Crude Observations

Not This Again…

Last week’s blog was labelled as controversial but in retrospect, maybe it wasn’t as out there as I thought. It seems that many of the themes I brought up resonated with a lot of people from many different backgrounds and political proclivities. That said, I also received a fair bit of criticism, which I appreciate as much as support. I enjoy the dialogue and the sharing of ideas.


On a personal note, I just want to emphasize for the record that I believe I am an equal opportunity excoriator of anyone in a position of power who abuses or misuses that power or does things I don’t agree with and, to be honest, should probably have the disclaimer that my views as expressed here don’t necessarily reflect the views of Stormont – we have had many arguments around the coffee machine over the last 11 years. What bothers me most is rigidity. Don’t get so ideologically static that you can’t reason, adapt, change. The world changes every day as does the energy economy and we need to be constantly re-evaluating our place in it and how we go about our business. Don’t believe things can change fast? Last week we were watching a pipeline get cancelled. This week we learned about meme-stocks, stonks, gamma-squeezes, WSB and that GameStop was a publicly traded company. If you are stuck in an ideological sand-trap, all these things will over-run you. That’s often how I feel about where we are at on energy.


For the record, I work in the energy industry. I love pipelines. Seriously. Before Stormont, I helped build, through acquisition, a premiere pipeline and facility construction business here in Western Canada. I am an unabashed cheerleader for the energy industry writ large, whether it’s upstream investment in the Duvernay, oilsands expansion and turnarounds, midstream gathering, downstream transportation, coastal mega-projects, giant wind farms in Vulcan or solar arrays on schools. I say bring it on. Bring it all on. Spend your money, all of it if possible, here. Because the reality is we do need it all. In an energy transition, we need to take advantage of every opportunity.


But I do admit, it’s exhausting, especially on the fossil fuel development side. And the disappointments have far outnumbered the wins in recent years. The application, the approval, the permit, the losing of the permit, the lawsuits, the cancellations, the recriminations, the blaming, the pointing of fingers. Propose one, approve one, oppose one, delay one. Lather, rinse, repeat. Dodge the inevitable daggers from the environmentalists and get what you can done. Then the prices fall.


All these things happening over and over. And it seems like we never make any progress or we simply ignore the things that are progress because they don’t fit a particular agenda. It’s almost like we are stuck living the same year/week/month/day over and over again.


But maybe, just maybe, rather than looking for pre-ordained results or definitions of success, we instead need to redefine what success looks like. And one way to do that is to break the cycle. Stop repeating the same talking points. Stop tilting at the same windmills. Start the hard learning to adapt and profit from the new energy transition reality that is clearly in place. In many ways, KXL is a wake-up call, for all of us. What we do next will define the next economic cycle in Alberta. Do we double-down on past grievances or do we step forward?


I say this not to be prosaic or wax lyrical. I say it because right now we are stuck in a real-world version of the movie Groundhog Day. Except the star isn’t Bill Murray. It’s us.


Don’t believe me? Below is an adaptation of an excerpt from a rehash of a blog I wrote five years ago!!!


I like to dig it up every year or so 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.


Don’t believe me? The first year I wrote this, Tom Brady and the Patriots were defending Super Bowl champions even though they missed the big game. Skip a year ahead and for the next three years Tom Brady and Patriots were in the Super Bowl and I periodically brought up the Groundhog Day metaphor yet again. And here I am, dusting it off one more time and guess what – Tom Brady and the anti-Patriot Buccaneers are heading to the Super Bowl. (note – for gambling purposes, each time I use the Groundhog Day theme, Brady wins – just saying).


So Groundhog Day (note to media – not “Groundhog’s Day”). It’s a day of hope as some overfed wannabe raccoon lets us all know whether we will have hope or not. 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 failed retailers, start a hedge fund or buy a new scarf. All that stuff. And in light of where we are in the pandemic, if Balzac Billy, or Calgary Clarice or Punxsutawney Phil could shed a little light on where things are going there, we wouldn’t object.


At any rate, I have polished the piece a bit over the years and today was no exception, but it may as well have been written yesterday.


The Groundhog Blog:


“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 currently 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.


Ultimately though, the one topic that seems to dominate is that of pipeline 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, 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 pretty 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, 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 current state of affairs with 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.


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 because the days are short, 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 several years of pipeline advocacy? Project supporters 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 really there – unbeknownst to her, Rita actually needs Phil as much as he needs her, much as Canada needs Alberta, energy and pipelines 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.


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 are who they want? Who knows. But the traditional way doesn’t seem to be working, 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 end result we want here in Alberta and for the oil patch and ultimately for some of these critical pipeline projects that will secure our ability to supply our largest trading partners, we need to allow the process to happen on its own and stop trying to force it, 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? I sure think so.


And then maybe the clock changes over. Click.

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