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Far from natural

February 24, 2020

Back in the mid 1990s (good grief, how can that be 25 years ago?), when I was working on toxics at the Greenpeace Vancouver office, it came (or was brought) to my attention that a company called Tilbury Cement in Delta (or was it Ladner? One of the burbs) was trying to get a permit to burn hazardous waste as fuel. Yes, you heard that right: hazardous waste. This was considered a win-win for Tilbury and for hazardous  material manufacturers, whose waste was supposed to be incinerated in specialised and expensive facilities. Imagine all the money you could save if, instead of paying a hefty fee to have your waste incinerated, you could just offload the stuff on a cement manufacturer, who in turn saved lots of money on the cost of buying fuel? Cool, eh?

Of course there was the pesky business of acquiring a permit from the province to burn this hazardous waste. Part of the process involved was a requirement by the province that the company hold a public consultation on the proposal. By the time I got wind of this, said public consultation was already underway. I don’t know how Tilbury recruited members of the public. An ad in the local paper? Flyers delivered to every home in Ladner (or was it Delta)? In any case, a dozen or so members of the public had been recruited. I tried to get myself added to the group, but was rejected as I wasn’t a resident of Delta (or Ladner). After appealing to a guy named Brad (can’t remember his last name – it was 25 years ago), the BC environment ministry representative overseeing the process, the company agreed I could audit the meetings. So, I could attend, but I had to sit in a chair against the wall, not at the table, and I could listen, but I could not speak, especially not to ask a question.

The public consultation meetings were held in a hotel conference room in Ladner (or Delta). The first evening I was to attend, I did what I always did when I had to drive to somewhere in the burbs: I asked my partner Mike how long it could possibly take, then added half an hour to cover getting lost, which always happened to me once I was outside city limits. (No satnav in those days.) And it happened that night. I was almost at Tswwassen before I finally realised I should have turned left, not right some time ago.

Anyway, I got there and took my seat by the wall. No one introduced me. I sat and I listened to a lot of bullshit-baffles-brains arguments about why burning hazardous waste as fuel in a cement plant was an absolutely marvellous idea.  During the short coffee break, I headed for the exit to have a smoke. Soon afterwards I was joined by one of the members of the public. No one had told me I wasn’t allowed to talk to the committee members outside the meeting room, had they?

So I introduced myself to John, who’d already figured out he and the other committee members were being bull-shitted, but didn’t know quite how. Was there, he asked, any reason I couldn’t provide him and the other members of the committee with information – and ammunition – between meetings? No, I told him, there absolutely was not.

And so I started to provide him with reports by scientists with Greenpeace and the Environmental Defence Fund and peer-reviewed articles published in prestigious academic (rather than industry) journals, all of which explained in no uncertain terms why burning hazardous waste as fuel was a very, very bad idea. When John shared one of these reports with other committee members at the next meeting, the guy from Tilbury Cement shot me the evil eye. I just smiled back at him.

A couple of meetings later, during the second half, a guest speaker was introduced. As soon as I heard her name, I knew what was coming. Kitty Something (I can’t remember her last name – again, you know, 25 years ago) was a well-known chemical industry mouthpiece. Cute as a button and perky as all get out, how could you not believe every reassuring word she said and reassuring slide she showed? Inevitably her presentation involved lengthy reference to a report by a “scientist” named Greg (can’t remember his last name either) which had been published in “a respected, journal” and proved beyond a shadow of a doubt that burning hazardous waste as fuel was a very, very good idea  I knew all about this Greg guy. Yes, he did have some scientific academic qualifications, but he was a chemical industry stooge whose “research” was funded by the industry to be published in industry journals.

Oh, my god. I just wanted to shout “bull shit!” but I couldn’t. So I tore a sheet of paper out of my notebook and wrote: “Published in which journal? Academic or industry? Peer reviewed? By who?” Then I scrunched the piece of paper in a ball and tossed it on the floor close to John’s feet. Then I manufactured a coughing fit that went on for so long people, including John, turned to look at me. When I caught John’s eye, I pointed to the paper on the floor and then I stopped coughing. Fortunately, the lights in the room had been turned off for Kitty’s slideshow. No one had noticed me tossing the paper and no one noticed John picking it up. Kitty and the guy from Tilbury Cement certainly noticed when John started asking his questions. Another evil eye for me and an admission from Kitty that the report in question had been published in an industry journal and had undergone no independent peer review.

The next day I was on the phone to Brad at the environment ministry. Brad was one of the good guys. He had no interest in rubber stamping this permit. This effort to penny pinch by burning haz waste as fuel was a first in the province. If Tilbury’s application was approved, you could bet there would be others keen to follow suit. And Miss Kitty really was quite notorious. Brad was not impressed when I told him she’d been imported from the US to do her industry snow job on the locals.

Long story, short: Tilbury’s bogus public consultation was wrapped up, to be replaced with an official environment ministry consultation. Brad, who would be overseeing this official consultation, got in touch and pretty much begged me to agree to be on the committee. “We really need your input,” he told me. What he really meant was they really needed my name on the list of committee members to give the process credibility. (“See? We had an enviro!”)

I’d been sucked into this once before. Tons of paper piling up on my desk: technical reports and feasibility studies to be read, digested, analysed discussed at monthly meetings. No, thank you.

“Okay, Brad,” I said, “Here’s my input. The least polluting, least environmentally-damaging fuel Tilbury Cement could use is natural gas. You could send me all the reports and at the end of six months, I’d tell you the same thing. I don’t need the reports or the meetings. If the environment ministry is interested in protecting the environment, the answer is natural gas. If you’d like me to put that in writing for your report, I’d be happy to do so. That’s my input.”

Why am I sharing this story today, 25 years later? It’s not the first time this conversation has come back to me in the intervening years. I’ve thought about it a number of times in the past decade.

When I made this pronouncement in the mid 1990s, natural gas was a bit more natural, by which I mean the method of acquiring most of it was pretty much the same as the method of acquiring oil (drill a hole, extract the fuel) and burning natural gas was definitely less polluting than burning oil and a helluva lot less polluting than burning coal.

Thus, natural gas was hailed as the “transition” fuel.  Yes, said politicians and industry leaders, of course we’ll get around to electric cars and renewable energy, but in the meantime, burning natural gas is far better for the planet than burning oil or coal. And there’s so much of it! Trillions and trillions of cubic litres just sitting there under the ground waiting for us! Bonanza!

Unfortunately, there is virtually no easily acquired natural gas left. Those trillions of cubic litres have no interest in coming to the surface. If we want it (and, brother, do we want it!), we have to force it out of the planet with an incredibly environmentally damaging process called hydraulic fracturing or “fracking”.

I thought about that conversation I had with Brad when I was researching an article about fracking seven years ago. What, I wondered, would my “input” be now?

I thought about that conversation again a couple of days ago when I was reading the second chapter of Rachel Maddow’s new book Blowout.

In that chapter, Maddow tells the story of Project Rulison, an attempt fifty years ago in Colorado to increase access to natural gas by exploding a nuclear bomb deep under the Earth’s surface. Four years later they tried again elsewhere in Colorado with three more nukes.

There was “good” news and bad news. The explosions did release substantial pockets of natural gas. Unfortunately for the proponents, the gas was so contaminated with radiation that it could not be sold for use on the market.  The plan was abandoned. To this day the site remains under active monitoring by the US Department of Energy Office of Legacy Management.


Gas may occur naturally under the planet’s surface. There is nothing natural about the government and industry obsession with extracting it by any means, no matter how damaging.

We are insane.

From → Columns

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