How ​Alberta can use its carbon strategy to create jobs and attract investment

Alberta premier Rachel Notley announces her government's climate strategy in November 2015, flanked by oil and gas industry and environment leaders. Image: Government of Alberta

Canada at a Carbon Crossroads is a multi-part series exploring the dynamics of our emerging carbon economy.

In Part 2, I suggest Alberta steps up and create a working task force to get people back to work immediately as the province's carbon economy evolves, in order to improve the province's image as a place for capital investment.

Capital intensely dislikes political risk. It will do almost anything to avoid it.

As we march forward into the new economic era that dawned in Alberta Jan. 1, 2017—the day our carbon levy started to make its presence felt—it is worth pondering how its imposition will shape internal and external views of Alberta as a place to park dollars and watch them grow.

If you believe the mainstream headlines, the dollars are avoiding Alberta like the plague. But if you believe the politicians, the money will flood in like water over a collapsing dam. The truth and reality is likely somewhere in the middle.

For most of us, the sun rose on Jan. 1. We shook the prior night's revelries from our heads and pondered our resolutions.

Here's betting that getting to know more about carbon and climate didn't top the list—but the levy-cum-tax is importantly symbolic of the dawning of a new economic era.

And yet, right now, it's a safe bet to suggest most people with dollars to spend are wondering if the returns Alberta has generated in the past will be there in the future because from the outside looking in, we look like a jurisdiction divided.

We all know that isn't the case. And there's more investment opportunity here than you can shake a stick at.

Perceptions

The external perception may have much to with the way we have put out our carbon shingle. That's compounded by a general ignorance among Albertans about carbon itself. Most would believe Alberta needs to step away from its carbon economy—as we appear to be doing—in order to protect the environment.

Living, breathing Albertans, though, are the best advertising of all.

In fact, our real objective should be to collaboratively reshape our carbon economy and position that reshaping as the economic model for future prosperity in which the environment is the focus of investment attention. Right now, that reshaping is, at least by perception, being driven by purely a political agenda that has seemingly alienated the majority of Albertans.

There's green in green, in a manner of speaking—as long as the dollar green sees a return in the environmental green.

To a high degree, that's what the current government's objective is, through a variety of programs including its Climate Leadership framework. But the siren call for capital is getting somehow lost for a number of reasons, not least of which is politicized ire from a lot of angry Albertans, who are, speaking colloquially, pissed right off.

So, instead of cultivating an army of carbon allies, the government finds itself facing internal civil strife—much of it emanating from the folks who could do the most good in a new carbon era: highly trained technical professionals capable of tackling virtually scientific challenge tossed at them.

These are the engineers and geoscientists who have lost employment as one form of carbon economy suffered. They, along with drillers, rig hands and other oilfield service workers, helped build the foundation of one carbon economy that served the province and country so well for decades. Those fortunate enough to remain employed continue to do so.

But right now many of those big brains are sitting idle while the hydrocarbon economy suffers.

The CH4 Force

The NDP could put pragmatics into the “P” by framing the carbon levy as an immediate workforce investment.

After all, one thing capital really likes to ensure it grows is a well-educated workforce.

It's puzzling why all that intellectual horsepower hasn't been more effectively harnessed by the powers that be to birth a next-generation version carbon-oriented economy—one in which emissions and other pollutants are tackled as rigorously as carbon's positive assets are pursued.

Government has plans to invest the levy's proceeds, and expectations to create a vibrant investment dynamic, but no one would argue with an immediate announcement of a practical task force mandated to get people working by Q2/2017.

The taskforce would be complementary to initiatives such as Emissions Reduction Alberta, Energy Efficiency Alberta and other components of the overall climate framework.

Such an action is likely to be lauded much more than the now-endless rounds of politically constituted consultation panels because it's sharply focused on one thing: getting people back to work right away.

It would be a way to put people back to work, end civil strife and make sure the next steps of our evolving carbon economy don't falter.

What would the task force undertake?

Name it the CH4 Force. Its mandate would be to create specialized teams to help energy companies measure, manage and mitigate such challenges as methane emissions. These teams would then be made available to energy companies with weak balance sheets. Their costs would be paid for by the carbon levy.

Of course, this raises the argument of subsidies for private-sector companies. The deal here is that the companies would have to pay back the fees once the task is completed and share the results outside their boardrooms.

There are plenty of opportunities within existing oil and gas structures to accommodate specialized teams of subject matter experts tuned to tackling the technical challenges.

The key would be to invite the world to watch.

Capital like a shingle that boldly proclaims: Highly trained workforce ready and able to work.

That will help bring the dollars back.