Loose Ends Energy Inc. II: Building Human Infrastructure
By Bill Whitelaw, President and CEO, JuneWarren-Nickle’s Energy Group
(For new readers, Loose Ends Energy Inc. is the imaginary corporation “un-employing” the thousands of men and women in Canada’s oil and gas sector who have lost their jobs as a result of the current downturn. Please see previous post for more details.)
If there is a silver lining in the cloud of so much unemployed energy sector talent and experience with time on its hands, it is this: put these men and women to work building better bridges.
This is bridge infrastructure of a different sort: call it human economic stimulus.
Canada’s biggest challenge at the moment is not how to build national pipelines or to solve complex climate change problems. It is to build world-class collaboration bridges that enable those challenges to be resolved with all the wood aligned behind the right arrows.
What would those bridges cross?
The biggest perceived gulf at the moment, and one that at times seems virtually unbridgeable, is between Canada’s politicians and its upstream energy sector. Politicians are pushing climate change, low-carbon and clean-tech agendas. The energy industry feels that the weight of Canada’s collective political foot is on its throat — without recognition of rigorous investment programs targeting the very same objectives.
There are bright spots, of course, such as Rachel Notley’s reasonably vociferous support for both aspiring tidewater pipeline projects and Brad Wall’s admirably candid directness when all around him waffle, but most observers would agree there is nothing approaching sufficient critical mass in the pan-Canadian political sphere to propel measurable resolve in a near-time context.
That gulf perception and its corresponding perception-based reality, unfortunately, have been super-heated and polarized by emotion and acrimony — and in so many instances, ignorance — most often benign, but all too frequently, deliberate. That’s confounding, because so much good is happening, but it remains behind the scenes, smothered by the weight of political noise. Regulatory systems and policy frameworks, for example, are changing to become more cost efficient while simultaneously strengthening environmental safeguards. Those environmental safeguards themselves are tuning more effectively to a cumulative effects approach, ensuring all aspects of air, land and water are considered. In Alberta, a recent royalty review concluded largely satisfactory to all parties — but such isn’t the stuff that makes headlines.
The real truth is that Canada’s petroleum sector has been driving and investing in a climate-friendly, low-to-no carbon and clean-tech agenda — paying the freight in a big way — but 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 merely as a greed machine and not an investor in sustainable development. (For those interested in a specific example of such investment in action, please visit the Canadian Oil Sands Innovation Alliance website at www.cosia.ca).
But that investment engine is sputtering and is in danger of, colloquially speaking, conking out. And Canadian taxpayers aren’t yet aware of how much that engine malfunction is going to cost them if a seized-up private sector cannot fund innovation as a driver of corporate sustainability and the public purse must consistently bear the cost of driving toward a sustainable energy future.
But another related reality is this: politicians and energy folks have long been uneasy bedfellows. Politicians are wary about being seen to be too cosy with energy executives; likewise, those execs are reticent to be accused of political pandering.
We should also be clear about another connected reality: politicians are generally well-meaning and intelligent men and women. They commit to civic service with the best of intentions but all too often end up in positions of power and influence (such as cabinet portfolios) without the requisite knowledge critical 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 never really scratches beyond the surface before they’re either out of cabinet or out of office.
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. They have tremendous experience in the geosciences and engineering disciplines. But they are also human resources, communications, technology and finance and accounting specialists. They’re now at loose ends and represent an enormous talent pool that should be put to good use. Loose Ends Energy Inc.’s “un-employees” have much to add in the bridge-building department.
While all the current buzz is about infrastructure investment as an economic stimulus tool, here’s a bridge-building concept as a starting point: Alberta’s NDP caucus has just over 50 members. Loose Ends Energy Inc. has approximately 50,000 “staff.” The caucus has exactly one member who can point to a background grounded in energy development. Many organizations would lust after so much knowledge capital, so here’s the pitch.
Every NDP MLA should commit to a six-hour mentor-protégé pairing with a “staffer” from Loose Ends Energy Inc. The pairing’s purpose: a one-to-one knowledge exchange. The MLAs and cabinet ministers would gain substantially from the perspectives and experiences of individuals who have worked in energy and understand its inner workings. These folks also understand what was working — and what wasn’t. Given that they’re currently stripped of any current corporate affiliation, they would be free to speak their minds in a candid and constructive knowledge-bridge exercise.
Imagine what roughly 3,000 hours of knowledge capital would achieve — not as an exercise in brainwashing, but a fundamental literacy and fluency exchange. A caucus better equipped to deal collectively and individually with energy-related complexities is a better bridge via which constructive (and productive) views can pass back and forth.
There’s another upside: most rank-and-file energy sector employees would agree they could benefit from a civics engagement lesson. Most have been lacking direct connection to the political sphere, shielded because such engagement has been typically left to executives and industry advocacy groups. A cohort of energy folks more attuned to the political perspectives they would be offered by caucus members elected by Albertans would add much value to future bridge building once they have returned to the workforce.