Why are the oil sands CEOs not at Energy Relaunch? Calgary Bubble needs new blood, new voices

Headliners at the Energy Relaunch conference Thursday in Calgary at the Metropolitan Conference Centre

Energy Relaunch would benefit from more outward looking, forward thinking panelists – like the Alberta oil sands CEOs – instead of denizens of the Calgary Bubble

Give Monte Solberg credit for asking Andrew Leach to be a panelist at the Energy Relaunch conference, but the lineup for Thursday’s day long event in Calgary is dominated by conservative politicians and the ususual suspects from industry. Know who’s missing? Oil sands producers, whose executives are far and away the most plugged into the changes that are transforming the global energy system.

The event is being marketed by the former Stephen Harper cabinet minister’s New West Public Affairs as a “a day of discussion and insight from the nation’s top energy thought leaders on how Canada can regain its competitive edge in international energy markets and attract new investment into the country.”

Energy Relaunch
Monte Solberg, Principal at New West Public Affairs, former minister of human resources and development, immigration and citizenship.

Well, if you’re looking for thought leaders about energy, radio talking head Danielle Smith (journalists panel on pipeline politics), public affairs flack Mike Gladstone (Enbridge), a gaggle of elected officials (Jason Kenney, Scott Moe, Andrew Scheer, Deron Bilous), and another gaggle of politicians turned consultants (Chuck Strahl, Jay Smith), don’t qualify.

Leach does.

He was tapped by Alberta Premier Rachel Notley in 2015 to lead the Climate Advisory Panel, whose report was the basis for the Climate Leadership Plan and the much maligned province-wide carbon tax, which will no doubt be further maligned by the many carbon pricing opponents on the panels.

And the University of Alberta economics professor famously defends carbon pricing with trenchant and biting commentary on his widely followed Twitter account.

But it’s Suncor, Cenovus, CNRL, Husky, and Imperial Oil – the dominant players in the sector that produces over 80% of Alberta’ crude oil – whose voices are missing at this event.

The first three members of that group negotiated a rapprochement with environmental groups beginning in the fall of 2014 that provided important support for Notley’s climate plan when it was announced in late 2015.

In fact, the 100 megatonne oil sands emissions cap was put on the table by the oil sands CEOs during those meetings, otherwise it probably would not have been included in the Climate Leadership Plan.

And, almost alone among the Alberta oil and gas industry players, the oil sands companies accept climate science and the dangers of antropogenic global warming, support carbon pricing, and are preparing to be “cost and carbon-competitive” in an increasingly “carbon-constrained” gloal economy.

Suncor CEO Steve Williams and his fellow oil sands CEOs are at the forefront of Canada’s response to energy system change.

Energy Relaunch
Prof. Andrew Leach, economist, University of Alberta.

Why weren’t they they headliners at this event? Or at least on a few panels?

Don’t blame event organizers.

“We had discussions with them and some have even sponsored the event, but they deferred their participation on panels to others including their industry association reps like CAPP (Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers) and EPAC (Explorers and Producers Association of Canada) – who are both participating heavily and who are also both sponsors,” Michael Solberg of New West said in an email.

“That said, absolutely their presence is important given their contribution to not only Alberta’s economy, but the country’s economy – and their presence will be felt in other ways on Thursday’s event.”

This is a problem.

EPAC members are mostly the small and medium-sized producers who were especially hard hit by the dramatic decline in natural gas prices after 2008 that was compounded when oil prices fell off a cliff in late 2014. Some failed and many are still hemorrhaging red ink.

Not a group likely to be supportive of policies they see as adding unnecessary costs at a time when they’re hanging on by their fingertips.

And CAPP’s recent policy papers on climate policy and competitiveness are a confused jumble of contradictary positions that reflect the deep divisions – and disagreements – within the oil and gas sector.

Competitiveness for Canadian energy producers is a problem, there’s no doubt about that, and raising the public profile of policies and issues that affect the ability of Canada to get the maximum value for its resources is a worthy endeavour.

Organizer Michael Solberg says New West got the idea for Energy Relaunch after the Federal Court of Appeal’s decision quashed federal approval of the Trans Mountain Expansion pipeline project in late August.

“There were just no events of the calibre [of Energy Relaunch] that allowed for really open public discourse on regulatory approval processes,” he said in an interview. 

Energy Relaunch
Michael Solberg, New West Public Affairs.

“What we eventually created was a more broad discussion talking about energy infrastructure at large, climate leadership plans across the country, and conversations around how to regain a competitive edge in international energy markets.”

Solberg says the Alberta carbon tax will be front and centre for many of the panelists, which is why inviting Leach to provide the other side of the debate was important

Jason Kenney and the UCP have made it very clear that [the carbon tax] is the sword that they’re going to die on in the next election,” he said. 

Prof. Leach is trying to act as the foil to that position. We very much wanted him to provide much-needed representation on this discussion because we do have a lot of people from industry and politicians who are going to talk about how carbon taxes are bad for the economy and bad for families.”

Leach is, indeed an articulate spokesperson for the pro-carbon pricing camp.

But the heavy hitters supporting carbon pricing are the oil sands companies. Suncor and Cenovus, in particular, publish annual reports on sustainability and carbon risk that details the tremendous efforts both companies are taking to transition from being a “marginal barrel” to a “competitive barrel” in a global economy where new technologies and climate policies (e.g. carbon pricing) will favour crude oils with a low carbon-intensity.

If Alberta is going to discuss competitiveness, then the oil sands companies should be explaining their carbon competitiveness strategies – and support for carbon taxes – to Albertans.

A good start would have been participating on panels at Energy Relaunch.

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