Old-school politics used to be easy, industrially speaking. The left/right divide seemed so endearingly simple. People existed in two world views, generally cleaved along the lines of more/less government control, or more collective vision vs. more individual.
An analogy that works: Imagine someone starts a business, it grows wildly, he/she/it hires a thousand people, and the owner gets fantastically wealthy. Old school voters would fall into one of two camps: Camp free enterprise would say that not only did the owner deserve to get rich but also created a thousand jobs out of thin air; Camp socialist/social democrat would say this is an injustice because the owner got rich off the backs of the employees who did not fall into wealth.
People are what they are, and they believe what they believe, and we had some fairly decent democratic runs where the tug of war between those two camps did wonders. We had free enterprise societies, but we also had social safety nets. We had arenas where business’ best could compete, but where it wasn’t a free for all. We had economic growth, but also had environmental standards that grew more stringent over time.
It wasn’t perfect, but it was as good of a balance as we could hope for from people that inherently view the world diametrically opposite. We’d elect a government leaning one way until they stepped out of the box or were overwhelmed by their own incompetence, then we’d elect one leading the other way. It may not have seemed peaceful or great at the time, but compared to what we have now, it was paradise.
Now, we have two opposing forces governing the energy world, but what is hellish about this scenario is that each day pushes us further from the ability to constructively work together. The desired outcomes are mutually exclusive. Those searching for ‘middle ground’ don’t really understand the forces at play.
Two opposing camps. Each day brings new evidence that their position is right, and the divide grows stronger.
One camp is linked to the weather, and is terrified of what is happening to the weather, so let’s call it Camp Thunder. Any weather event, to them, is proof that CO2 emissions must be stopped. Every day that goes by means more tonnes of CO2 in the air and that means more drought, rain, heat waves, tornadoes, hurricanes, and more extreme weather. (Google “climate change causes extreme weather” gets 139 million results.)
An extreme weather event occurs somewhere in the world every day. It has always been thus, but now we know about it. Instantly. A hundred years ago, a drought 150 miles northwest of Timbuktu would have been noticed by the four people living 150 miles northwest of Timbuktu. Now, those four people have cell phones, and photos of wide drought cracks in the earth appear around the world in the news in four seconds flat, and boom, just like that – more ‘proof’ we need to stop burning fossil fuels immediately.
For those that subscribe to that causal link, every tonne of carbon spewed into the air is another brick on the wall, another gallon of water coming aboard a sinking ship. Immediate and drastic action is not desirable; it is mandatory. A film called “How to Blow up a Pipeline” is receiving critical praise (“Here, the pipeline destroyers are the good guys.”). Pete Kalmus, a climate scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory and one of the more ardent members of the climate emergency camp, described the sound of jets flying overhead as the sound of babies being ground up. At a climate protest, where Kalmus chained himself to the door of a JPMorgan Chase building to protest the bank’s ‘fossil fuel lending’, he lamented, “We’re going to lose everything, and we’re not joking, and we’re not lying, and we’re not exaggerating.”
I’m not exaggerating either when I say that every day the world consumes 100 million barrels of oil and 370 billion cubic feet of gas and 22 million tonnes of coal. And that brings us to the other camp.
Since this camp is unilaterally concerned with our ability to feed, fuel, and heat 8 billion people, let’s call this Camp Pipes, because nothing symbolizes utilitarianism like those things.
Camp Pipes is concerned that this energy transition is being guided by nothing other than government will, an ominous thought. Governments are not noted for their ability to successfully plan anything. Camp Pipes talks about things like cost, availability, and reliability.
Every governmental policy unveiled to state Camp Thunder just strengthens the case of Camp Pipes that we are headed for a train wreck, and that the new policy just upped the speed of the runaway train. Camp Pipes points out, somewhat too quietly, that there aren’t enough critical metals/minerals in existence to force through such policies in an all-EV world. They try to shift the dialogue to the warning signs, which they hope will somehow break through policymakers’ tunnel vision and generate more sense.
But if you feel we are all doomed without immediate ‘climate action’, anything Camp Pipes says is deemed ‘obstructionist’ or ‘climate denier’ or ‘climate delayer’ or whatever this week’s insult is. And because every gram of carbon into the air makes the problem worse, the need for action grows, to the point that militant action is right around the corner.
Think that’s an exaggeration? Nope, and probably an understatement. A recent strategy is for activists to openly vandalize or destroy energy infrastructure, then use in court the grounds that it is a necessity to save other lives that will suffer from climate change. “The necessity defense is a legal defense used in certain situations where a person’s actions that would normally be considered unlawful are justified because they were necessary to prevent greater harm or evil. For example, if a person breaks into a building to rescue someone who is in imminent danger, they may be able to use the necessity defense to argue that their actions were justified…As climate change threatens our planet, the climate necessity defense is gaining traction among environmental activists and attorneys practicing climate justice.”
Above, I said that those searching for middle ground don’t really understand the forces at play. That comment isn’t a condemnation of the sincere desire of many to adopt new energy sources and look to a new energy model for the future. It’s just a point that needs acknowledging before making real progress; that the doomsday loop needs to be broken before we are going to see any coherence in global energy policy (if policy is even the right word).
Here is a mini-catalogue of progress, provided by those that just do stuff, the ones that utilize every tool at their disposal to stand on the shoulders of giants and reach from there. They are doing what needs to happen, maintaining both existing productive capability and pushing new-energy technologies.
This small representative cluster was pulled from Q1/23 conference call scripts, showing how energy transition ideas are taking root in fertile ground:
Weatherford International (emphasis added): The company noted $290 million of multi-year contract extensions in Latin America for onshore petroleum activity, a 3-year, 5-rig Azerbaijan deep water rig contract, and that “we continue to gain traction in the geothermal energy space through a combination of commercial wins and partnerships…entered into an exclusive collaboration agreement with CeraPhi Energy to provide an integrated package of products and services to end users for the development of geothermal energy. Weatherford will offer its global expertise in data acquisition, digitalization, and automation services, and CeraPhi will leverage its proven engineering and project management services to provide enhanced geothermal technology solutions to the market.”
Nabors Drilling (emphasis added): the company talked about a 10-rig new-build program for the Saudi market, with the wells under a six-year contract…then this: “I will update several impactful technologies, which are focused on reducing our own environmental footprint as well as on third-party rigs…First is our PowerTap module, which connects rigs to the grid. We now have 15 of these units deployed… Second, our Smart Power Advisory and Control System optimizes utilization of the engines and reduces emissions. This solution is currently installed on all of our rigs in the Lower 48…Third, the NanO2 diesel fuel additive improves engine performance and reduces emissions. We have already successfully treated more than 17 million gallons of diesel to date. Clients indicate strong interest in our solutions that reduce fuel consumption and emissions…We are now in field testing for a new technology, which uses hydrogen economically generated at the well site to reduce fuel consumption. We expect this product to become commercial later this year.”
EQT (largest US natural gas producer) (emphasis added): “EQT has taken material steps forward in achieving our peer-leading goal of net zero Scope 1 and 2 greenhouse gas emissions from production operations by 2025…completing our pneumatic device replacement initiative a year ahead of schedule…we announced EQT’s first nature-based carbon offset initiative earlier this month, partnered with…a public park in West Virginia, Teralytic a soil analytics company and Climate Smart Environmental Consulting to implement forest management projects with the goal of generating carbon offsets… These projects will span more than 1,000 acres of forest land and we will utilize Teralytics soil probe technology to ensure the quantification of offsets is accurate and transparent… One of the investments that we’ve made on our new ventures front has been an investment in a company that is going to address the behind-the-grid power generation company called what fuel cells is creating basically a fuel cell that runs off natural gas and generates power for the size of a microwave can power your house. These are the type of solutions that are going to strengthen our grid but it’s going to be the decentralized smaller scale opportunities that will exist and at price points that retail consumers can get into.”
Closer to home, we recently had news of Tourmaline’s excellent strategic move to enter the commercial truck fuelling CNG market via collaboration (oops, this is the ’20’s, I meant ‘collab’) with Clean Energy Fuels and Mullen Trucking (eccentric optimistic analysis here).
These are examples of the sort of critical innovation we need. This fascinating article gets into the concept of innovation, which outlines the relevance in an energy transition.
Innovation is not the same as invention. The odds of someone coming off the bench with some wild new invention that solves everything are pretty slim. Don’t buy the stock touting some new miracle battery; investors have been losing money on those for a century. Odds are far better that we will make progress through steady innovation.
The article also flags how innovation thrives in free environments. For energy to develop properly, that free environment is necessary. The predominant energy system, the one that will innovate us into a new world as in the above examples, is under mortal threat as described above from Camp Thunder. How much energy is spent fighting rearguard actions, fighting lawsuits to justify the industry’s very existence? What a freaking waste.
But sadly, here’s a widely-read reason why that waste will continue. The most recent edition of Toronto’s Globe and Mail Report on Business magazine tallies up the costs of all extreme weather events and ties them directly to climate change. “No excuses for half measures on global warming,” thunders the editor.
Sadly and more potently, one of the ‘experts’ quoted in the article is a spokesperson for Environmental Defense, a massively well-funded activist group, who declares that the time for innovation is over (“stop innovating, start implementing”). The EDF is ideologically and tactically aligned with our federal and Western leaders, and I am pretty sure they can speak with whomever they want in Ottawa or Washington at will.
So the beat goes on. The pressure grows.
The media absolutely loves the climate wars, they love misery, they love storms and floods and drought and people crying – which is simply more proof for the emotive Camp Thunder. Camp Pipes, standing there in dirty overalls, is no match at all.
I don’t know how that gets reversed. I see fantastic new examples of progress as documented above, and they will form the backbone of the energy transition. Somehow the tension needs to be ratcheted down, but with the media structures in place, I don’t see how.
One last thought for the conversation: Have you ever had a kitchen fire, or had your car go into a skid on an icy road, or found yourself in a dangerous situation, or being unprepared for an exam, or any other situation that struck fear in your heart…ask yourself if panic was ever the right answer. Now do energy.
Terry Etam is a columnist with the BOE Report, a leading energy industry newsletter based in Calgary. He is the author of The End of Fossil Fuel Insanity. You can watch his Policy on the Frontier session from May 5, 2022 here.