Alberta Politics
The University of Alberta in Edmonton (Photo: U of A/

State-supported academic research in Alberta should be about more than Making Oil & Gas Great Again

Posted on June 24, 2020, 10:49 am
5 mins

As Alberta launches its 10-year plan for “transformational change” in post-secondary education, a new study suggests the province’s universities and the government agencies that fund them are helping to prolong the worst aspects of the fossil fuel era.

Alas, by trying to make oil and gas great again when there’s plenty of reason to conclude that’s a forlorn hope, Ottawa and the Alberta government aren’t doing any favours for the taxpayers who are paying for this stuff.

University of Alberta Political Economy Professor Laurie Adkin (Photo: U of A).

The study by University of Alberta political economy professor Laurie Adkin — Knowledge for an Ecologically Sustainable Future? Innovation Policy and Alberta Universities — makes it clear we’re putting the lion’s share of public money into fossil fuel research and technology development, an approach that may have seemed like a good idea when it started given Alberta’s natural resources, but that’s not so helpful in the epoch of global climate change.

Doubling down on a bad bet and largely ignoring sustainable food production, water management, renewable energy “and other dimensions of a good life in a carbon-constrained future,” is probably not what Albertans and Canadians need their public universities to be doing right now, Dr. Adkin’s research suggests.

The report, released this morning by the Parkland Institute and the Corporate Mapping Project, examines how the federal and Alberta governments prioritize research spending by tracing money from multiple public and private sources over 20 years. Unsurprisingly, it uncovered a pattern of heavy spending on carbon-extractive activities and far less for renewable energy, energy efficiency, conservation, social planning, or sustainable agriculture.

Researcher Laura Cabral (Photo: Toole Design).

This won’t come as a surprise to anyone who’s lived in Alberta very long and been paying attention, but it’s still helpful at a moment the sun seems to be setting on Alberta’s fossil fuel industry — no matter how angry that makes Jason Kenney and his United Conservative Party Government.

It’s particularly relevant because the UCP is planning what it calls transformational change of post-secondary education in the province with the supposed goal of training “the workforce of tomorrow.” This will be hard to do, of course, when energy extraction in Alberta increasingly looks like yesterday’s industry.

Dr. Adkin and Parkland Institute researcher Laura Cabral found that from 1999 to 2016, 64 per cent of funding from the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council for energy research at the University of Alberta and University of Calgary went to fossil-fuel-related research and development, and only 11 per cent to renewables, energy efficiency and conservation, fuel cells, and biofuels combined.

Canada Foundation for Innovation funding for energy projects favoured fossil fuels R&D over the other categories of energy research by a four-to-one ratio, they found, while provincial agencies have allocated about $6.4 billion to fossil-fuels-related research since 1997, almost two-thirds of it in the form of royalty credits or grants to corporations.

So let’s not pretend, as Premier Kenney sometimes likes to do, that there are no public subsidies for Canada’s oil and gas industry!

In contrast, the report said, alternative energies and energy efficiency R&D added up to only 4 per cent of the amount invested, and the investment in environmental research and climate science to only 3 per cent. “Investment in sustainable agriculture — from any agency — is negligible.”

Instead of a misleading sustainable development discourse embraced by politicians and university administrators that imagines fossil fuel extraction can be reconciled with climate change science, Dr. Adkin argued, we should be thinking about how to provide sustainable livelihoods and a high quality of life within ecological limits.

That “will require vocal and principled leadership on the part of academics and university administrators,” she said.

The Parkland Institute is a public policy research institute in the Faculty of Arts at the University of Alberta. The report was undertaken as part of the Corporate Mapping Project, a six-year research and public engagement initiative supported by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada and jointly led by the University of Victoria, the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, and the Parkland Institute.

7 Comments to: State-supported academic research in Alberta should be about more than Making Oil & Gas Great Again

  1. Bruce Turton

    June 24th, 2020

    Even the status quo data about oil for “our future” shows that the largest oil and gas company in the world has lost 48% of its stock value since January, 2018. Seems a lot of people are seeing the writing on the wall except while looking through Alberta lenses!

  2. Just Me

    June 24th, 2020

    This is just another measure to assure that public research dollars are transferred to the O&G sector via publicly financed R&D.

    In Alberta, there is only industry that doesn’t have to pay for anything. Guess who?

  3. Abs

    June 24th, 2020

    Does the Alberta of tomorrow include detention camps? Because that’s where the developers of Alberta’s new post-secondary plan like to hold employee retreats when they visit China. Who needs safaris, when you can stare at imprisoned Uighurs, rom a safe distance, of course? Fun times!

    Maybe the newly-trained five-year-olds from Alberta’s vocational charter schools can be put to use serving the executives at these luxe retreats. Surely they can make themselves useful serving food, cleaning, washing laundry, etc. What a wonderful world!

    Jonathan Swift is not satire in Jason’s perfect little world.

  4. Political Ranger

    June 24th, 2020

    I completed a degree at an Alberta university in the last decade. While I had nothing to do with dollars going to research it was painfully obvious that any subject matter that put Alberta’s petro-industry in a bad light was not tolerated. There are very few tenured profs around in post-secondary and the contracted instructing staff are very leery about participating in anything that doesn’t promote petroleum use.
    Were it not for my experience in 3 countries on 2 continents and a half dozen different industries I would have fallen for their sage advice and teaching as gospel. As it was much of my third and fourth year course time was spent successfully arguing and eventually teaching these instructors that the given knowledge in Alberta is not science, history, policy or procedure.

    I think that no amount of money is too much money to be applied towards research into environmental restoration and rehabilitation of the tarsand sites. The public will be paying for this in any case. There is after almost 4 decades almost no knowledge of how to treat these lands. And after that same 4 decades there is no evidence that these criminally negligent petro-corps will not just walk away.
    Those same instructing staff and administration at Alberta post-secondary are so convinced and so blinded by their sureness that they are actually preventing any kind of positive research into responsible treatments and actions for the terminal phase of this business.

  5. Just Me

    June 24th, 2020

    I happened on an interesting article on Bloomberg a few months ago that may serve as an indicator of the future of Alberta.

    It was noted that in the City of Calgary, it was getting harder to find people of that segment of the population between the ages of 21 to 34 years old. Why? They were migrating to other cities, like Vancouver, Toronto, Ottawa, and Montreal. Why? All these cities had burgeoning tech sectors. Combined investment in these cities in tech was well over $18B and growing annually. As for Calgary, tech investment was a mere $200M. In Edmonton it was even less. The population of Alberta will get older as its youthful population moves elsewhere.

    The expectations of young tech savvy workers was to not remain in Alberta, because the only place to work was O&G…and they all knew that industry was in an extreme decline.

  6. Jim

    June 25th, 2020

    One would think sustainable agriculture would be something worth investing some research money into. Might provide some much needed economic development in rural Alberta now that oil has gone bust. The smart money is gone and isn’t coming back any time soon clinging to the illusion this isn’t the case is crazy. Allocating public funds to keep this illusion alive is irresponsible but does provide cover for those looking to cash out. After all Kenney is just in place to ensure the transfer of public funds occurs.

    • Just Me

      June 25th, 2020

      I recall years ago attending a meeting sponsored by my then MP, the late Scott Thorkleson. The event was meant to be an information session regarding the much-maligned EH-101 helicopter contract. However, the whole temper of the meeting devolved into a “liberal media is out to get me” rant-fest, with Thorkleson clearly losing his mind defending a desparately needed asset acquisition project. The merits of the helicopter were clear and the machine was an excellent design that would assure considerable investment by BAE in Canadian aerospace companies in Winnipeg and Calgary…an obvious win-win.

      But…the ugly head of the liberal MSM kept popping up, and Thorkleson would leave no doubt that they were the enemy of the people. (Or the PCs) We all know what happens to this contract: it failed because it was wrapped in partisanship by a doomed federal political party.

      UCP partisan movements to pick winners and losers, and fund them with public monies, is no different that the complaints they level at PMJT’s support of Bombardier. Alberta’s O&G industry is as well-financed and as useless as Bombardier.


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