Sometimes movies are so unrealistic they make you roll your eyes. I’m not talking about obvious cartoonish ones, more like the soft-comedy types that are supposedly relatable to reality. Take, for example, the enduring and endearing reiterations of bands of misfits with scrawny arms and chubby personas, with knock-knees and too-thick glasses that come together and win some sort of championship, while their opponents with the boat shoes and Winkelvoss hair and sweaters with arms tied over shoulders and cheerleader girlfriends get kicked in the crotch for the first time in their lives. And the audience goes wild and claps, every time…
While those movies may seem stupidly unrealistic, they’re not. In fact, they are now the template for what is running the world. Don’t believe me? Just ask a pipeline company.
By way of getting there, I’m reading a fascinating book on protest movements written by one of the fearsome warriors herself (Twitter and Tear Gas by Zeynep Tufekci). There will be many more columns to come from this book because some lofty levels of our industry apparently need to hear it.
Tufekci explains from the inside what fuels protest movements. Protesters form an interlocking web of people that are invigorated and fuelled by a united fight against injustice and a powerful sense of camaraderie. They believe their efforts are winning for the small guy, the downtrodden, the ‘worker’, the environment. They have a sense of moral righteousness that they are, and will be, history’s heroes. They have immense power, often because their initial impulses are for pure and relatable causes, and they take that credit forward and use it like Thor’s hammer.
Consider Tzeporah Berman. She cut her protesting teeth fighting to save stands of old-growth timber at Clayoquot Sound on Vancouver Island. She first spent a summer there studying sea birds and returned the following year to find the area clear cut (according to Wikipedia, which is about as close as I care to get). It was shocking to hear that 650,000 acres of old-growth forest might be clear cut (it may not have been the whole area at risk, but that’s the number that made headlines). I would have supported that fight also. Anyone that’s been to Cathedral Grove on Vancouver Island, as but one example, can attest to the value of those forests.
But now, she’s taken that fighting spirit off into the wild blue yonder, harnessing all that past glory to tap into deep wells of political angst that are more than happy to cloak political causes in the guise of the environment. Her protest movement fights tooth-and-nail against development of a fuel (natural gas) that would, if the world switched to it, solve the very emissions problem she sees as a hill to die on. How does that make sense? Because of the shared comfort of feeling righteous in a group of people that believes it is saving the world.
That of course doesn’t mean that any cause is as righteous, just because the same protest infrastructure attacks it. The fight against Clayoquot logging was not a fight against all logging; it was a fight to preserve certain aspects. The current protest movement has, relatively speaking, lost its mind, drunk on power, and is attacking that which keeps us all alive.
One of the reasons our Canadian energy industry is in such shambles is that no one in the upper strata seems to care one whit about this stuff; they are too busy feeling aggrieved. There are powerful lessons that need to be learned in the corridors of petro-power.
The protesters are a singular bunch, a crew with well-funded, well-rehearsed strategies. They support each other, provide supply chains for front line protesters, provide backup relief, and provide a steady stream of volunteers fighting for a cause.
Industry is not like that. Everyone is busy working. Personally, I get no thrill from joining a group of protesters, locking arms and waving signs and yelling and cooking each other soup for the front lines. I prefer to sit in the dark surrounded by pizza boxes, yelling and throwing empty beer cans at the TV. Many are like me, give or take a screw loose; we aren’t fighters in a social cause, we are providers of fuel. But with an industry at stake, the silver-hair executive-floor set (including government industry people that are supposed to know) needs to step up in a way we have not seen yet. You are paid (big) for results; do it.
If our industry’s leaders understood the landscape properly, they would deconstruct the protest movement, and find opportunity. The number of people willing to join the protesting club, and be active, is ridiculously small. They like to fool you, puffing out the feathers at protests, but it is like Kim Mitchell once said – a lot of feathers but not much chicken. Remember the hallowed days of Greta in 2019? It was largely a mirage, the size and magnitude of it. Her excruciatingly documented journey across the ocean in a multi-million dollar yacht, perched on the bow, a Jesus-like beacon of hope. Her choreographed landing and the ‘massive protests’ that even our leader was hypnotized into joining. It was mostly puffery and feathers. Yes, a lot of kids took the day off school to join an 11 am protest – who wouldn’t? I still recall cutting through the plus 15 network after the protest and seeing all these kids shopping in the Bay, carrying their signs around, not sure what to do with them. They would have protested against TikTok for a day off school.
Meanwhile, back in the executive suites, maybe the size of your T4s is disorienting you. Did you really think Biden would listen to you because of a last-ditch effort to press release that you have significant union support for your pipeline? Are you guys on meth? Your opponents have a squadron of peer-legitimized, ivy-league-school economists and multi-degreed bozos that have usurped the word SCIENTIST in a way you can’t seem to comprehend, and the said group has ‘peer-reviewed proof’ that their manic and impossible green schemes will create millions more jobs than your child-defiling monstrosity, and if you publicly dispute this ‘science’ the media will side with ‘science’ because they can smell the wind, and you will wind up exactly where anyone that was paying attention could have predicted. If Biden had approved Keystone XL, AOC would have Express Posted him to Boca and had him signed up in a shuffleboard league before the inauguration ink was dry.
The Alberta government seems just as dazed and confused, and there is even less of an excuse in their case. I would bet my beer-can battered TV set that the government has ten thousand behavioural psychologists on staff that could explain this to them, and yet, there is the government on my dripping TV, yelling about things that make opponents double over with laughter.
Our industrial standard bearers seem about as helpful; all we hear is a news-release robo-voice oblivious to any sort of reality (I’m paraphrasing, lawyers): ‘we are pleased to announce an x.x percent increase to our dividends.’ ‘We are pleased to announce union support and fractional Indigenous ownership of our pipeline…’ ‘We are pleased to announce the first pipeline to be fully powered by renewable energy.’ Do you understand at all the battle you are in? That some of these initiatives are 8 years too late? That a renewable-energy-powered pipeline is some sort of profound joke when your opponents have successfully branded the oil that will fill that pipeline as coming from a ‘carbon bomb that will destroy civilization’?
Here’s a bit of advice: out of that multi-billion dollar dividend pot, take a few hundred bucks and buy some books that aren’t about cultivating leadership skills or six sigma blah blah blah. Buy Tufekci’s book. Try to understand the world around you. Try to understand the shmucks that feel empowered for the first time in their lives by stopping your pipeline as much as you understand your new Callaway irons.
Here’s another hint: It’s too late for what you’re thinking. There will be no more energy infrastructure investment of any size in North America for decades, if ever. So you need to pour yourself a tall glass of The Macallan and think about what it means that you care whether anyone adds the ‘The’ to that beverage. Think about what you can do next.
Get on with it. Find other solutions. I saw a LinkedIn post from a company called Crux OCM the other day, with their CEO inviting Canadian/North American pipeline companies to investigate new technology that can increase throughput without building more pipe. I have no idea why they would have to ask you to investigate, I would have expected you to beat their door down. The company’s website shows that European companies have adopted the technology and love it. Is our solution really to announce that Keystone XL would be run by renewable power? What kind of delusional thought process led to that as a successful strategy, particularly when that news hit the 1950s newswire circuit exactly three days before Biden was sworn in? Yes, cannabis is legal, but for crying out loud…
Here’s another hint: Help get CanaPux off the ground, or BitCrude, or some facsimile, and/or recognize that there are more than one ways to skin a cat (if you’ll agree to do that, I’ll agree to ponder just how out of touch that metaphor is). If you can’t build more pipelines, but want to move oil, what are the alternatives? We are dying to know. Literally, dying.
As an olive branch, I’ll quit haranguing you for a second and try to offer something constructive. The protest movement thrives because they foster a sense of community, under the guise of doing great things. They don’t need to pay to protest (though some are paid, which ratchets up the ferocity). You, senior energy executives, are spiritual and functional heads of the largest, most dedicated community there is: the community of hydrocarbon users. Use it! Figure it out! Your challenge is harder because commercial relationships don’t foster the same sense of community that perceived moral ones do. But that community is there for you to muster if you care to put in the effort. And the size of those T4s implies a much higher burden of effort: when you decide to accept jobs that pay you millions every year, it is your job to crack that nut. You are paid for top results. That means more than increasing dividends. Focus on that and you’ll crater the whole industry, and there will be no more dividends. If you can’t figure this stuff out, then get out of the way for someone that can.
If you read this and scoff at these ideas as appeasement or capitulation to outrageous activist posturing, well, don’t come within ten metres of me or I’ll throw a beer can at you too, and it may not even be empty. You will be surprised and dismayed at my accuracy. And that’s not the kind of community you want to foster.