Tuesday, December 2, 2014

On being labelled “pro-oil” and ”pro-pipeline”

The morning I found myself in the very interesting position of being the foil in a thoughtful and well-written piece in the Tyee (http://thetyee.ca/Opinion/2014/12/02/Gorilla-on-Burnaby-Mountain/). The piece recounts a Twitter discussion between myself and the author regarding the Burnaby Mountain protest. While I found the article a very interesting and compelling read I was bemused to discover myself labeled as both “pro-oil” and “pro-pipeline”. The article migrated, naturally, to the issue of climate change and in doing so it passed over the big blind spot of the pipeline protest movement.

We live in a society that is, like it or not, dependent on oil and the products of oil. Our food is produced on farms that need heavy equipment to operate. That food is shipped around the world by airplane, boat and rail all of which rely on petroleum hydrocarbons to operate. Once it arrives in town it is shipped to warehouses and local stores using vehicles running on petroleum fuels. The article talks lovingly about alternative energy technologies but ignores the reality that only oil products (or biofuel alternatives) have the energy density to do this job. No alternative fuel with a sufficient energy density exists to be used in the quantities necessary to replace petroleum hydrocarbons at this time. I will address biofuels in a future post but suffice it to say using food to operate our machinery is a losing proposition in a world of 7 billion hungry souls.

The protestors on Burnaby Mountain bristled when they were called "hypocrites" for complaining about the lack of parking for the protest or that they were using propane heaters or snapping photos on their iPhones. I hesitate to use that word because in my mind in order to be a “hypocrite” you have to know enough about a topic to actually recognize your cognitive dissonance and in the case of many/most of the protestors their lives are so divorced from the science/chemistry that underlies their daily lives that they don't meet that bar. We live in a society with a small population of the scientific literate and a bulk of the population that while not scientifically illiterate are blind to the science around them and unfortunately, it would seem that the protestors are made up primarily of the latter.

What a lot of these protestors seem to not understand is that petroleum hydrocarbons aren’t just the fuels that run our vehicles or the natural gas to run power plants. Virtually every plastic, “rubber” and other synthetic material is made of petroleum hydrocarbons. Gortex, nylon, spandex, polyester are all petroleum-based. While you see a bag of whole blood in an emergency room, I see blood wrapped in petroleum products that was filtered through petroleum-based filters, is injected into patients using petroleum-based materials and monitored by machines composed of petroleum-based materials. Many of the precursors of pharmaceutical drugs are petroleum-based and the instruments used in their production are petroleum-based. Those iPhones used to record the protest consist of BC aluminum, surrounding petroleum-based circuit boards coated in precious metals mined in BC and run on batteries made of rare earth metals (mined in China as our rare earth mines can't get opened).

The question I would like to ask our friends at the Tyee is what modern convenience would they like to give up in order to allow for the elimination of the transportation of oil? The computers they use to write their articles? The insulated wires used to transfer the information to the internet? The servers that distribute the information?

So in the end am I pro-oil? Well since I like eating apples shipped by truck from the Okanagan, while clothing my children in warm, light clothing then I suppose I am pro-oil. Given that one of my children only made it to hospital thanks to the presence of the BC Ambulance Service driving around the city in diesel-powered vehicles I suppose I am pro-oil. As for being pro-pipeline, well as I have written elsewhere, pipelines are the safest and most energetically efficient method to transport oil. So I suppose as an environmental professional that makes me pro-pipeline as well.


  1. Well said Blair, I for one do not wish to give up what we have now.

  2. Perhaps consider that oil made it possible for you to have the children that you, and billions of other people, would otherwise not have, thus enabling the rampant destruction of the earth, which you decry in a different post (see: Biofuels). So while you demur using the word "hypocrite" to describe others (kindly suggesting that they know not what their iPhones are made of), you are not so easily forgiven, having admitted that you are fully cognizant of where your oil and all its derivatives come from. Thus, by having children and which enables the procreation of your (and billions of others') genes, you and those billions like you ensure that no corner of this earth will remain unsullied and un-touched by the always-destructive impulse, whether intended or not.

    Where does personal responsibility for the welfare of the planet begin and end? If you're having children, knowing that each child will produce "x" milliions of pounds of coal, oil, and consume "x" pounds of food, produced by petroleum and its derivatives, it's fair to ask, "Are you not a hypocrite, to decry all this, when the very problem lies in that blind spot of your own life that says, 'My own family is off-limits and not for debate in the larger context of whether we will survive as a species that realizes that there is, indeed, a finite sphere that we live in, and on. Now bug off'".

    We have met the enemy, and it is us.

  3. I've always wondered, how come we never see protests against heavy oil imports from Venezuela into USA Gulf Coast ports? That oil is identical to the Canadian blends, comes from a country which violates human rights, and is a self declared US enemy. One would think having that oil shipped in tankers would agitate the environmentalists and greens. But I get the sense many of these greens are a bit red on the inside. When the oil is produced by self styled communists they sure seem to look the other way.