Sooner or later, we will turn away from oil

Part 2: Albertans can lead the next economic revolution by pioneering new energy enterprises

Mike RobinsonShould Alberta be allowed to move its unrefined diluted bitumen to British Coumbia’s tidewater in Burnaby via pipeline and then quadruple tanker traffic through Vancouver harbour, the city that bills itself as the world’s greenest?

And does the pipeline proponent, Kinder Morgan, have the permission of the Musqueam, Squamish and Tsleil-Waututh First Nations, the unceded first owners of the relevant waters and territories, to move the diluted bitumen?

What’s going on here? The National Energy Board has heard and the federal government has permitted the project. Are we a country that respects the constitutional division of powers between provinces and the federal government or not?

Finally, shouldn’t we all be acting on the precautionary principle, and getting on with developing alternative and sustainable energy resources? Why do we persist in thinking like John D. Rockefeller instead of Elon Musk?

As someone who was a youth in B.C., an adult in Alberta and is transitioning to senior on B.C.’s Sunshine Coast, it’s hard to come down definitively on all of these questions.

But, if pushed, I’m against the project. And that means I’m advocating a rethink of the NEB’s pro-pipeline ruling, the constitutional reality of federal control of interprovincial pipelines, and Alberta Premier Rachel Notley’s adamant desire that “rules are rules.”

I’m prepared to tolerate the mess this creates, because I think we live in a defining era. The environmental conditions under which we make these kinds of decisions are far-reaching. Indeed, they’re stretching the legal and scientific boundaries of laws and institutions that were made for less complex times.

I’m convinced that oil is over – it’s just a matter of sooner or later?

British Columbians live in a diverse economy, currently the strongest in Canada. It ranges across mining, forestry and fishing, to condo construction and high-tech startups. B.C. is the birthplace of Greenpeace, the David Suzuki Foundation and the DeSmogBlog, in large measure because of its coastal beauty.

Residents also have broad exposure to First Nations who actively litigate to protect existing aboriginal and treaty rights. They often win in court and champion a sustainable relationship with their territories that predates the oil age.

Culturally, I think of British Columbians as sooners.

Albertans, since Feb. 13, 1947, when the Leduc oilfield came in, have lived with and benefited from a conventional oil economy that paid high wages and enabled a life without provincial sales taxes.

Unfortunately, Albertans didn’t think like Norwegians and their oil revenues were spent, not captured to any significant extent in an enduring fund.

While relationships with Treaty 6, 7 and 8 Alberta First Nations are historic and broadly honoured, the major focus of the provincial government and the oil companies has been the functional inclusion of Indigenous people in the oil boom.

Culturally, I think of Albertans as laters.

Can common ground be found between sooners and laters as we exit the oil age?

There’s cause for hope in the remembered philosophy of public-spirited Albertans like Peter Lougheed, Bob Blair and Joy Harvie Maclaren. They noted the radical shift in the provincial economy after Leduc, when ranching, farming and Banff-and-Jasper-based tourism were supplanted by the oil business.

Almost overnight, people saw where their economic future lay and moved to take advantage. The young were among the first to act.

Harold Millican, my first Calgary boss, told me that many of his pals viewed the first-generation oil business “as dirty and somewhat disreputable. It wasn’t honourable in the same way as ranching.” Nevertheless a swift change occurred. Alberta embraced a new future, and mastered the required skills in technology, finance and marketing.

Now, almost 71 years later, change is coming round the mountain once again.

This is the moment for Alberta to channel Elon Musk and approach the risk with the intellectual muscles already developed in the oilpatch.

Why not create a provincial policy to design, manufacture and install new energy systems locally, nationally and internationally? Why not plan this venture jointly with oil multinationals that are also making the switch?

Why not own a part of the emerging next economy instead of being the hospice for the fossil economy? Just as ranchers became oilpatchers, so can laters become sooners.

Troy Media columnist Mike Robinson has been CEO of three Canadian NGOs: the Arctic Institute of North America, the Glenbow Museum and the Bill Reid Gallery.


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