‘Energy apologetics,’ not rational discussion about Canadian oil and gas, is what CEOs are really up to

Chris Slubicki, CEO of Modern Resources.

Energy apologetics: argument for oil and gas development intended to convert audience, not a “rational discussion” about future of  the industry

Ed. note: Watch this interview with Dr. Sara Hastings-Simon (Industry caught red-handed with anti-climate plan) about the fall, 2020 revelation that the Canadian oil and gas industry adopted a “climate slow-walking strategy” in 2018 based upon advice from PR firm Navigator. This is essentially the argument Markam is making in this 2019 column.

In February, I debated climate activist Tzeporah Berman for an hour on Corus radio about the oil sands and Trans Mountain Expansion (TMX). Berman led with an impassioned explanation of climate science and the global warming crisis. When my turn came, I simply stipulated to everything she had said. The howl from Alberta listeners was deafening. Why did I capitulate on climate? they tweeted to host Ryan Jespersen of 630CHED. The explanation is simple: because the science is settled, the climate crisis is real.

In my subsequent responses to Berman, I offered a rational, evidence-based argument for bitumen and pipelines based upon carbon pricing and greenhouse gas emissions reductions: the global energy system is decarbonizing and as long as Alberta oil and gas companies reduce the carbon-intensity of their products, then they have earned the right to build pipelines to tidewater. At least one, anyway.

What Berman and I had was a rational discussion. We agreed on some things and disagreed on others. She cited experts to bolster her case, I did the same. In the end, we agreed to disagree, with radio listeners free to make up their own minds.

The Alberta oil and gas industry would like you to believe they want a rational discussion with Canadians about the future of their business, which is dependent upon building more pipelines. Are they looking for the type of discussion I had with Berman?

Not a chance. What they really want is the rest of Canada to love them, to give them carte blanche to build whatever infrastructure is necessary to get Alberta’s oil and gas to tidewater, then on to Asian markets.

They want capitulation.

Tzeporah Berman.

For a typical example, take Chris Slubicki and his October 1 video talk, “Canadian energy – Plan B,” currently the hot social media retweet in Alberta. Slubicki is a veteran oil guy and CEO of Modern Resources. He ambles across the stage dressed in Calgary business uniform – suit, no tie – spinning folky anecdotes about taking his wife to tour a wind farm in California or about how industry’s Great Satan (Berman) is calling for TMX opponents to “warrior up.”

“I dunno what warrior up means. Are we buying guns? Are we going to civil war?” he asks. “Maybe it’s time we all just settle down a little bit.”

Settle down a little bit? How often does that admonition work in a discussion? What’s clear is that Slubicki doesn’t understand Berman’s point of view and has no interest in trying to understand it.

His pro-industry audiences love Slubicki, however, because he talks their language. “I think we all know pipelines are the safest form of transportation for hydrocarbons, but we’re hauling by rail more and more every year,” he says. “Why are we doing this? Why can’t we have a rational, informed discussion on energy and do some rational safe projects?”

Right there is the nub of the problem.

Discussions have two or more parties. What if the other parties to this chat don’t agree? Perhaps they’re indigenous communities concerned a pipeline spill on their traditional territory or a coastal First Nation determined to protect the southern resident killer whales from oil tanker traffic. Or maybe they’re Vancouver college kids worried about the scientists’ dire climate change warnings?

What about actually listening to dissenters?

Slubicki’s got it covered: “Of course there’s great pressure to reduce greenhouse gases. And for the record, I am all for that. I do believe in climate change. I think we have to do something about it.”

For just a moment, the former investment banker appears to have tuned in to the other side but then comes the inevitable whataboutism: “But let’s keep things in perspective. This is global emissions…In the last 10 years, China has increased their emissions by three gigatonnes. So that’s five Canadas in the last 10 years. India has increased their emissions by two Canadas in the last 10 years.”

The next half hour is more of the same. Set up a straw man argument, then knock it down, over and over again.

Protester John George at anti-Trans Mountain Expansion rally on March 10, 2018.

On the subject of shipping more crude oil by rail instead of safer, less emissions-intense pipelines: “Why are we doing this? Why can’t we have a rational, informed discussion on energy and do some rational safe projects?”

His lament about investors choosing to invest in other jurisdictions instead of Canada: “…billions of dollars a year in lost revenue, lost employment, lost manufacturing as capital escapes the country. And it starts investing elsewhere because they’re so frustrated with what’s happening here in Canada…Why are we are causing us such economic hardship and lack of opportunity? Let’s have a rational discussion…”

The Canadian oil and gas industry once had a rational discussion with Canadians. Beginning in September 2014, CEOs from the five of the largest producers met with five executive directors of environmental groups for a year to hash out their differences over climate and energy policy. The two groups discovered they had far more in common than they expected.

The result was compromise from both sides. The CEOs agreed to support aggressive climate policies like the 100 megatonnes oil sands emissions cap, while the environmentalists agreed to not demand a production cap. Then Premier Rachel Notley incorporated the deal into her Climate Leadership Plan that was launched in late 2015 with four of the CEOs on stage with her.

That detente, the peace in the valley the CEOs worked so hard to achieve, now lies in tatters. The CEOs who negotiated it have retired. New premier Jason Kenney publicly called the oil companies on the carpet for giving in. And a more muscular, aggressive ethos now rules the Calgary Petroleum Club.

What Slubicki and his colleagues practice is what evangelical Christians call “apologetics.”

Rev. Kevin Powell.

Rev. Kevin Powell of the First Lutheran Church in Calgary says that Christian apologetics, on the surface, tries to argue the faith rationally, much like a legal argument, in an attempt to “prove the truth” of Christianity.

“Below the surface, apologetics seeks to dominate its opponent by ‘disproving’ their opponent’s argument to show the superiority of the Christian worldview,” he told Energi Media. “There’s an undertone of hostility toward non-believers. Apologists really believe that they are defending the faith.”

Apologetics at its essence, says Powell, is about power. Apologetics, he adds, “is bullshit.”

Energy apologetics is the last rally of an industry under attack by climate activists and facing an existential threat from electricity – the first serious competition oil and gas have ever faced – generated by low-carbon technologies like wind and solar.

Unfortunately for industry evangelists like Slubicki, energy apologetics doesn’t sell outside Alberta and Saskatchewan. Public opinion surveys show that Canadians understand that the global energy system is being transformed by new technologies and they look forward to a clean energy future. Voters support oil and gas development as long as government policy supports the energy transition.

The rational discussion CEOs like Slubicki need to have with Canadians is how to decarbonize their operations while pivoting to the low-carbon future, how to align their objectives with global and national trends, including increasingly stringent climate policies.

That narrative sells. Energy apologetics does not.

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