Availability Cascade

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A new poll available at afspg.com says 79% of Quebecers are in favour of energy independence, 62% against foreign energy imports, and 84% in favour of local natural gas development.  The same poll says 69% of Quebecers are against natural gas from shale even while they and their environment minister consume it every day.

If like a majority of Quebecers,  you think there is a meaningful difference between shale gas and natural gas then perhaps you too are the victim of an ‘availability cascade’.

Nobel economics prize winner Daniel Kahneman describes an Availablity Cascade on page 142 of his book Thinking Fast and Slow.  He could easily have been writing about the reaction to Questerre’s discovery of natural gas in Quebec.

“An availability cascade is a self sustaining chain of events, which can start from media reports of a relatively minor event and lead up to public panic and large-scale government action.  On some occasions, a media story about a risk catches the attention of a segment of the public, which becomes aroused and worried.  This emotional reaction becomes a story in itself, prompting additional coverage in the media, which in turn produces greater concern and involvement.  The cycle is sometimes sped along deliberately by ‘availability entrepreneurs’, individuals or organizations who work to ensure a continuous flow of worrying news.  The danger is increasingly exaggerated as the media compete for attention grabbing headlines.  Scientists and others who try to dampen the increasing fear and revulsion attract little attention, most of it hostile:  anyone who claims that the danger is overstated is suspected of association with a heinous cover-up.  The issue becomes politically important because it is on everyone’s mind, and the response of the political system is guided by the intensity of the public sentiment.”

Mr. Kahneman explains the mania of an availability cascade plays in to human psychology.  When faced with a very small risk we either ignore it or over react to it.  I am very familiar with this concept because I worried every time I had to wait up for my late teen age children but have never worried at all about getting on an airplane.

Availability entrepreneurs in Quebec also known as opponents, protestors,”bloquex”, and environmentalists have efficiently played the availability cascade game.  They magnified and publicized small, theoretical and outright fictional risks of modern natural gas development.  The public understandably became aroused and worried.  The media relished their part, which was to create the attention grabbing headlines.  As predicted, scientists and industry experts were accused of conspiring with a government cover-up.  Finally every political party fell in to line and supported a defacto moratorium.

You are going to be very surprised to hear what I say next.  The availability entrepreneurs have not been entirely unproductive.  They are evidently and sometimes comically wrong when they assert natural gas development can’t be done safely. However, they are right when they say Quebec is not yet ready for exploitation of natural gas.  It was the industry who was the first to say so three years ago in 2009.

The legitimate issue uncovered by the availability entrepreneurs is the question of Government preparedness to regulate a modern complex industry such as oil and gas.   It is true the Government did a good job regulating exploration for decades.  However, exploitation will be more difficult.

Industry called on Government for modern and effective regulations in 2009.  It was for this reason we acquiesced and agreed it was a good idea to take the time for the environmental review of the BAPE.  We patiently did so again for the Strategic Environmental Assessment (“SEA”) that the BAPE recommended.   Everyone needs to acknowledge that it wasn’t just the public that needed the time, the Government needed it too.  Pauline Marois in opposition was among the first to point this out.

However, her new minister telling the BAPE and SEA what answer she expects to hear and her other new minister (by coincidence we hope) changing out the head of the BAPE without explanation is not an improvement.  It risks making the Government itself an availability entrepreneur and it is simply avoiding the job.

Quebecers are in favor of natural gas, they are against foreign energy imports and would prefer local natural gas development compared to imports. They want the fiscal independence enjoyed by other provinces that choose to develop their resources. They also want to meet emissions reduction targets that cannot be achieved without natural gas.

Quebec is as capable if not more capable than other places to develop its resources in a sustainable manner.  I invite Pauline Marios’s Government to choose the alternative to availability cascades and confrontation.

The alternative is cooperation.  The alternative of working together to constructively finish the job.  The alternative of finishing the job she helped to start as leader of the opposition.  Finishing the job of getting Quebec ready to regulate modern oil and gas exploitation.

It is the job they were elected to do.  Responsibly make Quebec fiscally independent and a master of its own house.