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Let me begin by posing you a few questions. Is it almost as a forgone conclusion that the oil sands and other fossil fuels, as well as nuclear power, offer the solution to our energy woes? Should we ignore the environmental problems posed by these energy sources? Is there no hope for successfully pursuing a path of renewable energy?

To give a cursory read the Globe and Mail on April 29, one is tempted to say the conclusion is a resounding, and frightening, ‘yes’. As I hope to reveal, though, a more careful read suggests otherwise.

Oil Sands and Other Fossil Fuels: A Slick Answer?

To begin my case, consider an article in the Globe and Mail‘s Business section today about how Shell put its oil sands expansion plans temporarily on hold. Then, as though to underscore the seriousness of the “problem”, a special information feature for the World Energy Congress has been also posted in the Business section questioning the future viability of our energy reserves.

The intimations of the first story in this feature, titled “Energy: Availability” are very concerning. Rather than beginning with a discussion of the entire mix of energy (including renewable) sources that could help us address energy availability concerns, the first sentence in this article claims, “Ever-advancing oil recovery technologies are helping address immediate concerns over the depletion of the world’s oil and gas reserves…”

So that is the set-up. By making this statement first-off, the insinuation is made that oil recovery technologies offer our primary solution to a looming energy crises.

As to what these advances would entail, the answer is buried further down in the feature in an article entitled, “Technology a lynchpin in oil’s environmental and economic outlook”. The article talks about how “alternative sources such as the oilsands, deep offshore oilfields and natural gas that can be converted into liquid fuel…” may offer the solution to peak oil (Note here the use of the term “alternative sources” as a subtle counter to the more environmentally palatable “renewable” sources).

However, for the most part (with the exception of new technology for obtaining natural gas), the article makes little mention that technology is the stumbling block to retrieving these energy reserves. Rather, as discussed at the very beginning of this same article, “new technology may help make oil and natural gas more acceptable to environmentally conscious consumers [emph. added].”

By its positioning at the beginning of this article, the impression is given that this is the sticky point. The environmentally conscious consumer. Imagine (tongue in cheek). The horror, the horror. If only the consumer could be convinced that using fossil fuels, like oil and gas, is environmentally responsible. Then the “economic outlook”, which the article’s title mentions, could be assumedly brighter.

Unfortunately, we do not seem to have actually managed to develop this technology. Instead, the article states that only “significant progress” is being made to reduce ecological impacts.

As to what environmental impacts there are, the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers gives a general and brief mention (without a discussion of its seriousness) in the article to the problem of greenhouse gas emissions. However, one must look elsewhere to learn of a more obvious effect caused by mining the oil sands. Only deep in the Main section on the same day, a separate article mentions as to how 1,600 ducks died in oil sands giant Syncrude’s refinery tailings ponds two years previous.

Nuclear Energy: Another Obvious Alternative?

Of course, the special information feature discusses other energy matters besides fossil fuel sources like the oil sands. For instance, the second article in the feature kindly informs the reader that “A nuclear renaissance unfolds despite some concerns.” The suggestion seems to be that building more nuclear power plants is an inevitable outcome of our energy problems. What is more, it could be a veritable cultural rebirth, as though providing us nuclear energy could be the solution to all of our social, cultural and other woes.

Indeed, as suggested by an employee of Atomic Energy of Canada Ltd., without nuclear power we could be held “hostage” by fuel price fluctuations. Who could argue (tongue once again in cheek) that this is not a good thing, given that operating costs are much lower than electricity from coal- and natural gas-fired power plants? Just forget the meager, as we are told, $5 billion US price tag associated with the building of a plant.

After all, as the reader is informed, nearly a quarter of a century has passed without “major” incidents? One is to assume it seems that minor incidents are not of concern.

The Downplaying of Renewable Energy

It should be admitted that some mention is given to renewable energy, but only with the lack-luster title, “Canadian renewable rising, but fast enough?” Interestingly, the same concern about rapid progression is not raised for the advancement of technologies to make fossil fuels more environmentally-sound. This is despite the fact that, as (unfortunately) buried deep in the article, a senior employee of Siemen’s Canada is quoted as saying, “…the harvestable renewable energy in Canada…is enormous…”

Rather we are informed repeatedly both in this, and another article partially entitled “Transmission the linchpin in renewable power’s potential”, that renewable energy is “variable” and thus must be supplemented with other energy sources.

Funny. No one mentioned how at least nuclear power can also be unreliable. Nor is any comment made as to how at least the production of solar photovoltaic power has the potential to be highest during times of peak demand.

Lessons Learned

Bottom line. Pay attention to how information is presented. Particularly when packaged neatly in and alongside special “information” features. Remember the interests behind the facts and opinions being presented, and make sure you come to your own conclusions. Considering the big players at stake, this without a doubt applies to matters relating to energy, if not other environmental issues. But then I’ll let you make up your own mind…

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I’ve noticed a concerning trend in the Globe and Mail in the past week. Rather than praising consumers for curtailing their wasteful ways, articles have been coming out highlighting the impact of such behaviour on businesses. This has happened both respect to an article entitled, “Tide rising against bottled water” (April 23) and “Hit print, please, paper maker says” (April 27).

Water Bottle

Photo provided courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

The first article on bottled water talks about how industry must face not only recessionary pressures, but a grassroots movement of critics. As a result of such factors, sales for example at Nestlé Waters have fallen more than five percent annually over the past two years. The second provides room for CEO John Williams of the paper giant, Domtar, to say, “‛There is an appropriate use for paper. You should feel comfortable to use it appropriately and you shouldn’t be feeling there is some environmental negative when you use it.’”

On the one hand, some may say these articles are justified in that they appear in the Business section of the paper, which naturally wishes to give voice to matters and concerns relating to the corporate world. However, on the other hand, one is forced to question the logic of a world where consumption is held up as a problem, as thought it was a moral duty, a necessary activity to grease the wheels of industry so-to-speak.

With respect to the usage of water bottles, this is extremely concerning given that according to the Container Recycling Institute, almost eight out of ten single-serving recycling containers end up in a landfill or an incinerator. Even if the bottles are recycled, there is the issue of fuel consumption for bottle shipment and the resulting air pollution that occurs as a result. While drinking water may be beneficial for human health (a matter though that is also up for debate, given the potential for contaminants), in the broader scope of protecting environmental health which ensures a healthy environment for all, bottled water falls seriously behind.

In terms of the matter of paper consumption, while I have much to learn about the issue, something fundamentally seems amiss when we must continually harvest wood pulp from forests despite having so much paper for recycling collected already. What is more, according to a spokesperson for Greenpeace Canada who is quoted in the article on paper, Domtar and others are opening up what should be protected forests, threatening the habitat of some species.

For both issues, it seems that we should rather embrace the turning tide towards increased environmental responsibility. For business, this can be an opportunity as opposed to a detriment.

If people are concerned about the purity of municipal drinking water, perhaps cafés could start selling filtered municipal water, which customers could get by bringing in their reusable cups. If they forget to bring their cups, these cafés could “lend” out reusable water bottles for a fee that could be recompensed upon their return.

As for paper usage, pulp and paper companies should start producing more products made of recycled paper. In addition, electronics manufacturers should recognize the turning tide to make more products like the iPad available, which reduce the need for printing.

After all, with there having been much environmental hype, should we not finally start walking the walk? And recognize that no, we should not presume that we have a moral obligation to consume? Rather, as I’m sure that many people would agree, we have a responsibility to reduce the ecological “footprint” that we leave while traversing this planet. Although the growing pains to achieving this may be difficult at first, they are necessary if we are to achieve the greater goal of living in harmony with the Earth.

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It started with attending a rally just before Copenhagen to raise awareness about global climate changes. While I felt passionate about the need to do something about climate change, I realized I lacked all the information needed to convince others of the need for action on the issue.

Thus, began my search to better educate myself on the matter which led to giving talks on the subject. This in turn led to being asked to speak on another matter, sustainable food systems, which I presented on Earth Day 2010 (April 22nd) at Kitchener City Hall.

To be honest, I’m not sure where this will lead. Whether I will be blogging about local, national or global issues. Whether I will be discussing matters of scientific urgency or environmental questions of a more philosophical nature. Or a combination thereof.

What I do know is that time is running out for us to make the changes needed to ensure this planet continues to be a habitable place, not only for the numerous species that share this Earth with us, but for ourselves as well. I shall begin to join my voice with numerous others on the Internet who are taking action on environmental issues. And with it, I shall embark on a journey with hopes of helping to bring about a renewed, environmentally sound and resilient earth.

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