Refueling The Debate On Oil
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Refueling The Debate On Oil

One of Burtynsky’s images on display in Oil. Photo courtesy of the ROM.

The world goes through 85-million barrels daily. To put that into perspective: 160-million gallons of crude oil will be used over the lunch hour alone. At this pace, “we have to come to terms that the age of oil is ending,” concludes Richard Sears, a visiting scientist at MIT and former vice-president at Shell.
Sears was but one expert on a recent panel moderated by artist Edward Burtynsky discussing how to reframe the debate on oil, at a symposium coinciding with Oil, Burtynsky’s exhibition at the ROM. The conversation centred on the fact that humans are using too much oil too quickly, and that oil has fueled our rate of consumption, outstripping what can be provided by the resources around us.

Part of the problem is that we have been prevented from seeing the full economic cost of this consumption, due to subsidies provided to the oil and gas industries. “Let prices tell the truth: we subsidize all the bad things and we don’t subsidize the things that need it,” says William Rees, professor at University of British Columbia and a co-developer of ecological footprint analysis. He believes we neglect to acknowledge that most goods are under-priced, and therefore over-consumed. Conservation efforts are hindered when consumers don’t understand the true cost of their purchases, escalating demand that is based upon unrealistic assumptions.

A two-day symposium was held in conjunction with Oil, the Edward Burtynsky exhibition currently at the ROM. Photo by Corbin Smith/Torontoist.

Adding to our hesitation to act is our desire for a “signal from outside that will galvanize us or the illusion that technology will save us,” asserts Lisa Margonelli, award-winning journalist and author of Oil On The Brain. We are waiting for a ‘Jules-Verne moment’ to come, a technological revolution that would resolve our uncomfortable dependency on oil, and somehow proceed as though it isn’t possible to do anything until such a moment arrives; however, Margnelli went on, it is time to give up the notion, since it simply isn’t true. We are in the era of great technological advancement, she argues, but we have to look at smaller technologies that can cumulatively help us reduce our use of oil rather than waiting for one singular and comprehensive solution.
One obstacle is that our demand for energy is uneven, plummeting at night and spiking during the day, especially in hot weather. An ability to moderate energy would help, says Margonelli. What if we looked at massive energy consumption devices, such as air conditioners, and made them more efficient? For example, Margonelli hopes for air conditioners that might supercool an object during nighttime, when demand is lower on the grid, and having it blow cold air throughout the day, as a way of balancing usage.
Margonelli also argues that the energy being extracted was more than enough to meet our needs if we could use less of it to greater effect. In 2007, petroleum was responsible for nearly all the energy in global transportation, but only 20 per cent of it was used, with 80 per cent of it “rejected,” or wasted—lost mainly through engine and driveline efficiencies and idling. A reduction in wasted energy would prevent the need for more oil output, she reasons.

Global energy flow chart in 2007 as determined by the LLNL. [PDF]

While Rees sees the need for efficiency, he feels it had been “fetishized” as the sole aim worth pursuing. He maintains that the more efficient things get, the more likely people are to consume, sharing a quotation from British economist William Stanley Jevons: “It is a confusion of ideas to suppose that the economical use of fuel is equivalent to diminished consumption. The very contrary is the truth.” Rees points to the futility of efficiency for both modern houses and hybrid SUVs as examples: any efficiency gains in modern houses are offset by the fact that they are larger by multitudes over previous generations of houses. Similarly, Rees wonders what good is a hybrid SUV that is more efficient than a normal SUV, but pales, environmentally, compared to a regular car?
For a world that is consuming too much, Rees sees conservation as the key. He provided the sobering statistic that in order to create the ecological space needed for justifiable growth in the developing world, North American eco-footprints must shrink by 75 to 80 per cent. While using travel mugs and reusable bags may keep us mindful of being green, the impact isn’t enough. “You try to save the environment—you shower with a friend,” he quips, but “as individuals, it only solves 2 to 10 per cent of our footprint.” We must look to conservation on a larger scale, he warned.
In Canada, the debate in the short-term undoubtedly surrounds the environmental impact of the Alberta oil sands (which is one of Burtynsky’s photography subjects, as well). Interest extends beyond our own borders: the Americans want to import oil, the Chinese have invested heartily in Alberta, and the Europeans prepare a ban due to emissions concerns. Sadly, unless Canadians are suitably shaken by the reality that how we live is simply unsustainable, and pressure our government to act accordingly, we’ll (re)discover that on this issue the Conservatives are such only in name. For now, at least, the insights shared at the symposium may be echoing through the halls of the ROM, but hardly Parliament Hill.
Edward Burtynsky: Oil runs at the Royal Ontario Museum until July 3.