Recently, the Canadian Energy Executive Association invited one of the most dynamic energy advocates to speak at the CEEA ’71’s Energy Business Forum at the Fairmont Banff Springs, and keynote speaker Michael Shellenberger did not disappoint.
Michael Shellenberger has been a climate and environmental activist for over 30 years. He is the founder and president of Environmental Progress, an independent nonprofit research organization that incubates ideas, leaders, and movements and has been named a Time Magazine “Hero of the Environment,” and Green Book Award winner. He travels widely speaking on energy matters and advises governments around the world including in the United States, United Kingdom, Japan, Taiwan, South Korea, the Philippines, Australia, the Netherlands, Belgium, and Germany.
In Banff, his message to attendees at the CEEA ’71 conference was unadorned and direct-noting that Oil and particularly Natural Gas are industries that are desperately needed right now, not just by Europe but also needed by the whole world. While acknowledging that the world is indeed getting warmer due to human activity, Shellenberger pointed out there is more to the story than what we are typically hearing from mainstream news media.
He began with a report from https://www.carbonbrief.org/ a highly respected scientific education organization, saying that global carbon emissions or greenhouse gas emissions are actually slightly in decline over the last decade according to reconciled satellite data from last year.
He noted the United States has reduced its carbon emissions more than any other country in the world for the last 20 years with a 22% reduction between 2005 and 2020- 61% of that reduction came simply from the transition from coal to natural gas. He pointed out that it was natural gas that made the 39% reduction coming from wind and solar possible as they are intermittent sources at best.
He also pointed out that while we see spectacular mainstream news coverage of weather events, according to the only major data source on natural disasters, EM-DAT data services, the number of natural disasters has gone down. Mainstream media does not report this part of the story. It’s important to note here that Shellenberger differentiates natural disasters from extreme weather events and he points out disasters are measured on two metrics – the number of deaths and the costs- both of which have gone down in number.
He characterizes this positive result as human resiliency and although mainstream media chooses to not report on the peer-reviewed scientific literature that publishes pertinent information, Shellenberger makes it available on his non-profit’s website https://environmentalprogress.org/. The website quotes the fourth national climate assessment done by the US government, which reports that deaths from heat waves have declined significantly in the US thanks to the increase in the use of air conditioning, no doubt enabled by affordable fossil fuels.
As for why are we seeing more areas affected by flooding, he notes that the cities near rivers have gotten larger and there are more people and infrastructure in harm’s way- at risk of flooding. He also addresses the question of wildfires noting that NASA scientists have measured the amount of area being burned globally finding it has declined by 25%. The intensity of wildfires has increased but mainly due to decades of conservation and reduced logging as we are using less paper and wood products which has built up woodfuel in forests.
He points out we have to recreate the ecologies that existed before Europeans came to California and other parts of North America and the world. Ecologies that employed many small prescribed burns to reduce the amount of fuel for wildfires.
Perhaps the most appealing aspect of Shellenberger’s talk was his realistic acknowledgments of our current challenges.
“I’m not saying everything’s fine. Everything’s not fine. For example, we’ve seen that we’re in the worst energy crisis in 50 years. Europe has seen its natural gas production decline significantly. That’s why they became so dependent on Russian gas. We know that there are still 6% of species that are critically endangered. We shouldn’t want any species to be critically endangered. At the same time, that’s a far cry from mass extinction, which is 75 to 90% of species going extinct.”
He points out that we also know that coal demand is rising steadily. He hopes that the Canadian Oil and Gas industry is seeing an opportunity to “take coal down” and replace it. In addition, reduced production of fertilizer from natural gas is risking a global food crisis as Yara the biggest global fertilizer manufacturer just announced new cuts to fertilizer production and in Canada, the Federal government is proposing to cut 30 percent of emissions from fertilizer by 2030 as part of its climate strategy.
Shellenberger was raising the alarm about the lack of natural gas in September and October of 2021- before the Russian curtailments of natural gas to Europe when he saw fertilizer prices were rising. That’s when he was calling on the US and Canada to step up production and he pointed out that while Biden and Trudeau are not stepping up, people in the industry can solve the problem.
“You’re sitting on abundant natural gas and it’s not being sent to Europe. I think it’s a situation of collective madness. You can see the lost souls in the climate change movement thought they were doing the world a favour by trying to shut down the oil and gas industry. What they did is brought back coal and made fertilizer scarce and expensive… There is no need for a physical scarcity of natural gas.”
Schellenberg’s insights were interspersed with just the right amount of levity that illustrated his points. When he talked about the environmental impact of solar energy he quipped…
“Sunlight is a great way to warm your face but a terrible way to power your civilization…In the dystopian opening scene of the sequel to Blade Runner, you see them flying over California, which has been wrecked by gigantic solar farms. Where did he get the idea that this was a dystopian future? He got it from our dystopian solar farm called Ivanpah, which is a nightmare ecologically – the impact on birds and bats, the turbines catch on fire…”
When describing the process of dematerialization that is made possible by abundant energy, he used one of his foibles.
“What about newspapers? I mean they’re horrible when you think about it right? Can you imagine I used to read newspapers- a stack that high every day. So trees were demolished from my reading habits.”
He advocates for dematerialization – using less material to produce more, which can be applied to fuels. He sees renewables as a backward move to energy production that requires more material and advocates for energy sources like nuclear that produce far more energy from the material they use than renewables like wind and solar. He notes that when energy intensity is the focus you achieve a truer environmental focus and renewables continue to have issues.
“The bottom line is a physical problem- it is the low energetic return on energy invested. That’s why renewables are essentially a thermodynamic sink. It’s the snake eating its tail. The more you invest in renewables, the poorer you make society. You may need to do it for some public relations (reasons) but it is not a recipe for a thriving civilization. It’s a recipe for a civilization in decline.”
He apologized to the audience that he is an advocate for the benefits of nuclear energy, noting ruefully:
“I’ve been fighting for six years to keep Diablo Canyon open in California. I had to run for governor twice and lose twice. Nonetheless, the consolation prize when you run for governor and lose is they let you keep the nuclear plant operating. So Diablo Canyon helps them run in the worst energy crisis with all those blackouts … you think your job is tough? Imagine trying to save a plant that’s literally called Devil’s Canyon.”
Ultimately Shellenberger did leave the listener with several hopeful messages, maintaining that people need a vision in times of energy scarcity. He affirmed that Canadians have an immense opportunity to “position their Canadian Energy Industry to be the planet’s savior… Let’s get back to loving humanity.”
There are many more informed and timely observations in his book- “Apocalypse Never-Why Environmental Alarmism Hurts Us All”.
Many thanks to the CEEA ’71 team of Governors lead by the Chairs Steve and Jenn Major, as well as EBF and Advocacy Division leader Michael Binnion, for bringing Michael Shellenberger to Banff as its keynote speaker.
Maureen McCall is an energy professional who writes on issues affecting the energy industry.