It’s not a hypothetical issue, we’ve just seen it in all its misery. This past summer during British Columbia’s provincial election, a brazenly hypocritical story emerged from the foul pits of political wrestling. It was noted in some news stories but as a subtext to a more titillating story, never received the attention it deserves. So here goes.
During the election, the ghost of Trump made a cameo appearance as the softwood lumber dispute came back to life after a peaceful decade. In response to the US announcing plans to add tariffs to Canadian wood imports, then BC Premier Christy Clark tried to play hardball by calling for a ban on coal shipments from the US to Canada that are destined for international export.
Think about that for a second. The US exports coal to Canada to get it to world markets because environmentalists won’t allow it to flow through their ports back home. BC is actually expanding its ports to deal with increased coal shipments, both imports from the US and homegrown production.
If you are not choking on your coffee after reading that, there’s possibly something wrong with you. But on the off chance you’re unaffected, think about what this means with regards to environmental considerations, interprovincial trade, federal spinelessness, and good old-fashioned eye-watering hypocrisy.
Canadian energy producers are having a tough time getting their products to foreign markets. They are trapped supplying primarily one market, the US, which doesn’t particularly want oil or gas these days as shale developments have (for now) taken care of the US’ incremental energy needs.
Canadian producers need to get their product to our very own coastlines for export to foreign markets, but it’s proving to be nearly impossible. Projects are dying, either by cold-blooded assassination (Energy East, and don’t listen to any economist who says economics killed it – there’s a reason few economists run companies) or because proponents get exhausted and throw in the towel (every natural gas export terminal, thus far). A few are approved, like the Kinder Morgan expansion, but a veritable army of environmentalists and whiners – an unindustrious and unknowledgeable army, but an army nevertheless – will use every tactic they can dream of to derail the project. As their antics unfold, we can expect governments at every level to dither and wring their hands and respect the rights of the luddites to do whatever they want, if the protest camps have the right people in them. In the end, Canadian energy can’t get to foreign markets, and few care, because to do so is to be against the environment, and to be seen as anti-environmental is for many, unthinkable!
On that topic then – the environment – what does this whole mess say about the environment? It is a given now that almost any infrastructure project will be savagely attacked if there is no windmill or solar panel attached.
Let’s be very clear about what’s happening here. BC is one of the most vocal critics of fossil fuels and one of the largest proponents of greener economies. The coastline is therefore all but off limits to natural gas or oil export, all in the name of the environment. Yet coal is not only produced and shipped from BC to the world, but our nation accepts shipments from the US because American producers can’t get it through their own ports on account of the environmental negativity of coal.
It’s a bit hard to see how a civilized country got to this state. It did have some help from the tactics of the climate change industry. As one example, the world has developed an irrational hatred of Canada’s oilsands simply because of the sheer size of them and the fact that they are operated transparently. It’s odd that heavy oil deposits in Venezuela and even California don’t seem to bother anyone. Environmentalists ignited the imaginations of the lowest common denominator by pointing out how much carbon would be released if all the oil sands were burned.
The smear campaign was an epic misrepresentation designed to prey on people’s worst fears. The thought of burning all the oil in the oilsands is elementally stupid and inconceivable to anyone in the business, or anyone in general who cares to put 5 minutes into studying a map of the deposits. No oil sands advocate has ever thought it even possible to burn one-tenth of the oil sands. The oil sands hold 1.8 trillion barrels, of which 170 billion barrels considered to be recoverable reserves. The critics, including top-credentialed charlatans like NASA’s James Hansen, had to know that, but chose to take the low road because it would frighten more people.
Do we ban campfires on the logic that burning every tree on the planet would raise the earth’s temperature? Do we condemn solar panels because if the world was covered with them we couldn’t grow vegetables? Don’t scoff. Those scenarios are no more ludicrous than the suggestion that we could or would burn all the oil in the oilsands. It is shockingly dishonest to even imply that was anyone’s plan, vision, or hope.
At the same time, Canadian natural gas exports are a fading dream as potential exporters tire of the ridiculous battles and simply fade away. These developments are particularly interesting in light of the impact natural gas has on the environment relative to coal.
BC is green-lighting coal exports, it is even expanding terminals to do so. But coal is the real culprit in manmade emissions. Coal generates 25 percent of greenhouse gas emissions, the oilsands about 0.1 percent. Further, oil sands emissions are only slightly higher than other forms of crude, so replacing the world’s coal consumption with Canadian oil and natural gas would dramatically decrease global GHG emissions. Switching global coal consumption to natural gas would probably decrease GHG emissions by 20 percent alone, if natural gas burns at one-fifth the emissions level of coal.
It should follow then that coal would be the target of attack, not just in BC but anywhere in the world. It is hard to put into words the hypocrisy then of allowing US producers to access to Canadian ports just to make a few bucks. Oil and natural gas get the cold shoulder, but coal is welcome.
The arguments against oil and gas are simple straw men designed to stop progress. Oil spills are a red herring; the chances of one are in truth infinitesimally small. Oil opponents declare that spills are “inevitable” but the facts are otherwise. Every single day, thousands of tankers and tens of thousands of miles of pipeline move a minimum of 95 million barrels per day around, almost entirely without incident. The number of places where incidents could happen is almost incalculable, yet spills almost never happen. On top of that, monitoring and safety technology grow every day.
How then does such insanity become ingrained and accepted? There are probably dozens of conspiracy theories, but in the end it comes down to the fact that fear, especially manufactured, makes us act weirdly. A hundred years ago, American author James Thurber wrote a funny short story called “The Day the Dam Broke” in which a general panic ensues after a newsboy starts running; others assume something is wrong and join him, and questions about “Did the dam break?” turn into “the dam broke!” Eventually everyone stops running and goes back to business without mentioning it.
The phenomenon has been well documented, and even mocked, but it’s still real. It also happens at higher levels, where people “know” something is dangerous, and act accordingly, even if they’re dead wrong.
But that does not absolve governments of their current actions. Most critiques of governments center on demands for money, but the opposite is true here – we just need governments to get out of the way, and to deal with the irrationality. Even if the environment is the absolute top priority, then obviously natural gas is the answer and coal is not.
Canada desperately needs leadership, or we will watch our standard of living recede to the point where the environment will be the last of our concerns.
Read more insightful analysis from Terry Etam here