The outbreak of COVID-19 has triggered a global economic crisis that was unimaginable even two weeks ago, and perhaps nowhere is that being felt more acutely than in Alberta. In addition to the obvious consequences of social distancing on businesses and industry, we’re also dealing with a gut-wrenching collapse in oil prices that’s being driven in part by a deepening conflict between Saudi Arabia and Russia. Taken together, the combination of falling oil prices and a temporary collapse in the broader economy will put Alberta’s community and business leaders to the toughest test they’ve ever faced — one that they cannot afford to fail.
Sitting in his kitchen with a ballpoint pen and a small coiled notebook, Walter considers his expenses. With December looming around the corner, he laments the fact that his furnace, after all these years, has chosen to retire on the heels of winter. With his natural gas furnace no longer working, Walter has purchased two electric heaters to warm his home. These new additions leave him feeling unsure of how best to tackle his energy bills and this nervousness inspires him to investigate his home’s various electrical needs. In his son’s room, shelves decked with plastic dinosaurs and superhero posters adorn the walls. A small boy by the name of Brooks sits in the corner with a laptop propped over his knees. Walter approaches and unplugs the computer cord, telling the boy to finish his homework by hand. The boy’s teacher, he assures, won’t mind. Little does Walter know that the cost of powering his son’s laptop is of little significance, especially when compared to the oversized electric heaters he’s had running since the furnace died. Still, these days he hopes to divert whatever savings he can.
As a second COVID wave hits the province with full force and the impacts of prolonged economic repercussions become clearer, Alberta faces challenges that will ask us to reimagine what it means to bring our ingenuity, expertise, and innovative spirit to bear. In a province already reimagining the future of its energy sector, COVID-19 has shocked demand and disrupted expectations we might have had about what the future could look like. This turbulence has been accompanied by an accelerated commitment among financial institutions to scrutinize their investment portfolios and other activity through a climate science lens. The UN Principles for Responsible Investment initiative, a leading body pushing towards low-carbon pathways, has reported that signatories have more than $100 trillion in assets under management, and the Bank of Canada has made recent public statements about how we will need to decarbonize many facets of our lives in order to mitigate the worst impacts of climate change. Global investors are demanding a more stringent reckoning with an emerging consensus that prioritizes climate risk. With all of this as backdrop, several leading oil and gas companies have reduced the reported value of their assets by more than $80 billion in the first three quarters of 2020.
In March this year we were all shocked by the COVID pandemic, causing a massive disruption in our personal and professional lives. One of the areas that, in particular, was disrupted were in-person gatherings, such as workshops, conferences and meetings. For those, like myself, who work on challenges that require innovation and collaboration of diverse groups of people, this provoked a major question: How can we continue to create engaging online experiences that are effective in moving our work forward?
As governments and industry around the world work to jump-start their economies and restart their businesses without triggering a second wave of COVID-19 infections, they’re suddenly open to ambitious ideas and policies that were on a slow track before the virus struck. But in straining for the highest fruit on the tree, we need to be careful that we don’t miss one of the easiest pieces to pick: energy efficiency. It will deliver results — and deliver them quickly. Installation of commercially available high-efficient technology saves more money than it costs, reduces emissions, and supports the local economy, producing high-quality local jobs while keeping investment in the community. But for too long, we’ve overlooked this opportunity. The good news is that now is the perfect time for that to change.
In August of 2018 I had the good fortune to spend two weeks at the Banff Centre for Arts & Creativity for a Summer Writers Retreat. My project for that time was to write about the Energy Futures Lab. It was an intimidating program in the sense that I was there with people who were actual writers. I was one of only two non-fiction writers amidst a group of almost 20 very talented storytellers.
Dear Energy Futures Lab Fellows, Partners & Steering Committee Members,
Recent events demonstrate the importance of acknowledging and actively addressing systemic racism. Knowing these traumas are a part of Canada’s social fabric, we invite our community to lean collectively into this grief, discomfort, and moment of witness. We encourage you to reflect on the importance of being open to new ways of being, thinking, and doing.
There’s never a bad time for the Energy Futures Lab to meet, but the gathering in February in Cochrane was particularly timely. In the wake of Teck Resources’s decision not to proceed with its Frontier Oil Sands project, and in the shadow of both a national conversation over Coastal GasLink and Indigenous rights and a growing provincial one about the merits of separation from Canada, the time was right to ask some tough questions.
Since its inception, the EFL has had the intention to both include Indigenous people, partners, and perspectives as well as acknowledge and address, in its work, issues related to Indigenous people’s relationships to the energy system. As we step along our Truth and Reconciliation journey, we are embracing a knowing that this aspect of our work needs to be improved and deepened if we truly intend for the Lab to represent what is possible for today’s energy system in Alberta, and beyond.