Dear Mayor Helps,
A few months ago, Canadians noticed in the news that Victoria was considering a lawsuit against petroleum companies to hold them accountable for the effects of climate change. The story broke soon after Whistler’s mayor signed a letter to oil companies asking for compensation for same, and the one-two punch was too much for Canada’s energy industry. The howls of outrage were heard across the land, and no one howled louder than I did.
In early April, my shrieking subsided a bit when I read a news article in which you mused that “fighting lawsuits is probably not the best way to spend our time.” My ears perked up a bit; this was unexpected given the strength of the pro-lawsuit campaign.
Then, it was with extreme pleasure that I heard that you would actually come to Alberta to visit an oil sands production site. And then you really did! Furthermore, while other famous stars have visited, denounced, and returned to a gloriously clueless life of hypocrisy, what you had to say sounded incredibly statesmanlike: “I feel like I’ve come and looked at a different paradigm… a paradigm that oil and gas extraction is going to happen for the next 50 years at least, there’s long-term investments in this industry. I live in another paradigm where there’s a desire to phase off of fossil fuels in the next 20 to 30 years and to move to a zero-carbon prosperity. Those are two different paradigms, but at least now I have a foot in both and understand both.” A subsequent news article quoted you as saying about your trip to Alberta: “It was extraordinary. I knew nothing about the sector or very little about the sector…There’s nothing like actually standing in the field to dispel some of those myths.”
The entire energy business in Canada, from Manitoba to BC to the Arctic Ocean to eastern Canada, has been desperately waiting to hear a politician say something so sensible. Why on earth can’t Trudeau or McKenna or Horgan spend a day like you did? Were you aware that your sensibilities shame theirs?
That is the part that has been dumbfounding and enraging Canada’s energy sector for so long. All it takes is a day’s time to actually see this other paradigm – and they refuse to do so. They refuse to even look.
Now, we should be clear as to expectations. I don’t think anyone, certainly no one I’ve talked to, expects you to go back to Victoria and say climate change is a load of crap and that you now welcome unfettered fossil fuel development. You were clear to reiterate your intense work on developing leadership plans to “phase completely off fossil fuels by 2050 at the latest.”
Let me emphasize a point that might surprise you: no one here objects to your efforts to do just that. That is your right and no one wants to stop you. Where we diverge in opinion is the feasibility of achieving that objective, because we take what you are saying literally: we in the energy business do not see any conceivable way to end a reliance on fossil fuels in that time frame. Notice the critical distinction – limiting fossil fuel usage to achieve something like net-zero emissions is not in any way the same thing as being off fossil fuels completely. Fossil fuels dominate the production of everything in your (and our) habitat. You may line the streets with electric buses and banish internal combustion engines, and so might every other city, but the demand for fossil fuels will remain massive because our entire world is empowered by them. You will find that your objective, taken literally, is difficult beyond belief.
However, thanks to your visionary visit, we can at least get onto the same page and begin a discussion. Thank you for the wisdom you showed in turning down the advice you’d received about how launching lawsuits is a good way to start a discussion (thanks for that gem, West Coast Environmental Law). As I pointed out (often) in my book, I agree that we will be transitioning away from fossil fuels at some point, because the cheap stuff is disappearing (global oil consumption exceeds 35 billion barrels per year). Once oil rises to a certain price level, market economics will kick in and we will see a transition unfold that is workable. Once Victoria realizes how hard it is to be entirely “off of fossil fuels”, we will all find ourselves on the same page and develop realistic plans accordingly.
At the end of the day, what we do hope is that, as you discuss initiatives with your colleagues, you can describe to them a paradigm that they are ignorant of. It’s hard to say that in a way that doesn’t sound disrespectful, but unfortunately that’s what it is – a void of knowledge that can only be truly known by willing to immerse one’s self a bit.
There is a perception among environmental groups that petroleum people don’t care about the environment, that they would sacrifice anything to make profits, etc. That is an extremely unfortunate narrative that has been promoted because a) the creation of a stark enemy empowers some groups; and b) the petroleum industry has a history of not worrying about public opinion. The latter is the industry’s mea culpa, but the lack of concern about public opinion is the same for all price-takers of commodities. Gold miners produce gold, and have no link to the weird places that stuff winds up. Wheat farmers are not, on a daily basis, overly concerned about the obesity problem their wheat might cause. Petroleum producers get their product to market, and it fuels the world. That has been happening for a very long time.
Now, in a sea of ignorance, we see the Mayor of Victoria stand tall as someone who sought to understand. It is saddening that this phenomenon is so rare that we have to make a big deal about it. You and your colleagues may be baffled by this grateful response or doubt that it is truly so. But it is. The energy industry is under an unprecedented attack, with everyone from Swedish school girls to the United Nations to California billionaires (and even the father of the “Hummer” vehicle movement in the US – Arnold Schwarzenegger) demanding an end to fossil fuel usage. The dominance of the narrative has morphed from a normative desire to an ill-conceived command.
Now you have seen exactly why that narrative is troublesome. A great deal of effort goes into producing fuel that the world demands every day, and, as you saw, the care and diligence exercised by Canadian energy workers is second to none.
It’s not that energy people don’t want a cleaner future, or don’t care about the environment. But Canada’s energy business, every day, is faced with the challenge of getting the world the fuel that it needs to exist in the lifestyle it demands. It is an incredible challenge every day to do that. We are extremely grateful that you took the time to see that in person. If every other politician that shares your paradigm would do the same, we would be on a wonderfully productive road going forward. You have provided a lesson in wisdom and statesmanship (statespersonship?) to all, and for that we thank you.