Calling oil and gas producers: Help Calgary’s Heritage Park create an inclusive energy forum

Image: Heritage Park/Instagram

How will we tell our energy stories? Frame our energy experiences? Set our energy context?

Not today. Not tomorrow. Not even next year.

Say 10 years out. Even 20 years.

When our children and their children have no memory of divisive debates like the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion; when climate policy developments are long forgotten because we are firmly rooted in a low-carbon economy? In a future in which new energy issues will prevail and Canada exists in a global energy matrix fundamentally different than today’s?

What our energy sector needs in its present, to get its future right, is a stabilizing and future-focused energy experience entity; an enterprise whose only “vested interest” is to create inclusive energy-focused discussions and experiences. In other words, a safe forum that accounts for diverse perspectives and interests, which in turn create fulsome and balanced conversations. Imagine an enterprise that balances energy dynamics between the natural sciences and the social sciences and frames energy dialogue not in terms of a “win-loss” debates, but rather outcomes for greater good.

Sound intriguing – and necessary?

Read on.

Energy dialogue is currently tearing Canada apart, instead of bringing it together. A key feature of the paralyzing and polarizing narratives that characterize the current Canadian energy psyche is a tendency to misremember, or entirely forget, our energy history: the things done both 50 years ago – but also yesterday. That means key scientific and technological achievements are not valorized sufficiently; that important environmental, regulatory and policy milestones are only dim memories; that key sector contributions to social good aren’t celebrated and honoured enough.

Put another way, we are not very good about using history to guide and inform the dialogues of tomorrow.

That’s why a project quietly taking shape at Calgary’s Heritage Park is so critical to our energy sector’s future – and arguably, its past. The Park’s proposed Natural Resources Centre will have a physical presence within the park’s infrastructure, but perhaps its experiential utility will be even more important.

It is also anything but a stand-alone concept, because it firmly roots both the building itself, but also the energy dimensions within a larger journey that demonstrates how energy and life are inextricably bound together – such as the interplay between energy, the economy and the environment.

The Natural Resources Centre is intended to nimbly pivot between Canada’s energy past, present and future in a way that engages visitors of all ages, from all walks of life, in the important life dimensions of their energy essence.

Under the leadership of Heritage Park CEO Alida Visbach, a small team of sector leaders has been working on the capital campaign to raise the combination of government, individual and private-sector funds necessary to get the NRC built and operational. To date, the concept of such a Centre has attracted plenty of interest from individuals who have built companies and careers in the oilpatch – folks who see the need for such a facility and its story-telling capability. Meanwhile, Heritage Park’s’ interdisciplinary content team is mapping out how Centre visitor’s will experience their energy journey both within the building – which overlooks the Glenmore Reservoir – itself but also within the larger park visit.

Shovels won’t hit dirt until sometime in 2019, but already work has started on the integrated resource and overall Park experience. Phase I already under way involves restoration of the historic Dingman Well, coal mine and associated cabins. The Centre will also complement and expand on Heritage Park’s popular Gasoline Alley feature, by moving from the downstream back into the upstream in a deeper (and more digital) fashion.

It’s exciting. And yet for all its energy claims to fame, Calgary has no real showcase that foregrounds energy in such a way as the Centre will, especially within a larger resources context.

But to date, no oil and gas company has showed anything beyond a passing interest in the concept.

That’s a shame.

To be sure, the upstream sector is still far from full recovery; a fact that conditions community investment giving. The coffers are not nearly as overflowing as they were in sector’s halcyon days as companies are more circumspect in how they dole out dollars. But while some companies still teeter on the financial brink, in a manner of speaking, many are also in a new period of stability that precedes full recovery. Their balance sheets are strengthening and they ought to be comfortable in considering investments that will help with something that has never been a sector forte: trusted storytelling.

There’s still time for the right companies, with the right ethos of investment, to step up and be part of an energy future that focuses on progressive conversations; to support an initiative that will help us pivot away from the more regressive path we’re currently treading.

(Full disclosure: the author is a member of the project’s campaign cabinet. For more information, please contact Lisa Barrett at lbarrett@heritagepark.ca).