The Danish island of Samso, population 3,724, was never mentioned as television hosts and analysts tried to digest what Canada’s new minority government will mean. Why would it? How could a remote, cold, 114 square kilometre island in the Kattegat Sea possibly be relevant to a Canadian election.
Bear with me.
What is abundantly clear after the October 21st vote is that Canadians are split. Western alienation is very real. Conservatives swept all but one seat – captured by the NDP - in Alberta and Saskatchewan with massive majorities in large part because these provinces feel hard done by - with justification - from the rest of Canada.
They are angry. And it’s not just politicians like Premier Jason Kenney, who is expert at using wedge issues to fuel anger. Nope. It’s ordinary folks who look at the rest of us and say ‘Something’s wrong with this picture.’ While the national economy has purred along, the oil and gas industry has struggled and our federal government has done little to improve the situation and provincial governments create obstacles.
The future may not be oil. But the transition is. We cannot snap our fingers and magically change reality. Even if we decide today to swap every oil and gas job for renewable energy jobs it will not happen overnight. Or years. Or perhaps even decades. It must be incremental.
Change comes with a cost in real dollars, societal impacts and governance. It takes vision and an ability to hear and respond to those with opposing views. It takes leadership. We are missing that. The left yells at the right with holier-than-thou disdain. The right yells at the left with how can you be so dumb arrogance. The mushy middle is left frustrated with a political class that plays to the base, regardless of political leaning.
PEI’s economy is dynamically linked to oil and gas, hundreds of Islanders work there, but live here. Island companies supply the industry. As a nation we cannot simply toss Alberta and Saskatchewan’s economy in the dumpster. It’s neither good economics nor public policy.
It is, however, possible to support the oil and gas industry while adopting smart policy to bridge our economy to a green future, a future we can’t afford to get to without oil and gas revenues.
Smart public policy is helping Canadian oil and gas get to market while leading the world in transit to a greener future.
Anyone who says differently is dreaming.
And this brings us back to Samso. Earlier this fall a PC, Green and Liberal MLA (sounds like bad joke, but it’s not), visited Samso, a Danish island, and Germany on a five day fact-finding mission.
Minister of Transportation and Energy Steven Myers, Green MLA Lynne Lund and Liberal Rob Henderson wanted to see how Samso went from dependence on imported oil and coal-fired electricity to being carbon neutral in a decade. And how in the second decade of this transformation, which began in 1997, it produces more energy from wind and biomass than it needs, while building community buy-in and support.
Can the Samso model be transferred to PEI? Can our province become an incubator of ideas and solutions for communities across Canada?
PEI does not have oil, gas or coal. We are a world leader in wind energy, and have a long established waste to energy system providing heat for 125 downtown Charlottetown buildings while also generating 1200 kW of electricity. Because we are an Island we see the impact of climate change every day.
Unfortunately our system is overly bureaucratic and top driven. The PEI Energy Corporation was created to generate revenue for the provincial government not build community capacity. The Climate Change Secretariat is not a grassroots champion of change. Just last week it said to meet our carbon reduction targets will require a massive shift to electric vehicles because transportation is a major driver of pollution.
True. But it’s a narrow view of how to get to where we need to go.
There is real interest in the King government for a Samso approach. Reducing or eliminating dependence on fossil fuels would create massive benefit and opportunity. For instance, building straw based biofuel capacity could change our agricultural dependence on potatoes and soybeans, both hard on the soil, by creating a ready market to sell to.
To date the plan has not passed the discussion stage and there are many challenges to overcome. Maritime Electric would be impacted by creation of community owned and operated wind, solar or biofuel developments. The investment model needs to be flipped from an arm of government financing the construction and ownership of energy developments to supporting community projects where individuals share ownership and profit. We must fight bureaucratic inertia.
The lesson of Samso is that government does not need to take the lead but rather support local decision-making. Samso literally started with a single employee who knocked on doors and convinced his neighbours of the need and opportunity. We’ve tried the one-size-fits-all approach to some success. But it is a model with limited upside for Island communities.
The second lesson of Samso is it can be done, but it is not a quick fix.
Some will see any support for oil and gas as a cop-out. The opposite is true if both sides show pragmatic leadership. Samso is succeeding because of the commitment, time and respect individuals have shown.
There is an opportunity in this new era of a federal minority to put climate change front and centre. Done properly it need not be an us or them proposition. It can be respectful and effective without destroying our economy. It can be an exercise in expedited, incremental transformation and community building that the whole country can benefit from.
It can put PEI at the top of the curve.
And if we do that, we just might be rewarded with some much needed nation building as well.
Paul MacNeill is Publisher of Island Press Limited. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org