It was a perfect Summer evening in June of 1977. I was all of 6 years old, and throngs of people circled the block around Huntsville’s only cinema. I had never seen such a sight, and the excitement and anticipation of the first local showing of Star Wars held a kind of still magic in the air. We all know the mythic tale by now; a scrappy group of rebels with utterly inferior battle experience and infrastructure attempt to subvert the dark motive of a misguided imperial juggernaut’s attempt to build a planet-destroying energy-weapon known as the Death Star. But as with all mythic themes, there are parallels in in actual life. If one looked closely, one parallel narrative was cast by under-funded environmentalists, armed with only the truth, against the enormously profitable oil oligarchies ~ the Energy Imperialists. Only time would tell how this other story would play out, but rather than a tidy saga closing after just 2 hours and 5 minutes with a victorious ending against all odds, the lead-up to this X-Wing-fighter-taking-out-the-core may take place 42 years after the debut of Star Wars, on June 4th, 2019. What I’m referring to in that date is the hearing in Oregon called ‘Juliana vs. United States’. Now while I’m a believer in the Power of Myth, this blog post is no fiction, but the truth about an oily business, as best I can tell it.
My father had a small film company and so was a subscriber to ‘American Cinematographer’ magazine. In the issue a few months before the lead up to the release, there was an entire issue dedicated to the models and effects behind the filming of Star Wars – it was a really, really big deal. My sister read the issue cover to cover, I still remember the images. I guess you could say – we had a glimpse then of ‘insider information’ – we almost knew what to expect, yet we still weren’t disappointed at the first showing! But why does any of this matter?
Details matter. Memory matters. As any cultural anthropologist will tell you, the facts and events of the past, whether conveyed through oral histories or written records, are almost equally subjective, yet can also contain equally the fragments of truth that can construct a fuller image later in time. Records can be verified and cross-referenced, just as witnesses and survivors can be interviewed. Truth is not subjective, but is only viewed variously by different subjects. When certain of these subjective views are inconvenient, paper records can be shredded and expunged, but memories persist, and these can help to reconstruct the facts. My memories of my late great-uncle Bill’s activities with Shell Oil are connected – at least in my own brain, to the timeline of the Star Wars premiere, so that’s how I am reconstructing what was said and when.
On that perfect Summer evening in Huntsville, my mother explained to me that the line-up we were in had a name, specific to a hit film ~ ‘Blockbuster’ ~ it had to be explained to me that it didn’t exactly bust the block, but that it just meant exactly this scene was happening, and with that I settled on the word. Later on, (was it 1977 or 1979?) I was riding my faux-motorcycle bike past the Esso station at the corner of King Rd. and Plains Rd. in Burlington and wondered if the same word applied? A long line of cars ringed the block to line up for gas that was posted on a big sign over the pumps at $0.25. Remember, this was a time of the Oil Shocks, and good deals on gas were worth the wait. At the same time Jimmy Carter was pronouncing a new era of clean energy, independent from the whims of oil-rich nations, and gleaming solar panels featured on the evening news.
No one took energy policy more seriously than Jimmy Carter. Shortly after taking office in 1977 he declared in a televised address: “With the exception of preventing war, this (energy crisis) is the greatest challenge our country will face during our lifetimes.”1
I was just a kid on a bike, but I had my eyes open to the world around me, and I wanted to know what was going on. I even wrote a letter to president Jimmy Carter. To my surprise, he wrote me back (I’m trying to find that letter). The themes of energy, power and control poised against the defenders of the environment, clean air and clean water were front and centre in my upbringing. In that context, and in my innocence, I asked my great-uncle Bill, “When will we run out of oil?” His response was significant, and forever altered the course of my life and studies, as well as my beliefs, opinions, and personal research on climate science. I asked my uncle Bill because he should have known a thing or two about oil. In actual fact he served as the Vice President of Royal Dutch Shell International for an extensive tenure, including a 15 year period at their London office and at The Hague, and also in Japan. With a degree in chemical engineering, my uncle Bill had also committed to a life of learning, and had subscriptions to numerous periodicals, from The Lancet, to Nature and a basement full of media, his own personal archives. He could hold court on a vast array of topics, and my sister, who later trained to be a physician, claimed he knew in depth about innovations and research in the medical field long before her professors at medical school did, almost a decade later. There were photographs in their rec-room of his attendance at the Nobel Prize Gala, where one of Shell’s chemists was the recipient. My uncle Bill was deeply curious about science and technology, and he was one person that always knew more than the surface knowledge on any subject. He cast an imposing figure, could be deadly serious, yet he had a wicked sense of humour that he often deployed in the company of the children, notably my sister and 5 cousins. Because of that, we loved to visit their sprawling estate (nicknamed ‘Ballenlish’) on Lake of Bays in the Summers , when they were there, which was admittedly not too often. We celebrated Canada Day with family and fireworks at their place on a few occasions, and I am pretty sure we did so in 1979 also.
“Andy, the Greenhouse Effect will be a bigger problem long before the oil runs out”.
Bill had used a term I had never heard before, the ‘Greenhouse Effect’. The same mechanism for processing words like ‘blockbuster’ sprang into action. It did not compute. To help me better understand, Bill suggested that as a primer, I read the work of James Lovelock and Lynn Margulis – and yes, he gave little kids credit for having the capacity to understand complex ideas at a young age – otherwise he would not have wasted his time with us.
Something about Gaia Theory and cybernetic bla bla thermostasis bla. I also felt ever so slightly that Bill was gleefully patronizing my junior intelligence, and I was clearly overwhelmed. Even though I did not understand, my view of the world had shifted in that moment, and I have taken the Greenhouse Effect/Global Warming (as it was then called) and Climate Change (as it is now called) as a hard scientific fact. I also took it on authority that if my science-minded Uncle Bill, also one of the most senior executives of one of the world’s largest oil companies said it was so – then it must be so.
This, apparently was not public knowledge. But it became my own personal knowledge. Anyone that has known me, from elementary school through high-school can tell you that global warming and environmental issues in general were a big deal for me, and I felt a clear disconnect between how I saw the world, and how my peers did. For two decades I had assumed with certainty that this was common knowledge, and while there was a general and growing sense of the issue of Global Warming among the public, few knew or had any public knowledge that oil companies such as Shell and Exxon were actively funding this research, and as we now know, that they subsequently buried it. I can only imagine that Bill Mitchell was personally involved in directing this research, given his interests and knowledge, and I only wish I could know more. In any event, Bill was clearly not a denier of facts, and the conclusions noted in this report suggest Shell taking a pro-active role in acknowledging responsibility and mitigating the impacts of climate change; “With very long time scales involved, it would be tempting for society to wait until then to begin doing anything. The potential implications for the world are, however, so large, that policy options need to be considered much earlier. And the energy industry needs to consider how it should play its part.”16
These facts only came to light in 2015. The science and studies on atmospheric gases commissioned by the oil companies reached many of the same conclusions that contemporary scientists have reached. The headline in this Guardian piece runs:
Newly found documents from the 1980s show that fossil fuel companies privately predicted the global damage that would be caused by their products.
When I first read this article, I was kind of beside myself, as in, yes, that should be obvious, but doesn’t everyone know this?
A few years later, at around age 14, I had read Gaia, A New Look at Life on Earth cover to cover. My take-away from that read was that all life seemed to be orchestrating a continual capture and burial of carbon from the atmosphere, and that human activity, notably vilified as the ‘Three C’s’ (Cars, Chainsaws and Cattle), could throw the entire homeostatic system, with CO2 as the pivotal atmospheric gas, out of whack. This idea of a deeply inter-woven world of counter-balancing systems trending towards stability came to dominate my worldview. This book established Lovelock as a figurehead of the environmental movement but also as a pariah, with aspects of his work mercilessly criticized, most notably for the implied teleology of the Earth system. Nevertheless Lovelock claims he would not change a thing about the original text, and current climate science has entirely validated the generalized principles. An understanding of the science of planetary systems and the alliance of powers that threatened their orderly operation slowly dawned on me, not in a galaxy far far away, but right here, on Earth.
In a follow-up to that first question I posed to my uncle, I guess because I just wasn’t accepting his answer, I asked, “But what is the future of energy when we do eventually run out of oil?” “Bore Holes”, was all he said. I had to read later on what that meant. If you drill a well deep enough, you can capture vast amounts of geothermal energy, at such high temperatures that you can drive steam turbines with it. Uncle Bill claimed that this would form a completely inexhaustible and clean form of energy that would power the Earth for Millenia. These energy concepts were in vogue throughout the 1970’s. Take this reference from 1973:
“The harsh truth is that eventually we need permanent, renewable, clean, large-scale energy sources, like the windmill or the old waterwheel that consume nothing and pollute nothing. We have some cushions that will let us overdraw our energy bank account for a time, but we should aim right now at a balanced energy budget before the year 2000. The question is how do we do it? Part of the answer lies in the experience of the 1960s when we spent $25 billion for a crash program that harnessed the brains and enthusiasm of the scientific community and put a man on the moon; we desperately need, now, that kind of program for energy research and development, and we ought to give it that kind of money and that sense of urgency.”
• Geothermal power. This is the heat of the earth that man has always seen in volcanoes and geysers. The US is far behind in this technology.
• Long shots. While we’re at it, we ought to look at every other possible lead. One German scientist makes an impressive case for large, 400-foot high windmill farms as a supplement to other power systems.1
Fast forward to now; Current turbine sizes are now well over 400′ high
The Vestas V164 has a rated capacity of 8 MW, later upgraded to 9.5 MW. The wind turbine has an overall height of 220 m (722 ft), a diameter of 164 m (538 ft), is for offshore use, and is the world’s largest-capacity wind turbine since its introduction in 2014.
But while we now have extensive solutions to the climate crisis, at a scale and cost that can completely stand on their own, without subsidies (wind power in Alberta is now 3.4 cents per kWh unsubsidized, cheaper than any other form of electrical production), we still see a heavy subsidy of (to the tune of $1,191.00 per capita every year in Canada) and continued investment in the fossil industries and a growing move to dis-incentivize and put up market barriers to the solutions. In Ontario this manifests as ripping up contracts on wind turbines (WPD Canada) that are already installed and operational, or removing EV charging stations that have been fully paid for and installed at public GO train stations citing ‘under-utilization’, not to mention cancellation of thousands of FIT and MicroFIT renewable energy contracts. If the price is the problem, solve it with a business solution, adjust the price. Decommissioning operational equipment after hundreds of millions of dollars of investment is symptomatic of a foolish and wasteful ideology and has put a chill on continued investment in the sector by international players, but I guess that was the intent.
At the same time, the innovations we need to create zero-carbon prosperity are already here. From plummeting costs for solar, wind, electric vehicles and green buildings to better approaches to urban planning, agriculture and forestry, we already have the tools we need to start building a much more prosperous world, producing hosts of new companies and millions of jobs. Indeed, a giant building boom is what successful climate action looks like.12
Many of these technologies and approaches I have personally invested my life in testing, researching and developing, yet there is this recalcitrant and orchestrated denial of the science of climate change that seems to be hindering the appropriate adoption of policy, at all levels of government, and in many nations around the world. This is not something I had anticipated, and so I had to start asking myself, could it be that the science is flawed? As late as 2011, the Canadian Senate was holding hearings with scientists that are listed as active deniers of the science. Did they have a point? Who had invited them? Who funded their research?
As time marched inevitably on, the chorus of unanimity grew, and by 2016 The Paris Agreement had firmly established the science (via the IPCC), and a global commitment to targets for limiting the unfolding catastrophe. Yet the USA withdrew from Paris and stacked its administration with deniers, oil executives and fossil energy chiefs and lobbyists. But despite the USA’s recent turns for the worst, almost no country on Earth has been able to achieve compliance with the Paris targets. That’s not to say it’s impossible to meet these goals. On a per-capita basis, just to prove it to myself if for no other reason, I have built and lived in a zero-carbon home (well, 98% zero-carbon to be precise) and have driven over 230,000km in an electric car, and before that a few hundred thousand kilometres in a biodiesel-powered VW. Not only is it possible to reduce carbon emissions individually to a significant extent, but it is also possible to transform our industrial economies, and create new and better jobs and technologies in the process. But first, we absolutely need to end the science denial. What is behind the denial? Alex Steffen has written an excellent piece on this and so I won’t parrot his words, but I urge you to read it in full. The title is Trump, Putin and the Pipelines to Nowhere. I feel he absolutely captures the essence of the situation, but I’ll summarize it here:
If we can’t burn oil, it’s not worth very much. If we can’t defend coastal real estate from rising seas (or even insure it, for that matter), it’s not worth very much. If the industrial process a company owns exposes them to future climate litigation, it’s not worth very much. The value of those assets is going to plummet, inevitably… and likely, soon.
Mark Carney of the Bank of England, formerly of the Bank of Canada would seem to concur.14
This perfectly explains the recent win of Kenney and the UCP in Alberta and their pipeline mania, as well as the CPC’s domination of political and public discourse centred around oil and pipelines. Remember, fossil industries in Canada are less than 7% of the GDP15 – yet they seem to be commanding 80% of the media dialogue. Other major, advanced economies can do just fine without energy exports – Canada can too. Don’t get me wrong, oil is incredibly valuable, too valuable to just burn and send into the atmosphere, we can and we should use the resource responsibly for hundreds of years, instead of dumping it in the crazed fire sale that we see now.
On June 4th, 2019, The youth of the USA will finally proceed to trial against the US Federal Government for a failure to act in the interests of their entire Nation. It is high time governments around the world recognize the seriousness of the issue, and the solutions that exist, have been well developed, and that can further diversify their economies to the benefit of everyone. Will the forces for truth and change win?
Vader… Is the dark side stronger?
No, no, no. Quicker, easier, more seductive.
But how am I to know the good side from the bad?
You will know… when you are calm, at peace, passive. A Jedi uses the Force for knowledge and defense, never for attack.
- From 1973: https://newrepublic.com/article/118918/how-congress-planned-solve-1970s-energy-crisis
- Paul McKay – 40 years later, not much has changed. US automakers are still laggards dogged by quality issues and on the government dole: https://theenergymix.com/2019/05/01/jason-kenney-emissions-be-damned/