Justin Trudeau approves two big oil sands pipeline expansions

This piece was first published at Skeptical Science on December 1, 2016

In an announcement on November 29, 2016, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau approved two new major pipeline expansions for Canadian bitumen. Altogether, the two projects will add over a million barrels per day to Canada’s export capacity.

At the same press conference, Trudeau rejected the application for the Northern Gateway pipeline, which would have provided 525,000 barrels per day of transportation from Alberta to the Pacific Ocean through the northern British Columbia coast, near Kitimat.

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Northern Gateway (map by Enbridge) Continue reading

Exaggerations in the pipeline

Exaggerations in the pipeline

There are a lot of claims about the benefits that the Kinder Morgan Trans Mountain Extension (TMX) pipeline project will supposedly have for BC, and Canada generally. Recently, I listened to Alberta Premier Rachel Notley on the CBC the other day making her pitch, emphasizing the economic benefits for BC. Some of what she said made me immediately reach out to Google to try verify the claims she made. Along the way, I looked critically at some of the other assertions the pipeline promoters have made. In the interest of fairness, I’ll briefly mention some of the exaggerations of the pipeline opponents.

At the outset, let me say that I’m generally inclined to support Premier Notley. In particular, I’m an admirer of the Alberta Climate Leadership Plan that was put together by an expert panel led by University of Alberta economist Andrew Leach. This was a major step forward by an oil-producing province traditionally governed by conservatives. To be sure, the plan is insufficient to reduce emissions to safe levels, but there are yet no such plans enacted anywhere.

Show me one. Continue reading

The looming irrelevance of big oil

The looming irrelevance of big oil

This a long piece that would probably be better split up into several separate, focussed articles. Never mind, consider it as a rambling, idiosyncratic and opinionated mind-dump on the subject of the future of oil. I may later rewrite parts of it more coherently and rigorously for a wider readership. As I make my way through the recently published IEA WEO 2016, I will provide updates.

Pioneers or pariahs?

James Gandolfini, the late actor who played the gangster boss Tony Soprano, was once asked what profession he would never have wanted to have pursued. He answered: “an oilman” (video at 5:00). Those of us who have followed careers in the oil industry might be a little surprised, but not really that shocked, by a response like that.  To many people, oil companies and the people who work in them are often seen as the embodiment of greed and environmental destruction. Oilmen get used to being thought of as pariahs. Continue reading

Sensitivity training

This article was originally published online at Corporate Knights Magazine and will appear in the publication’s Fall 2016 hard-copy magazine. It was also previously republished, in part, at Skeptical Science.

Climate scientists are certain that human-caused emissions have increased carbon dioxide in the atmosphere by 44 per cent since the Industrial Revolution. Very few of them dispute that this has already caused average global temperatures to rise roughly 1 degree. Accompanying the warming is disruption to weather patterns, rising sea levels and increased ocean acidity. There is no doubt that further emissions will only make matters worse, possibly much worse. In a nutshell, that is the settled science on human-caused climate change.

What scientists cannot yet pin down is exactly how much warming we will get in the future. They do not know with precision how much a given quantity of emissions will lead to increased concentrations of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. For climate impact it is the concentrations that matter, not the emissions. Up until now, 29 per cent of human emissions of carbon dioxide has been taken up by the oceans, 28 per cent has been absorbed by plant growth on land, and the remaining 43 per cent has accumulated in the atmosphere. Humans have increased carbon dioxide concentrations in the atmosphere from a pre-industrial level of 280 parts per million to over 400 today, a level not seen for millions of years.  Continue reading

Carbon sequestration in basalts

I have just had a piece published in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists: ‘We’d have to finish one new facility every working day for the next 70 years’—Why carbon capture is no panacea . I’m not allowed to repost the whole article here, but it is open access on the Bulletin website.

I looked again at the outsized role that carbon capture and storage (CCS) along with Bioenergy Carbon Capture and Storage (BECCS) play in most of the IPCC 2 degree models. I have argued previously that the gigantic quantities of CO2 that need to be sequestered in geological reservoirs, according to these models, face huge obstacles in terms of scalability, financing, technical hurdles and public acceptance.

A recent paper in Science reported on a breakthrough experiment in Iceland in which CO2 (from a volcanic source) dissolved in water was injected into basalts at depths of 400-1000 metres. Using isotopic and chemical tracers, the researchers estimate that the CO2 had been mineralized into benign and stable carbonate minerals in the space of just two years. This was faster than suspected and, if this process turns out to be scalable, then sequestration in basalts would provide a solution to the need to monitor conventional sedimentary rock disposal sites for leakage over the long term. Continue reading

The Madhouse Effect, a review

Climate scientist Michael Mann has teamed up with cartoonist Tom Toles to write The Madhouse Effect: How Climate Change Is Threatening Our Planet, Destroying Our Politics and Driving Us Crazy. It’s an excellent book, well-written, authoritative on the science, revealing on the politics and laced with the wit of many superb cartoons. Buy a copy for the climate science doubter in your family. They will be drawn in by the cartoons and may well be unable to resist dipping in to the text.

MadhouseEffect_Book_On_Climate_Change

Michael Mann has previously written The Hockey Stick and the Climate Wars: Dispatches from the Front Lines, about how he was hounded for writing a paper that featured the striking hockey-stick graph. He also authored Dire Predictions: Understanding Climate Change with scientist Lee Kump. At the same time that he turns out first-class books, Mann is a prolific research scientist and has an active presence on social media. You can only wonder how he does it all.

Tom Toles is a Pullitzer -Prize winning cartoonist who works for the Washington Post. His main focus is politics, but his cartoons have often featured climate science and the absurd lengths that many American politicians go to in avoiding the facing up to the reality of global change.

Writing about scientific subjects like climate change for the non-specialist is not easy and authors have to walk a fine line. Many readers expect scientists to be detached about the implications of their work, but that would make their message less engaging, less human. The science needs to be explained in ways that the average person can understand, but oversimplification can gloss over some of the important complications. And treatments of the topic can so so easily be depressing and dull. The Mann/Toles team have succeeded in bringing their talents together to overcome these problems. The writing is excellent  and the cartoons add a much-needed satirical perspective.

tipping point

One small shortcoming of the book, at least for non-American readers, is the focus on US politics.  But, then again, the leadership of the US—the world’s largest economy and second-largest emitter—is indispensable when it comes to solving the climate crisis. Anyone who cares about the future of the planet has to pay close attention to the goings-on in the madhouse that has become the home of much of the US political right. Non-Americans can only watch what is going on there in fascinated and impotent horror. At least US citizens get to vote.

Despite all of the political lunacy and the dire consequences that will unfold if we don’t take action, Mann and Toles offer an informative, entertaining and, crucially, hopeful review of the science, politics and solutions to the climate crisis. There are signs that the politics of denial have reached a tipping point—reality is finally asserting itself against wishful thinking. All of the world’s nations took a vital first step in Paris in December 2015. Costs of key technologies like solar and wind power, energy storage and electrical vehicles are falling and show no signs of levelling off. There’s no reason to despair. Besides, that never was an option.

 

On and against method and process

There has been a spate of blog articles in recent weeks by Michael Tobis, And Then There’s Physics Victor Venema and Eli Rabett. In part this was sparked by an article in the New York Times misleadingly titled There is no Scientific Method. I’m far from a philosopher of science, so what follows is not rigorous or complete, it’s just some idiosyncratic and random stuff I’ve picked up along the way.

I’ve never been much of a method person. I work haphazardly, with an untidy desk and a short attention span, going from uncompleted thought to thought. When I read a scientific paper, I jump all over the place, starting with the conclusions, then trying to decipher the diagrams, looking at the supplementary material, then, as a last resort, I’ll read the introduction and abstract.

To be sure, I’m eventually capable of providing a logical and orderly explanation of my thinking, but it’s a fiction that describes the shortest path between question and answer, rather than describing the random walk I had been on.

I was always thrown off-balance during my business career if, when I was proposing a project idea, somebody would ask “what’s the process here?”,  mainly because I had no clue how to answer. Being forced to attend meetings that contain flowcharts of process, with diamond-shaped, rectangular and elliptical boxes was a torture. My world didn’t work like that and never will. Process always seemed to me to be a barrier to getting things done, often promoted by people who never contributed much in the way of new ideas.

Popper

Nevertheless, I did take some early interest in the philosophy of science. The first eye-opener was reading Bryan Magee’s book on Karl Popper, a very clear and short description of Popper’s epistemology. The lack of symmetry between proof (impossible) and falsification (sometimes possible) came as a minor revelation. Popper’s demarcation between science (falsifiable) and non-science (not falsifiable) struck me as reasonable, although I have later come to realize that the world of knowledge is a lot more fuzzy than that. Nevertheless, like the famous eroticism/pornography demarcation, you usually know it when you see it. Continue reading