Talking — not shouting — about energy in an era of political polarization

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The National Energy Board has approved the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion once again. And, once again, people are yelling at each other. Those adamantly in favour and those passionately opposed to the $7.4 billion project to ship Alberta’s oil to Vancouver have never really stopped yelling at each other, to be fair. But you can barely make out what anyone’s saying due to the shouting about carbon taxes and other policies designed to boost energy efficiency and rev up renewable energy.

It becomes just so much noise after a while. But more people across the country are turning away from the yelling and tuning in to the robust conversation in the middle of the debate. Take the regular Energy Beers Nights in Calgary where people from the oil patch and the renewable sector get to know each other and share ideas.

And there’s the Energy Futures Lab (EFL). The “multi-interest collaboration that builds bridges and connects innovators” recently invited scores of people with different views to meet in the middle at a one-day summit in Calgary. Oil-and-gas executives, environmental activists, clean tech entrepreneurs and Indigenous leaders were among those trying to “de-polarize” the conversation around energy.

They spent part of the day in a “moving conversation.” Standing in an open space, the participants took turns answering the question: “How do we create the energy system that the future requires of us?” If you agreed with an answer you moved toward the person giving it. If you disagreed you moved away. Everyone was challenged to “listen in the middle.”

The crowd ebbed and flowed with the answers—“developing future-fit hydrocarbons,” “more emphasis on energy efficiency,” “be honest about the challenges of energy transition.” Some answers sparked more conversation—“pipelines that ship fossil fuels today can ship hydrogen in the future,” “carbon tax is a market failure.” There were more than a few laughs and a gasp here and there, but everyone in the room was trying hard to understand the other perspectives on the floor.

It was refreshingly respectful and incredibly informative. Everyone stated their opinion by taking a few steps forward or back. No hashtags. No yelling. No name calling. Just informed people sharing views on how we can power our lives.

The summit provided an important lesson about the importance of civilized, measured communications in these increasingly polarized times. Whether in a conference room with a lanyard, over beers with your co-workers or at your next business development meeting, it’s time to stop shouting and start having a productive conversation about energy.