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Column: Let’s get back to the business of innovation, adaptation and entrepreneurialism – the best antidote to destructive naysayers is success
By Terry Etam
My career in the petroleum sector began in a way that past generations of plains indigenous people might relate to, or at the very least their food source would. I was part of a great migratory herd, not unlike buffalo, moving across the grasslands in search of food (so to speak). Most members of my U of Sask graduating class migrated westward in the 1990s in search of a better future, as it was pretty bleak back home. We tried not to act like buffalo, we really did, and the gracious locals welcomed us into their bars and communities and sold us watermelons to wear on our heads. Once here, we became part of a dynamic fabric of cross-Canada economic refugees, international petroleum experts, and the sadly outnumbered native Calgarians. It was an intoxicating time of growth and entrepreneurialism as the new century dawned, the growth fuelled by an unprecedented rise in commodity prices.
Those rising commodity prices shaped the city for more than a decade. Capital flowed in in immense amounts, fuelling growth of petroleum resources and any business peripheral to them. The oil sands came to life, the whole western Canadian sedimentary basin hummed, and thousands of small businesses grew and shaped the west.
Because of the overwhelming force of the commodity price boom ($140 oil and $10 natural gas can do that), the petroleum production sector became even more dominant than it had been before. Many dreamed of diversifying the economy, but that is far easier said than done when the oil patch sucked up any able body that promised not to steal stuff and put it to work (and for those who wouldn’t make that promise, labour-starved Tim Hortons beckoned, a bar not very high off the floor at the time). Petroleum production was the engine, to the benefit of the province, the nation, and countless workers who found permanent or temporary work out west.
Like anyone needs reminding, this all came to a crashing halt in 2014 with the commodity price collapse. Price cyclicality is nothing new to the petroleum sector, but this time was different as the climate change movement compounded the not-unfamiliar price collapse by actively undermining the petroleum sector. (Many outside the oil and gas industry don’t understand how the industry feels it is being is being singled out for punishment; they see the fight against fossil fuels as being either non-personal or simply an attack on the legendary boogeyman “Big Oil”. But from the inside, where there is an awful lot of Little Oil, there is no other way to interpret the aggression and venom as being anything other than highly personal. Put it this way: climate activists see their success as the demolition of the petroleum sector, and the success of the petroleum sector as their failure. Yet global petroleum consumption continues to rise, which makes activists become even more active, which does nothing except build frustration because the rest of the world is carrying on pretty much as before. Does that sound like a recipe for happiness to anyone?)
The combined weight of lower commodity prices (largely a result of the US shale revolution and our landlocked resources) and the befouled name of fossil fuels has destroyed the morale, enthusiasm, and entrepreneurial spirit of the oil patch. The federal bills banning pipelines and politicizing infrastructure development were significant body blows, as was the flight of capital and the general media vision that petroleum resources are yesterday’s industry (despite the fact that the world’s consumption continues to climb relentlessly). Even if prices recover, there is a sense that the boom times of overly-exuberant oil sands development and widespread drilling activity will not return. All the negativity, with no end in sight, has fostered feelings of anger, helplessness and hopelessness.
It was very refreshing then to be part of a panel discussion the other day that was filled with optimism, potential and enthusiasm. All this came from the same hydrocarbon industry, the same energy, but pulsed with a reawakening of the spirit of potential and entrepreneurialism.
The discussion was part of the Global Petroleum Show’s lead-up to 2020, themed “Leading with Ingenuity”. Whoever picked the panel did a fantastic job. The three presenters included a business that optimized pipeline control systems, one that was working to develop hydrogen from oil reservoirs, and an academic-driven initiative to “elevate the conversation across Canada around energy systems choices and to inform policy and investment decisions regarding the transformation of Canada’s energy systems towards sustainability”. The trio provided a fascinating cross section of what might be a monumental reinvention of Canada’s petroleum sector.
Crux OCM‘s Vicki Knott demonstrated the company’s engineered software that optimizes pipeline and gas plant control operation systems in real-time, leading to significant efficiencies and even, tantalizingly, the prospect of materially higher throughput. This channel of innovation represents the front-line battleground – and what should be the primary focus – of the fight to reduce global emissions (I am swearing off use of the “climate change” phrase – it’s political, dangerous, deluded, and corrupted). The lowest hanging fruit in any attempt to reduce emissions levels should be optimization, either through new technology or new techniques or whatever. This represents the single most logical place to lessen our footprint.
Grant Strem of Proton Technologies is pioneering the production of hydrogen from existing underground oil reservoirs. The challenge is obviously another level up, in both complexity and expense, and some real time and money will be required to get a local hydrogen economy going. But it is happening, and the benefits of a hydrogen economy could be staggering, as you can scope out at their website. Right now, we are being forced by governments into a “lower emission” electric/battery transformation that no one seems to want or want to pay for, and the more we pursue it the more unfeasible it appears. An alternative is a hydrogen/fuel cell based plan, and it has vastly more potential because hydrogen is a transition fuel that can be derived from natural gas, wind, solar, or, as Proton is showing, oil reservoirs. We don’t need to develop a hydrogen economy overnight, but if the potential is even a fraction of what Proton envisions, we do need to start on one and right now.
Lastly, and most significantly from a macro perspective, the CESAR (Canadian Energy Systems Analysis Research) initiative showed us that finally, finally, efforts are being made to adjust the narrative on climate change from the dysfunctional and fear driven to the fundamental realities of life as we know it. As stated in a “Transition Accelerator” document authored by a group including CESAR Director David Layzell: “…for many, perhaps most Canadians, concerns about climate change are not sufficiently compelling to drive the magnitude of systems change that is required, especially if there is a cost associated with the change.” The report also notes that “We are convinced that (a) the focus on more than just GHG reductions, (b) the engagement of industry, government and other societal actors in developing a shared vision and credible, compelling pathways to the future, (c) the integration of both technical and societal assessments and (d) the spin-off of industry-led consortia will yield more promising results in the transition to a low carbon economy.” Additionally, CESAR is studying, in the real world with real data, the best possible option should industries like freight hauling move on from a diesel based framework to anything else. The hydrogen option that Proton is developing appears to be a natural fit, and if it is, that would be a very exciting development indeed. If you want to get excited about a possibly huge future for western Canadian energy, check out what CESAR thinks could happen.
Is hydrogen the fuel of the future, and is it a path Canada should pursue? Who am I, Nostradamus? Australia seems to think it’s going to be important, stating “The development of our hydrogen resources could enhance Australia’s energy security, create Australian jobs and build an export industry valued in the billions…We plan to accelerate the commercialisation of hydrogen, reduce technical uncertainties and build up our domestic supply chains and production capabilities. ” Given our bizarrely unique status as one of the few nations willing to cripple its own industries, shouldn’t we at least find out if hydrogen is all its cracked up to be? Yes, it could be difficult and/or infeasible and/or not what we think, but why on earth wouldn’t we find out definitively? Nothing is easy these days.
To be crystal clear, support of non-traditional hydrocarbon based industries is not a disavowal of the existing petroleum sector. The world needs more of Canada’s oil and gas, because it is produced to the highest standards in the world by a professional and world-class work force. Demand for petroleum products continues to grow, and Canada should be a proud and significant supplier.
To show enthusiasm for new businesses is a reflection of the simple fact that at some point we will need to seriously develop industries other than oil and gas extraction in the traditional sense. That fact has been around for a while, and existed long before climate change became a thing. Or The Thing. It is also a reflection of the fact that conventional oil and gas production is, at present, extremely difficult with limited market access. So why not do what the industry has always done – innovate over, around, or through obstacles? The very best response to a climate change movement that wants to eliminate the petroleum sector is indifference, if we can find a way to ignore their antics because we’ve figured out a better way to do business, one that is beyond their ability to harm.
Story: BOE Report