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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