Which way to the future? Is it on a bicycle back to an organic farm? Or driving into a chrome-plated city inside a plastic bubble? Given the current state of the economy, these aren’t particularly pressing questions.
But the future has a funny way of sneaking into the present. I was standing in line at the checkout counter at the grocery store when a friend asked when I’d write a column about the looming LNG plans for the area. To be honest, I’ve always been conflicted about the LNG (liquefied natural gas) issue. Our entire economy runs on fossil fuel, and with oil reserves dwindling, natural gas is quickly becoming our best hope for the immediate future.
This hasn’t escaped the Irvings. Their new LNG plant are well underway, with a new pipeline to the US nearing completion. On the other side of the globe, the Russian economy is hot due to their vast reserves of natural gas—as large in scale, it’s reported, as the oil fields in Saudi Arabia once were. Like it or not, natural gas is a part of our immediate future.
On the home front, we’ve just converted our house to natural gas. Now, instead of a cobbled together system with an oil heater, propane water heater and propane range, we now have everything on a single, natural gas system. Everything is working more efficiently, with everything heating up more quickly.
The instant heat is a real plus with our recent cold snap. Years ago I lived in a little country house heated by a woodstove, so the “instant-on” convenience of a modern heating system isn’t lost on me.
I admit I don’t know the source of our local natural gas. I expect it’s coming from western Canada, but I couldn’t say. But our neighbours to the south are obviously going to need more of the stuff than we Canadians have underground. Like oil, natural gas is another bulk commodity being traded worldwide—supertankers and all.
The whole idea of world trade is a future-shaping idea. As I was waiting in line (in one of those rare occasions when I decided to use the drive-thru at Tim’s), I caught a piece on NPR about the crippling impacts of the US financial meltdown on the Chinese manufacturing sector. Apparently, their over-production capacity is directly linked to consumer over-spending in the States. So when the housing bubble collapsed and the American consumer stopped spending, the Chinese plants began shutting down. Over the past couple of months over 1000 factories have gone out of business in southern China.
Interestingly, this was exactly the same situation that occurred at the start of the Great Depression—except that it was the European consumer who was over-extended, and the American manufacturing sector that was over-producing.
To deal with the problem back then, the US government started fiddling with the import tax structure, which further worsened the situation, deepening the depression. So, I suppose, the caution to China is not to adopt isolationist policies, scale back on production, share the cutbacks and the pain of the American consumer, and ride it out.
In other words, with globalization there’s no way to escape the fact that we’re all in this energy thing together. My friend and I, as I mentioned, were standing in the checkout line of the grocery store. Everything, other than this newspaper and the Ganong candy section, has been imported from elsewhere, and stocked on the shelves of this giant, inefficiently-built, energy-sucking box store. Today, our very survival is dependent on the global trading system. There is no way off the energy merry-go-round.
This fact comes clear at the gas-pumps, too. As the gas prices went up at the same time as bank foreclosures on homes in the US, the American consumers started driving less. Immediately, gas prices went down. But, predictably, no one stopped eating. So the transport trucks still kept rolling. And here’s the kicker. Gasoline prices in the States dropped below $1.80 a gallon, but diesel prices for trucks is still hovering around the $3.00 per gallon level. Now, what’s up with that?
For most of my life diesel has cost less per gallon that gas—and all of a sudden diesel is being sold a premium? Could it be that our entire system depends on trucking, and trucking depends on diesel? It seems that the fuel companies have us over a barrel, if you’ll pardon the pun.
So, back to LNG. Natural gas, as a fuel, is going to be one of the major energy “bridges” as we move from fossil fuels to other sources of energy. If we somehow, collectively, manage to plan the transition, we may end up with a far better energy future, with electrical power supplied from the sun, the wind, the tides, the waves and our biological waste. But first we’ll need natural gas. That said, I suppose I’d have to say I’m a reluctant proponent of LNG.
On the other hand, there is one overriding factor in locating LNG plants along Passamaquoddy Bay and the St. Croix River. No, it’s not the unsightly tankers. And no, it’s not the hazardous nature of the cargo (there are lots of hazardous materials traveling our highways). What really puts a fork in the LNG plans for this area are the whales.
This area is one of the few whale sanctuaries on the planet. I think estimates put the right whale population at about 350 individuals. Ironically, it was the original oil industry, the whale oil industry, that put this entire species at risk. The discovery of oil in Pennsylvania in the 1800s probably saved the whales.
Ship strikes are a leading cause of injury and death to whales. To increase ship traffic in these waters is simply unethical. But so, too, is the long-term lack of jobs in northeastern Maine. There’s no way around it. If we’re going to continue living here, connected to the global economy, we’re going to have to be far more creative at developing new businesses and job opportunities.
LNG is knocking at our door because the people of this region have lacked the creative skills to adapt to the changing global economy. Lacking this, even the LNG terminals won’t save us from extinction. We’re still as vulnerable as the whales.
Don’t believe it? Just look at the riverbanks and all the broken piers to see all the industry that has left the region over the past 100 years. LNG won’t save us. But a more creative worldview can.