Gasoline inquiry challenges Lotusland’s cultural aversion to fossil-fuel truth

Image: Business in Vancouver

British Columbia’s distinctive left-coast culture was a gold mine of material for satirist Allan Fotheringham. In his heyday, the columnist coined the term Lotusland to describe the navel-gazing tendencies of the province that lies beyond what he termed the Granite Curtain, i.e., the Rocky Mountains.

Some cultural analysts have attributed this distinctive trait to the absence of a harsh climate, with the struggle for mere existence as experienced in the chilly parts of Canada replaced by different questions, such as: “What will it be today, Peloton or stand-up paddleboard yoga?”

Others have looked back to the colonial era to see strong dependence on capital intensive industries like coal mining and fish canning that required large hierarchical workforces, setting up a deeper capitalist versus worker dynamic than found elsewhere in Canada, leading to the proliferation of labour unions and a bargaining-table culture.

Personally, I prefer the tectonic theory, that my home province is on the fault line of powerful converging forces that generate heat and the occasional earthquake.

Whatever the cultural origins of Lotusland, another observation one could make is that it has spawned a particular strain of ideologue-environmentalist, small in number yet disproportionately influential in the way Typhoid Mary was influential.

David Suzuki in his crepuscular phase is perhaps the most familiar example. I was a fan of his for many years, until he renounced evidence and collaboration as the price to pay for stardom.

A second example will be more obscure to most, but to coastal aquaculturists the name Alexandra Morton conjures one part mirth and seven parts dread. For decades an enemy of salmon farming, Morton has almost single handedly stoked public belief in scientifically unprovable linkages between aquaculture and a host of ills in wild salmon. Shameless enough to allow herself to be called Doctor on the strength of an honorary doctorate, Morton makes sure vials and a microscope are in the shot when the cameras arrive to record her latest gibberish about fish viruses, while real scientists puzzle from the sidelines at the phenomenon.

In fairness, it has to be stated that B.C. also stands out for the many bona fide thinkers and practitioners who continue to make the place a bastion of scientific and conservationist leadership. I’ve met and admire many of them, and remain amazed that as they toil, quietly for the most part, they are at times overshadowed by a handful of kooky pseudo-academics whose ideas are engineered to reach the moral judgment receptors in the public mind that release a warm, pleasurable surge of serotonin.

Just as the oilsands struggles with perceptions of the industry that might have been valid at one time but no longer apply, opponents know that triggering anachronistic prejudice is the key to winning public approval for one’s ideas, never mind the enormous advances in applied technology that have led to the emergence of a safe and beneficial industry.

Whether by design or not, it works by exploiting the news media’s basic need to always tell “both sides” of the story. What sounds great in the journalism school classroom is not so easy to put into practice in the real world. With the underlying assumption that self-interested parties can never be trusted to make true statements, a natural tendency is to seek out an “independent” perspective that reliably contradicts anything that may emanate from crass commerce, resulting in the appearance of balance. This is how the evidence-free propagandists gain a foothold. Many fine journalists figure out their own ways to deal with it, yet hardly a day passes without fresh evidence of the phenomenon.

If Morton is the queen of maritime misinformation, her terrestrial counterpart is surely to be found in one of the few industries that has unfettered growth conditions: that of anti-pipeline activism.

A persistent myth on the west coast is that the existing Trans Mountain pipeline is underused, and that this is because of scheming by a dishonest oil industry which, for reasons of its own, wants to invest billions of dollars to serve an overseas oil market that doesn’t even exist.

Beyond a handful of political figures, the person who has most energetically set out to shape and grow this kookiness is Whistler-based pipeline opponent and trade skeptic Robyn Allan, a possessor of championship-grade Lotusland credentials that revolve largely around making academic-sounding claims about the nefarious oil industry.

Served up via regulatory submissions as well as to mass market media and via niche audiences, the theories of shifty industry doings cater to those who want to believe that the hydrocarbons they rely on for every act of modern life are inherently evil.

Years ago Allan set out, unsuccessfully, to convince the National Energy Board that the Northern Gateway pipeline would have “negative and prolonged impact on the Canadian economy by reducing output, employment, labour income and government revenues.” It was a preposterous line of argument that flies in the face of everything we know about the economy and trade. Yet there was probably a significant segment of the population that found the claim just believable enough.

Not surprisingly, both Morton and Allan are closely associated with those who have enjoyed the largesse of wealthy American eco-interventionists. Allan is a popular return guest on local CBC radio and a prolific producer of articles that attempt to turn every accepted fact on its head, always leading back to the conclusion that if Trans Mountain’s existing pipeline is running below capacity (it isn’t), why the heck should a new one be built?

Occasionally, some visually stimulating piece of evidence comes along that causes confidence in these theories to crumble. For example, last year when Greenpeace protestors strung themselves under a Vancouver bridge, their target was the oil tanker Serene Sea, loaded with “dirty, unwanted” Alberta oilsands crude.

As I was the first to point out at the time, climb organizers had overlooked one small but crucial detail: Serene Sea was bound for China, a market that trade skeptics had long insisted did not exist for dreaded Canuck bitumen.

In a Lotusland twist worthy of Fotheringham, the fact was that $1.4 billion worth of Alberta heavy crude was exported by oil tanker out of Vancouver that year, with China accounting for nearly one third of the sales. Nor was the oil being given away at bargain-basement prices, as some had carped: according to Statistics Canada data, it fetched an average of $70 Cdn a barrel.

Though the bridge exercise may have yielded a satisfying helping of media coverage for the anti-pipeline brigade, the unintended brush with truth was an emperor-has-no-clothes moment for the energy disinformation movement generally. As a result, a whole strand of anti-pipeline argumentation has withered away since that time.

Last week, another slip occurred that further debunks the “oilsands has no market” thesis.

The British Columbia Utilities Commission, tasked with finding out why Vancouver-area gasoline prices are so high, released a report showing that despite strident claims of gouging made by Allan and echoed by B.C. Premier John Horgan, in reality there was no price fixing or rigging, no game playing on the supply side, no exploitation of market power by dominant companies, and no deceptive business practices of any kind.

As an intervenor in the inquiry, Allan partnered with a former BC Hydro executive turned pipeline opponent who previously made a splash by showily walking out of National Energy Board hearings on Trans Mountain, calling it a sham process.

Together, Allan and Marc Eliesen attempted to convince the BCUC inquiry that the existing pipeline from Edmonton to Vancouver runs below capacity, and that this allows pump prices to be held artificially high.

If true, this would be a very serious claim, one that might attract strong action by the Competition Bureau. If true, it would also reinforce Allan’s favourite thesis, that Trans Mountain expansion is unnecessary.

However, abundant evidence from multiple sources proved that, in fact, the opposite is true. The BCUC panel accepted that the pipeline is indeed running full, thus confirming that the $9.3 billion expansion is as badly needed as its proponents say. Stated the BCUC final report: “no weight can be given to Allan and Eliesen’s assertions with regard to the pipeline not operating at full capacity.”

It was another Fotheringham-esque moment – the spectacle of real policy experts blandly exposing a screwball theory, leaving the pseudo-wonks skewered on their own petard. The authoritative debunking represented a small but real victory for facts and common sense.

In the long game of developing Canadian energy sovereignty, it’s unlikely that Lotusland’s anti-hydrocarbon mythologists will come around to supporting initiatives like TMX that are both good for the economy and ensure more sustainable oil products can be part of the global energy mix. At least we’re seeing some positive steps that might cause others to think more critically about energy issues. That’s a good thing for British Columbians and all Canadians.

Stewart Muir writes about energy and natural resources. He is based in British Columbia.

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