Until politicians get out of the driver’s seat, we will never get energy transition right

Bill-WhitelawYou’ve heard about getting things “bass-ackward”?

That self-explanatory term pretty much describes the state of energy transition in Canada.

That also means there’s no way Canada’s oil and gas sector, to channel prominent business thinker Jim Collins, is going from good to great.

And yet, it’s the energy transition path, and the myriad economic opportunities it brings, that link simply being good (current state) to being great (future state.)

Canada’s oil and gas sector is good. Examples abound. Environmental performance improvements. Getting the “social” thing right. Technological innovations.

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But as a sector, it is not great, given the magnitude of the challenge it faces and its responses to energy transition when viewed holistically. It’s also not great in the sense that the distance between the two points (good to great) presupposes a comprehensive and interlocked planning pathway. That means a solid energy transition plan – once that includes and doesn’t exclude – could be the necessary catalyst for initiating the sector’s journey.

There’s much positive going on, to be sure, and this isn’t to discredit the many superb initiatives that, in direct ways, link to transition imperatives. But when considered in a more macro context, it’s simultaneously a range of largely disjointed and discombobulated initiatives. Collectively, they lack the necessary internal coherence and connectivity to ensure the overall synchronicity required to reach the critical path milestones most don’t understand will be needed to meet anything that remotely resembles a 2050 goal.

As Collins spelled out in the timelessly relevant book, Good to Great, you must get the “who” right before you can worry about the “what.”

So, we have the “what,” that is, energy transition. But the sector still has not figured out its “who” in any meaningful way.

The reality is this: regardless of the terminology, any necessary energy change – all energy sources and systems working in elegant harmony – will be driven by a robust petroleum sector with an integrated plan to perform better.

Yet, the absence of any sectoral (oil and gas) cohesion about the “who” significantly diminishes the sector’s potential to be a linchpin for transformative integrated systems change.

And because nature abhors a vacuum, and politicians don’t, the energy transition/transformation/evolution has been co-opted and politicized into meaningless semantical tripe about vague and ideologically oriented natter.

Collins invoked the metaphor of a bus and passengers to make his point about the space between good and great. His research found that companies successfully transiting from good to great had one thing in common: their leaders worried about the who (on the bus) before they moved to the what (direction and destination of the bus.) And that includes getting the wrong people off the bus before rolling it out.

The same things might be said of sectors aspiring to change, oil and gas among them.

It’s fair to say Canada’s energy transition bus is still grinding its gears alarmingly, revving its engine noisily and frequently stalling in the great parking lot of life because the wrong people are on the bus – and no one seems anxious to ask them to leave.

Again, think politicians: their behaviour dissuades more legitimate riders from boarding.

Right now, there’s a fight for the driver’s seat between Canada’s prime minister and Alberta’s premier. Neither seems to be able to reach the gas because neither will let go of the steering wheel. If anything, they’ve got the bus locked in reverse because they’re contesting a flawed strawman roadmap named “just transition.”

If the oil and gas sector is going to go from good to great, it might want to quash its opposition to a just transition (where it exists) and think about its own sectoral bus metaphor. That means we might want to start discussing the who. If the sector gets its own “who” right, then it can fill up an appropriate number of seats on the bus, with other seats to be filled by passengers from different parts of the overall energy system.

Indeed, a dialogue about the oil-and-gas “who” might well shed new and more constructive light on the “what” of overall energy transition.

Look at what Collins calls “three simple truths” of the journey.

  • “First, if you begin with ‘who,’ rather than ‘what,’ you can more easily adapt to a changing world. If people join the bus primarily because of where it’s going, what happens when you get 10 miles down the road and need to change direction? You have a problem. But if people are on the bus because of who else is on the bus, then it’s much easier to change direction.”
  • “Second, if you have the right people on the bus, the problem of how to motivate and manage people largely goes away. The right people don’t have to be tightly managed or fired up; they will be self-motivated by the inner drive to produce the best results and be part of creating something great.”
  • “Third, if you have the wrong people, it doesn’t matter whether you discover the right direction, you still won’t be great … great vision without great people is irrelevant.”

Think about what you know of the industry’s track record to date and filter it through Collins’s three axioms. We hear of many terrific initiatives occurring in isolation from each other. Just imagine what might happen if they cohered.

The sector tends to think of itself in Swiss watch terms: lots of intricacy and moving parts. And it is. But it has also never really understood that outside its own echo chamber, it is considered to be one large integrated “thing” in which all the parts mesh and sync.

Back to politicians. They’re not entirely the wrong people for the bus. They just shouldn’t drive. Until the sector gets its act together, Danielle Smith and Justin Trudeau will continue to block the bus door, and as long as they’re blocking, effective public policy suffers.

Politicians on the bus are also proxies, of course, for the external politicization of transition, which itself results in profound polarization.

When it meshes with external social, political and even technological polarization, the sector’s internal sectoral polarization means it’s putting sugar in its gas tank.

The scope for success is massive, just as is the scope for failure.

So, who is our “who”?

Consider this a suggestion box. Filling it will help us go from “bass ackward” to “face forward.”

Bill Whitelaw is the Managing Director of Strategy & Sustainability with Geologic Systems.

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