Organizations reshaping Canadian energy: Energy Futures Network

In the fourth piece in a series profiling organizations committed to better and more productive energy talk, I look at Energy Futures Network (EFN), now celebrating its 10th anniversary.

EFN is a dialogue-based group that meets monthly to tackle the opportunities and challenges associated with energy issues. Links to previous profiles are included at the bottom.

Monologue versus dialogue. Anyone trapped by the former truly appreciates the latter.

In Canada's energy sector, we have a general penchant for monologue; that is, for more prescriptive forms of discussion that do more telling than listening. That’s not always the case, of course, but true dialogue dynamics when encountered are more the exception rather than the rule.

That has long puzzled Albertans Bob Taylor and Doug James.

They’re in the dialogue game – and they also know well that real dialogue is often difficult and challenging. But they’re determined that dialogue remains one of the key means by which Canada will crack the difficult nut that is energy talk.

When the pair founded Energy Futures Network (EFN) a decade ago, the energy sector – particularly upstream oil and gas – was in a different place. Times were good and the issues burdening the overall sector today were considered more minor irritants then. As a result, energy proponents and supporters could afford to be more directive and even prescriptive as to their conversational efforts: expository rather than explanatory and exploratory.

But even then Taylor and James knew that dialogue – constructive and productive – would be central to navigating future tensions and challenges.

Their first big organizational effort was to draw together – under the rubric of Canada As A Responsible Energy Superpower – a diverse array of energy voices. As a result, the solar folks met with the hydrocarbon crowd, the nuclear community broke bread with the wind folks. And so on. Governments were there, along with non-governmental organizations. The coal sector and the hydro sector saw the whites of each other’s eyes.

Their objective: to facilitate an integrated dialogue that focused on how Canada, utilizing its “portfolio” of energy options – and their related abundances – could better serve an energy-starved world. It was a major undertaking, given that most energy sectors are not especially inclined to join interdisciplinary conversations that may move them out of their comfort zones – or to create optics that suggest they may be seen to be sleeping with the enemy.

Fast forward 10 years, and times have changed.

Now, what stands in the mainstream as energy “discussion” is too often polarizing and paralyzing. Science and ideology go toe-to-toe in complex political and media worlds in which consumer ignorance is too often valorised and celebrated. Politicians shout invectives at each other as energy projects devolve into trade wars. Investors have closed their wallets and taken their dollars elsewhere – to places where returns are less risky and more predictable.

Put more bluntly, as a federation, we are regressing.

Progressive dialogue, for the most part, is the stuff of dreams.

Ask average Canadians for their take on contemporary energy discussions and they would likely scratch their heads in bewilderment. “All we seem to do as a country is squabble over energy” might be a common response. That dynamic doesn’t create a sense of “energy civics” for citizens to actually pro-actively participate in a storyline in which they are actually major players.

Think of the headlines generated by our squabbling: Climate change. Pipelines. Regulation.

We are now a country not of positive energy dialogues, but of negative energy polemics. You don’t need to have that word in your vocabulary to understand how it “shows up” in Canadian energy conversations. Polemical arguments are typically based on aggressive stances toward a subject – and that subject’s supporters. Polemical arguments tend toward the persecutorial and the personal; they are rarely productive and progressive. Polemical arguments are also, to pay homage to their Grecian origins, “warlike and hostile.”

But EFN, in its own quiet way, has remained resolutely in the constructive dialogue game. Each month, members gather at a local restaurant to break bread and talk. What is so intriguing about EFN is its consistency: many participants come and go but at there is at its core a committed nucleus of people whose passion for good, and sometimes tough, talk has ensured EFN’s continued existence, at a time while similar efforts start with good intentions, but more often than not, peter out over time.

The mechanism is simple: over a shared dinner someone presents on a topic, often designed to be deliberately, if mildly, provocative. The table talk then turns to constructive discussion on the presenter’s perspective, framed within the larger context of the topic as a major issue. Defining or achieving an answer is not always a useful goal: “Sometimes,” note James and Taylor, “it’s really about getting the conversation to work more efficiently.

It’s a formally informal process that works well because its players abide by a few simple rules that are anchored by two foundational principles: decorum and respect. There is no shouting or table pounding; no pedantic or hectoring lectures: just good talk by talented and informed people looking to be even more well informed. In other words, they’re acknowledging they don’t know what they don’t know."

Beyond that, EFN is exactly what its name suggests: a network. The power and utility of relationships and contacts built over victuals transcends the dinner plate.

At a micro level it works well. It’s a process that conceivably should work at a macro level – or at many micro levels. Think of it: EFN chapters across Canada all pulling in the same direction.

Said James: “It’s all about generating dialogue…versus generating attention.”

A decade later, EFN’s simple founding premise remains unchanged: using talk and dialogue to push toward a laudable goal: ample and affordable energy for all. In the stormy and emotional tug and pull of current energy discourse nationally, provincially and locally, EFN remains something of the calm eye in the middle of a hurricane. That metaphor choice is deliberate because as a nation, we are blowing a lot of wind and wrecking things (such as our future) in the process.

Perhaps if two western premiers had been invited to an EFN dinner, the cross-Rockies dynamic might have had a different outcome: an actual dialogue versus two-way monologue.

(To learn more about EFN and how to participate, contact administrator Liz Gandy at

Read the previous profiles:

Organizations reshaping Canadian energy: Energy Futures Lab

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

Organizations reshaping Canadian energy: ReGenerate Alberta

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