Last week I had the opportunity to attend the annual business conference of the Canadian Energy Executive Association at the Banff Springs Hotel. One would expect that it would be a gathering of well-heeled stuffed-suits.
There certainly was some of that but my bigger takeaway from the day was that of a gathering of industry leaders who had taken a strong dose of humility and acceptance that the old way of doing things simply wasn’t going to come back again. It wasn’t some form of self-loathing wokefest by any means but there was a genuine desire to seek ways to change business practices in order to adapt to a changing world.
With panels containing no fewer than four former premiers and one former prime minister, we gained some insight from people who had truly been in power. Public opinion drives the actions of policymakers and the energy industry needs to face the hard reality that it has been losing the battle of public support.
Activists and ENGOs both foreign and domestic have been mopping the floor with the energy industry when it comes to shaping public perceptions. While the energy industry clearly needs to up its communications game, it also needs to change its practices.
It has become accepted, albeit grudgingly by some that emissions have to be dealt with or the industry will continue to lose battles. Multiple presenters laid out the advances being made in carbon-capture technology along with means of utilizing carbon as a potential commodity rather than a by-product.
Whether we like it or not, net-zero types of emission legislation are becoming the standard in the developed world. Rather than folding up and trying to transition into the windmill market, many in the industry are looking to deal with emissions in a pragmatic and cost-effective way while still profitably producing petrochemical products.
The energy industry has always managed to adapt to changing times and now is no different. I was impressed with the attitudes of optimism and ambition in the room. The emissions issue is being treated as a challenge to be overcome rather than a handicap to be accepted.
The other aspect of the conference that impressed me was the Indigenous involvement. A number of Western Canadian Indigenous chiefs were in attendance. A panel of Indigenous leaders fielded questions from the audience and a round-table session on indigenous issues led by Indian Resource Council Stephen Buffalo was held. Buffalo challenged the room to discuss challenging questions about the relationship between Indigenous peoples and energy producers and the room enthusiastically took part. People in the industry are earnestly seeking solutions to challenges when it comes to Indigenous relations.
The most dramatic change in attitude that I noted was seeing Indigenous peoples being considered as partners
in energy development rather than hindrances. When I was in the energy industry during the early 1990s and 2000s, Indigenous policy often simply entailed finding out who was locally in charge and cutting them a cheque. There were sometimes hiring commitments made and consultations were done but I never saw the local Indigenous members being considered as partners in the projects. That attitude has dramatically changed.
The Indigenous participants at the conference were there as equals and partners rather than tokens. The attitude and atmosphere that I felt were that Indigenous people were to be considered an asset in partnership in energy development rather than a challenge. We are realizing that we shouldn’t and don’t need to feel as if we are being forced to work with Indigenous people in energy development. We are beginning to realize that Indigenous people make valuable partners and we are all better for it when they are directly involved in what we do.
No matter what the industry does, there will be an element of environmental zealots who oppose everything we do. There is little that we can do about them. We can pivot and change our practices with issues such as emission control and our relationships with Indigenous people in order to improve our public perception. We know that there will still be decades of strong world demand for our products and that another generation can benefit from petrochemical production in Canada. We will continue to find ourselves demonized and shut-in if we are intractable with our attitudes and practices in a changing world.
What I saw at the CEEA conference gave me optimism that the industry is indeed willing and capable of adapting to the evolving expectations and demands of today. We don’t need to divest and flee from our very valuable industry but do need to understand that it is changing. The assembled executives in Banff last week clearly understood that and I am confident that we can look forward to many profitable years of energy development to come.