By Lethbridge Herald on January 23, 2020.
For 30 years Bruce Wilson worked as an engineer and general manager for Royal Dutch Shell in over a dozen countries and regions throughout the world. He made his fortune in the business and was a true believer in the mantra once espoused by his teachers back home in Scotland that the oil industry was “Harnessing the great forces of nature for the benefit of mankind.”
“I started out as a young engineer who wanted to build Eiffel Towers in the North Sea, and let the waves slam against them,” he recalled to audience members and media representatives at the Southern Alberta Council on Public Affairs luncheon on Thursday. “It was exciting. That was the energy industry back then. And in Scotland, where I grew up, and in Alberta we built a great legacy of energy and innovation.”
However, toward the end of his time at Shell, Wilson had an epiphany of sorts, coming to see the need to decarbonize in order to prevent catastrophic climate change. While at the same time, he said, wanting to help his industry with the transition toward the next wave of renewable energy generation. When he looked out at those Eiffel Towers at sea he had once helped build, Wilson began to see more clearly the waves and the wind which battered them instead of just the steel structure human craft had produced to withstand them.
“(Until then) it did not occur to me these were great forces of nature that could be harnessed, too,” Wilson stated.
Wilson acknowledged those “Great Forces of Nature” take on a slightly different context in Alberta’s landlocked oil and gas industry, but the need to decarbonize remains the same, he said.
“I think when Alberta talks about being the ‘better barrel’ and ‘the last barrel standing’; indeed, in that context, they have done exceptionally well,” he admitted. “But it goes beyond that because the pressure on the oil and gas industry, the pressure to decarbonize, will really erode the ground underneath them. And, if we’re not careful, there will not be an industry to go forward with.”
Wilson said Alberta is well-placed to go forward with hydrogen production as an alternative to oil and gas as Alberta already has an established hydrogen industry to build off of, and the skillset required to transition to even greater hydrogen production.
“This is the industry we need to focus on right now,” Wilson stated. “It is a recognizable analog to the kind of jobs people have already. Jobs people in the gas and oil industry will recognize and understand — they will say this is something about which I already know … I want you (in the SACPA audience) to be optimistic and excited about the possibilities here.”
When asked if he felt the Kenney government was too focused on the oil and gas industry and the nostalgia for a time when Alberta’s great wealth literally poured out of the ground in gushes and geysers, Wilson said he believed that it was.
“I think it is too mono-focused,” he stated. “I think it belies the reality that exists outside of Alberta, which is somewhat of a bubble. I understand there is great pride. I understand people want certainty, and that’s the what he (Premier Kenney) is addressing; that need for certainty in a time of great change. But it is a focus, I think, that is somewhat misguided because there are other great opportunities (like hydrogen) out there for Canada and for Alberta to be a leader. The fact of the matter is the oil and gas industry has tremendous opportunities to grow, to become more efficient, and to re-imagine itself.”
The idea of Alberta’s oil and gas “legacy,” said Wilson, is something which should be honoured but not something which should hold Albertans back as the new post-oil and gas world becomes more and more of a reality going forward.
“My perspective is we should be OK with that (legacy), but we do need to recognize that it is time to move on,” he said. “It’s time to take action. There’s intelligent ways to leverage that, and leverage those great skills, to build a second legacy.”
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