Plastic words such as energy, development and progress routinely pepper political speech. As the new building blocks of communication, they may seem banal but their use is not benign.
Decades ago, the great linguist Uwe Poerksen argued that the proliferation of these words (his list also included words like values, identity, communication, growth and system) drove change by turning society into a laboratory where technologies increasingly concentrated and centralized the power of industrial interests.
Plastic words in the mouths of experts and politicians not only blind people to these shifts in power but make a state of continuous disruption seem natural. Poerksen rightly called their effect “tyrannical.”
Most of the time people don’t notice how such hollow utterances erode meaning in democracy any more than they pay attention to how digital devices daily mine human behaviours.
Because plastic words are so abstract and scientific sounding, they possess an aura of inevitability. As such they silence debate let alone dissent. Who, after all, wants to be against progress or more energy?
Earlier this month British Columbia’s government released another flurry of plastic words to explain why the Oil and Gas Commission was changing its name to the BC Energy Regulator.
With the change the regulator says goodbye to the dirty world of fossil fuels, and hello to that great plastic word, energy.
“As the energy sector evolves, it’s vital that we ensure its regulation reflects the values and expectations of a modern industry and of British Columbians,” explained Josie Osborne, minister for energy, mines and low-carbon innovation.
(In 2020 Premier John Horgan scrubbed up this ministry, formerly energy, mines and petroleum resources, so fossil fuels also disappeared from the name.)
Osborne added that “emerging energy sectors” such as hydrogen and carbon capture and storage also necessitated the change in lexicon and would help “generate economic opportunities and help B.C. reduce emissions and transition to clean energy.”
Her announcement made the transformation sound like a harmless bureaucratic exercise. But its plastic words conceal an unspoken reality: the captured state of oil and gas regulators in Canada, and the steady erosion of the public interest.
When regulators are captive
Regulatory capture is rampant in this nation, but rarely mentioned in the media. It occurs whenever a regulator abandons its public interest mandate and lets an industry (oil, banks, airlines, railroads or tech giants) call the shots and all in their financial interests.
In this regard the rebranding of the Oil and Gas Commission, first set up in 1998 by Rob McManus, a former lobbyist for the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers, follows a distinct pattern.
Consider doings in the neighbouring petrostate of Alberta.
After a string of scandals including little action on the $70 billion potential public liability for inactive and abandoned wells, Alberta’s Energy Resources Conservation Board (which is 100 per cent funded by industry) became the Alberta Energy Regulator in 2013. Gerard Protti, a former oil lobbyist, oversaw the change, which transferred more power to industry and created a “one shop” agency for industry.
The new energy regulator promptly spawned more scandals including a major conflict of interest debacle as well as even less meaningful action on the abandoned well crisis.
The National Energy Board, which regulates Canada’s pipelines and powerlines, followed a similar captured path. After demonstrating its thoroughly captured state during public hearings on the Trans Mountain pipeline seven years ago, the National Energy Board became the Canada Energy Regulator in 2019. (It is 99 per cent funded by parliamentary appropriations recovered from industry levies.)
And now B.C.’s OGC, after allowing oil and gas companies to build a series of illegal dams to hold water for their fracking operations, will change its name too.
In Canada, governments don’t reform organizations captured by the oil and gas industry, they just change their names and erase any mention of fossil fuels.
What makes “energy” the preferred term? Experts and politicians embrace the marvelously plastic word because it sounds important and safe. Let’s face it, energy gives off a much different vibe than oil, methane, sour gas or bitumen. That’s because the amorphous term evokes no real images of mining, drilling or fracking.
As a consequence the word energy blinds people to material realities of oil and gas extraction which include water contamination, air pollution, truck traffic, earthquakes, hazardous fracking chemicals, seismic lines, dead caribou, and the industrialization of wetlands and forests.
“Energy” offers the authority of an abstract yet important sounding science, which no one can put their finger on. Experts can even add the adjective “clean” to the word and create another fiction: clean energy.
And this is just what the experts hope to achieve. They don’t want citizens to think that oil, gas, solar, hydro and wind all come with brutal material costs and moral and biological quandaries.
Hence the utility of an “energy regulator.”
The timing of the OGC’s name change is no accident in this regard. Though it’s a fact that demand for gas in northeastern B.C. for the multibillion LNG Canada project will accelerate the drilling of thousands of wells in Indigenous territories and on agricultural land in northeastern B.C., the government doesn’t want people to think about frenzied fracking operations, leaking wells or dams built without bothering to procure permits.
Legislation enabling the regulator’s name change even replaces the words “oil and gas activity” with “energy resource activity.” An oil and gas road bulldozed for shale gas access now becomes an “energy resource road.” And so on.
Deleting ‘public interest’
Plastic words now rule supreme at the Alberta Energy Regulator too, and also work to dispel if not evaporate the messy reality of oil and gas extraction.
The AER, for example, seemingly no longer responds to accidents such as ruptured pipelines, exploding wells, salt water spills or the discharge of toxic clouds of hydrogen sulfide from sour gas plants. Instead, the authority only reacts to “energy incidents.”
An energy incident, says the AER, is an “unexpected occurrence or event.” Incidents, of course, do not occur in specific places such as wetlands, grasslands or rural communities but in the greatest plastic word of them all: the “environment.”
Let’s return to the new language wrapped like a plastic bag around the old Oil and Gas Commission that’s been stashed in a garbage bin. The OGC used to have a mandate to ensure oil and gas permits were reviewed and approved “in the public interest having regard to environmental, economic and social effects.”
The new act subtracts any mention of public interest. However, it does offer lots of plastic words about protecting “public safety and the environment,” and supporting “reconciliation with Indigenous peoples and the transition to low-carbon energy.” But among that thicket of language, no mention anymore of serving the public interest.
One sign that might not be by accident is what happened in Alberta with the creation of the Alberta Energy Regulator in 2013 under a plastic word construct called the Responsible Energy Development Act.
By law, the province’s previous captured regulator had to make decisions “in the public interest, having regard to the social and economic effects of the project and the effects of the project on the environment,” but rarely did. The 2013 legislation dispensed with that old-fashioned idea.
The B.C. government argues, of course, that it is merely updating the way it governs in order to prepare for the new energy economy which includes hydrogen and carbon capture and storage.
The U.S. bank J.P. Morgan, hardly a radical outfit, recently described carbon capture and storage as a “fairy tale” because of its cost. The scale of infrastructure required to reduce U.S. carbon emissions by 15 per cent would have a greater industrial footprint than that nation’s existing oil and gas infrastructure, which took 100 years to build.
In other words carbon capture and storage, which is primarily used to produce more oil at the moment, doesn’t scale up and is a scam. It also can be deadly.
Hydrogen, another boondoggle, is not an energy source but an energy sink.
It takes lots of fossil fuel energy to make this flammable gas, whether it is cracked from methane or produced by electrolysis. A 2022 J.P. Morgan annual energy paper accurately notes most hydrogen is made from fossil fuels. Less than one per cent comes from electrolysis using renewables because of the cost. Like carbon capture and storage, hydrogen is neither low carbon nor particularly innovative.
Citizens need to understand these realities in order to have a sober and productive conversation about where we are headed and how to soften our landing in a world beset by climate catastrophes, bad technologies, eroded democracies, volatile prices and dwindling supplies of affordable oil and gas.
We are done no favours by leaders who use rebranding and plastic language to ignore rising carbon emissions as well as dependence on fracked shale gas. By promoting scams such as carbon capture and storage they are forestalling difficult discussions about lowering demand, relocalizing economies and, possibly, preparing for collapse.
We should demand that our politicians speak plainly without bullshit vocabularies. And that they recognize regulatory capture as a persistent problem that requires vigilance, transparency and real reform.
To ward off the intended effects of plastic words on our minds, we might also remember what George Orwell observed in 1946. That political language is "designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind.”