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opinion

A worker views the Carbon Engineering project in Squamish, British Columbia, on March 26, 2019.ALANA PATERSON/The New York Times News Service

Deborah Yedlin is the chancellor of the University of Calgary and a partner with Longview Communications & Public Affairs, Peter Tertzakian is the deputy director of the ARC Energy Research Institute, and Kevin Krausert is the president and CEO of Beaver Drilling.

We all know the story of Apollo 13, the failed moon mission saved from disaster by the stranded astronauts working with ground control to ensure a safe return to Earth.

Just over two days into humankind’s third planned moon landing, something went terribly wrong when the crew heard a loud bang on the spacecraft. Equipped with less computing power than today’s smartphones, the crew, along with ground control, academics and governments the world over, raced for five days and nights to solve a catastrophic problem. In the end, the three astronauts safely splashed down in the Pacific Ocean on April 17, 1970.

Apollo 13 demonstrated that when humanity is faced with an existential problem, we get very clever very quickly. A parallel can be drawn with the energy sector.

After years of environmental, social and market disruption, the free market’s oil and gas industry has finally – and thankfully – acknowledged that, yes, “Houston, we have a problem.” Many companies are choosing their own solution set – from exiting the business altogether to cutting costs aggressively while adapting to social and regulatory pressures.

It’s a long-overdue acknowledgment of the role the production and use of hydrocarbons play in climate change.

As Canada awaits the most anticipated Throne Speech in a generation, our challenge is framing how our country should navigate this Apollo 13 moment in one of Canada’s most important industries and exports – oil and gas.

Whether one is ready to accept it or not, the energy transition is happening. The systems and infrastructure that will enable consumers to change their energy consumption patterns are being built. Technology is making the costs of energy sources that were once uneconomic significantly economic.

But along with these developments lies the fact an entire region of the country is at risk of becoming lost in space if we do not adequately address the problem.

We must work together to ensure Canada’s resource bounty can be developed while finding solutions to our country’s climate ambitions. And that means renewable and non-renewable energy participants working together to achieve net-zero life-cycle emissions by 2050.

Skeptics abound, and cynics claim the industry is “greenwashing” the situation. Skeptical or cynical, talk from any quarter is cheap; we all know that action is what matters when it comes to decarbonization. Let’s save the criticism for those who do nothing. We need to encourage, not criticize, those who are making demonstrable contributions to solving a very complicated problem.

As soon as Canada can agree on this single problem and challenge – building a modern oil and gas industry with a realizable pathway to net zero by 2050 – we can begin the daunting task of solving the Apollo 13 problem our country faces.

We’re already busy at work. Whether through deep research taking place at the University of Calgary and the University of Alberta, initiatives such as the Avatar Program (a business innovation forum between energy, aerospace and academia), the Clean Resource Innovation Network or Canada’s Oil Sands Innovation Alliance, we’re already solving major challenges and meaningfully decarbonizing the industry while building bridges with the green energy sector.

As it was with Apollo 13, failure is not an option. Tens of thousands of Canadians depend on the oil and gas industry for their livelihoods, and their concerns about the future are valid. At the same time, as we watch the fires in California and Oregon, we know the climate is changing and that we must respond.

And the way to respond is by ensuring the success of both the oil and gas sector and renewables. The challenge, it seems, is getting the old to work with the new.

Let’s hope the Throne Speech recognizes the good work being done and uses this as an opportunity to signal a policy framework that will encourage the transition that is already under way, supporting job creation and investment.

We need pathways to encourage more investment that ensures the oil and gas sector can realistically become a partner in a net-zero future. Those pathways recognize that hydrogen, carbon capture, utilization and sequestration and geothermal are solutions we have right here, right now.

We need all energy molecules – renewable and non-renewable.

In the end, the Apollo 13 analogy only goes so far. The reality is that the sheer magnitude of global hydrocarbon consumption means we can’t switch to an alternative capsule any time soon. That means we must be more deliberate in working within the confines of the situation we face. Like the astronauts working in partnership with ground control – and trusting one another – the same thing must happen in Canada. Then again, we’re Canadian – and we are actually quite good at coming together when it counts. This happens to be one of those times.

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