Crude Observations

Groundhogs – again

It is interesting, to me at least, how as I prepare to transition this blog to a bi-weekly missive I seem to encounter all these “annual traditions” that I have somehow fallen into which of course prevent me from doing anything new, taking a break and refreshing myself.


Let’s look at early February for example. Some things in this month never seem to change.


First, we have the ritualistic annihilation of energy markets, as the financial markets, disconnected as they are from the physical markets and reality, pound away on energy prices, driven by some misguided idea that oil demand is crashing and that prices per barrel must drop. Every bit of bad news (oh no, inventories went up by 3 mm barrels! Ho hum!) is a precursor to a $2 per barrel drop in prices while bullish news (global inventories are at decade lows and falling) leads to a $0.05 rally, only to be undone by some poorly worded communique from OPEC+, a misinterpreted factory order reading from China or a crypto distraction.


February as well is the time of year where natural gas storage and supply is challenged by wintry consumption. Only to be undone by some mild weather in Pennsylvania and some furry rodent not seeing its shadow, meaning that winter has only 4 weeks to go (more on that later) so gas prices should fall further. Granted, natural gas prices have no one to blame except themselves. Producers are producing more. Exporters (LNG and pipes) are exporting less due to shutdowns and other physical limitations – so storage is, relatively, bloated. And prices have reacted accordingly. Whatever – as you know, gas always disappoints, until it doesn’t. Stay the course.


In another ritualistic February happening, Tom Brady has again announced his retirement from active playing. He did this February 1st. One year to the day from when he announced his retirement last year. The year before he was in the Super Bowl. The year before he was terrible and left New England. The year before he was in the Super Bowl. Get the picture? Maybe he will finally retire and go away this time. For a guy who lost to Eli Manning in the Super Bowl twice and had a decent 23-year career, it all seems a bit overdone.


Ugh, I say. Ugh.


That said, I suppose there is something to be said for consistency.


Speaking of which, and where this was obviously going, because it does every year at this time, this is the time of year when I get to do my annual Groundhog Day reprise. And not just on TV, but in real life, here in this blog.


I do this reprise because as I observe every year, over and over and over again, we seem to inhabit a real-world version of the movie Groundhog Day wherein we are destined to, like the character played by Bill Murray, relive the same day repeatedly until it feels like our heads will collectively explode.


I wrote my first Groundhog Day blog 6 years ago and thematically, not much has changed.


I like to dig it up every year to point out that the more things change, the more they seem to stay the same. But at some point, metaphorically and actually speaking, it is time for a new day.


Oh, and the first year I wrote this, Tom Brady and the Patriots were defending Super Bowl champions.


So, Groundhog Day (note to media – not “Groundhog’s Day”). What are we to think?


It’s a day of hope and a welcome break from drudgery of winter where some overfed wannabe muskrat lets us all know whether we will have hope or not for the renewal that is spring. Except in Quebec, where their groundhog sadly passed away the night before the big day. RIP Fred.


Technically it was also yesterday and the results were mixed depending on where you live.


But who doesn’t love the sense of anticipation as overstuffed rodents across the continent poke their heads out of cages or holes and indicate to the huddled masses whether spring will be early or late, should they short natural gas, buy stock in rebranded social media networks, start a tech hedge fund or short Toronto real estate?


All that stuff. And in light of uncertain and volatile markets, if Balzac Billy or Calgary Clarice or Punxsutawney Phil could shed a little light on where things are going, we wouldn’t object.


At any rate, I have polished the piece a bit over the years and today was no exception, but it does stand the test of time.


Groundhog Day


“Well, what if there is no tomorrow? There wasn’t one today.”


Sound apropos?


For those unfamiliar with the movie this quote comes from, Groundhog Day tells the story of Phil Connors, the egomaniacal, self-absorbed TV weatherman trapped reporting from Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania on Groundhog Day, who finds himself inexplicably repeating the same day over and over again no matter what he tries to do to alter his situation. Intertwined within this existential dilemma is salvation in the form of the love interest – the sweet and gentle Rita, and we all know that once Phil figures out how to win her over, it will be the perfect ending.


For my purposes here, Phil is alternatively the energy sector or Alberta, and Rita is of course the Rest of Canada – expanded to be the “rest of the world”.


Think about some of the doom and gloom that always seem to dominate the Canadian oil patch discussion: single market price-taker, environmental laggard, lack of market access… each of these seem to be running on an endless loop with no progress on any front. Now with an added dose of Just Transition – like can we transition out of this endless loop?


Ultimately though, the one topic that seems to dominate is that of pipeline and infrastructure projects being proposed and pushed back. Whether it’s Coastal Gas Link and First Nations protests, TransMountain and constant protest, Line 5 and spurious attempts to shut down a section, Line 3 and misinformed celebrity protestors, Dakota Access and lax environmental permitting, Keystone XL and Biden executive orders, uneconomic ideas like Energy East that just won’t go away, LNG that lacks business cases, seeming Liberal indifference and resulting Conservative anger, it seems no matter what we do, pipelines and major projects can’t get a leg forward and move to the next step.


“Do you ever have déjà vu, Mrs. Lancaster?”

“I don’t think so, but I could check with the kitchen.”


Much like many sector participants’ current views of our government and politicians or even the views of those self-same politicians that they know best what to do – at the beginning of the film, Phil, secure in the superiority of his worldview, looks down his nose at the traditions and needs of the quaint town of Punxsutawney.


“This is one time where television really fails to capture the true excitement of a large squirrel predicting the weather.”


Then as the same day repeats and the eternal recurrence deepens and becomes more absurd, his mood changes, his despair grows.


“You want a prediction about the weather, you’re asking the wrong Phil. I’ll give you a winter prediction: It’s gonna be cold, it’s gonna be grey, and it’s gonna last you for the rest of your life.”


When you think of it, the parallels are interesting, starting from Stephen Harper’s “It’s a no-brainer” through the 2015 Keystone rejection to it being revived to it being cancelled again to the doom and gloom predictions for the Canadian energy sector to our own Prime Minister seemingly singularly focused on ending the energy sector (no business case for LNG), it seems that the quote above could be easily have been written as an opinion piece on the Alberta energy industry. In fact, it just might have. And those people who would bury the sector point to all the bad news as proof – the Alberta government losing its investment, the KXL project as dead as will likely ever be. It sure seems like things are bleak, but as always, there is a glimmer of hope. That hope of course is rising prices for both gas and oil ($90! 2014 anyone?), the realities of how the energy transition may or may not unfold and the impacts on provincial finances. Not to mention the pending completion of two massive projects – the Transmountain Expansion and LNG Canada and Coastal Gas Link!


First though, our protagonist (hero?) needs to learn.


After Phil gets over the initial shock of reliving the same day over and over, he blunders around trying to figure out how he will get out of his mess. And in the process, he goes through his own version of seven steps. He tries to have fun with it and overindulge. He rages, he gives up. He gets rich, he steals, he buys ridiculous amounts of insurance (Bing!) and steps in the same flooded pothole seemingly every day.


He even kidnaps and kills the groundhog (“There is no way that this winter is *ever* going to end as long as this groundhog keeps seeing his shadow. I don’t see any other way out. He’s got to be stopped. And I have to stop him.”) and ultimately tries repeatedly to kill himself.


“What would you do if you were stuck in one place and every day was exactly the same, and nothing that you did mattered?”


And all the while, much like Alberta attempts to court the Rest of Canada and prove how important it is, he tries to hit the perfect stride with Rita, but again, because of his nature, he tries too hard to be his version of perfect. His efforts are contrived and awkward. And because the days are short (it’s wi8nter after all), he continually runs out of time with Rita and then with each subsequent reliving, he gets more anxious, more desperate, ultimately becoming almost manic, angry and bullying and ultimately pushes her further away.


Sounding familiar? Is this not reminiscent of the last (far too many) years of pipeline and oil and gas advocacy? Project supporters and provincial leaders coming off as increasingly desperate as they are unable to make their case to the object of their desire and in their efforts to outsmart the situation revealing a part of themselves and a strategy that was best left in the idea box.


Phil Connors:     Who is your perfect guy?

Rita:                       Well, first of all, he’s too humble to know he’s perfect.

Phil Connors:     That’s me!


But the attraction is undoubtedly there – unbeknownst to her, Rita actually needs Phil as much as he needs her. Much as Canada needs Alberta, energy, pipelines, tax money and GDP contributions and vice versa. There is a karmic connection, if only the conditions are made right to let it happen…


As the story advances, and his failures become more egregious and reactions more outrageous our hero isn’t static. Underneath all the noise Phil is adapting, he is learning. He is starting to understand that what it is that Rita wants is not necessarily what he is projecting on her.


So, after finally exhausting every last option and angle to get something for himself, bend Rita to his will and make it happen under his own terms, he finally lays himself bare to Rita, tells her his fears, his temporal dilemma and she sympathizes and she stays with him – to help. Phil learns that by giving something of himself and allowing events to unfold without attempting to control them, he is finally able to have the perfect day and get the perfect girl – redemption, transmutation, transmogrification, Nirvana… a new day – take that Nietzsche. Maybe even a Just Transition from yesterday’s Phil to today’s Phil.


Phil:       Do you know what today is?

Rita:       No, what?

Phil:       Today is tomorrow. It happened


So, is Alberta/the oil patch really Phil?


I don’t know. Are we crusty on the outside but with a heart of gold on the inside once we let down our guard? Can it happen like that for us? Can we use the lessons of a ‘90s movie about a rodent to convince the rest of Canada that we can be who they want? Who knows. But the traditional way hasn’t worked in close to 80 years, so I like to think so.


Distilled to its basics, the most applicable lesson to be learned from the film is that the only way out is through and that we can escape from whatever situation we’re in by adopting the correct attitude and adapting to the environment instead of trying to make it fit our paradigm.


To get to the result we want here in Alberta and for the oil patch and ultimately for critical infrastructure projects that will secure our ability to supply ourselves and our largest trading partners with needed hydrocarbon molecules and derivative products, we need to allow the process to happen on its own and stop trying to force it into a narrative that is stale and unproductive outside of our tight little silo, no matter how painful and no matter how frustrating or how often it seems like we are back at square one.


We also need to understand that the object of our desires isn’t simply going to do what we want them to do because we say so and on our terms. They have their own terms.


For Phil, Rita was worth it. He adapted to her and was able to move on.


Is it worth it for us? Absolutely. We need to send the rest of Canada a positive message, not doom and gloom – something like “I got you babe.”


And then maybe the clock changes over.




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