Energy development is a topical concern for contemporary Canadian society. Concerns about the future of energy have focused on the perceived conflict between economic development and environmental protection, with little discussion of the social and cultural impacts. However, energy development, transportation and consumption profoundly structure what it means to be human in a modernized society.
From February 6th to the 7th I attended the Petrocultures: Oil, Energy and Canada’s Future conference held in Montreal, Quebec, Canada. The event brought together leading figures to debate the role of oil and energy in shaping social, cultural and political life in Canada. Speakers discussed how Canada’s future is shaped by unique petrocultural relationships. My previous conference experiences have mostly focused on the public policy and business of energy, but attending Petrocultures exposed me to the social and cultural dynamics of energy.
Petrocultures revealed a harsh reality: energy development is a contentious topic, with many different groups and ideologies competing to shape Canada’s future. This became evident through two important events. First, a panel featuring Ezra Levant (Ethical Oil) and Tzeporah Berman (This Crazy Time) demonstrated the polarizing perspectives of energy development, specifically the oil sands. Second, prior to the start of the second day, protestors locked out conference attendees from entering the building.
A fundamental challenge to sustainable energy development is the entrenched dependence on dated energy infrastructure. The current North American energy landscape relies on an infrastructure network of pipelines, roads, and railways that are rapidly adapting to new sources of energy (Bakken) and new markets (Southeast Asia). At the conference, Philip D. Moeller from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission spoke about a lack of pipeline capacity in Northeastern United States that is limiting the regions ability to access liquefied natural gas from producers in the Midwest, thus slowing the transition away from coal and nuclear electricity.
Beyond issues of sustainably transporting energy are the challenges of sustainably transporting humans. Urban and suburban areas rely on infrastructure networks that perpetuate automobility and the high rates of carbon emissions from personal fossil fuel consumption. In 2011 emissions from transportation (including passenger, freight, and off-road) were the largest contributor to Canada’s GHG emissions, representing 24% of overall GHGs at a total of 170 MT CO2e . Transportation is a key component of how society functions, and how individuals interact.
Modern societies have a diversity of public policies in place to support technological advancements that will improve energy efficiency, while also expanding the use of alternative and low-carbon sources of energy. However the transition to a sustainable energy future is complicated by polarized perceptions of what energy sources to enable. Social and cultural disputes over sources of energy place boundaries on what is developed as well as what energy used. The list of critical perspectives of energy goes on: oil sands are framed as the most destructive project, wind turbines are blamed for blocking beachfront views, while there remains questions about nuclear energy safety and reliability. Ultimately what we are left with is a society that is bitterly divided on all forms of energy.
Despite this divided energy future, one important solution is greater energy education. A high degree of energy literacy will help the public to navigate the increasingly polarized information on energy development, transportation and consumption.
About the Author: Denny Brett is a graduate student at the University of Alberta, writing a Masters’ Thesis on oil sands policy. Follow Denny on Twitter: @denny_des_brett.
Government of Canada. Canada’s Emissions Trends. Ottawa, Ontario: Environment Canada, October 2013.
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