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Peril lurks all around us

Whitehorse saw some clever guerrilla marketing this week, with opponents of Yukon Energy's new liquefied natural gas facility putting up red and yellow safety posters downtown.

Whitehorse saw some clever guerrilla marketing this week, with opponents of Yukon Energy’s new liquefied natural gas facility putting up red and yellow safety posters downtown warning that the area might have to be evacuated if there was an LNG fire.

In case you didn’t get the point, the bottom of the poster suggests googling a few LNG explosions elsewhere.

It made me think about what I would do in the event of an LNG disaster. Then I took a step back and thought about all the other unlikely but catastrophic downtown perils that could kill me on Main Street before I have a chance to finish my latte.

First, the dam could burst and flood downtown and Riverdale. I live slightly uphill from a friend who works at Yukon Energy and presumably is familiar with the dam’s inundation zone, so I am sort of hoping that means we would be OK. But to tell the truth I haven’t checked.

LNG also made me think about propane. There is a big propane facility in the Marwell area, and propane blows up very similarly to LNG. If the 3.2 kilometre evacuation zone mentioned by the LNG posters applies to the propane plant, then everything from our big box stores to the liquor warehouse could be at risk.

It’s worth pointing out that the Yukon Liquor Corporation does not keep a backup supply of liquor in a secure, undisclosed location. Almost the entire territorial scotch supply is stored in one warehouse that could be flooded or blown up at any moment.

Then there are those giant diesel tanks at Yukon Energy, not to mention the Yukon government building’s suspicious new backup generators and their fuel supply by the waterfront - perilously close to the trolley tracks, by the way - so that the Premierbunker can stay in operation if, for example, a future LNG fire disrupts the power supply.

Plus, what is in that smoke that comes out of that tall, skinny chimney at the back of the hospital? I’m guessing they’re not burning finely aged organic beetle-kill spruce in that thing.

Then there are all those cellphone towers, wi-fi base stations and smartphone transmitters popping up all over town. Why haven’t I gone to and built myself a simple Faraday cage to keep all that electro-magnetic radiation at bay?

And who likes how jet airplanes are always circling overhead or buzzing Takhini? Over 1,000 times a year, families in Takhini must live with the risk that an aluminum tube filled with explosive jet fuel and a hundred screaming Yukoners will come through the roof going several hundred kilometres an hour.

It was interesting that the risk of an LNG disaster had my attention while I generally throw the “precautionary principle” out the window and ignore all those other risks.

In reality, the most likely way I will get killed in Whitehorse is probably jaywalking or in a traffic accident. I was three minutes late for lunch a few weeks ago and dashed across Second Avenue, our civic drag strip. I lost a Birkenstock slipping on some gravel and nearly became a hood ornament.

But why isn’t anyone campaigning against speeding on Second Avenue?

Behavioural economists have shown that humans tend to obsess about risks that are new, uncontrollable and catastrophic. People tend to fret more about dying in a plane crash, while the data shows you are much safer flying than driving yourself on an icy road while texting, drinking coffee, petting your dog and arguing with your spouse.

Foreign Policy magazine highlighted our shaky risk assessment skills when it put out a list of summer activities that are more dangerous than you think. It turns out that getting “crushed by television or furniture” kills more Americans every year than terrorism. You might have seen Stephen Colbert pick this up on his show with a warning about “terrorist furniture.” Fireworks, vending machines and riding lawnmowers are also surprisingly dangerous.

Other studies have shown that people are much more likely to underestimate risk for activities they like. Hence people tend to underestimate the risks of downhill skiing. How many marijuana smokers have told you that the risks of smoking weed are over-stated? People also underestimate risk for activities that have perceived benefits.

Meanwhile, no one likes LNG plants, and it’s not as if power rates are going down because it’s being built.

Whenever the topic of risk comes up, we have to weigh the benefits against the risk. Air travel is more dangerous than walking the dog, but we highly value the benefit of getting cheaply and quickly to Vancouver.

We should all probably be more rigorous and data-driven about how we assess risk, as well as the benefits of risky activities. Relying on gut feel can lead to bad decisions.

And those bad decisions can cut both ways. If you under-estimate risk and over-estimate benefits, disaster can strike. And if you exaggerate risk, you can cut yourself off from some very beneficial innovation. It’s probably good they didn’t block development of the airplane and the cellphone until enough evidence to satisfy the precautionary principle had been accumulated. We’d still be driving to Vancouver and talking on phones wired to the wall.

Yukon Energy’s website has a page with reports backing up its point of view on the LNG plant. They say they had to replace their old diesel generators anyway, and that LNG was better for economic, operational and environmental reasons. CPAWS Yukon and others have pages on Facebook and elsewhere with different points of view. I suggest you read both and make up your own mind.

In the meantime, our propensity to be fascinated by risk won’t go away. With the Yukon legislature’s report on fracking coming up, I think we can expect to see more mock warning posters soon.

Keith Halliday is a Yukon economist and author of the MacBride Museum’s Aurore of the Yukon series of historical children’s adventure novels. You can follow him on Channel 9’s Yukonomist show or Twitter @hallidaykeith