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Hoodwinked: Getting things done in a cynical age
I couldn’t believe it. I was reading an article in Bloomberg about HydroQuebec’s proposed transmission line to NYC and it was about the most amazing thing I had read in a long time. Forget about the fact it was in Bloomberg, an ostensibly business-friendly publication, this article follows to a tee the exact template used to bring down oil and gas pipelines. Expect it is to bring down hydroelectricity.
Did you know that hydroelectricity generates more carbon than coal-fired electricity?
Did you know that the ‘pipeline’ that will transmit the electricity creates a high risk of pollution and the despoiling of fragile water ecosystems?
Did you know the evil ‘Blackstone’ is financing the project? BTW, the journalist mentions Blackstone a couple of times the article.
Of course like all the other ‘battles’ you never find out in the article who is funding all the ‘research’. It could be developers of wind and solar energy. It could be old school natural gas-fired electricity providers. We are not told who is the ultimately money behind this - only that environmental groups with highly reputable sounding names such as Riverkeeper and the NYC League of Conservation Voters are on board.
It’s absolutely fantastic.
Again, regardless of the validity of the claims, we are now seeing a playbook that can be applied in any situation.
Watch out if you are feeling smug. They might be coming for you next. Fishing? Mining? Forestry? Immigration? Urban densification? Even agriculture.
Everything we do in society comes with risk. Everything comes with tradeoffs. If we reduce our public debates to “who can yell the loudest wins”, we end up with paralysis. And while that might suite the 70+ crowd living in bucolic Hallmark movie towns or comfy Upper West Side millionaires, it is a recipe for long term societal sclerosis.
I am decidedly not a conspiracy theorist but I think that journalists need to follow the money on these big, complex public policy issues. When it comes to the energy transition there are trillions of dollars worth of investment at stake. Without sounding cynical you can get academics to say just about anything - it all depends on assumptions and conditions. Remember, I debated an academic during the proposed sale of NB Power who waved a report in the air that concluded the power utility was worth $60 billion.
Where is that report now?
Somehow we need to have better public debates. Yelling ‘fire’ in a crowded room should only be accepted by the crowd in a context where the yeller is deemed to be highly credible. If we default to a position better safe than sorry on all issues - nothing gets done.
In the case of NYC, without that hydro, and I defer to Neil Jacobsen at the Atlantica Centre for Energy as this is out of my area of expertise, it is likely the city will have to make due with fossil fuel-based electricity generation for much longer time. It is possible that tens of thousands of wind turbines will spring up or millions of solar panels will be manufactured at a huge environmental cost - but more likely that gridlock will lead to a lack of progress.
The next 20-30 years will be an interesting time in New Brunswick but also across North America. There will be places that thrive and places that stagnate.
Don’t be hoodwinked. When someone comes selling the soap, cast a critical eye.
When in university in the 1980s there was a lot of debate in academia about what had caused the economic challenges of the 1970s and 1980s. A professor asked us to read and write a short summary of Mancur Olson’s The Rise and Decline of Nations (Economic Growth, Stagnation and Social Rigidities)". It might be a good time to dust that book off for a new generation.