January 15, 2014—Two events in Toronto in the past week have again drawn attention to the often narrow and sterile debate on resource development in Canada. They also raised the issue of how professional communicators can help frame that debate so that it doesn’t remain stuck in a zero-sum game.
First, rock star Neil Young held a benefit concert to raise money and awareness for the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation’s legal fight against Shell Canada’s plan to expand its Jackpine oil sands operation in Alberta. The First Nation group is highlighting what it sees as the negative impact oil sands development is having on the environment in general and First Nations communities in particular. Young said that tar sands development is an environmental and social “disaster” being aided and abetted by Canada’s federal government. His concert and comments generated a lot of discussion, on line and off – most of it either backing his stance or saying he wasn’t a credible critic. One more balanced and thoughtful piece is found here.
Three days later, the President/CEOs of TransCanada, a large pipeline company, and Cenovus Energy, a big tar sands developer, spoke at a luncheon hosted by the venerable Canadian Club of Toronto. To Russ Girling and Brian Ferguson, Canada (indeed, the world) needs all forms of energy to respond to an inexorable growth in demand. Canadians, they feel, should be “outraged” about accusations that they have been lax in developing the oil sands, As Girling said, “Canada has all the tools — the technology, human talent, environmental regulation, rule of law, and human rights legislation — to be the world’s most responsible supplier of that oil in one of the most highly regulated industries in the world.”
He went on to say that “if we get it right, this industry can be the single greatest driver of economic development and prosperity for Canada, and I mean for all Canadians, for decades to come.”
The key words there are “if we get it right”. Critics say the oil industry has gotten it wrong already. Much of the debate, if you can call it that, amounts to this sort of name-calling back and forth: you’re ruining the environment; no we’re not. You’re ignorant and misguided; no we’re not.
It’s a binary, no-win discussion and the public gets tired of it. What’s needed is to reframe the debate around inevitable trade-offs and risk management. By any reasonable assessment, the oil industry will be here for decades to come. The tar sands will be developed one way or the other. The environment will need to be protected, and First Nations’ peoples will need to be consulted early and often on their way to becoming an integral partner in responsible resource development.
Communicators can help to frame an on-going national discussion in this way. It shouldn’t be about win-lose; it should be about what’s the smartest, best way to ensure reliable, affordable, environmentally and socially sustainable energy development that benefits all.
Maybe we need a permanent round-table on resource development, with representatives from industry, government, NGOs, First Nations’ groups, academia, and other interested parties. The round-table would meet, even virtually, on a regular and continuing basis to offer the principles and guidelines by which energy development should move forward.
For sure, that’s a tall order and will require innovative thinking, flexibility, and commitment. But do we have another choice?