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The Theatre of Protests by Parker Grant

Adrienne Sannachan

If there was an industrial version of Jeopardy, Oil & Gas for $200 would be: “Oil sands oil will be produced and find its way to refiners by rail, by barge, by truck, or by pipe.” The answer (always in the form of a questions) would be: “What’s the point of the protest, Alex?”

Whether it’s well co-ordinated large groups or bussed-in or random clusters of well-intentioned and concerned protesters with banners and placards outside the Legislature Buildings, at Fort McMurray job sites or across the street from the new EPCOR Tower on 101 st Street, or in front of The White House in Washington, the leaks and rumors about Barrack Obama’s imminent signature on the Keystone Pipeline “permit” approval is triggering more bouts of carefully planned and impromptu protests.

To varying degrees, most openly biased industry insiders, balanced and slanted media and provoked protest opponents respect the right and opportunity for people to protest but, either realistically or begrudgingly acknowledge that a basic aspect of protest is theatre, for effect.

The basic strategy and tools of protests are also a given: cheering and jeering, catch-phrases (“raping and pillaging the lands”), provocative words (dirty oil), out-of-context facts, details and numbers, hyperbole, animated and excitable spokespeople, noise and the fact of media-coverage life that the responses rarely get as much attention as the protest.

It happens about abortion, immigrants, mad cows, taxes, sugary pop, racism, baby seals, whales and polar bears, climate change and generally savaging the planet.

Unfortunately, while most protests are unconditionally well-intentioned, the passion and the emotion of the protestors often misses the legitimate points, confuses the actual situation and must settle for cheap-attention and fickle gut-reactions for a small segment of the public they had hoped to sway or incite.

“Negativity always gets more attention than positivity,”shrugs Alex Poubaix, TransCanada Corporation’s admittedly biased president of energy and oil pipelines. “But whether it is supposedly about the pipeline or any other hot issues, people ultimately know when they are being manipulated, and when it comes tot he frequent oil sand and Keystone protests, the average Albertan definitely sees through it.”

According to Philip Cross, a former Statistics Canada official and now research coordinator with Ottawa’s respected Macdonald-Laurier Institute think-tank, “Protestors on the contentious social issues tend to be very simplistic and short-sighted. Although the average person may politely respect the opinions, they invariably do see through the shrill claims.”

While the recent and ongoing protests on both sides of the longest, unguarded and friendly border in the world chant concerns and outrage about oil polluting the environment and the mammoth pipeline which would be the allegedly hazardous transportation to move the culprit oil to its refining destinations, the industry’s self-confessed, biased insiders and objective experts seem to agree that most of the rallying-cry protest issues are unrealistic, faulty, inaccurate, misleading and sometimes naive, intended to excite more than convince.

“The facts undisputedly show that Albertan disposable incomes are way ahead of the rest of the country,” Cross points out, “and it’s overwhelmingly due to the energy sector.”

According to the gung-ho and outspoken Dr. Michal Moore, professor at the Institute for Sustainable Energy, Environment and Economy (ISEEE) and a visiting professor at the iconic Cornell University in New York, most protests are a distortion of the truth. “They are usually silly and nonsensical and don’t recognize the realities of life. Protest rhetoric usually substitutes shorthand for the real issues. The battle cry is ‘I’m against taxes’ not against all the things that taxes provide for me.

“The recent pipeline protests are prime examples. Much of what we have, see and enjoy in Alberta is due, in one form or another, to the chemical industry,” he snaps. “Look, let’s face it, the industry supports us all.

“There are environmental and economic risks to the extracting of any natural resources. Risks of getting it out, transporting it and processing it. the undisputable bottom line is that pipelines are tested, documented and provenly the safest way to move product. Of course the y must be (and are)very strictly regulated, regularly inspected and must comply with compromised safety and  regulatory standards, but pipelines are definitely a minimized risk. They are routinely used, without incident, to move water, waste, natural gas, other chemicals and , ye, oil!” Dr Moore says as an adamant analogy.

The facts, figures and documented industry research and opinions make an un-protestable case for reality when it comes to North America’s insatiable oil habit.

By all calculations, stats and projections about even well-intentioned and noble wishes and goals – like Barrack Obama’s urge “to transition toward more sustainable sources of energy and greater energy independence” – most industry experts (and even some rational protestors) acknowledge that a true transition to renewable energy will take, at the very least, three or four decades.

“Electric cars, for example, need batteries and they don’t go nearly far enough for the average North American consumer and they require conveniently accessible re-charging stations,” Dr. Moore itemizes. “And now we know that electric cars are quite a bit more expensive and the consumer will likely not pay for the premium. If electric cars catch-on at all, it will be a  very gradual penetration over a long period of time. We simply haven’t invented very many good substitutes for the way we prefer and are used to living. We need and must have a car!”

Pourbaix uses basic facts and statistics to make his point about a somewhat simple answer to the familiar and contentious arguments of protestors. “Every morning in North America, we turn the ignition key in 300 million vehicles. One day that may change, but for now and for the foreseeable future, that’s the way it is. the marketplace has resounding said it needs oil.

“In Alberta we have over one million barrels-a-day of contract for an average term of 17 years,” he explain. “It may be frustrating for some protestors to deal with, but the oil sands are definitely going to get developed irrespective of Keystone being built or not, and that oil will find its way to market. The question is which market? Because the marketplace dictates what is produced and what is refined. The pipeline just transports it.”

Pourbaix chooses not to get baited into protest rebuttals but continues to plead his rational case where it counts: in Ottawa and Washington, as he did this April when he addressed the U.S Congress, making the point that despite protests for alternate energies and accusations about oil destroying the planet, “the U.S. consumes 15 million barrels of oil each day and imports eight to nine million barrels. Fort he foreseeable future, oil is a necessity.

“The vital question is: does the U.S. want its oil from a friendly neighbor like Canada and domestic sources like the Bakken play or does it want to continue importing higher-priced foreign oil from nations that do not support U.S. values. It’s that simple,”

While some protestors were getting some curiosity for their cause, Pourbaix and his diverse delegation were underscoring their Washington pitch with a potent American closer.

Besides supporting long-term U.S. energy security, TransCanada’s multi-billion dollar oil pipeline system (just waiting for the American President’s signature) is a much-needed and major positive for the U.S economy because it means jobs. He is quick and passionate about explaining that TransCanada currently employs more than 4,000 American workers building the Gulf Coast project in Texas and Oklahoma and that translates into thousands welders, mechanics, electricians, laborers, safety coordinators, heavy equipment operators and others.

“Most people aren’t so gullible that they buy into the rhetoric of protests, but you can never be sure what some people are thinking,” grins Cross. “Remember: 20-25 percent of Americans don’t believe man actually landed on the moon.”