Overcoming Canada’s biggest infrastructure challenge

Putting the (puzzle) pieces together

Bill WhitelawThe silver lining of the energy sector’s vast unemployment is the potential for these talented and experienced people to build better bridges.

This is bridge infrastructure of a different sort, however: human economic stimulus. Because Canada’s biggest current challenge is not how to build pipelines or solve complex climate change problems. It is to build world-class collaboration bridges that resolve those challenges.

What would those bridges cross?

The biggest perceived gulf, at times seemingly unbridgeable, is between Canada’s politicians and the upstream energy sector. Politicians seek climate change, low-carbon and clean-tech agendas. The energy industry feels that the weight of Canada’s political foot is on its throat – and that politicians fail to recognize the industry’s rigorous investment programs targeting those same objectives.

There are bright spots, of course, such as Alberta Premier Rachel Notley’s support for tidewater pipeline projects and Saskatchewan Premier Brad Wall’s directness when all around him waffle. But there is nothing approaching critical political mass to propel measurable resolve soon.

All of this has been super-heated and polarized by emotion and acrimony – and often ignorance, because change is occurring. Regulatory systems and policy frameworks, for example, are becoming more cost efficient and strengthening environmental safeguards. Those safeguards are ensuring all aspects of air, land and water are considered. In Alberta, a recent royalty review concluded largely satisfactory to all parties. But that doesn’t make headlines.

The truth is that Canada’s petroleum sector has been driving and significantly investing in a climate-friendly, low-to-no-carbon and clean-tech agenda. But it is not telling an effective story, and too often reacting rather than pro-acting to its critics. This makes it easy for energy-uninformed Canadians to view the petroleum sector as a greed machine and not an investor in sustainable development (see the Canadian Oil Sands Innovation Alliance website).

Canadian taxpayers aren’t aware of how much it will cost them if a struggling private sector cannot fund innovation and the public purse must consistently bear the cost of driving toward a sustainable energy future.

Politicians and energy folks have long been uneasy bedfellows. Politicians are wary of being seen as too cozy with energy executives. Likewise, those execs are reticent to be accused of political pandering.

Certainly, politicians are generally well-meaning and intelligent. They commit to civic service with the best of intentions, but all too often end up in positions of power and influence without the requisite knowledge to successfully navigating complex and nuanced issues. This is a reality of both the left and the right. They learn from bureaucratic briefings and public consultation processes but their understanding rarely gains depth.

Enter Loose Ends Energy Inc.

This is the notional corporation that represents all the talent and experience stripped out of Canada’s upstream operating companies and their suppliers. These people have tremendous experience in geosciences and engineering, as well human resources, communications, technology, and finance and accounting. They’re now at loose ends and represent an enormous talent pool that should be put to good use. They have much to add in the bridge-building department.

While the current buzz is about infrastructure investment to stimulate the economy, here’s a different bridge-building concept as a starting point:

Alberta’s NDP caucus has just over 50 members but just one with a background in energy development. Loose Ends Energy Inc., on the other hand, has about 50,000 “staff” with knowledge and experience in the field.

Every NDP MLA should commit to a six-hour mentor-protégé pairing with someone from Loose Ends Energy Inc. The MLAs would gain substantially from the perspectives and experiences of their mentors, who understand what does and doesn’t work. Given that they now have no corporate affiliation, they could offer candid and constructive knowledge bridging.

A caucus better equipped to deal with energy-related complexities creates a better bridge for constructive (and productive) views to pass back and forth.

At the same time, a cohort of energy folks more attuned to the political perspectives would add much to future bridge building once they return to the workforce.

If you think this concept has merit, share it. Let’s see if we can get a broad variety of voices to be part of an aligned future, in which politicians and the private sector are willing to share aspirations.

Bill Whitelaw is president and CEO at JuneWarren-Nickle’s Energy Group.

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By Bill Whitelaw

Bill Whitelaw is president and CEO at JuneWarren-Nickle’s Energy Group.

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