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Energy is vital to our everyday lives. It moves us. It runs our machines. It allows us to operate and regulate all manner of systems geared for comfort, and for preservation. It generates light in the presence of darkness, extending our days, safeguarding our nights.
It’s no wonder that “energy” has become synonymous with “power.” The Industrial Revolution sparked global demand, turning energy from an empowering resource into a hot commodity that would go on to have tremendous influence on world economics, politics and the environment.
Big business comes with big responsibilities.
How we choose to generate, transport and consume energy today — it’s all under intense scrutiny. Whether we can or should depend on a finite stock of fossil fuels (coal, oil, natural gas, uranium), or whether we might realistically rely on renewables (solar power, wind power or hydro) is a matter of considerable debate. And it’s increasingly a matter of global urgency — a complex conversation where every option has certain benefits, consequences and limitations.
In 1979 Trevor Lamb headed up north straight out of high school to work on the drilling rigs, so it’s no surprise he brings the long view to this conversation. At 6’3” and a solid 250 pounds, Lamb was a shoe-in for the physically demanding work of a roughneck. The promise of riches in exchange for honest work drew in a lot of hardy Canadians — young men, mostly — just like him. For pretty much everyone, it was all about the money.
“Most Albertans know it’s 14-hour days, working in the cold, seven days a week, three weeks straight. Working where I worked — in northern Alberta and B.C., as well as the Beaufort Sea — you were essentially in a male-only society with the camaraderie that goes with that… [and] excessive money.
“There was nowhere to spend it up north, so you’d come home with lots of money.”
Lamb put some of his earnings into RRSPs but, with such abundance, not everyone had the foresight to save for the future. It was too easy to take things for granted up north — until everything went south.
In 1980, the federal government introduced the National Energy Program and the industry stumbled. A lot of people lost their livelihoods and fell prone to all the subsequent losses that follow. Alberta pickup trucks drove around with bumper stickers reflecting a combination of experience, hope and regret:
“Please God, give us another oil boom. We promise not to piss it all away next time.”
For Lamb, who spent the better part of his 40-year career on the oil and gas roller-coaster ride of volatility as an engineer and business owner, the environmental concerns that are effectively crippling transport and stunting production may be somewhat justified, but they’re certainly not insurmountable.
“Engineers and engineering technologists… we’re creators,” says Lamb. “We create and unfortunately with that there is some level of what some deem destruction.
“Industry folks want to make things work effectively and efficiently. We mutually want to see our products moving safely, meeting standards and not [negatively] affecting the environment.
“There may be a whole bunch of reasons why not to do something, but you can be smart about it.”
Before he retired in 2016, Lamb was involved in setting standards intended to safely move oil and gas while protecting the environment. He still takes a practical view of the industry’s future.
“People need to understand the footprint that they’re causing and to ask themselves, ‘What am I doing to change the demand for fossil fuel products like straws?’” he says. “If you don’t want one-time plastics, are you going to personally stop using them? Will you take a spoon to a fast food restaurant? Will you stop using natural gas in your home and switch to something else?”
Lamb’s thinking is in sync with what we know about human evolution. Finding a way to work around a problem tends to produce better long-term results than accepting defeat.
“In my opinion there’s nothing from a technical perspective that engineers can’t resolve,” says Lamb. “Don’t come to me with your problems. Come to me with your solutions, and then let’s work together.”
Deanna Burgart is an engineer who’s taking a non-conventional approach to resolving some of the energy industry’s most prevalent challenges.
She’s working to increase and deepen conversations around oil and gas by challenging the traditional roster of who gets invited to engage in them.
“I think Indigenous people bring a unique perspective on the world, and on science,” says Burgart. “Indigenous knowledge has a very deep and interconnected approach to the way we do things.”
Burgart is advocating for a shift in the way Indigenous perspectives are heard, and how the concerns, advice and wisdom of Indigenous peoples are reflected in projects taking place across their traditional territories. Given a voice, this historically marginalized group can contribute real value and influence positive change.
In business, money talks. A few Indigenous groups are starting to put money on the table as a way of securing a seat at it. Project Reconciliation is one such group. It’s looking to secure majority ownership of the federally owned Trans Mountain Pipeline.
Majority ownership will give these First Nations a direct say in decisions around the design, construction and operation of the pipeline itself, but ultimately a pipeline has to serve the producers.
“We need more Indigenous voices and perspectives within all levels in the industry,” says Burgart. “Upstream, midstream and downstream.”
The potential for dissent between multiple First Nations who share traditional territories across a line of pipe cannot be overlooked. There are nations looking to transition to renewable energy, for example. Will they support pipelines and infrastructure to transport fossil fuels?
Burgart feels conversations around sustainability within the industry are pointing to a promising future.
“It’s super exciting,” she says. “There are still a lot of polarized ‘either/or’ discussions, but I think people are more willing to find space for oil and gas and renewables.
“I think the transformation will happen when we’re willing to have that ‘and’ conversation.”
Best friend business partners Gursh Bal and Kai Fahrionare confident that humankind can transform the face of energy and, in turn, the fate of the planet by learning to use our natural resources — our sustenance — in a more sustainable manner.
“We have a very audacious goal of being able to create the sustainable human,” says Bal. “To be able to fix every potential issue that there is.”
And they mean it — they have the right mix of ideology, ingenuity and commitment to pull it off. Their company, Virtuoso Energy, is a leader in Calgary’s renewable energy market. They have genuine business acumen and a refreshingly open approach that favours “collaboration over competition” and “integration over isolation.”
“In Canada, diversity is our strength,” says Fahrion. “You have people from all over the world who have different exposures, ideas and solutions. Diverse conversations bring a higher level of refinement.”
Discussing sustainable energy on oil and gas turf is easy for these guys because they don’t see it as competition. Instead, they’re pitching the practice of renewables such as solar, wind, hydro and geo-thermal as complementary.
“Alberta has amazing natural resources,” says Bal. “We actually have everything we need here. It’s not about one trumping the other. It’s about how they’re going to cohesively work together.” Their company is working with local energy industry leaders to help make the word “energy” itself more diversified. They’re helping to develop collaborative projects that integrate renewable energy in traditional oil and gas extraction and production processes, like extracting oil using solar power instead of diesel engines, for example.
Because, they say, while there’s an urgency to expanding the use of renewable energy, fossil fuels will continue to play an important role in daily life.
“We still need those natural resources in all their forms for the different applications,” says Fahrion. “But there is a meeting ground where they’re going to have to overlap.” It’s an insight shared by all of SAIT’s 2019 Alumni Awards recipients: ongoing collaboration through informed, inclusive conversation is the answer.
And they know people are starting to come together to have those conversations.
Environmental health, changing consumer behaviour, industry innovation, and thought leaders and go-getters like Lamb, Burgart, Bal and Fahrion will determine the future of energy in Alberta.
And as people worldwide are making choices and demanding action based on sustainable solutions to the challenges and consequences of energy production and consumption, these four believe there is also room for optimism. “If you do the right thing,” says Lamb, “the right thing will happen.”
“I think the best possible answer is really balanced,” says Burgart. “Looking to harness the energy we can without impact, and producing the non-renewable energy with as little impact as possible.”
Because we’ve got amazing diversity in this country — of people and natural resources — and heighted expectations, Alberta’s energy forecast appears promising.
“It’s going to set the highest standards,” predicts Bal. “That means, as close to carbon-free as possible, ethical, safe and ultimately profitable.”