Thursday, 7 October 2010

The Tar Sands – Everybody’s Fault But Ours

I cannot believe that Ezra Levant wrote a book about the oil sands called “Ethical Oil”. But I guess he has to make a living like everybody else, and what better way to get attention for a few days and sell your book than by being a good old-fashioned provocateur?

“It was about time the oil sands had a champion,” explained Rex Murphy in the National Post, “because Alberta premier Ed Stelmach, despite his vigourous defence of them, has about all the character and pizzazz of an expired can of Aylmer tomatoes” (Not a quote - My paraphrasing) And because his government’s blatantly misleading, if not shamefully bold-faced lying, full page newspaper advertisements and internet banners trumpeting the necessity and virtues of the sands, and the “carbon capture investments”(a bogus and dubious non existant technology) being made to mitigate them, have failed to stem the tide of awareness and opposition rising up against them (My sentence).
Dear reader, I have been pumped and gearing up to write this post for a long time. There is almost nobody I would rather critique on here than Ezra Levant, but look at the softball he lobbed us. “Ethical” Oil? It’s so easy that it almost takes the joy away. But this, my friends, this today will be a posting of substance. I will stick to the facts and will not stoop to caricaturing, insults, and personal attacks. When you look on comment boards on the Globe or the Post or the CBC below articles related to petroleum, the pro oil / anti-environmentalist arguments (and these do dominate, I can assure you) usually consist of careful, reasoned weigh-ins, such as only a tiny minority of “elite latte sipping downtown toronto liberal lying elitist scum” oppose mass and reckless burning of fossil fuels, or that any attempt to have discussion outside this paradigm is a “boondoggle socialist carbon tax eco fascist loony left anti capitalist conspiracy theorist debacle” It is difficult not to sink down to this level and swipe back. Not because I’m personally offended, but rather annoyed that anyone is stupid enough to apply such irrelevant and outlandish labels to anyone else who uses their brain and does some basic math, in order to demonize them as a cartoon character who they’ve been trained to hate with all their hearts . I guess they’re passing out of their “denial” and into the “anger” part of the Elisabeth Kubler-Ross trajectory. No need to give them fodder by insulting them back in kind with equally broad stereotypes. Instead, let’s take the high road address the issue head on. There are four questions I must deal with today. They are: 1) Who is Ezra Levant (briefly)? 2) What are the claims made by the book that the oil sands are ethical? 3)Why are the oil sands, as well as those arguments, nonsensical? 4) Why does globalized media and society make discussing a subject like this cumbersome and unmanageable?
1) Ezra Levant is a Calgary lawyer who has been a leading figure in the Reform Party movement since its inception. He is a conservative, libertarian, pro-Western Canada, anti-Eastern Canada writer who gained widespread fame in Canada for publishing the Danish Mohammed cartoons in his defunct Western Standard newspaper. A fight with the Alberta humans right commission ensued, and he and Mark Steyn have been ardent critics of the human right’s commission system, possibly due to encounters with it over critiques of islam. Needless to say from his geographical and political backgrounds, not to mention his 2002 book Fight Kyoto: The plan to protect our economy, he advocates unlimited and unfettered access to and use of petroleum to drive the economy. Petroleum is quite literally the backbone and lifeblood of our economy at present, so at this juncture I believe we can safely assume that Mr. Levant is opposed to it being otherwise. That allows me to call him a staunch defender of the status quo.
2) Now that we know discussion on whether it is a good idea to A) burn through the world’s remaining petroleum in the form of plastic bags, commuter traffic jams, and just about everything else we do that we have so wisely made ourselves completely dependent on it for, or B) take carbon-based fuels out of the ground and burn them into the atmosphere and dangerously tamper with the temperature and chemical makeup of earth (but I’m just mentioning B in passing, since it is obviously an Al Gore-UN scam) is firmly off the table from the get-go, we can delve into the meat of Levant's magnum opus about the oil sands. It consists of him talking about…everything but the oil sands. If you think this guy is a genius, read the book and correct me if I’m wrong. The argument is, well, we have to get our oil from somewhere. Lots of it, more and more all the time. And there is no reason for us or for America to deal with that socialist thug Hugo Chavez, the holocaust denier Ahmahenijad and his ayatollah manipulators, or those conservative muslim terrorist-financing douche bag saudis anymore. We got all the oil we need, right here in the bitume fields of this modern, free, prosperous bourgeois democracy. If Greenpeace and the Sierra Club really cared about oil and its impact, they’d go hold demos in those OPEC countries except that…they can’t. Internal dissent is not tolerated in those places and it is doubtful that it would be if it was done by some dirty western hippies. But it is not just that they can’t, they won’t protest in those places, because it is so much easier for them to do it in peace and safety and make themselves feel superior in North America. What they really hate is our standard of living and our freedom. It is proven in the book: the greenies have deliberately turned a blind eye to China’s dismal environmental record while complaining non stop about the sands. Now the world is all up in arms about the oil sands due to their Canadian location, and because we’re the envy of the world, everyone wants to make our lives miserable over them. Well guess what world, here’s the back of Ezra Levant’s hand, middle finger leading the charge, bitch slappin’ yo face! Oh and by the way, he adds, I got stats for you environmentalist fascists, since you insist – only 2.2% of the land area the size of florida or britain everyone talks about is being strip mined. And Canada produces 2% of the world’s emissions, and the oil sands are only 4% of those, which means their global environmental impact is practically nil. So this is nothing more than a conspiracy against Canada, aided and abetted by internal enemies like Greenpeace, which has now obviously been exposed as a dubious and baseless entity. Right?
3) Thanks, Ezra. I really needed you to explain to me that oil states are corrupt and NGOs are corrupt. Honestly, I never knew that. I was out my front door ready to wage enviro-jihad with Greenpeace but your calm voice of reason has pulled me back into the bosom of my consumerist suburban dreamworld. It was those bad guys who clouded my thinking and prevented me from realizing that there is cheap, abundant, no strings attached energy right here under our nose, and we never need to take personal responsibility or be conscientious of our habits ever again.

If that sounds sarcastic, it's because I wanted it to. All oil on earth is not created equal. It takes on many forms and is good for different things depending on its grade. The best oil for gasoline and plastic is called light sweet crude, and it is at the top of the 1-9 scale for refining ease, versatility, transportability, and convenience. This kind of oil is not found much anywhere anymore, and certainly not in the oil sands. The oil sands are rightfully called (and I will henceforth refer to them as such) the tar sands because they are at the opposite end, the very bottom, of this 1-9 scale. This is not oil in the ground. This is the heaviest kind of oil in existence, called bitume, trapped in sand. Together, they have the consistency of peanut butter. To get oil from it, this sand is strip mined and placed into the largest trucks in the world, taken to a nearby refinery where enormous amounts of fresh water from the Athabaska river are used to separate and steam the oil out of the sand, and finally refined into regular petroleum, requiring the most arduous and costly refining techniques available, logical considering this is after all the least desirable type of petroleum to oil companies based on our scale.

If you followed closely, you will have discovered what each of the steps of this process have in common with each other – they all require oil. Not oil from the tar sands – regular, processed oil, ready and available to use. Oil to build and power the biggest trucks on earth. Oil to power the machines that waste all that water. Oil to power the most intense and laborious refining process known to man. That’s not to say bitume is useless – it is good, for making asphalt. But Husky, Halliburton, Suncor, and BP were not in the asphalt business last time I checked. So this continues, day in and day out. The Athabaska river is already half drained from the activity and the run off from it is poisoning what’s left, but the Alberta government will be damned if it lets ten thousand lousy natives get in the way of billions of new consumers in energy-hungry emerging markets. It even fired a doctor it hired to independantly research and confirm the effects of the sands on local aboriginal communities in Fort Chipweyan when he told them the opposite of what they wanted to hear. But back to the “ethical” sands. The thing Ezra doesn’t seem to realize is that we are using 7 barrels to get 8 barrels. Financially, the sands are only profitable if oil is over $65 a barrel. What if oil goes up to $300 a barrel? We are going to use $2100 of oil to make $2400 of oil. Mr Levant, you’re a fiscal conservative, you’re opposed to government entitlements, and you’ve laid out compelling arguments in this regard. Where is your living within your means logic? Has your frugal and prudent vision of the state abandoned you in the energy sector? Do you have family members? If you had a family member who was just about maxed on all his credit cards, and was juggling billing cycles to max on one to make a minimum payment on another, what would your advice to him be? Because this type of behaviour is precisely what I see in an operation that can only see the one barrel its netting and not the 7 its source is engulfing to get that barrel. Just like that compulsive borrower who lives to elude bankruptcy another day.

And the river, well, that’s easy. Just suppose this same family member is a heavy smoker and drinker. In fact, the constantly rising costs of those two vices are driving the debt as well as deteriorating the liver, heart and lungs. Well, there’s your river. Your cancer filled river, once one of Canada’s most mighty. I hope it was worth it.

4) Ezra’s defence of the oil sands is thus that our government is better than OPEC governments, and NGOs and celebrity advocates are manipulators and hypocrites. As he said on his blog the other day “When you invent solar powered planes and wind powered cars, let me know. Until then, let’s deal with reality and not science fiction”. I’m more of the opinion that our current reality, which was science fiction 150 years ago, will not pass on to some golden green world where renewable technologies power our current system of global capitalism. You will not find an alternative to petroleum, and so its eventual total depletion will result in a return to 17th century village life with subsistence farming and week long journeys by foot to travel. Nobody wants to hear this, and I don’t claim to know when it will happen, but it is pure hubris to pound the pulpit over remote and illogical energy sources like the tar sands or worse, ANWR, like you’re some kind of people’s saviour against the satanic eco-fascists. These “drill baby drill” clowns receiving the media attention and holding the political positions of power they do in North America reveals to me our incredible small-mindedness and immaturity as a civilization. They get short shrift elsewhere. But maybe the problem with this debate, and specifically with Ezra’s book, is our tendency to always factor in the “elsewhere”, when in fact we should look at the issue “right here”, as I attempted to do today.
The problem with globalization and the internet, god bless ‘em, is that they’ve made us aware of too many things going on in too many places at once. It makes life interesting because it fills it with interesting facts, but I do believe this is beyond the scope and scale the human brain is meant to operate on. It gets confused, and it takes what it sees elsewhere and applies a mix-mash of facts to the situation at hand rather than looking at it with regular, unbiases eyes. Thus a book about the oil sands actually turns into an excuse to bash targets like the leaders of Venezuela and Iran who were already anathemic to most North American conservatives who will dig this book anyway. Arguments against climate change and resource depletion are rebutted by deniers (as Ezra recently did on his site) pointing out that James Cameron and Al Gore fly around in private jets and where does the energy come from for that? Hey, they’re not taxpayer funded jets and did you ever consider that they probably take private jets anyway so it can’t hurt to use their visibility for this reason? China’s coal is worse than the tar sands. Ontario and Quebec complained about the tar sands at Copenhagen yet their personal vehicle fleets are far worse in terms of emissions. And on and on and on.
When the pro tar sands crowd calm down and don’t employ the straw man personal attack arguments I tried to depict at the beginning of this posting, they resort to red herrings like these. Issues, places, people, trends, phenomena around the world that have nothing to do with the tar sands and are not happenning where the tar sands are happening. I have no agenda and I hope that I kept it above the belt today. But if you’re going to write a book on how great the tar sands are, maybe you should actually write about the subject itself. The tar sands are not ethical by virtue of you finding them ethically superior to unrelated tendencies and actions you have observed in their opponents and around the world.

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