Friday, July 17, 2015

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 sands” and as Dr. Andrew Leach points out in Macleans, 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. The 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.


  1. 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. “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?