Organizations reshaping Canadian energy: Positive Energy at the University of Ottawa

In the second of a six-part series, I profile Positive Energy as one of the key entities capable of constructively shaping the way Canadians understand and discuss energy issues. The first article examined narratives being shaped by the Energy Futures Lab. This second article examines the way we arrive at decisions – or not.

Have you heard about the pracademy?

It's a place where theory meets practice; where dialogue is robust and respectful; where ideas become reality and find purpose in the everyday bustle of life.

It is the better of two thinking worlds: a place where practitioners and academics put their heads together in a powerful "Four-D" combination of idea development, discussion, decisions and deployment.

Canada's energy scene needs the pracademy.


Energy decision-making is not one of our domestic fortes, unfortunately. Indeed, in many instances, we are abject failures. Just look at our polarizing discourses.

At the pracademy, however, the result of the Four Ds coming together is something called praxis. That's a fancy way of understanding how theory and learning get turned out to do real work in the world. Praxis is a good concept, though, because it specifically wrestles with the interplay between ethics, economics and politics.

Recognizing the importance of that interplay is something that could bear improvement in Canada.

So energy praxis in Canada? What would that look like?

Better energy decisions, for a start.

Quality decision-making; it's not a record of which we can boast.

But in Canada, we're fortunate enough to have such a pracademy.

And it's led by a top pracademic: Dr. Monica Gattinger, of the University of Ottawa.

It's called Positive Energy, embedded within the university's Institute for Science, Society and Policy.

Positive Energy is praxis in action, and better decision making is its raison d'etre.

That purposeful praxis focussed on energy decision-making may well be what pulls Canada back from the abyss in terms of its energy future. It's at that edge where we've been precariously teetering for the last few years – with no one capable of yanking (yes, yanking!) us to safety.

In a Canadian energy context, the pracademy will play a critically important role in shaping how energy issues get defined, solutions proffered and execution plans rolled out – all based on better decision making. Positive Energy uses the "convening power of the university" to bring together the right people, in the right place, at the right time, for the right reasons.

Since its birth in 2015, Positive Energy has achieved some remarkable results.

Gattinger has taken the decision dynamic by the horns – in a positive framework.

In the responses to the questions below, she reflects on what we need to do in Canada to get our energy act together.

What was the original catalyst for you thinking about the need for an initiative like Positive Energy? Was it specific incident?

There wasn’t a specific incident per se, but rather, a growing recognition that social opposition to energy projects of all sorts – pipelines, windmills, electricity transmission lines, etc. – was ever on the rise. I’ve been studying energy policy and regulation for 20+ years, and never had I seen it so fractious and polarized. It became clear to me that there was a need for an initiative to figure out (a) why this was happening, and, (b) more importantly, what to do about it.

What mattered just as much as the research program was the approach to ongoing engagement of energy leaders. The ‘process’ – convening senior leaders to develop a collective understanding of the problem and a shared ownership for solving it on an ongoing basis – was just as important as the ‘product’ (policy briefs, studies, recommendations, etc.).

Without ongoing engagement and buy-in of energy leaders, the research would be for naught. We have been very fortunate to get tremendous traction with senior leaders from government, industry, Indigenous communities, the ENGO community and academia. It has been a very rewarding project.

If you had to identify three major impediments to decision-making in relation to energy projects, would any particular things stand out consistently from project to project?

Just three? Kidding aside, the main message that’s come forward from our research and engagement is that multiple factors underpin the public confidence challenge when it comes to individual projects. Our research points to three key issues.

First, Canada needs a long-term energy vision for the country and how competing priorities will be balanced and bridged. A greater consensus has emerged in Canadian society about the need to address climate change and reconciliation with Indigenous peoples, but polarized debates have stymied evidence-based discussion of Canada’s future energy mix, energy systems and ability to supply energy products to the world.

This is particularly the case when it comes to the country’s oil and gas resources. In the absence of greater clarity on Canada’s long-term energy future, many energy projects (not just oil and gas) will continue to be opposed on broader questions of public policy in the regulatory realm. This will intensify public frustration and increase regulatory risk for investors.

Second, energy development in the twenty-first century must balance and bridge local and higher order energy interests and concerns. Local communities and Indigenous communities want a say in their energy futures, along with meaningful decision-making roles and participation (including revenues) in energy projects.

That said, they require resources and time to develop the capacity and mechanisms to do so. Policymakers and regulators must seek innovative ways of balancing and bridging local and higher order interests to ensure broader market/environmental/social interests are served. This is especially important for linear projects (pipelines, power transmission) and is pivotal to retaining the competitiveness of the Canadian economy and the country’s competitiveness as an investment destination.

In addition, Canada needs to build and strengthen long term planning mechanisms to address cumulative environmental, economic and social effects of multiple projects. This will provide greater certainty and clarity for all involved, but must be done in a way that seriously considers the impacts on the country’s investment climate and competitiveness of its energy industry for the broader economy.

Third, Canada’s energy decision-making system is not broken but needs to be modernized through ‘informed reform’ that takes the long view. Polarized debates have challenged long term evidence-based analysis and recommendations. The decision-making system needs to be approached as a system with policy, planning and regulatory parts that need to be better aligned.

Unfortunately, Canada is increasingly viewed as a relatively high political/regulatory risk jurisdiction for energy investments – and some recommended reforms could worsen the situation, not only for energy investors, but for the pursuit of environmental and social imperatives as well. The consequences of poor reforms will affect all energy sources, including renewable energy and the country’s capacity to move to a lower carbon energy future.

Finally, it is crucial to better distinguish between decisions that should rest in the hands of policymakers (values-based decisions involving broad trade-offs) versus those that are the preserve of independent regulators (project-based decisions aligning with overarching policy).

We realize this is a tall order and goes well beyond individual project decision-making processes, but that is precisely the point: Positive Energy’s research has underscored time and again that one of the main reasons Canada faces public confidence challenges over individual projects is that the country has not adequately attended to the broader policy, economic, environmental and social context of energy decision-making.

Why is the university environment a better convening place? How much does the idea of trust figure into this dynamic?

Given how polarized energy policy, politics and projects have become, a university is the ideal place to convene various interests – government, industry, Indigenous, ENGOs. Universities provide a neutral, nonpartisan evidence-based forum. And as a bilingual university in the nation’s capital, the University of Ottawa is ideally positioned to provide a positive, pan-Canadian forum for evidence-based discussion and collective resolution of shared public confidence challenges.

As for trust: trust – or, more accurately, a lack of trust between key energy interests – figured centrally in our thinking. People needed a neutral positive solution-focused forum to grapple with the issues in a productive – not polarizing – way. We have worked very carefully to ensure we bring the right leaders to the right place asking the right questions at the right time. That has helped to build bridges of trust – not barriers of mistrust – between people and organizations with different views, interests and concerns.

What is in store for 2018 on the Positive Energy front? What do you see as the major issues?

2018 will be a very exciting year for Positive Energy. The first three years of the initiative focused on public confidence in energy decision-making draw to a close in the first half of 2018.

Our final conference for this first phase of Positive Energy will take place on April 23-24 in Ottawa (mark your calendars!). We will be bringing together energy leaders – many of whom participated in the inaugural Positive Energy conference in March 2015 – to highlight the full suite of research recommendations from the first three years of Positive Energy and to celebrate how far we have come.

In 2018, we will launch Trust in Transition, Positive Energy’s next three-year project. Our research and engagement to date has underscored the need for a neutral nonpartisan forum when it comes to public trust in energy transition decision-making. A greater consensus has emerged in Canada about the need to act on climate change. Going forward, public trust and support for energy transition will be pivotal to the country’s capacity to move to a low-carbon energy future.

Positive Energy’s Trust in Transition project will provide a neutral forum and solution-focused research to help build and maintain public confidence in transition. The questions we will tackle are not easy – but they’re pivotal:

  1. What is the role of the oil, gas and nuclear sectors in Canada’s energy system now and into the future?
  2. How can Canada foster social acceptance of energy technologies that can disrupt markets, energy services and communities?
  3. How can the country build and coordinate an expanded role for Indigenous governments and municipal authorities in transition?
  4. How might techno-economic and other futures models that inform decision-making better integrate public confidence into their projections?

We are well into planning for this next phase of Positive Energy and look forward to building new partnerships and expanding our network in the months and years ahead. To that end, I invite any of your readers to connect with us if they’d like to join us.

In part three: ReGenerate Alberta: a new social enterprise asking critical questions about better asset – people and things – management for a secure and sustainable energy future.

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