Calgary at a Crossroads

There are people in our country, in Paris and around the world who view Calgary as little more than "Dallas north" — a freewheeling, reckless city filled with swashbuckling J.R. Ewing-style oil barons who couldn't give a flying fig about what their plundering does to the land. 

What a load of codswallop. 

Calgary is not a cliché. It is, instead, a complex ecosystem of business brains, engineers, innovators, venture capitalists — and, yes, artists and environmentalists — who actually believe we can do just about anything we put our minds to.  

The western world views Alberta as home to the "tar sands," a source of dirty oil that is contributing to greenhouse gases in a volume way out of proportion to Canada's population. But we are citizens of this planet.

We understand the peril of climate change and we care about what happens to the people of the Marshall Islands — which are gradually slipping under rising tides — as much as we care about the people of this province. We know that something has to be done.

'Ingenious innovators'

Oil Climate Index 20150414

Many Calgarians also view the development of our bitumen resources as a massively successful science experiment, in which countless engineers over many years overcame a series of seemingly insurmountable technical challenges. These ingenious innovators went after these technical roadblocks like dogs after bones. 

People with ingenuity and a tolerance for risk. That's how Calgarians see themselves. It's a western thing — taking big chances with potential big payoffs also comes with the potential for spectacular failure. We get a big kick out of jumping without a net.

Max Ball experienced both the highs and lows. In 1930, he formed what would become known as Abasand Oils Ltd., and built a separation plant in northern Alberta that produced a measly 200 barrels per day of oil. The plant was plagued with equipment failures and Ball was shoved aside in 1943 by a government that thought it could do better. Eventually, the government gave up on this money-loser after the Second World War and shut it down. 

The point is we believe that the biggest successes only happen when you put everything on the line. Sometimes it works out and sometimes — as with Max Ball — you're simply laying the groundwork for people who will come after you. 

And they did.

Taking a chance

Fort McMurray tar sands

A long line of risk-hungry investors saw the potential of oil sands and stubbornly created a massively successful enterprise — at least, when oil hovered around $100 a barrel. The processes were energy-intensive and emissions per barrel high, but the business model worked.

Finding ways of making it work at $40 oil is now just another roadblock to be overcome. 

There is, however, an equally urgent new task: finding a far cleaner way to get bitumen out of the ground. It's a job for Calgary's army of engineers — people who get a kick out of finding solutions where others see dead ends. 

These great minds are finding ways to mine this resource more efficiently and without destroying the environment. 

There are dozens and dozens of transformative, earth-saving techniques the people at COP21 haven't heard of: like a process that takes the sulfur, heavy metals and acids out of bitumen and delivers clean oil; another tool that converts carbon dioxide into useful chemicals, using a process like a plant's photosynthesis; and Shell's Quest project, which strips one-third of the emissions from its Scotford bitumen upgrader.

That is just a small taste of what Calgary innovators are doing with our industry. 

We understand many people think the oil sands represent all that is wrong with fossil fuels; we want them to know we're doing something about it. 

Beyond fossil fuels

CANADA/

It would be a mistake, however, to assume that our brain trust has put all their eggs into the fossil fuel basket. Instead, we are applying our world-class energy expertise to develop technologies that just might transform the future for everyone. 

A little Calgary company called Rocky Mountain Power, for example, is tackling one of the biggest shortcomings with wind-generated power — storage. 

Alberta has a lot of wind that could produce power. But there's a problem. Some days (or nights), there is no wind, so you need to have a backup system. This "base load" backup uses fuels like coal, gas or nuclear because they work, regardless of the weather.

Rocky Mountain Power has come up with a better way to ensure you have power when you need it. It wants to carve out massive caverns the size of 60-storey skyscrapers in naturally occurring salt layers underneath the Lloydminster area in eastern Alberta. Each cavern could store enough energy, in the form of compressed air, to power a town of 100,000 people for five days.

And speaking of alternative energy, BluEarth Renewables Inc. chose Calgary — the home of the Oil Patch — to establish its business, which focuses on buying, building and operating wind, hydro and solar projects. In just four short years, the company has gotten 16 projects operating or in development from coast to coast.  

The pride of David Suzuki?

Nenshi Solar Carbon Tax

You see, we're different than the way much of the world sees us. Calgarians care about the legacy that we will leave for future generations. We're coming up with energy solutions so green they would make David Suzuki proud. 

The emission-cutting tools we're creating will work not just in the oil sands but also in developing economies, like China, which this year alone approved the building of 150 new coal-fired power plants. 

If we are to take meaningful action to curb carbon emissions around the world, then we will need cheap, effective technologies that any country can afford. Calgarians can do that. We want to transform the way the world uses precious resources and powers their homes. 

The people in Paris need to know we are not the problem; we are a big part of the solution.

CBC Calgary's special focus on life in our city during the downturn. A look at Calgary's culture, identity and what it means to be Calgarian. It's called Calgary at a Crossroads.