Alison Cretney is the managing director of the Energy Futures Lab. Juli Rohl is an animator for the Energy Futures Lab.
As recently as February, the idea of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau working closely with his long-time adversary Ontario Premier Doug Ford would have seemed less likely than Oilers fans cheering on the Flames in the NHL playoffs. But the COVID-19 crisis has changed many things about life in Canada, and the unprecedented levels of co-operation taking place between Ottawa and the provinces in tackling the pandemic have been inspiring.
As governments look toward reopening the economy and returning to some semblance of life as we knew it, this “Team Canada” approach should be brought to bear on other issues faced by the country – perhaps especially so on the messy intersection of energy, climate change and Indigenous rights in Alberta, where the economic fallout of current events has already been devastating.
The federal government has made some important investments to that end. It has announced $1.7-billion that will go toward cleaning up orphan oil and gas wells in the West, along with another $750-million for efforts to reduce methane emissions. It has also pledged direct financial support to oil and gas companies through Export Development Canada and the Business Development Bank of Canada. And, of course, this is a government that invested billions to buy a pipeline to get Alberta’s oil to global markets – and will likely spend many billions more on its expansion – despite the political risks it faced in doing so.
These are all helpful measures, but they won’t be enough to protect Alberta from the economic fallout from COVID-19 or to set us on a path to sustainable prosperity. In order for that to happen, the governments in Ottawa and Edmonton will have to work together more productively than they ever have in the past. And while that work will obviously focus on the oil and gas industry, it will also have to find ways to expand its scope and reach, to be both more resilient to external shocks and able to participate more fully in the ever-expanding low-carbon economy.
Finding common ground on these issues between disparate and often conflicting voices won’t be easy – we know that firsthand because we’ve been working to do so for more than five years now. Now, it’s time for our elected officials to do the same thing. If Canada is to emerge from the COVID-19 crisis with as little long-term damage as possible, we will need to find new economic opportunities, with Alberta playing an important role in that. And if Alberta is to help lead the recovery, it will need the provincial and federal governments working in harmony rather than at cross-purposes.
That requires a shared understanding of what the economy of the future will look like. That begins with agreeing to the target of net-zero carbon emissions by 2050 – one that many actors are already uniting around. But that understanding must also have space for both Alberta’s oil and gas industry and a whole host of new opportunities that draw on that industry’s resources and assets to help build a low-carbon future.
Hydrogen, for example, is a zero-carbon fuel source that’s seeing breakthroughs right now, and Alberta is ideally poised to create and sell it. The province’s oil reservoirs contain substantial volumes of lithium, a key ingredient in the batteries that are powering the growing global fleet of electric vehicles. And some of the province’s old oil and gas wells may turn out to be prolific sources of geothermal energy – giving a second wind to both the wells and the communities they’ve helped support over the years.
The oil sands still have decades worth of production ahead of them, even if they won’t be growing nearly as fast as some would like. But as the Alberta government’s own Bitumen Beyond Combustion program shows, they may be able to expand in different – and potentially very profitable – ways, including asphalt, activated carbon and vanadium. The most exciting ones involve carbon fibre, which is 10 times stronger than steel; materials that use it are being tested in everything from automobiles and the aerospace industry to concrete, plastics and wood products. Even taking a tiny slice of the steel market could mean billions of dollars in new economic activity.
What’s needed now is a concerted effort to build on these ideas and support the entrepreneurs and innovators behind them. And that can’t happen unless the federal and provincial governments lay down their partisan swords and learn to work constructively with each other. It can be difficult to build trust between people who haven’t historically shared it, but as this crisis has taught us, it is possible – and the upside can be enormous.
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