Slaves to Big Oil: An interview with Andrew Nikiforuk -- Part II

| November 2, 2012
Slaves to Big Oil: An interview with Andrew Nikiforuk -- Part II

Andrew Nikiforuk is an Albertan journalist and author of several books, including the acclaimed Tar Sands: Dirty Oil and the Future of a Continent. Lori Theresa Waller spoke with him on the eve of a talk he gave in Ottawa for the launch of his latest book, The Energy of Slaves: Oil and the New Servitude. This is the second part of their conversation. You can read Part I of the interview here

Lori Theresa Waller: You're highly critical of carbon capture and storage. What are the fundamental problems with that technology? 

Andrew Nikiforuk: Just about everything. The approach is entirely wrong. The problem is emissions, and the fastest and easiest way to cut emissions is to consume less fossil fuel. That doesn't seem to be politically palatable, so instead we have these grandiose, extreme projects like carbon capture and storage. It requires an enormous amount of energy to strip, compress, cool, and bury CO2, and when you add this technology to a coal-fired plant, the plant will have to burn thirty percent more coal to accomplish the burial of CO2. And then you've created another problem: you've got a waste product that will have to be monitored for a thousand years. 

So we're really talking about extreme economics and extremely wasteful energy practices. This is not a solution. It's a way to extend the petroleum age by getting tax payers to subsidize bad engineering projects. 

LTW: In Alberta, when politicians and the media talk about carbon capture and storage, are these problems recognized at all? 

AN: Oh no. The government and industry both embrace carbon capture and storage because they are hoping it will extend their revenue streams. They hope that by burying a little bit of carbon, they’ll be able to convince people that we can continue with business as usual, even though most people recognize that business as usual is now over. 

LTW: You wrote that petrostates tend to import foreign labourers to do their dirty work ... 

AN: Just like plantation economies. I think the average person in Kuwait works something like eight minutes a day. Saudis have these armies of people from India and Sri Lankaand the Philippines doing their work. Alberta increasingly relies on foreign itinerant workers to do its dirty work. I think we have among the highest percentage of foreign temporary workers per capita on the continent. They're here largely to perform service jobs that Albertans don't want to do because they can get much higher paying jobs in Fort McMurray. The high-paying jobs in Fort McMurray create all these vacancies in the rest of the province, so the solution is to import foreign workers and pay them very little and work the hell out of them. 

LTW: When I visited Alberta in 2007, what really struck me was the amount of disruption that seemed to be caused by the rapid speed of economic growth. Are people starting to say, "Okay, we've had enough growth now?"

AN: Unfortunately not, because far too many people come to Alberta now to make a killing. Not one political leader in the last ten to twenty years has asked all the newcomers what they're going to bring to the province; it's all about taking. 

LTW: I'm thinking about the little old lady in Fort McMurray who can no longer afford to live there because the property values have shot up so high, or the farmer whose land is surrounded by bitumen upgraders. Are their voices just being drowned out? 

AN: Their voices are drowned out. The thing is, if you were to have an election in Alberta, and the voters were given two choices: rapid development of the tar sands versus slow, measured development of the tar sands, everyone would go for slow and measured. The problem with that is that the government would then have to tax its citizens, and it doesn't want to do that. In Alberta we have a government that no longer represents the best interests of Albertans. 

LTW: Switching over to a more global focus: you write that global oil production peaked in 2008, at 85 to 88 million barrels per day. Did that follow or precede the economic crash? 

AN: Global production is now somewhere between 85 million to 90 million barrels a day. I don't think it's going to grow much beyond that. There are projections that we might get up to 110, but I don't think that's possible. Ten of the last eleven recessions in the United States all happened after oil price shocks, and the 2008 recession was a direct consequence of the high price of oil, when it was at more than 140 bucks a barrel. 

LTW: How come that's not part of the story the media tells about the economic crisis? 

AN: You tell me. The business media should be all over it. These are facts that have been documented by some pretty smart energy economists in the United States. Every day I'm kind of shocked to learn just how dumb the media has become. 

LTW: You wrote that the correlation between oil spending and GDP are always linked, but you also write that energy consumption peaked in the Western world in the 1970s. How then did GDPs in most western countries continue to grow (until 2008, at least)? 

AN: On a per capita basis, oil consumption peaked in the United States in the 1970s, and ever since then it has been slowly going down. What also happened in the 1970s is that domestic production peaked. America has since been transferring much of its wealth to the Middle East and other places, while at the same time ratcheting up more and more debt. I think in the last three years alone the U.S. spent nearly a trillion dollars on oil purchases. In the 1980s and 90s there was an era of illusionary prosperity, which masked what was really going on. Now it's very clear that the United States is in bad shape. They think that with shale gas and shale oil or tight oil, they're somehow going to recover. But the United States was built on cheap oil -- two bucks a barrel, ten bucks a barrel. It's finding it hard to run all of its machines and its infrastructure now that oil is at 80 to 90 bucks. That's what you have to get for bitumen [to be profitable], and that's basically where the world price is averaging at the moment. 

That's why we're seeing stagnation in the U.S., in Europe, in Japan. Both Europe and Japan got hooked on oil after World War Two. The United States got Europe hooked on oil to break up communist control of the coal unions, and then it got Japan hooked on oil to rebuild it. Now that oil production has peaked, and oil has become an increasingly extreme and expensive commodity, isn’t it surprising that these three regions of the world are not doing so well? And then you still have India and China trying to catch up and do the industrial revolution thing. China spent nearly half a trillion on oil expenditures in the last three years, and it can't sustain that. The incredibly reckless growth we’ve seen in China is coming to an end as well. 

LTW: China does have a lot of coal though. If it finds an efficient way to liquefy it, what then? 

AN: Liquifying coal is another really costly and extreme activity. Every time you move down the energy pyramid to something that's more extreme and capital-intensive, the energy returns are less. And that’s a big issue that no one really wants to discuss. Our whole civilization depends on having a great surplus: on spending not very much energy to get a whole bunch of energy. We've gone from spending little to get lots, and now we're spending lots to get little. But try to get economists to think about that or even talk about it. Jeff Rubin is an exception; he's a brilliant exception. He’s courageous enough to talk about the obvious problems. 

LTW: You devote a chapter of The Energy of Slaves to Japan, looking at its astoundingly swift economic decline over the past few decades. Do you think that Japan -- or Europe, or America -- could have taken some lessons from Cuba about how it handled its 'Special Period?'

AN: I think there are a lot of lessons there. When you become dependent and in a position of servitude to a source of energy, as Cuba did with Soviet oil, and then that crashes, what have you got for back-up? It took Cuba one or two years to find some resilience in its own system. And they had to break a lot of rules to do so. They had to become much more flexible and they had to recognize that soviet model for agriculture wasn't working. If you lose your fuel source, the machinery comes to a stop. The Japanese are experiencing that same phenomenon, but with what they hoped would be their saviour from expensive fossil fuels: the nuclear industry. Which just turned out to be another ugly master. 

LTW: Given the casual brutality with which slave owners exploited their slaves, what hope do we have that any sort of moral concerns will temper the rate at which we're gobbling up oil? 

AN: I don't know. The institution of slavery came with this casual brutality from the master. Our oil culture has a different casual brutality and it can be seen in the way we use our energy machines to dominate, destroy, blow-up, re-engineer landscapes around the planet -- whether it's waterways, forests, or deltas. There's a casual brutality in everything we do when we have these huge concentrations of power. I don't think it's obvious to us yet what we're doing and why we're doing it. We're fish swimming in an ocean made of petroleum, or made possible by petroleum, and as a consequence we're blind. It's only when the whole character of that ocean begins to change, to contract and rattle and roll, that the fish are going to begin to ask questions about the environment they are in. 

LTW: With slavery, they could see with their own eyes exactly what they were doing, and it didn't stop them. 

AN: Yes, they still did it. That's our problem. It shocked me to realize that, even with the in-your-face abuse of slavery, there was no discussion about the possibility of change, no discussion of abolition or emancipation, until the 18th century -- when, ironically, it was hydrocarbons being fed to steam engines that made that social movement possible. It took sixty years of fighting, and it was a remarkable movement. But it was largely faith-driven, which makes me think that if we have any hope to get off fossil fuels, it will have to be a faith-driven movement that leads it. In other words, it won't be Greens.

 

Lori Theresa Waller is a freelance writer and editor based in Ottawa. She has written for Briarpatch MagazineThe Dominion and The Ottawa Citizen.

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