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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