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It takes, by Glen Perry’s calculation, roughly $20 to defeat the law of gravity.
It works like this: Grab a flyback transformer out of an old colour TV. Attach two wires to it, and arrange them on either side of a piece of balsa wood.
Then, plug it in. And watch. Twenty thousand volts sizzle through the wires, which crackle like an overhead power line. Suddenly, “the thing starts rising in the air,” Perry says. And nobody knows why.
It’s called a lifter. And for Perry, it is about as perfect a toy as you could imagine. He is a man who likes to build things that disrupt seemingly impregnable systems. With the lifters, it’s gravity that gets defied. In Perry’s professional life, it’s corporate Calgary. He is best known for hatching the idea of building the $4.5-billion (U.S.) Alliance natural gas pipeline from British Columbia and Alberta to Chicago, which broke an effective monopoly that pipeline giant TransCanada held on moving gas in and out of Alberta.
Today, it’s the other pipeline heavyweight that Perry has in his sights: Enbridge, which runs the world’s biggest network of oil pipelines. Perry is attempting to keep crude from filling those lines by building a network of loading sites to deliver crude by train. And it’s not just pipeline companies he’s after. He has the entire oil industry in his sights, with a patented technology that promises to fill highways with cars that don’t burn any crude at all. He’s pretty sure he can put an end to war in the process.
It may sound crazy. But Perry has made a career of undermining the energy establishment. And if he’s right, tomorrow’s energy industry won’t look much like today’s.
Perry is, in the words of those who have worked with him, a “real good thinker,” a “creative outside-the-box, not-following-the-establishment” type. Jay Godfrey, a friend and colleague, says Perry “puts together points on a graph that nobody else sees. At Alliance, everyone kept comparing him to Bill Gates. He was the kind of guy that would come up with ideas, and then drive people to achieve.”
Yet Perry, who is 62, remains an outsider in Calgary. He doesn’t belong to the Petroleum Club. He works out of a small office in a downtown tower, where his daughter counts among his slim roster of employees. Even among the CEOs whose lunch he has tried to eat, Perry and his notions barely come up on the radar; they’re too out of the box.
Perry thinks, for example, that multibillion-dollar plans to export natural gas to Asia are a “fool’s game,” given the likelihood that China will find supplies domestically. He is convinced the best way to get Canadian crude to Asia is not by sending it across B.C.—watching native groups protest Enbridge’s proposed Northern Gateway pipeline “made me almost want to cry”—but to build a railroad to Valdez, Alaska, and load it onto tankers there.
He doesn’t much care what other people think, nor that most of his ideas will never go beyond paper. He has, after all, failed more times than he’s succeeded. “If you had 10 ideas and all 10 of them went ahead, you’re not taking enough risk,” he says. Besides, the two or three big projects that he has helped to build “were $5- and $6-billion. They were paradigm-changing things.”
It is math, more than moxie, that underlies Perry’s willingness to take on just about anybody. If he can crunch the numbers, and they look better than the other guy’s, it doesn’t take faith to call his concept better. It’s just logic. “You have to have an idea you believe in,” he says. “But everything comes down to math in the end. Everything.”
Perry’s first job after university, in 1974, was at Foothills Pipe Lines, where he was the second hire on a project that would foreshadow the rest of his career. Foothills was built with a specific goal: to stick a finger in the eye of Canadian Arctic Gas Pipeline Ltd., a consortium of giant companies including Shell and Exxon that wanted to build a pipeline to bring Alaska natural gas down the Mackenzie River valley. Foothills offered an alternative intended to appeal to aboriginal voices that had stridently opposed the Canadian Arctic route. Although neither pipe was built, only Foothills received regulatory approval.