The Past can be our Future: The Last Part of my Alberta Vision

Alberta’s Shield tells us that our province has always depended on our land for our success and our wealth. Our Aboriginal People lived off the Bison which roamed this land. While many of the first non-indigenous residents used the prairie grass land to created Sod Houses. From, the Rocky Mountains and their foothills to the cultivated wheat fields, we have used our land to generate our livelihoods and our wealth. Our province is this land.


In 1795, when the first European settlers came to Edmonton, or in 1875, when Calgary was founded; they depended on this land. We know the story of the fur trade and the Hudson’s Bay Company. Of this Territory becoming the North West Territories and the signing of Treaties 6, 7 and 8 with our Aboriginal Brothers and Sisters. We know that after these events, our farms produced much more wheat and barley than was necessary to feed themselves. So our produce was sent to far off cities like Toronto, Winnipeg, Vancouver, New York, London and Paris.


However, our story doesn’t end there. In 1905, we became members of Confederation. By then, we were mining for coal to fuel our farms, the railways and the industries that dotted our landscape.  Then we moved on. We moved onto the extraction of conventional oil and natural gas. We moved onto the extraction of the Athabascan Oil Sands. For time and memorial, from 1795 to 1905 to today, Albertans wealth came from this land. Thus, for better or worse, we have been its steward, its trustee and its protector; and, we have been rewarded with its bounty. The question is simple: as Canada moves to a less carbon intensive economy, how will we, Albertans, adapt?


In my previous two pieces, I noted that the change we need could be brought about through a few new institutions.  Institutions which, I believe, our inspired by Alberta’s greatest successes. In 1938, Premier William Aberhart created the predecessor to ATB Financial. In today’s day and age, we can take the same logic to develop a private-public venture capital organization that would provide capital to various Venture, Start-up and Angel Companies which are based in Alberta.


The creation of the University of Alberta and the University of Calgary gave inspiration to the idea of a Research University, based in Medicine Hat and Red Deer, whose primary job would be to develop knowledge, ideas and a vision of Alberta through a graduate and post-graduate focus.


However, the institutions suggested don’t just lie in the past. For example, there is a need for a Patent Bank to fully protect the value of our knowledge created in Alberta. Additionally, to grow our economy, there is a need for an extensive network of Landing Pads in other countries for Small and Medium Size Companies to allow them to build their networks. As acknowledged, these institutions are a start. For, they provide us with a direction which can move us forward. Those institutions recognize the successes of our past as well as anticipating the needs of the future.


In that same vein, there is another thing we could do to reshape our economy and create a new future. In line with a Patent Bank, we should also have a fund which purchases shares from Oil and Gas companies with Alberta Operations who now want to push into the renewable space. Or put differently, we know that Oil and Gas Industry drove our economy to this point. Since February 13th, 1947, when Leduc No. 1 blew, Alberta’s Oil and Gas Industry has brought wealth and prosperity to this land. However, we know that things are changing.


Just look at Norwegian Oil Giant, StatOil. StatOil has been ranked, by Forbes Magazine, as the world’s eleventh largest oil and gas company by revenue and the twenty-sixth largest company, regardless of industry, by profit in the world. Yet, StatOil has acknowledged that in a low-carbon world, it will have to move away from it’s main products – Oil and Natural Gas – to renewable power. Currently, StatOil is one of the world’s largest offshore wind producers and delivers wind power to 650,000 British households. They predict that by 2030 that 15-20% of their investments will be directed to new energy solutions including renewable energy and energy efficient solutions. Given StatOil’s success in other areas, I would say that they are likely to achieve their goals.


However, they are not alone. Total SA, the major French Energy Producer, has made already committed to shifting its business model. Their ambition is that have 20% of their business in low-carbon industries in the next 20 years. In that bid, they have spent over a Billion dollars to buy a major battery company and spent even more on building a huge solar electrical generation business. If other major Oil and Gas firms are seeing the writing on the wall, Alberta should change too.


If I am right and we are people of the Land, then Alberta needs to have industries that protect and profit from the land. In my opinion, that means recycling. To date, most of the First World has lived off of the resources provided from Others. We, the First World, have not cared about how we got our cars or plane or iPads, all we cared about is that we had them.


It turns out that getting those resources requires raw material that come from and destroy our Earth, our Home. Today, our culture tosses out products, without care to the consequences. As we move to a low-carbon environment, we will care more about how we get these resources. Consequently, won’t it be easier to simply recover that which we are about to throw away rather than spending large amounts of capital – natural and financial – to mine and refine those same raw resources. What if we could get the resources without causing harm? That I would argue would protect the land. That I would argue would be in our tradition. Given the engineering talent in Alberta, we could easily refine the Garbage or eGarbage of the world into a profitable resource.


If you don’t believe that this is possible, then let’s look at Patagonia. They are a major outdoor clothing manufacturer and they have been doing amazing things. Firstly, Patagonia accepts their old clothes to be recycled. Secondly, since 1993, they have turned plastic soda bottles into polyester. They are proud that they were the “first outdoor clothing manufacturer to transform trash into fleece”. They note on their website that “it was a positive step toward a more sustainable system–one that uses fewer resources, discards less and better protects people’s health.” While, this means that there is less air, water and soil contamination, Patagonia has also found it to be profitable.


Or look at Owens Corning. They use recycled glass to make more glass products. Additionally, through a network of facilities in more than 190 cities, Owen Corning has committed to diverting old shingle roofing material and material from their own plants to their recycling programme. Owen Corning is committed to these efforts to build social capital as well as make money. If Alberta made an effort to be the world leader in material recovery, companies would come here to take advantage of our expertise.


If we were a leader in breaking down old cars and appliances, iron and steel would need to be smelted. Algoma Steel and Mittal Steel would have small plants here to feed their facilities in Ontario, the Rust Belt and the mid-Western United States. If we became experts at taking apart eGarbage, glass and plastic and precious metal companies might turn their head. By becoming the place where people divert their waste to, we could make a pretty penny while saving the Land.


However, our future doesn’t end there. For, we still have to do one thing: remake the urban landscape that we have become so accustomed to. With Patent Banks and Recycling Facilities, we will need to be able to move people around and also house people smartly. To date, we have not done that. To date, we have sprawl without a smart transportation network.


It is my supposition that if we want to get people from “A” to “Z” smartly, we need to have dense urban environments and an intracity rail system to provide it with a backbone. Such a system will allow us to reduce our carbon footprint and adapt to the new low Carbon future that many have predicted.


This vision, listed in three blog posts, is a vast one. However, it is one that takes advantage of what we have. We have good people with innovative minds. We have people who are full of spunk and adventure who want to take on a challenge. That is how our forefathers defined themselves. Aboriginal or not, the people who came before us accepted that they would have to do the impossible and did it on a regular basis. If we could have superheroes, our past would be the palate.


This vision takes the money we have made and invests it in a new 30 year plan. A plan that will diversify the economy and provide unexpected movement forward. While, it is not perfect, it is a good start. I wonder if any other party leaders could do the same. Could they provide a vision which takes into consideration the investor and the welder, the entrepreneur and the average worker? Could they create a plan which cares about the “Other”? If so, I have not seen it. They have argued about our Oil and Gas Industry and how to best take care of what we have. However, most leaders forget that that Albertan success story is underpinned by the Winnipeg Agreement. Signed, in 1975 by Alberta, Ontario and the Government of Canada, that Agreement was a gamble. For it meant that Prime Minister Pierre Elliot Trudeau, Premier Peter Lougheed and Premier Bill Davis put money into the Syncrude to save it from the market forces that were pushing it into bankruptcy. A government bailout helped to develop the technology that we now take for granted.


Today, with renewables like solar and wind and geothermal becoming cheaper every day, Albertans have to do the impossible again. Oil and Gas will not be king forever and as companies like Nissan and Volvo start to make products that switch away from Oil, Alberta has to be ready to take up the mantel of change again. As the UK, France, India, Norway, Germany, China and a host of other jurisdictions make plans to switch away from oil by 2030, 2040 or 2050, Alberta needs to be ready to have a new engine that will drive our industry. While Alberta should be proud of our past and our present, we should not take our future for granted. This is why a new grand vision is needed. It is a shame that our leaders in the Alberta Legislature don’t agree.

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