Coherence, Not Shouting, Needed In Canadian Energy Discussion

(This is the text of a letter that will be sent to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and all of Canada’s premiers and territorial leaders. It speaks to a special effort by the team at JWN Energy — a Calgary-based energy information company — to create a national platform via which all Canadians can access the important discussions we need to have about Canada’s energy future.)

Dear Prime Minister and Premiers:

Canadians want to talk about energy. More important, they need to talk about energy.

They want to be part of a civil society that shapes and defines its own future constructively and respectively.

But there’s nothing civil about the way we discuss energy currently. In fact, it’s more akin to thinly-disguised civil war.

Take the pipeline “debate.”

Look what’s happening in British Columbia. It’s shameful. A decision with the force of democracy behind it has been made — on a project that was thoroughly debated and is intensively regulated. And yet there are those who think they can undo it simply by disagreeing with the decision. That attitude flouts the way we do democracy in Canada and it sets us on a slippery slope.

So far, we should give ourselves a C-minus grade on how-to-get-along-on-things-energy report card. And that’s being generous.

Most Canadians also want a stop to the shouting and political backbiting around energy matters; an end to the activists who torture facts and figures until they scream false confessions. They want a stop to the pseudo-science that generates misleading headlines from a befuddled media and a stop to the belief we can flip a switch and be independent of petroleum in a heartbeat. No wonder they seem disinterested; who would really want to step into the mess we’ve made of our energy heritage?

In the oil and gas sector, we get that we have been part of the dialogue problem. We haven’t done a particularly good job talking to Canada. Oh, we shovel numbers and equations at Canadians that they know mean something, but it all somehow gets lost in translation. Put another way, we haven't helped ordinary folks make meaning around the ways energy intersects and transects their lives.

We should be helping Canadians understand they actually own the hydrocarbon molecules we extract and process. Beyond what we take as profit, as a reward for risking capital, the rest of the proceeds go toward making Canada better. Health care. Education. Social welfare. Public infrastructure. These all come to mind, among many other benefits, that sometimes seem too countless to enumerate.

It's a tough message, but we're energy entitled in this country. As Canadians, we use (and even abuse) energy. As the oil and gas sector — as do our counterparts in other energy systems — we need to share with Canadians the realities of accountabilities and responsibilities of being so energy blessed; to recognize we live with an embarrassment of energy riches, but we’re also spending ourselves silly.

Instead, as a sector, we have focused on talking to elected officials, often convinced we need to do that because your ears are being bent by special interests who don't get how important energy, in this case petroleum, is to the way we live as Canadians.

We get as a petroleum sector we need to improve our performance. And improving we are. We're tackling air, water and land challenges with world-class technologies developed by some of the finest minds around. Often, we’re the envy of other jurisdictions globally for the way we innovate and the way we regulate.

We have great stories to tell. But we haven’t been very good storytellers. Nor have we been very good at earning trust.

All that means we’re at an energy crossroads in Canada. There are important choices we have to make collectively as Canadians — choices informed by balanced and rational dialogues unfiltered and unadulterated by the extremes of both ends of our energy continuum. There’s much about energy Canadians don’t know — much about how energy fuels so much of what we take for granted in our overall life quality.

So my company is stepping up.

At JWN Energy, we’re trying to make a difference. We're not a big company. Many oil companies make more in an hour than we make in a year. But we’re passionate. And we know energy. We’re stepping up because no one else so far seems to be able to bring Canadians together through energy knowledge development, idea-sharing and working through challenges collaboratively.

We're using our flagship brand, Oilweek, to create a national dialogue platform — one that embraces all forms of energy and welcomes all energy stakeholders. On this platform the hydro community will connect to the solar community; the nuclear folks to the petroleum people. We will discuss. We will debate. We will collaborate. And we will disagree.

Yes, we're leaving Oilweek as the name. It’s a brand with value. And it stands for something. It stands for an energy sector that for more than a century has helped make Canada what it is; the reality is that a robust and evolving petroleum sector is still critical to Canada’s well-being domestically and internationally — and it will be so for a long time to come. If we don’t get the oil and gas conversation right, we will fail miserably as other forms of energy gain momentum as stable suppliers to Canadians.

For 75 years Oilweek has served, we think honourably, Canada’s upstream petroleum sector as a perspective platform. Now, as we turn 150 as a nation, this fall we are turning our attention to all forms of energy — and to all Canadians.

Our new positioning statement: Connecting Canadians to Their Energy.

There are no free energy rides. Sunbeams and wind gusts don't pay royalties, but solar and wind and hydro and biomass have an important part to play in the way we shape our future. But as systems, they need to cohere and mature. Oil and gas is a mature energy system, both bruised and built by decades of experience. We will transition over time, and those other systems will come to play important roles in an evolving system of systems. But petroleum will remain a key driver of our economic and social foundations for a long time despite the noisy naysayers. People won’t drive electric cars on roads paved with charged particles but rather on asphalt derived from petroleum. That's how a system of systems works.

We’re fragmented as an energy nation.  At a time when we need coherence, we’re shouting at each other. The noise is deafening.

At Oilweek, we hope to be a stepping stone to the Canada that can be: one in which energy solidarity defines us as a nation.

(As part of Oilweek’s new national focus, copies of the print periodical and access to the digital platform will be made available to all parliamentarians, federally and provincially, across Canada as well as the mayors and councils of Canada’s 20 largest cities. The tools will also be made available to First Nations communities and business, post-secondary institutions (faculty and students) as well as economic development authorities. Energy associations of all types will have access to the platform. Two unique partnerships will also make the content available to media outlets across Canada, along with a national awareness campaign.)

Bill Whitelaw is chief executive officer of JWN Energy.