​Canadian oil and gas is trapped in a Sisyphean circle, and industry itself is partly to blame

Image: Joey Podlubny/JWN

You don’t have to know Sisyphus to know his struggles.

He’s the mythical Greek king doomed for eternity to push a boulder uphill — only to reach the top and have the boulder roll back down again.

To the top. And down again.

Kind of like oil and gas communications and outreach efforts. There’s never any end in sight; just relentless toil and hills that only seem to get steeper and higher.

“Poor” old Sisyphus was being punished, of course, for his own hubris.

This makes the parallel even more appropriate, for in a very real way, the industry has to realize some of our own hubris may be coming back to haunt us.

That hubris is less about Sisyphean self-aggrandizement than it is about a misplaced expectation that somehow people “get” energy — and because they “use” energy, somehow they'll be keen to learn that such use comes at a price. And, so the logic goes, somehow they ought to be willing to engage in the reasoned and rationale dialogues that attend all things when tough choices prevail. In other words, shouldn’t people step up to the plate and realize we live the lives we do — across Canada — thanks in no insignificant way to the energy sector?


That premise gives people too much credit for being rationale users of energy.

One of our Sisyphean hills can be called Energy East. It was a hill with no discernible peak. TransCanada and others have expended substantial time and dollars to push big boulders fruitlessly up its incline. As various pundits bemoan and cheer the consequences of Energy East’s cancellation, we shouldn’t lose sight of an underlying, perhaps more frightening, reality: we’ve never really figured out a way as Canadians to talk about energy. Actually talk.

Not shout. Not point fingers. Not disparage. Just talk.

That’s why Energy East’s cancellation for most Canadians is a big yawner — and debate is limited for the most part to academics, political commentators and energy folks. Oh, and fossil fuel opponents — who are cheering the announcement like they themselves spiralled the winning touchdown. All those parties exist inside a pan-Canadian echo chamber, lobbing economic, social and political hand grenades at each other. Everybody is right and everybody is wrong. Outside the chamber, the vast majority of Canadians go about their daily business, oblivious beyond headline ingestion.

Are we past the point of no return of making those folks aware they’re important to getting things right?

Some days, it seems so.

We’re now in the petroleum sector perhaps more attuned to the reality that maybe, just maybe, the dialogue should have started differently long ago. Most industry folks will acknowledge we’ve been behind a narrative eight ball for years. Our voices, when they speak, are often fragmented and fractured, with no real unifying themes — no coherent narrative that appeals to the hearts and minds of the people we’re in business to serve.

With that recognition also dawns the reality of ever steeper (and longer) inclines up which we have to continue pushing our aspirational stones. Call it the PPI Slope: Political and Public Ignorance.

Many politicians, as ignorant of energy intricacies as those who elected them, have bought into an anti-petroleum mindset and wrapped themselves in the flag of climate salvation. It’s a beguiling position for a populace that wants its energy cake and to eat it too, without the intellectual exertion that comes with the responsibility of being constants in the energy demand equation. The “general public” has no real clue what’s beyond the gas pump or light switch. Hence, the puzzling and paradoxical nature of our current energy narratives.

Many oil companies now talk openly about evolving and succeeding in a low carbon age. And entities like Canada’s Oil Sands Innovation Alliance and the Clean Resource Innovation Network are concrete examples of money being put where the mouth is in terms of environmental sensibilities. But is it too little, too late?

In terms of swaying an energy-hungry population to understand its appetite must be fed somehow, it seems like just another boulder. Even with amped-up communication volume, who is listening? We should have started this conversation long ago, when being literate about energy was not potentially a socially marginalizing attribute.

Now, it appears, being energy-ignorant is almost fashionable in certain circles. The sad thing, of course, is that prevailing ignorance-is-bliss thinking precludes people being accountable for their own energy being — meaning they don’t recognize how bound up they are in the energy matrix through their own behaviourally-driven demand.

Meanwhile, too many politicians missed the requisite Energy 101 class that should be a civic means test for all Canadians, particularly those seeking office. Like parents who bemoan the fact contemporary teachers can't teach the rudiments of grammar these days, the current generation of political leaders has grown up in an era in which energy entitlements are served up on a silver platter — so there is no pressing need to think beyond the light switch.

The boulder is at rest at the bottom of the Energy East hill.

Time to figure out the next one.

Bill Whitelaw is Managing Director, Strategy & Business Development at geoLOGIC Systems Ltd. & JWN Energy. Bill is a director on many industry sector boards including the Canadian Society for Unconventional Resources and the Canadian Petroleum Hall of Fame. He speaks frequently on the subjects of social licence, innovation and technology, and energy supply networks.

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