Energy debate stuck in a rut – and what we can do about it

It’s increasingly clear we need to step outside the echo chambers that shape Canada’s polarizing energy narratives

Can families help get Canada out of its energy policy rut?

If oil and gas companies and governments funded family reunions, it might help.

Sound crazy?

Family gatherings could accomplish something that’s eluded Canadians by using an established social space to have the frank and balanced discussions about energy that lead to policies more broadly palatable and pragmatic than we have today.

It’s increasingly clear we need to step outside the echo chambers that shape Canada’s polarizing energy narratives.

Generation Energy is one such echo chamber. The recent gathering in Winnipeg organized by federal Natural Resources Minister Jim Carr was intended to frame a pan-Canadian approach to energy. Views on the conference align the way they seem to on everything about energy in Canada these days: at two distant poles. Some contend Generation Energy was a complete flop; others just the opposite.

The collisions between ideology and economics are naturally messy and antagonistic. But they’re necessary and can be productive.

However, keeping ideology at one pole and economics at the other gets us nowhere. The gap results in a bewildered populace stuck in the middle.

We’re in an energy rut in Canada and no one is courageous enough to acknowledge it. We need to quit spinning our wheels.

So let’s use the family unit to get at the core issue: how economics and ideology are at odds.

In the petroleum industry, for example, many folks all have that in-law – the guy who married your sister and whisked her off to Ontario from her Alberta roots.

And when you travel east to visit, you’re the proverbial fish out of water, the engineer from there.

Inevitably, the broadside is fired: “So, you’re part of the tar sands … how’s that working out for you?” With the emphasis on tar, not oilsands.

The rest is fairly predictable: polarizing frustrations on both sides. An attempt to explain how the sector actually works. A rebuttal about misdeeds and corporate greed. Explanations about the energy economy and how Alberta feeds the rest of Canada. Concerns about the environment. Verbal crossfire.

There are no balancing mechanisms. The result is legitimate frustrations on both sides. Too much is lost in translation and you just talk past each other. But because you’re family, another beer is cracked and the chat moves on to sports and all is well.

It’s a war of often amicable misunderstanding between normal folks who work in the petroleum industry and those who don’t – but those lives are underpinned by that industry.

Discussions about energy already occur in this family space. But we’re not taking advantage of them the way we could.

Most energy companies don’t spend a lot of time schooling their employees in how to have enlightened discussion with a person outside the industry. Nor have companies schooled employees about how to listen, to get as much out of such discussions as you put in.

Ask a typical energy employee what they would say about the sector. It’s likely to be rote recitation of mind-numbing facts.

But what if we committed to energy literacy training for family members, and then draw out meaningful data on what Canadians think about energy matters.

The family unit can become a place where ideology and economics tussle, with a commitment from all to speak and listen in equal measure.

What if energy companies and governments helped people shape better discussions that start within the family and move into the broader public realm?

The family unit can instil in all Canadians a desire to be more fluent in energy. We can reframe the way we think about the complexities of energy through the family.

Take 10 family reunions across Canada next year and ask people, over beer and barbecue, to formulate an energy strategy to serve the country’s economic and environmental aspirations for the next 20 years. We might be pleasantly surprised by the results.

Anything would be better than a wheel turning in a rut of increasing despair.

Bill Whitelaw is president and CEO at JuneWarren-Nickle’s Energy Group.


Canada's energy debate, stuck in a rut

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