What’s the next big thing af­ter oil for Al­berta?

Toronto Star - - OPINION - Gil­lian Stew­ard is a Calgary writer and for­mer manag­ing ed­i­tor of the Calgary Her­ald. Her col­umn ap­pears every other week. gstew­ard@telus.net Gil­lian Stew­ard

Is oil be­com­ing passé?

If so, what is go­ing to re­place it in Al­berta? What kind of in­dus­tries will pro­vide the well-pay­ing jobs that lured so many peo­ple to this province over the past 20 years and kept them here?

That’s the big ques­tion fac­ing Al­ber­tans, and other pe­tro­leum-pro­duc­ing re­gions of Canada, as the bad news re­gard­ing the fu­ture of fos­sil fu­els keeps pil­ing up.

Just last week, the Na­tional En­ergy Board re­leased a re­port in which it fore­cast that fos­sil fuel con­sump­tion in Canada could peak in two years and then drop by as much as 13 per cent by 2040. This is a big shift. It’s the first time since the NEB be­gan fore­cast­ing in 2007 that fos­sil fuel use peaks within the pro­jec­tion pe­riod. Pre­vi­ous re­ports in­di­cated that de­mand would in­crease for the next two to three decades.

Things are chang­ing much faster than pre­vi­ously an­tic­i­pated.

The NEB at­tributes the de­cline in de­mand to: car­bon taxes, which will dis­cour­age con­sump­tion; en­ergy ef­fi­ciency; emerg­ing en­ergy tech­nolo­gies; and slower pop­u­la­tion growth. Global cli­mate change poli­cies and the de­vel­op­ment of re­new­able en­ergy and elec­tric ve­hi­cles are also likely to shrink de­mand for fos­sil fu­els around the world, ac­cord­ing to the NEB.

Of course, this doesn’t mean Canada won’t con­tinue to pro­duce and ex­port oil. Just not as much as pre­vi­ously ex­pected.

Shrink­ing de­mand is not the only prob­lem. Some in the oil­patch are los­ing hope that Al­berta oil will ever make it to Asian mar­kets since the pipe­lines that would get it to coastal ports are ei­ther can­celled or de­layed.

So it’s not sur­pris­ing that in some quar­ters peo­ple are look­ing for some­thing else that will give Al­ber­tans a bet­ter chance at long-term pros­per­ity.

Some­thing like the big idea that Peter Lougheed had in the 1970s when he de­cided to kick-start oil­sands de­vel- op­ment by in­vest­ing mil­lions of dol­lars of pub­lic funds into oil­sands projects and on­go­ing tech­nol­ogy re­search with the in­ten­tion of turn­ing the re­source into a long-last­ing source of in­come for the province.

Lougheed’s vi­sion didn’t turn out ex­actly the way he had wanted and in the last 10 years en­vi­ron­men­tal is­sues and car­bon emis­sions put the oil­sands in a neg­a­tive light, es­pe­cially out­side Al­berta. But there’s no ques­tion oil­sands de­vel­op­ment en­riched both in­di­vid­ual Al­ber­tans and the pro­vin­cial trea­sury over decades. So what’s next? Calgary has the high­est clus­ter of en­gi­neers and in­for­ma­tion tech­nol­ogy pro­fes­sion­als in the coun­try thanks to the oil and gas sec­tor. Many of them are out of work but they have the kind of skills that could be trans­ferred to the tech sec­tor. And it is the tech sec­tor that many en­trepreneurs in Calgary are bet­ting on.

Rocket Space, a Sil­i­con Val­ley firm, is mov­ing into Calgary next year. There’s plenty of empty of­fice space.

And like Toronto, Calgary has put to­gether a bold bid for the next Ama­zon head­quar­ters. Even if it doesn’t win, it hopes its pitch will at­tract lesser stars so the city can be­come a tech-hub.

And then there are the well-funded star­tups look­ing at how water tech­nol­ogy could play a role in Al­berta’s fu­ture.

At the Univer­sity of Calgary, re­searchers are try­ing to fig­ure out how they can de­car­bonize oil ex­trac­tion.

There are no such big ideas com­ing from our cur­rent crop of po­lit­i­cal par­ties.

The NDP gov­ern­ment of Rachel Not­ley is push­ing re­new­able en­ergy projects as part of a plan to re­duce car­bon emis­sions. But while switch­ing to re­new­ables and nat­u­ral gas will clean up the in­fras­truc­ture that de­liv­ers elec­tric­ity, we won’t be sell­ing or prof­it­ing from re­new­ables or re­new­able tech­nol­ogy the way we do from oil.

The new United Con­ser­va­tive Party, now led by Jason Ken­ney, doesn’t even ac­knowl­edge cli­mate change or the need to re­duce car­bon emis­sions.

It sim­ply wants to cut taxes, es­pe­cially the car­bon tax, and cut spend­ing, and some­how quickly bal­ance the gov­ern­ment’s books.

They seem to think that some­how, de­spite all ev­i­dence to the con­trary, Al­berta can sim­ply re­turn to the days of $100-a-bar­rel oil and un­fet­tered oil­sands de­vel­op­ment.

Those days are over. That’s why we need to start work­ing on the next big thing.

Calgary has the high­est clus­ter of en­gi­neers and IT pro­fes­sion­als in Canada thanks to oil and gas. Many are out of work, but can ap­ply their skills to the tech sec­tor that the ma­jor­ity of en­trepreneurs in Calgary are bet­ting on

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