A moment of reflection – and building the movement

The central role of natural resources in British Columbia life is reflected in the province's general election results. What are the lessons for those of us working toward broader consensus on what will surely be a resource-intensive future? Stewart Muir looks at the landscape.

The new political landscape in British Columbia features a rural-urban split with the province's natural resource industry caught in the middle. The results of the May 9 election have made Green Party Leader Andrew Weaver a king-maker. So what is the attitude of this newly-influential MLA, so used to being a voice crying in the wilderness, to industries that have traditionally been the life-blood of the B.C. economy?

Weaver is convinced a new approach is needed because the current mode will inevitably lead to collapse, he recently told the Vancouver Sun’s editorial board. In the next breath, Weaver said if we follow his solution of a non-carbon-emitting energy system, the future is one of “massive economic growth” that will make earlier industrial revolutions “pale in comparison."

This view is reinforced by commentators like UVic political scientist Norman Ruff who explained the dynamics behind the rural and urban voting trends for the Vancouver Sun thus: “While one lags behind in its continued dependence on a dwindling natural resource-based economy, and in a sense still looks backward for its future, the other continues an exponential growth in diversity and enjoys a transition to an entirely new economy.”

Is the resource-based economy really backward looking? And what exactly is this new economy to be based on in the era of global trade? Is Weaver's prediction of a green uber-industrial revolution based on reality?

It's obvious from the Greens’ success at the polls that many British Columbians are wrestling with these same questions. If we clear away the political rhetoric and look at the facts, what is the situation on the ground? As it turns out, our resource economy is not the doomed dinosaur Weaver makes it out to be.

First, B.C.’s resource economy is changing and growing, with environmental protection at the top of the list. Its potential to be a key driver of any green industrial revolution is clear.

B.C. is in a position today to leverage its positive global brand in natural resources to increase access for technology companies into opportunities in natural resource sectors globally and in so doing grow B.C.’s exports.

Forestry jobs are up in the past five years. Progress in building an LNG export industry is tangible and real because our natural gas continues to interest foreign buyers who need affordable, cleaner energy solutions.

A recent David Suzuki Foundation study found that in B.C.’s gas-producing region, new infrastructure emits barely any harmful methane emissions, stating B.C. “has generally been very progressive on many issues of environmental stewardship."

Plans to export crude oil safely to new foreign markets will ensure that Canadians acquire a high level of economic benefit from a non-renewable resource.

Our resource sector produces the world’s cleanest aluminum at a time when it is needed for electric cars and a thousand other uses. Our rich copper deposits are essential for the growth of all types of clean energy and high technology.

British Columbia has become a world leader not just in producing valuable export commodities. It also sends brainpower abroad to help others be as green as we are. The recent Resource Works “Naturally Resourceful” series looked at companies including Inuktun Systems, Inventys, and SOFTAC Systems that exemplify this trend.

Voter of all parties think a green resource economy is possible. Many are aware resource jobs pay the best of any industry, are the most productive and are the most likely to be full-time. An economic study conducted for Resource Works showed that growth in resource exports is directly linked to new jobs for nurses, teachers, real estate agents, insurance brokers, tourism and factory workers and many other occupations.

Despite evidence of a rural-urban divide, residents regardless of where they live in B.C. share some ideas about the economic future. Earlier this year, polling firm Ipsos researched the state of the resource debate. Highlights:

  • 84% agreed that "It's possible to create green jobs and grow the green economy within B.C.'s natural resource sector."
  • 83% agreed that "Natural resource development creates opportunities and hope for B.C.'s future."  
  • 76% agreed that "B.C.'s natural resource sector creates good opportunities for employment in high tech jobs."

The public clearly isn't sold on the idea that our future in this material world can be created without materials. Resources are needed now more than ever. When it comes to spinning good jobs and environmental protection from the resource economy, it doesn’t get any better than B.C.

But there's work to be done. Fewer than half of those surveyed agreed the natural resource development debate in B.C. is accurately described as transparent or cooperative (regulatory agencies, take note).

For these challenging political times, we need a better grasp of how to create a winning solution that benefits everyone, rural and urban. Here are some of the things Resource Works is doing to shape and channel the conversation:

  • Through an emerging network of community activists across British Columbia, Resource Works is sharing ideas and partnerships with those frustrated by the inability of the status quo to ably serve society's interests. We have to catch up on others who are decades ahead of us in this regard.
  • The world will energize itself with or without British Columbia. Whether it’s LNG, oil or clean energy – can BC businesses, our international partners and governments continue to develop world-class standards and technologies that allow us to tap our resource wealth while preserving the environment for future generations? On May 27, I'll be a panelist on this question at the BC Chamber of Commerce Annual Conference in Victoria.

  • On June 5 in Vancouver, I'll be a speaker at a public UBC Dialogues event entitled: Are Canada’s pipeline approvals at odds with our climate commitments? On this hot topic, I'd appreciate the presence in the audience of those who, like me, have reviewed the full fact set on responsible resource development and concluded that Canada has a duty to get crude oil infrastructure safely in place to serve our needs over the coming decades of steady energy transition. So please register soon as tickets are limited.

  • On June 6 and 7, I'll be at the University of Ottawa for another workshop led by Professor Monica Gattinger, a leading voice in building the middle ground on energy policy and understanding. It couldn't be timelier given the recent report on the future of the National Energy Board. Entitled From Best Practices to Next Practices: Policy-Regulatory Relations in Energy Decision-Making, the workshop focuses on the relationship between policymakers and regulators, investigating how to strengthen and clarify relationships and roles between policymakers and regulators. 

And we at Resource Works will be continuing to develop one of the fundamental themes that, if understood more widely, can help to create broader understanding: Innovation. BC's innovative resource technologies can flourish in target markets like China, Japan, India and the US, based on relationships already established through today’s trade. 

We’ll have to get better at developing products that link our local technologies with the needs of customers. This will take unprecedented collaboration.

This outcome can't be left to chance. Government and industry can become ever more effective in communicating this story to the general public. A leadership vision that provides unified direction for sustained and green economic prosperity is one thing politicians from all parties should be eager to embrace. 

How can you help? Share the newsletter and any of the links you find interesting. Drop me an email if there is something you'd like to share – or something we have overlooked.

Stewart Muir is executive director of the Vancouver-based Resource Works Society. His email address is [email protected] and you can follow him in Twitter: @sjmuir.

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