Know the environmental footprint of your life, then protest
If you’re out working near any petroleum infrastructure that might contain sour gas, there is an ironclad rule of thumb: if you see a co-worker laying on the ground unconscious, and you aren’t wearing a Scott Air-Pak, you don’t go help him. You leave him there and you run like hell. Nice, hey?
The field guys will tell you why this is, and in case you don’t have one handy I’ll try to fill their shoes. Sour gas can be deadly. At low concentrations you can smell it, and at slightly higher concentrations you can’t and it can kill you in your tracks. So if you see a co-worker down and you rush to their rescue, you might simply be dooming the pair of you. Best to get to safety and call for help.
That concept is actually playing out on a global level. It is necessary to understand that circumstances like that can and do exist, and that ultimately, they can be good for all.
What I’m getting at, with respect to energy, is to point out in a Christmas-cheer kind of way that what many people think is hurting them – petroleum products, including natural gas – do indeed have an environmental footprint involved with their production and distribution. Intuitively, we may think getting rid of the whole thing removes that footprint, and is therefore good. But, just as running away from a fallen comrade may actually be the best way to help him, sometimes maintaining that system is best for everyone.
BC recently had a reminder of its reliance on natural gas when a pipeline in the northern part of the province blew up. While service has been largely restored, it was a reminder that losing natural gas service in winter would be a catastrophe of monumental proportions, one that will make a hurricane look like a kindergarten tea party. Imagine 700 thousand people without heat, including hospitals and public buildings, in the dead of winter. Is that an environmental footprint worth fighting for?
Another example is the amount of money Canada is losing every day due to lack of market access for both oil and natural gas. The amount is an estimate but the losses are real, and somewhere around $50 million/day. This is not profit that goes into a billionaire’s jeans so that he can buy a 5th house in Hawaii. It is salaries, wages, consumer spending, taxes for all levels of government from municipal to federal, etc.
What would $50 million get you in your neighbourhood? A new massive seniors complex? A recreation facility? A medical clinic? A school? A crisis shelter or two? And that is every day. Think about that. Spread across Canada, $50 million could be given to 365 different communities every single day of the year to build projects of that magnitude.
Does production of those fossil fuels have an environmental footprint? It certainly does, as does the production of almost anything from cell phones to solar panels. We have become accustomed to looking at it that way, that fossil fuel production is the global warming problem. But remember, fossil fuels are simply the fuel that everyone consumes to live the way we want. There is an environmental footprint and GHG emissions from eating a hamburger, because there is a huge chain of emissions involved in bringing you that meat that begins at the cow’s behind and ends with the fuel that is used to cook your burger. There is an environmental footprint and GHG emissions from eating a carrot, through the energy it took to till the land, plant the crop, harvest the crop, and bring it to your mouth.
Fossil fuels may seem to have an outsize footprint, but consider what those fossil fuels do for you. Ten to twenty gigajoules of natural gas with a market value of about $30-50 (or 30-50 cents in Alberta) will keep your entire house warm for a month. A gallon of gasoline will move you and your car between 20 and 50 miles. How much fuel would you consume to move two tons of steel and yourself for 20 to 50 miles? And you can purchase that fuel for a fraction of an hour’s labour. Can electric power do that too? It can, in a way, but remember that that has a massive environmental footprint as well, far beyond the juice you get from an electrical outlet. To have as much power as readily available as you want, as easily as gasoline, requires a massive environmental footprint. A cell phone requires more than 75 of the 118 elements on the periodic table, from all over the globe. A modern electric vehicle is no different, and those materials don’t come out of the ground and get together on the wings of doves.
Speaking of wings, we have to consider infrastructure as well. For one person to fly intercontinentally requires not just a plane, but two airports, construction of a plane, fuel for the entire chain, and all the associated footprint of each component.
Seven billion people create overlapping footprints of unbelievable proportions, simply by existing. It is imperative that such a huge global population minimizes that footprint. But we can’t do it by shutting off the power. Well, we could, but not even Putin usually does not go that far, because the death count would be astronomical. Eliminating fossil fuel usage before the world is able to adapt to anything else would solve the world’s emissions problem, but not in a very funny way.