The Last Straw and the Pipeline

Governments have often made decisions based on impulse rather than reason. A classic example is the fallacy of “the last straw” – the straw that broke the camel’s back. Similar impulsive decisions are now being made in the assessment of a pipeline’s effects. Let’s think about that.

If a camel’s back can hold, let’s say, 1000 straws, and if one more straw will break its back, it is illogical to believe that it was only the last straw that broke its back. Each of the 1001 straws has weight. All of them together create load on the camel’s back. The first straw is no better than the last straw. They are all load. If you don’t believe me, just ask the camel!


If you remove one or more of the 1000 loaded straws, then adding that proverbial “last straw” will be harmless. The false assumption is that all of the old load is okay, but new load is not. This leads us to the wrong decision: to ban new load while preserving old load. The right question is not “Which load is good load?” but rather, “How should Canada decide who is allowed to add straws onto the camel’s back (up to the maximum load)?” The task is to allocate space rationally on the limited capacity of the camel’s back.

Canada is facing two pipeline-related issues similar to the camel’s back. The first of these is CO2 emissions, the second, underwater noise caused by increased tanker traffic.

For Canada’s total CO2 emissions, which are planned to be reduced by 30% by 2030 and by 50% by 2050, the issue is how to allocate that declining CO2 capacity. For underwater noise the issue is how to allocate who may cause how much noise, up to the allowed total.


It was argued that the Trans Mountain Pipeline Expansion (TMX) should be denied approval because it would result in a large increase in CO2 emissions, making it impossible for Canada to meet its CO2 reduction commitments under the Paris Accord. (Despite much room for doubt, I will assume for the sake of argument that it is both desirable and feasible for Canada to meet its Paris Accord commitments.)

This argument against TMX makes intuitive sense – until we stop to think about it. Then we see that it contains a hidden assumption that focuses our attention on the wrong issue.

The wrong issue is how to stop the last bit of CO2 from being emitted by a new emitter. This assumes that CO2 emissions by existing emitters are better than by new emitters. In other words, it is like arguing that my emissions of X tons of CO2 are better for the environment, because I have been emitting for a long time, than your emissions, because you are just wanting to start your operations. The right issue is how to limit total CO2 emissions of all emitters, on an ongoing basis, to the appropriate levels. The usual answer is a carbon tax or a cap and trade scheme.

Let’s first consider some basic facts. A “carbon tax” is just a name, and an intentionally misleading name at that, because it is not a tax on carbon. Carbon is not CO2. Carbon is an element, a dark solid. CO2 is a compound with one atom of carbon and two atoms of oxygen in each molecule. CO2 is a colorless, odorless gas. By calling CO2 “carbon” people are deceptively induced to think of it as a dirty black substance, which makes the tax easier to sell to the public. By calling the tax a carbon tax it seems more emotionally justified than calling it what it is: a CO2 tax.

It makes no more sense to describe CO2 as “carbon pollution” than it would to describe it as “oxygen pollution.” CO2 is not a pollutant like soot, which hangs in the atmosphere over the geographic area from which it is emitted. The “polluter pay principle”, putting a price on pollution, is repeatedly cited by the government as justification for the “carbon tax”. This reasoning would be valid if applied to pollution, but it is just “spin” when applied to CO2, which is not a pollutant. The more honest way to justify the tax is that its purpose is to reduce Canada’s total CO2 emissions to the levels Canada agreed to under the Paris Accord.

Each molecule of CO2 is the same as every other molecule. Every time you exhale, or open a bottle of beer – or several bottles of beer if you are really thirsty – you are causing CO2 to be emitted. That makes you a polluter. Fortunately, the “carbon tax” is not yet applied to beer.

CO2 emissions from Canada do not sit in the air above Canada, any more than CO2 emissions from China sit in the air above China. Everyone’s emissions are spread all around the global atmosphere. That is why CO2 levels are one global aggregate (despite slight variations in parts per million by season and region). That is also why reducing CO2 emissions from one country will make no difference to the total global CO2 level when that reduction is more than offset by increased emissions from other countries. And that is what’s happening today.

All the developed countries together (US, the EU, Japan, Russia, Eurasia and other high income countries, including Canada) represent only 37% of global CO2 emissions, while the developing countries represent 63%: Share of CO2 Emissions. As the developed countries bear the cost of reducing their emissions the developing countries will continue to increase theirs. Over time, the 37/63 split will change to increase the disparity. Looked at another way, even if the developed countries reduce their emissions by 30% by 2030 – an improbable achievement over the next decade – CO2 emissions globally would continue to increase.

As Patricia Adams has reported, China, the world’s largest CO2 emitter, is aggressively building coal generation, a major source of CO2:

“In total, 46.7gigawatts (GW) of new and restarted coal-fired power construction are either generating power or will soon be operational [in China]. If all the plants reach completion, they alone would increase China’s coal-fired power capacity by 4%. Abroad, it is the same story. By the end of 2016, as part of the Belt and Road Initiative, China is involved in 240 coal-fired power projects in 25 BRI countries with a total installed capacity of 251 GW, making it the most important global player in the development of coal-fired power projects.”

To provide some perspective, Canada’s total installed generation capacity from all sources in 2017 was only 145 GW (StatsCan), a lot less than just the Chinese increase in coal generation in the 25 BRI countries.

In 2017 China, the world’s largest CO2 emitter, represented 27.21% of the world’s total CO2 emissions, followed by the US at 14.58% and India at 6.82%. Canada ranked 10th, representing only 1.58% (statista) . China and India are projected to keep increasing their emissions much more than Canada is proposing to decrease ours.

As with straw on the camel’s back, from the planet’s standpoint, there is no such thing as good CO2 load and bad CO2 load, there is only CO2 load. It is therefore irrational for Canada to prefer earlier CO2 emitters over more recent CO2 emitters when the more recent ones may make a greater contribution to society (e.g., by creating more jobs, more government tax revenue and a stronger Canadian dollar).

Let’s assume, for the sake of argument, that rising levels of CO2 in the atmosphere are more destructive than helpful, as that is currently the Canadian government’s belief. In that case, the Canadian solution to rising global CO2 levels – if there is a solution, given the large and increasing emissions of China and India – is to allocate Canada’s Paris Accord CO2 reduction commitment rationally. Devices such as the CO2 tax, if properly constructed, should do this.

CO2 taxes and similar devices force businesses to forecast their profits after paying the CO2 tax. If their forecasts show insufficient profits they will either reduce or stop the activity causing the emissions, or change their methods of operation to emit less CO2.

If the companies extracting oil from the Alberta oil sands will emit more CO2 than is profitable after paying the tax, they will not extract enough oil to finance a pipeline. On the other hand, if these companies will earn enough after the tax to build and operate a pipeline then other industries with lower profit opportunities will have to reduce their emissions. Market-based allocation methods permit everyone to choose whether to continue emitting at the same level, to find a way to reduce emissions, or to shut down. However, that’s not how Canada’s new Impact Assessment Act, C-69, works in practice.

Section 22 of that Act sets out the list of mandatory factors that the Impact Assessment Agency (IAA) must consider in deciding whether to recommend approval of a pipeline project.

Section 22 (1) (i) of C-69 requires the IAA to consider:

(i) the extent to which the effects of the designated project hinder or contribute to the Government of Canada’s ability to meet its environmental obligations and its commitments in respect of climate change;

One effect of an oil pipeline will be to increase the amount of oil being extracted from the oil sands and pumped through the pipeline. The extraction process will require energy, normally from combustion of fossil fuel, resulting in CO2 emissions. Although the pipeline itself will not emit large quantities of CO2, the upstream effect at the oil extraction stage will cause significant new emissions. This may result in the proposed pipeline being denied approval, not because of the inability to pay carbon tax and make a profit, but because pipeline projects are treated this way in the impact assessment legislation. As a result, lower-value producers of emissions may be permitted to continue emitting while a higher value emitter such as a pipeline may be precluded from operation by C-69. This is an irrational result.

Going further, it is irrational and unbalanced to consider upstream effects of a pipeline on CO2 emissions as having an environmentally adverse effect when they cannot be weighed against emission reductions that may be achieved downstream from the pipeline. It is like looking at one part of an equation in isolation. For example, with TMX, the oil transported from the oil sands to the ocean would then be transported by tankers to customers in Asia, most probably, to China. China could use this oil to displace some of its coal-fired electricity generation, thereby reducing CO2 emissions by an amount greater than the increased in emissions in the oil sands extraction process. The total global CO2 level would then be reduced, a win for the planet.

However, the test in clause 22 (1) (i) does not consider global benefits. It considers only the Canadian government’s own CO2 emission reduction commitments. This is not even a local benefit, as CO2 emission reductions have no local atmospheric effects. The mere presence of this one-sided clause introduces a strong anti-pipeline bias.

Instead of thinking globally about CO2, clause 22 (1) (i) thinks locally, but for no useful purpose. The only purpose of the Paris Accord is to help reduce the planetary CO2 emissions level.  When Canada signed on to this international accord and developed its CO2 reduction plan our purpose was not to reduce CO2 levels in the air above Canada but across the entire planet.  The scope of inquiry into CO2 — if any — should therefore be the entire planet: either examine and balance the upstream emissions with the downstream emissions or examine neither. Thus, clause 22 (1) (i) is clearly unbalanced and one-sided because of its failure to examine the downstream impact on the global CO2 level. More fundamentally, in the presence of a CO2 tax this clause is redundant; there is no need to examine emissions either upstream or downstream of a proposed pipeline. This is more fully explained in an excellent article published by the CD Howe Institute here: C D Howe.

For the Cabinet deciding a pipeline impact assessment, choosing whether the incremental emissions should be permitted is the wrong way to make the allocation decision. I see no merit in letting the government choose which straw will be permitted to add load to the camel’s back. Let the market choose it.


It was also argued that the increased marine traffic needed to transport the oil from the pipeline to Asian customers would increase underwater noise. This incremental noise would be the end of the Southern Resident orcas of British Columbia, an endangered species.

Underwater noise may interfere with the echolocation orcas use to find their main prey, Chinook salmon. However, the reason why orcas are already endangered is not primarily underwater noise but lack of food, described here and in greater detail in the government’s 2018 Recovery Strategy:

“In order to achieve this goal, four principal objectives have been identified. They are:

Objective 1: ensure that Resident Killer Whales have an adequate and accessible food supply to allow recovery [emphasis added]

Objective 2: ensure that chemical and biological pollutants [in the water and in their food] do not prevent the recovery of Resident Killer Whale populations

Objective 3: ensure that disturbance from human activities does not prevent the recovery of Resident Killer Whales

Objective 4: protect critical habitat for Resident Killer Whales and identify additional areas for critical habitat designation and protection”

The orcas are literally starving to death and unable to reproduce, because of excessive fishing of Chinook salmon, destruction of habitat and lack of political will to stop the fishing and restore the Chinook population. If there is no prey to be found in the area of the increased marine traffic the orcas can’t find nonexistent food regardless of noise levels. Nevertheless, even with seriously inadequate prey, disturbance of echolocation may be harmful.

Noise of equivalent pitch and volume cannot be divided into good noise (my noise, of course) and bad noise (everyone else’s noise, of course). As with straws and CO2 molecules, at any particular noise level, noise is noise.

These orcas don’t live in the Vancouver harbor area all year. They travel from Alaska to California. When they are not traveling through the tanker lanes there is no noise issue.

If the task is to allocate the limited noise to be permitted during the months the orcas are in the area of the increased tanker traffic, again, this should be done rationally. Therefore, if the Vancouver port authority or Transport Canada determines that the underwater noise should be capped at X decibels, they can require every vessel to lower speed and maintain distance to reduce noise below X. Alternatively, similar to a CO2 tax, they could charge a per decibel per hundred meters fee or other appropriate fee, so as to cap noise when the orcas are present.

The orcas don’t care whose ships are disturbing them. The same noise from any ship, regardless of country of origin or ownership, will disturb the orcas equally. There is no reason to prefer those companies whose ships started making underwater noise earlier over those who will start making noise later. Similarly, there is no reason to prefer noise made by whale watching vessels or ferries just because these vessels have local owners, over tankers or cargo carriers or cruise ships with foreign owners.

The approval of TMX to operate its pipeline will increase tanker traffic seven times, to almost one tanker a day in the Vancouver/Burnaby area, but this level of tanker traffic will remain constant or decline over the lifetime of the pipeline. In the first year this increased tanker traffic will increase total vessel traffic in the Vancouver harbor area by approximately 13%. However, in subsequent years there will be substantial traffic growth by vessels other than tankers, such as cargo carriers. Therefore, the percentage of the total noise that is created by tankers should decrease, other things remaining equal.

But even in the first year, a 13% increase in total vessel traffic caused by tankers does not mean a 13% increase in underwater noise. Underwater noise varies inversely with the square of the distance: vessels at twice the distance will make one quarter of the noise. Many smaller vessels such as whale watching ships and BC ferries travel much closer to the orcas, for much longer, and with much greater frequency than the one tanker a day. Their noise has long been harming the orcas without any impact from the pipeline-related traffic. Also, cargo carriers are generally noisier than tankers and more numerous. Yet very few people have advocated limiting the movement of cargo carriers, or reducing the speed and frequency of ferries, or prohibiting whale watching. The focus has been on tankers, encouraged by those who are opposed to pipelines.

There are acoustic measurement devices now in place that measure underwater sound from passing ships. This permits underwater noise to be regulated. The port of Vancouver has already used these measurement devices to conduct a slowdown test to measure the reduction in noise levels when ships slow down. The port authority now has sufficient information to be able to allocate noise levels in the same way that CO2 emission levels or straws on the camel’s back can be allocated. There is no excuse for preferring old noise to new noise.­


Rational environmental decision-making for pipeline projects is essential. Illogical, emotion-based decision-making is costly, yet does little to protect the global environment. Those who advocate denying pipeline approval because of incremental upstream CO2 emissions or underwater noise do so either because they are unaware of the “last straw” fallacy in their thinking or because they are looking for ways to ensure that the oil stays in the ground.

7 replies »

  1. Thank you, Jack. I think a few people in government do look at my blog. I am encouraged by the decision not to proclaim C-69 before the election, leaving room perhaps for some amendments in 2020.


  2. Hi Andrew, former Prober Grainne Ryder here. I am so delighted to find your blog and insightful analysis via PI newsletter. I will share with students, as I am teaching a contemporary issues in dev practise (Faculty of Environment U of Waterloo) this spring. Great stuff!


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