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Activists Need To Take The Time To Understand What They Are Opposing

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As I said I would in my last post, I attended the Trans Mountain Expansion Project (TMX) Ministerial Panel Public Open House. Also as promised, I gave my presentation. I then sat through four hours of activists talking about why they don't want TMX. I detail my experiences at my personal blog but want to share the highlights of my post-presentation experiences here.

As I describe at my blog, many of the presenters talked of their deep and abiding love of nature (fisheries etc...) and then went on to talk about the evils of American-owned corporations, how Kinder Morgan was not a good corporate actor and that any economic activity that generated a profit was suspect. Much of the "research" presented was from "Googling" a topic or from some "incredible documentary."

There appeared to be no recognition that a deeper understanding of the project could be achieved through the more time-consuming task of actually reading the NEB submission. People scoffed at the idea that an "expert" might have a bit more information than they could obtain through their couple hours of self-directed Internet research. I can't even count how many times I wanted to stand up and explain relatively simple concepts to these well-meaning people.

In my discussions after the presentation I came to recognize that even the leaders of the anti-pipeline forces had little understanding what the project entailed. These activists appear not to have even bothered to read the submissions for the project they oppose.

As an example, two activist leaders I communicated with did not even recognize that the TMX project involved two lines (Line 1 and Line 2) and that one of those lines (Line 1) was intended to transport 350,000 barrels a day of refined petroleum products and light crude with almost no heavy crude. Instead the leaders of the anti-pipeline brigades repeatedly insisted to me that the TMX is intended to transport bitumen only a "fact" that was repeated endlessly at the open house and one that is demonstrably wrong.

I can only imagine the panel's frustration at this point. They have to sit there day-after-day listening to people who talk endlessly about their opposition to a project that exists only in the imaginations of their leaders. These people have no clue what the real TMX project entails and instead are fighting a bogeyman created for them, whole cloth, by the activist community. Frankly, I don't know how the panel members keep from screaming "read the NEB submission" at least a dozen times a day?

Online, meanwhile, I keep reading the protestors brag about the unanimity of the presentations at the open houses but I ask a simple question: is there any value in unanimity when that unanimity is based on ignorance?

As a pragmatic environmentalist, I have found this whole process disheartening, not because of the discussions, but because of the absence of intellectual rigour in the discussions. As a supporter of evidence-based decision making, I am tired of sitting idly by as activists make outrageous claims that are either demonstrably wrong or are unsupported by any data. In doing so these activists risk putting human health and the environment at increased risk from spills and accidents. The problem is: I'm really not sure how the supporters of evidence-based decision-making have a chance when confronted by these activists.

The problem with the activist community is that it seems to be made up primarily of well-meaning but non-technically trained individuals. They both don't know the science and many lack the skill-set to interpret the research when it is presented to them. As an example, I repeatedly heard the mantra "diluted bitumen sinks." Yet the truth of the matter is far more nuanced. The current research indicates that diluted bitumen behaves a lot like other crude oils when spilled in a marine environment. Under certain very specific conditions it does indeed sink but in most cases it floats on seawater and actually may be less likely to become entrained in the water column, and be more likely to float, than other crude oils.

The worst thing about these activist organizations is that they are likely slowing down our transition away from fossil fuels. They do so by convincing their low-information followers that the transition to a fossil fuel-free future can be quick, cheap and relatively painless. The truth is that the job is going to be long, hard and expensive. I can't guess how many speakers at the presentation suggested we just switch to renewable energy, as if it was as easy as flipping a light switch.

The activist organizations ignore the massive costs of the endeavour and the need for a healthy economy to fund the transition. They ignore the fact that this transition is going to take us 40 to 50 years and in that time we will continue to need liquid fuels. They ignore the fact that to accomplish this monumental task will require compromise, sacrifice and political will. Instead they tell their followers to never compromise; to fight these projects tooth and nail and to sacrifice allies for the cause.

Well if the actual cause is fighting climate change then they will need all the allies they can get and sacrificing allies for short-term gain is not the way to win that war.

This blog has been updated.

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