It's been said that necessity is the mother of invention. But if my biology is correct, a mother alone isn't enough – you also need a father. And the father of invention is creativity.
Take Alberta's energy patch. For all the bad press it gets from uninformed critics, its engineers and geologists are rather creative when they need to be. Applications of innovative solutions abound. Think of the steam-assisted gravity drainage technology in the oil sands, which uses much less water and no tailings ponds. Or the achievements in human safety, which have produced a record that is among the best in the world. Or the technology around carbon capture and storage, which is waiting only for a suitable price on carbon to be economically feasible.
But a not-so-new problem in Canada's oil sector could use a huge dollop of creativity: abatement of tanker spills and pipeline ruptures. That's necessity (the mother-in-waiting). Now, Father Creativity needs to initiate a courtship.
An oil sands pipeline to the West Coast is clearly in Canada's economic interest. Still, enormous opposition to the pipeline rages, particularly in British Columbia. Opponents fear that spills or ruptures will cause an environmental catastrophe in their backyard. And who can blame them? The best that pipeline companies can say is that the possibility of an accident is "remote." For most Canadians, that's not good enough.
The solution is for Alberta – the oil sands companies, the pipelines, researchers, universities and government – to put Father Creativity to work. Here's the problem to solve: Contain an oil spill within 30 minutes of an accident, ensure there is no environmental damage and prevent a disaster. That's a tall order.
In 2010, the Deepwater Horizon oil spill turned into such a spectacle not because there was an accident. Rather, it caught the world's attention because BP had no idea how to fix the problem. What should have been a non-issue turned into an environmental disaster. The camera at the bottom of the sea broadcast BP's incompetence around the clock. Lots of innovative solutions to stem the flow of oil were attempted, but it was simply too late to start being creative. They were caught unprepared.
What if Alberta's energy sector could say: We can't guarantee an accident will never happen – but we can guarantee the very best technology in the world for oil spill abatement. If there's a spill, it will be our spill to deal with. It will NOT turn into a disaster. And we've put our brightest minds and financial heft to work on a creative solution.
Currently, Alberta can't make that claim. Without question, there's lots of work being done on what to do when there is an oil leak or spill, but the technology isn't there yet. Why did hundreds of thousands of gallons of oil leak into the Kalamazoo River in Michigan in 2010? Current response processes to oil spill disasters do exist, but they're inadequate.
The creative solution needs to shift from disaster cleanup to disaster prevention. It may not be possible to guarantee an accident will never happen, but it doesn't need to turn into a catastrophe. Once oil starts coating the ducks, it's too late.
Some British Columbians won't care about any such assurances from Alberta. They'll oppose the pipeline no matter what. But Alberta's reputation is at stake. If an oil tanker does spill bitumen, and if that bitumen is not contained instantly, and if it starts washing up on shore, it will be Alberta's black eye. That's my province's oil, and I can't bear the thought of it.
Something can be done. Smart, creative ideas could focus on finding solutions well before they're needed. The onus is on Alberta to lead this creative charge: It's our oil, and we'll make sure it doesn't cause an environmental catastrophe.
Mother Necessity is waiting. She's put on perfume and a new dress. Father Creativity is ready to go; he just needs to make the first move. And Alberta's energy industry – with its creative minds and financial clout – is in the position to make it happen. C'mon, Alberta. Let's make a baby.
Todd Hirsch is co-author of The Boiling Frog Dilemma: Saving Canada from Economic Decline and a Calgary-based senior economist for ATB Financial. The opinions expressed are his own.