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Bill WhitelawCanadians have been told for years that their combs, toothbrushes and hairbrushes are petroleum products.

The cold cream used to remove makeup (and the makeup) typically come from petroleum. 

We use petroleum products to clean our hair and to cure what ails us, with everything from first-aid salves to medications. Smear Vaseline on dry skin and you’re lubricating yourself with good old rock oil.

This is all stuff people use without much (if any) thought as to the source.

It’s the same with other rooms in the house and, by ubiquitous extension, virtually all aspects of our lives: medicine and healthcare; leisure and entertainment; food production and consumption. The list is virtually endless.

The problem of communicating the extent to which petroleum-derived products pervade our lives has been around for years. Various efforts have been made to remind folks that their reliance on oil and gas goes way beyond filling the gas tank and jacking up the thermostat.

The question is not whether Canadians know and appreciate this knowledge, but rather: why are they so blasé about it? Why the disconnected complacency? And why are people not making the connections between the things on which they so heavily rely on and the easy criticism they love to lob at the industry that supplies them?

It’s because no one has the temerity to call it for what it is: at best, alarming naiveté; at worst, stunning hypocrisy.

Imagine a politician calling out Canadians for not understanding their lives are built on petroleum foundations. Not in this lifetime. It would hardly be worth the frothing social media frenzy that would erupt.

The dominant narratives through which the petroleum sector is pilloried focus more on transportation and home heating. That’s because oil and gas sector opponents can point to electric vehicles and renewable energy sources as (with varying conditions) viable alternatives.

What’s far less prevalent in the polarizing energy debates is how we find replacements, at sufficient scale, for the role refined petroleum products play in our lives – without diminishing the quality of life.

Why is no one worried about the source of various drugstore items we so nonchalantly pick up? Why are they not fretting about the end to backyard barbecues if propane wasn’t available? What about the road surfaces  everyone complains about when they’re not regularly maintained?

The key is scale. There are alternatives to products with petroleum DNA. But they’re expensive, specialized and not always widely available. And like organic food, they’re often pushed and promoted by marketing based more on fear than fact. Indeed, these notional replacement products are just like organic food: they give a selected few ‘conscientious optionality’ that typically turns on affordability.

But if Canadians had to put in the rubbish bin everything in their homes connected to petroleum, most would have more stuff outside than left indoors. And replacing all those petroleum-based products with pricey alternatives would cripple the average household’s finances.

Here’s a task some think-tank or bright graduate student should undertake:

Map out 10 pan-Canadian households of varying sizes and incomes. Journalize for a year the household budget on the everyday items whose roots are connected to petroleum (leaving out gasoline and heating), complemented by insights into the supply chain and employment impact from rapidly phasing out refined petroleum products. Then map those finances based on usage (wherever possible) of non-petroleum alternatives. The analysis should include the environmental impact of these alternatives.

Nothing comes without a cost and I’d bet we would be startled by the impact, particularly in tough economic times, on our test households. And all of this presumes the alternative supply chains can scale sufficiently.

These insights might just help rebalance how we think about petroleum production and provide a more balanced discussion about its future role.

Bill Whitelaw is president and CEO at JuneWarren-Nickle’s Energy Group.

Bill is a Troy Media contributor. Why aren’t you?

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