The theatre of the absurd – blocking petroleum from getting to market is like blocking a river with a fishing net


There is, in the public arena today, an effort or desire to “do good” with respect to environmental concerns that is, to a certain extent, so sincere and heartfelt that it is almost heartbreaking to point out how futile these efforts are. It’s as though you saw a child trying to revive a dying pet fish with ice cream.

This is a reference to those trying to solve global warming by limiting the movement of fossil fuels. I’m being far more generous than many in the oil patch would in ascribing any good will to these pointless actions, but what the hell, it’s spring and my petro-crankiness has temporarily abated. One gets that feeling in spring sometimes seeing new life, or new green leaves, or a baby animal exploring the world for the first time.

The parallels between a newly born creature discovering the world and pipeline protesters trying to save the world are actually incredibly similar.

Both clearly do not understand the world around them. The baby creature is motivated to act by instinct, the exuberance of the newborn and the thrill of discovery, whereas protesters are motivated to act by an uplifting feeling that they are saving the planet. The sad solitary difference is that the baby creature will learn about the world, whereas the blockaders vigorously resist that extra step.

In the earnestness to save the planet, pipeline (and fossil fuel) opponents see victory in throwing up little roadblocks here and there that disrupt the flow of oil from where it is produced to where it naturally (that is, economically) wants to be. At a micro level, the efforts succeed. If a protester stands on the very spot of land where a thwarted pipeline might have been buried, there is no doubt that that patch of dirt will remain undisturbed by the global thirst for fossil fuels.

The tragic part, which is actually more tragicomic, is how absurdly small this vision of global reality is. It is sadly ironic of course that the battle is being waged in the name of “global warming,” yet the battles that are fought are not just inconsequential in size, but irrelevant in terms of possible benefit.

The facts are simple, but somehow impossible to present in terms that can be understood. The world consumes 100 million barrels per day, and climbing. No consumer, not one, not one out of the 7 billion of them, accepts or rejects the fuel they are consuming based on where it came from. The most vitriolic, vicious, devious and recalcitrant of fossil fuel opponents (I meant that as a figurative description, but now that I look at it it could only be either Bill McKibben or his soul mate Naomi Klein) uses, at some point, oil from the oil sands. If they don’t use it from the oil sands, they use it from Nigeria, or Saudi Arabia, or Russia. Those countries do not respect, respectively, the rule of law, the rights of women, or anything not owned by Putin. None of them have an environmental protection scheme that can hold a candle to Canada’s. Canada’s is not perfect, of course, but anyone who says it is inadequate has never tried to build anything. In the oil patch, for example, oil and gas activity in Alberta can be halted by, at various times of the year, the presence of ungulates, caribou, burrowing owls, trumpeter swans, eagles, and the non-seasonal but blisteringly noisy mottle-faced complainer. Add to this mix the absolute necessity of working with native bands/rights, environmental regulations, holidays and the weather, and there is a 3-week period in January when 98 percent of activity happens.

To top it off, these blockades don’t do any good whatsoever anyway. The oil keeps moving. It’s even come to this: trucks are hauling oil from Alberta across the border into the US at a rate of 30 trucks per day. This may not sound like a lot, but in 2017 it was less than a third of that. And this is trucks, not crude by rail, a business which is now working as flat-out as railways will let it.

These are the physical conditions the Canadian energy business works under to bring energy to the world, to every global citizen that uses it. It is quite difficult. And yet, the world does not care one iota. They do not care if we require our burrowing owls to graduate from college; they continue to consume oil at an ever-increasing rate.

And they don’t look down the hose to see where it comes from, or what the environment is like there. Middle Eastern oil flows into eastern Canada and into the tanks of Quebecois who don’t want a pipeline anywhere near them, but are quite fine with a tanker coming across the ocean and up the Gulf of St. Lawrence bearing oil that came out of the ground with an environmental footprint we can’t even begin to guess at. It is highly amusing to see random nations sign on to international climate accords, pledging to adhere to emissions reductions by some set percentage, and then firing rockets all over the region. Are they on the path of continuous improvement, firing new hybrid-rockets or perhaps full electric, that release table scraps upon impact?

This tiresome phenomenon is not new, of course, it is the age-old inability of most people to understand the world beyond which they live. And not just to understand it but to not look down at it. During a lunch time stroll the other day, I walked past a middle-aged street-drunk kind of woman, joking with a crowd of very unsavoury characters how her food had gotten cold while she was ‘finishing her doobie.” On the way back, I passed her again, and she was complaining about some official being “as dumb as a bag of doorknobs.” And more than a few people are the same, they can be as ignorant as a tree about something, yet are quick to explain why it’s “stupid.” It is one thing entirely to say “I reserve judgment on the Trans Mountain pipeline until I’ve heard all the facts and evidence;” it is quite another to ignorantly shout down everyone else because you simply think you do.

The master of this tactic is that seemingly immortal king of arrogance and trash talk, David Suzuki. The title of “doctor”, his TV show and his fame are three modern-day prerequisites for credibility, and he has them (and uses them) in spades. It’s hard to say that he doesn’t understand how consumption works, because he certainly is a master of it, as was pointed out in the Calgary Herald the other day.  The reporter discusses a few first-hand encounters with his arrogance, and also nicely catalogues his enormous environmental footprint (multiple houses including one in Australia (!), five kids).

For those of us trying to advance energy discussions, it’s worth taking the time to determine whether a particular foe of fossil fuels is honestly concerned but doesn’t have all the facts or industry knowledge, or is a viper like David Suzuki who is crafty and intellectually dishonest enough to have his (very large) cake and eat it too. One group we should talk to, the other we need to keep talking about.

Read more insightful analysis from Terry Etam here. To reach Terry, click here

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