The Machiavellian battle against climate change using Energy East

As many of my regular readers have probably noticed, I have been asked to produce the occasional blog post at the Canadian edition of the Huffington Post. My most recent post deals with the Energy East Pipeline (Energy East Pipeline Fight is Simply a Proxy War), a topic most of my readers know well as I have covered it thoroughly in previous posts including The Energy East Pipeline: Dispelling Some Myths and Where the new Pembina Report misses the mark on Energy East. The one downside of a blog at the Huffington Post is that there are some restrictions, I have to write for a general audience (so my more technical treatises are out) and there is a strict word count (so my technical treatises are out J). Thankfully I still have this venue to provide deeper insights into the topics I cover elsewhere. Today’s deeper insight has to do with what I have coined: the Machiavellian battle against climate change using pipelines.

As I write in my Huffington Post piece, the current war against the Energy East pipeline is nothing but a proxy battle. As I describe briefly in that post, and in much more detail in my two other posts referenced above, the presence or absence of Energy East will have virtually no effect on whether the currently active and mostly finished oil sands projects will continue to operate. As I pointed out previously in my post on the economic and environmental folly of trying to “strangle the oil sandsand as Dr. Andrew Leach points out in Maclean’s, these facilities represent a sunk cost to the operators and they aren’t about to throw that money away. Most of these plants were originally envisioned in a time when oil prices hovered in the $35 /barrel (bbl) to $45/bbl range. They were profitable then and would therefore remain profitable in the $50/bbl to $62/bbl range we have witnessed for the last couple months. Those plants were also built in an environment where pipelines were not an assumption but simply a hope. As such alternative arrangements were made to ensure that the oil would make it to market. This mostly consisted in heavy investment in rail terminals and in rolling stock (oil cars). As I have pointed out previously in my post on the economic and environmental folly of trying to “strangle the oil sands” the capacity is already in place south of the border and we have more than enough capacity north of the border to meet the oil sands needs by rail. Heck even the savviest investor in the world Warren Buffet has major holdings in the construction and leasing of oil cars for the railway system. As I have written more times than I would care to admit, transporting oil by rail is much riskier, both in terms of human health and ecological health, than moving the same volume via a pipeline. Notwithstanding the recent spate of spills (including yesterday’s Nexen spill) transporting oil by pipeline is the safest most environmentally sensitive way to get oil to market.

The primary aim of this post, however, isn’t to rehash these old arguments. Rather it is to address the nature of the people who are fighting the battle against the pipeline. The inspiration for this post was an entirely different post on a totally different topic. It is one of the best posts I have read this year on any topic and was penned by William Saletan and titled “Unhealthy Fixation: The war against genetically modified organisms is full of fear mongering, errors, and fraud. Labeling them will not make you safer.” If you want to read a devastating critique of the tools used by activists and fear mongers in their battles (in this case against GMOs) there is not a better piece to read this year. It is very long, but the reason for the length is that he shows again and again how Machiavellian the activists can be. They don’t restrict themselves to the truth, they change their stories on a dime and they demonstrate a resounding lack of the moral and intellectual underpinnings the rest of us consider a requirement in order to operate in civilized society.

Why this has struck so close to home is a series of admissions I have received from various folks on my social media feeds. In response to my Huffington Post piece a number of people have written me to point out various forms of the same message that: yes, the battle against Energy East is indeed a proxy war against climate change. Climate change activists are targeting pipelines to keep the conversation about climate change going. They are using pipelines because they have been unable to make a compelling enough case for action on climate change on its merits. They view the Energy East pipeline as a “lever” that they can use to force change because the tools really needed to fight climate change (market based instruments) are a much harder fight to win. I have been told that “pipelines serve as an effective, visible touchstone”. When I have pointed out that shutting down the pipeline will only force more oil to be transported by rail I was met with the point that rail cars are visible while oil moving in a pipeline is not. When I pointed out that the oil trains pose a greater risk to human health and the environment I got the distressing response that

“these tactics effectively apply pressure to reassess the fossil fuelled system as a whole, i.e. we’ll see what happens to any remaining social license when oil trains start blowing up left, right and centre”.

Yes I am as shocked about that statement as you are. In two sentences it is acknowledged that they know that by fighting the pipelines they guarantee that there will be more spills and that they are essentially counting on those spills, and their ensuing ecological devastation and potential for loss of human lives, to degrade the social license of the oil industry. Metaphorically it is like they are holding up a grandma and a newborn kitten and saying “give us what we want or these two won’t like it”. I honestly had no clue how to respond.

In politics they have what is called a Kinsley gaffe. It is defined as “when a politician inadvertently says something publicly that they privately believe is true, but would ordinarily not say because it is politically damaging“. Well this was a classic Kinsley gaffe, it told me outright what I have feared was true from the beginning. These activists have an evangelical fervor for their mission and they don’t care who gets hurt in order for them to achieve their goals. It is not just with pipelines though, you see the same thing in the fracking debate. It leaves me in a quandary. As I have written many times, I am a Pragmatic Environmentalist, I want to see our global conditions getting better. As I wrote in 1995 we need good cops and bad cops to advance the cause. I always understood the concept of noble cause corruption but did not suspect at the time that these good people I worked and studied with could become the sort of people who secretly hoped that bad things would happen to good people in order to advance their cause. I am saddened by my newfound revelation. That doesn’t mean I’m going to stop moving forward in my goals, but it does mean I am going to look a second time at the folks I used to think of as potential allies. The critical feature of the “good cop, bad cop” scenario is that both individuals were still “cops” and were thus restricted to legal and ethical means to achieve their goals. I can’t guarantee that is the case with today’s activists.

Author’s Note: I have received some negative feedback about this post from various environmental activists. I want to be clear that I, personally, believe that the vast majority of grass roots activists I have encountered are entirely honest in their beliefs. Their opinions, while often ill-informed, are honestly held. My disdain at the end of this post was for that cadre of professional activists who have grown to see “environmentalism” as a day-job and depend on continuing conflict for their fundraising campaigns and their paychecks. These people, like the GMO opponents described by Mr. Saletan, do not do justice to the cause they profess to support.

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16 Responses to The Machiavellian battle against climate change using Energy East

  1. Doug Cotton says:

    If you want to know why planetary surface temperatures are what they are, then read my three comments starting here and feel free to discuss on that thread.


  2. One point that seems to be missed, by all parties, is the industry option to upgrade the heavy crude in Canada and export syncrude. The upgrading process is a requirement which can be met within the receiving refinery, or in a purpose built upgrader. Studies show that beefing up an existing refinery to receive the heavy crude is more attractive than building an upgrader from scratch. On the other hand, shipping the raw crude requires dilution. The industry has cut back on upgrader construction in Alberta due to the high cost of labor, caused by the large work backlog.

    I suspect that the current low oil price environment will lead to reduced activity, and this will in turn reduce the cost inflation seen in the last 15 years. This in turn will make upgrading more attractive (even more so because the price of natural gas, used to make hydrogen, is much lower in Alberta).

    Thus I think this battle over pipelines is going to be resolved in one way or the other. Some oil will go by train, and some by pipeline. And if the economics point to it, upgraders will be built to produce syncrude and diluent.

    As far as what benefits Canada as a whole, I think it's better to limit total oil production to no more than 4 million barrels of oil per day, to avoid strengthening the Canadian dollar and inducing Dutch disease. But that's more of an economic measure.


  3. Fritz says:

    “these tactics effectively apply pressure to reassess the fossil fuelled system as a whole, i.e. we’ll see what happens to any remaining social license when oil trains start blowing up left, right and centre”.

    Now there are two ways in which this statement could be interpreted, it is either that they are eagerly hoping that more train derailments and disasters will occur to advance their cause, or it could also be that they are anticipating or advocating for a campaign of sabotage against tanker trains.
    But here is the other end of the stick with the Energy East pipeline proposal, if it were built and put into operation then it would be displacing oil imported to the East coast, and Quebec by tanker from OPEC member states, not so much oil shipped by train. The same parties that oppose the Energy East pipeline were also opposed to the reversal of the long existing Line 9 pipeline, to ship oil from Western Canada to Montreal and all points in-between. This makes the motivations of many of these activists groups suspect to say the least, are they working to keep oil in the ground in Alberta and Saskatchewan in order to combat climate change, or are they acting to keep it off the market in favor of the market share of a competing foreign supplier?


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  7. CriticalThought says:

    Alberta is about to set a 100Mt cap on oil sands emissions (just as you suggest the do) with current emissions at ~70Mt:

    Kinder Morgan Expansion adds ~20Mt so you’re left with 10Mt to spare. If KM goes ahead, Energy East would overshoot emissions cap by ~20Mt. If EE goes ahead KM cannot. So which pipeline would you choose to approve?

    Also, trains are safer. See the Royal Society of Canada you linked elsewhere on your blog, table 1.4: “The rate of incidents per volume transported was lowest for rail transportation. This disparity remained consistent in 2014, when only one crude-by-rail spill occurred while transporting a total volume of 9,339,576 m^3 of oil”

    And don’t cite the Fraser Institute as a counter, they are anything but credible:


    • Blair says:

      So your argument against the data which is presented in the Fraser Institute report is a Wikipedia article? The Fraser Institute report data has been parsed and evaluated by people on both sides of the debate and all agree with its findings. Like it or not, the data is sound. But don’t worry because a single anonymous Wikipedia editor says otherwise so we will go with that instead.


      • CriticalThought says:

        FFS Blair use your head. Are you telling me you see nothing wrong with libertarian think tanks that have supported the tobacco industries claims that smoking and cancer aren’t related, and that are known climate science deniers? Heck, they even get funded by ExxonMobil. All I asked for was a credible scientific study, and you still haven’t provided that. Instead you dodged the question and deflected the argument. Your true colors are beginning to show.

        a) Given that you agree with the need for a reduction in ABs emissions – out of the current proposals, which pipeline do you support given that only 1 can theoretically be approved and have AB meet its emissions targets?

        b) Provide a credible scientific study / report that shows oil-by-pipeline is overwhelmingly the safest mode of transportation. I provided you with one, and you simply ignored the statement all together and deflected the argument.

        >”Like it or not, the data is sound.”

        Then prove it by giving me a credible source and not this hogwash bullshit from a libertarian think tank. Saying “data is sound” isn’t saying much when it’s the interpretation of data that really matters. Are you denying the statement in the report by Royal Society of Canada? Are you cherry picking? If you want to convince me, and others that oil-by-pipeline is overwhelmingly safer than oil-by-rail then do so with credible sources… is that too difficult to ask for?


      • Blair says:

        The research conducted by the Fraser Institute is transparent. They describe their methodology and how they generated their data and their results have been scrutinized heavily by people on both sides of the debate and deemed to be legitimate by both pro- and anti-pipeline people. Ad hominem arguments have no place in this discussion. The RSC report, meanwhile, limits the dataset they use and the time-frame involved so has its own faults. Saying you don’t like the data because of its source is simply a non-starter in this discussion. If you have legitimate beefs about the data they used or how they manipulated the data that is one thing, but simply claiming you want a study produced by someone else is not how science works.


  8. CriticalThought says:

    So you have at least two studies – One study says oil-by-rail is safer but the data is limited – however trends are similar in both US and Canada. The other study, produced by a known libertarian think tank (ie. known for misleading the public) says oil-by-pipeline is overwhelmingly safer. Out of those two studies, rather than saying more data is needed you opt to outright negate the findings of the RSC study and fully support the findings produced by the known controversial Fraser Institute… and you want to talk about how science works? Start by saying that no definitive answer yet exists, more data and studies are needed, and if you really must choose sides state that the FI study ‘suggests’ that oil-by-pipeline is safer. That’s not at all what you have done though. Rather you have cherry picked your argument and propped it upon a golden pedestal. That’s not science, that’s a clear and personal bias being lauded under the banner of science.

    I’m still waiting to hear which single pipeline you suggest be given the go-ahead and which one be rejected based on ABs 100Mt cap. Why have you refused to address this question?


    • Blair says:

      No I have looked at the data used in the two studies and established that the RSC study used a smaller subset of the larger dataset used by the Fraser Institute report. Anyone who knows data analysis knows that when offered two data sources one of which uses only a subset of the other, you rely on the analysis that includes the entire dataset. More data allows for more effective analysis and an increased ability to pull out trends. Remember, I am not the only one who has agreed to this. So have every activist group that analyzed the data. They do not challenge this analysis even though they have challenged virtually everything else that comes from this group. That should tell you something.


      • CriticalThought says:

        That’s not necessarily true by any means: you rely on quality, now quantity. If the subset represents robust data while the larger data set does not then you use the subset. Including ambiguous data or outliers will only serve to skew the trends. Anyone who knows data analysis knows this… this begs the question then: why did the RSC report opt to omit the larger data set, while the FI did not? Understanding that no study is perfect, as you point to with the RSC findings, what criticisms do you have towards the FI study?

        Again, I would add that it is certainly beyond scientific to take a single study and draw conclusions based on it alone. Scientific conclusions that are well established, robust, are the result of consensus within scientific literature.

        And lastly, (I truly believe you’re trolling me now and got a good chuckle out of your non-response, yet again) “I’m still waiting to hear which single pipeline you suggest be given the go-ahead and which one be rejected based on ABs 100Mt cap.”


      • Blair says:

        The RSC used the same StatsCan data but restricted their work to a couple years while acknowledging that the amount of material shipped was ramping up. The Fraser Institute included the entire dataset provided by StatsCan. The Fraser report also did additional analyses including steps to exclude “spills” that while reportable did not consist of releases to the environment (i.e. releases into containment facilities designed to contain a spill).

        As I point out the best brains on both side of the debate agree that the Fraser Report is reputable so the fact that you choose not to is certainly your choice but does not represent the consensus of both sides of the debate. The whole point of evidence-based decision-making is identifying the best data that is accepted by both sides and using that as the basis of discussions and deliberations.

        As for the 100 MT question, I have ignored that because we both know that the 100 MT target is aspirational and not a regulatory number. Were it so then our regulators would place it in the rules.

        To explain, the 100 MT was based on a sensitivity number that has since changed. The environmental activists have not been keeping up with the science of climate change and if the climate sensitivity changes so will the target. I will believe a target when it is placed in a regulation by a regulator. Until then I will operate using the current state of the science in climate change and not rely on targets that are bound to change (move).


  9. CriticalThought says:

    Acknowledging that the amount of material shipped was ramping up doesn’t all of a sudden remove their findings that oil-by-rail is safer than oil-by-pipeline given their methodology. Two different methods came to different conclusions using the same, or at least part of the same, data. Something I already said previously. From the sounds of it, both analysis are legitimate. You mention that the FI excluded ‘spills’ occurring outside of the ‘environment’… can you expand on this? My initial impression is that pipelines, no matter their location, are not supposed to release their product unintentionally. Correct me if I’m wrong.

    You mention the ‘best brains on both side of the debate’ agree. Can you provide any links to articles written by both sides? I’m unaware of who these experts are so I could use some guidance in my ‘googling.’

    The 100Mt is a work in progress, and while not in the rule books yet, it is currently being discussed. As this is the current goal I’m not sure why you refuse to speculate on which pipeline you think would best fit this current cap set by AB’s climate leadership plan (I’m more in favor of Energy East if that makes you feel any better). And yes, I’m well aware of equilibrium climate sensitivity (ECS and TCS for that matter). While you claim a wide, moving range of values this is far from the truth of current state of the science in climate change. It should also be noted that ECS is right-skewed (ie. the probability of very large increases in temperature is greater than the probability of very small increases). Something tells me the regulators will base their targets on IPCC estimates which have been broadly consistent over the last three IPCC assessments, and not those proposed by the likes of Curry, Spencer, and other ‘contrarians.’


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