Ezra Levant is not your typical revolutionary. A self-described pundit on Sun TV and the bestselling author of Ethical Oil: The Case for Canada's Oil Sands, Levant has carved out a controversial niche as the hyperbolic voice of Canadian conservatives.
In Groundswell, Levant offers a sharp-tongued polemic in defence of the virtues of shale gas. Groundswell portrays an economic, environmental and geo-political "revolution" fuelled by "cheap, clean" shale gas and driven by the ingenuity of the market. According to Levant, the only things standing in the way of this new world order are "the enemies" -- an unholy combination of environmental extremists, brutal dictators and cowardly regulators.
Levant's explanation of the technique used to "release otherwise inaccessible stores of oil and gas" from shale, best known as fracking, is impressively accessible. The controversial technology involves the fracturing of shale rock through high-pressure injection of water mixed with sand and chemicals.
To Levant, fracking is a "revolutionary technology," the great economic equalizer -- and not just for Wall Street bankers or Silicon Valley pointy-heads. It means better lives, more jobs and higher incomes for ordinary working folks. Shale gas, says Levant, is as a critical tool in freeing the U.S., Canada and Europe from the tyranny of gas oligopolies.
Revisiting a theme from Ethical Oil, Levant argues that the crux of our energy future comes down to a simple choice between "ethical energy" represented by shale gas and "conflict energy" sold by serial human-rights violators such as Iran, Qatar and Russia.
In a short and ultimately unpersuasive argument, Levant rejects criticism of the effects of shale gas upon water quality and greenhouse-gas emissions. He repeatedly brands fracking as "clean and harmless." Renewable technologies such as solar photovoltaic and wind are dismissed as the "costly fantasies" of jet-setting environmentalists. Particular venom is reserved for the practitioners of theatrical, "anti-fracking pornography" such as Josh Fox of the Grassland documentaries.
Levant concludes with an attack on the "Luddites" who argue that a high-energy lifestyle driven by technological innovation cannot endure. Sustainability proponents are dismissed as "subsistence-economy ascetics" whose arguments have been annihilated by fracking's success.
Levant is at his most compelling in his analysis of the sinister consequences for the Ukraine and Poland of "Russia's gas extortion." He makes a persuasive case for shale gas as a disruptive threat to the status quo, at least in America. While his smirky style is not for all, he has a real facility for the pithy summary. He achieves near eloquence in highlighting fracking's message of economic opportunity.
Strangely, for such an avowed disciple of the marketplace, Levant appears to have over-sold the immediate prospects for a shale gas revolution outside of North America. In April, 2013, Forbes magazine identified "Six Reasons Fracking Has Flopped Overseas;" a year later, the BBC was reporting that the "Shale industry faces global reality check."
Equally tellingly, Levant's dismissal of solar as a "messiah fuel" has been challenged by dramatic and ongoing cost reductions in the cost of solar/storage. The U.S. and China, meanwhile, appear poised for significant solar growth. Apparently, there is more than one revolution afoot.
Levant's environmental arguments in favour of shale gas are seductively simple, but run afoul of current science. A 2014 report of the Council of Canadian Academies notes "the assessment of environmental impacts is hampered by a lack of information about many key issues, particularly the problem of fluids escaping from incompletely sealed wells." Information gaps are unlikely to assuage the concerns of fracking skeptics.
Levant glibly dismisses concerns over community health and essentially ignores the importance of reconciling indigenous rights with natural-resource development. But his undoubted gifts as a polemicist are undermined by a fundamental credibility gap. By characterizing the issue of human-influenced climate change as "speculative," he casts an analytical pall over his entire analysis.
While a shale gas revolution is upon us, Groundswell fails to acknowledge equally powerful currents in the marketplace related to renewables, and marginalizes the fundamental question of whether our ecosystem can sustain existing levels of resource use.
Byron Williams and Joëlle Pastora Sala practise environmental law in Winnipeg.