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Aston Martin Formula 1 driver Sebastian Vettel, of Germany, wears a patch on his helmet denouncing Canada's oilsands during the first practice session at the Canadian Grand Prix, in Montreal on June 17.Ryan Remiorz/The Canadian Press

Jason Kenney is looking for political wins, and he may have an F1 driver to thank for handing the Alberta Premier easy entry into a favourite talking point: hypocrisy on energy matters.

If Mr. Kenney were himself to create the perfect composite of an elite speaking against the production of fossil fuels while also consuming copious amounts of the stuff, it’s hard to beat the example of Formula One driver Sebastian Vettel. His well-publicized protest of the Alberta oil sands this month at the Canadian Grand Prix in Montreal included a T-shirt and helmet that said: “Stop mining tar sands – Canada’s climate crime.”

Not only is Mr. Vettel a race car driver, he also drives for Aston Martin sponsored by Saudi Aramco. Aramco is the world’s largest oil producer, and is arguably a competitor to Canada in the race for global energy investment.

In Washington, D.C., this week, the outgoing Alberta Premier didn’t hold back. “I am happy with what Sebastian Vettel did, because I think … it’s almost like a cartoon caricature of hypocrisy,” Mr. Kenney said.

It’s “a perfect learning moment for us to say that the opposition to the oil sands is coming from people who do not have an inkling about what we do,” he said on the trip meant to highlight Canada’s role as a secure energy supplier to the U.S., and the push for carbon-intensive oil sands producers to hit their goal of net-zero emissions by 2050.

On the other side, there is no doubt Mr. Vettel has spoken thoughtfully on issues he cares about. He has acknowledged the contradiction in his stance on climate, telling the BBC “I’m not a saint,” and saying he asks himself whether he should be travelling the world “wasting resources.” But he said without some forms of entertainment, including F1, we would probably all “go mad.”

“It’s disappointing that we break it down to a personal level and miss to look at the bigger picture,” he said in response to criticism from Alberta politicians, according to a report from Motorsport.

It’s sometimes tiresome that when anyone speaks of their climate concern, their personal lines of work and carbon tally come under intense scrutiny. Ideally, shouldn’t we all care about the environment – everyone from race car drivers to oil and gas workers? (On the latter category, who is best equipped to stop methane, with many times the warming power of carbon dioxide, from escaping from pipelines?)

One of the first accusations of energy hypocrisy I can recall came up in 2014, during retired South African Archbishop Desmond Tutu’s visit to the oil sands region. “The fact that this filth is being created now, when the link between carbon emissions and global warming is so obvious, reflects negligence and greed,” he said in Fort McMurray.

At the time, TransCanada Corp. – now TC Energy – noted that “oil powered the jet that flew Mr. Tutu to Canada from Africa, produced the fuel for the helicopter tour he had planned of the oil sands, and helped manufacture the microphones and TV cameras for his press conference.”

Some people dismissed that argument from a pipeline company based on the idea that Mr. Tutu was importantly shedding light on Indigenous and climate issues in northern Alberta. They noted he is part of larger system, out of his control, where flying is just a part of life.

But Mr. Vettel is no Desmond Tutu. And Mr. Kenney knows it’s not just Alberta conservatives whose hackles are raised when such a prolific gas guzzler takes it upon himself to lecture Canada on climate. Formula One might have a target to be powered by “sustainable fuels” by 2025. But in the annals of “do as I say, not as I do,” this one is difficult to match.

For this, and other reasons, Mr. Vettel’s Montreal protest is likely to work against the movement he’s trying to help. In recent years, society and the leaders of the climate movement have acknowledged that setting a personal example on consumption matters. We all get a tally of our carbon emissions every time we book a flight. The most ardent climate activists avoid flying altogether. Famously in 2019, Greta Thunberg travelled across the Atlantic in a solar-powered racing yacht to attend climate conferences in the western hemisphere, to avoid the carbon emissions of getting on a plane.

The other problem with the stance from the the four-time world champion is global priorities have changed this year. Climate change won’t stop being a top concern, but politicians are trying to “walk and chew gum” as the Russian invasion of Ukraine reorders world energy markets. Fossil fuel security, supply and affordability now weigh heavily on the world’s leaders.

Prior to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, funds that embrace environmental, social and governance (ESG) principles favoured Russian energy stocks over Canadian energy stocks by a wide margin. Now, Russian energy is on the outs. That means big changes for Mr. Vettel’s own country, Germany, which has been deeply dependent on Russian fossil fuels.

Dire energy shortages in Germany are prompting a return to burning coal. Promises to move to renewable forms of power will take longer than many hope. Lower natural gas flows sparked warnings this week that the European powerhouse could fall into recession.

Perhaps most immediately, as inflation hits hard and economic uncertainty mounts, many are tiring of advice from people who earn tens of millions of dollars annually. For as much as Mr. Vettel might bring more attention to climate issues due to his celebrity status, he might also encourage anger from people who can only dream of his ability to hop on a private jet at any moment.

In 2022, almost everyone in the western world is an energy hypocrite. That shouldn’t necessarily stop anyone from fighting for environmental improvement.

But still, if I was on the vanguard of the climate movement, I wouldn’t want Mr. Vettel as a key spokesman.

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