Following is the February 1, 2017 presentation by Professor Pierre Desrochers (University of Toronto) to the Standing Senate Committee on Transportation and Communications regarding the Committee’s study to develop of a strategy to facilitate the transport of crude oil to eastern Canadian refineries and to ports on the East and West coasts of Canada. Watch the video of the presentation here.


My presentation will be based on a few papers that I’ve published in the past that are freely available online, along with a broader paper that was sent to you but was not translated. In order to keep this within five minutes, I thought we could go over a few images, which I’ve sent to you. What I will present is my personal viewpoint and that of my collaborator and colleague, Joanna Szurmak. This is a big picture analysis or, perhaps more accurately, a stated critique of the social licence perspective needed to build pipelines.

Image 1: Presentation

If you look at the first image, you have a cartoon which sums up the main issue with social licence. The comic take on it is that social licence is undefined and unlimited. The real joke is that there is no such thing as a social licence forum. Nobody knows what it is and how it can be enforced.

Image 2: Social License

The concept of social licence, as you may know, was developed in the context of less developed economies, where institutions are never up to the standards that we have here in Canada.

Image 3: Social License

But increasingly these last few years, if you look at the fourth slide, what social licence has become in advanced economies is essentially a permission that is granted to carbon benefit deniers to stop economic development. The point I want to make in my presentation is that the main problem with this perspective is that it takes those benefits for granted. The benefits that can only be attributed to carbon fuels cannot be taken for granted.

Image 4: Social License

If you want to look at the bad old days, the next image, what you have there is a painting of the last peacetime famine in Europe which took place in Finland, not in Ireland. You can see people practicing slash and burn agriculture, essentially trying to produce food in an environment not dissimilar to the Laurentians here. You can see the girl in the middle, how happy she looks. The point is poor people, before carbon fuels came along, could do a lot of environmental damage. This is something that we’ve forgotten today. We don’t understand the environmental benefits of carbon fuels.

Another way to understand this is to see the next picture, which describes a group of Dutch whalers going up north to Norway in order to ultimately produce whale oil, which was the best source of illumination available at the time. But as you can see on the painting, they are harvesting all the biomass they can, including a Dutch whaler who is trying to club a polar bear to death. I assume the painter did not accompany the whalers and did not understand what polar bears were all about. The point is that before carbon fuels came along, our remote ancestors were harvesting resources from the surface of the planet. It’s not because they were poor and not numerous that they did not have a tremendous environmental impact.

Image 6: Dutch whalers

The next slide is about the millions of people who still die today from not having access to carbon fuels. These are real deaths, not deaths generated through computer models. Between 3 and 5 million people a year die from burning all sorts of poor quality biomass in their house, and millions more suffer from chronic illnesses that results from breathing the smoke produced from poor quality fuels, especially mothers and young children.

Image 7: Deaths from indoor smoke from solid fuels (WHO 2002)

The next slide is about living conditions before carbon fuel powered cars came along. The upper left picture is a street sweeper in New York City collecting the dung that was produced by one of the tens of thousands of work horses that you had in New York City. The picture on the right is a traffic jam in London. Try to imagine the smell of the urine and the cholera epidemics that came from living in those conditions. So yes, cars are not perfect but if you look at what they replaced there was significant progress.

Image 8: Living conditions before carbon fuel powered cars

The following slides describe the transition from the so called renewable era to the emergence of carbon fuels in the 19th century. This is for the United States and the message that I want to convey to you is that humanity did not simply experience a qualitative switch from biomass to carbon fuels but also a quantitative shift in terms of the amount of energy available to human beings. There was simply not enough biomass to create the modern world. Humanity had to dig up fossil fuels from underground.

Image 9: Transitioning to carbon fuels

One of the benefits we take for granted is, among other things, modern transportation. I’m a geographer by training. I had to throw a map in at some point. If you look at the map, you can see that in white you have the only commercial routes that were profitable in the age of sail. So you had to deal with wind patterns and ocean currents and you could only go to a few places and because the ships were made out of biomass, out of wood, they could only be so big.

Image 10: Transitioning to carbon fuels (transportation)

The 19th century comes along, carbon fuel comes along, steel ships come along and suddenly the whole world opens up and as a result humanity is able to specialize in production in the best regions of the world. Productivity goes up and, among other things, famine disappears. Carbon fuels and modern transportation put an end to famine because historically when most food was local, as it was before the age of carbon fuel, two bad harvests in a row and you would have a famine.

We now live in a world where we’re born surrounded by synthetic products, we live surrounded by synthetic products, we die surrounded by synthetic products and a lot of people view that as an addiction. But I would submit that the real result is rather more akin to nutritious footed. We’re not addicted to whole wheat bread, we’re not addicted to clean water, we’re not addicted to all sorts of good things and as a result humanity has prospered.

Image 11: Transitioning to carbon fuels (synthetic products)

There is a slide here on life expectancy. Two hundred years ago, when coal began to emerge, average life expectancy in advanced economies was about 32 years of age. Today we’re pushing on about 80 years of age. The way I convey this notion to my students is to tell them to look to the person to your left, look to the person to your right, had you been born in 1750 only one of you would be alive today. So there are benefits to economic development.

Image 12: Transitioning to carbon fuels (life expectancy)

Now it’s not so much that we’re more numerous and living longer than are ancestors but physically we’re different. A number of demographers and economists have pointed out that we’re much taller and much healthier than our ancestors.

Image 13: Transitioning to carbon fuels (health)

You might know these benefits, but I will conclude by talking about some of the environmental benefits we take for granted. The next slide was produced in 1861, oil emerges, and you can see here a bunch of sperm whale celebrating the advent of petroleum. Why is that? It’s because kerosene is the first product produced out of petroleum and obviously what happens then is that humanity begins to replace resources harvested on the surface of the planet from resources that come from underground.

Image 14: Environmental benefits of carbon fuels (decline in dependency on kerosene)

The next slide is rather dramatic. It is the evolution of the forest cover in the United States. Long story short, because of the low productivity of our ancestors the low point of the U.S. forest cover was reached around 1920 but since then tremendous improvements in terms of agricultural productivity, regional specialization, replacing biomass by stuff that comes from underground has resulted in a remarkable reforestation of the United States and every advanced economy in the world.

Image 15: Environmental benefits of carbon fuels (increase in forest cover)

The one slide on climate change I will come back to later. What I want to put out is that we don’t live in a world where we turn the safe climate into something worse through petroleum but we’ve made a climate that was very dangerous to human beings and we’ve made it safer through infrastructure, better food, advanced warning systems and the capacity to move people.

Image 16: Environmental benefits of carbon fuels (improved climate)

Alternatives have been around for a very long time. That’s the last slide. The first one is from the early 20th century. You can pump your water for nothing, you can use the wind, it’s free, but people use diesel generators for a reason. There are strong benefits to fossil fuel that we should not take for granted.

Image 17: Environmental benefits of carbon fuels

I’m sure I’ve given you enough food for thought for a fruitful discussion. Thank you very much.