In an attempt to redeem myself, I will try to return to my usual subjects. One of the organizations that I've been reading a lot of press on these days is the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC). On the face of it, it seems like an NGO I ought to really get behind on most issues. I consider myself an environmentalist, broadly agree with many goals of the environmental movement - especially in relation to climate change issues, emissions regulation, and long-term energy development - with the sole exception of nuclear power, which seems to have split environmentalists every which way. Although the NRDC has an anti-nuclear power stance, which I've blogged about before, that issue alone shouldn't stop people who hold my views from working with the NRDC.
Alas, I've found objective reasons to not support the organization.
At issue is a series of posts from a spokesperson for the NRDC posted on The Energy Collective. Although the website aggregates posts from many authors, including the always-excellent Geoffrey Styles, the NRDC has many people posting on the site, and I've been reading almost all of what's being written.
What does get posted from the NRDC nearly always has to be taken with their biases in mind. That in and of itself does not bother me; that NGOs, particularly lobbying and advocacy organizations, engage in hyperbole is not new to me. As a member of the EFF for the past six years, I've been subjected to a continuous barrage of free speech, copyright law and internet-related doom. While perhaps this is to rouse the armchair activists and weekend warriors, for someone who reads it every day it is easy to become jaded. However, a particularly egregious post finally knocked me over the edge into mistrusting everything that comes from the NRDC.
Although the article talks about Keystone XL oil and appeals primarily to emotion, what I found appalling was the following paragraph, taken from an NRDC report:
Pollutants from tar sands refineries contribute to a wide range of human health problems, which include heart and lung disease, asthma, and cancer. Many of the refineries proposing to take tar sands oil are located in areas that already do not meet air quality standards. Tar sands oil contains more sulfur, nitrogen, and metals (including lead, nickel, mercury, and arsenic) than conventional crudes.5 They also create emissions of sulfur dioxide (SO2) and nitrous oxide (NOx), which contribute to acid rain. In addition, the tar sands refining process stresses water resources, demanding vast amounts of fresh water, and producing ammonia and sludge.There are so many problems with that paragraph that I find it necessary to go through them one by one.
- "Pollutants from tar sands refineries contribute to a wide range of human health problems, which include heart and lung disease, asthma, and cancer."
Context matters, as does dosage. Many of the pollutants from my car do the same, but we still drive them all the time. By the same token, inhaling from my tailpipe will do something very different from standing on my porch while cars pass by. In addition, this provides no information about the changes in refining emissions from cracked bitumen compared to conventional crude, probably because there isn't much.
- "Many of the refineries proposing to take tar sands oil are located in areas that already do not meet air quality standards."
OK, that's bad, but is that even part of the issue? Remember, this comes from a report on tar sands from Canada.
sands oil contains more sulfur, nitrogen, and metals (including lead,
nickel, mercury, and arsenic) than conventional crudes."
At the wellhead, maybe, but they do go through an upgrading process where most of the metals are scrubbed. This statement reminds me of the anti-Keystone XL op-ed in the NYT, where the statement that "acidic" crude oil would be piped through ignored that crude is routinely more acidic. This statement also course ignores that, for example, certain Mexican crudes are higher in sulfur. In refining, heavy-duty desulfurization and denitirification techniques that are standard in industry ensure that inorganic chemicals are virtually totally extracted.
- "They also create emissions of sulfur dioxide (SO2) and nitrous oxide (NOx), which contribute to acid rain."
The same could be said about a car's gasoline combustion, except we have cat converters at the tailpipe that get rid of those things, along with many volatile organic compounds (VOCs). Similarly, flue gas desulfurization and NOx scrubbing is now standard on all power plants and refineries in the US. The implication of this omission is even more disturbing when one takes into account the similar lack of reference to the tight environmental standards that already govern these emissions. If the NRDC believes that these standards are not enough, then it should mention them and advocate tightening them.
- "In addition, the tar sands refining process stresses
water resources, demanding vast amounts of fresh water, and producing
ammonia and sludge."
True, but again misleading. The water resources are required at the source and not in Texas. Water issues are local issues, always. The key question for the Texans is, does the refining process use more water? Maybe marginally so. As for the ammonia and sludge, that's also produced by conventional refining and is part of the decontamination process, and it's scrubbed and treated at great expense. Why is this not mentioned?
There are many legitimate issues at play in the petrochemical industry belt formed around the Houston Ship Channel (Houston-Galveston), many of which the NRDC article mentions. There are serial polluters in the area. There is a history of old infrastructure leading to horrifying accidents, including the BP Texas City refinery explosion that has, in part, continued to put me off from becoming a plant engineer. And there are noticeable health effects in the area, as well as a lack of community power since the neighborhoods are characterized by the flight of the middle class to suburbs rather than engagement.
None of these have to do with Keystone oil. They are all chronic issues that need to be addressed, but the piece is not about these issues. The NRDC's writing, which is typified by this piece, puts the presentation of a parade of horrors with a pet cause that has tenuous links to the negative consequences at best. Nothing is explicitly lied about, but the appeal to guilt-by-association almost oozes from the piece.
There exists a fine line between an editorial and propaganda, but I've found that there can be two clear distinctions between them. Editorials can belittle or dismiss contravening evidence, but by and large they make a good faith effort to acknowledge its existence. Propaganda declines to mention anything that undermines the thesis. While I like my editorials to try and have a logical, reasoned argument, I acknowledge that many often rely on an open emotional appeal. Propaganda couches emotional appeal in the guise of reason.
What the NRDC rep posted is agitprop. If this kind of writing is the type of action I can expect from the NRDC, then they've lost all credibility in my eyes.
Edit 4/3/12: As if to push the final nail in the coffin, the same guy has done it again. So long, NRDC, and thanks for all the fish.