Oil/gas, automotive narratives impede Canadian EV adoption

Rating: High school and post-secondary

Summary: Markham interviews Dr. Nathan Lemphers about his working paper, which examines transportation electrification narratives in Alberta oil/gas (negative), Ontario automotive manufacturing (uncertain), and Quebec (positive).

Related links:

The Stories that Bind Us: Advancing Electromobility in Canada

This interview has been lightly edited.

Markham Hislop:  Energy media readers have probably read many of the columns that I’ve written about energy narrative over the years. And my argument is that narrative is about how we think and talk about energy and climate and how that’s actually more important than plans and policy. How we think and talk about energy and climate is a limiter to what we can do, what we want to do.

Narrative doesn’t get very much attention in Canada, but Dr. Nathan Lemphers from the Smart Prosperity Institute has written a very interesting paper about the influence of the oil and gas industry and the Canadian automotive industry on our narrative around electromobility or the electrification of transportation. So we’re going to talk to him about his paper.

Let’s start this off with an overview of your paper, please.

Nathan Lemphers:  My paper looks at how different industry associations that are regionally concentrated in Canada have spoken about electromobility to their membership. So I look at three main provinces, Quebec, Ontario, and Alberta, and I look at the dominant industry in each of those economies.

So in Quebec, I look at the electricity association and the publications from their electric industry association, Association de L’industrie Électrique du Québec. In Ontario, I look at the auto parts industry and the Automotive Parts Manufacturers Association member publications. And in Alberta, I look at the oil and gas industry, at the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers Context Magazine to see how between the years of 2014 and 2020, they spoke about electromobility.

How often did they talk about it? And in what sort of context, what was the story they were telling their own members about this. In part to understand how prepared these industries are for the coming transition to electrified transportation. A lot of these changes will be externally imposed on Canada and on particular regions, whether or not particular industries or governments are prepared.

I wanted to find out what exactly these industries were telling their membership about electromobility.

Source: The Stories that Bind Us: Advancing Electromobility in Canada, CLEAN ECONOMY WORKING PAPER SERIES, NOVEMBER 2020, Smart Prosperity Institute.

Markham Hislop:  My understanding is that you found that the oil and gas industry was the least enthusiastic, mentioned it the least. The automotive industry was kind of uncertain about it and then on the electricity side, which would benefit most from electrification of transportation, they were more supportive. Have I got that correct?

Nathan Lemphers:  That’s exactly right. It was not surprising to see that the electricity association of Quebec would be unreserved champions of electromobility which would increase the demands of their own product, enable them to grow and prosper in that province.

But it’s a different story in Ontario and in Alberta.

In Ontario, it was really a mixed bag from how the auto parts manufacturers association spoke about electromobility. There was a lot of uncertainty. There was some good things, but also a lot of bad things, in part, because at present there’s only one electric vehicle that’s produced in Canada, hopefully that’ll change. There’s been some recent announcements, but my study just went till the summer.

Now in Alberta there was a different framing around electrictomobility from from CAPP, which was the uncertainty and the negativity towards electromobility that, it’s an ineffective way to reduce emissions that there’s cheaper alternatives elsewhere, that the technology has not been proven, that it’s expensive.

All these sorts of things, which are not necessarily a story that enables the industry to help transition into the future, given that they will be on the receiving end of this decline in transportation fuels.

Source: The Stories that Bind Us: Advancing Electromobility in Canada, CLEAN ECONOMY WORKING PAPER SERIES, NOVEMBER 2020, Smart Prosperity Institute.

Markham Hislop:  Now let’s talk about CAPP for a minute, because that’s an area where I’ve done a fair amount of work and here’s the practical application of what you’re talking about. In the last year, but particularly two years, oil and gas companies all big companies, but particularly oil and gas companies have to report on climate risk. And it’s only recently that they began incorporating the electrification of transportation into their modelling. And you can kind of see that they’re behind the curve on this issue.

You have to wonder the connection between the way the industry talks to itself and what they say over scotch at the Calgary Petroleum Club, and then this, slowness to adopt climate risk strategies and to see the risks down the road that other industries have been quicker to grapple with. Just an observation.

Nathan Lemphers:  Absolutely. It’s, it’s a huge intellectual blind spot. And my research looked at how CAPP talks about electromobility to its own membership. What they talk about at the Calgary Petroleum Club was probably a lot more perhaps honest or realistic about the upcoming changes, but they necessarily want to put on a strong face for their membership.

But real leadership in this case is showing how the industry can help the transition. So there’s some movement there within the industry of some companies about “okay, well, we could have different uses for it, for bitumen, for example, to produce carbon fibre for electric vehicles, or there’s different ways in which we could reclaim lithium from exhausted oil and gas wells.”

There’s some talk about that, but it’s not very present in CAPP’s communications right now. It takes place in other forums.

Markham Hislop:  Let’s talk about Ontario because in a way I’m not surprised that the industry, the parts association folks, would be uncertain because it really has only been the last year that we’ve seen major announcements from automakers setting up electric vehicle manufacturing in Ontario. The industry there seems to be in a bit of a transition, and do you think that maybe that uncertainty was reflected in the communications is a result of the transition.

Source: The Stories that Bind Us: Advancing Electromobility in Canada, CLEAN ECONOMY WORKING PAPER SERIES, NOVEMBER 2020, Smart Prosperity Institute.

Nathan Lemphers:  Absolutely transitions are hard for anybody, especially industries that use technology that’s been around for 80 to 100 years and there’s a long history of companies supplying the big assembly plants in Ontario, and that that’s starting to shift.

There were announcements by Fiat-Chrysler and Ford in the fall that there’ll be producing, starting in the next few years, some electric vehicle models. Is it enough for the auto industry to survive in Ontario? It’s hard to say.

There are a lot of auto parts companies in Ontario that already supply electric vehicle assembly plants in the US so just because we’re not producing them here in Canada doesn’t mean that all is lost. But there still is a lot of companies that produce parts for internal combustion engines and transmission systems, which will have difficulty transitioning.

Markham Hislop:  Well, let’s wrap up this interview, Nathan, by talking about something I addressed in my introduction, which is: does narrative lead or does narrative lag? In our conversation about Alberta, Ontario and Quebec, it seems like Alberta is lagging and that’s a problem. It seems like Ontario is in the middle because the industry there is moving quicker than the oil and gas industry, but not as quickly as the electricity industry, which sees its own self-interest in electrification. And from your point of view is the fact that narrative seems to lag the developments in the industry, is that that typical or is maybe that a weakness in the way that Canadians are approaching the energy transition?

Nathan Lemphers:  That’s a difficult question to answer. I think it’s specific for the different regions and the different industries. I also think that narrative both leads and lags the development of certain technology.

In terms of leading, it helps to build coalitions and establish coherent stories that could help with the development of policy and implementation. But it also helps in a sort of a storytelling sense of how a certain technology links to our past. In Quebec, they strongly talk about their use of hydroelectricity as a form of developing an industrialized, regional economy. But in Alberta, it’s looking to the past, it’s looking to old technologies and business as usual.

And I think that there’s opportunity here for Ontario and Alberta to change how they talk about electromobility. Instead of something that’s expensive, that’s ineffective, but as a technology of the future and as something that each of these provinces’ economies can contribute to and harness to help create economic growth and good jobs.

Markham Hislop:  I look to the US for just one specific example of my point, which is Elon Musk and Tesla. I mean, Elon Musk is looked at as the thought leader in electric vehicle development and what Elon Musk says drives investment. It drives policy. It has a big influence on those and he’s not the only one, there are other leaders in that, in that space – thought leaders. And we don’t have any equivalent of that in Canada. We don’t have any of those big personalities of the thought leaders. I think that has an influence on our narrative as it were. So anyway, just your thoughts?

Nathan Lemphers:  Yeah. I think you’re right. We don’t have an Elon Musk equivalent. We don’t have any electric vehicle assemblers that are successful. We certainly have smaller ones, in Vancouver, a few in Ontario and a number in Quebec as well, but none with the size and influence of Elon Musk.

But we have other people that act as lodestars for policy development or signs to the future. People look to other private sector leaders. It could be in the technology sector. We look to politicians, political leaders for insights on where the puck is headed in Canada. So just because we don’t have a Tesla that’s based here and we have a lot of you branch plants in terms of our auto sector doesn’t mean that we can’t develop thought leadership here in Canada on the subject.

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