Sunday, November 8, 2015

Moving Blog Homes


To improve readability I will be moving this platform to Wordpress.

See A Chemist in Langley for new topics 

Monday, October 26, 2015

On scare reporting of science and the risk of eating red meat

My twitter feed went insane this morning following a news release from The Lancet about an article titled Carcinogenicity of consumption of red and processed meat. For anyone interested in toxicology, human health risk assessment or simply regular readers of the academic literature the Lancet article was nothing particularly new. Unfortunately, that group does not typically include the news media. For the news media the article appear to be ground-breaking news worthy of front pages and blaring headlines. Even some scientific news outlets got into the swing of things with Scientific American going farthest off the deep end with an initial headline that pronounced:  Processed Meat Poses Same Cancer Risk as Smoking, Asbestos...apparently someone with half a lick of sense read the article and they quickly changed the headline to read: “Processed Meats Cause Cancer, World Health Organization Says”. As a blogger on topics of science communication, this is the sort of thing I write about all the time and so thought I could do a quick take to add some clarity to the mix.

Let’s start with the basics. It has been known for a long time that both the grilling of meat and the processing of meat increases its risk for human consumption. Reports to this effect have been coming out for years in general interest journals like PLOS (Public Library of Science) A Prospective Study of Red and Processed Meat Intake in Relation to Cancer Risk, to cancer journals like the International Journal of Cancer Meat consumption and risk of colorectal cancer: A meta-analysis of prospective studies to specialty journals like Meat Science: Red meat consumption: An overview of the risks and benefits.

To explain the toxicology, the grilling of meat has long been known to produce polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) and heterocyclic amines both of which are associated with cancers. Similarly the processing of meat and the use of preservatives have been linked to human health risks for a very long time. Moreover, meat can be relatively challenging to digest so even non-grilled meat poses a challenge to the human gut. Vegans and vegetarians have been using this line of argument as a reason to stop eating meat for years as well as anyone who has ever visited a PETA web page knows.

So I suppose the question being asked today is: what is so new about this report? The answer is that after all this time the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) finally decided to get into the mix. As I have discussed previously in a post titled  On Wi-Fi in Schools and the Precautionary Principle the IARC has the job of assessing what is a carcinogen and what is a possible carcinogen. The thing to understand is that the IARC is only looking at carcinogenicity, it doesn’t ask the obvious next question which is whether the risk meets the standard of being really important. You will notice I did not use the word “significant”. The word significant is an often misused one in the scientific community and will be avoided in this discussion. The IARC is tasked with producing monographs evaluating carcinogenic risks to humans. Based on the Lancet summary (the IARC report is not out yet) the following conclusions were made:

Overall, the Working Group classified consumption of processed meat as “carcinogenic to humans” (Group 1) on the basis of sufficient evidence for colorectal cancer. Additionally, a positive association with the consumption of processed meat was found for stomach cancer. The Working Group classified consumption of red meat as “probably carcinogenic to humans” (Group 2A). In making this evaluation, the Working Group took into consideration all the relevant data, including the substantial epidemiological data showing a positive association between consumption of red meat and colorectal cancer and the strong mechanistic evidence.

The IARC the Group 2A designation (assigned to red meat) is often misunderstood. A Group 2A carcinogen means a compound that is “probably carcinogenic to humans”. This is a compound where but where “there is limited evidence of carcinogenicity in humans and sufficient evidence of carcinogenicity in experimental animals”.

What the Lancet report also points out is that the increase in incidence of cancers is around 17% per 100 g a day of red meat. What it fails to tell you is what that means in the real world. Based on the Canada food guide 75 g of meat is a serving. In restaurants the serving size for a steak is typically in the 6 ounce range which is about 170 grams. So 100 ounces doesn’t seem like a lot, but put into a different perspective I do not know many people who eat 100 g of red meat a day 365 days a year. If you are like me you likely eat red meat once or twice a week as part of a healthy, varied diet.

That being said, colorectal cancer is the 3rd most commonly diagnosed cancer in Canada with a 5 year survival rate of around 64% -65%. The incidence of colorectal cancer is about 35.2 cases per 100,000 population. So 17% turns out to be about 6 cases per 100,000 so an increase by 17% is a non-trivial number.

What all these numbers fail to discuss is whether red meat has positive effects that could counter-weigh the negative. This is an important point that is very often missed in the rush to judgement after the publishing of a report of this kind. The Canadian food guide recommends red meat as part of a healthy diet because red meat provides a number of critical components for a healthy diet. Even the Canadian Cancer Society points out that red meat is a valuable source of several nutrients, in particular protein, iron, zinc and vitamin B12. Vegetarians are often warned of the importance of getting enough of these nutrients as well as critical fatty acids that are plentiful in red meat but are more difficult to obtain via a vegetarian diet.

The question not asked, nor answered by the IARC is how the typical person should read this report. As I note above, except for the true heavy duty carnivores the results of this study are not really that problematic. I think the best conclusion was presented by the authors of one of the peer-reviewed scientific article above:

moderate consumption of lean red meat as part of a balanced diet is unlikely to increase risk for CVD or colon cancer, but may positively influence nutrient intakes and fatty acid profiles, thereby impacting positively on long-term health.

Put more completely, meat, and red meat can be part of a good diet and the exclusion of meat from your diet should not be done without careful thought about how you will replace the essential nutrients you currently get from meat. You can live a healthy life eating meat and you can also live a healthy life while eating meat-free in moderation is the key. The other conclusion of this report is well-known to mothers across Canada, excess consumption of red meat, especially grilled red meat, is not good for you...but then we all knew that before the Lancet broadcast it to the world didn’t we?

Note for readers:
I have written a lot in the last year about how risk is communicated to the public. Unfortunately, due to the nature of my blogging platform (read free and simple since I am a chemist and not a web designer) it is not terribly easy to figure out what I have written in the past so I will summarize here. I prepared a series of posts to help me out in situations like this. The posts started with “How Big and Small Numbers Influence Science Communication Part 2: Understanding de minimis risk” which explained how the science of risk assessment establishes whether a compound is “toxic” and explained the importance of understanding dose/response relationships. It explained the concept of a de minimis risk. That is a risk that is negligible and too small to be of societal concern (ref). The series continued with “How Big and Small Numbers Influence Science Communication Part 3: Understanding "Acceptable" Risk” which, as the title suggests, explained how to determine whether a risk is “acceptable”. I then went on to explain how a risk assessment is actually carried out in “Big and Small Numbers in Science Communication Part 4: the Risk Assessment Process. I finished off the series by pointing out the danger of relying on anecdotes in a post titled: Risk Assessment Epilogue: Have a bad case of Anecdotes? Better call an Epidemiologist.  

Thursday, October 22, 2015

On inane criticism in the climate change debate - the Ridley affair

I have been following the climate change debate for over a decade now and have been writing on the topic for several years. Even with that level of exposure, the inane level of personal criticisms thrown around in this debate never ceases to amaze me. Selected individuals, on both sides, appear to believe that the only way to maintain their stature in the field is to belittle and disparage those with whom they disagree. To demonstrate the inane levels some go one need not look further than a tweet from my favourite geophysicist and climatologist Michael E Mann. Dr. Mann tweeted:
Ouch! "Climate Science Denialist @MattWRidley Criticised By Same Scientist He Sourced On Greening Planet Claims"
Dr. Mann was referencing a dispute about an article written by Dr. Matt Ridley. The article (The Benefits of Carbon Dioxide presented as a link to his web site as the original article is stuck behind a paywall) presents a number of well-understood positive effects associated with the rise in global carbon dioxide concentrations. Any reasonable policy discussion of climate change has to include considerations of both the positive and negative effects of increases in global carbon dioxide concentrations. As I have discussed previously in my post “What is so Special about 2 degrees C in the Climate Change Debate?”there are strong arguments to suggest that, at least initially, increased global carbon dioxide concentrations have had/will have a positive net effect on the global economy and human and ecologically health. The literature is equally clear that at some, still undetermined, higher global carbon dioxide concentrations the positive effects will be outweighed by the negative effects with the balance spiraling further into the negative territory thereafter. None of this is particularly contentious.
As for the concept of the CO2 fertilization effect (the topic of Dr. Ridley’s article) it is a well-understood by-product of the global increase in carbon dioxide concentrations. The CO2 fertilization effect was first discussed by the IPCC in their first round of reports and has been incorporated in every round of IPCC reports thereafter. To put it another way: a Google Scholar™ search of CO2 fertilization effect comes back with over 100,000 hits. Let’s be clear here, we are not talking about regular Google™, we are talking about over 100,000 hits on Google Scholar™. So we are not talking about a point of significant contention in the climate change debate. People can argue about the intensity and scale of the CO2 fertilization effect but the effect itself is not one up for much serious debate.
So you might ask: what egregious error was significant enough for DeSmog blog to prepare a full article that was subsequently trumpeted by Dr. Mann? Well, Dr. Ridley’s article is chock full of information. It presents over a dozen points from a Global Warming Policy Foundation report titled “Carbon Dioxide – The Good News”. It includes references to literally hundreds of articles that support the point under consideration and runs at around 2400 words (including postscript). However, buried deep within the pile of information, references and data is a single interesting piece of trivia:
The satellite data show that there has been roughly a 14 per cent increase in the amount of green vegetation on the planet since 1982.
The interesting piece of trivia was pulled from a presentation by Dr. Ranga B Myneni of Boston University at the “Probing Vegetation Conference from Past to Future” held 4 - 5 July 2013 in Antwerp, Belgium. This sounds pretty inane so far does it not? However, DeSmog blog hunted down Dr. Myneni to ask him about the use of this data in Dr. Ridley’s article. Dr. Myneni’s response was typical of an academic, he waffled about uncertainty and precision and was reported as saying:
His [Dr. Myneni’s] analysis of satellite data covering the last 30 years did show a 13 to 14 per cent increase in vegetation growth. He said some of this could be attributed to increased levels of carbon dioxide, but changes in the way land was management [sic]was also a factor.
So Dr. Myneni quibbled about the number (it could be 13%, it could be 14%) in the way academics are prone to do while confirming that Dr. Ridley was absolutely correct (in that Dr. Ridley said roughly 14%). However, in the world of DeSmog (and apparently Dr. Mann) Dr. Myneni had “hit back” at the “Climate Science Denialist Matt Ridley”. Anyone who has read Dr. Ridley’s writing knows full well that Dr. Ridley is not a “denialist” but rather he is a “lukewarmer”. Heck, he wrote an article that appeared in the Times on the topic. Dr. Ridley acknowledges that global warming is real, mostly man-made and will continue. He simply differs with scientists like Dr. Mann about the sensitivity of the climate system to carbon dioxide. That is like calling someone who points out that birds have the ability to fly a denier of the law of gravity?
Dr. Ridley is, however, a well-known science communicator and author. His voice is respected and his words read in the public sphere. Therefore in the eyes of the activists he must be disparaged and torn down at every possible opportunity.
As a noted author, Dr. Ridley knows something that every good science communicator knows: non-specialist readers like numbers they can sink their teeth into. He also knows that in the grand scheme of things the average reader really doesn’t know, or care, what the numbers mean, but they like to see numbers so they have something to relate to when discussing a topic. Dr. Ridley could have just discussed the CO2 fertilization effect in general but to improve the story he chose to use the number from Dr. Myneni’s presentation. The number that Dr. Myneni confirmed was correct when interviewed by DeSmog blog.
So let’s re-examine the basis for the debunking of Dr. Ridley: Dr. Myneni, a well-respected climate scientist, presented a number at one of the most important international conferences on the topic of vegetation change. The conference, being sufficiently confident in Dr. Myneni’s professionalism, published the number in their promotions. Dr. Ridley used that number in an article about popular science in a non-scientific venue. Most importantly, the number itself is really a side-note since, for the purposes of the article, it could have been 10% or it could have been 15%; Dr. Ridley was simply using for illustrative purposes and to make for a more readable text. Dr. Myneni, stepping out of his role of a scientist and moving into the role of an advocate complained that the “benefit of greening is not worth price of all the negative changes” all the while confirming that the rough number provided by Dr. Ridley was indeed correct. That is certainly some debunking there.
What is most frustrating is that given the insane nature of the climate change debate this controversy was seen as deserving a full post on DeSmog blog in an attempt to discredit Dr. Ridley, the scientist. Moreover, once DeSmog blog had posted the article promoters of the alarmist climate change narrative felt the need to highlight the post and add their two cents worth. Talk about a tempest in a teapot!
The oddest thing about this whole controversy is that from my twitter feed, it is clear that many of the activists in the climate change debate feel they have won a victory in this little skirmish. They don’t get how unserious articles like this make them look. Until the activists on the alarmist side can get their act together and become somewhat serious in their criticisms, outsiders, like myself, are going to continue to not take them seriously. We all know about the fable of the boy who cried wolf. Well when blogs like DeSmog and other climate alarmists cry “denialist” and “debunked” at every opportunity it will be hard to take them seriously when they actually do manage to debunk someone.

Tuesday, October 20, 2015

Thoughts on the new Liberal Government and the Environment

Like many interested observers, I was shocked at the size of the Liberal victory in our Canadian election.  I was confident in a Liberal minority but had no clue that the Liberals would end up with a majority. From an environmental perspective the new Liberal majority government should definitely be a step up over the previous Harper government’s anti-science, laissez-faire on the environment agenda. That being said, I am strongly of the belief that a lot of what I have read in the last several days about the Liberals and their environmental policies represent projection on the part of observers rather than an accurate reflection of Liberal policy.
To clarify, one problem with elections campaigns is that the people involved often incorrectly read into their candidates features and characteristics that are not actually part of that candidate’s platform. As such, my concern is that many environmentalists have been reading their personal desires into the Liberal victory. Throughout the last couple years Justin Trudeau has been viewed by many as the “anti-Harper”. He is clearly cut from a very different mold than the outgoing Prime Minister. Mr. Trudeau is viewed as happy and outgoing while Mr. Harper has been seen as dour and secretive. But these personality differences do not make Mr. Trudeau a polar opposite to Mr. Harper. Mr. Trudeau is not the Ying to Mr Harper’s Yang. Rather, Mr. Trudeau is an entirely independent being with his own hopes, needs and desires. To be clear, Mr. Harper’s environmental and science policies could, at best, be considered regressive and as a consequence, the new Liberal government will definitely represent a step forward for the environmental cause in Canada. That being said, I would suggest that my friends in the environmental movement spend a little bit of time reading the Liberal policy documents before they get too excited about the next five years.
The first thing I will point out is that while the environmental community views Mr. Trudeau as a potential environment-first Prime Minister, the Liberal policy platform is a little less supportive of that title. A look at the “Platform” section of the Liberal election web site has 106 topics of which I count six that would represent “environmental” priorities and as the business adage goes “too many priorities means no priorities”.  A look at the Liberal policy backgrounders also does not bode well for “environment-first” title. Of the 29 detailed policy backgrounders presented on their web site only two address topics related to the environment.
The first “protecting our oceans” provides some solid red meat for the environmental cause. It clearly states that a Liberal government will reinstate monies for ocean science and monitoring. It also provides hope that the recent shredding of the Fisheries Act will be reversed. Finally the document pretty much rings the death knell for the Northern Gateway pipeline as it says that a Liberal government would enact the North Coast crude oil tanker ban. Under that blanket prohibition the Northern Gateway would only really be possible if David Black’s Kitimat refinery were brought online to refine the crude oil/dilbit prior to shipping.
The second platform document is bigger than the first but is surprisingly light on substance. The document is titled “A New Plan for Canada’s Environment and Economy” and deals with six major themes:
• Taking Action on Climate Change
• Investing in Clean Technologies
• Creating Clean Jobs and Investment
• Restoring Credibility to Environmental Assessments
• Preserving and Promoting our National Parks
• Protecting out Freshwater and Oceans

As the old expression goes, the proof of the pudding is in the eating and the problem with the document, as is often the case in environmental policy, is in the details, or lack thereof. The “Action on Climate Change” reads as surprisingly non-committal on the action front. It has a lot about communication, and working together with various levels of governments and NGOs but has very few identifiable deliverables. It includes a “portfolio of actions” while describing few strong commitments (it does include a very important commitment to phase out subsidies for the fossil fuel industry). Surprisingly, I cannot for the life of me find a detailed policy document that includes any mention of the “Low Carbon Economy Trust” which some have mentioned but few can describe. 

The Liberal’s “Investment in Clean Technologies” details a pretty paltry additional $300 million a year directed towards various industrial sectors. The wording of this section is sufficiently vague that it could range from a terrific tool to enhance the prospects of cutting-edge companies to a political slush fund like many of the regional development agencies used to buy votes for the last several decades.
The “Creating Clean Jobs and Investments” section is simply standard boilerplate that could be drawn from almost every environmental policy document ever written. It does, curiously, include a section on protection of marine environments which is sorely needed, especially on our West Coast.
For the pipeline opponents, the “Restoring Credibility to Environmental Assessments” sounds like a great section. Interestingly enough the section does include this interesting piece of wording:
We will explore, consult, and work collaboratively to move towards a system where federal environmental assessments of projects include an analysis of upstream impacts and the greenhouse gas emissions resulting from the projects being assessed.
This text could be something straight out of a Sierra Club Report or it could be a standard requirement for a risk assessment depending on how you interpret the word "resulting". Environmentalists surely read it like the Sierra Club would have us do. The only problem with this interpretation is that it undermines the whole concept that emissions are calculated on where fossil fuels are consumed not on where they are produced. Using the logic proposed I could easily develop a process by which Canada could meet its Kyoto targets overnight. Since the Sierra Club version of the methodology blames the producer of the energy, not the consumer, Canada could go to zero CO2 emissions simply by importing all our fossil fuels from outside our borders. No need to adapt our industry; no need to stop idling our cars or insulate our houses; since the consumer’s pattern of use doesn’t count towards their emissions we would all be free and clear. Oddly enough that is not how the rest of the world views the problem. In International venues/agreements producers of fossil fuels are only expected to account for the energy used to generate the fossil fuels not the  CO2 generated when the fossil fuels are burnt at the other end. I would suggest that any plan to change environmental assessments in this manner is bound to fail international muster.
The final two points involving the protection of our parks, freshwater and oceans are strong policies I would love to see implemented ASAP.
Going back to the earlier point in this post, the problem with the Liberal agenda is that the environment represents such a miniscule proportion of it. Only 2 of 29 policy documents discuss the environment and the amount of money earmarked for the environment is miniscule when compared to other priorities. The $300 million dollars for innovation and investment is barely more than the amount the Liberals have allotted in additional funding for the CBC.  That should pretty much tell you where we, environmentalists, fit in this new order.
To be clear, I look forward to the next few years from an environmental perspective. I was strongly opposed to how the Harper government stripped away protection for Canada’s waterways and shredded much of our environmental research infrastructure. It is my hope that Mr. Trudeau will reverse many of those decisions/laws. That being said, I cannot simply assume that Mr. Trudeau is going to be an environment-first Prime Minister and suggest that my colleagues in the environmental movement who assume otherwise are in for a bad shock.

Thursday, October 8, 2015

On the Indifference of our School System to Parents and Teachers

To date on this blog I have avoided discussing the school system. As many of my readers know I am the husband of a school teacher and have avoided writing on topics that would potentially affect my wife’s workplace but I am going to make an exception to my informal rule. The reason for this is that our local school district continues to show indifference to the needs of parents and teachers in our district and I am simply tired of staying silent on the topic. You see, I am also the parent of three kids: two are school-aged and one starts kindergarten next year and I am amazed at how many decisions our school district has made in the last few years that have negatively affected our household and those of our friends and family.

We have all been taught that it is important to make a good first impression, but our school system immediately starts off badly with parents. Next year our family will be re-introduced to the concept of “gradual entry” into kindergarten. For those of you unaware of the program, it is a two week regime designed to gently ease children, who have been attending daycares since age 1, to the "rigours" of full-day kindergarten. My nephew went through the gradual entry program this year and it was ridiculous. Elementary schools start the Tuesday after Labour Day and as his first step in the gradual entry process my nephew had no school on that Tuesday. On the Wednesday he attended school for 30 minutes. As for Thursday and Friday, he didn’t have any school on those days either. So for the first week of gradual entry kindergarten he attended 30 minutes of school.

Now if you happen to have a stay-at-home parent in the household this glacial process would not be a problem, but for two-income families it ranges from a major inconvenience to a real financial hardship. As most families know, daycare is hard to get, expensive and most daycare slots go from September 1 to August 31 to fit in the school calendar. If you have a child in school, you certainly aren’t going to pay a full month worth of daycare to hold a slot for one week in September. This means that during the two week gradual entry program families either need to find alternative child-care or take time off work. Since most kids in working families have been attending daycare since age 1, gradual entry represents a struggle to figure out, or pay for, child care arrangements for kids who are completely ready for school, but no longer have a daycare slot. For families like my own, with only one parent available to do home care during the week (I will discuss that issue later), it means I will be using two weeks of my annual holidays to accommodate this questionable requirement.

The frustrating secret about the gradual entry process is that the first week is mostly devoted to the school system doing administrative tasks that they could have accomplished during the summer. As I described above, our nephew only got 30 minutes of face time that entire first week. He wasn’t getting acclimatized to school he was being shunted aside while the administration did the work they should have completed before September. Administrators are paid very generous salaries and perhaps requiring them to work a bit during the summer would allow thousands of British Columbian families to save a week’s salary/holidays. I can understand the need to for gradual entry but it is time the school system gave kids some credit for resilience and cut the “gradual entry” back to one week.

Now we have addressed gradual entry, let’s talk about professional development days. As we all know teachers get professional development days in the school calendar. In the 2013-2014 calendar there were six of these days. Each required a parent to stay at home or find alternate care for their children costing either money or vacation days. Well apparently the school district decided that ruining six days of work was not challenging enough for parents so since the 2014-2015 school year the school calendar was changed so that the district professional development was done by the half-day. So now instead of six full days they have gone to two full-day provincial professional development days, four half-day district professional days and six “collaboration” days.

So you may be wondering what a “collaboration day” represents? These aren’t really days, but rather they represent 80 minute blocks where school starts either earlier or later than normal in order allow teachers to work on schemes to “collaborate” both internally (within the school) and externally (with teachers at other schools). Six times a year our kids will be sent home 80 minutes early to allow for this process. On the bright side, during the first year of collaboration days they started school 80 minutes later. This precluded parents getting to work in the morning and cost a lot a parents work shifts. At least by moving the collaboration to the afternoon it allows families with after-school care to simply pay extra for the extra care.

As for the straw that broke the camel’s back, Thursday the school district announced that all parent-teacher interviews in the district will be coordinated to be held at the exact same two days at the exact same times. There will be one day when the teachers stay until 4:30 pm and another when the teachers stay at school until 7:30 pm. Even the dinner break for the teachers will be at the same time. This sounds like a good idea from an administrative perspective but completely ignore the fact that a large percentage of the teachers in our district are also parents; parents who are interested in the academic well-being of their kids. In previous years, elementary schools teachers could stagger their days to allow teachers, who were also parents, to attend to both tasks. This year, in a fit of administrative orderliness, the district will not even allow teachers who have an empty block in their schedule to leave their schools to discuss their kid’s performance.

That last point brings me to the level of “respect” our school district holds for its employees. The school district demands an incredible amount of flexibility from the parents in the district (as demonstrated above) but allows for exactly zero flexibility for its employees. They don’t trust their teachers to leave the school during breaks in the parent-teacher interview schedules; they won’t allow teachers any flexibility during the “gradual entry” period to allow the parent/teachers to help ease their kids into the school system; and they won’t allow any flexibility to cover the half-day breaks.

Going over all the numbers in the text above, I have come to a frightening realization. I am one of the lucky people out there who gets three weeks of holidays a year. Looking at the numbers above I can see that I will be using all that time filling in the gaps in our child-care arrangements. The two weeks of gradual entry (actually only 9 work days with Labour Day) combined with the 6 professional development days actually works out to my entire allotment of holidays for the year. It looks like we won’t be taking a family summer holiday unless I am able to bank a lot of overtime or take unpaid time off. Happily I have a job where I can bank overtime but there are going to be a bunch of Kindergarten parents who will not be spending any special summer time with their kids because our school system doesn’t consider their interests when it makes decisions. The sad part is they don’t even do this out of malice, instead it is mere indifference. The school district has shown time and again that they are indifferent to the needs, wants and desires of the working families and teachers in the school district. Administrative tidiness is all they care about. Given the choice between inconveniencing thousands of parents and workplaces and having nice orderly lines on their charts, they choose the orderly lines every time and are utterly indifferent to the time and resources their decisions cost the rest of us.    

Wednesday, October 7, 2015

More on the Trans-Pacific Partnership and the Environment

As many of my blog readers know, I have a regular blog at the Huffington Post Canada. On that blog I post shorter versions/updates of my A Chemist in Langley posts and post “short takes” on recent issues in the world of evidence-based environmental policy and renewable energy. The good thing about that venue is that it draws more eyeballs to the screen than my own little blog here. The downside is that it has a pretty strict limit on how long a post can be (about 800 words). Having a word limit can be a good thing as writing for that blog has allowed me to refine my writing and find shorter ways to say things. The downside is that I blog about topics that are not always black and white and a word limit can restrict my ability to expand on an important point or give useful examples to clarify topics of interest.

My post yesterday Why the TPP Doesn't Spell Doom for the Environment is a really good example of where a post would be improved with the addition of a few hundred more words. So today, I am going to add those words. In doing so I will take some others out and mix it up a bit.   

 As I wrote in my Huffington blog post, early Monday negotiations on the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) concluded with an Agreement in Principle. While details of the agreement are still under wraps, the Canadian government has provided a Technical Summary of the Agreement. Now an Agreement in Principle is not a final deal ready to be ratified by governments and so we don’t have to go rushing about and panicking yet but it is important to understand what the deal means from an environmental perspective.   

The thing to understand about these trade agreements is that they are not the black/white story that the activists claim they are. Rather from an environmental perspective, trade agreements have both positive and negative aspects. They can have the negative effect of slowing down the development of unilateral environmental regulations, but they can have a positive effect by forcing environmental laggards to catch up with the pack.

It is quite true that trade agreements typically include considerations to prevent individual countries from developing their own distinct environmental policies. One of the important features of these trade agreements involve knocking down or eliminating non-tariff barriers (also called technical barriers to trade). The problem is that environmental regulations have historically been used by the bad actors on the international trade front to disguise simple protectionism. Like the wolf in the story Little Red Riding Hood the protectionism is dressed up to look like it is intended to enhance environmental performance but under the covers hide regulations intended to harm foreign competitors, often without improving environmental performance in the least. A recent example is the case of Korean emissions standards which did nothing to improve emission characteristics of cars on Korean roads but did a wonderful job of stopping the export of North American autos to Korea.

To further explain how these trade agreements can hurt individual action on the environmental front, imagine that Canada implemented a national carbon tax. Every pound of steel produced in Southern Ontario would be subject to that tax. This would make Ontario steel more expensive than the steel from an identical steel plant with otherwise identical cost structures elsewhere in the TPP zone. Under the National Treatment and Market Access (NTMA) chapter of the TPP, Canada would not be allowed to put a tariff on imported steel (that was not subject to the carbon tax) to address the difference in price and our steel industry would suffer. In this case the TPP would slow down the development of innovative, Canada-first policies to fight climate change.

Now the example above ignores some very important points put forward by the environmental community. The first is that we almost never see an example where a Canadian plant is identical to one in Vietnam (for example). Canadian plants tend to depend more on automation to address the differences in our employee cost structures. If we are running more efficient factories, the addition of a carbon tax can actually have a positive effect. By driving up the cost of carbon Canadian producers are forced to improvise and adapt. This is what fuels innovation. A factory dependent on cheap labour is less likely to make those adaptations and thus Canadian companies have the potential to adapt their way out of the higher costs.

A further important consideration is what happens to the money generated by the carbon tax? If that money is reinvested into new energy efficient processes or renewable energy projects then once again a country like Canada can thrive under a carbon tax regime. This is why I, among many, don’t like the idea of purely “revenue neutral” carbon taxes. I think a percentage of the money generated by a carbon tax should be funneled back into rapid transit, environmental infrastructure and research. In a perfect world a carbon tax should only be a temporary thing as we move away from carbon. Making our government dependent on the revenues from a carbon tax only ensures that we will never move away from carbon because I have yet to see a government give up a revenue source once it has figured out a way to hook its way into that revenue. Earmarking carbon tax revenue, rather than throwing it in general revenue, is a way to ensure that the government doesn’t rely on it to keep the lights on and thus our government has an incentive to eventually get us off the carbon train.

The most important feature of a low-carbon, high environmental value economy comes down to consumer choice. The TPP will not force Canadians to buy foreign products, it only says that we cannot deny other countries the opportunity to sell their product in our market. We, as consumers, can make a conscious choice to pay a little bit more to get a better, greener products. This is where the Greens of our world have to actually start living by their words.

I live in the community of Walnut Grove in Langley. Walnut Grove has very good selection of local stores that provide high-quality products often at a price slightly higher than it would cost to buy at a big box store or an American warehouse outlet. My family has made a choice that we are willing to pay the 5% -10% more to be able to walk to our local baker, vegetable market, butcher, wine store and grocery store. We value the fact that everyone at our local stores know us and our kids by name. We like the fact that Mr. Lee from IGA gives our kids hugs when they walk into his store and that his niece shares a classroom with our son at the local elementary school. We love that profits from our meat purchases at Meridian Meats go to their head office in Port Coquitlam and that our money for vegetables go to local farmers and not to some corporate head office in Arkansas. We appreciate the Overwaitea Food Group, whose corporate head office I can see on my walk to work. Sure we could, and sometimes have to, shop at places like Costco and Walmart but that makes up a very small percentage of our shopping dollar. The TPP does not take any of that away from us.

It is only when consumers demand low prices above all that we as a country will suffer. Meanwhile, the low prices often come at a cost of lower quality or higher inconvenience. I’m not sure about you, but spending 20 minutes each way to drive to a big box store is often a false economy both in lost time and in travel costs.    

On the positive side of the ledger, under the TPP multilateral environment agreements (MEAs) are further strengthened. Enforcement of the Montreal Protocol, the International Convention for the Prevention of Pollution from Ships and the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora will all be strengthened for exactly same reason that individual action is discouraged. In order for competition to be considered fair every country is expected to live up to its international environmental obligations. MEAs set a baseline that every member of the TPP must meet, to do otherwise results in penalties. A country trying to shirk its environmental duties would be punished and forced to improve environmental performance to group norms. Thus in this case the environment benefits from the agreement. If the TPP had been in effect when Kyoto was signed Canada may not have been able to drag its heels in implementing the plan because its trade partners would have been there to force Canada to do its part or suffer the consequences of failing to act.

In following the debate on the TPP I find it particularly odd that the people who most dislike these international trade deals, are often the same people who demand that we, as a country, involve ourselves in international environmental deals/regulations. You either trust in international cooperation or you don’t. Somehow the leaders in the environmental movement want us to believe that international is good when it comes to the environment and bad when it comes to trade?

The other thing to recognize it that most of the really big problems of the world today cannot be handled by individual governments. Climate change, loss of biodiversity, destruction of coral reefs, the virtual elimination of the upper trophic levels in our world oceans, these are topics that have to be handled by a community of nations. Our shared global future is one where MEAs are going to be a necessity and trade agreements like the TPP are going to provide one of the few dependable mechanisms to enforce those MEAs.  

Thus international trade agreements like the TPP can discourage independent action but strongly encourage international cooperation and movement towards common international goals. To discourage foot-draggers from stopping all environmental advances, typically once an agreed upon percentage of the trade partners take a side on a MEA everyone has to jump on board or suffer the consequences. From these examples you can see the issue. When a single country wants to make a unilateral advance in environmental regulation, the TPP is going to slap it down, or failing that the industries in the affected country are going to become less competitive. However, when the global community agrees on a common environmental goal the foot-draggers and slow movers are punished.

Finally, a lot of the naysayers have popped up to ask how NAFTA helped the environment? My response to that question is that it is complicated. NAFTA was one of the first really big trade deals and when it was written, politicians didn’t really understand how important locking environmental performance into a trade deal was to ensure fairness in international trade. As such, the environmental components were tacked on at the end of the negotiations with NAFTA. Even with this proviso NAFTA ended up improving environmental performance in Mexico without a commensurate decrease in Canada/the US. I welcome my readers to go to the literature on this topic, because the references are many and surprisingly weighted in the positive direction.

So are trade deals like the TPP perfect? Absolutely not, but from an environmental perspective they are far more nuanced than the anti-free trade activists would have you believe.

Monday, September 21, 2015

Why the West Coast’s gas prices are so high and who is to blame

Early in my blogging career I wrote a blog piece discussing factors that affect gasoline and diesel prices on the West Coast. The post was called A Primer: Why Cheap Oil Doesn't Mean Cheap Gasoline or Diesel and dealt mostly with how gasoline is created in refineries. Well, the topic has come up again and once again we have people complaining about gasoline and diesel prices on the West Coast in a world of low oil prices. Most recently the National Observer had a post of the subject “Canadians get ripped off at the pumps” produced by a local economist Robyn Allan. Having read that article I suppose it is about time I updated my earlier post and addressed some of the obvious shortcomings in Ms. Allan’s piece in the Observer.
The first thing you need to know to understand gasoline prices on the West Coast is that it is all about supply and demand and has very little to do with the price of oil. The reason for this is simple: it is not oil that you put in your gas tank; it is gasoline and diesel, both of which are refined products. In my earlier post I give a description of how we convert oil into gasoline and diesel and pointed out that there is a limit to how much gasoline and diesel can be generated from a barrel of oil. This is especially problematic with respect to diesel fuel since the component of the crude oil mixture used to generate diesel fuel is also the same one used to make kerosene and fuel oils (for household heating). The diesel market is, thus, heavily affected by the current and future market for fuel oil (especially in central and eastern Canada where fuel oil is heavily used for home heating).
As I note above we can’t use crude oil in our fuel tanks, we need to use refined petroleum products and we all know where refined petroleum products come from: refineries. So it is not just the amount of oil on the market that defines the price of gasoline but the ability of the refineries to convert that oil into useful things like gasoline and diesel. That is not all, however; once we have refined the oil into gasoline we still have to transport it to market. All the refined gasoline in the world does you no good if it is stuck on the East side of the Rockies. These are the portions of the story where Ms. Allan falls off the rails in her analysis in the National Observer. In her piece she pretty much ignores the two critical bottlenecks in the progression from oil in the ground to gasoline in your tank: refinery capacity and transportation capacity. Today I am going to deal with refining capacity.
 As anyone who follows the oil industry knows, we on the Canadian West Coast have allowed our refining capacity to wither and die on the vine. Historically, there were several oil refineries on the West Coast including the Chevron refinery (still open), the Imperial Oil Ioco refinery and the Shell Refinery. Thanks to regulatory hurdles and market forces we are now down to a single refinery (Chevron) which is able to handle about 57,000 barrels/day (b/d) of oil. To put that number into perspective, the Chevron refinery only supplies about 25% of B.C.’s commercial fuel supply and 40% of YVR’s jet fuel needs. As a consequence we import a LOT of fuel from refineries in Alberta (mostly around Edmonton). According to Natural Resources Canada, we import almost 60% of our petroleum product needs via pipeline and gasoline tanker cars (by rail) from Alberta. Unfortunately, even that is not enough and so we are also dependent on the big refineries in the Puget Sound for things like aviation fuel (from Cherry Point) and additional volume when the prairie market gets too tight. Because that additional fuel is bought on an irregular schedule it is subject to the whims of supply and demand. This makes US supplies a critical consideration in any gasoline price discussion in BC.
The United States has broken their petroleum market up into five Petroleum Administration of Defense Districts (PADDs). This was originally done during the Second World War to ensure energy supplies but is still in effect to this day. The West Coast of the US, including California, Oregon and Washington, make up PADD V. PADD V is a rather unusual district because of its geography (it is mostly bordered on the east by mountains). Unlike the other districts, which are linked internally with lots of pipelines and combined capacity; PADD V is pretty much stuck on its lonesome and has to be self-sufficient. There are some minor cross-PADD connections but mostly when something goes wrong in PADD V it hits the entire region.  Well this year has been a tough one for PADD V. In February, a major fire shut down the Torrence refinery in California. Torrence is the third largest refinery in California and supplies about 10% of California’s gasoline supply (remember the California gasoline market is essentially equivalent to the entire Canadian gasoline market). The loss of Torrence meant that all of the other refineries in PADD V had to make up the difference. All of a sudden the Puget Sound didn’t have an excess of fuel to sell to British Columbia as it was being sold in California.
In addition to the Torrence issue, the American mid-west was also having a bad time. For most of August the BP Whiting Refinery in Indiana was also shut down. This left a huge crunch in the market in the prairies as mid-west suppliers were offering top dollar for gasoline from Alberta. This left BC in a pickle. Alberta didn’t have any cheap gasoline because it was all going to fill a need in the US mid-west and PADD V didn’t have any cheap gasoline because of the fire in Torrence and another disruption in April.  We were the equivalent of the lonely traveler wandering into town, during a nasty storm, in the middle of convention season and demanding a room. Without a reservation (firm, regular, fixed-rate contracts for gasoline) and without any alternatives (since Edmonton couldn’t help us) we ended up having to pay top dollar for our gasoline. Thus we had $1.20+ gasoline in a world where the oil price was below $60/bbl.
Of course the piece in the National Observer completely ignored these conditions. In the Observer it was all the greedy oil companies’ faults that we could not get cheap gas. No mention was made to the red tape, fuel access restrictions (pipeline capacity) and bad political climate that scared all but one of the local refineries out of the market. No mention was made of the work to block expansion of pipelines that would have allowed more refined gasoline to move east-west across the country. No mention is made about protestors that locked down the Chevron refinery further curtailing supply.
The truth is that we as Canadians have brought this down upon ourselves. We made it uncomfortable for refineries to exist in BC by limiting supply of crude (by fighting pipelines) and adding red tape. In doing so, we have made ourselves utterly dependent on refineries in Alberta and the Puget Sound to keep our cars and buses running. Like so many other environmental fields (see my post on rare earth metals) we have off-loaded all the environmental costs to other jurisdictions and lived like environmental free-loaders letting others take the risks while we reap the rewards. Well now it is time for our chickens to come home to roost. We are not getting “ripped off at the pump” as Ms. Allan would claim; rather we are getting a well-justified comeuppance. We made a politically expedient decision to limit the production and transportation of a critical component of our economy (refined fuels) and so now have to pay the price for that decision when regional supplies are low. The ironic part of all this is that from an environmental point-of-view this is a good thing. By making the fuel more expensive we will force people to use less of it. This is supposed to be a good thing. Why is that ironic? Well because a media outlet like the Observer is the one complaining most loudly about the problem. That the Observer would turn around and complain that the outcome they have been working towards has come to pass? That is just rich!