Last Friday I spent the day touring the oilsands, specifically Cenovus’ Foster Creek site. I was warmly received and treated with generosity and open-heartedness by Calgary City Councillor Jeff Davison, Canada Action representatives, and leaders at Cenovus Energy. I was truly moved by the people I met and what I saw and also by the fact that a day-long dialogue with perfect strangers can deepen understanding and strengthen human connection.

What I am left with from my visit, is that while there is only one earth, one climate, and one shared future for the planet, there are two different energy paradigms in Canada right now.

There is the paradigm I visited on Friday. In this paradigm, there is no end to oil and gas extraction in sight. I asked the VP of Cenovus point blank, “What are your plans to transition away from fossil fuels and to renewable energy?” He said, “We have no plans to do that; that is not the business we are in.” I appreciated the forthrightness and honesty of his answer.

In this paradigm, there is a spirit of continuous improvement in the process of oil and gas extraction. They told me that the industry is transitioning away from strip mines – which are a common perception of the oil sands: landscapes destroyed, water contaminated, large tailings ponds – to steam assisted gravity drainage (SAGD pictured above). They said this involves a much smaller footprint, less deforestation, and less energy consumption to produce oil.

The VP of Cenovus shared that their engineers and scientists are working to further reduce their steam to oil ratio, or SOR. Natural gas is used to produce steam which thins the oil and makes it pumpable. The less steam needed, the less natural gas needed, the less energy used to get the oil out. They showed me a commercial scale pilot project that they have underway to learn more.

They explained how that in developing the plant they had studied wildlife movements to learn where wildlife bridges need to be built and – where possible – they work around sensitive wildlife habitat. They said they have detailed restoration plans. They also showed me examples of how water is reused, methane is captured and reused, each camp building has its own sewage treatment system and all the water is reused. There are lots of closed-loop systems.

And, I live in a different paradigm. In this paradigm we are moving towards 100% renewable energy by 2050 at the latest, and we don’t see a long-term future for the use of fossil fuels. This is where I believe we need to get to. We’ve created a Climate Leadership Plan as a guide. We are working hard to reduce our reliance on fossil fuels through taking a sustainable, forward-looking approach to buildings, transportation and waste.

In this paradigm, we’ve declared a Climate Emergency both locally and regionally and have urged the Province to do so as well. The IPCC report  released last October has galvanized us to faster action for 2030 and we’re working with our residents and businesses to develop a Climate Champions program to support energy transformation in homes, schools and businesses.

We have accelerated implementation of the BC Step Code for buildings and we’re also proposing to remove the need for rezonings for passive house, net zero energy buildings.

We’ve put a significant price on carbon for corporate air travel and are working on carbon accounting for all municipal operations in order to make visible and reduce our carbon consumption. Our local airline, Harbour Air, is making investments to be 100% electric and aims to fly passengers between Victoria and Vancouver with electric engines beginning in 2021 or 2022.

We are proposing bold moves like making it free for everyone in the region to ride the bus and fully electrifying the transit fleet by 2030. We’re looking ahead 30 years and building a safe and connected bike network now, despite constant loud public backlash (but with lots of quiet support).

We’ve reduced the use of single-use plastic bags and we are working towards reducing other single use items. We generate electricity from our landfill waste and are developing plans to increase energy generation from waste. Our sewage treatment plant is under construction; we’ll be using energy generated from the treatment process to fuel the treatment process itself. And the dried biosolids produced will be used as a heat source to replace fossil fuels at cement kilns.

When the Chief Operating Officer of Canada Action asked me on Friday how we bridge these two paradigms, I whipped out Leo Bascaglia’s book, Living, Loving and Learning  from my knapsack and said, “One bridge is love.” Or if not exactly love, the surprise and delight of connecting, human to human, with people who have very different points of view. That’s what I felt on Friday. And it was such a refreshing reprieve from how differences of opinion are expressed on social media.

There are two things that the two paradigms have in common. One is a barrel of oil – we use the oil that they produce. The other is human creativity and innovation.

Twenty percent of emissions from a barrel of oil come from producing it. Eighty percent come from combusting it. We all have work to do together. We need to reduce carbon pollution by reducing the combustion of fossil fuels. And as oil is in almost everything – cell phones, tires, pens, etc. – if we want to get off oil any time soon, we need unprecedented energy and materials innovation, everywhere, in all fields, at once. This will help to create viable energy and materials alternatives and it’s the pathway to low-carbon prosperity and to ensuring that no one is left behind in the transition.

This is where another of Canada’s amazing natural resources comes into play – our human capital. I saw it in the facility that I toured; there were bright creative workers who were innovating and striving for continuous improvement. And I see it in Victoria’s and British Columbia’s tech sector. And in our colleges and universities. And in the responses to Infrastructure Canada’s Smart Cities Challenge. I see it in individual homes and businesses. We need to continue to mine Canada’s human capital and put it to work to its full potential.

After the wonderful visit, I’m still firmly rooted in my paradigm. I need to stay here as there’s so much work to do in order to make systemic and transformational changes as a city and region. These changes will make it easier and more convenient for people to make a shift to low-carbon living.

And I also know for sure that standing at the edges of our paradigms throwing stones across the divide is not a good way forward. Genuine listening and an appreciation of other points of view are important to building understanding. That’s what I experienced in Alberta last week. I’m really happy I went.

P.S. They have bikes to go from building to building in the camp. I thought people would get a kick out of the fact that I was able to find the bicycles, even in the middle of the oil sands! This is me and Calgary Coucillor Jeff Davison.

oilsands bicycles