A new book by oil and gas thought leader Terry Etam seeks to cut through the media rhetoric, government propaganda and widespread ignorance of the energy sector to end the current period of what he calls “fossil fuel insanity.”
Everybody knows that fossil fuels won’t last forever, but there’s a false sense out there that a green energy paradise is just around the corner, he says.
“To turn our backs on fossil fuels, a staggering amount of work will be required to refit a global energy sector that has grown systematically for over a century,” he says.
“To make matters worse, environmentalists and fossil-fuel defenders wage continuous but fruitless war, and the growing gap makes it impossible to have any sort of constructive dialogue.”
Etam’s book, The End of Fossil Fuel Insanity: Clearing the Air Before Cleaning the Air looks to “get to the heart of what needs to change — and what needs to stay the same — if the challenges of moving away from fossil fuels are to be met, while maintaining the quality of life we have come to expect and rely on,” he says.
JWN had the opportunity to chat with Etam about his work.
Why do you believe that we are in a period of fossil fuel insanity?
First, despite a lot of chatter to the contrary, the world's reliance on fossil fuels has never been higher - global demand continues to climb.
At the same time, an extremely powerful international movement is trying to destroy the industry, with not even the slightest hint of a game plan as to how to fuel the world if that is accomplished.
On a micro level, we see bizarre circumstances like the BC government trying to thwart construction of a pipeline expansion at the same time commenting in a court case that Alberta cannot be allowed to limit flow on the existing pipeline because it could have serious negative impacts to the lower mainland.
We have communities like Whistler, a poster child for every bad environmental habit in existence, trying to claim damages from petroleum companies for producing the fossil fuels that enable heli-skiing and bring millions of visitors to the community via airplane.
Everywhere we look, we see these battles against the fuel that keeps the whole world turning, with no viable alternative being presented.
How do you think we got here?
The opponents of fossil fuels have taken over the global stage, while the petroleum industry has had great difficulty arising to the challenge of properly stating its case.
The industry has taken the need for petroleum to be self-evident, but it is not, and we are in this bizarre and, yes, insane situation where many groups are trying to cut off the fuel supplies that keep everyone alive, without a proper or realistic game plan.
The petroleum industry has in the past taken for granted its ability to build infrastructure when needed, and now that it is needed and it can't be built, there is not a cohesive, coordinated action to fight back against environmental extremism.
In the past, governments most often supported resource development, and now they sometimes fight it. These are new realities that require adaptation. It's not easy to adapt of course, but with global demand still growing, the industry is still a necessary part of the landscape.
Why is it so important to ‘clear the air,’ as you say?
What we are seeing play out in the media is a war in which each side has become so entrenched, and the fight so political, that true progress in transitioning to a greener economy is being hindered immeasurably.
It is shocking and saddening to see how much time is wasted debating things like whether pipelines are safe, or the effect on orcas of a tiny increase in freighter traffic, etc.
If the goal is to reduce global emissions, we need to step back and tackle the biggest sources using the 80/20 rule or an approximation.
Right now, we see vast sums of money going into fighting the most convenient fossil fuel leaders, like Canada, because we thus far haven't done much to stop opposition (and governments have encouraged it).
In other global jurisdictions that is not the case; they stand by their industries. We therefore need to remove extremists from the conversation somehow, have rational, forward-thinking people get more involved, and start working on realistic plans.
The risk is that the fossil fuel debate continues to get more political, and the UN encourages that, and if it goes in that direction it will turn into an eternal war just like regular politics. We should be able to do better.
Do you think it is possible to achieve constructive dialogue between fossil fuel defenders and environmentalists?
Not as long as extremists are involved, or those that push the agenda into the realm of politics. Politics has no solution; it is in a semi-permanent state of tension between state control and free enterprise.
If we can remove extremists from the fossil fuel conversation, I think we would see that there are large areas of fundamental agreement.
Most oilpatch people I talk to will agree that the current reliance on fossil fuels and trajectory of demand is not sustainable indefinitely. The easy, cheap stuff is disappearing. So at some point pretty much everyone can agree that we will transition to other energy sources.
If we can agree on basics like that, and at the same time understand across the board how much we rely on fossil fuels now - and how difficult it will be to transition - then we can start working on a roadmap.
But the place we are now - where we waste endless valuable resources trying to get a single pipeline built, for example - is but one example of the waste and futility of the current climate.
We therefore need to find a way to have responsible environmentally oriented organizations work together with progressive energy types, and start thinking on the axis of constructive vs. destructive, rather than the black vs. white/good guy vs. bad guy axis.
Are you hopeful for the future?
Yes. There are different levels to that.
Globally speaking, some people - a great many - are truly worried about climate change. I think it is an exercise in futility to worry about it, because if it is happening and is manmade, there is simply nothing that can be done about that in the next few decades.
The rate of change in the standard of living of half the world's population virtually guarantees that there won't be meaningful emissions reductions for decades.
So if the world is warming and there are consequences, we will simply have to find a way to deal with them.
I am not convinced that every possible nightmare scenario put forward by extremists is going to come to pass. Things may well change, but not necessarily apocalyptically.
From the perspective of our industry, I am hopeful in a few ways. First, because global consumption of fossil fuels continues to grow, demand for supplies will continue to grow, and, despite impediments like a lack of pipelines, Canadian ingenuity will prevail.
We see that with projects like bitumen pucks for transportation, and there will be others. We will find ways to help the natural gas industry get its product to market. We will continue to improve environmental performance, and quite probably open up new industries that better utilize our bountiful resources in ways that are supportive of green energy in useful ways - for example, utilizing waste heat wherever possible as a source of energy for any number of new industries.
We have a well-abandonment problem, but, viewed in another way, we have a firm grasp on the issue, with trouble sites well known and catalogued (as opposed to many places in the world) and processes improve all the time.
I am also hopeful that the industry will embrace change, as it always has, and will show the world what it can do with regards to responsible resource development.
In large part, we simply need to get better at telling our story, because Canadian production really is done in world-class ways. Yes, there were mistakes in the past, but Canada has one of the most open, adaptable, and capable systems in the world.
Everything that can possibly go wrong for the industry has gone wrong in the past few years, and that situation won't persist forever.