It may be hard to believe in these crazy times, but day in and day out, there really isn’t a lot happening to liven up news streams. That’s the price of having live news feeds; eyeballs will wander somewhere else if there isn’t a new starburst of eye candy every ten minutes. One oddity to fall out of this is how we get all excited about certain numbers, even if they don’t mean anything. Sometimes it’s when numbers cross a certain threshold. The Dow Jones hits 20,000, and it makes headlines – but it means nothing. Absolutely nothing. It’s like tuning in to a news program just because it’s now 10:00 am and not 9:59 and some talking head will explain to you “what it all means.”
Sometimes those symbolic numbers impact our behaviour. In 1999, we had near-mass-hysteria at the looming “Y2K” problem; there was widespread fear that – because the world’s infrastructure had been built on lumbering and stupid mainframe computers the size of garbage trucks and dealt with years as a two-digit phenomenon – the computer networks that controlled everything would grind to a halt, unable to deal with “00” and the whole world would fall apart and planes would fall from the sky. People began stockpiling water at home, just in case.
One could argue that the most recent calendar reset to a zero-ended-digit has been far more impactful. Consider this current debacle of a decade. So far in the ‘20s, the whole world did fall apart, and all the planes did fall from the sky, like a delayed Y2K reaction, and we experienced an actual critical shortage of not water but asswipe. Never saw that one coming.
Sometimes the numbers in the news should be wickedly important, yet are not. For example, if you’re interested in Canada’s performance on the world stage of environmental progress, we’ve recently seen some very big news indeed. The Alberta Carbon Trunk Line went into service, sequestering CO2 from a refinery and a fertilizer manufacturing site. The CO2 amounts sequestered so far are just the beginning; ask any midstreamer about the value of owning a major pipeline with the potential to add highly-profitable laterals off the mainline – each subsequent bolt-on project cranks out money like a central banker. The odds of the Trunk Line transporting ever-increasing CO2 volumes are as certain as next month’s pipeline dividend. The trunk line has the capacity to transport over 14 million tonnes of CO2/year, equivalent to 20 percent of that emitted by the oil sands, and the equivalent of capturing the CO2 of 2.6 million cars, or 70 percent of all the motorized vehicles registered in Alberta.
Not too shabby hey? Hmmm, weird though…no one seems too interested. You’d think this would be big news in climate circles, but, I suppose, with Jason Kenney at the helm when it came online, cheering isn’t really permitted in many jurisdictions. Let’s hope they’re having secret parties celebrating this Great Leap Forward in saving us from the looming societal collapse.
Many in the oil patch don’t seem that excited either; I’ve seen plenty of eyes rolled at the mention of this project. That’s one view, which I can understand (if not endorse), because the mainstream narrative is so twisted and politicized that to support a key staple of an opponent’s platform/belief system is not an option in this current binary world. But beyond that feud, the Alberta Carbon Trunk Line is well worth being excited about if viewed pragmatically and not ideologically. I’m no John Galt; for starters, he doesn’t crack one joke in the whole book, and second, I’m far too lazy to organize such a strike no matter how valuable it would be. I don’t think I’m alone as a pragmatist, I’d bet most of you are too, and if you are, then make sure to grab the scruffs of some necks and make sure their darty eyeballs focus on the Trunk Line. Metaphorically speaking of course.
Here’s another number for you that may well be arbitrary and meaningless, but could possibly be the exact opposite. A US company called Nikola Corp. is set to enter the electric truck market in the next few years. Nikola (the second company to rob poor Nikola Tesla of name parts for their companies; if a third chooses to do so let’s hope the legendary Serbian-American’s middle name falls short of Serbian alternatives like Biserko) is planning to make both battery-electric semis (which truckers aren’t really interested in – batteries are too heavy for long-distance freight hauling unless the purpose is just to haul around the batteries and look good, and I’m guessing not) and hydrogen fuel-cell ones (which truckers really are into). Trucking companies apparently have expressed interest in $10 billion worth of fuel-cell trucks. Now, those pre-orders could be a bunch of smoke, but according to work done by CESAR at the U of C, interest in fuel cell vehicle trucks is deep and genuine, based on actual potential cost structures and environmental benefits. Also, to their credit, Nikola didn’t ask for refundable deposits like Tesla did, which created the impression of a semi-Ponzi scheme – Nikola seems to have a few more feet on the ground than its electric rival.
We can argue about whether hydrogen-fuel cell based is better than electricity/battery based, and whether natural gas trumps them all, but I think it is pretty safe to say that either hydrogen based or electric/wind/solar is coming straight up your tail pipe whether you want it or not. In the absence of a rational, coherent, and comprehensive national energy strategy, ours is being provided by extra-national governing bodies that will never set foot in the prairie provinces, that see energy transitions as ludicrously simplistic, and that will not care if the Alberta Carbon Trunk Line captures all the CO2 from the oil sands. We can’t do much about the fact that our federal leaders are more interested in those mind-warping strategies than maximizing what we have in our back yard, but we can put political junk aside and make the best of what is at present a bad hand.
The Alberta Carbon Trunk Line, and the potential for explosive growth in hydrogen fuel cell trucks, are both highly relevant developments for western Canada. They can be dismissed as tangential to the very real/very serious task of providing fuel to the world it requires to keep turning; it is understandable that that is our focus because of all the decades of investment and expertise. But at the same time, if we squint, we might be able to see pathways to a great future through the current fog that envelopes the industry.