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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