Playing Stephen Leacock: The Unsolved Riddle of Pipelines for the Oil Sands

This morning I am wondering what Stephen Leacock would have made of the Trans Mountain Pipeline Expansion Controversy, also what might be made of it by application of the General Theory of Unsolved Riddles. The Controversy is hot this week, having branched out in the David Suzuki Honorary Degree Controversy, and if that doesn’t bring Stephen Leacock immediately to mind, I don’t know what would. I am referring, of course, to the spectacle of an angry bunch of blinkered people accusing David Suzuki of being blinkered, and wanting him to be denied an honorary degree (of which he has many), a recognition that is in fact nobody’s business except the conferring institution (in this case the University of Alberta) and the conferee. The world at large cares nothing for honorary degrees, and neither I suspect does David Suzuki. He doesn’t need any more. His reputation is firm.

I find it difficult to answer the first part of my question, which is why I put the second. Stephen Leacock was certainly an strong advocate for resource development as a means to prosperity, employment, and well-being. He usually sided with the federal government on constitutional issues, believing that provincialism undermined the sense of national purpose that he so acutely desired. He would have been sympathetic to the federal government’s claim that that pipeline serves the national interest. On the other hand, he urged (in his 1936 article “Reflections on the North”) that we “see to it that in the new trust of the future of the North we make fewer errors than in the old.” He would have been sympathetic to the counter-claim that that pipeline is simply a repetition of the old errors. Judging by what he said about the landscapes of British Columbia during his 1936-37 tour he would have been appalled at the idea of their pollution by anything as noxious as diluted bitumen. He might well have listened to those who argue that the pipeline is no longer needed by the market as a whole, however much it may serve narrower interests. As he assimilated the lessons of the Great Depression he would not have been impressed by any analyses of economists, for or against. In short, he might very well have consigned this pipeline to the realm of Unsolved Riddles, and been content simply to define the problem.

If he proposed a decision it might possibly look like this: Let private enterprise and capital build the pipeline if they think it worthwhile, but regulate them firmly to make sure they act not only in their own interest but in the public interest. He would have seen nothing wrong with imposing stringent risk-reducing conditions on such a project.

The second part of my question therefore becomes the more interesting. Now Stephen Leacock did not develop the General Theory of Unsolved Riddles, although he first raised the possibility. Development will, I hope, become an accomplishment of the Stephen Leacock Sesquicentennial in 2019. I don’t want to get too far ahead of the conversation, but I am tempted to practise on the Trans Mountain Pipeline.

I suggest, for starters, that the General Theory might well contain the following three principles, applicable to this case:

  1. That where the resource development clashes with stewardship for the environment, as it almost inevitably does with large projects, the result is an Unsolved Riddle.
  2. That Unsolved Riddles should be analyzed in the light of the Leacock Tetrad of Knowledge, Imagination, Compassion, and Humour. Under all the complexity and contradictions of contemporary conditions, I believe that this Tetrad is what “Reason” means. We are being “reasonable” when we think this way.
  3. That such analysis is unlikely to yield a clear decision. To make the best decision we can under the circumstances will require Conversation, Negotiation, and Mutual Accommodation, leading not to a “Solution”, that being by definition out of reach, but to a Resolution of the Riddle.

I say Accommodation, and not Compromise, because I believe this to be one of those situations where both sides are right. Prosperity is not a trivial pursuit and is in fact one of the prerequisites for social justice. There seems little doubt that the Trans Mountain Pipeline will contribute to prosperity, at least for some. When I look at my own way of life, which is comfortable but not opulent, I am in no doubt about my reliance on fossil fuels, and while I see many possibilities for reducing it, I think it will remain for the foreseeable future. Neither is stewardship of the environment a trivial pursuit. Just last Fall I passed through the country where that pipeline will cross, and the idea of one of those river valleys or that coastline being flooded with diluted bitumen chills my blood. I know that the pipeline system on the whole, all 75,000 kilometres of it, is remarkably safe. I also know that it is not perfectly safe, that accidents will occur. We have seen them and we know how terrible they can be. We do well to be afraid of them. We also know that our west coast is an earthquake zone, and may well elevate our fears accordingly.

Let us see, very briefly and in a preliminary way, what the Leacock Tetrad yields us:

Knowledge: While many will argue, quite rightly, for an “evidence-based” decision, I fear we will find the evidence conflicting, at least as it concerns the fundamental conflict between perceived economic benefits and environmental risk-avoidance. A careful look at evidence might tell us whether the pipeline is necessary under current market conditions. If no longer necessary it therefore must be classified as a boondoggle and should not be built. Evidence would also tell us whether it has become a symbolic issue in one or more partisan or other arenas of narrowly defined interest. If so, we should treat all arguments for or against with extreme care, as being possibly propaganda rather than reasonable conversation.

To be clear in my beliefs: There is nothing unreasonable in being either for or against this pipeline. The controversy relies on differing subjective weights assigned to both probabilities and magnitudes of perceived benefits and risks, both private and public.

Imagination: I think that Imagination has two obvious roles in this conversation. First, everyone engaged in it needs to imagine that the others, regardless of their points of view, may be right in some important sense. We usually have no difficulty seeing how people are wrong. We struggle often with the other. If both sides in a controversy can see the rightness in the other side, then the whole tone of the conversation changes and the search for solutions or accommodations can become creative. Seeing only the wrongness makes that much more difficult. Second, both sides need to start imagining what a creative solution or accommodation might look like. I will return to this suggestion.

What we don’t need are people on one side of the issue imagining cornucopias of benefits and a complete absence of disasters, and an equally stubborn bunch on the other imagining few benefits and horrible disasters. Imagination of those kinds contributes nothing positive.

Compassion: I am prepared to accept that everyone in this conversation — I hope it will become a conversation — is being compassionate to someone. Those in favour are being compassionate towards the people who need jobs and those who need the products. These are important. They are also being compassionate towards the legion of concerned shareholders, who might suffer a diminution in their rates of return, and in a broad sense towards the tax-payers of Alberta who might otherwise have to contemplate the imposition of a sales tax and its resulting trauma. To assess these importances on a  national scale of weights requires careful calculation. Those against are being compassionate towards the natural environment, certainly, and towards all those whose livelihoods and well-being would be damaged or destroyed in the event of an accident. These too are important, and increasingly so, as the power of our machines and the size and ambition of our projects steadily increase our capacity to inflict damage.

Humour: This element is Stephen Leacock’s distinctive contribution to the Art of Deciding What To Do. He defined Humour not merely as something that makes us laugh, although it often does that, but as the kindly contemplation of the incongruities of life and the expression thereof. Well, what could be more incongruous than the sight and sound of a great public institution like the University of Alberta seeking to recognize, also bask in the reflected glory of, an aging celebrity while defending its right to do so on the grounds of academic freedom, coupled with the accompanying howls of outrage with demonstrations and cuttings-off of donations from and by those who don’t agree with him, further coupled with the pomposities of politicians seeing some advantage to them in taking one side or the other? “Tempest in a teapot” is the image that hops to mind. Much deeper, however, is the sheer incongruity of the whole approach that we, the people, our governments, our politicians, and our beloved news media, are taking to this whole vexed question which is either important, in which case our whole approach is grotesquely inappropriate, or not, in which case it is stupid. Either way, to contemplate it with kindness, and to laugh at ourselves for the fools we are, might well stimulate our imaginations to work as they must if we are to find the best available resolution.


I would like to suggest that the conversation necessary to resolve this particular Unsolved Riddle might reasonably proceed on the following lines:

  1. That as long as the financing of this pipeline remains in the private sector — at least to the extent normal for such projects — we can safely leave the financial and micro-economic aspects of this decision to the private financiers. As soon as they begin asking for public participation, however, we should consider whether that means that the economic benefits are deteriorating. In that case we can legitimately give them less weight in our our own wider calculations which necessarily take in environmental, social, macro-economic, national, provincial, regional, long-term developmental, widely strategic, public-interest, and other considerations about which the financiers are unlikely to be concerned. After all, arguments for a pipeline are largely economic — whether the viewpoint is national or Albertan. This is not a great enterprise of public art, or even wide-use infrastructure like a highway, railroad, airport, electrical or communication system, etc. It is not proposed in order to make oil available for domestic use. It is designed to move bitumen from mine sites onto ships, for transport overseas.
  2. The argument being made by Alberta, that being a land-locked province in a largely sea-coasted confederation the problem of getting its products to market is a constitutional one, is important, but may not apply in this case. The question here concerns getting one particular product to market — diluted bitumen — which, given its composition, must be considered a dangerous good. The constitutional argument being raised by British Columbia is equally valid, because Alberta wants to move not just the occasional shipment but a massively huge quantity of the stuff every day for years. I think that both provinces would have the right to be equally offended if a decision were rammed down its throat. Since the decision to build or not to build is, in its present form, an either-or decision, then the constitutional argument is self-cancelling.
  3. I believe that the contributions of Knowledge (with one important exception) and Compassion in this riddled conversation are largely unhelpful, because equally strong in both directions. Given the uncertainty and subjectivity involved, people should be perfectly entitled to interpret the evidence differently without imputation of ill will. We must needs rely therefore on Imagination. A modest application of Humour, by contemplating each other with some kindness or even laughing at our collective ritualized mutual intransigence, will allow us to move the conversation into the imaginative realm.
  4. Or maybe Knowledge can help, if we look at the important exception. I remember attending a talk by a senior executive of either Syncrude or Great Canadian Oil Sands, as it was then called, back in February of 1974, in which he proudly showed us two vials of oil-sands product, one raw bitumen and the other synthetic crude of high quality. Even then they knew how to make the latter out of the former, the latter being a clean form of a product that we move around through pipelines all the time, hither and yon, through all kinds of terrain. Occasionally there are accidents, to be sure, but they are rare and largely containable. Even the occasional serious one, like the recent spill into the North Saskatchewan River, is nothing like what the same phenomenon would be if the effluent were diluted bitumen. There may be risks in moving synthetic crude, but they are the same risks as we take in moving crude oil generally, and we seem to find them tolerable. I read that 40% of oil sands and heavy oil production is now up-graded to synthetic crude. Is it unreasonable for us to imagine 100%? If 40% is possible, and affordable, then so is 100%, or at least, if anyone wants to persuade us otherwise they should show us the numbers.
  5. Affordable too, I am sure, are measures necessary to lower the risks of leakage, breakage, and spillage to acceptable levels, which should be zero in those places where accidents would do severe damage, such as river valleys and coastlines. There are places along that route, including the sea lanes beyond the pipeline, where accidents simply cannot be allowed to happen, where zero risk is the only acceptable level. Pipelines, transfer stations, and ships can be made to meet that standard, at a cost of course. If the cost is deemed too high for the value of the product, then the project is uneconomic. Period. The idea that it should be made “economic” by infusions of public funds, beyond what is normal, is completely unacceptable under these circumstances.

There. The General Theory of Unsolved Riddles, at least as applied here, got Alberta a Trans Mountain Pipeline expansion carrying synthetic crude from the oil sands through British Columbia under high technical standards backed by tough regulations to lower the risk of accidents, totally preventing them in especially sensitive areas. Did it get us anywhere, here in the blog? Not likely. Could it get us anywhere, if transported out of the blog and into a public discussion?

I am sure this resolution has been proposed by others. Why are we not hearing about it? In the early years it was the standard plan for the transport and sale of oil-sands and heavy oil. What happened?

What do you think?


Posted April 26-27 2018, 336-5 days before onset of a Stephen Leacock Sesqui-cum-triaquarteria-centennial in 2019.




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