Prof. Fraser Forbes, dean of engineering, University of Alberta. Photo: UofA.

Dean Forbes missed opportunity to explain how oil sands innovation is answering Suzuki criticisms

The University of Alberta is conferring an honorary degree upon David Suzuki and certain quarters of Alberta have set their hair on fire in response, while certain other quarters are applauding. Frankly, I’m sympathetic to both views. Suzuki the environmentally-conscious educator and communicator deserves the honour. Suzuki the eco-activist is not only long past his due date, but actively impeding change because of his obstreperous – and highly influential – view of Alberta’s oil and gas industry. But should he get the degree? Absolutely.

While some of the critics were predictable, an open letter to the “engineering community” from Prof. Fraser Forbes, head of the university’s engineering department, was not.

David Suzuki. Photo: David Suzuki Foundation.

The impetus for the letter was, apparently, numerous calls from his fellow engineers: “I am not surprised by the level of outrage being expressed across the entire breadth of our engineering community – surely such is to be expected when one’s fundamental values are so directly questioned!”

Questioning social and cultural values, fundamental or not, is one of the reasons for the very existence of universities and has been for centuries.

Yet, for Prof. Forbes, being questioned somehow led to an existential crisis.

“I am deeply sorry (ashamed, in fact) for the hurt that we at the University have caused Albertans in the last two weeks,” Forbes fulminated. “It need not have happened. It should not have happened.”

The irony of his dissent being posted on the University of Alberta’s website probably never occurred to Forbes. Apparently institutions of higher learning are only supposed to recognize views that align with the dominant political views of the (perceived) majority.

What might Forbes have written instead?

A rejoinder to Suzuki’s critique of the Alberta oil sands comes to mind.

As the dean of engineering, Forbes is presumably familiar with the tremendous technology innovation within the oil sands sector that addresses many of the concerns the former host of CBC’s The Nature of Things has made over the years.

The dean could have pointed to the next generation of steam assisted gravity drainage – a technology developed in Alberta that unlocked in situ production and will be responsible for almost all of oil sands supply growth to 2030 – that will substitute solvent for heat generated by natural gas, lowering greenhouse gas emissions by as much as 40 per cent, according to the Canadian Energy Research Institute.

Or paraffinic froth treatment, a solvent-based technology used on the mining side of the oil sands. Imperial Oil’s Kearl plant uses this approach to produce heavy crude oil whose carbon-intensity is only two per cent higher than the average American crude oil.

A few years ago, Energi News ran a story about a joint project between the Universities of Calgary and Alberta. The former discovered a form of algae that chewed up the nasty heavy metals and other contaminants in oil sands tailings ponds, while the latter engineered the anaerobic digesters in which the process would take place.

How many other technical innovations devised within his own department might Dean Forbes have pointed to as evidence that Suzuki’s criticisms were outdated and should no longer carry the weight they once did?

Dozens? Hundreds? A great many we suspect.

What an opportunity lost.

But Forbes isn’t alone. Over and over, critics of Suzuki and the university have preferred affront over rebuttal, shrill invective over evidence and science, even though that evidence and science is easily accessible.

The correct response from Forbes and his industry allies shouldn’t be hurt feelings (“the university didn’t simply miss the mark, but, as you have told me loud and clear, left many of you, its supporters, feeling hurt and devalued”).

It should be a challenge to debate, the clash of ideas and evidence before the campus, Alberta, and with a little bit of luck and clever public relations, the entire nation.

This was a chance to prove that based on changes to practice, technology, and government policy, Suzuki’s arguments about the Alberta oil sands and pipelines are 10 years out of date. Maybe 20.

Well, opportunity squandered.

Unfortunately, Forbes isn’t an anomaly. He truly represents a significant portion of the Alberta engineering community, which unfortunately counts as members some of the least progressive thinkers one can imagine.

Not only does David Suzuki act like he’s still fighting the pipeline battles of the 1970s (as he said once in a Maclean’s article about his life), but Forbes and his fellow engineers are trapped in the same time warp, thinking that their industry enjoys the political legitimacy (it doesn’t according to a great deal of public opinion polling data) it did when they began their careers.

Yet the same polling data demonstrates that roughly two-thirds of Canadians have remarkably sensible ideas about the environment and the oil sands/pipelines, believing that Canada can both combat climate change and develop its oil and gas resources.

Why? Because it’s 2018 and most citizens are in tune with modern realities. Meanwhile, Suzuki and Forbes still think it’s 1978.

Is it any wonder Canada feels broken sometimes?