Keystone XL and the ‘Chainsaw Test’

U.S. President Joe Biden’s cancellation of the Keystone XL pipeline highlights how Canadians live in two parallel universes when it comes to the future of energy. This action was received by one side as a terrible setback for the oil and gas industry, its workers, and for energy security on both sides of the border. On the other side, it is regarded as a triumph for the environment, an important milestone on the path to a carbon-free future.

This divide maps out along lines delineated by where people live, the type of education they have, and how they are employed.

People who move things, make things, or grow things, whose knowledge and skills find expression through the use of tools, machinery, and heavy equipment, and who often live in exurban, rural, or even wilderness communities are most likely to be unhappy with KXL’s cancellation.

Those whose occupations involve manipulating representations of things using words, pictures or numbers, whose knowledge and skills find expression through the use of electronic devices and who live in our country’s large urban centres are more likely to crow over the cancellation of the pipeline.

This divide can be explained, in part, by how the two groups experience the multiplicative power of modern energy systems.

People who work with things understand, at least implicitly, the concept of energy density. Modern, fossil fuel-powered machinery is the key to their productivity. They know how much heavy work can be done with a tank of fuel and that there is no ready replacement.

The experience of those who work with symbols is quite different. In an urban environment you can work almost anywhere using rechargeable technology. It is easy to think such energy solutions are ubiquitous while riding around on your e-bike using your smartphone to navigate not only your present journey, but also much of your life.

Many fossil fuel opponents are sure that energy sources like wind and solar are the way forward. They believe the problem of intermittency can be solved with various storage systems including batteries. With no appreciation of scale, or just how much energy is needed to deliver all of the goods and services they need, but take for granted, they do not realize that this is magical thinking.

Modern life, wherever it is experienced, is dependent on the ready availability of dense sources of energy. The land required to build any type of power plant is a good proxy for density. For a given amount of electricity generated, wind and solar need vast tracts of land, fossil fuel plants a small fraction of that, and nuclear plants the least of all. Constructing any kind of power generation plant requires significant quantities of other material inputs; all of those inputs are produced using fossil fuels.

To close the gap and ground future discussions about the production and use of fossil fuels in Canada, I suggest Canadians, particularly urban elites and those working hard to join them, take the ‘Chainsaw Test.’ Participants would be required to saw felled trees into shorter logs. As a baseline, they would first use a handsaw for an hour. Next, they would use a battery-powered chainsaw until it needed recharging. Finally, they would be given a gas-powered chainsaw and a quantity of fuel equivalent in weight to the weight of the electric saw’s batteries.

The gas-powered saw will win the contest hands down, every time. It will cut at least six or seven times more logs than the electric saw because the energy that can be stored in a one-kilogram battery is only a fraction of the energy that is available in one kilogram of gasoline. Hand sawing will deliver a few logs, many expletives, and general fatigue.

Once they have taken the Chainsaw Test, the group that manipulates representations of things for a living will perhaps understand that while they can rely on low density power sources and batteries to run much of their daily lives, the people who manipulate real things for a living cannot. The first group is wholly dependent on the outputs the latter group produces using fossil fuels. Meaning that, for now, it is our shared dependence on fossil fuels that is ubiquitous, and our support for resource projects like Keystone XL should be as well.

Why We Need a Great (conservative) Reset

The Fundamentals of the Construction Industry Are Strong, but Lingering  Workforce Concerns Need Industry-Wide Action

When your phone freezes, you press and hold a couple of buttons to reset it; you do not undertake to replace its chipset or rewrite its operating system. Similarly, when you overload an electrical circuit in your home and a breaker trips, you correct the source of the fault and then reset the breaker to restore power. You do not typically start tearing the walls apart to rewire the entire house.

These are suitable analogues for the politics of our day. Many world leaders, but particularly those of a ‘progressive’ bent, are lately arguing that the COVID-19 pandemic is an opportunity for a “Great Reset.” What they are pitching, however, is not a reset as the term is normally understood but a major rebuild.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau told a recent United Nations meeting on sustainable development that, “This pandemic has provided an opportunity for a reset. “This is our chance to accelerate our pre-pandemic efforts to reimagine economic systems that actually address global challenges like extreme poverty, inequality and climate change.” The UN, in its 2020 Emissions Gap report claims that lifestyle changes are required to meet emissions reduction targets. This will require changing “broader systemic conditions.” The report highlights that COVID lockdowns and other policy responses have demonstrated how rapidly lifestyle changes can be made by governments and that governments have an opportunity to catalyse low-carbon lifestyle changes by disrupting entrenched practices.

This is not the language of a reset; it is the language of demolition and replacement. They want to rewrite the code or rip the walls apart and never mind the cost or need. Embracing the idea that demolition followed by ground-up replacement is synonymous with resetting requires advocates to believe the present system was already in disarray, failing, and teetering on the brink of catastrophe.

Conservatives are alarmed that progressives see the pandemic as an opportunity to start swinging the wrecking ball they have wanted to deploy for some time but could not because the climate ‘crisis’ alone provided insufficient cover for their broader aims. The conservative ideal is to preserve that which works well and to fix those things that popping circuit breakers indicate need attention. When the breaker keeps tripping the conservative approach is to add a dedicated circuit, not rewire the entire house or, worse, tear the whole thing apart. It is fundamentally untrue that conservatives do not care about the fixations of the outraged left including climate change, gender, and race. They care but believe that society and its existing institutions can adapt and change in an orderly and non-destructive manner. History supports them in this belief.

While the left has been pushing its position that climate change and the pandemic have revealed how badly flawed our way of life is, conservatives have been struggling to be heard. Any pushback against the obsessions of the left is countered with accusations of climate denialism, racism, privilege, or some other label that is intended to silence opposing voices and shutter any further discussion.

Multiple popping breakers indicated that, from a conservative perspective, we needed a reset on several fronts well before the pandemic broke. Conservatives should offer a post-pandemic plan that focuses on restoring system functionality as a counter to the left’s radical, worrisome, and misnamed ‘Great Reset.’

Things to reset before we consider building something new:

  1. Re-establish and reaffirm the rule of law in Canada. From rail blockaders to the highest levels of government, proper respect for the law has gone missing. The rule of law applies to all strata of society, and law enforcement agencies and the judiciary have no greater duty than upholding it equitably.
  2. Reduce the size and role of government. Between March 15 and May 31 of 2020, 76,804 federal public service employees took paid leave at a cost of $439 million. Did anyone miss them while they were at home watching Netflix? 27% of all employees in Canada work for some level of government. Not all are essential and most generate no wealth. We need fewer, not more, government programs. You cannot spend your way to prosperity.
  3. Restore fiscal responsibility. ‘Fiscal updates’ couched in incomprehensible ‘wokespeak’ are an inadequate substitute for proper budgets and comprehensive financial reporting. No one in their right mind believes that using borrowed money to fund operations is a sustainable practice.
  4. Encourage growth by restoring sanity to regulatory processes. We used to build things in this country and safely develop our abundant natural resources to generate wealth for all. Now resource projects must include consideration of extraneous factors like how different genders may be impacted, rather than if a proposal is technically sound and in the public interest.
  5. Get the media off welfare. A $600 million government bailout program designed to keep legacy media companies afloat is not the pathway to a robust, independent, media that presents a full range and diversity of viewpoints. The government not only decides the funding formula but also decides which media outlets are eligible for support. This program, as well as the CBC’s mandate and $1.2 billion stipend, needs to be rethought. As an important pillar of our democracy, we need a fourth estate that is willing and able to hold the government of the day to account. A way must be found to create the conditions necessary for that to happen.
  6. Assert our sovereignty. A sovereign country does not allow people to enter its territory by just sauntering across its borders, suitcase in hand. Allowing this makes a mockery of our formal immigration process and is also grossly unfair to those aspirants seeking a life here who engage with the country in good faith. On another front, we need to increase our presence along our northern boundaries. China, Russia, and others are keenly interested in exploiting the north while we rely on Arctic Rangers equipped with rifles, snowmobiles, and twelve days of training to keep tabs on things. This is perhaps the most ludicrous example of the shambolic state and level of preparedness of our military and of our overall cavalier approach to national sovereignty.
  7. Get back to building the special project that is Canada. The vision expressed in grand projects like the Canadian Pacific Railroad and the St. Lawrence Seaway, or in policies like Macdonald’s National Policy were instrumental in forging this nation. In the most recent decades, we have squandered countless opportunities and become increasingly focused on petty grievances. Ambition is all but completely absent from the ways in which we define ourselves. We crow, for example, about our health care system, not because of its performance which is middling at best, but because it is universal and excludes privately-owned service providers from the delivery model. That perspective limits our ability to craft a new future that more fully realizes the extraordinary potential afforded us by our bountiful resources, our tried and tested institutions, and the common sense that lately we have set aside in favour of pursuing social abstractions.

Stretching the analogy a bit further, if someone started pitching that your house needed comprehensive renovation, would you hire the same contractor who shingled your still-leaky roof? The same one who built the shaky stairs to your off-kilter deck, and who employed one person on the job site who stood around while the other three toiled all day? The contractor who, while boasting of the great job they have done, tried to bill you for the labour of six workers? No, you would not. It is time to engage a new contractor, patch the roof, secure the stairs, straighten the deck, and sort out the billing. Once things are running smoothly again and financial accounts are in order, it may then be time to draw up new plans, decide what tools and materials to use, and build the house of the future.