Most of us have heard of Sisyphus and his struggles.
He’s the mythical Greek king doomed for eternity to push a boulder uphill – only to see it roll back down again.
To the top. And down again.
Kind of like oil-and-gas communications and outreach efforts. There’s never an end in sight; just relentless toil and hills.
Like Sisyphus, the oil and gas industry is seeing some of its hubris coming back to haunt it. But it is less about the mythical figure’s self-aggrandizement than it is about a misplaced expectation that somehow people “get” energy – and because they “use” energy, somehow they’ll be keen to learn that such use comes at a price. There was a belief that consumers would somehow be willing to engage in reasoned and rationale dialogue. In other words, shouldn’t Canadians realize we live the lives we do thanks in no insignificant way to the energy sector?
Uh … no.
It turns out that not everyone is a rational user of energy.
One of our Sisyphian hills is Energy East. TransCanada and others have spent substantial time and dollars to push big boulders up its incline. As various pundits either bemoan or cheer the consequences of Energy East’s cancellation, we shouldn’t lose sight of an underlying, perhaps more frightening, reality: We’ve never really figured out a way for Canadians to talk about energy. Actually talk.
Not shout. Not point fingers. Not disparage. Just talk.
Energy East’s cancellation for most Canadians is a big yawner – and debate is limited for the most part to academics, political commentators and energy folks. Oh, and fossil fuel opponents – who are cheering the announcement as though they themselves spiralled the winning touchdown. All those parties exist inside a pan-Canadian echo chamber, lobbing economic, social and political hand grenades at each other. Everybody is right and everybody is wrong. Outside the chamber, the vast majority of Canadians go about their daily business, oblivious beyond the headlines.
Some days, it seems we’ll never convince this majority that they are important to getting things right.
Those of us in the petroleum sector are perhaps more attuned to the reality that the dialogue should have started differently long ago. Our voices, when they speak, are often fragmented and fractured, with no real unifying themes – no coherent narrative that appeals to the hearts and minds of the people we’re in the business to serve.
It appears we have ever steeper (and longer) inclines to our aspirational stones up. Call it the PPI Slope: Political and Public Ignorance.
Many politicians, as ignorant of energy intricacies as those who elected them, have bought into an anti-petroleum mindset and wrapped themselves in the flag of climate salvation. It’s a beguiling position for a populace that wants its energy cake and eat it too. The “general public” has no real clue what’s beyond the gas pump or light switch. Hence, the puzzling and paradoxical nature of our energy narratives.
Many oil companies now talk openly about evolving in a low carbon age. And entities like the Canadian Oil Sands Innovation Alliance and Clear Resource Innovation Network are two organizations putting money where their mouth is in terms of environmental sensibilities. But is it too little, too late?
In terms of swaying an energy-hungry population to understand its appetite must be fed somehow, it seems like just another boulder. Even with amped-up volume, who is listening? We should have started this conversation long ago, when being literate about energy was not potentially a socially marginalizing attribute.
Now, it appears, being energy-ignorant is almost fashionable in certain circles. The sad thing, of course, is that prevailing ignorance-is-bliss thinking precludes people being accountable for their own energy consumption. They don’t recognize how bound up they are in the energy matrix through their own demand.
Meanwhile, too many politicians missed the requisite Energy101 class that should be a civic means test for all Canadians, particularly those seeking office. Like parents who claim that teachers can’t teach the rudiments of grammar, the current generation of political leaders has grown up in an era in which energy entitlements are served up on a silver platter – so there is no pressing need to think beyond the light switch.
The boulder is at rest at the bottom of the Energy East hill.
Time to figure out the next one.
Bill Whitelaw is president and CEO at JuneWarren-Nickle’s Energy Group.
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