Opinion: ​Industry needs to help Canadians step up to their resource ownership responsibilities

The recent open letter to Canadians penned and signed by three oilsands sector executives was on target – but it missed a bull’s-eye opportunity.

Here's why.

It addressed Canadians as, well, Canadians only. Instead, the three CEOs should have directed the missive as an open letter to Canadians as energy owners and shareholders.

That’s what Canadians are: energy resource owners. And they need to know it and engage with that ownership status if this country is to ever have the semblance of a balanced energy dialogue.

Consider the letter's headline:

We have big decisions to make as a country, and there is an opportunity for each of you to influence the outcome.

Fair enough. But how readers might interpret that invitation is directly a function of the perspective from which they digest the words. If they read the letter as simply passive consumers, they could be forgiven for feigning mild interest. But if they read it as recognized owners of the resource base in question, their interest in being more directly engaged could be heightened.

Here's the reality: Cenovus, Canadian Natural Resources and MEG Energy do not “own” a single molecule of the hydrocarbons they extract and from which they (ideally) profit. Those molecules, from simplest methane to the most complex bitumen along the petroleum value chain, are owned by Canadians. Energy companies are simply agents in an ownership system designed to let them extract some element of economic rent on behalf of the molecules actual owners: to repeat, Canadian citizens.

The letter’s failure to trigger that subtle but critical nuance leaves the sector where it usually ends up in its efforts to communicate to Canadians more broadly: holding them economic hostage to the sector's existence instead of recognizing and addressing them as owners – and seeking engagement in that context.

Too many Canadians are energy entitled. They're mindless and voracious consumers who give little thought to their own consumption footprints and the consequences of that behaviour. In short, they do not behave, for the most part, as if they are in any way responsible for the conduct of a sector that exists because energy consumption exists. In short, they don’t behave like owners. Often, they exhibit distinctly non-ownership behaviours and attitudes.

But the letter positions Canadians merely as interested observers vis a vis a robust and dynamic sector. It hints at the interest we all have in a balanced environment-and-economy thinking. It stresses that a healthy oil and gas industry is fundamental to our future prosperity – in particular for a sector that is constructively disrupting itself on the path toward a lower-carbon future.

But the text does not drive home emphatically the reality that Canadians have ownership responsibilities and obligations – and that they should engage in decision-making from that perspective.

Observers and owners: the differences between the two perspectives are material. If Canadians see themselves as merely distant third-parties to the sector, the environmental innovation investments industry makes, for example, seem more corporately self-serving than serving the interests of Canadians as owners. But those investments are performing those two functions.

To the degree that the “deaf-ear’ syndrome prevails when it comes to energy matters, Canadians need a dynamically different form of resource-awareness activation; one that binds them to their ownership responsibilities through bolder declarations by industry. Industry should not hesitate to be clearer when it comes to holding Canadians more accountable to their resource ownership responsibilities.

The CEO letter was intended to articulate and underline the value the energy sector delivers to Canadians. It was also an appeal to Canadians as voters to think critically about their ballot choices vis a vis the sector's prosperity in the fall’s federal election. But it did what we always do in the sector: maintain too much of a distance between Canadians and their obligations as resource owners.

If Canadians are ever to be dynamic and constructive participants in the key discourses that shape the sector, through not only the way they think at the ballot box, it must be from an ownership perspective. In other words, Canadians need to come to terms with the fact that if they want to see responsible resource development, they must act as responsible resource owners.

Most Canadians know intuitively that Canada's resource wealth manifests positively in their lives in myriad ways. Unfortunately, it’s a state of being they take for granted at best. At worst, it shows up as a form of energy entitlement.

The problem is that the corporations that extract and create the value by risking their capital and the governments that oversee them aren't at all adept at consistently conveying to Canadians they're actually owners – and shaping communicative engagement that way. As a result, the linkage to ownership is never fully forged and ownership consciousness if it ever surfaces, is far too passive and complacent.

As a consequence, energy issues are far more politicized than they should be and the collective pathway to a low-carbon future is never clearly mapped. Politicians take advantage of that collective unconsciousness to create ideologically driven policy frameworks that often have only the most tenuous of links to voter thinking, but given the lack of conscious ownership engagement, seem vaguely justifiable.

An active ownership ethos, by contrast, could put a different onus on Canadians and the way they think about energy; it could sharpen their sense that if they want their molecules managed a certain way, they need to step up their own energy agency through knowledge building and civic engagement.

If Tim McKay, Alex Pourbaix and Derek Evans felt their first missive gained sufficient attention to warrant a follow-up letter closer to the election, they might do well to consider how to constructively connect the ownership dots for Canadians in a way that helps them understand how investors and owners think about risk – and reward.

Bill Whitelaw is Managing Director, Strategy & Business Development at geoLOGIC Systems Ltd. & JWN Energy. Bill is a director on many industry sector boards including the Canadian Society for Unconventional Resources and the Canadian Petroleum Hall of Fame. He speaks frequently on the subjects of social licence, innovation and technology, and energy supply networks.

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