Bill Whitelaw: Canadians need to understand high-tech nature of their oil and gas sector

billwhitelaw

Someone is planning to slowly kill Silicon Valley — to scrub from existence the companies and their employees making so much difference in the tech space.

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Ludicrous, right?

Who in their right mind would countenance such a thing?

Who would even suggest killing cool initiatives like artificial intelligence and machine learning and blockchain innovations — all the cool buzzwords that get politicians so jazzed they literally drool over doling out dough to anyone clever enough to pepper their utterances with the right terminology?

Of course, these tools and technologies are driving the digital transformation of economies the world over. Why would anyone tamper with such a compelling narrative, even for a sector that, as recent events have demonstrated, has its own “dark side.”

Meanwhile, against the now crazily polarized (politically and otherwise) backdrop that is Canada's “energyscape” at the moment, many folks are set in their belief that Justin Trudeau and his Liberal cabinet are out to kill the oil and gas sector, one neglectful action and pacifying bromide at a time.

Such "death talk" may be stretching things a bit — although the believers may not be far off the mark given the paucity of evidence that suggests otherwise.

But what if we reframed the narrative? What if the oil and gas sector argued that federal inaction is actually euthanizing, one drop at a time, a true technology sector — a technology sector that just happens to produce a natural resource.

Because it’s true...

Oil and gas companies and their service providers are doing artificial intelligence. And they’re doing machine learning. And blockchain transactions. These are just the tips of the digital iceberg that the sector has long embraced and invested in to make fundamental differences in the way hydrocarbons are produced — with a particular focus on cleaner and greener results.

But who knows the secrets of our success? Clearly, politicians for the most part are unaware of what’s going on in the high-tech space within the sector.

To the degree that the wellsite is a proxy for much of this thinking, it’s an important symbol of our industry’s innovation and technology competencies. A trip by the federal caucus to a typical progressive wellsite in Alberta’s Montney, for example, could be revealing for the show-and-tell impact it might achieve in explaining how all these tech innovations show up in the value chain from drilling program planning to immutable financial transactions — and everywhere along the innovation spectrum in between.

But if the wellsite is the iceberg tip, it is also merely a proxy for something else: what’s below the waterline in terms of the iceberg’s true heft. That’s where a veritable cornucopia of tech and innovation initiatives really cluster, ranging from fascinating advances in emissions and water management to drilling and completions — and on and on. Some of this gets occasionally glimpsed as the iceberg floats around — such as various XPRIZE-style competitions — but for the most part, it remains out of sight and, therefore, out of (public and political) mind.

The consequence of federal inertness and inaction on the “petroleum file” has a stultifying impact on the ability of the corporate balance sheet to make these investments at a time when they are needed most.

But the difference lies in the notion of narratives. And in that, we have to shoulder some of the blame as a sector.

Silicon Valley has birthed the idea the world needs its technology intellect and horsepower. It has created a “brand” powerful enough to transcend the more deplorable actions of the big tech players.

In oil and gas, we have failed for the most part at the tech narrative game. We have failed as an industry to build a narrative rocket compelling enough to achieve escape velocity from the internalized tech group acronyms that form the echo chambers in which we talk to each other — and no one else. That failure to connect our high-tech competencies to ordinary Canadians (and onward to their political leaders) manifests in their attitude toward us as a Jurassic Park industry.

Yet if a typical Ontario citizen well-acquainted with the high-tech centres in Kitchener-Waterloo and the Ottawa region could rally around the petroleum industry’s high-tech impact, they might have a different view of the myopic federal leadership that is helping erode similar tech infrastructure in Alberta. That sea-change in sentiment might well show up as a different “X” at the polling booth. It’s all a game of stakes and consequences.

But what is increasingly apparent is that the federal Liberals have no real grasp of what their actions are actually achieving: they're letting the lifeblood ebb out of our sector with no sense of how to conduct the right triage strategy.

That our prime minister's overwrought earnestness over the sector’s plight is considered the stuff of crocodile tears by an increasing number of westerners is not surprising. But what if the prime minister and caucus actually grasped the reality they're unwittingly euthanizing a technology industry? A high-tech sector that is investing in itself and disrupting itself — as effectively as any Silicon Valley tech company?

It’s too melodramatic and alarmist to suggest it’s the prime minister’s plan to kill the sector. But there's a difference, of course, between killing something and letting it die. Either way, the end result is the same.

Perhaps it’s time for the PM to visit a wellsite, put on a hard hat and learn about Canada’s modern, technologically-advanced oil and gas sector. 

Bill Whitelaw is president and CEO of JWN, as well as executive vice-president, Business Information Group, at Glacier Inc. and managing director of Evaluate Energy, an affiliated energy analytics and research company based in London, UK.

© Copyright 2018 Alaska Highway News

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