Building energy and the west required iron will and stoic discipline

At the risk of sounding like Grandpa Simpson, sometimes valuable lessons from decades past are worth dredging up. As a case in point, one cold February evening when back on the farm I drove over to a friend’s house and we headed into town for refreshments. We took his truck, and when we got back to his place at 3 am my car wouldn’t start because it was -42 and the block heater had called in sick. So I slept on their couch, and was awakened at about 6am by a gentle shake on my shoulder. It was my friend’s dad, waking me up and handing me a one-piece snowmobile suit (in those parts, the winter garment of choice of cattle farmers) because we all had to go “pull calves” – a ritual of calving season on farms for some cattle breeds. I won’t get into the earthy details but think of it as profoundly inelegant midwifery via ropes or chains and strong backs, performed in an extremely organic operating theatre.

Being awakened while exhausted, slightly drunk, and fairly nauseous is not optimal, but saying so was, I knew, a bad idea. I wasn’t being invited to consult, or notified that my friend had to go to work; this was notice that all hands were required on deck. Any word of complaint would have been met with a blank stare, as in “your mouth seems to be moving for some reason”; any second word of complaint would have resulted in removal of the offer of warm clothing, with the status of my impending participation unchanged. In some occupations or industries, when duty calls, what follows is a simple and uncomplicated process: There is work to be done. Now.

We’ve all been there, right? It’s possible your circumstances may have been different; not everyone has the privilege of a farm upbringing. But many in the energy business are familiar with such a stark and unemotional situation, where immediate action is the one and only path that can be taken. At such times, there is no option but to act, and complaining is an alien concept because it is obvious that doing so simply wastes precious time. Farming has those situations, and so does the energy industry. In spades. When I first entered the oil patch, I was astonished to learn of the existence and size of the “hot shot” industry; firms whose sole purpose was to deliver things to remote locations as expeditiously as possible, in situations where pee breaks are luxuries. Petroleum exploration and production is a “can do” business like few others, not for the faint of heart, where extreme challenges are faced head on because there is no other way.

Maybe we as an industry are in this situation now, and maybe we need to start concentrating our actions along these lines as though it is imperative to do so. Because in some ways it is.

Maybe Canada’s petroleum industry has to reframe the current state of affairs into the age-old piles of things we can do something about, and things we can’t. Some issues are not clear cut – can we as an industry do anything about getting pipelines built? That’s not an easy one, because we are fighting decision makers over which we have little control. But others we can more easily sort through.

The most glaring and disheartening variable that we cannot change at present is the overarching policies set by those for whom misguided UN-dictates are more important than national governance. Our current federal leadership is, frankly, an inbred, ignorant, self-centered national disaster. But even if Trudeau & Co. disappear, the problem remains to some extent. Power centers like Ottawa or Washington develop their own ecosystems, and attention goes where the votes are. From Ottawa, that primary concern extends about 300 km in every direction and then fades, with but a few localized hot spots scattered across the country. A conservative government may well treat the west differently, but come election time the same problem always exists – some areas are going to dominate the agenda. These days, energy has an uphill battle everywhere.

Now comes the hard part – so what? What are we going to do about it? There are a few options. We can rage. We can move to another country. We can give up. We can start a separatist movement. We can campaign to change the government, and hope that Canada’s hinterlands get more respect.

But none of those actions reflect the iron will and “ingenuity-from-necessity” attitude that built the west and Canada’s energy industry.

To point this out isn’t to belittle the agony being felt by many across the west, such as by those losing businesses or jobs.  But it is a reminder to perhaps bring the focus back to things we can do. If we can refocus like that, we may be astonished to see what can happen. In actuality, we are starting to see exactly that.

For example, even though pipeline construction now seems impossible – even the advanced Enbridge Line 3 replacement is hanging by a thread – we are seeing visionaries say, well, what are the options? What are tangible alternatives? Crude by rail is one; it may be inefficient and more harmful to the environment than pipelines, but if that’s all we have, that’s what we’ll use. New ideas are emerging that will make that system work better, like the CanaPux system that offers an exciting alternative to bitumen transportation (so much so that it warrants a subsequent and thorough investigation, coming soon). Enbridge itself is reworking its systems to maximize flow. On top of that, we are seeing concrete efforts to utilize and upgrade oil rather than simply shipping it away in a raw state, with billions of dollars of new petrochemical projects announced recently.

Other businesses are popping up to reinvent and reenergize the way the industry operates. A phenomenal start-up company is using cutting edge technology to solve waste disposal inefficiencies that have been a costly nuisance to the industry for decades. Others are finding new ways to recycle and reuse items that otherwise might have gone to the landfill. Both these examples – and there are many others – make the industry more efficient, and, for those keeping score from the outside, are reducing the environmental footprint of the entire business. We should be shouting about these initiatives from the rooftops.

It’s not easy to simply go this route, because it feels like we are meekly accepting the ridiculous handcuffs that have been put on Canada’s energy industry, ones that no other nation has had put on theirs. By simply getting on with business, it feels like we are condoning the wrong-headed logic that the world’s emissions problems are best solved by singling out Canada for special punishment.

But maybe it’s time to seek inspiration from the ingenuity and toughness that made the industry what it is, and let the world judge us on that, rather than focusing on wrongs we can never right. Let’s get our “can do” mojo back; empowerment and accomplishment both feel much better than complaining. It is an undeniable fact that the coffee tasted much better after 3 hours of pulling calves than it would have after 3 hours of sitting on the couch complaining about the cold while others did the hard work.

About the Author

Terry Etam is an independent senior consultant for small and midsize oil and gas companies. His website Public Energy Number One is dedicated to energy education and he is the author of The End of Fossil Fuel Insanity.