Filling up at the gas station is certainly one of the ways to use oil that is most familiar to us. But guess what: of all the oil we use, only 43 per cent goes to fueling our cars.
Given this, can we seriously consider ending our "dependence on oil", as some would suggest? Someone who wants to stop using oil will have to say goodbye to smart phones, ballpoint pens, candlelight, clothing made of synthetic fibers, glasses, toothpaste, tires (including those on bicycles), and thousands of other products made from plastic, a petroleum derivative.
Good luck with that program.
Problem is, the anti-oil discourse so demonized this resource that we came to forget the many benefits conferred by its use. Oil and its derivatives have improved living conditions in Western industrialized societies, as the list quoted above quite clearly demonstrates, but also worldwide. In Africa, for example, earthenware jars used to transport water have been replaced by plastic jars, which are much lighter, providing some relief to women who have to carry out this task.
What's more, some of these products shaping everyday life are designed locally. That's the case for Eska water bottles or Kraft mayonnaise recipients, manufactured in Montreal. So much so that a high-technology sector has emerged around Montreal refineries over the years, providing quality jobs for more than 3,600 workers.
Let's use a concrete example: The so-called polyester chain. This involves the Suncor refinery and three companies based in Montreal that, each one in its turn, transform the hydrocarbons into different chemical compounds to produce a polyester plastic type, used especially in the manufacture of recyclable plastic bottles, food packaging and carpet. In what we could call this "ecosystem," the product of a company (even its waste products) becomes the raw material for another.
Now, the vitality of the petrochemical industry depends very much on a steady supply of relatively cheap oil. Like the one the western provinces can offer.
The question then becomes: what is the best way to move this oil across Canada in order to meet our needs?
Pipelines come to mind. Yet some people don't like the idea of a pipeline traveling through the country. We can appreciate their concern, but we should keep in mind that the alternative to pipelines is not to "get rid of oil." In reality, it would be to ship more oil by rail, a more damaging option for the environment, and more likely to cause serious accidents.
Oil fills 32 per cent of the energy needs of Canadians. It is the basis of products essential to our daily routine. Discussions around energy policy should therefore stay grounded in reality, and focus more on the safest ways to transport oil, whether by pipeline or trains, than on the mirage of "getting rid of oil."
The author wishes to thank Mr. Jean-François Minardi, public policy analyst at the Montreal Economic Institute, for his collaboration in preparing this article.
Michel Kelly-Gagnon is President and CEO of the Montreal Economic Institute. The views reflected in this column are his own.