How Frontier failed us forward

Teck just asked Canadians to have a better conversation about our future. We should listen.

This week, as Teck CEO Don Lindsay released the company’s extraordinary letter withdrawing its regulatory application for the Frontier Mine, I remembered something I read years ago – during a peak moment in the Enbridge Northern Gateway controversy.

I remember sitting at my desk at a large environmental non-profit. The Federal Government had recently approved the Northern Gateway Pipeline, and it felt very much like the world had cracked in two—with half of Canada on one side, and half on the other. That’s when I encountered a sentence that my brain would chew on for years to come.

“Don’t we want our oil and gas companies to be good oil and gas companies until we don’t need them anymore?”

Sadly, I don’t remember the context of the sentence, nor who authored it. (I suspect it was Andrew Leach, one of the country’s leading energy and environmental economists. He doesn’t remember writing it, though he does admit it sounds like him). No matter, the sentence itself is enough. Within it contains all the tensions that define our relentless and seemingly immovable public discourse about energy.

First: we need oil and gas companies. Second: one day, relatively soon, we won’t – at least in their current form. Thousands of oped pages, and reams of Twitter feeds, feature arguments on both sides of those statements. And yet, this is a profoundly unproductive discussion, because both statements are objectively true.

The more important question, the harder one, isn’t the question the sentence asks – but the one it points to. It isn’t: don’t we want our oil and gas companies to be good? (Who would answer no?). Rather, it’s: what does it mean for an oil and gas company to be good?

In the context of our polarized and fragmented nation, this question seems not only unanswerable, but unaskable. An environmentalist asking the question is labelled as a heretic. An Albertan asking it is just as bad. We must either accept that oil and gas companies are the chain on the foot of humanity tying us to a dismal, unlivable future. Or that our resource sector is already the best in the world, and to ask for more, to ask for different, would be biting the hand that feeds us and plunging us all into economic despair.

This taboo question ticks at the heart of Teck CEO Don Lindsay’s brilliant and powerful lament.

“Global capital markets are changing rapidly and investors and customers are increasingly looking for jurisdictions to have a framework in place that reconciles resource development and climate change,” Lindsay writes. “This does not yet exist here today and, unfortunately, the growing debate around this issue has placed Frontier and our company squarely at the nexus of much broader issues that need to be resolved.”

This is not, as Lindsay makes clear, a company running away from controversy. Rather, it is a company cutting with a surgeon’s knife through the fog of punditry to the cold, solid bone of truth. Canada has no collective vision for the future of energy development in a low-carbon world, no imagined pathway to get from where we are now to where we want to be.

Part of the solution is policy. One of the most resounding recommendations from the Expert Panel on Sustainable Finance is to map Canada’s long-term path to a low-emissions economy, which would include outlining not only a trajectory for our oil and gas sector, but a capital plan to support its transition.

But the other, tougher, imperative is the need for a much richer, fuller, and more imaginative national conversation about the future of energy and Canada’s resource sector. What does it mean to be a good oil and gas company in this historical moment? What does a good oil and gas company do? How does it evolve and re-imagine itself?How does it contribute to the massive energy transition that is already underway? How does it act as a force for reconciliation?

I am not talking about spin or advertising. I’m talking about what oil and gas companies can actually do to earn public trust, to create real social and environmental value, in 2020 and beyond.

If we are not allowed to ask these questions, then we will never even begin to imagine the answers. And where will that leave us? Here. Exactly right here.

“It is our hope,” wrote Lindsay, “that withdrawing from the [regulatory] process will allow Canadians to shift to a larger and more positive discussion about the path forward.” I hope he is right.

What is certain is that, in making this bold decision, Teck shifted our national energy conversation in a new and unexpected way. It cracked open a space in the centre and implored those on both sides to take a step in. Will they? We’ll see. But if we want a clue about what a good oil and gas company looks like, and what it does, this might be it.

About the Author

Jessie Sitnick

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