Commentary  From tar sands to Indigenous lands

Suncor and The Walrus host discussion on sustainable energy in Canada

Keystone XL. Hydro dams. Alberta tar sands. These are just a few of the terms being thrown around in current energy debates in the face of climate change.

Canada plays a key role in the global energy industry. The Alberta tar sands are the largest industrial project in human history, and 50 per cent of the energy produced in Canada is exported, primarily in the form of oil and gas. These fossil fuels, revolutionary stimuli for technological and economic growth over the past 50 years, are known today as the primary human cause of global climate change.

The unsettling fact of Canada’s economic dependence on such a dirty industry calls for a national conversation on energy policy in Canada – a conversation that is long overdue. Suncor, leading corporate giant in the tar sands, decided to host that conversation by teaming with The Walrus, a Canadian magazine, to present a conference on sustainable energy called “The Walrus Talks Energy” at McGill early this month. As Quebec drafts a new energy policy for 2014, this timely conference featured eight diverse and thought-provoking speakers.

Peter Calami, founder of the Canadian Science Writers’ Association, grounded the discussion with some basic physics: energy is neither created nor destroyed. Thus, “humans neither consume nor produce energy; we simply transform it. What we are really talking about is energy carriers,” he said. However, we need to realize that these carriers are not interchangeable, and that “we can’t power our laptops with coal,” so we can’t just talk about a single ‘energy policy.’

In the coming decades, we need to revamp our infrastructure – “not just pipelines and refineries,” said David Layzell, a professor in the University of Calgary’s Department of Biological Sciences. Layzell suggested that we instead strive for efficient cities that “maximize use of electricity.”

Perhaps more challenging than the physical transformation is the social and cultural shift needed to sustain Canada’s new energy system. The technology exists – we simply need to use it. As McGill professor Zetian Mi purported, LED bulbs are over 20 times more efficient than incandescents, yet we still use the latter after several decades!

As people are naturally resistant to change, applying human psychology and “social science research is necessary to shape the essential national dialogue,” stated Calami.

Chris Henderson, author of Aboriginal Power, took a holistic view of this national dialogue. His solution: clean energy projects on protected lands. Henderson suggested we should see renewable energies as an “opportunity to write a new history with the First Peoples” – one that regenerates bonds among Canadians and with our land.

Kali Taylor, founder of global movement Student Energy, reminded us of why we are having this debate in the first place. It is not the oil per se that we want, but what its energy enables us to do. With that in mind, we need to radically rethink energy and its role in human society.

So, is Suncor going to stop tar sand production and start building dams with Indigenous communities? Not exactly. The company has created OSQAR (Oil Sands Question and Response), a blog for “constructive dialogue on the oil sands.” Whether this is a truly critical platform for energy debates, or simply a marketing tool, Suncor has piped up in the conversation all Canadians should partake in.