Forget "and-or" in energy transitions, it's time to talk about "and-more"

The road to transitioning British Columbia and Canada to a lower-carbon economy will have bumps, roadblocks and many twists and turns that we may not even be able to see today.

What is clear is that greenhouse gas emissions must decline, that hydrocarbons will be with us for the foreseeable future and that they have an important role to play in this transition, and that everyone – the energy industry, First Nations, environmental interests and government will all need to work together.

What I would like to talk to you about tonight is what the transition to a lower-carbon economy may look like and what role you as mayors have in this transition.

Now I don’t need to tell our host, Mayor Lori Ackerman of Fort St. John, and those of you from the northeast of the province of the importance of natural gas.  You will know firsthand the importance of that industry to job creation and prosperity in B.C. But it is also worth talking about the importance of natural gas to transition the world to a lower-carbon economy.

With a lower-carbon footprint than other forms of energy, such as coal, an abundant supply of economically recoverable reserves in western Canada and its ease of transportation, natural gas may in fact be the transition fuel to heat our homes, fuel our transportation networks, and power our economy at home and beyond our shores.

While natural gas may serve as the backbone to support our transition to a lower-carbon economy, renewable energy sources also have a valuable role to play in reducing emissions. It is a faulty premise to approach hydrocarbons and renewable energy as an “and - or” equation.  Rather, I suggest to you that it should be simply an “and - more” equation as these forms of energy are extremely complementary and, in fact, can enable each other’s deployment and success.

The ongoing work to electrify upstream natural gas extraction in the northeast is as an example of not only renewable energy’s contribution to the natural gas industry but also how government can play an important and active role.

By using clean, hydro-generated electricity to power this activity, industry can successfully reduce the carbon footprint of BC natural gas.

British Columbia gas will now be some of the cleanest natural gas on earth and once we have an LNG export terminal built in BC, this gas will be used to offset coal-generated energy in Asia, thereby contributing to overall global emission reductions.  

No other energy source – not oil, coal, wind or solar will have a lower carbon footprint and at the same time be exportable to growing markets in Asia than BC natural gas.

These efforts to use clean electricity to power upstream production and midstream processing of natural gas are not possible without the support of government in the form of BC Hydro constructing and maintaining the Dawson Creek Area Transmission Project into the area.  Rarely do we see this kind of cooperation between industry and government achieve such a clear win-win solution.

We as British Columbians have an extraordinary opportunity to lead and shape the conversation around the transition to a lower-carbon economy.  We have great examples to look towards not just in the petroleum industry but also in other sectors such as forestry.  BC companies have been at the forefront of developing biofuels and co-generation biomass energy and are true innovators.

The opportunity does not end there.  The conversations between the governments of British Columbia and Alberta and those in the media around the potential to sell clean BC electricity to Alberta to help ween our neighbours to the east off coal generated electricity and to potentially reduce the emissions associated with oil sands development is another clear opportunity for British Columbia to be at the forefront of energy development and climate change action.

Mayors have a vital role in the conversation around resource development and how British Columbia can contribute to transitioning Canada to a lower-carbon economy in a number of ways.

Firstly, as respected members of the communities, mayors can and should be the adults in the room.  This means being candid and honest about what this transition means to members of your community.

Transitioning to a lower-carbon economy is not as simple as turning off hydrocarbons and switching on renewable energy and mayors should say so in the face of simplistic arguments on both sides of the equation.

What this transition is about is how consumers of energy can be more efficient and use less over the longer-term, identifying less carbon intensive sources of energy and developing them sustainably, while at the same time leveraging the skills and knowledge of our workforce to bring these solutions to fruition.  It is a little known fact that there are close to 400 skilled professions in the unconventional oil and gas industry and these foundational jobs and the people who fill them are well placed to innovate and lead our transition to a lower-carbon economy.

Your proximity to the public as mayors also provides you with a unique opportunity to be leaders in the conversation about our energy future.  You are able to speak with your constituents directly and on a daily basis, something that your counterparts in Victoria and Ottawa do not share.

This proximity also affords Mayors a unique status in determining the social license for both resource projects and government policy. Taking a position on a project or policy on behalf of a community is a weighty responsibility and is often fraught with controversy and tension.

Mayors from communities outside the Metro Vancouver region can work together in meaningful ways. Past efforts to galvanize UBCM in support of resource municipalities have had mixed success. You should not give up. 

At Resource Works, our research in this area has already helped mayors who are seeking to amplify their efforts by reaching wider audiences through a variety of influences. I hope we can continue to work together to advance public understanding about these important issues.  

I would like to close with leaving you with two messages.

One, that transitioning to a lower-carbon economy is a positive opportunity for our country, British Columbia and your communities.  It is a transition that can be led in BC and that has innovation at its core.

Two, that there is no simple or quick fix to this transition.  It will mean being more efficiency and using less over the longer-term, it means examining and reinvesting in our energy infrastructure, and it means leaving the old “and-or” energy equation in the past and instead looking forward to find “and-more”, win-win solutions that can help develop our resources and bring them to market, create new technology and knowhow that we can export, and create prosperity and jobs in the communities that you represent.

This is the text of a speech delivered to the British Columbia Mayors Caucus on May 2, 2016 by Stewart Muir, founding executive director of the Resource Works Society.

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