We were driving (yes, driving) across the prairies, often sandwiched between semis carrying heavy machinery, steel pipes, or huge plastic barrels; pickups carrying men and equipment to service oil wells, pumping stations; vehicles rumbling into tank farms or out to the grain fields peppered with black tanks and pumping stations. The arteries of oil.
All of that big sky, big wind and only one or two old windmills on the whole route; it wasn’t until we drove past Sault Ste. Marie in Ontario that we came across solar panels, a huge field of them. And in Shelburne, at the base of the Bruce Peninsula, a line of ghostly windmills, their ponderous blades revolving in and out of sight through the fog.
Driving, people say. You need oil just like the rest of us. In other words, shut up. As if it’s all or nothing. As if we have to accept whatever the oil industry does without question. As if the questioning doesn’t have any impact on production methods, cleaner processing, or more efficient use.
But this isn’t what I want to say. With all this activity, it seems as if we’re all chasing our own tails. If we put the oil produced on one side of the equation and all the energy that went into the oil extraction and refining processes, into the trucks driven, the steel manufactured to make those trucks, the equipment, the pipelines, the tanks, the drills, flying the workers back and forth to the oil and gas fields, well, what is the net energy gain? The estimates range from 1.5/1 to 5/1 for tar sands oil– that means for every unit of energy put into the process, from 1.5 to 5 units of energy are produced, a much lower amount than in the past. This, of course, doesn’t take into account the carbon footprint, the pollution of downstream ground and river water, the air and ground pollution as the oil is burned, the plastic manufactured from that oil settling into the landfills, snagging on trees, washing up on beaches, killing seabirds and other creatures.
Petroleum is used to make a million things – some of them valuable and useful, others junk. There is a a range of ideas about what is wasteful, what is useful, and what is essential, but we can all question ourselves when we pick up a packet of 300 brightly-coloured hair elastics for $1.99 or ask for a plastic bag to hold the plastic bag holding 100 extra strength garbage bags we’re buying so we have a place to put the plastic packaging we’re going to throw out. You just have to see Chris Jordan’s amazing photographs of albatross chicks who died from eating a colourful diet of plastic whirling in the Pacific gyre Chris Jordan's amazing photographs to realize how far-reaching and destructive this is.It makes Yeats’ “Second Coming” all the more prescient.
Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.