​Is next-gen wells-to-wheels analysis a potential teaching tool?

We all have that T-Shirt: You know the one, inscribed with: It seemed like a good idea at the time .

Just ask Whistler mayor Jack Crompton; he's wearing a neon version these days.

Unless you have been living under a rock for the past week, you will recognize poor Jack as the municipal leader who thought it was a good idea to ask leading energy companies, including Canadian Natural Resources, to ante up a chunk of change to help mitigate impact Whistler is ostensibly experiencing as a result of climate change.

Predictably, Jack was whisked to the principal's office for a quick lesson in Whistler’s own role in said climate impacts.

Buried in the outpouring of response — which ranged predictably from the irrationally emotional to the pragmatically realistic — was an important point made by Cenovus Energy boss Alex Pourbaix, who pointed out a variation on the Pareto Principle: 80 per cent of a barrel's emissions come from the consumption end of its lifecycle, specifically gasoline.

In other words, from the thousands upon thousands of internal combustion engines that motor up and down the Sea to Sky Highway from Vancouver to Whistler, in order for occupants of said vehicles to sample the resort community’s four-seasons delights.

The Crompton Case, as it shall forthwith be known, is pretty standard energy discourse fare in Canada these days. Well-meaning but poorly prepared advocates of climate integrity make some outlandish assertion about causality emanating from hydrocarbon production — often without fully thinking through or vetting their contentions.

Invariably, the spectrum of industry response ranges from pointing out the claim’s inherent hypocrisy to how the industry’s emissions performance is exponentially improving.

But nothing changes one unalterable, unchanging and unassailable fact of life: petroleum products like gasoline get produced because people consume them. Full stop.

But another reality is this: the oil and gas industry (upstream) never really made an effort to understand its customer base – just like its customers (ie, Canadian drivers) never bothered to be too curious about how their suppliers functioned to produce the stuff that fuels their lives.

The resulting complacency chasm is symbolized by the value chain disconnect between the oil well and gas tank. In turn, that symbolism characterizes one of the most obvious tensions which currently define the contemporary Canadian energyscape: a knowledge gap between petroleum production and consumption realities.

But the Crompton Case also offers an opportunity to reframe the discourse in a more positive way. In other words, it’s potentially a teachable moment. But for that to happen, we need a different way of putting key facts on the table for better balanced discussion.

The mechanism? Come on down Life Cycle Analysis and its more energy-specific variant cousin: wells-to-wheels analysis. LCAs have been used for decades to understand how production of various things have different impacts along their life cycles, with a view to improvement-based decision making.

Wells-to-wheels (WTW) analysis was once de rigueur in industry as a means of quantifying and understanding emissions production dynamics, such as emissions reductions, along the spectrum from initial production to combustion – and in the process, measuring where the bulk of emissions production actually occurs.

But now we’re in different times. And perhaps WTW framework could be repurposed into the socio-political mainstream with a different contextual reference; one which helps consumers who are generally energy unconscious about the impact of their consumption.

Now of course there was, and is, much debate about the validity of WTW analysis — remember the hoary axiom that data will confess to anything if tortured sufficiently — but at its rawest output, it points out one unavoidable and fundamental reality: as people live their lives — in this case through their combustion-driven vehicular selves – they produce emissions.

Lots of them — in round numbers about 80 per cent of the total emissions package associated with gasoline from a barrel of oil.

In that sense, whether they acknowledge it or not, consumers and petroleum producers are co-conspirators in the emissions game. People know their vehicles produce emissions to be sure; what they are likely not so familiar with is the scale of such production via combustion: that 80 per cent as a round number.

It’s a knowledge void which makes it easy to point to primary production and extraction as the biggest culprit. To twist an Al-Gorism back on itself: it’s an inconvenient truth.

But let’s recognize there may be tuition value in the Whistler experience — and in the process, strip the emotion from what could be a constructively positive teaching moment

Had the Whistler mayor and his council colleagues been self-aware enough to look in the emissions mirror and understand granularly the magnitude of emissions produced by skiers, hikers and mountain bikers over say, a year of travel as they traipse to resort, the tone of their outreach might have been more temperate and potentially more collaborative.

That would be one for the books: a global resort community and a leading oil and gas producer sitting down collaboratively to figure out their mutual climate future together.

What a concept.

(Here’s an introduction: Mayor Crompton and Whistler council: Meet Dr. Jennifer Winter, of the University of Calgary’s School of Public Policy and one of Canada’s leading energy economists.

Dr. Winter and some of her grad students could do some interesting analysis of emissions impact through the lens of what it takes to get people to and from Whistler.

The resulting research might become a useful policy and teaching tool for all Canadians (and their elected representatives) to wrap their minds around the fact that emissions production dance is one in which Canadians and their energy producers are more entangled that most consumers are currently able or willing to recognize.)

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