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Bill WhitelawThe recent open letter to Canadians penned and signed by three oilsands sector executives missed a bull’s-eye opportunity.

How?

The executives addressed their letter to Canadians as … well …Canadians, rather than as energy resource owners and shareholders. The fact is, in the end, that is what Canadians are.

The energy sector does not “own” a single molecule of the hydrocarbons it extracts. Those molecules are owned by Canadians. Energy companies are simply the agents used to extract the economic benefits inherent in the sector on behalf of Canadians.

And if we are to ever have any semblance of a balanced energy debate in this country, that subtle but critical distinction needs to be made persistently, and repeatedly.

The open letter failed to drive home to Canadians the reality that they are not merely observers to the national energy debate; as owners, they have the responsibility and obligation to actively participate in the decision-making process.

For example, as mere observers, Canadians may believe the investments the industry is making in environmental innovation is merely self-serving. But as owners, they will see that the investments are also serving the economic interest and environmental concern of all Canadians.

While the open letter attempted to articulate and underline the value the energy sector delivers to Canadian economy, it was also an appeal to Canadians, as voters, to think critically about the symbiotic relationship between their own and the sector’s prosperity in the run-up to the upcoming fall federal election.

If Canadians are ever to be dynamic and constructive participants in the debate that is shaping the sector, it must be from an ownership perspective. Canadians must 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 countless ways. Unfortunately, at best, it’s a state of being they take for granted. At worst, it shows up as a form of energy entitlement.

The problem is that the corporations which risk their capital to create the value which leads to the standard of living Canadians take for granted, and the governments which regulate them, aren’t at all adept at consistently communicating to Canadians that they are the actual owners. 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 out. 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, forces Canadians to acknowledge that, if they want their molecules managed a certain way, the onus is on them.

If the three authors of the open letter to Canadians – Tim McKay, President of Canadian Natural Resources Ltd, Alex Pourbaix, President and Chief Executive Officer of Cenovus, and Derek Evans, President and CEO of MEG Energy – 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 president and CEO at JuneWarren-Nickle’s Energy Group.

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