The New Alberta Advantage: Technology, policy and the future of the oil sands

By Tadzio Richards

by Markham Hislop
Energi Media
2019/$20.00/134 pp.

Ready or not, technological changes within the global energy system are “going to have a profound effect on Alberta in the not too distant future,” writes journalist Markham Hislop in The New Alberta Advantage. “Humans are switching from fossil fuels to power their economies, to electricity generated by low-carbon technologies like hydro, wind, solar and tidal.” The cost of renewable electricity is going down, electric vehicle (EV) batteries are becoming more efficient every year and EVs are getting cheaper, writes Hislop. “Those technologies are coming for Alberta—for its jobs, for its economy and for its future—if it doesn’t respond accordingly. The problem is that a lot of Albertans either don’t know about this or refuse to acknowledge it…. This book is intended as a wakeup call to those who still believe that Alberta’s future will look like its past, and that business as usual is a viable strategy going forward. It’s also a roadmap for how we can better meet the challenge posed by the energy transition.”

Released before the 2019 provincial election, The New Alberta Advantage does what Hislop intends. It’s a scathing critique of “old-guard” thinking in the energy industry and a clarion call for Albertans to embrace the “big and bold vision”—which was shared by the biggest oil sands producers and by Rachel Notley’s NDP government—that “decarbonizing is good for business.” Read in light of post-election UCP government energy policies, and our uncertain economic future, The New Alberta Advantage can also be described as one of the most important books written about Alberta in the last decade.

Hislop is the founder of the online news site Energi Media, where he has “interviewed hundreds of experts on one aspect or another of the energy sector.” Those interviews underlie the main argument in his book; namely, that Alberta has a “golden opportunity” in the oil sands—if it chooses to take it.

The argument is simple: In the era of climate change, investors are leery of “carbon risk”—they want to know how oil and gas companies are “harnessing technology and innovation to be part of the transformation to a low-carbon future.” Instead of peak oil supply, investors now fear peak oil demand, or the point when global oil consumption starts to fall. In Alberta, Suncor—one of the large oil sands companies that Hislop terms “the big five”—now regularly assesses different energy futures scenarios. Suncor reports that no matter when peak demand arrives, “long-term resilience” will depend on lowering costs and lowering the “carbon intensity of the entire value chain.”

That vested interest led oil sands CEOs to meet with leaders of environmental groups before the NDP won the 2015 election, to “hammer out a policy consensus” on “carbon pricing and emissions reductions.” Much of that consensus—including the emissions cap, which was proposed by the CEOs—went into the NDP’s Climate Leadership Plan that brought in Alberta’s carbon tax. Many conventional oil producers, including junior and mid-size companies struggling to raise money in the downturn, opposed that plan. But their stance is misguided and myopic, writes Hislop, who argues that in a low-carbon future, producing a low-cost, low-carbon-intensity barrel of oil will be a form of “self-preservation” for the industry and a “new Alberta advantage.”

While Hislop argues the NDP did a poor job selling their policies, he writes: “If Alberta abandons Rachel Notley’s energy policies and adopts new ones that slow or hinder oil sands companies’ pivot to the low-carbon future, the damage to the industry and the provincial economy may be irreparable.” The UCP government has since bet Alberta’s future on corporate tax cuts, and barely mentions climate change. The consequences could be grim. But for a primer on another path for Alberta, one we could still take, this book is a must-read.

—Tadzio Richards is the associate editor at Alberta Views.



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