An Inconvenient Talk

Dave Hughes’s guide to the end of the fossil fuel age

Dave Hughes’s guide to the end of the fossil fuel age

Photograph by Wilkosz + Way

Dave Hughes is driving north on Highway 2. Headed out of Calgary, where he worked for thirty-two years at the Geological Survey of Canada, mapping the nation’s coal reserves. Bound for Edmonton, where he grew up and earned two degrees in geology. It’s not yet dawn, the sky deep black and the windows of his pickup truck like mirrors, the southbound lanes a line of smeared headlights as long-haul commuters make the trek the other way into the capital of the oil patch. Hughes sips coffee from a reusable mug, fighting back sleepiness. Just another commuter trailing a cloud of burnt dinosaur bones on his way to work.

Dave had to start out fifteen minutes earlier than the requisite ungodly hour so he could pick you up at your house. So you wouldn’t drive yourself. Save a few hydrocarbons, he’d joked. He’s a coal man, a geologist, and he always refers to the holy trinity of fossil fuels whose flames have stoked the past 200 years of industrial growth—coal, natural gas, and especially oil—in that same semi-technical way: hydrocarbons. Dave Hughes has a lot to say about hydrocarbons, mainly how there’s no possible way to keep running the engine of a modern global economy for much longer at the pace we’re burning them. Which is why you felt compelled to join him in the black chill of this late-autumn morning. Because that seems like a pretty big deal.

Dave came right to the curb out in front of your house, your personal chauffeur, because you said you were interested in hearing his talk a second time, and he’ll do his level best to bring his talk to just about anyone who asks. The Talk, he usually calls it, and you can tell it has been a proper noun in his head for a good long while now. Somewhere between that first lecture back in 2002 at the University of Calgary and the 155th, the one he’ll give later today at a Natural Resources Canada research facility outside Edmonton, it became his passion, his quiet crusade, his data-freighted inconvenient truth. The Talk. One hundred fifty-four times. Geoscience symposia and energy industry summits and sustainability conferences. The Greater Vancouver Regional District and the Nova Scotia chambers of commerce. A petroleum trade show in Inuvik and a renewable energy confab in Flagstaff, Arizona. The Canadian Institute’s Coalbed Methane Symposium and the annual conference of the Association for the Study of Peak Oil and Gas. The audiences vary, but The Talk only tightens, takes on layers, attains a porous firmness like sedimentary stone. It is crowded with hard facts, and it is intended to overwhelm audiences with its certainty. It’s a reality check, a doozy of a reality check, and Dave doesn’t have much time these days for anyone who won’t face this reality.

Talk No. 147 took place at an urban sustainability forum at the Westin Hotel in Calgary. That’s where you first saw it. The title slide read “The Energy Sustainability Dilemma: Powering the Future in a Finite World,” and identified its presenter as J. David Hughes. Since then, you, too, have come to think of it as The Talk, and its author simply as Dave. Dave was on the bill that day with such dignitaries as the mayor of Calgary and the premier of Alberta. The officials talked about how to turn this boom town into a place that was “all things energy,” but nothing they said had any real resonance after The Talk. When the provincial sustainable resources minister came up to congratulate himself for setting aside some new provincial parkland on the edge of the city, it was as if he’d just awakened from cryogenic freezing, blipped in from some ancient time long before the existence of the world described in The Talk.

The Talk is in essence a constantly updated survey of the state of the planet through a hydrocarbon geologist’s eyes. It plows methodically through reams of energy-geek data. World Conventional Oil and Oil Sands Reserves, 1980–2007. Energy Profit Ratio for Liquid Hydrocarbons. Canadian Gas Deliverability Scenarios from All Sources. The small-font notes at the bottom of each PowerPoint slide enumerate sources that read like a general anaesthetic in print form: BP Statistical Review of World Energy, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, eia International Energy Outlook. Pie charts and bar graphs with several rainbows’ worth of colour and an overabundance of italicized and all-capped words: “The absolute first priority,” that kind of thing. (By the way, it should be “to reduce energy consumption as soon as possible.”)

The Talk is all kinds of policy-wonky. Your eyes could glaze over. You could even miss the two slides Dave always says are the only ones you must remember. The first is a single-line graph depicting “World Per Capita Annual Primary Energy Consumption by Fuel 1850–2007,” which climbs by 761 percent over its 157-year timeline and flips from 82 percent renewable biomass (mostly wood) at the 1850 end to 89 percent non-renewables (almost entirely fossil fuels) at the 2007 end. The second critical slide has three line graphs in horizontal sequence, all tracking curves that begin in 1850, around the time humanity started drilling for oil in a serious way, and then spiking impossibly high at the right-hand, 2007 termini of their X axes. Global population today: 5.3 times global population in 1850. Per capita energy consumption today: 8.6 times that of 1850. Total energy consumption today: 45 times 1850’s.

You could also miss the way these figures resonate with The Talk’s voluminous data on oil and natural gas and coal reserves. You could miss how our current trajectory obliges us to rely on hydrocarbons for 86 percent of our projected primary energy needs in 2030, and how that fits with the strong case Hughes makes that the global hydrocarbon peak (the point at which global energy supply will begin an irrevocable decline, making the energy price shocks of the past couple of years start to look like the good old days) is estimated to occur nine years before that date.

Here’s the upshot: if you plan to drive a car or heat a house or light a room in 2030, The Talk is telling you your options will be limited, to say the least. Even if you’re convinced climate change is UN-sponsored hysteria or every last puff of greenhouse gas will soon be buried forever a mile underground or ducks look their best choking on tar sands tailings, Dave Hughes is saying your way of life is over. Not because of the clouds of smoke, you understand, but because we’re running out of what makes them.

In the aftermath of Talk No. 147, you intercepted Dave as he did his unassuming geologist’s shuffle across the reception hall. You breathed Big Rock Trad into his tired eyes as you tried to assess which of the synaptic eruptions going off in your brain was worth blurting out. You kept it as nonchalant as you could manage. If I understand you correctly, Dave, you’re saying we’re a decade or two from the onset of the terminal collapse of the global energy economy, and there’s not enough of anything left, and no way to dig and drill fast enough for whatis left. Never mind climate change—we’ll plum run out of hydrocarbons long before we can burn enough of the stuff to seal our doom. Have I, uh, have I got that right?

He replied that they hadn’t given him as long as he likes. He likes seventy-five minutes. That’s a better length for The Talk. Because what happens very often after The Talk is people have a lot of questions, and with a bit more time Dave can address those issues in The Talk itself—it’s difficult to surprise him. Even then, though, there’s always one guy at the back whose head has seized up like a crashed computer and who’s desperately trying to reboot to a more familiar welcome screen. He’s the one spewing out a dozen variations on This can’t be so.

A while later, Dave got in touch to tell you he’d be doing the full-length version for his old colleagues at NRCan, up near Edmonton. You should come, he said. So you have.

You’ve learned a few things about Dave in the interim. He’s fifty-eight years old, a married man with a grown daughter and three grandkids whose collective future worries him enormously and fuels the quiet urgency of The Talk. He lives for much of the year on Cortes Island, a remote rural idyll at the northern end of the Georgia Strait, off the coast of British Columbia. Not because it’s a survivalist retreat—though you couldn’t help jumping to that conclusion at first—but because when he first laid eyes on the place in 1977 he knew he’d found his own little slice of paradise. He bought it in 1990, when he still toiled for the Geological Survey in Calgary.

His was a quiet government researcher’s life. Then, in 1995, a major Canadian energy company came calling, hoping to figure out how much natural gas might someday be mined from coal bed methane deposits—an “unconventional” gas reserve. This is how Dave learned that the gas industry was worried there wasn’t enough conventional natural gas left in Canada to feed its pipes indefinitely. His research confirmed those suspicions. (In The Talk, Dave now places Canada’s natural gas production plateau between 2001 and 2006; he supports predictions of a global peak of conventional gas reserves by 2027. He is calmly, logically, witheringly dismissive of rosier scenarios involving unconventional reserves.)

Around the same time, Dave stumbled on the work of Colin Campbell. After thirty years as an oil field geologist, unearthing new pools of crude for the likes of Texaco, BP, and Amoco, Campbell had throughout the ’90s been writing in the press and academic journals, with mounting alarm, about the imminent arrival of peak oil—the moment when humanity will have burned half the planet’s oil reserves, after which an economy driven by the stuff will rapidly (and potentially catastrophically) unravel.

First articulated by Shell Oil geologist M. King Hubbert in 1956, and expanded upon in the years since by Princeton University’s Kenneth Deffeyes, an ever-growing roster of academics and analysts, and even a few rogue oilmen, peak oil theory was still considered a lunatic fringe notion by the mainstream oil and gas business when Dave started reading up on it. As recently as 2005, well into Dave’s second career as a peak-hydrocarbon prophet, the executive director of the International Energy Agency (iea)—probably the most trusted name in fossil fuel reserve prediction—was dismissing peak oil’s proponents as “doomsayers.” Mainstream media coverage, meanwhile, tended to focus on the hard-core survivalist subculture the science had inspired.

Two weeks after you ride along with Dave Hughes for Talk No. 155, though, the iea releases the latest edition of its annual World Energy Outlook, which predicts a global oil production peak or plateau by 2030. In a video that appears online soon after, the Guardian’s George Monbiot requests a more precise figure from the iea’s chief economist, Fatih Birol. The official estimate, she confesses, is 2020. Monbiot also inquires as to the motivation for the iea’s sudden about-face, and Birol explains dryly that previous studies were “mainly an assumption.” That is, the 2008 version was the first in which the iea actually examined hard data, wellhead by wellhead, from the world’s 800 largest oil fields. Monbiot asks, with understandable incredulity, how it was that such a survey hadn’t been conducted previously. Birol’s response: “In fact, nobody has done that research. And the research we have done this year is the first in the world, and this is the first publicly available data in that respect.”

This will come back to you again and again as you follow Dave farther down the road he’s travelled. Like the first oil executive’s public confirmation of the scientific reality of climate change (Lord Browne, BP, 1997), it is a pivotal declaration, an irreversible shift of the centre of balance from one side of the fulcrum to the other.

Dave’s been over on that reality-based side, publicly at least, since 2002, when the University of Calgary’s business school invited him to present his research on the growing scarcity of fossil fuels to its regular luncheon speakers series. This was Talk No. 1. Word spread, each Talk spawning another, and Dave was soon criss-crossing the continent.

And now he is behind the wheel of his new Toyota Tacoma four-by-four (you can tell he’s pretty pleased with it—it’s a backwoods Cortes Island kind of vehicle, rugged but reasonably efficient), and he’s turning off Highway 2 under a blinding prairie sun. He drives down a couple of those arrow-straight central Alberta secondary highways, and you come eventually to a low-slung office park on the outskirts of a town called Devon. This is NRCan’s National Centre for Upgrading Technology, a place where lab rats in long coats and hard hats work in vaulted warehouse spaces crammed with piles of pipe-and-valve apparatus straight out of a Dr. Seuss illustration, all of it intended to make it easier to turn unconventional fossil fuels into conventional ones. After Dave arrives, a swath of the centre’s staff gathers in a cramped, airless meeting space the size of a high school classroom, and Talk No. 155 begins.

What strikes you right away, this second time around, is how the data seems even more flooring. Ninety percent of all the oil humanity has ever burned has turned to ash and greenhouse gases since 1959—half since 1986. Ninety percent of all the natural gas ever burned set aflame since 1964. Half of humanity’s cumulative coal tally up in smoke since 1972. “When I was born, back in 1950”—this is Dave, summarizing in his flat, slightly clipped deadpan—“the world had 95 percent of ultimate recoverable hydrocarbons remaining. Today we’ve consumed about 40 percent of ultimate recoverable hydrocarbons. If we keep consuming them as fast as we can produce them, 80 percent will be gone by 2050. And that’s a huge concern for future generations.” This presumes, of course, that what remains after we reach 50 percent—the global hydrocarbon peak—can even continue to be extracted at speeds and volumes that make any kind of economic sense.

The huge concern, in other words, isn’t the total but the difficulty of recovering those remaining hydrocarbons beyond the halfway mark. You notice, too, the way the keywords on that subject start to stick. Energy return on energy invested, which geologists refer to interchangeably as eroei or eroi. Canada’s exploration treadmill. Reserves-to-production ratios.

You pick one at random, fixate on it. The historical eroei for conventional oil is 100:1. This refers to the kind of crude that gushes up in the opening credits of The Beverly Hillbillies, the kind that first flowed out of the Ghawar oil field in Saudi Arabia when it was tapped in 1948. Invest a barrel’s worth of energy drilling and refining in a spot like Ghawar, then and forever the largest single crude oil deposit on the planet, and you used to get 100 barrels of energy-dense, easily transported fuel in return. These days, conventional eroei for such places is closer to 25:1.

The eroei on more recent “new conventional” deposits, which Dave cites mostly by their discovery and extraction methods (“deepwater oil, horizontal wells, 3-D seismic”) is also around 25:1. In Alberta’s tar sands, the surface-mined bitumen comes to market at an eroei of 6:1. “In situ” bitumen—sludge buried too far under the boreal forest floor to excavate, which comprises the lion’s share of the most breathless estimates of Canada’s energy superpower–scale oil production—rings in at 3:1. Corn ethanol, that darling of America’s farm states, is somewhere between 1.3:1 and 0.75:1. Shale oil, another unconventional source held by its boosters to be capable of indefinitely extending the age of oil, has never been converted into fuel at a net energy profit, at least as far as Dave has been able to ascertain.

“I like to say that it’s not a resource issue—it’s a deliverability issue,” Dave tells the crowd at NRCan. It’s true, you notice; he does like to say it. Twice in this presentation, a few more times by satellite phone from Cortes many weeks later. “Bottom line is we’ve gone through the easy stuff, and we’re getting into more and more difficult sources of these hydrocarbons.”

You sit in a stuffy classroom in this esoteric research facility on the windswept prairie, and you listen carefully over the nagging cough of the bureaucrat next to you, and you copy out the balance of Dave’s 155th recitation of his final summary verbatim. You want to make sure you get it right. He delivers it in truncated bullet points, as if trying to compress the messy, multiply claused extravagances of language into tight packets of data:

The realities of the finite nature of non-renewable energy resources are now becoming evident. Peak oil in many producing countries. Peak North American natural gas. A tenfold increase in uranium prices since 2000. Imports of coal into the US after centuries of self-sufficiency. Despite the hype, renewable energy technologies are extremely unlikely to be able to fill the supply gap from hydrocarbons and non-renewable energy. A sustainable future lies in radically reducing and rethinking energy consumption. A paradigm shift in the way we look at energy. Forecasts of future energy consumption based on extrapolations of growth from the past—which ignore the physical limits of non-renewable resources, and the technological and physical constraints on their rate of conversion to supply—mask the crucial issues facing us and lead to complacency. Which will make the final transition much worse. Climate change is in the minds of the public and the rhetoric of the politicians. The energy sustainability dilemma is much less understood, although it’s highly likely to have more immediate and severe impacts on our current lifestyle than climate change. Which we will likely have to live with for centuries, because of the feedback loops that are already activated. Fortunately, many but not all solutions proposed for climate change also address energy sustainability. The number one priority is energy conservation and much greater efficiency. And there are many opportunities for doing this. Followed by technologies and lifestyle changes to reduce the dependence on non-renewable fuel sources. A sustainable energy future is not out of reach but will be hugely challenging. We have to be thinking on a ten- to twenty-year or longer time frame. To develop the infrastructure for alternatives as well as technologies and incentives to reduce consumption.

You know The Talk is true the way you know a weather report is true—reliable sources, clearly labelled charts, mathematics—but at the same time it can’t be true, can’t be, because if it’s accurate how can the mood in the room remain so workaday? How can you just rise and pour another cup of coffee and listen to someone say, Thanks, Dave, you’ve really given us a lot to think about, for the hundred and fifty-fifth time?

If you want to find evidence to the contrary, the soothing hum of business as usual, it is, of course, everywhere. A study by Daniel Yergin’s highly regarded Cambridge Energy Research Associates, for example, published in November 2006. Not only will there be no oil production peak before 2030, cera asserts, but the global oil supply after that will map an “undulating plateau,” and the very idea of a peak is merely “a dramatic but highly questionable image.” Or here’s John McCarthy of Canada’s own National Energy Board, on the occasion of the publication of Canada’s Energy Future in late 2007. “Canadians will have ample energy supplies,” he states baldly, “until 2030.”

So much of this, though, hinges on a lack of context. The information is fragmented, the conclusions striking at odd angles. It begs you not to consider it for too long. Much of it relies on the basic economist’s assumption that rising prices will inevitably inspire the discovery of more supplies or the substitution of another fuel source, which is infallible truth only within the cozy confines of a self-contained economic model that assumes the earth can provide limitless bounty. So much remains unsaid, so few implications fully examined.

You find a couple of news stories from 2006, both reporting on an announcement by the Canadian Gas Potential Committee that Canada has “at least another quarter century” of natural gas reserves. “It means we have a future,” a spokesperson explains. “The downside is that it’s going to be expensive to get at.” The Calgary Herald—Dave’s erstwhile hometown paper, in a city heated almost exclusively by natural gas—notes this with a kind of glib reassurance. (It’s your hometown paper, too; you know glib reassurance is the Herald’s stock-in-trade.) The National Post, a division of the same corporation, begins its story like this: “It’s going to get about 100 times harder to find and develop conventional sources of natural gas in Canada’s most fruitful basin.” If, within the lifespan of the next furnace you buy, it’s going to be 100 times harder to obtain natural gas, what might that mean for the price you’ll have to pay? Even correcting for the hyperbole that news of fossil fuel scarcity so often inspires, this suggests a vast chasm of unexplored problems.

You read up on coal. You’ve got a vague notion the planet’s overflowing with the stuff, thousands of years’ worth. After all, the underlying assumption of “clean coal” technology research, which your provincial and federal governments are backing with ten-digit sums, is that coal supplies are essentially limitless, that only the greenhouse gas emissions they produce cloud our path to a bright, coal-powered future. Then you find a 2008 story in New Scientist called “The Great Coal Hole.” Officially reported reserves, it notes, are down more than 170 billion tonnes worldwide in the past two decades, and the global reserves-to-production ratio—the number of years the world could consume proven coal reserves at current rates of production—has declined from 277 in 2000 to 144 in 2006. This is not because the world burned up a 133-year supply in six years, but because, as Germany’s Energy Watch Group puts it, “so-called proven reserves were anything but proven.” A Caltech engineer named David Rutledge, meanwhile, applied the same methods used in peak oil prediction to the coal question, and he discovered a paucity of supply so great that he now argues it will be impossible to create the worst-case scenarios in the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s reports, because there are simply not enough economically viable coal reserves left on earth to cloud the atmosphere with more than 460 parts per million of carbon dioxide.

And what was it Dave said about this energy sustainability dilemma? That it would have more immediate and severe impacts on our current lifestyle than climate change? Wherever you look, the logical progression is a rocky road that leads back to The Talk.

You ask Dave, finally, what his colleagues think of The Talk, and soon your phone’s ringing too late on Sunday evenings and too early on weekday mornings. Each time, another fossil fuel geologist, keen to chat. You speak with Jack Century, a passionate gent with fifty-seven years’ experience in the discovery of new oil and gas sources, all but the first seven spent in Alberta’s oil patch. He’s been interested in peak oil since the late ’80s, and he was in the audience at the University of Calgary’s business school for Talk No. 1. When you ask him why there’s so little attention being paid to the idea that the global hydrocarbon economy is brushing up against its ultimate limit, Century tells you, basically, that the problem is there are too many economists and politicians in the conversation and not enough geologists. “Geology is the most fundamental science for understanding the earth as a natural system,” he says. “People simply don’t get geology. It takes some experience, and even geologists who are practising today, a lot of ’em don’t have that experience, to understand that we’re talking about oil that is cheap and conventional and flows like in the Middle East. No doubt we’re running out of that stuff all over the world. There is no technology fix for that—period. None.”

You spend a day criss-crossing downtown Calgary to drink coffee and eat fast food with geologists who don’t want you to mention their names or the names of their employers. One of them, the exploration manager for a major oil and gas company, shows up at an Arby’s booth with a sheaf of papers in his hand. There’s a news clipping in which the iea’s executive director predicts a significant oil supply crunch starting in 2010, and a chart listing production at the world’s ten largest oil fields (the top seven of which are past peak). The exploration manager cites a recent iea figure placing the current depletion rate of global oil production at 6.7 percent per annum. He does the math for you, converting that number to a daily rate of decline, expressed in terms of how many average conventional oil–tapping Alberta wells it equals.

“It’s 400 oil wells,” he tells you, “that every single day are becoming extinct, in essence. That’s what we’re trying to do, replace that many oil wells every single day. On stream, producing, every single day, day in, day out, right? And it’s really, really tough. I’m just telling you. People say, ‘Well, there’s lots of other places in the world they haven’t explored.’ I challenge them to say where those might be. Because you know what? Oil companies, and any other company, for that matter, have the resources to explore worldwide.”

He marvels at the future demand he reads about in the studies—the iea, for example, calling for 130 million barrels a day by 2030, up from about 85 or 86 million today. In such scenarios, the depleted mammoth wells in places like Saudi Arabia are expected to be replaced by new conventional sources like the crude deposits off the shore of Brazil (which, as the exploration manager notes, sometimes require drilling to a depth of 20,000 feet in water nearly a mile deep, at a cost of a hundred million bucks per borehole), and unconventional sources like the Alberta bitumen he’s made a career of finding. “We can barely keep ourselves flat,” he says, “let alone grow it.”

This is, remember, an exploration manager in Alberta’s oil patch talking. The Arby’s wrappers, slick with petrochemical waxes and dotted with crumbs of petrochemically produced beef and wheat and who knows how many corn by-products, sit empty on the table between you like artifacts, and still he wants to keep talking. He characterizes Alberta’s heavy bitumen, and the natural gas extracted from shale by blasting the rock with fracturing fluids at astronomically intense pressures, as “the stuff at the bottom of the bucket.” He calls the $150-a-barrel price shock of last summer “just a prelude.” The recent plummet in prices, he notes, is not only a short-term blip—a sign of a profoundly unhealthy economy—but also a compound threat to future oil supplies, because even the unconventional sources needed to barely meet demand make no economic sense right now, and the companies that build the billion-dollar platforms required to drill for Brazilian oil, for example, can’t get financing. “Treading water”—this is how he describes the activity in Alberta’s oil patch today.

What stays with you, though, is something he said earlier on. “People take it for granted,” he told you, “that they can go to the gas station and fill it up. I don’t think in two or three years that’s something you’ll be able to take for granted. I really don’t.”

So again: an exploration manager for a major oil and gas company is telling you, anonymously, as one concerned citizen to another, that he doesn’t think there’s enough of any of it left. After he finally leaves you to return to his routine business of urgently searching for more, you wander the gas-heated, coal-lit shopping malls at the bases of the office towers at the epicentre of Canada’s gilded oil capital. Eventually, you return to your own car and turn the key, and the engine roars to life. Familiar as it all seems, you can’t help feeling like the world as you’ve always known it has been bumped way off kilter. Nearly upside down in some fundamental way. The temptation to set it back to a more recognizable alignment is enormous. Surely there’s some way. This can’t be so.

The urge to extend the fossil-fuelled status quo a good while longer—long enough, indeed, to resemble indefinitely—is so strong that it forms the backbone of your country’s long-term energy plan. It goes like this: expand the extraction of marginal gas deposits and unconventional oil at breakneck speed, count on a virtually limitless supply of coal, and spend billions of dollars on the technological wizardry of carbon capture and storage (ccs). It helps to repeat the statistical fact that Canada’s remaining oil reserves are second only to Saudi Arabia’s, and to ignore the geological differences between the two. And to quote iea growth forecasts from 2004, and neglect a policy rewrite in light of the organization’s recent, dramatic revision. The various road maps posted at NRCan’s website do all of this and more, the full picture accessed after clicking through a welcome page whose message betrays no uncertainty whatsoever: “Canada relies on a mix of secure and reliable energy sources such as oil, natural gas, hydro-electricity, uranium for nuclear power generation, and coal.”

You find the logical end of the can’t be so argument in a January 2008 report from the ecoEnergy Carbon Capture and Storage Task Force, a joint body serving the Alberta and federal governments. The report is entitled Canada’s Fossil Energy Future, and its underlying assumption is an essentially endless supply of fossil fuels, problematic only for the greenhouse gases they might emit. It calls ccs “essential” and places its recommended goal—the annual injection and storage, by 2050, of 600 megatons of carbon dioxide emissions from bitumen upgraders and coal and gas plants—“on par” with the construction of the national railway. Never mind that the world’s first and until recently only commercial ccs project, currently in operation on the Sleipner T gas platform in the North Sea, is a $400-million project that sequesters roughly two-tenths of one percent of Canada’s goal. It is considered economically viable only because it operates in Norwegian waters and is thus subject to the steepest carbon tax on the planet. Under that regime, it basically breaks even. In the thirteen years since it began operation, its designers have seen fit to build one more such facility. Four-tenths of one percent.

The five members of Canada’s ccs task force are two engineers, a physicist, an economist, and an accountant. Four of them are executives at conventional energy companies. There are no geologists.

So in a sense, it comes down to whom you trust. Energy executives whose stock options and bonus packages depend on a healthy fossil fuel sector, and energy officials whose seniority relies on a boat that never rocks too much, are telling you the market will find a way, and technology will make it sufficiently efficient. The geologist Jack Century, an independent consultant nowadays who’s spent half a century in Alberta’s oil patch, says this: “We have a gigantic, heavy-oil tar sands deposit that will never be developed to the extent [the Alberta government is] talking about—never.” And a retired coal geologist with a cozy retirement spot on bucolic Cortes Island and no remaining vested interest you can discern has embarked upon a second career as a fossil fuel Cassandra, because he’s always understood the miraculous nature of hydrocarbons, and he just can’t make the government’s numbers add up.

You witness the full extent of Dave Hughes’s respect for hydrocarbons—oil, especially—on the drive home from Talk No. 155. It’s an intimate sort of respect, a geologist’s thing, born of a deep scientific knowledge of the wondrous process it takes to turn sunlight that struck the earth hundreds of millions of years ago into the readily available gas that’s propelling you south toward Calgary at 120 kilometres an hour. As he drives, Dave indulges in a little academic exercise. He’s comfortable with numbers, quick with calculations. A barrel of oil, he tells you, contains about six gigajoules of energy. That’s six billion joules. Put your average healthy Albertan on a treadmill and wire it to a generator, and in an hour the guy could produce about 100 watts of energy. That’s 360,000 joules. Pay the guy the provincial minimum wage, give him breaks and weekends and statutory holidays off, and it would take 8.6 years for him to produce one barrel of oil equivalent (boe, the standard unit of measure in hydrocarbon circles). And you’d owe him $138,363 in wages. That, Dave tells you, is what a barrel of oil is worth.

He drives on through twilight, the flat, empty spaces on either side of Highway 2 periodically lit by the torchlike flares of natural gas wells. You’re nearing the outskirts of Calgary now, the northbound lanes dense with rush-hour traffic, a steady stream of headlights backlighting him as he talks. He has a tall forehead crowned by a thick, short mop of hair, and in this light his profile looks like something carved from stone on the bluffs of Easter Island.

Dave describes himself as fundamentally “an optimist,” so he’s been ruminating on the solutions to the monumental problem he so convincingly describes: “Do we pull out the stops and basically maintain an unsustainable system, keeping the average joe’s view of the world intact for a few more years? Or do we recognize where we have to go at this point in time, and start making the investments to transit to something that will be sustainable over the long haul?”

This is Dave’s dilemma, and all of ours, and it hangs there between you in the truck’s cab, an open question. You turn away from him, from the sharp white glare of commuter traffic, and focus on the road ahead of you. For now, at least, you’ve got enough fuel to make it home.

Chris Turner
Chris Turner is the author of The Patch: The People, Pipelines, and Politics of the Oil Sands. He is based in Calgary.
Wilkosz + Way
Marta Wilkosz and Jeff Way met at the Alberta College of Art + Design. They have collaborated on projects for Fashion and Flare magazines, the Globe and Mail, and other publications.