showing up at the end of the fourth quarter of a BC Lions playoff football game and claiming that no one knew it was happening and that they should re-start the game from the beginning. Every football fan in BC knew it was happening and the real fans were in the stands before the game started. Similarly every organization actually interested in the field of contaminated sites knew this was coming and were given the opportunity to provide feedback over the course of the exercise.

To conclude lets summarize.

  • Anyone with any interest in the topic has known that the Omnibus changes were underway. The BCMOE has been engaged in a wide-ranging public consultation process for the last couple years and provided ample opportunity for interested parties to provide input on the process.
  • The changes to the regulation are demonstrably science-based. They represent the best science available and contrary to what the Green claim anyone with an undergraduate science degree should be able to reconstruct every standard using the information provided by the Ministry.
  • The standards did not get more lax, rather the standards were modernized to reflect the best available science in the field of toxicology. Some standards went up, some standards went down and 123 compounds that were previously not regulated will be regulated under the Omnibus changes. I’m not sure in what world regulating compounds that were previously not regulated makes the regulations “more lax”

To conclude I want to make a clear statement. The suggestion by the Green candidate Dan Hines that the changes are “solely for the benefit of company profits” is demonstrably wrong and in my mind represents a libel against the hard-working and scrupulously ethical employees of the BCMOE. I have worked with these people for the last 16 years and they are some of the hardest-working and I can’t say it enough scrupulously ethical public servants I have ever encountered. I feel that the Green Party and Mr. Hines should publicly apologize to the BCMOE staff for making (Mr Hines) and broadcasting (Green Party) such an incredibly evil and unfounded slur against these hard-working public servants.

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On the trade-offs, real costs and human consequences of fighting climate change

There is an incredibly common misperception about the fight against climate change that I find intensely frustrating. The misperception is that fighting climate change has to be seen as easy to be sold to the public and is inherently good for everyone involved. This misperception is so acute that it has its own meme. This meme really took off with the famous Joel Pett cartoon that had a lecturer at a “climate summit” who says:

“what if it’s just a big hoax and we create a better world for nothing?”

The meme died down for a while but since 2016 is a COP year (COP22) it is making the rounds again. I saw it first last week with another tweet making the rounds that said

there aren’t really any downsides – even if climate change wasn’t real – acting as though it is can’t hurt us

And this morning I saw it again this time Dr. Kate Marvel a respected climate scientist who tweeted:

If you hate climate scientists, try aggressively cutting CO2 emissions. We’ll feel so silly when climate change isn’t that bad, trust me!”

All these comments have one thing in common, they appear to completely miss the fact that fighting climate change involves trade-offs, lost opportunity costs and negative consequences for a lot of people.

While I am a Lukewarmer, I am from the school of thought who accept that climate change is happening and will potentially have devastating consequences. My major difference with the alarmists is that I believe that climate sensitivity is on the lower end of the IPCC consensus scale and thus that we still have time, if we act now, to avoid the worst of those consequences. I’m not saying climate change is harmless (the common misconception spread about Lukewarmers) but rather that it will take more carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, than many of the alarmists claim, to achieve some of the same levels of expected negative outcomes.

Part of the process of building a consensus to fight climate change involves dealing with people who may be more skeptical about the topic. Some of these people are less informed, while others are far more qualified than myself and have legitimate scientific doubt about the science of climate change. Some disagree with the way the GCMs model the planet, noting the discrepancy between model outputs and actual observations; while others feel that natural feedbacks will buffer, not enhance, warming in the system. These are legitimate concerns. As a result, we need to make a good case for reducing our emissions and to put it simply, the argument that reducing global carbon dioxide concentrations is good, for its own sake, is not one that should be used because it does not hold any water.

Let me say this again because I know that I will get flack on both sides for this post. It is my personal belief that fighting climate change is a necessary endeavour, but the fight to reduce global greenhouse gas emissions is not going to be cheap, it is not going to be easy and the transition to a global, fossil fuel-free energy system will hurt a lot of people. Specifically, the transition to a fossil fuel-free future will cost a lot of people their livelihoods; will suppress economic growth in many parts of the world; and will result in the premature death and continued misery for millions worldwide. From a pragmatic perspective, I can only believe that those millions of premature deaths will be offset by reduced suffering and death for billions of others, but to pretend that this pain will not happen can make climate activists appear both out of touch and insincere.

So you ask what going to cause all these deaths? Energy poverty and increased costs for food and energy. Let’s start with a simple truth: energy poverty is a killer. There are 1.2 billion people in the world living in energy poverty and each year 4.3 million people a year die from preventable indoor air pollution directly resulting from that energy poverty. Absent the risk of climate change the world would be building those people energy systems based on clean coal and natural gas technologies. These are established technologies that are readily available and both cheap and easy to build. Absent climate change the World Bank wouldn’t think twice about providing financial aid to build coal power plants, but in our real world, with climate change, it pretty much refuses to support such projects except in “rare circumstances”. Putting coal aside, clean burning natural gas plants would be an obvious solution to global energy poverty in a non-climate change world. Realistically, for some countries low-GHG LNG actually represents a pretty reasonable compromise to reduce energy poverty even in a world with climate change. But because of climate change concerns in BC the government has to mediate battles over whether we should supply some of the planet’s lowest-GHG LNG to the world.

In order to fight climate change, hundreds of millions of people who could be pulled out of energy poverty using fossil fuels, will not be; and they will suffer the health consequences. It is clear, from reading their reports that the various world financing organizations have agonized over the decision to leave millions behind in the fight against climate change but behind they are leaving them. Recognize, the face of the fight against climate change is not some well-fed, well-clothed university graduate blockading a pipeline. It is a young girl living in a house heated by burning cow dung; coughing out her lungs and unable to get to a hospital while living in a community where they can’t even guarantee that the hospital will have enough electricity to treat her effectively.

Besides energy poverty, the fight against climate change has also resulted in some horrible policy decisions that have had global human health and ecosystem effects. I can’t think of one that is worse than the Renewable Fuel Standard (RFS) otherwise known as the ethanol mandate which has resulted in increased food prices and as a consequence has left many hungry. Frankly, the entire field of biofuels (one I have covered quite thoroughly) serves as an object lesson about how the best of intentions can have the worst end results. Our drive for biofuels has left human and ecological devastation in its wake and it still continues to this day. Absent the threat of climate change those policies would never have been put in place and those negative consequences would not have happened.

From a domestic perspective, absent the threat of climate change do you think there would be a chance Quebec refineries would be importing oil from such human rights hotspots as Algeria, Iraq, Saudi Arabia and Nigeria? Would the transportation of ethical Canadian oil not be happening today if not for the threat of climate change? Absent the threat of climate change Canada would be supplying developing countries with LNG, which I believe we should be doing anyways because by my climate math having Malaysians burning low-carbon Canadian LNG is much better than their burning higher GHG LNG from elsewhere or even worse, using coal to lift their population out of poverty.

Besides the human health and ecological costs associated with fighting climate change there are also the opportunity costs. Alberta is completely right to shut down its coal plants as quickly as possible, but those closures are going to cost a lot of money. That is money that would not otherwise have been spent and could have been spent on anything from basic research at universities to finding homeless families a place to call home. Instead those resources are going to shutter otherwise fully functional power plants. Good for the fight against climate change? Yes. Good for reducing the number of homeless in Calgary? Not so much.

Going back to the point of this post. In order to create good policy you need to consider the benefits and consequences of the policy action. In the climate change debate the activists keep trying to pretend that there are only benefits while disguising or ignoring the consequences and costs. Fighting climate change is a good cause and one worthy of our attention but the only way to fight it effectively is to lay out the case for it as honestly as possible. If the election of Donald Trump has taught us one thing, it is that telling our population that all is good, when you know otherwise in your heart, is the best way to lose the hearts and minds of the public. We need to have a serious discussion about climate change; one that lays out the challenges and the consequences of our actions. Only by doing so can we win a mandate for change.

Now I ask myself: have I seen a serious case made for a reasonable approach to fight climate change? one that considers and highlights the good and the bad? As a policy wonk my answer is yes. They did it in Alberta not too long ago with their Climate Leadership Plan. But what about in the rest of Canada? There my answer is less positive. To date the only approaches I have seen from the climate activists in BC involve hectoring people on one side, and pretending it will be easy on the other. The Council of Canadians assure me that a “100% clean economy is 100% possible by 2050” and it will be both easy and will make us money while creating jobs. My response is simply that we will not be getting to 100% wind, water and sunlight by 2050 while creating millions of jobs and creating no economic hardship.

I will close this post by reiterating a simple point. The fight against climate change is going to be long, slow, hard and expensive. It is going to take honest discussion and not trite statements of hope from high-flying celebrities who demand we do one thing while they do another. It is going to take political will and politicians willing to spend political capital to make it happen. The only way to convince those politicians to spend that political capital is to look at all the data and then to make a case that demonstrates that the benefits outweigh the costs and the projected future benefits far outweigh the real human and ecological costs. Trying to argue that it will be cheap and easy with no downside is both intellectually wrong and self-defeating. Trying to claim that we would do it anyways “even if climate change wasn’t real” is simply silly.

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On Trump voters, climate change and lessons learned from the 2016 US election

Last week Donald Trump was elected President of the United States. This came as a surprise to a lot of the media and to those of us who live in our media bunkers on the West and East coasts but was not as much of a surprise to the people who live in the “flyover states” and the “rust belt”. In retrospect, the pundits explain, it should have been obvious. The liberals on the East and West coasts were out-voted (technically out electoral voted) by the people they seldom deign to acknowledge or recognize: the “great unwashed” who form the backbone of the country, growing its food, hewing its wood and feeding its industry. Well as a British Columbian and a pragmatic environmentalist I see some lessons to be learned from the Trump victory. In this blog post I will consider some of these lessons starting with the climate change debate, moving to the upcoming BC election and finally considering a local example of a party being out of touch with the electorate.

Coincidental to Trump’s election COP22 (The twenty-second session of the Conference of the Parties (COP 22) and the twelfth session of the Conference of the Parties serving as the meeting of the Parties to the Kyoto Protocol (CMP 12)) got underway last week. At COP 22 the leaders of the world climate change community are debating how to address our ever-shrinking global carbon budget. Since COP21 there has been a lot of global posturing, a number of countries has submitted their national NDCs and global carbon emissions have continued to increase, admittedly at a lower rate than in previous years. You may ask: but what does this have to do with the US Election? My answer is that like in the US election, we western democracies have been navel-gazing so intently that we have missed the big issue: North American and Europe don’t represent the majority of world greenhouse gas emissions anymore. Like the coastal liberals in the US election; we think we are the big kids on the block but are now revealed to be minor contributors. As a EU report points out:

The top 4 emitting countries/regions, which together account for almost two thirds (61%) of the total global CO2 emissions are China (30%), the United States (15%), the European Union (EU-28) (10%) and India (6.5%).  

Look at those numbers again, the US and Europe only represent 25% of global CO2 emissions. Canada meanwhile is down at the 1.6% zone. While we have a moral duty to lead by example and cut our emissions we also need to recognize that our actions alone will not make a whit of difference if we can’t get the rest of the world onside. Consider China; I keep hearing how China is weaning itself off coal and yet according to a report out last week:

in a new five-year plan for electricity released Monday, the [Chinese] National Energy Administration said it would raise coal-fired power capacity from around 900 gigawatts last year to as high as 1,100 gigawatts by 2020. The roughly 200-gigawatt increase alone is more than the total power capacity of Canada.

By comparison, the agency said it would increase non-fossil fuel sources from about 12% to 15% of the country’s energy mix over the same period. Coal would still make up about 55% of the electricity mix by 2020, down from around two-thirds in recent years.

What this tells us is that we can spend billions in Canada to reduce our carbon footprint but we western elites had better pay attention to those flyover continents because that is where the real action is at.

As I pointed out in a previous post, 2.7 billion humans in Africa and Southeast Asia live in energy poverty. Unless we can help them with access to cheap renewable energy sources, nuclear energy, LNG (as a bridge fuel) and grid upgrades; they will go to the easiest and most plentiful base-load energy source out there: coal. If they do that, then all the emission–control work we do in Canada won’t help a bit. We have to remember that we live on a single planet and while the Western elites continue to ignore these poor countries, the planetary atmosphere does not. The best efforts of Canadians can be erased with the flick of a pen in China so we have to recognize that from a global emission perspective maybe the best use of our limited dollars is in foreign energy investment and helping our poorer neighbours with access to lower (or zero) carbon energy sources. My environmental friends who insist that this may risk our meeting our Paris Agreement promises are missing the point. If we meet our Paris Agreement commitments but allow those gains to be  overwhelmed elsewhere then we have simply wasted our money.

From a provincial election perspective the Trump victory should come as a serious worry to our friends in the NDP. Before the last election it was readily accepted in the pages of the Tyee, the Georgia Strait and other progressive publications that the Christy Clark government was going to be soundly defeated. Instead she won a resounding victory. The basis of that victory was a lack of support for the NDP in the center and north of the province. Frankly the 2013 BC election map looks a lot like the 2016 US election map. The NDP won on the coast and in the enclaves of Vancouver, Burnaby and Vancouver Island and took a thumping in the communities dependent on natural resource jobs and in the “suburbs” south of the Fraser. Flip-flopping on pipelines, and other topics important to interior resource communities, left the NDP out of luck in the interior and the north and gave the election to the Liberals.

Now never a group to learn from past mistakes, the NDP continues to ignore the issues that really matter to people outside of their favoured enclaves north of the Fraser and along the BC Ferry routes. Rather it looks like the NDP is doubling-down on those past mistakes with their stated policies  on the Trans-Mountain expansion, Site C and other topics that are critical to interior voters. Instead of broadening their appeal progressive factions in the NDP caucus continue to narrow it and that does not bode well for their election prospects in 2017. Christy Clark doesn’t even need to appeal to the negative populism the way that Trump did in the US election either, because the NDP caucus has been doing her job for her. By ignoring and/or insulting potential voter blocks across the province they are handing her ridings that should really be competitive.

Now for a simple example of where the NDP is getting things wrong and lets have a discussion about Lower Mainland transit priorities (sorry my international friends, I will try to make this quick and relevant to non-Lower Mainland dwellers). There are few topics that will get a Langley taxpayer more upset about the NDP priorities than listening to David Eby demand a subway or Skytrain along the Broadway corridor. To explain to our non-local readers, we have people in Vancouver whining because they get passed by a bus going to UBC and will have to wait a whole 4 minutes for the next one (sometimes the buses can be 6 minutes apart…the horror!!!). I, meanwhile, live in a community where if you miss the bus (in the approximately 25% of the community served by buses) then it will often be an hour or more before the next one shows up. Now this wouldn’t be an issue if it weren’t for the fact that the voters south of the Fraser, without bus service, don’t see a transit discount on their tax forms. We pay essentially the same amount for our non-existent transit service as the people in Vancouver pay for their frequent service.

To go even more micro into this topic consider that we have a major commercial/warehousing district (Gloucester Industrial Estates) that serves as a hub for literally thousands of lower paid commercial and warehousing jobs (the type of people who would typically rely on transit) but Gloucester is completely unserviced by transit. The only reason Gloucester exists is because all those warehousing facilities were chased out of Vancouver proper when they gentrified Yaletown, False Creek etc.. and put in all those condos. The warehouses in Langley literally feed Vancouver. Trucks from these warehouses cross the Port Mann Bridge daily to supply their stores with supplies. Meanwhile the only thing we hear about that bridge from Vancouverites is that it was too expensive even though it has has eliminated a major bottleneck in our food and services transportation system in the lower mainland. As for Gloucester, I have talked to business owners who simply will not hire people who don’t own cars because it is too hard to ensure their workers get to their jobs absent transit. If you really want to get drivers off the road and reduce our greenhouse gas emissions, setting up a bus service to Gloucester will do just that, while providing access to good jobs for the young people in our community. But have we ever heard a single NDP member pushing for better transit outside of their urban enclaves? Not to my memory. Instead we hear more complaints about the Port Mann, demands for more service in areas with already excellent service and more tax bills being paid by people who cannot even access the system their tax dollars pay for.

The old adage goes that those who fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it and in BC, Canada and the world we continue to ignore the lessons of history. In Canadian political history we are reminded former Prime Minister Joe Clark who lost his job because he miscounted how many members he had in parliament. Well Donald Trump won the presidency because the Democrats didn’t bother to count how many people live in the US heartland and so ignored the issues that were most important to those voters. Globally, the only way we are to going to win our fight against climate change is if we do a head count and recognize that huge number of people are living in energy poverty. Unless we can find a low-carbon way to advance their energy needs they will erase all our efforts and climate change is an inevitability. As for Provincially, until the NDP recognizes that voters south of the Fraser and north and east of Coquitlam mean something then we will have another “surprise” election result and another Liberal majority. Not that I will mind as I am one of those people who is sick of having my issues ignored by the provincial NDP.

Posted in Canadian Politics, Climate Change, Climate Change Politics, General Politics, Uncategorized | 3 Comments