On September 10th, the Energy Club held its Annual General Meeting (AGM), and I attended my first ever event with the organization. It became clear to me when Mr. Richard Dixon began his talk on critical energy issues that you cannot separate energy issues from environmental ones. Expecting that the environmental agenda may not have a huge part in the conversation, I was pleasantly surprised to see that it was deeply steeped in the topic. Mr. Dixon, who works as Chief of Strategic Foresight for the Alberta Energy Regulator (AER) and is an Adjunct Professor for the Alberta School of Business, touched on a lot of different things in his talk - from electric cars, to the current energy crisis, to the new government in Alberta and its bourgeoning relationship with the energy industry. A few things stood out to me in particular.
The Nexen shutdown, brought about by a recent spill and shoddy regulatory compliance at their Long Lake oil sands operation, is an especially relevant topic to me as an environmental engineer. Mr. Dixon used the ‘red card’ analogy during his talk, comparing the Alberta Energy Regulator (AER) to a referee in a game of soccer. If there’s someone who isn’t playing by the rules, it is the referee’s job to remove them from play and preserve the integrity of the game. In the proverbial game of energy and oil sands development, the same principle applies. The move by the AER to suspend Nexen’s operation pending evidence that they can operate safely and comply with regulation was very powerful. It makes me excited to see that we now seem to be in a place where environmental regulation holds power over the energy sector, and not the other way around. I think it’s indicative of shifting values, even in ultra-conservative Alberta. Energy and environmental stewardship are becoming a package deal. That is a beautiful thing.
Beyond the touchy-feely stuff, I think that this system will actually work best for everyone. To bring back the soccer analogy and quote Mr. Dixon again, “referees that do their job well are supported by teams.” The AER is right to not tolerate environmental negligence. Allowing the errors of the past to propagate forward will only serve to slow progress. If we want to ensure that irresponsible pipeline operation is a thing of the past, we have to make sure there’s no room for it in our future.
Another thing that was apparent to me about Mr. Dixon himself is his optimism about the future of energy. One of the aspects he is most excited about is the innovation it will bring as we find solutions for the shortcomings of the present and move forwards to new methods of energy provision. And I’ll admit that now, having heard him speak, I’m excited too. The prospect that the next energy revolution could be just around the corner, and may bring with it crazy things like electric cars that run on salt water (I’m not kidding), seems almost too good to be true. And the thought that my peers and I could eventually be working in and around the energy industry, and have a part in bringing that to fruition, is both daunting and exciting. But, looking around the room at the AGM and seeing so many bright people come together to support a better future for energy, I think I could see what Mr. Dixon sees. With collective brainpower like that behind it, it’s anyone’s best guess as to how far this thing could go.