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At Work in the Garden of Good and Evil

I have a smoky old eighties sports car which I drive, usually too fast, for a few weeks during the shoulder seasons. Any other time of year I park it lavishly, luxuriously in a heated and cooled garage. Yet, I also lust after a brand new Tesla Model S and the solar panels with which to charge it. Weird, eh?

We recycle everything we can in our household. I was annoyed, though, when our nanny state, local government rammed through blue bins city-wide at taxpayer cost. It was as if I was being forced to take money for a blood donation which I had, for years, happily given for free simply because it was the right thing to do. Except in reverse — I was having to pay them.

In a good month of the seven with reliably good cycling weather here, I try and put in 500 kilometres on my bicycle, most of it on city pathways. I proudly ride to work if I can, but — perversely — never on official ‘ride-to-work’ days. I also think the new downtown bike lanes are ill-considered, dangerously implemented and nearly useless in the other five months of hard winter we usually have.

“For those who think the industry can run amok anywhere in the world, shame on you.”

Speaking of which, even I’m a little freaked out by the July-like days we sometimes have in April, and worry some when it’s reported that this is this might be the hottest weather in 4,000 years. But I’m tripped up by the word “might” — well, is it or isn’t it? — and what made it so hot 4,000 years ago? That’s roughly 3,800 years before the invention of the internal combustion engine. Could whatever happened back then simply be happening again?

You see, like most of us, I’m just one great big, steaming pile of contradictions. I also have few natural talents other than — perhaps — being able to hold two competing ideas in my head at the same time. On that score, no problem. Can do.

For 25 years, our household derived almost all of its income from the oil & gas industry. We were both in it, and of it. But back during the Deepwater Horizon disaster I still could not look at those oil-soaked pelicans in the Gulf of Mexico and not feel a deep sense of shame at being part of an industry that would let that happen. Doubly so when it turned out it was largely caused by pushing the envelope too hard and ignoring obvious warning signs of trouble. If it was possible, the situation was made infinitely worse when they flew in their Darth Vader-esque CEO, except that I have never actually heard Vader whine about wanting to get his life back. It is behaviour that truly made me want to put a bag over my head.

“For those who think the industry does run amok everywhere in the world, shame on you.”

Similarly, it is hard from me to imagine any well-intended, passionate, committed and conscientious opponent of the oil & gas industry feeling anything but a similar, deep sense of shame when anonymous Twitter accounts began making fallacious conflations between the wildfires that swept through Fort McMurray a few years ago and climate change. At the time, some called those comments ‘karmic’ or ‘brave’. Brave is running into the burning building when everybody is running out. Daintily tapping out anonymous, bilious 140 character missives from some coffee shop somewhere is not. These things are absolutes. What the son-of-a-tweeters don’t realize is that they are a huge liability to their cause. They will have their colleagues wanting to put bags over their own heads.

I am annoyed by both the well-funded PR campaigns that attempt to paint the oil & gas industry as universally virtuous and equally annoyed by well-funded PR campaigns that attempt to show it entirely as evil. Both take us for fools whose opinions can be manipulated with a little sentimental (or scary) music and with pristine (or gruesome) images. Both treat the truth as a fairly malleable commodity or at the very least trot out selective pieces of it to support their respective points of view. Similarly, I’m annoyed in equal measure by both corporate CEOs on one side, or movie and rock stars on the other who use their corporate jets to fly anywhere to make their case. The former reinforces a cheap and easy stereotype. The latter screams hypocrite.

Haven’t these people heard of Skype?

“For those who think that oil will last forever, think again.”

Here’s what I know for sure: it does not serve any useful purpose being a mindless huckster for any cause. That’s just an excuse for not thinking. For those who think the industry can run amok anywhere in the world, shame on you. For those who think the industry does run amok everywhere in the world, shame on you. For those who think that oil will last forever, think again. For those that think we can live our lives without it, you will want to think that through.

For a moment, let us set aside the obvious uses of oil & gas-derived products which have a simple, direct impact on our lives. We all know what those are. Let’s also stay away from the easy, good-versus-evil arguments about the industry. Let’s leave at home the “leave it in the ground” and “how did you get here?” posters.

Instead, let’s focus on what is likely an inflection point for most when it comes to the industry’s contribution to modern society. It will be when you have to attend to the needs of a hospitalized family member or friend. I truly hope that never happens, but if it does, have a look around the ward they’re in. If you were simply to imagine one thing, which is to take away all those sterilized plastics virtually all of which have their basis in petroleum, you’ll realize without them you are basically left with 16th century bloodletting.

“For those that think we can live our lives without it, you will want to think that through.”

Would you deny your loved ones the care they need to make some political point? Equally important, can you humanely deny access to that healthcare for emerging nations who seek to enjoy the same increased life expectancy, reduced infant mortality and the generally healthy life we already do?

As I was wrapping up my career in oil & gas a few years ago, I spent a morning pitching a group of oil & gas executives on a new concept to save money on hauling water, which they do a lot. At least part of that savings comes from taking nasty, salty water — separated from the oil when it is pumped out of the ground — cleaning it up, and then recycling it as a fluid which is used in the drilling and completions process. The fairly credible, fairly attainable goal of ‘net zero water’ was greeted not with guffaws or sarcasm as it has in the past, but rather sober, serious consideration that accompanies thinking there is a real shot at making it work.

The fascinating twist was what I sensed was the collective motivation. Saving money is what oil & gas companies have to do these days — lots of it, if they are going of survive. Helping them do that is how I intended to make a living, which is what we all have to do to look after ourselves and our families. However, conserving water is what actually made the whole scheme finally click together — it was the ten cent Michigan bottle deposit to everyone else’s nickel. What really changed in the discussion, though, was not substance but rather, tone. It was one of conserving water simply being the right thing to do, that every molecule was one worth saving. I was so shocked, I wondered for a moment if I was in the lost episode of the Twilight Zone.

The basis of that shock for me was the folks in the room to whom I was pitching – not without exception but for the most part – were those in the demographic which includes having young kids. I sensed their interest in my ideas were rooted in, returning to where I started, being able to keep two seemingly competing ideas in their heads at the same time – save money and save water. I was both surprised and thrilled that they were able to do that, no problem. Can do.

Good and evil? It is time we realized there’s a little bit of each in all of us and in all that we do.

©2016 Terence C. Gannon


Thank you so much for reading, and if you feel its warranted, please leave a clap (or even two!) below – it really helps. This essay is also available as an episode on the Not There Yet podcast.