Category Archives: Environment

The roiling tale of two imaginary pipelines

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In one hand, New Brunswick grips the key to its putative economic salvation; a pipeline spanning the better part of the second-largest landmass on the planet, from the oil fields and tar sands of Alberta right into little, old, plucky Saint John where the Irving refinery awaits, with bated breath, another profitable lease on life.

In the other, the picture-perfect province loosens it grip on everything its forebears allegedly designed (a healthy, self-sufficient, environmentally pristine part of the world) in the backwash of a curtailed and stolen future; a pipeline that would foul the ground, incinerate communities and spoil the water; a horrible industrial project that would return fleeting boons to short-term-thinking politicians, their confederates in commerce and not much else.

It’s odd how deliberately these opposing views manage to express themselves in New Brunswick’s print and broadcast media – as if never the twain shall meet, as if we, the sidelined majority, have nothing useful to lend to the debate over the province’s energy providence except, of course, our taxes and (sigh) our ears.

“Putative” and “alleged” are good words to describe the cases for and against a pipeline that does not, in fact, yet exist.

There are, of course, several ways to build a permanent way into a community. None of these, however, should have anything to do with terrorizing the citizenry or fictionalizing the landscape.

When Colleen Mitchell, president of Atlantica Centre for Energy, boosts on the front page of the Saint John Telegraph-Journal the benefits of an East Coast pipeline (without, I will note, a word of reasonable rebuttal), her kite flew so low, her hot air claimed its tail. She both terrorized the citizenry and fictionalized the landscape.

Here she is on her extraordinarily well-written rant:

“Five years (after the Great Recession of 2008) the gap between Atlantic Canada and the rest of Canada remains significant. . .The development of key oil and gas projects have the potential to reverse these economic trends. . .This project (TransCanada’s East Energy pipeline) is of such significance that if it proceeds to completion it will have a profound impact on the Atlantic region”

So profound, she says, it could amount to $35.3-billion in new gross domestic product across the country. So profound, she says, it could result in $266 million in new taxes to New Brunswick (during pipefitting) and maybe as much as $500 million after that. Moreover, she claimed with the sort of authority only an insider gets (and, trust me, she’s no insider), Irving Oil might just well spend upwards of $2 billion upgrading its coking and refining facilities in Saint John.

Oh, really?

This is irresponsible, unverified piffle; its feedstock derives directly from industry, itself. There is no way to credibly measure the merits of her assessments, just as there is no way to calibrate the real value of what she parrots are vast reserves of trapped shale gas in New Brunswick sedimentary rock. Why? Because industry, itself, is still reckoning the commercial viability of the resource. And, frankly, they’re not talking (which, in and of itself, should tell us something).

Still, she’s not the only partisan in the arena. Bid a welcome to the died-in-the-wool naysayers, who would rather buy their hemp oil from The Body Shop than see any of the dirty, necessary stuff that fuels their spectacularly energy-efficient homes spoil their golf-course-sized and well-fertilized lawns and gardens splendidly attended by certified “green” landscapers.

TransCanada Corp. has run afoul of four of nine National Energy Board regulations regarding its proper care and feeding of pipelines. This motivates New Brunswick Green Party honcho David Coon to theorize that “anything that suggests an increased risk of leaks will make everyone nervous.”

Furthermore, he postulates, “Since Stephen Harper has been prime minister, his orientation has been to ensure the National Energy Board is greasing the wheels of pipeline construction, not slowing it down because of things like safety and environmental impact.”

In other words, he seems to be saying, since the National Energy Board is, ipso facto, already compromised by the Conservative agenda, we must assume that its recent “harsh” judgement of TransCanada Corp. actually amounts  kid gloves’ treatment.

Again, so much for empirical evidence.

In one hand, the conspiracy theorists taketh away.

In the other, the apologists giveth back.

And, finally, no hands actually come together.

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How Neil Young gets it right (and wrong) on oil

Oil is everywhere and everything?

Oil is everywhere and everything?

Fossil fuels make hypocrites of every environmental activist in the world.

The bright ones know that as consumers in the unavoidable petro-economy, they are just as culpable as anyone for climate change; but they push their planet-saving agenda anyway. After all, why remain silent on strategies for using oil and gas to transition to a cleaner, more sustainable future?

The dimmer ones, who never seem to suffer from a loss of words, prattle on about “us versus them” in apparent ignorance of the enormously complex socio-economic web this and other nations have spun with the products of refined dinosaur bones. Forget transforming the world; let’s just shut it down.

Thanks to celebrity big mouths and the media’s even bigger appetite for controversy, the question of the moment is: Into which camp does Canada’s legendary folk-rocker Neil Young fit? Is he a shining light or a broken bulb? A not entirely unrelated question is: Does it matter?

The Prime Minister Office seems to think it does. Why, otherwise, would it have dispatched its spokesman Jason MacDonald to defend Alberta’s curiously vulnerable tar sands against Mr. Young’s vituperative attack on them last Sunday night during the launch of a countrywide tour. At that time, the Grammy Award winner and Rock and Roll Hall of Famer said, using his outside voice:

“To me, it’s a basic matter of integrity on the part of Canada. Canada is trading integrity for money. That’s what’s happening under the current leadership in Canada, which is a very poor imitation of the George Bush administration in the United States. It’s lagging behind on the world stage and it’s an embarrassment to Canadians.”

To which, Mr. MacDonald responded: “Canada’s natural resources sector is and has always been a fundamental part of our country’s economy. . .The resource sector creates economic opportunities, and employs tens of thousands of Canadians in high wage jobs, contributing to a standard of living that is envied around the world, and helping to fund the programs and services Canadians rely on. . .Even the lifestyle of a rock star relies, to some degree, on the resources developed by thousands of hard-working Canadians every day.”

For Mr. Young, overall, so far so good. Whether or not you agree with his characterization of political leaders who are almost giddy at the prospect of selling their country – and First Nations communities in Alberta – down the river for a bag of bucks, you must, at least, acknowledge that he takes a principled stand.

More than this, perhaps, he is keenly aware of his stature, an effective weapon in the public relations battle to win friends and influence people (though methinks the man has already won enough hearts and minds for one life).

But, then, a funny thing happens on Mr. Young’s way to mainstream credibility regarding oil and gas. In his response to Mr. MacDonald’s jab about rock stars‘ reliance on natural resources, “Shaky” gets a little. . .well, shaky.

“Of course, rock stars don’t need oil. I drove my electric car from California to the tar sands and on to Washington DC without using any oil at all and I’m a rock star,” he says. “My car’s generator runs on biomass, one of several future fuels Canada should be developing for the Post Fossil Fuel Age. This age of renewable fuels could save our grandchildren from the ravages of Climate related disasters spawned by the Fossil Fuel Age; but we have to get started.”

He’s right. We do have to get started. But if, as he insists, rock stars don’t need oil, is he suggesting his life is a petroleum-free zone? For, if it is, that would be a neat trick, indeed.

According to one calculation from Ranken Energy Corp., “Americans consume petroleum products at a rate of three-and-a-half gallons of oil and more than 250 cubic feet of natural gas per day each.”

In fact, oil is in just about everything, from floor wax to bicycle tires to golf bags and purses. “Anything that’s not iron or steel or metal of some sort has some petrochemical component,” West Virginia University chemistry professor Dady Dadyburjor told The Associated Press not long ago.

This, one presumes, includes the chassis of Mr. Young’s electric car.

Of course rock stars need oil. We all do. And owning up to our collective addiction is the first step on the royal road to recovery from hypocrisy.

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2013: The year of treading water

U.S. economy may be heading for a hard, post-election landing

N.B. economy is heading for a repeat of 2013. . .only worse

New Brunswick enters the new year much as it did the outgoing one: Treading shark-infested waters, praying that the mighty predators will ignore it in favour of fatter, tastier castaways.

Under the grim circumstances, it’s a miracle that the government of David Alward was able to accomplish the little it did.

In 2013, population growth was at a standstill, general unemployment was among the worst in Canada (especially among what remains of the youthful labour force), the participation rate (those actively searching for work) was in a nose dive. About the only bright spot was low inflation and a relatively fixed consumer price index (measured in 2002 dollars).

Worse, perhaps, than any of this was the evident lack of new economic opportunities, without which the annual provincial deficit was fated to hover at $500 million on a structural, long-term debt of at least $11 billion in perpetuity. Theoretically, that meant that every New Brunswicker was on the hook for thousands of dollars.

The reality was that fewer public services were available to a dwindling number of people. And in the absence of any real vision for the future – any sense that timely sacrifices will ultimately yield durable boons – the province descended into caterwauling and complaining.

Some, of course, did their best to reverse the tide of bitterness and recrimination, while acknowledging the patently obvious.

“What we are facing in New Brunswick is a structural, secular decline,” former premier and current deputy chairman of T-D Bank Frank McKenna told me one wintery afternoon in his downtown Toronto office. “The problems we have don’t ebb and flow with the quality of our leadership. There is something more serious going on here. We face circumstances that combine to create a very negative outlook. The entire atmosphere is hugely challenging.”

In fact, he said, “the resource base that remains can be exploited with fewer workers and more mechanization, so it can’t support the number of workers that it once did. Yet, we remain a resource-based economy in a world where the Canadian dollar looks to be in a fairly constant state of parity with the U.S. dollar. So, this, too, is a peril.”

And yet, he said, “Even though I think our situation in New Brunswick is quite pessimistic, I don’t think that it is terminal. There are many places in the world that have faced dramatic challenges. In fact, adversity, itself, became the platform upon which they built sustainable economies. . . This isn’t just a problem of leadership in government. It’s also a problem of followership.

“Our citizens have to understand the full depth and breadth of the dilemma that we are facing, and they have to be prepared to face up to some inconvenient truths. It means that they have to become less reliant on government and more entrepreneurial. It means that they have to take responsibility for their own futures.”

For Mr. McKenna and, indeed, Mr. Alward, taking responsibility for the future means brining Alberta oil east for refining in Saint John – which would create thousands of construction jobs – and developing the province’s nascent shale gas industry.

“The way I look at it,” Mr. McKenna said, “the real win comes when we take our indigenous shale gas in the province and hook it into the Canaport liquified natural gas (LNG) facility in Saint John.”

His voice rose as his enthusiasm peaked. “We have in situ now, calculated by Corridor Resources Inc., 67 trillion cubic feet of gas. That’s bigger than western Canada. It’s a huge deposit. If ten per cent is exploitable, that’s enough to create a revenue source for New Brunswick for decades to come. All in, it would result in about $15-20 billion in investment and 150,000 person years of work. And for governments, it would result in between $7-9 billion worth of royalties and taxes.”

By and large, however, these were mere musings of a former public official. They did little to quell the outrage of a vocal minority of residents – people who firmly believed the provincial government had no business encouraging the development of an industry that they said would poison them.

Would it poison them? Was there, instead, a safe, environmentally responsible approach to the whole affair?

The issue will carry forward into 2014 and, like just about every other issue in New Brunswick, remain there unresolved, as the sharks keep circling.

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The political art of fomenting depression

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What’s perplexing about the David Alward government’s decision to spend a few thousand taxpayer bucks on TV ads showing New Brunswickers mourning the state of their province’s economy is not that it reflects poorly on our lawmakers’ vision of the future.

What’s perplexing is that our lawmakers seem to believe it reflects well on their own political fortunes.

Less than a year before the general election, the Tories are bringing up the rear in popular opinion. Poll after poll suggests that if the ballot were held today, they’d lose to Brian Gallant’s Liberals by a wide margin.

This somehow impels the big brains who occupy the small offices reserved for government communications to remind New Brunswickers in convincing fashion, and just before the holidays, that the past three-plus years in office have been an unmitigated disaster for the Progressive Conservatives.

The ads show various men and women, who are presumably en route to the oil-black and money-green pastures of western Canada, hanging out on tarmacks and in airport departure lounges, their brows appropriately furrowed.

“I’ve been going for four years,” says one.

“We haven’t got enough opportunities here, we have to go do it out west,” says another.

Finally, up pops the kicker, accompanied by a stern-sounding VoiceOver: “This message is brought to you by the Government of New Brunswick.”

Now, we witness the game, if untried, Mr. Gallant mumbling under his breath and, indeed, over it: “Thank you, Mr. Alward, you just made my day.”

Of course, in the local media, he sounds more like this:

“New Brunswickers don’t need an ad to tell them that there aren’t enough jobs in New Brunswick. This is an ad that is virtually discouraging people to stay and invest in New Brunswick. It’s even demoralizing.”

To which, Premier Alward retorts, “Every day there are families that are living with separation and we believe there are good options long term to see our economy be stronger, our province be stronger, and our people be able to decide to be here and build their communities here. . .It’s a message to all New Brunswickers that we need to be saying yes to allow development to take place.”

Well. . .no, actually.

It is a message to all New Brunswickers that they are at death’s doorstep, and that their only salvation is via the kool aid of shale gas development, which may or not be true. (It’s too early to know anything with certainty).

What I do know, from my years in the marketing communications and advertising industry (I call them my “lucrative” epoch), is that scaring the bejesus out of people is guaranteed to produce only one, durable response: shoot the messenger.

Again, Mr. Alward, Mr. Gallant thanks you.

What’s intriguing about all of this is just how unnecessary it is.

The Alward government holds all the cards in the shale gas industry deck. Its regulations for development are, purportedly, the toughest in North America. It has the benefit of knowing all the best and worst practices. It even has a scientific panel, convened to guide its decisions (though only The Almighty knows when this efficacious advice will be forthcoming).

What’s more, its foes on this file are, though vocal, largely in the minority.

If it truly wants to win the hearts and minds of the majority, why doesn’t it produce ads that speak directly to the issue – spots that fight the fictions swirling around shale gas with facts?

Why not emphasize the positive attributes of an industry that, properly regulated, could help transform the province’s economy – thanks to the money it will generate for public coffers – into an incubator of commercially viable innovations in sectors not specifically related to resource extraction?

Those who argue that the provincial government has no business using public dollars to promote its economic agenda are, among other things, on the wrong side of history. Governments do this sort of thing all the time. In fact, we expect it of them, especially when they don’t do it. What is tourism, except a giant public-sector promotion campaign?

This Tory reign has staked its mandate on transforming the New Brunswick economy through its responsible stewardship of natural resources. Its most recent ad campaign, however, indicates that it has not yet learned how best communicate this otherwise clear and simple message.

Meanwhile, as goes its mandate, so goes any chance New Brunswick has of seizing its future for its now-departing citizens.

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How to fight the good fight, especially when it’s wrong

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Those picket-line-protesters who may worry that their shoe leather will wear out before the shale gas industry’s resolve does should cheer up after reviewing a World Trade Organization (WTO) decision this week – a decision some are calling a victory for the hard-scrabbling, morally superior little guy.

Of course, it is hardly that.

The WTO has simply upheld the European Union’s (EU) 2009 ban on imported seal products (meat, pelts, oil, etc.), which affects Canada most among the world’s pinniped-hunting nations (a small club that includes Greenland, Iceland, Norway, Russia and Namibia).

In its ruling, the organization allowed that while the prohibition probably violates at least the spirit of impartiality in global trade, it nonetheless “fulfills the objective of addressing EU public moral concerns on seal welfare to a certain extent.” What’s more, it added, “no alternative measure was demonstrated to make an equivalent or greater contribution to the fulfillment of the objective.”

In other words, consumers’ decidedly non-commercial interests can and do trump those, however legitimate, of producers, either small or large.

That’s good news to all the assorted rebels with various causes among us, though, naturally, none of this is sitting well with the federal government or Canadian sealers who are screaming about the dirty they’ve been done at the hands of a powerful, disingenuous protest lobby.

In a statement from Ed Fast, Minister for International Trade, Leona Aglukkaq, Minister of the Environment, and Gail Shea, Minister of Fisheries and Oceans, the trio declared, “On February 11, 2011, our government requested the establishment of a World Trade Organization dispute settlement panel to challenge the European Union’s unfair ban on seal products in order to stand up for Canadian sealers and to vigorously defend the interests of Canada’s Inuit and Indigenous communities.

“The WTO panel confirmed Canada’s long-standing position that the EU ban is discriminatory and treats Canadian seal products unfairly. However, the panel also took the view that such a ban can be justified due to some of the public’s concerns regarding seal harvesting. Canada remains steadfast in its position that the seal harvest is a humane, sustainable and well-regulated activity. Any views to the contrary are based on myths and misinformation, and the Panel’s findings should be of concern to all WTO members.”

The government, of course, promises it will press on with an appeal. But, realistically, this battle is over. The Harper government is not likely to threaten the stability of its freshly minted European trade agreement over an industry that generates few economic benefits for citizens who live south of the 60th parallel – i.e., most Canadians.

All of which provides several object lessons for less mature social agitations, the first of which is that the “facts” at one’s disposal need not actually be true.

The trick to winning hearts and minds in the seal debate was always steadfastly ensuring that the message of carnage and cruelty on the ice floes was front and centre and before the public. Even after the industry effectively cleaned up its act (to the degree that any mass predation can be absolved of moral ambiguity), the message never changed, a fact which truly bugged even some ardent environmental pioneers.

“We have to be logical,” Jacques Cousteau reportedly once said. “We have to aim our activity first to the endangered species. Those who are moved by the plight of the harp seal could also be moved by the plight of the pig – the way they are slaughtered is horrible.”

The second lesson is that celebrities can vastly enhance a movement’s credibility.

In 2006, Paul McCartney and his then-wife Heather Mills, took Newfoundland and Labrador Premier Danny Williams – who was linked to the show via a scratchy phone connection – to task over the annual cull. They called him by his first name and beseeched him, several times, to stop the killing. They were wrong on every account, every statement of fact. But, it didn’t matter. Subsequent polling showed that, in the eyes of the average viewer, they’d won the debate.

Was this sensible? Was this reasonable?

Who cares?

All’s fair in love, war and on the picket lines.

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Pipelines hold both promise and peril

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Canada is one of the world’s great energy behemoths; a constipated behemoth, yes, but a behemoth, nonetheless. All it needs is a fact-acting laxative or, as Saskatchewan Premier Brad Wall advises, a few more oil pipelines to. . .well, stay regular.

Here endeth the metaphor (you are welcome), but not the over-arching point, which is accumulating currency in political circles across the country these days: Canada’s natural resources, particularly oil, promise untold prosperity from coast to coast to coast, if we could only get them to markets.

At a Canadian Chamber of Commerce event last week week, Mr. Wall sounded downright dejected. Another “country with all this (oil) would find ways to move energy to tidewater, to improve the return to Canadians for the resource, to ensure there are jobs for the future for all of us – including First Nations – for the entire country,” The Canadian Press quoted him.

“We would do everything we could to ensure we had this great resource working not just for today’s economy  but helping for the economy of tomorrow. We have to get our head around moving that energy.”

In fact, it would seem, most Canadians agree with him. Research company CROP Inc. has released a survey that indicates that people in this country are generally keen on at least the idea of pipelines. According to the Telegraph-Journal’s Chris Morris,  “The survey suggests that more Canadians agree with the major pipeline projects, including the Energy East proposal to bring oil to New Brunswick. The results found that 57 per cent of respondents endorsed the project compared to 25 per cent against.”

Meanwhile, “83 per cent of respondents said they are favourable to to the development of the oilsands,” though “41 per cent believe development should be slowed down, while 42 per cent are happy with the current pace.”

So, the solution to Canada’s energy stultification seems obvious. Or does it?

A recent CBC News investigation suggests the issue is a tad more complicated than the pro-pipeline lobbyists would have us believe. The public broadcaster reports that “pipelines regulated by the federal government – which include some of the longest lines in the country – have experienced a swell in the number of safety-related incidents over the past decade.”

Specifically, documents the CBC obtained under access-to-information from the National Energy Board (NEB) show that the number of “overall pipeline incidents”, which include leaks, spills and fires, has jumped by a factor of two since the turn of the century. The number of spills, alone, have tripled.

“More than four reportable releases happened for every 10,000 kilometres in 2000, or 18 incidents in total, according to NEB data,” the CBC reports. “By 2011, that rate had risen to 13 per 10,000 kilometres, or 94 incidents.”

In fact, that may not sound like much, given that 90-odd companies operate roughly 71,000 kilometers of pipe in Canada. And, in the context of this summer’s  devastating events at Lac-Megantic – at which a derailment of train cars carrying heavy oil exploded, killing dozens of people – pipeline leaks seem the far lesser of two evils.

Certainly, the NEB doesn’t appear overwrought about the numbers, attributing their rise to better reporting standards. “We’ve been out there talking with industry associations and the companies themselves to ensure that they are fully aware of what the reporting requirements are and I think that’s why we’re seeing an increase right now,” the NEB’s business leader for operations, Patrick Smythe, told the CBC.

It’s entirely possible he’s correct. But even if he is, that doesn’t change the fact that pipelines are, like any other piece of transportation infrastructure, vulnerable to the inexorable onslaught of time and weather. They must be maintained. And, just as importantly, they must be seen to be maintained.

In the end, nothing halts energy development in Canada with greater force than a distrustful, angry, agitated public.

The current shale gas debate in the pristine countryside of fair New Brunswick – where a pipeline might well wend  – proves definitively that industrial-strength spin has its limits.

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Counting down the days to the Great Transformation

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The world as we know it has been coming to end for years now. We haven’t had to look far to perceive the portents of impending doom: in the entrails of Wall Street corpses; in the tea leaves of governments that no longer work; in the uromancy that predicts widening income gaps between the rich and the rest.

We just haven’t been able to reliably nail down a year for the Great Transformation. Until now.

A researcher at the University of Hawaii, who used to work at Dalhousie University in Halifax, N.S., thinks he knows. The point of no return will arrive. . .wait for it. . .in 2047. . .give or take.

Camillo Mora, who studies numbers for a living, tells the Globe and Mail’s science reporter Ivan Semeniuk that, overall, this is the year in which climate change will become a permanent feature of life on Earth. . .more or less.

According to the article, “The turning point arrives. . .as a worldwide average, if fossil fuel consumption continues unabated; as late as 2069 if carbon emissions are curbed. City by city, the numbers are a bit more revealing. In Montreal, for example, the new normal will arrive in 2046, and for Vancouver not until 2056. But the real spotlight of Dr. Mora’s study is the tropics, where profound changes could be entrenched in little more than a decade.”

As the good doctor says, “Today, when people talk about climate change, the images that come to mind are melting ice and polar bears. People might infer from this that the tropics will be less affected.”

People would be wrong.

But, then, there’s nothing new about that.

Once, not very long ago, people assumed that economic globalization would insert several chickens in pots from Beijing to Kalamazoo – that gross domestic products around the world would rise like juggernauts, heedless of any and all counterforces they may encounter.

Once, not very long ago, people assumed that democratically elected governments served the best, common interests of the majority of voters – that reason and circumspection would effectively quell fanatical and reactionary figures intent on reshaping the public sphere in their own ideologically pinched and impoverished image.

Now comes word from the International Monetary Fund (IMF) that, generally speaking, the world’s got itself in an economic ringer – one from which it is not likely to emerge any time soon. Welcome to the age of slow growth.

“Emerging economies have cooled off,” an item in The New York Times reveals. “Europe remains in the doldrums. The United States is facing fiscal uncertainty, and its powerful central bank is contemplating easing up on its extraordinary stimulus efforts, with potentially global ramifications.”

As things stand, the IMF “foresees the world economy increasing by about 2.9 per cent in 2013 and 3.6 per cent in 2014. That is down from 5.4 per cent in 2007, before the global recession hit.”

If its predictions pan out, a few will be spared, thanks to their impenetrable cocoons of wealth and privilege. But most can expect lower standards of living, fewer good jobs, higher costs and increasing poverty and homelessness.

Meanwhile, over in Washington, D.C., legislators are twiddling their thumbs.

“The federal government shutdown and looming deadline to raise the debt ceiling have merged into one major problem on Capitol Hill, though neither issue has a resolution in sight as the government shutdown heads into its second week,” CBS News reports. “Democrats and Republicans (have) dug further into their respective positions: Republicans are calling on Democrats to negotiate over a short-term spending bill and a debt-ceiling increase, and President Obama says he is ready to negotiate over any topic – once the Republicans pass legislation to re-open the government and raise the U.S. borrowing limit without any conditions.”

All of which prompted Laurence Booth of the University of Toronto’s esteemed Rotman School of Management to tell the Toronto Star, “Any sane person obviously believes the U.S. isn’t going to default. That would cause an earthquake in financial markets around the globe.”

Of course, once upon a time, any sane person obviously believed that climate change could very well spell the end of the world – at least, as we know it.

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Our increasingly dull song of praise for oil

You can just smell the methane

You can just smell the methane

One public page of the member-driven website, Geo-Help Inc., which bills itself as “The Virtual Geology Department providing Geological Expertise and Services to the Oil and Gas Industry in Canada,” offers a collection of quotes that reaffirms man’s (though, interestingly, not even one woman’s) abiding love affair with liquid, black gold down through the decades.

Odes have been written to exalt the substance, including this one, sponsored by Seneca Oil and published in 1850:

“The healthful balm, from Nature’s secret spring/ The bloom of health, and life, to man will bring/ As from her depths the magic liquid flows/ To calm our sufferings, and assuage our woes.”

Others, like Kansas geologist Wallace Pratt (1885-1981), also recognized the allure when he said, “Where oil is first found is in the minds of men.” Men, presumably, like American industrialist J. Paul Getty (1892-1976) who once declared that his formula for success was to “rise early, work hard, strike oil.”

The quotes are not uniformly laudatory. One describes oil as “the excrement of the devil.” Another complains, “You can’t get the grease without a lease.”

And some are way off the mark, as is one attributed to the Director of Anglo Persian Oil Company who, in 1926, observed, “Saudi Arabia appears devoid of all prospects for oil.”

Historically, though, our preoccupation with the stuff has been, until quite recently, laced with positive connotations. And this strikes me as somewhat paradoxical, because unless you happen to be an industry executive or petroleum geologist, the chances are very good that you, like me, find oil to be. . .well, pedestrian.

Or, if you will pardon the pun, boring.

Whenever a fixation becomes mundane, it has a tendency to subdue the other faculties of mind – imagination, ingenuity, creativity – that can, quite often, improve social, political and economic conditions.

This might help explain New Brunswick’s current circumstances. The rut the province is in – fiscally, commercially, even demographically – could well be related to, if not actually derive from, our single-minded focus on the promise of a pipeline from Alberta’s oil patch and the putative promise (and danger) of a fully functioning shale gas industry in the future.

I would never suggest that we should dismiss these projects for the sake of our becoming less tedious people. But it might profit us to pull our heads from the sand and take a look at what other jurisdictions around the world are doing with energy development. (A well-known writer – though, his name escapes me – on the industry from, of all places, Calgary made a similar observation on New Brunswick CBC Radio’s rolling-home show last week).

Science Daily reports, “It’s less costly to get electricity from wind turbines and solar panels than coal-fired power plants when climate change costs and other health impacts are factored in, according to a new study published in Springer’s Journal of Environmental Studies and Sciences.

“In fact – using the official U.S. government estimates of health and environmental costs from burning fossil fuels – the study shows it’s cheaper to replace a typical existing coal-fired power plant with a wind turbine than to keep the old plant running. And new electricity generation from wind could be more economically efficient than natural gas.”

Meanwhile, also according to Science Daily, “High school and college students got a recruiting call. . .to join the Solar Army and help solve one of the 21st century’s greatest scientific challenges: finding the dirt-cheap ingredients that would make sunlight a practical alternative to oil, coal and other traditional sources of energy.

‘Enough sunlight falls on Earth in one hour to provide all of the world’s energy – for 7 billion people – for an entire year,’ said Harry B. Gray, Ph.D., leader of the army. He is the Arnold O. Beckman Professor of Chemistry and Founding Director of the Beckman Institute at the California Institute of Technology. ‘If we can capture that energy and use it to split water, burning coal, gasoline and other fossil fuels will be history.’

Maybe. Maybe not. But even the thought is inspirational – which is more than I can say about oil.

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Such a fine line: economy versus environment

Four strong winds that blow from Alberta

Four strong winds that blow from Alberta

This music industry icon, this erstwhile miner for a heart of gold, steps off the bandwagon just long enough to cluck his tongue and sample the air in beautiful, downtown Fort McMurray.

It looks like a nuclear test site and smells like one, too, says Neil Young: “The Indians up there and the native peoples are dying. The fuel (is) all over – the fumes everywhere – you can smell it when you get to town. The closest place to Fort McMurray that is doing the tar sands work is 25 or 30 miles out of town and you can taste it when you get to Fort McMurray. People are sick. People are dying of cancer because of this. All the First Nations people up there are threatened by this.”

What’s more, he told an American crowd the other day, “Fort McMurray looks like Hiroshima. . .a wasteland. . .The oil that we’re using here. . .they call ethical oil because it’s not from Saudi Arabia or some country that may be at war with us.”

Actually, there’s no need for atomic-era hyperbole. Good, old Fort Mac (population: 61,000) looks like Fargo, North Dakota, which is, in and of itself, bad enough. But I take Mr. Young’s point: The tar sands are despicable. Boo.

Among the celebrated elite, it’s a familiar refrain, gaining ever greater traction as U.S. President Barack Obama leisurely considers his next move in the Keystone XL pipeline kerfuffle. Indeed, the list of prominent “deathline” haters grows longer with each day that passes on the protest lines: There’s the Dali Lama and his pal, Al Gore; there’s Bishop Desmond Tutu and Sundance Kid Robert Redford; there’s actors Mark Ruffalo, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Kyra Sedgwick, and David Strathaim. All are wedded to the simple, if absolute, certainty that Alberta’s oil industry is killing the planet.

They are probably right. Still, no one in a position of authority ever looks at the long game of energy policy – not when the short game is so economically lucrative and politically profitable.

Consider the oft-repeated rejoinder of tar sands apologists to the environmental lobby’s claim that Alberta bitumen is dirtiest source of oil in the world: No, it’s not. Or, as Canada’s Natural Resources Minister Joe Oliver told The New York Times’s Joe Nocera recently, “That statement that the Keystone pipeline would mean ‘game over’ for the environment is absurd.”

Mr. Nocera – a confessed proponent of the project – grabbed the baton from Mr. Oliver and, in his column, sprinted to the finish line:

“Oil mined from the sands is simply not as environmentally disastrous as opponents like to claim. Extraction technology has improved to the point where there is almost no difference, in terms of greenhouse gas emissions, between sands oil and old-fashioned oil drilling. The government has insisted that the companies extracting the oil return the land to its original state when the mining is completed. Indeed, for all the hysteria over the environmental consequences of the oil sands, there is oil in California that is actually dirtier than the oil from the sands.”

All of which misses the bigger point – the one that celebrity eco-warriors, themselves, invariably fail to make: If you’re pointing a shotgun to your head, does it really matter what calibre of shell you’re using?

The world is hooked on oil. It’s going to stay that way until it runs out (not likely) or its economies collapse (increasingly likely). If Keystone fails to win presidential assent this time around – thanks, perhaps, to the pickets of the preeminent – it, or something like it, will roll out the next time around, or the time after that. There’s no point in pretending otherwise.

Just as there’s no point in pretending that anyone is giving serious consideration to the long-term economic benefits of the Energy East pipeline proposal for New Brunswick – though we might do ourselves a favour by curbing our crowing tongues for a change and spend a few minutes actually examining the post-construction-phase ramifications of, and the durable commercial opportunities generated by, the project.

After all, out here in New Brunswick, where we don’t lace our boots without a government shoestring, we’re not looking for a heart of gold.

Just the gold.

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Musings on the remains of daylight

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Where I walk, almost daily, to feed my illusion of youthful vigour, the mall at the corner of Champlain and Paul Streets in Dieppe posts signs that cheerfully remind patrons about its program of “daylight harvesting”.

One finds a fuller explanation on its website, which boasts “Champlain Place is leading the way in energy efficiency. 2008 renovations. . .included skylights with photo sensors able to ‘read’ sunlight entering . . .and adjust the interior lighting system, shutting lights off when sunlight reaches the pre-determined level. It’s lights out for the environment!”

That last phrase may be understood in one of two utterly different ways, but as the summer begins to recede and the sun seems ever lazier, I prefer the more optimistic interpretation. After all, every last morsel of daylight is, as Martha Stewart might agree, a good thing.

Unless you happen to live or work near Tower Bridge in a certain European capital of ancient repute.

“Developers have promised urgent action to cover up the Walkie Talkie skyscraper being built in the City of London after an ultra-bright light reflected from the building melted a Jaguar car on a street below,” reports a joint piece from the Independent and Associated Press.

“The 160m tall, £200 million ($397 million) building has been renamed the Walkie Scorchie after its distinctive concave surfaces reflected a dazzling beam of light which blinded passersby and extensively damaged vehicles below. . .Company director Martin Lindsay left his Jaguar XJ for an hour opposite the building, and returned to find warped side panels and the smell of burning plastic. ‘They’re going to have to think of something. I’m gutted,’ he said.”

In fact, “they’re” working on it. In a statement, the developers – Canary Wharf and Land Securities – explained that “the phenomenon is caused by the current elevation of the sun in the sky. It currently lasts for approximately two hours per day, with initial modeling suggesting that it will be present for approximately two to three weeks. . .We are consulting with local businesses and the City to address the issue in the short-term, while also evaluating longer-term solutions.”

One of these might be to stop building skyscrapers with so much glass. England’s weather service reports that London – traditionally, a dark and dank metropolis – has experience a record number of glitteringly sunny days this summer. The cause, it says, is most likely climate change, which suggests that residents can, in the future, expect regular occurrences of charred cafe awnings, melted dashboards and burnt doormats up and down Fenchurch Street.

But London is not the only place where Earth’s G-class, yellow dwarf star is causing headaches.

“Alarmed by what they say has become an existential threat to their business, utility companies are moving to roll back government incentives aimed at promoting solar energy and other renewable sources of power,” The New York Times reported last month. “At stake, the companies say, is nothing less than the future of the American electricity industry. ‘We did not get in front of this disruption,’ Clark Gellings, a fellow at the Electric Power Research Institute, a nonprofit arm of the industry, said during a panel discussion at the annual utility convention last month. ‘It may be too late.’”

The worry is that if roof-top solar panels continue to drop in price and rise in popularity – as they have in California and Arizona – the cost of regulated, distributed energy from more traditional, less environmentally friendly sources will shoot up, perhaps to unmarketable, unsustainable levels, forcing everyone back into the stone  age. As the U.S. Energy Information Administration reported in July, the solar segment of the electric power sector in that country is expected to grow by 79 per cent in  2013, and 49 per cent next year.

Should I worry? Does Cadillac Fairview, which manages Champlain Mall, realize that its daylight harvests are contributing to the decline and fall of western civilization? Or am I simply suffering from a mild dose of sun silliness?

It seems to be going around.

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