Saturday, February 28, 2015

On “Bullies”, “shills” and using labels to shut down legitimate debate

Last Wednesday was “Pink Shirt Day”, which for those of you not familiar with the event, is a day to “take a stand against bullying”. The day started as two boys’ response to bullying of a classmate and has become a laudable cultural phenomenon. One of the early proponents of Pink Shirt Day was our current British Columbia Premier Christy Clark, who at the time was a radio talk show host on an extremely popular local radio station. She used the power of her microphone to get the word out and championed the cause during its early years. As noted, Ms. Clark is now the Premier of British Columbia and on Pink Shirt Day this year was called out as “bully” by an otherwise highly-accomplished political opponent (NDP MLA Selina Robinson). Here is what Ms. Robinson is quoted as saying: 

The Liberals have power, they won government, and they are making lots of decisions, and order to hang on to the power, they make everyone else, those whose jobs it is to hold them accountable … feel bad, so that they are less capable of doing their job, which is holding government accountable. It’s bullying, and it certainly feels that way. (ref)

Now no one will deny that Premier Clark has an abrasive political style and part of that style is to use the tricks of her radio days on her opponents. This includes using anecdotes (often about her family) that she then turns around on her opponents. Most recently, she compared her opponents (the NDP) to a teenager (her son) who is “still sitting on the couch and he's asking you to clean up after him and he doesn't want to get up and do anything” (ref). Premier Clark’s other main sin is that upon receiving a majority of seats in the last provincial election she has chosen to govern the province as if she won a majority of seats in the last provincial election. That is, she treats the mandate of the electorate as an indication of their desires and thus tends to not follow the desires of the opposition (the NDP). For these transgressions (and making the NDP feel bad about themselves?) Premier Clark was called out as a “bully”. 

I questioned this use of the term “bullying” on Twitter, and was directed to a web site that nominally provided a definition of bullying as: “one person, or group of persons, being deliberately cruel to another person or group, for any reason”. I will readily admit to not being an expert on bullying, but I would suggest that the definition, as presented, and its use by Ms. Robinson, totally diminishes the power of the word. The definition could encompass my three-year old daughter getting angry at her siblings as easily as it would the prototypical schoolyard bully picking on the smaller kids to make himself feel bigger. It ignores any context or indication of relative power dynamics which form the basis of virtually every definition of bully out there (see Wikipedia, Merriam-Webster, Oxford English). 

The English language has any number of words to describe the Premier’s behaviour. She has clearly been unkind and can be condescending but is she really a bully?  So the question must be asked, with all the alternatives available to her in the English language why did Ms. Robinson use the word “bully”? Well that is because it has become one of words activists use not to stimulate debate or discussion but rather to shut down debate. Words, like “fascist” which used to refer to “radical authoritarian nationalism” but is now used by activists whenever a policeman politely asks them to make way so others can make use of a public street or sidewalk. 

Another word I read often these days is the word “shill”. This too, is usually used in an attempt to diminish the ideas and information provided by someone who holds an opposing point of view. The funny part is that the term “shill” is pretty much reserved for people who tend to agree with the status quo. In its correct form, a “shill” is “someone who pretends to give an impartial endorsement of something in which they themselves have an interest” (ref). The two people most likely to be called “shills”, in my social network (people I follow or who follow me), are Dr. Andrew Leach and Mr. Cody Battershill. The funny thing is that there has never been an iota of evidence to suggest that either has received a cent from any of the organizations or causes about which they communicate. Dr. Leach has had the good fortune to have earned a Professorship in Energy Policy via the Alberta School of Business and funded by Enbridge (ref). As anyone who knows anything about how Professorships works knows, the receiving academic is very much insulated from the philanthropic donor. To do otherwise would violate university policies and would taint any research conducted under the Professorship. That being said, whenever Dr. Leach strikes a chord on the internet you can predict, like the ticking of a clock, that someone will bring up his Professorship. These folks cannot assail his arguments so they attack the man (and his title). This is the textbook definition of an ad hominem attack but is repeated relentlessly by activists who cannot muster the information to counter his data. Mr. Battershill is somewhat different case. He is a self-taught activist who has become a thorn in the side of anti-oil sands activists. He is a real estate agent by training but spends his spare time informing the public about energy literacy with a definite pro-oil sands bent. Unlike most of the activists who attack him constantly, Mr. Battershill reportedly receives no stipend from any third parties to do his work. Based on interviews (ref) it would appear that Mr. Battershill actually loses money doing his blogging. That doesn’t stop activists from impugning his motives because they lack the data to impugn his information. Information that is typically well-researched and on point.

The common thread in the use of these terms is that the activists yell “shill”, “bully” etc.. when they have no case to present, nor data to support their point of view. Ad hominems and name-calling are used by the desperate to distract and to interfere with or stop all debate. They are not used by people who can marshal facts in defense of their opinions. As interested parties we should call out this practice for what it is. We should not allow the smearing of good people and should demand that organizations and individuals who use these terms are sent scurrying to find data to support their opinions rather than being allowed to throw out smears without repercussion or penalty. 

Author's note: I cannot believe that in writing this post I forgot to mention my personal favourite "shill" Ms.Vivian Krause who has had nothing but kind words for this blog and has done some of the most insightful research into energy and finance that money did not buy. After working for years on her own dime, she accepted one honorarium and in doing so earned her own personal poltergeist. The perfect example of a citizen researcher and someone we can all strive to emulate.

Monday, February 23, 2015

Public Sector Compensation - You Get What You Pay for

Today I am going to provide a bit of a change of pace from my normal postings. Up until now I have written primarily on the topics of renewable energy and climate change. A glance at my earliest postings shows that I started my blogging talking about pipelines. What most of my readers don't know is that the event that actually pulled me out of my shell and into talking about science on the public stage was the Mount Polley Tailings pond failure. For those of you not familiar with the event, in August 2014 the tailings pond dam for Imperial Mine's Mount Polley Copper and Gold Mine had a partial breach releasing 10 million cubic metres of water and 4.5 million cubic metres of slurry into Polley Lake. At the time I made some comments on Twitter. As an interested outsider (with no conflicts of interest involving the project, but a knowledge of the field of contaminated sites) I was subsequently interviewed a few times by a local news radio station about how the spill might affect the local ecology and clean-up options. After the spill a number of reports came out passing around blame for the disaster. One repeated complaint was the lack of inspections and mine inspection staff.

The number and quality of inspectors/regulators is always a matter of concern in the environmental and natural resource fields. Consider our mine inspectors, in a perfect world we would have a surplus of mine inspectors. Moreover, our mine inspectors would be old hands from the mining field. They would have years of mining experience, know their way around a mine and would know where the mine operators typically hide the skeletons. Unfortunately for us, we do not live in a perfect world. The mine inspector described above is no longer the norm in the public sector of 2015. Certainly our regulators have a lot of old hands who were hired in an earlier era and have the knowledge, skills and experience to get the job done, but these days they represent the last of a dying breed. One important reason for this is the rate of compensation for the technical staff in the bureaucracies of 2015.

Now public sector compensation is an incredibly hot-button subject. Last summer when the BC Public Sector Compensation Review came out it was headline news. I couldn’t turn on the TV or listen to the radio without hearing the representative from the Canadian Taxpayer’s Federation declaring that public sector compensation packages represented an outrage. The reality is somewhat different, it is true that some public sector employees do better than their compatriots in the private sector but some do considerably worse. Before I go much further let’s make some simple stipulations to speed things up: 

  • No one can deny that in the lower-skilled positions, public sector workers are often paid at a better rate than they would for doing the same work in the private sector.
  • No one can deny that at the top end in the public sector (and crown corporations) senior management are paid at a comparable rate to the private sector with less risk of firing or a need to be accountable to shareholder value.
  • It is well-understood that public sector workers also have very generous benefits/retirement packages that we’ve been repeatedly told increases their equivalent salary by on average 15%.
  • Finally, based on news reports, some political appointees have received insane-sounding salaries.
Now that we have addressed the red herrings, let’s talk about the topic of this post: highly-trained technical specialists, the people we depend on to ensure our bridges don’t collapse, to keep our water clean and our mines tailings dams from breaching.

Let’s start with the big picture, consider the BCGov salary comparisons chart. It presents the maximum salaries based on responsibilities and bargaining unit for various job classifications. If you happen to know someone in the public service, who you believe earns more than $75,000, you can also look them up on the Vancouver Sun Public Sector Salaries database. At first glance some of those salaries look pretty good, until you look into what the jobs classifications actually mean. Take a look at the classification plan for Licensed Science Officers (LSOs), it tells you what it takes to qualify as an LSO 1 versus an LSO 2etc.. For comparison now consider that the Association of Professional Engineers of British Columbia (APEG BC) annual salary survey which, too, comes with a job classification chart of its own. 

As an exercise for this post, I opened up the BC Government Directory and went to the Ministry of Energy and Mines and searched for a Mining Operations Office, in this case I chose Prince George as that is a pretty important town for mining. I then worked my way down the list I found there. I looked at the Regional Geologist, the Senior Reclamation Officer, the Manager - Geotechnical Engineering, the Senior Inspector of Mines-Permitting, and an Inspector of Mines – Permitting. Except for the last employee, I then compared the employee’s salary from the Vancouver Sun database with the APEG BC salary results for Engineers and Geologists with my best estimate for the same level of experience and responsibility. The result was that in every case the public servant was paid in either the lowest quartile (lowest 25% of APEG members with that classification) or lowest decile (lowest 10% of APEG members with that classification). The final employee (the inspector) didn’t actually make the $75,000 barrier? I would also point out that the salaries presented on the BC Gov chart represent a maximum. A Licensed Science Officer 5 (LSO 5) starts at $67,809.74 and only makes it to the maximum salary of $88,420.29 after the appropriate time in the public service. Regardless of your outside experience, you start at the bottom of the range for your position. 

Having looked at existing employees I then did a search of current job postings and found one for a Bridge Engineer. In the job posting they are asking for someone with: 

a university degree in Engineering, majoring in Structural Engineering supplemented by at least nine years of progressively more responsible experience in Bridge and Structural Engineering or a related field, with at least five years preferred directly working in position(s) dealing with Bridge and Structural Design and/or Construction, and several of those in an environment involving transportation infrastructure or an equivalent combination of education and experience may be considered.”  

For someone with those challenging technical and professional qualifications they are offering the princely sum of $67,809.74 with a potential to work up to $88,420.29. But wait there is more, because the job is in a hard-to-find bracket they are offering a 4.4% salary bump. Pretty rich right? Based on the APEG BC chart this level of experience would appear to be in the 450 - 499 point range. Engineers in BC with responsibilities in the 450- 499 point range have a median salary of $101,000 with the bottom decile being $80,000. So an engineer with the called-for experience wouldn’t even reach the bottom decile cut-off for Engineers in the field for many years after accepting the job? Can you imagine any engineer with almost 10 years experience and the specialization described taking that sort of pay cut to work in the public sector? Is there any doubt why they had to extend the closing date for this posting and have included the following text: “Applicants who do not fully meet the required qualifications may be considered for this position, but at a lower classification”?

Having looked at the numbers let’s return to the point of this post. We depend on our regulators to ensure that provincial environmental and mining regulations are followed. These are the people who we depend on to protect the public's (our) interests. Instead of offering these highly-trained and skilled professionals a salary commensurate with their responsibilities we are offering them salaries that put them amongst the lowest paid of their peer group in the province. It is hard to complain about the level of expertise and knowledge in the public sector when we pay them so little after all you get what you are willing to pay for. The confusing part is that our provincial government keeps insisting that we have to pay upper-level managers and political appointees a salary equivalent to the ones they could earn in the private sector in order to ensure we get the best people for the jobs? It is a pity they don't feel the same way when it comes to the technical specialists our politicians rely on to ensure the protection of the public interest and to provide the scientific expertise necessary to run our government. Moreover, it goes farther than just salaries, but I don’t have time to go into the other issues I have uncovered in my research for this post, including work-load issues for existing employees; unwillingness to replace retirees; and union work rules that limit who can be hired to do various jobs. That will have to be the source of a future post.

Thursday, February 19, 2015

A Primer: Why Cheap Oil Doesn't Mean Cheap Gasoline or Diesel

I was listening to the radio the other evening and the topic of discussion was gasoline prices in the Lower Mainland. The callers (and host) were expressing their anger that gasoline prices had not dropped with the recent drop in oil prices. I listened as various callers and pundits discussed words like "collusion" and "price fixing" but I was surprised that no one appeared to understand the basics of supply and demand in the North American fuel market. You see there is no terrible conspiracy causing gas prices to rise in BC (and North America), instead it is simply a direct result of market forces and the supply/demand curve. This morning, I had a similar discussion online and in a series of tweets tried to explain the current situation but figured that this topic is one that is so badly misunderstood that I may as well present a very simplified explanation here. Please note, I bolded those words on purpose. This is only a simple overview but recognize there are a lot of complexities that I do not have the time/space to address.

Let's start with the basics. One thing that people tend to forget is that crude oil and gasoline are very different commodities. Crude oil is a mixture of petroleum hydrocarbons (as presented in the ALS Laboratories Petroleum Fractions by Carbon Range chart 2.4 MB .pdf). To explain it as simply as possible, petroleum hydrocarbons are made up of a mixture of individual hydrocarbon molecules. A hydrocarbon molecule is simply an organic molecule made up entirely of carbon and hydrogen. The hydrocarbons can vary in type from small linear molecules (methane, ethane, propane, n-butane etc..) to cyclic and aromatic molecules like (cyclohexane and benzene) to huge monstrous unsaturated compounds (asphaltenes). Moreover, not all crude oils are the same. They can vary from light crudes (Brent Light crude with a higher proportion of lighter molecules) all the way to heavy crudes and oil sands. In order to separate these mixtures into useful components we need a refinery.

Refineries are the locations where crude oil is broken into its component parts for sale. The Wikipedia page on refineries will tell you what you need to know about how refineries operate. The critical thing about refineries is that they are incredibly expensive to build and they are incredibly expensive to operate (see this ref on the Economics of Refining). With such tight margins, a refinery has to operate at near capacity to be worth the money spent to build and operate it. As such we don't have a lot of spare capacity available in North America. From an economic perspective the supply and demand curves match up very tightly. Because of their margins, refineries make more money if they are bigger and as such most of the smaller refineries around North America have closed down. In the BC lower mainland, for instance, the Chevron refinery sits as the last of its breed. It operates at about 55,000 barrel a day and comes nowhere near to meeting the local demand for fuel. Most of the remaining Lower Mainland fuel demand is met by a group of refineries in Washington State (in the Puget Sound). Refineries tend to be located at nexus points where they can get ready supplies of raw materials (crude) and where they can then ship the material out easily (usually in a tanker). Refined fuels are typically not sent around the country in normal pipelines (that are also used for crude) because they pick up too many impurities. Thus, if a refinery in Edmonton sends a load of gasoline down the Trans-Mountain pipeline it typically needs to be polished (have the impurities removed) in Vancouver before it can be sold for retail use. Instead refined products are shipped via dedicated tankers, barges or rail cars. That is why we have the big tank farms in Vancouver. A lot of our fuel is imported by tanker, barge or rail car and stored in tank farms before being sent out for retail sale.

As I mentioned above, refineries are expensive and we do not have a lot of extra capacity in the North American system. Any interruption of the refining system will reduce supply, which consequently results in a rise in price. So even if you have all the cheap oil in the world in your backyard, if your refinery is down then gas is going to be expensive. This brings us to the news. Anyone interested in the oil business knows that right now there is a major labour battle going on in the United States between refinery workers and the refinery owners (Reuters story). This strike has affected the supply of gasoline by reducing the North American refinery capacity by a pretty substantial margin. Moreover, more bad news is on the way as a major explosion at a big California refinery (Reuter story) is only going to tighten up supply. I would be filling up my tank sooner than later if I were you (although you may already be too late) as the gas prices will have to move to reflect this loss of supply.

The other question I was asked today was why gasoline and diesel prices do not appear to run together very well. Specifically, diesel stayed high even as gasoline prices dropped. This brings us back to how refineries operate and supply and demand. As I discussed above, crude oil is a mixture of hydrocarbons. Gasoline and diesel on the other hand are carefully designed formulations. Gasolines are made up of a mixture of hydrocarbons typically in the 5 to 12 carbon ranges (C5-C12). Different formulations will have more of the lighter mixture than others but for the most part that is the part of the crude oil used for gasoline. Diesel is made up of the C8-C24 ranges. A quick look at the hydrocarbon chart will show that a lot of other hydrocarbon products are also derived from that part of the crude oil mixture. The most important of these are fuel oils which are used heavily in the East to keep houses warm. Refineries have the ability to "crack" or "coke" heavier petroleum hydrocarbons into smaller units but this process is limited and the process adds cost to the product. What this means is that for the most part the oil companies have to choose whether they are going to use that part of the crude oil for diesel or for fuel oil. Unfortunately, in the last decade or so the number of trucks and trains that depend on diesel to operate have increased substantially. This has put a stress on the availability of diesel. Moreover, the incredibly cold weather in the East has resulted in a higher than expected demand on fuel oil, to keep those people on the Eastern Seaboard from turning into icicles. So given a strong demand for diesel; a higher than expected demand on fuel oil; and limited refining capacity, we have a perfect storm for diesel prices. Put simply, don't expect a drop in diesel prices anytime soon and expect that even when gasoline prices start to drop (assuming the labour issues as solved) that diesel prices will still remain higher than gasoline prices for the foreseeable future.

Sunday, February 15, 2015

Is the IPCC the IOC of Science?

I was having a discussion online, on Twitter, about the field of Climate Science. The basis of the discussion was a simple question: what does it take to be considered a "climate scientist"? and the corollary: who is qualified to comment on and provide reviews of climate science? As many of you may know, I have taken flack for suggesting that highly educated and well-trained individuals outside the academic sphere have anything to say about the topic and deserve the opportunity to be heard. The debate went back and forth with people pointing out that climate science is a complicated field and methodologies used in climate science are too complicated for input from the general public. What no one was able to actually define was: what it took to be called a "climate scientist". My opinion, coming out of the discussion, was that climate science is not really "a field" as much as a group of fields centered on answering questions about several inter-related topics. During the course of the discussion a thought occurred to me. If I had to describe the field of climate science in a way that best expresses its current status in the world, I think the best analogy would be the various sports that make up the Olympic Games. With that thought in the back of my mind, I went out for a run and as the kms flowed underfoot, I became more certain that this was a readily-accessible way to make people understand what climate science is all about. 

In my view, climate science is not a "subject", per se, but rather a field made up of a number of disparate subjects, many of which had few interactions prior to the creation of the field of “climate science”. A population ecologist studying the effects of climate change on woodland bird populations has pretty much nothing in common with an aerosol physicist, but under the umbrella of "climate scientist" they can be considered to be working in the same field. They do share some very important similarities in that both are highly educated, having reached the apex of their respective fields, but their methodologies and field techniques have about as much in common as an athlete in the modern pentathlon has with a beach volleyball player (no opinion on which is which). On a day-to-day or week-to-week basis these people do not interact, but once every few years they are asked to do their best for an international audience. 

The more I thought about it, the more intriguing this analogy became. The Olympic Games bring together the world's greatest specialists, in their individual sports, while the IPCC brings together the top scientists in their fields. Both then ask those specialists to perform under the eyes of the world. Consider that the IOC is a body started with the best of intentions that was supposed to be above politics. Over time, however, it has been a lightning rod for politics. Does this sound like the IPCC? The membership of the IOC includes some of the top athletes and athletic officials on the planet. It is also the home for numerous has-beens, never-weres and political hacks. Remind you of anything? It has been argued that in the last 50 years the IOC has become a fiefdom controlled by a small body of bureaucrats who are accountable to no one but themselves? See the similarities? It is not all bad, however, as the Olympic Games are one of the premiere sporting events on the planet. They represent a showcase for some of the planet’s greatest athletes and are home to some of the best officiated sports on the planet. But the Olympics, due to their rules allowing inclusion of all member states, were also the place where "Eddie the Eagle" demonstrated that he was not quite ready for prime time, while officials in figure skating were accused of colluding to ensure that their respective athletes got on the podium, regardless of how they performed on the ice. Most importantly, while it is possible to respect the athletes who have spent years perfecting their craft, it is also incredibly easy to get turned off by the ugly politics and the crass behavior of the bigwigs who have made a home in this unaccountable organization. 

Going back to the citizen-scientist question, as a young man I used to be a runner. In University I ran track and field, with my event being the steeplechase. I had the benefit of truly excellent coaching and was even given the opportunity to coach track for several years, a couple of which I did under another great coach who taught me the intricacies of the various sports. Now I was never going to be an Olympic athlete, as I lacked the genetic gifts to be the very best, but I know more about track and field than most people in my community. I have also served as a running instructor/coach and have taught many hundreds of people how to run. When I watch high-level athletes, I can appreciate their skill and given time and slow-motion film, I can break down a steeplechaser’s stride and figure out whether they are dragging their following foot over the hurdle. Were I to do so, I could even give advice to an athlete who is much more talented than me. Their reply could range from: “who are you? I already have a coach” to “thanks for the info, I will look at the films and see if you have caught something that my coach missed”. Similarly, I can watch a high-hurdler or a 400 meter hurdler and identify issues with their technique (if an issue exists). In a similar vein, Steve McIntyre may not be a “climate scientist” but his knowledge of data analysis far exceeds that of many academics and when he suggests a statistical analysis has a fault, I would suggest listening very carefully.    

So where am I going with all this? Well while not all of us can be Olympic athletes a lot of people out there have the knowledge and skill to assess their efforts. Meanwhile, while you might be a “climate scientist” you may have no clue of the strengths and limitations of another “climate scientist’s” work. Moreover, it is likely that even though you are a “climate scientist” that someone else, often outside the academic sphere, knows more about topics outside of your specific area of expertise, than you do. Finally to return to our analogy, both Usain Bolt and Ben Johnson are technically Olympians, but we hold one in much higher esteem than the other. Similarly, it is possible to hold some climate scientists up as examples for the next generation of scientist while recognizing that not all climate scientists meet those lofty standards.