Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Factoids, truthiness and the promulgation of misinformation in the oil sands debate

This morning I opened up my twitter account and the “while you were away” feature had an interesting tweet highlighted. It was from the National Observer which reports itself to be:

“a new publication founded by the Vancouver Observer's award-winning team of journalists. The National Observer focuses on news through the lens of energy, environment and federal politics.”
The tweet said:

 #Oilsands as toxic as peanut butter? That's what govt's PR campaigns say: T.Berman bit.ly/natobstzp1 @NoTarSands pic.twitter.com/kGzJSvQ9kr
Needless to say I was intrigued: the government was paying a PR company to lie about the toxicity of oil sands, which we all know are very toxic? and so I clicked on the link which brought me to story at the National Observer called: Time for honest talk and messy solutions in the oil sands and authored by a very respected name in the environmental industry: Tzeporah Berman. I have been following Dr. Berman’s career since the 1990’s and when she speaks it carries a lot of weight. Her National Observer blogger page describes her as:

Tzeporah Berman BA, MES, LLD (honoris causa), Adjunct Professor York University Faculty of Environmental Studies is author of This Crazy Time: Living Our Environmental Challenge, Knopf Canada.

The combination of the tweet and the author made me even more interested and so I started reading the story and there was the claim right there in the first paragraph of the story:

The debate over energy, oil sands and pipelines in Canada is at best dysfunctional and at worst a twisted game that is making public relations professionals and consultants on all sides enormous amounts of money. Documents obtained through Freedom of Information routinely show our own government hiding scientific reports, meeting secretly to craft PR strategies and even policy with the companies they are supposed to regulate and millions of dollars are spent on ads trying to convince Canadians that the oil sands are as toxic as peanut butter [emphasis mine] and that without them our hospitals will close.

Unfortunately, the story didn’t contain any references to the source of the claim that “millions of dollars are spent on ads trying to convince Canadians that the oil sands are as toxic as peanut butter“. Now as regular readers of my blog know, I have written a lot about both the topics of toxicology and oil sands so I was very interested in this claim because if an ad campaign has said something of the sort, I would have expected to have noticed it, especially if they spent millions of dollars on the campaign. I did a cursory web search and could find nothing on the topic. So I decided to tweet back to the Observer and asked a quick question: 

.@NatObserver can you link to the ad you claim says "oil sands are as toxic as peanut butter" @NoTarSands @Tzeporah I can't find it anywhere

While waiting I re-read the article and noticed that it was a re-print of a commentary printed in the Toronto Star. So I went to the Star’s web site and found the commentary article titled: It's time to talk about the oilsands. The article contained an almost identical paragraph:

Documents obtained through Freedom of Information routinely show our own government hiding scientific reports or meeting secretly to craft PR strategies with the companies they are supposed to regulate, while millions of dollars are spent on ads trying to convince Canadians that the oilsands are as toxic as peanut butter [emphasis mine].

Happily the article contained an embedded link to another National Observer story: Harper Conservatives' secret tactics to protect oil sands: FOI details which contained a lot of links to Freedom of Information (FOI) results. I scanned the released FOI documents and was unable to find the information so I decided to try a different approach. I did a Google search for the words “oil sands” “toxic” and “peanut butter” and was only partially successful. I did find a useful link except it was to a story in The Tyee: Gooey Oil Sands Lies PR Flacks Tell: Call BS! The article described a plan to compare the viscosity of bitumen to peanut butter. The critical line from the story was:

One cheery communication compared the viscosity of bitumen, an ultra heavy crude, to peanut butter [emphasis mine]. Bitumen definitely looks, feels and behaves like asphalt but it sure as hell doesn't taste like peanut butter.

Using this information, I did another search and found many hits where the viscosity (consistency to the non-chemist) of oil sands and bitumen were compared to peanut butter. Now this made a lot of sense to me. Most people don’t understand what bitumen is like in real life and a PR program to make it sound more friendly by comparing its viscosity and consistency to peanut butter might both allows readers to gain some understanding of the substance and maybe get some positive spin.

The problem with this discovery is that it was utterly harmless and completely inconsistent with the Berman articles. The PR campaign was designed to provide factually correct information: that bitumen has a similar consistency to peanut butter. It certainly did not include any suggestion that they would try and convince the public that oil sands were “as toxic as peanut butter”. Now some of you might call me a bit of a pedant but let’s put this into perspective. We know as a matter of fact that oil sands are very toxic and should not be ingested. If the government was spending “millions” to try and convince us that oil sands were not toxic that would be a fantastically important story. Governments aren’t supposed to lie to the public and when they are caught doing so, they need to be held to account. So a headline saying that the government was spending “millions of dollars” to trying to “convince Canadians that the oilsands are as toxic as peanut butter” which they know is an outright lie, well that would be an important story as well as the first question in Question Period the next day.

My natural impression was that this line represented a simple mistake, a typo, some bad typesetting and so I politely contacted the National Observer which tweeted back the following:

@martynschmoll @BlairKing_ca @edwiebe This is an op-ed and, indeed, the phrase is a metaphor on the first paragraph http://bit.ly/natobstzp1

Now remember this was in the same discussion thread that started with a tweet where the National Observer declared: “#Oilsands as toxic as peanut butter? That's what govt's PR campaigns say”. Even if the original use in the story was as a metaphor, the tweet, by the National Observer, was anything but: it was a statement of fact. In this case however, it is equally clear that in the form presented in the Op-Ed it was not presented as a metaphor. I’m not sure how the sentence: “millions of dollars are spent on ads trying to convince Canadians that the oil sands are as toxic as peanut buttercan be read as anything but a statement of fact. A further concern was the fact that a National news service has editors who cannot distinguish between a metaphor and a direct statement of fact? Also there is a second subtext to their tweet. Essentially they are saying that since it is an Op-Ed the article doesn’t have to be factual? I thought news services were supposed to correct errors, not promulgate them.

Having received that disappointing response I tried Dr. Berman. When I contacted Dr. Berman her response was: 

@BlairKing_ca @edwiebe @NatObserver are u kidding me?! the point clearly is that the ads are meant to assure people that all is well.

Now remember, Dr. Berman notes on every platform I have been able to locate that she is an “Adjunct Professor York University Faculty of Environmental Studies.” When an academic is shown to have made an error of fact, the typical approach is to quickly correct the error and thank the person who pointed it out, not double-down on the proposition? Dr. Berman may feel that the point of her various articles was to indicate that the “ads were meant to assure people that all is well”, but in the process she made a statement of fact (millions of dollars are spent on ads trying to convince Canadians that the oil sands are as toxic as peanut butter) that cannot be verified with the information provided. Admittedly she may have additional data confirming her statement but she certainly hasn’t presented it for review. As it stands she has made a statement of fact that the government was spending millions on a disinformation program? The documentation I have been able to find suggests that the government spent an undisclosed amount of money providing factually correct information with a government-friendly spin.

I have been asked by a couple people on-line about why I am once again banging on my drum? There is an oft misused term out there: “factoid”. Most people, when asked, think that it refers to a small interesting and (most importantly) true fact but factoid is actually defined as “an invented fact believed to be true because it appears in print”. Another closely related term was coined by Stephen Colbert: truthiness which is defined as “the quality of seeming to be true according to one's intuition, opinion, or perception without regard to logic, factual evidence, or the like”. In the process of looking up information for this blog posting I found over a dozen different sources already repeating the factoid that millions of dollars are/were spent on ads trying to convince Canadians that the oil sands are as toxic as peanut butter. A few months ago I tracked down a similar piece of misinformation on the attribution of avian deaths to nuclear facilities that had been given time to fester. I wrote about it in  a blog post (On estimates of avian deaths attributable to coal and nuclear facilities) where I showed how the data was clearly in error but I was too late, that misinformation now has a life of its own. It shows up in sources as varied as Wikipedia and US World and National Report. Maybe if someone had pointed out the issues with the information on the day it was released that factoid would not be the number one talking point on the topic to this day. 

Whether you like our government or not, in this case, they appear to have not done what they are reported to have done. The factoid presented has a ring of truthiness that will appeal to their opponents and, as demonstrated, is already running rampant on the internet. The best way to fight a factoid is with facts. As I wrote earlier, I welcome anyone presenting a document which shows that the government was paying PR people to run a disinformation campaign on this topic, but that is not what I have uncovered in this case. The individuals responsible for promulgating this factoid have a responsibility, if they determine it to be incorrect, to correct the record. I look forward to their doing so shortly.

For those who like the visuals: 

Author's Note: 
2015-07-23 The National Observer has quietly adjusted their text to remove the words "as toxic as" and replace them with the word "like". Believe it or not, that makes all the difference. The change does little to tone down the article but that minor change addresses all my concerns about spreading misinformation. While the change is not noted anywhere, it represents a great first start. Thank-you Dr. Berman. 
 2015-07-23: DeSmog blog has now fixed their post and included a correction notice. A great presentation of how a correction should be done to avoid what one commenter calls "zombie evidence". Great work DeSmog!
Now only the Toronto Star has the incorrect data....

Monday, July 20, 2015

Some pitfalls in the road to an affordable, low-carbon energy future

I was chatting on Twitter yesterday and had another interesting discussion with one of the people with whom I regularly spar. He is a recent convert to environmental activism and, like many of his kin, has a limited science background but a reasonable amount of common sense. He was arguing that I was being obtuse when talking about measures to address the demand side of the supply-demand relationship in energy discussions. The background for this discussion was my Huffington Post blog Energy East Pipeline Fight Is Simply A Proxy War where I pointed out the importance of dealing with the demand for oil and gas in the pipeline debate. As I explained in my Huffington Post piece, and have written at this blog, until we take measures to make carbon-based energy sources more expensive (through a combination of market-based and regulatory instruments) AND address the demand for carbon-based energy sources by providing an affordable alternative, we will not have any chance to reach a carbon-neutral future.
The reason for his complaints was my insistence on talking about renewable energy options when talking about energy demand side of the relationship. You see like many of the activists involved in the debate, he views energy conservation as the primary means to address the demand side of the supply-demand relationship. In my discussions on the topic I continually have to point out that energy efficiency, while an important first step, can only take us so far. No matter how efficient we make our refrigerators, cooling a refrigerator still means using energy. It is at this point that I tend to draw blanks from the other side in my discussions on the topic. The problem is this obvious next step is seldom considered in detail in their confabs. Certainly they are all for looking to convert our energy systems to low-carbon sources but they don’t really stop to think about what that means in a practical sense. They are unrelentingly optimistic that using logic and emotion alone they can convince the world to change to low-carbon energy sources but most fail to recognize that the vast majority of the world looks at price as one of, if not the, deciding factor in energy policy discussions. If the cheapest energy source is carbon-based then, in a lot of the world, carbon-based energy will be the choice that is used.
I have tried to explain that the way to reach carbon-neutrality is to make low/no-carbon energy both less expensive AND as reliable as carbon-based energy. I point out that as Australian politicians have learned, and British politicians are learning, the general public has a limited appetite for do-gooder policies that cost them heavily in the pocket-book and show limited, or non-existent, immediate and readily apparent benefits. In Canada, Conservative operatives are almost literally salivating at the opportunity to create a conflict where the NDP and Liberals are seen to be planning to make energy more expensive and they can play the part of the brave soldiers fighting to “protect the common man” and “save money for working families”.
Now as an aside I am going to address another complaint a number of my detractors have directed my way: the fact that I don’t talk enough about energy efficiency and topics of that ilk. The reality is that the day is only so long and my knowledge-base is necessarily limited (you can’t be an expert at everything and I choose not to try and pretend otherwise). There are many hundreds of more knowledgeable people than me out there making tremendous sense on the topics of energy efficiency. As such I choose not to waste my time trying to replicate their better-informed work. I have chosen to concentrate on the area where I am most knowledgeable and where I feel I can do the most good. This brings me to my personal bugbear: rare earth metals.
As I introduced in my post On renewables and compromises Part II Rare earths in renewable technologies and address in more detail in my post: Deconstructing the 100% Fossil Fuel Free Wind, Water and Sunlight USA paper – Part II What about those pesky rare earth metals? renewable energy technologies are utterly dependent on a handful of rare earth elements (like Neodymium, Dysprosium, Lanthanum) and a few other limiting elements (like Lithium and Platinum).  The second of the posts above addresses a paper by Jacobson and Delucchi which includes a breakdown of how rare earths could theoretically be parceled out to allow for the migration to a 100% fossil-fuel free future. The paper, sadly, actually demonstrates the exact opposite to be true. As I wrote in a previous post reviewing that paper:
the production of only 26 million electric vehicles would require 260,000 metric tonnes of Lithium. They [Jacobson and Delucchi] point out that at that consumption level we would exhaust the current world reserves of Lithium in less than 50 years. While 26 million electric vehicles seems like a lot that is only half of the vehicles produced in the world on a yearly basis. Under their 100% WWS USA scenario Jacobson and Delucchi talk about electrifying virtually every mode of land transportation. That would mean a lot more than 260,000 metric tonnes of Lithium a year and that is only for electric vehicles. It completely ignores any other battery (like the Tesla wall units or even rechargeable AA’s) that might be used to help store all that solar energy that is being collected during the daytime but intended for use once the sun goes down.
For the purpose of this post the critical part is the next point:
 Jacobson and Delucchi point out that we can always extract Lithium from seawater; but they also point out that seawater extraction is a very energy intensive process. That energy has not been included in any of their energy budgets.
This brings me to the crux of my argument today: the process of either recycling Lithium (or any other rare earth metal) or obtaining that Lithium from seawater will make that Lithium fantastically expensive. Fantastically expensive Lithium cannot be used to make cheap affordable energy. Put another way: you cannot make low-carbon/carbon neutral energy sources more affordable if the raw materials necessary to produce the low-carbon/carbon neutral technologies are ruinously expensive.
Right now the world is relying on China (and some proposed newer facilities in Malaysia and Indonesia) to supply almost all of the rare earth metals used in renewable energy technologies. Those existing and planned facilities are woefully inadequate to supply the quantities of these materials we will need to make a serious dent in our global energy demands. Moreover, the existing facilities are leaving a legacy of environmental degradation in their wake. That legacy will affect the health of tens of thousands of people in Western China (Mongolia) and leave huge swathes of that country uninhabitable for generations to come. To follow this discussion to its obvious conclusion: we cannot affordably produce the number of windmills, solar panels, electric vehicles or battery units we need to replace our coal and natural gas-dependent energy sources without a massive increase in the available Lithium, Platinum, Neodymium, Dysprosium, Lanthanum etc… The only way to obtain these raw materials is a huge investment in rare earth mining and refining capacity in North America and Europe. We shouldn’t just concentrate on the environmental and human health dimension either. We must also consider the geopolitical considerations: right now we are relying on one supplier to keep our renewable energy future moving in the right direction. That one supplier can, and may, change their mind on how they want to proceed. They may decide to redirect those resources internally and we, as the captured customers of this monopoly, have no alternative suppliers or recourse.
Tzeporah Berman, in a piece in the National Observer, talks about the need for some honest talk and messy solutions in our goal to build a new energy infrastructure and reduce oil demand. Well getting our act together and ensuring that we have the raw resources needed to actually develop these low-carbon technologies is one of the necessary first steps in achieving those solutions. Unfortunately, to date, we have ignored this incredibly important first step. Instead politicians and activists are painting us a picture of a world full of electronic vehicles and windmills but none acknowledge that we lack the basic resources to make their picture a reality. We need to invest in the facilities to avoid these foreseeable bottlenecks in our supply of rare earth metals and critical elements. At the same time we must invest in research to allow us to eliminate or get around those bottlenecks in the first place. Until we actually take some action on this incredibly important topic we are metaphorically wandering aimlessly down a dark road oblivious to the pitfalls on our route.

Friday, July 17, 2015

The Machiavellian battle against climate change using Energy East

As many of my regular readers have probably noticed, I have been asked to produce the occasional blog post at the Canadian edition of the Huffington Post. My most recent post deals with the Energy East Pipeline (Energy East Pipeline Fight is Simply a Proxy War), a topic most of my readers know well as I have covered it thoroughly in previous posts including The Energy East Pipeline: Dispelling Some Myths and Where the new Pembina Report misses the mark on Energy East. The one downside of a blog at the Huffington Post is that there are some restrictions, I have to write for a general audience (so my more technical treatises are out) and there is a strict word count (so my technical treatises are out J ). Thankfully I still have this venue to provide deeper insights into the topics I cover elsewhere. Today’s deeper insight has to do with what I have coined: the Machiavellian battle against climate change using pipelines.  
As I write in my Huffington Post piece, the current war against the Energy East pipeline is nothing but a proxy battle. As I describe briefly in that post, and in much more detail in my two other posts referenced above, the presence or absence of Energy East will have virtually no effect on whether the currently active and mostly finished oil sands projects will continue to operate. As I pointed out previously in my post on the economic and environmental folly of trying to “strangle the oil sands” and as Dr. Andrew Leach points out in Macleans, these facilities represent a sunk cost to the operators and they aren’t about to throw that money away. Most of these plants were originally envisioned in a time when oil prices hovered in the $35 /barrel (bbl) to $45/bbl range. They were profitable then and would therefore remain profitable in the $50/bbl to $62/bbl range we have witnessed for the last couple months. Those plants were also built in an environment where pipelines were not an assumption but simply a hope. As such alternative arrangements were made to ensure that the oil would make it to market. This mostly consisted in heavy investment in rail terminals and in rolling stock (oil cars). As I have pointed out previously in my post on the economic and environmental folly of trying to “strangle the oil sands” the capacity is already in place south of the border and we have more than enough capacity north of the border to meet the oil sands needs by rail. Heck even the savviest investor in the world Warren Buffet has major holdings in the construction and leasing of oil cars for the railway system. As I have written more times than I would care to admit, transporting oil by rail is much riskier, both in terms of human health and ecological health, than moving the same volume via a pipeline. Notwithstanding the recent spate of spills (including yesterday’s Nexen spill) transporting oil by pipeline is the safest most environmentally sensitive way to get oil to market.
The primary aim of this post, however, isn’t to rehash these old arguments. Rather it is to address the nature of the people who are fighting the battle against the pipeline. The inspiration for this post was an entirely different post on a totally different topic. It is one of the best posts I have read this year on any topic and was penned by William Saletan and titled “Unhealthy Fixation: The war against genetically modified organisms is full of fear mongering, errors, and fraud. Labeling them will not make you safer.”  If you want to read a devastating critique of the tools used by activists and fear mongers in their battles (in this case against GMOs) there is not a better piece to read this year. It is very long, but the reason for the length is that he shows again and again how Machiavellian the activists can be. They don’t restrict themselves to the truth, they change their stories on a dime and they demonstrate a resounding lack of the moral and intellectual underpinnings the rest of us consider a requirement in order to operate in civilized society.
Why this has struck so close to home is a series of admissions I have received from various folks on my social media feeds. In response to my Huffington Post piece a number of people have written me to point out various forms of the same message that: yes, the battle against Energy East is indeed a proxy war against climate change. Climate change activists are targeting pipelines to keep the conversation about climate change going. The are using pipelines because they have been unable to make a compelling enough case  for action on climate change on its merits. They view the Energy East pipeline as a “lever” that they can use to force change because the tools really needed to fight climate change (market based instruments) are a much harder fight to win. I have been told that “pipelines serve as an effective, visible touchstone”.  When I have pointed out that shutting down the pipeline will only force more oil to be transported by rail I was met with the point that rail cars are visible while oil moving in a pipeline is not. When I pointed out that the oil trains pose a greater risk to human health and the environment I got the distressing response that
 these tactics effectively apply pressure to reassess the fossil fuelled system as a whole, i.e. we’ll see what happens to any remaining social license when oil trains start blowing up left, right and centre”. 
Yes I am as shocked about that statement as you are. In two sentences it is acknowledged that they know that by fighting the pipelines they guarantee that there will be more spills and that they are essentially counting on those spills, and their ensuing ecological devastation and potential for loss of human lives, to degrade the social license of the oil industry. Metaphorically it is like they are holding up a grandma and a newborn kitten and saying “give us what we want or these two won’t like it”. I honestly had no clue how to respond.
In politics they have what is called a Kinsley gaffe. It is defined as "when a politician inadvertently says something publicly that they privately believe is true, but would ordinarily not say because it is politically damaging". Well this was a classic Kinsley gaffe, it told me outright what I have feared was true from the beginning. These activists have an evangelical fervor for their mission and they don’t care who gets hurt in order for them to achieve their goals. It is not just with pipelines though, you see the same thing in the fracking debate. It leaves me in a quandary. As I have written many times, I am a Pragmatic Environmentalist, I want to see our global conditions getting better. As I wrote in 1995 we need good cops and bad cops to advance the cause. I always understood the concept of noble cause corruption but did not suspect at the time that these good people I worked and studied with could become the sort of people who secretly hoped that bad things would happen to good people in order to advance their cause. I am saddened by my newfound revelation. That doesn’t mean I’m going to stop moving forward in my goals, but it does mean I am going to look a second time at the folks I used to think of as potential allies. The critical feature of the “good cop, bad cop” scenario is that both individuals were still “cops” and were thus restricted to legal and ethical means to achieve their goals. I can’t guarantee that is the case with today’s activists.

Author’s Note: I have received some negative feedback about this post from various environmental activists. I want to be clear that I, personally, believe that the vast majority of grass roots activists I have encountered are entirely honest in their beliefs. Their opinions, while often ill-informed, are honestly held. My disdain at the end of this post was for that cadre of professional activists who have grown to see “environmentalism” as a day-job and depend on continuing conflict for their fundraising campaigns and their paychecks. These people, like the GMO opponents described by Mr. Saletan, do not do justice to the cause they profess to support.

Sunday, July 12, 2015

More thoughts on Aquifers, Shills and the Commoditization of Groundwater

Late last week I posted my thoughts on Aquifers, Drought and the Nestlé water bottling plant in Hope and the response has been overwhelming. My Twitter and Facebook feeds exploded and I was even interviewed by a local radio station CKNW (a recording of the interview is provided here) on the topic. As part of the furor I received a lot of interesting information and was the target of a lot of misinformation, the most prominent of which I will address in this blog post: 

Conflicts of Interest:
Let’s start with the easiest one first. I am not in the pay of Nestlé, no one in my family earns any income of any sort from Nestlé and I have received absolutely no compensation for my post or my media appearance. The suggestion that I am a “shill” or “in the pay of Nestlé” is an expected response to my blog postings. So expected that I have previously addressed the “shill gambit” in a post titled “On “Bullies”, “shills” and using labels to shut down legitimate debate”. My graduate research was on the use of scientific data in environmental decision-making and while I currently work in the field of contaminated sites I retain a personal interest in my earlier field of research. When I see an environmental debate being overwhelmed by bad or incomplete data I have a tendency to step in. This case meets that bill admirably. 
More on Aquifers:
The biggest bit of misinformation I have had repeated back to me again and again is how the use of water in Hope will somehow effect the rest of us or future generations. In my earlier introduction to aquifers I pointed out that aquifers come in two major types: confined and unconfined aquifers. A confined aquifer is water trapped in permeable rock or porous materials (like gravels and sands) that is confined on both the top and the bottom by an impermeable layer (typically either bedrock or very tight layers of silts and clays). Confined aquifers are typically under pressure (generally artesian in nature) and are sometimes referred to as “fossil waters” as they typically represent waters that have taken generations to build up and once depleted can take generations to replenish.  The use of these fossil waters is an ongoing concern and has led to tremendous changes in groundwater conditions in much of the Southern U.S.  The use of these fossil waters must be monitored in the same way that other non-renewable resources must be monitored because once extracted these waters will not be readily replaced in our lifetimes. Unconfined aquifers on the other hand are made up of similar porous materials but are not confined vertically. They are in contact with the surface via the unsaturated zone which goes up to the ground surface. The groundwater surface in an unconfined aquifer is often called a water table and the water table can rise and fall depending on how much water is added via precipitation, or the migration from surface water bodies, and how much is drawn off by humans or runs off, also via surface water bodies like lakes , rivers and streams. 

The Lower Mainland is dominated by unconfined aquifers which are used by the inhabitants of the Fraser Valley including much of Langley, Abbotsford, Chilliwack and Hope. The important thing to understand about these aquifers is that they are mostly hydraulically isolated from each other. You can think of these aquifers like a bunch of underground swimming pools full of sand/gravel. Take the water from one and you don’t affect its neighbours. Each aquifer has its own source (a watershed) and must be treated as an individual entity. The aquifer used by Nestlé is a particular type that is hydraulically connected both to a watershed and to a lake: Kawkawa Lake. This is important because unlike many aquifers in the region, as water is drawn from the Kawkawa aquifer (by Nestlé) the aquifer is refreshed by the Lake, and the corresponding watershed. Thus the condition of the aquifer can be inferred by the conditions in the Lake. As long as the Lake level remains relatively stable the aquifer can also be inferred to be relatively stable. The Kawkawa aquifer drains to the Fraser River via Sucker Creek and then the Coquihalla River. As long as Sucker Creek continues to flow then we know that the aquifer is not only doing well but has an excess of water.  As I noted in my previous post, the amount of water extracted by Nestlé is equivalent to about 72 seconds worth of water flow from the Fraser River as it passes Hope. I cannot emphasize this enough: the operation of the Nestlé plant in Hope no way affects the larger water supply of the Fraser Valley or the even larger water supply of the Lower Mainland. If Nestlé stopped operating (and put its 75 employees out of work and stopped paying municipal taxes) would there be more water for the rest of us? Absolutely not. Kawkawa Lake drains its excess water into the Fraser River, which simply drains into the Strait of Georgia. Neither the Fraser River at Hope nor the Strait of Georgia are particularly short of water even in the driest of years.

The Water Sustainability Act:
As I mentioned briefly, the BC government is in the process of modernizing its regulatory environment for groundwater and the centerpiece of this process is the Water Sustainability Act which is intended to provide an improved and modernized regulatory control over our groundwater resources. The government has been in the process of rolling out the Act and its associated regulations and has been engaging stakeholders on a variety of topics.  One of the big topics has been on water pricing. The emphasis of the water pricing regime continues to be on a user-pay principal where the water users pay for the management of the regulatory regime only. My understanding is that the intention is not to turn a profit but to pay for the process of regulating groundwater and ultimately for mapping and tracking our groundwater resource use.  As I have written, tweeted and said on radio, the first step in regulating a resource is to understand its extent and capacity. Historically we as British Columbians have done a poor job at monitoring the use of our groundwater and the fact that the government is now taking the step of filling in our data gaps on the issue is a cause for congratulations and not condemnation. To my understanding British Columbia is leading the country in this regard and perhaps the naysayers should do a bit more research before going all partisan on this important non-partisan pursuit.

Commoditization of Groundwater:
The biggest complaint amongst both my friends and my detractors has been on the pricing of water. As I describe above, the government is talking to stakeholders about this topic but there is an important point that the purveyors of that petition demanding that “BC Charge a fair rate for the use of groundwater”. Ironically, the purveyors of the petition might end up getting exactly the opposite of what they want by charging for groundwater. Under the current regulatory regime, groundwater is not treated as a commodity. All users access groundwater for free. As I describe above, the planned pricing is for regulatory purposes and not for profits. As described by Judi Tyabji (and provided to me by Randy Rinaldo @RanRinBC) on her Facebook Page, the biggest protection our groundwater has in a North America dominated by the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) is the fact that we have not treated groundwater as a commodity. To the best of my knowledge, once you turn groundwater into a commodity you put it under NAFTA and instead of it being regulated by the government of British Columbia, it gets regulated under NAFTA. That means that foreign governments and businesses can sue to get control over access to these groundwater resources and can demand a payout if they are denied access. Right now the government can still regulate the use of groundwater. If we turn groundwater into a commodity by pricing it competitively we run the risk of losing that ability. They say that the road to hell is paved with good intentions. Wouldn’t it be ironic if by signing that petition the petitioners actually managed to force control of our provincial resources to a foreign dominated trade commission or tribunal?

Author's note: some people have disagreed with my interpretation of NAFTA but none have yet explained a technical basis for their disagreement. I welcome any opportunity to learn more about the topic and would welcome any corrections in the comments.