So we have bought a heavy oil pipeline. No Canadian analogy comes to mind, so I’ll go with the Brooklyn Bridge, or those fantastic real estate deals on Florida waterfront. With this purchase, our Federal Government has emphatically stated that petroleum trumps everything. Or, in the words of Alberta’s premier, petroleum is Canada’s lifeblood.
How wrong is this purchase of the Kinder Morgan pipeline? Let me count the ways. My tax money is being used to facilitate shipping unrefined bitumen to China, the biggest carbon dioxide emitter on the entire planet. We steadfastly refuse to build our own refineries, thus maintaining our traditional Canadian status as hewers of wood and drawers of water. As exporters of first beaver pelts, then raw logs and now, unrefined bitumen. We refused Energy East, thus eliminating the opportunity for Alberta petroleum to replace the imported petroleum that eastern Canada currently consumes. I could go on to describe the horrendous spill risks in the busy and constricted waterways of the BC coast, or the illusory job numbers, the trampling of indigenous land rights, the terrible economics of the purchase, the toxic nature of the diluents used to move bitumen, but I desist, since I feel a nosebleed coming on.
Petroleum use in all its forms, including its bastard spawn plastic, constitutes an addiction. The symbol of drug addiction is the discarded needle in the alley; the symbol of petroleum addiction is the tricked-out Ford F-350 truck with a driver, no passengers and no payload, on the daily commute to work. Psychologists agree that moderating an addiction is nearly impossible; you either go full on, or go cold turkey. So we are faced with a profound problem; not only are we citizens and governments unconcerned about our addiction, the cold turkey option is impossible.
It strikes me, and I have no proof of this, that the Canadian public is less concerned about carbon emissions and climate change than we were five years ago. The general public support—or at least resignation—in regards to this purchase is perhaps a symptom. If I am right about this erosion of climate change concern, then that is a much bigger issue than the pipeline. Is it defeat? That anthropogenic carbon-driven climate change is inevitable, and we can’t do anything about it? Is it denial: climate change is fake news? Is there some perverted religious basis: we are mandated to exploit the earth, and a better world awaits us? Or is it simply a form of social exhaustion: there are too many things to worry about, so let’s fire up the F-350 and go get burgers at the drive-through?
A mea culpa here: I am guilty as the rest of us. This was brought home to me a few years ago, when I drove from the Okanagan to Vancouver to attend a climate change event. I was halfway there when I realized a huge irony: I was driving a Ford Explorer to a climate change conference. But then I was able to rationalize the irony away by pointing out (to myself) that said Ford Explorer was sixteen years old, and the carbon costs of destroying it and getting me into a new vehicle would be astronomical. And so on. I’m sure lemmings have similar rationales.
Lately I’ve had occasion to research the whaling era (roughly 1845 to 1895), an eerie forerunner of our current petroleum era. Whale oil was the predecessor to petroleum, used for lighting and a host of other applications. The whaling industry was rapacious, totally unregulated, and had devastating ecological consequences. One out of three harpooned whales was never recovered, and sank dead to the bottom. The ocean of the whaling era was the equivalent of today’s atmosphere; nobody cared what happened to it. And the avarice of the whalers was more than matched by the demand for their product.
As a kid growing up in the Fifties, I remember the advertising slogan, “better living through chemistry.” My wife remembers the first mass-market plastic container, Prell shampoo, guaranteed not to break if you dropped it in the shower. That postwar era set the stage for how we live today: disposables, commuting, suburbs, plastic everywhere, eight-lane highways, and the total dominance of the private automobile. I am reminded of the pundit who said we drive cartoon cars, and live in cartoon cities.
Now that we Canadians have been forced to bend over and accept the thrust of this pipeline, a rational and logical response is to demand a comprehensive, revenue-neutral carbon tax, and hope that market forces will help us moderate our petroleum addiction.