Oil sands boosters are like Japanese nipponhei, loyally fighting long after the war is over
Psst. Alberta oil sands boosters. Stop dissing Hanoi Jane. You’ve already won the bitumen and pipeline war, now you’re being an ungracious winner.
Jane Fonda is coming to Alberta on Wednesday to “tour” Fort McMurray and the oil sands, then attend a Greenpeace Canada event at the University of Alberta in Edmonton in the evening. She’ll also meet with Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation Chief Allen Adams and members of the Anzac and Fort McKay communities.
Fonda follows in the footsteps of other celebrities like Leonardo DiCaprio and Neil Young. And just as with those two celebrities, oil sands booster groups are chirping about Fonda’s trip.
“I think that it’s unfortunate that Jane Fonda is going to come up here,” said Canada Action founder Cody Battershill as reported by CBC. “And she will probably have, in my mind, a less balanced opinion of the issues.”
“I think that it’s another hypocritical celebrity coming here,” says Robbie Picard, founder of the Fort McMurray group OilSands Strong. “She’s kicking us while we are down.”
It’s true that Fort McMurray is bruised and battered. The oil price collapse that began in mid-2014 and left thousands unemployed, followed by the worst wildfire in Canadian history, has left the community reeling. Most people understand that fleeing for your life and having your house burn to its foundation – as Picard’s did – might make a fella testy.
But if we can look past the immediate pain, the future looks pretty rosy for the northern Alberta city. And the industry that supports it.
Oil prices have stabilized over $50 and the 2017 forecast ranges from mid-50s to $80, depending on how quickly the American shale producers can ramp up and if the OPEC-Russia production cut agreement holds together.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau approved two pipelines in late Nov.: Kinder Morgan’s Trans Mountain Expansion (525,000 b/d) and the replacement of Enbridge’s Line 3 (additional 370,000 b/d).
President-elect Donald Trump has said he will ask TransCanada to resubmit the Keystone XL pipeline application (830,000 b/d) and the betting is the project will go ahead.
A study released last week by the School of Public Policy at the University of Calgary suggests new technology to partially upgrade bitumen to a medium or heavy crude oil that flows in pipelines (without needing the usual 30 per cent blend of diluent) could significantly improve oil sands economics. One 100,000 b/d partial upgrader could add $10 to $15 to barrel of Alberta heavy crude.
Finally, last month the Alberta government awarded $500 million to two companies under the Petrochemical Diversification Program. Two new manufacturing facilities will turn propane into polypropylene, employing 1,400 direct and indirect full-time workers when they open in 2021.
The Alberta oil and gas industry appears to be in for another year or two of pain while producers repair balance sheets, and service companies slowly raise their rates and begin hiring again. The next boom will start tentatively, as they always do.
After that, the future looks reasonably bright. Maybe not as bright as before the price of oil fell off a cliff, but happy days are here again…soon.
That’s why the examples of DiCaprio and Young are instructive for why the overwrought reaction to Fonda’s visit is both inappropriate and not helpful.
In both cases, the celebrities visited, held a couple of press conferences, riled up the locals, and left, (mostly) never to be heard from again.
Picard points out that DiCaprio included Fort McMurry in his environmental “movie,” Before the Flood, which has no box office numbers I could find and attracted a paltry 905,000 views on Youtube. I suppose if you’re an 11-year old guitar virtuoso or the latest kitten video those are pretty good numbers. But for an A-list Hollywood actor?
During my interview with Picard, I pointed out that running around with his hair on fire was counterproductive because he, the community of Fort McMurray, the Alberta economy, the oil sands industry, have already won the bitumen and pipeline battle against Hollywood celebrities and Greenpeace eco-activists.
The war is over. Alberta and Fort McMurray are about to enjoy a bountiful harvest of decent oil prices, enough pipelines to go around, and value-added processing jobs.
Picard is having none of it. He insists that eco-celebrities are somehow damaging the Alberta oil sands brand, with attendant unspecified but nonetheless horrible consequences.
Picard and Battershill and all the Alberta energy boosters shouting into the tiny political echo chamber that listens to them are like the Zanryū nipponhei, the soldiers who refused to accept the 1945 surrender of Japan – or simply didn’t know about it because their communications had been cut off – and kept on fighting.
The last nipponhei surrendered in 1974.
Don’t be surprised if 30 years from now, long after the Alberta oil sands production has expanded to 5 or 6 million b/d and all the necessary pipelines have been built, Picard and Battershill are still outraged when the latest Hollywood eco-activist arrives in Fort McMurray to get a little camera time and promote their latest movie.
They needn’t be. They’ve already won. They just don’t recognize that the enemy has surrendered.