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.