Falsehood will fly, as it were, on the wings of the wind, and carry its tales to every corner of the earth; whilst truth lags behind; her steps, though sure, are slow and solemn, and she has neither vigour nor activity enough to pursue and overtake her enemy…
- Thomas Francklin, 1787
This quote, while a bit poncy and dour and unfunny for these parts, is also a pretty useful one to keep in mind. It may be maudlin, but it is also in turns useful and fascinating and disheartening. And Homer Simpson has nothing to say on the subject, so it’ll have to do.
As energy providers, it is useful to keep in mind the realities of what gets communicated and how. The quote explains eloquently why we can stand there with a bucket full of facts, all irrefutable and pertinent, that will be utterly overwhelmed by a social media horde that lands on some new “truth” and propagates it around the world like a computer virus.
We’ve seen the story a dozen times now, how some eco-warrior suddenly appears with a new bit of “evidence” illustrating how deadly the oilsands are. It is a dreary exercise to go back and catalogue them, with each having a corresponding (and accurate) rebuttal six months down the road, by which time the OSH (oilsands haters) have drummed up a new one. And it’s still happening.
Remember the famous “oil sands are a carbon bomb” nonsense? That one speculated how much carbon would be released if all 1.8 trillion barrels were produced (an utter impossibility). Then proponents attacked oilsands oil for being corrosive, which it most certainly isn’t – the stuff has been going down the same pipelines for decades. Then there were reports circa 2013 that oilsands oil produced 300-400 percent more pollutants than conventional oil (the more widely quoted number is 5-20 percent, and falling, but we actually have no idea because most of the world has opaque reporting). The same article linked above talks about how 30 million birds will be killed by oilsands development, which is just too bizarre to consider (a comparison to the number killed by wind turbines would have been helpful, but, hmm, none can be found…). Then in the Trans Mountain expansion debate, OSH came up with a new one – that there is no market for oilsands oil, which they “prove” by showing how little oil has historically gone from Canada’s west coast to China, and which we can refute with a five-minute explanation of how crude oil markets actually work (there is a market for heavy oil all over the world; that as long as producers are willing to load it onto a ship, someone will use it somewhere at a price acceptable to both, and that price will exceed what the oil gets now when forced to go to a single market).
To show that the tide of disinformation is showing no signs of slowing, a new one has popped up – that because of new low-sulfur regulations for bunker fuel starting in 2020, oilsands oil will have no market and be un-transportable. This argument also displays nothing more than sheer ignorance of even the most basic of market principles. It is true that oilsands oil is higher in sulfur than allowed by the new regulations, and even the Financial Post notes that up to 20% of oilsands production could be uneconomic under those standards, but the article eventually outlines a number of ways that it can be resolved, and multiple opinions that this is a likely a temporary (if expensive) phenomenon. Those who feel qualified to talk about bunker fuel all of a sudden are presumably unaware of what steps can be taken to alleviate the problem or reorient to different markets.
The list goes on forever, one more ridiculous than the next. Oilsands production sites can’t be reclaimed. If they can be reclaimed they won’t be the same as before. Spilled oil can’t be recovered. Diluted bitumen is toxic (I love that one; presumably the others are non-toxic? Ask the OSH I suppose). None of these standards are applied to any other global oil deposit, nor are the same questions asked. The OSH pursue their target because it is observable, it’s outputs are meticulously documented, and it is like a big defenseless whale. A whale that contributes greatly to their standard of living, but that’s an inconvenient truth no one likes to talk about.
It’s all so wearisome to deal with, because it’s like whack-a-mole, and the moles in this instance have no accountability or responsibility. They just spread rumours. They have no interest in truth or discussions or reality. They have an agenda, and no negative message will be turned away, no matter how outlandish.
The overall falsehood in this instance is that the world’s temperature gain can be limited to some certain amount by halting fossil fuel infrastructure projects – no new production, no new transportation mechanisms, etc. This belief has been voiced louder than Metallica, over and over and over, and it has travelled everywhere it needs to travel.
What gives this falsehood legs is that, were it any sort of actual physical possibility, perhaps it would work. If the world were to cease using fossil fuels, perhaps CO2 emissions would be reduced, and there would be a climactic impact. True, there would be billions of dead bodies lying around, frozen to death, and unfortunately don’t make it into the OSH’s narrative, but hey they can’t cover all the bases. Plus, without fossil fuels, all available wood would be burned in the first winter, and CO2 emissions would skyrocket anyway. But again, no one is interested in that sort of thought exercise.
At any rate, the communications strategists ensure that the message stays alive, that the world can be saved by preventing the world’s population from getting what it requires to survive. The strength of the message is that people can be convinced that it is possible to win that outlandishly dumb fight. When people consider it possible to lower global temperatures by vilifying an oil deposit, idealism gets co-opted, and we see naïve but gung-ho 20 year olds chained to a valve to save the planet.
Getting back to the introductory quote, one fascinating aspect is how long ago it was written (and it is probably built on much older ideas that voice the same idea). This sad phenomenon has been going on for centuries, and it will go on for centuries more. There really is no fighting it, the best we can do is realize that it exists and that it dominates.
Ultimately, the quote is disheartening because it illustrates the mountain that energy providers will need to climb if they want to continue bringing the world the hydrocarbons that they demand.