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Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Really? A Call to Action?

The current economic climate may indeed require that we respond with meaningfull action. If driving over a cliff is not an option, maybe we should think about rock-climbing...
I wrote my last post in response to some radio commentary I heard on the subject of gas prices. A slew of typical complaints and predictable expressions of indignation came from each of the radio personalities on the air at the time, including the traffic reporter, the host and even the weatherman. This latter local celebrity decided to weigh in by calling for a political, grass-roots, popular revolt in response to the big “them” who conspire to oppress us and otherwise ruin our lives with price gouging at the pumps. My initial response took the form of a letter which I sent to the radio station, which I pasted here word-for word in the previous post. But I have to confess that I pulled a few punches partly in deference to diplomacy and decorum, but mainly for the sake of brevity.
Needless to say a more elaborate rebuttal is in order, and while I intend to maintain the level of decorum befitting a blog of some repute – which is what I aspire to at Kyotomotors – I am compelled to take this preposterous call to arms down a notch or two before people start to take it too seriously. Indeed, this particular point about a democratic uprising, should be addressed more directly, given the current context of the past six months.
From the perspective of someone who has spent considerable time understanding fossil fuels and our consumption/ dependence issues, comments like this would be largely laughable if they didn’t go so completely unchecked in the ensuing discourse. The fact that the revolutionary spirit of protest would manifest itself in such a self-centered, and lazy analysis of the situation can only be chalked up as a sorry sign of the times. This may not be obvious to the average listener, or to readers of this blog either, so I’m going to try to take the time to reflect on just how misguided this expression of protest and wished-for activism actually is.
Let’s start by imagining the wish realised: perhaps protestors from all the suburbs around Montreal would converge on the downtown arteries in their vehicles, possibly slowing to a stand-still bringing the city to a halt to demand lower prices! Perhaps from there they get out of their cars and march. Where do they go? The Government offices? Corporate headquarters of Shell or Esso or PetroCanada? These authorities have some power, and certainly don’t want the economy to grind to a halt. The question is then, does Big Oil move against their shareholders’ wishes and slash profits for the sake of the economy? If this seems too unlikely, let’s imagine an alternate path toward the same end: the Quebec government could nationalise Big Oil in the province (“PetroQuebec” perhaps?) and mandate that petroleum be provided to its citizens at a cut-rate a la Hugo Chavez, giving them a huge leg-up and decisive economic advantage on the world stage…From there, Quebeckers return to their happy motoring as though there was nothing wrong in the world as far a petroleum is concerned.
There are, of course several things wrong with this picture. The biggest problem perhaps is that this story of reform hinges on the demands of consumers not of citizens. I could go on at length here about the finer details that distinguish the two, but I’d rather stick to the basics for now: Consumers are by definition self-centred entities manipulated by marketing, who, in demanding their “freedom” in the market place, end up bolstering their dependence on commodities instead. Consumers conflate entitlement privileges with rights, responsibilities and obligations. These moral distinctions separate consumer desires from true social movements.
Another major problem is that Quebec happens not to have any oil of its own to speak of, so the Venezuela analogy (even if that brand of socialism were palatable here) falls on its ass. In the game of Big Oil it’s the importers who pay, especially in the era of peak oil. Add to this the fact that a major refining facility on the island of Montreal was closed down not too long ago, and you have to accept that when it comes to the Oil Game, Quebec is holding a bum hand.
So the protest that was conjured in the heat of high gas prices is a doomed prospect that could never achieve the motorist’s objective. Yes, motorists could boycott Big Oil, and perhaps they would succeed in forcing gas prices down as oil companies try to get them back behind the wheel. But for many reasons I pointed out in my previous blog, high prices would quickly return so long as a return to status quo (ie.daily commuting) is the objective. This is the painful truth we are trying to avoid: high gas prices are pretty much permanent under the current living arrangements and ways of doing business.
Meanwhile, for those who do hang on to the commuter habits and arrangements, such a protest is disingenuous because the intention to boycott is probably a ruse at best, given the insistence by so many that “they have no choice” while they line up for more expensive gas. At the end of the day, the public is resigned, and seems to be saying “nothing can be done!” and “what’s the use?! Evil prevails!”
But in fact something can be done. Which is to say I’m very interested in taking a closer look at boycotting the oil and gas industry…But I’ll save that for a future post.
One final thought here:
There is a sad irony that the “call to action” would come from a celebrity weatherman, who in the age of global warming should be somewhat sensitive toward the consequences of our consumption of petroleum. Higher gas prices do indeed offer the benefit of reduced consumption. Once we start looking at it as an opportunity to address global warming on a personal scale, we’ll perhaps be able to accept this economic reality as part and parcel of our responsibility to act with the greater good in mind.

Thursday, September 13, 2012

Commentary on Gas Prices

It is understandable for someone to feel the pinch, and even to complain about it, however, a little perspective goes a long way

It is a popular habit among the majority of drivers to cite rising gas prices as a source of great frustration and even hardship. It seems to be just as popular to seek to blame some evil for this suffering.
Yes, it used to cost less to drive around, and yes, for a commuter, driving probably represents a large slice of the household economic pie.
Yes also to the fact that Big Oil is pretty close to evil, if you define evil as cornering a market and making stupendous profits. But hey, didn’t we embrace capitalism once and for all back in 1989?
I would not necessarily rule out blatant collusion when it comes to Montreal’s unique position of having prices above $1.50/L, however, in the big picture we are not all that unique. If I had told you in 2003 that the price of a litre of gas was headed north of a dollar, you’d have laughed at me along with the rest of 99% of the population. But that was in fact what I was saying to those who might have listened, and well, most people laughed, or just didn’t want to listen. We are all paying well above a dollar now – from coast to coast. And the 5 to 10 cent difference at the pumps is incidental.
Now, it’s not as though I am psychic or especially prescient. Nor am I an expert in petroleum geology, or economics. At best I am an environmentally-minded citizen cum avid energy geek: I am a mere lay-person who has taken it upon myself to look beyond the mainstream media (and industry-guided discourse) to answer some big questions about energy consumption and its consequences.
What I have learned has been no less than life-changing, in that I have come to see how incredibly and completely dependent our modern, technological lifestyle is upon our treasured black gold.
I have come to learn that this resource truly is finite, and that there is a geologically documented phenomenon known in the industry as “peak oil.”
Get to know this term.
Peak oil is complex and the interpretations are many, including outright denial from, you guessed it, Big Oil: those who don’t want anyone to have an incentive or need to reduce their consumption.
What peak oil means is that at some point, the world will no longer be able to produce as much oil as it did the previous year, and eventually the rate of depletion becomes significant enough to affect the economy (ie. “growth”).
Guess what? We seem to have entered the peak phase, which is best described as a plateau. During this period the more expensive methods of extraction become relatively viable: enter fracking & tar sands. While these are touted as miraculous solutions in the media, by industry and by governments (an extremely dubious claim, by the way), what they amount to is a desperate society’s scraping the bottom of the barrel. When you hear stories about these “new” sources of oil, try to remember that what you’re really hearing is the story of peak oil.
Similarly, when gas prices go up – and yes, they’ll generally continue to rise – remember you are again hearing the story of peak oil played out on the ground.

Further reading:
In fact, The Energy Bulletin is great hub of different authors on the subject is:
some of my favourites include: Richard Heinberg, Kurt Cobb, Tom Murphy, John Michael Greer, and Dmitry Orlov, to name a few.

See also Kenneth Deffeyes, Colin Campbell, and former Chief Economist at CIBC Jeff Rubin.
There is a so-called Peak Oil online community as well as the Association for the Study of Peak Oil (ASPO), meeting this year in Austin Texas in November.