Energy (mis)information: The problem with facts


Some people are very upset by the debate over pipelines, or the Keystone pipeline in particular. Opponents of the pipeline have a fairly clear view of why it’s evil; they believe constructing the pipeline will unleash billions of tons of carbon as the oil sands are developed, destroying the environment. Scares you out of your wits. Those in favor of the pipeline have at the ready a series of facts about benefits of the pipeline, lists of industries/countries/fuels that are more dangerous from a greenhouse gas perspective than the pipeline or even oil sands could ever be. Their fact sheets are probably entirely correct. But sometimes that just doesn’t matter.

The problem is that facts have to be considered in context, remembering that emotions override facts sometimes, perhaps with really good reason, and that’s just life. Here’s an example from a small article I found in an oil industry magazine. Remember that big black fountain BP plunked in the Gulf of Mexico a few years ago? The one they tried so hard to shut down shortly after? The one that gave a new meaning to the term “blackened fish”? If so you may remember Tony Hayward, BP’s CEO at the time. During the crisis he was BP’s media spokesman, and, surrounded by an expensive squadron of communications advisors, nevertheless stepped up to the microphones and said some of the dumbest things you could think of. All excellent facts in their own right, but of the “why yes now that you mention it, that dress does make you look fat” variety. Compare Hayward’s use of facts with that of his successor (after his sorry little ass was fired, or whatever they called it when he “stepped down”):

“Commenting on an internal BP report on the cause of the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, Tony Hayward, outgoing Chief Executive Officer commented:

‘Based on the report, it would appear unlikely that the well design contributed to the incident, as the investigation found that the hydrocarbon flowed up the production casing through the bottom of the well.’


Bob Dudley, BP’s incoming Chief Executive Officer, had this to say about the same report: ‘It will be incumbent on everyone at BP to embrace and implement the changes necessary to ensure that a tragedy like this can never happen again.’ “ (Oilweek magazine, November 2010)

So there’s an eloquent example of the problem with facts. Hayward was probably entirely correct in the content of his message, another strong fact utilized to get all these freaks off his back. But who on earth would have been swayed, or even comforted, by his words? Not even his own mom. The comments make a bizarre soundtrack to footage of that black crude oil geyser shooting into the bright blue Caribbean waters.

Dudley’s statement was hardly factual, but, if your overall purpose was to get BP back to business and to regain public trust, which was the better statement to make in public? Dudley made a statement that was aimed at resonating with the average citizen; he understood that the most important aspect of the whole incident wasn’t to convince the public of BP’s innocence, it was to acknowledge that there was a very big f*cking problem and that BP would never allow it to happen again on his watch.

And so it goes with the arguments that a pipeline will create jobs, or that tax revenues from some oil project will provide blah blah percent of government revenues…when the countering argument is that the environment is at stake and our children’s children will be wandering barren wastelands if carbon releases get higher… well, I think facts are one piece of the puzzle, but anyone who thinks they’re the only piece isn’t going to get too far these days.

Facts are funny things. They might always be true, but that doesn’t mean you can use them to come to a purely logical conclusion and expect anyone to listen to you.

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