What is the west so upset about? Well, there’s this…


Instead of raining blows upon people’s heads with yet another diatribe about how Canada’s petroleum sector is being disadvantaged, it’s time for something a little different, to explain to mystified Canadians just why feeling are running a little high out west. Yes, we see the news, we hear that Canada is warming faster than ever. Yes, we know the world is gravely concerned about climate change. We hear that, and the calls to do better. But the world continues to consume more and more petroleum products, for better or worse, and to pretend otherwise is unhelpful. Almost all of you, and us, are in that boat, with the size of our lifestyle footprints. What is irksome then, among other things, is the level to which things are taken for granted. So it’s quiz time!

How’s the oxygen today? 
How’s the food supply today? Going to be able to find enough to eat and/or feed the family?
How’s the fuel supply today? Is there enough heat for your building? Enough jet fuel for your flight?

These are all things taken for granted by everyone. No matter what anyone says, we require all three for the modern life we lead. But we don’t really think about any of them.

Some of you of the more pugnacious variety might ask: How dare I compare life-giving food with planet-killing fossil fuels? Well, depending on where you sit in the reality-awareness spectrum, a better question might be: how dare you not?

Odd as it seems, those questions strike at the heart of the tense mood in the west. Some will think Canada’s petroleum sector is in a bad state because it fears for its existence, and people are just worried about jobs. For some that probably true, as with any industry in a downward spiral. Some think the west is a spoiled brat, used to having it all, upset that it doesn’t anymore.

But it is far more than that. There is an overarching feeling that a vital industry, one we can’t live without, is being declared obsolete by people who spend zero time thinking about it.

Sometimes it is useful to listen to people that know what they are talking about, and hear their frustrations. When I go to my doctor, I can hear the frustration in her voice when talking about people who refuse to stretch or exercise. She’s not upset for business reasons; she is frustrated because she can see how people throw away their lives in a downward spiral of inactivity. She knows that because that is her business.

When you hear an oil or gas professional say something like we really need to be able to get products to end users, there is a reason for that. Again, if you are so inclined you can say it is all self-interest, but that attitude is the cross you must bear each day. No industry person I know wants to see people freeze to death in winter, as they would without natural gas. Many voice the opinion that shutting in pipelines is the only way to get people’s attention, and there is likely some truth to that. But no one wants to do it out of apathy or just to make more money; it seems like a very Russian thing to do (Russia did exactly that, to Europe, a few years ago in the dead of winter).

You, the people that don’t care to understand how your buildings are heated or how food gets in your mouth or how every single object within reach is brought to you by petroleum, you who believe that fossil fuels don’t matter because renewables are here, you have been duped by localized enthusiasts that think minor success stories are scalable to global energy reinvention. You are blasted with fear messages, like how Canada is warming at 3x the global average, by people who have no comment on what comparably large slice of the world must be warming at only 1/3 the global average (because that’s how averages work).

Look around you. Look at the endless infrastructure that enables the way we live. Open your eyes to boring heat sources, to transportation systems, to how it all works. Try to grasp that scale, and then think of consequences. Want to get rid of fossil fuels in a decade? Then think of, as but one small example, what the resulting destruction of the tourist industry would bring to…everywhere. Think of every resort that relies on people flying in, every Caribbean destination, every Parisian tourist trap, every ski resort, every one of them around the globe that would have their business decimated. Think of the upheaval in that industry alone.

Oh, that’s alarmist you say? Well what do you think would happen? What would replace that necessary air travel in a dozen years? How long does it take to certify a new jet engine that runs on conventional jet fuel, never mind one that would run on something that doesn’t even exist yet in commercial quantities? It would take probably a decade to develop that technology, let alone make it dominant. There is no substitute for fuels and lubricants and all the other million uses of petroleum. 

People in the energy business are aware of all this stuff because it is part of their business. When we go on a holiday and see the plane filling up, many of us know that jet fuel is a cousin to diesel, we know where it comes from, and we know what it takes to get the fuel there safely and consistently. Do you think about that stuff, all you people wondering what all the fuss is about in Canada’s oil patch? 

Do you think about what a violently large infusion of power from a hundred solar installations does to the stability of an electrical system not designed for that? Do you think of what it would take for that electrical system to be reconfigured to accept not a hundred but a thousand such installations, at the same time that activists demand the demolition of a century’s worth of petroleum infrastructure? 

Do you think that when you read one of the countless articles about how “solar power is now price competitive with natural gas” or that battery storage costs have fallen by 35 percent or whatever, do you think about what that actually means? Do you think it means the functionality now exists to rewire the energy world simply because one component out of a hundred is now cheaper? Do you realize that, regardless of the direness of warnings, certain “renewable pathways” cannot be rushed through, they just can’t, particularly with global fossil fuel consumption continuing to rise? Do you think that maybe any talk about changing the world’s energy systems should start with those who currently make it work, rather than ridiculing and sidelining them because of what Big Oil did 50 years ago? Do you think starving the existing and necessary business of capital reduces consumption?

Do you think that building anything is easy? Do you know how hard it can be to build new power lines or wind farms or solar installations on a large scale, never mind anything to do with petroleum? Do you have any idea what that scale would be to replace fossil fuels? Do you have any idea what the impact would be on wildlife or species at risk or protected habitats or the foulest beast of all, the NIMBYist, to do that?

Canada’s energy industry thinks of all those things because providing energy is what it does, as petroleum sources are exhausted and new ones developed. That is the job and all those factors need to be understood. To acknowledge reality is not necessarily to resist change. When building infrastructure, a “can do” attitude doesn’t mean you can “do anything.”

And there is a flip side to that coin also. When people vilify the petroleum industry, maybe they should consider that it largely does not consist of a back-room dealing, transnational, Big Oil industrial-complex machine. It is made up of a great many people from all over, who are well aware that times are changing.

Do you know that we know that mistakes have been made in the oil patch in the past? Do you know that we know that there is an environmental footprint to finding, developing, producing, transporting and, especially, consuming fossil fuels, that needs to be minimized? Do you know that we know that in a perfect world, cheap reliable energy would come from purely green sources? Do you know that, because our lives are centered on energy, we are well aware of just how far away that world is? Do you think that we don’t know the world is changing, but that we also know that you don’t build a skyscraper with a pile of bamboo and boundless enthusiasm? Do we not need a much bigger plan that deals with energy first, and leaves social justice to the dank pits of politics?

Wow, sorry, that’s a lot of questions. I tried answering them all myself and only got 68%. Good luck with the quiz, and may you come out just a little bit less of a petroleum basher.

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.