Canada’s economy depends on the extraction and export of its natural resources.
For Stewart Muir – who describes himself as a historian, journalist and environmentalist – that goes without saying.
But not so for many B.C. residents, particularly the urbanites of metro Vancouver, he says.
That’s what led Muir to launch Resource Works, a group committed to elevating the public conversation about how the mining and oil-and-gas industries impact their lives.
“The average person is out there, paying the mortgage and running around raising the kids, so how do you communicate to people that natural resources are an essential part of their lives?” said Muir on Thursday.
“You look around, if you’re sitting in your office, of course it’s all based on natural resources. That’s sort of an obvious point, but it’s kind of a profound point too, because we overlook it. It’s under our noses.”
Muir will be in Whitehorse next week to speak at a Mining Week lunch event hosted by the Yukon Chamber of Mines.
Although Yukoners know well how intimately the fate the of the mining industry and Yukon’s economy are linked, Muir said he’s surprised at how close the perspectives of Whitehorse urbanites are to what you’d find in Vancouver.
He mentioned the public debate over hydraulic fracturing and natural gas that has taken place in the territory over the past few years.
“I think to the public it can be sort of baffling because everywhere they look, it seems the information they are getting is contradictory. Sifting through all that is probably frustrating for a lot of folks.”
It’s up to government and industry to get good information to the public, he said.
Muir’s organization focuses on closing the gap in understanding the economic impacts of resource industries.
In 2013 the natural gas industry spent $8.3 billion in B.C., he said.
“That trickled down through the whole economy and created a whole range of benefits. When these issues are examined by the average person, that’s a part of it that they need to look at.”
The public needs to understand the benefits, but also push for innovations that make extractive industries more environmentally friendly, he said.
Pushing for a greener, cleaner future is something everyone can agree on, said Muir.
“I challenge anyone to find those in the oil-and-gas industry who doesn’t want that transition to happen. I don’t think they exist.”
But with hydrocarbons currently supplying 80 per cent of energy worldwide, the shift won’t come overnight.
“I think in the recent few years we’ve seen an acceleration in expectations that solar and wind can be a big part of that mix. But they will have to grow at quite a rapid rate over the coming decades in order to be a part of that big change that we need.
“How do we do it? That’s where it gets really tough. How quickly do we do it? That’s the challenge of innovation.”
Part of innovation has to do with regulation, too, said Muir.
After the Mount Polley tailings dam collapse in B.C. last year, the provincial government sent the experts in and changed the rules based on what was found.
“Industry was not thrilled that there were some new rules coming in, because that had an impact on how they have to do things at all these different mines. But the public demands it, so that’s what the government has delivered.”
Those rules should prevent something similar from happening in the future, he said.
“Mount Polley was not yet-another-mine-tailing-pond-collapse. It wasn’t, ‘Oh yeah, that one collapsed.’ It wasn’t like that. It was an exceptional, extraordinary incident that reverberated around the world, and there was nobody satisfied with its occurrence.”
Mine engineers will be looking to that work not only because of the regulations but because they “cannot allow that type of failure to happen on their watch,” said Muir.
And the public have a role to play in pushing for that sort of innovation and change.
“There are lots of people in the third party, non-governmental organizations, the NGOs, who are challenging all of these different areas, asking tough questions, making government more accountable. And I think that has helped.
“Government cannot ignore us. This is not some banana republic or African dictatorship where industry runs rampant doing whatever it pleases. It just has never been acceptable here.”
The judicial system, too, is available as a way to challenge practices and industries, said Muir.
“That should be, as Canadians, one element that we take confidence in. That we’ve got, not just people who say they’re doing the right thing, but we’ve got systems that allow other pressures to be factored in.”
Muir said he’s excited to hear the perspectives that Yukoners have on resources and the environment.
“The heart of what we’re doing is understanding how people are weighing what are often seen as the competing priorities of environment and economy. I would say it’s the number one question of our time.”
The chamber of mines lunch will be held from 11:30 to 12:45 on Wednesday, May 6 in the Town Hall room of the Gold Rush Inn.
Tickets are $25 for chamber members and $35 for non-members. Call 667-2090 or email firstname.lastname@example.org to reserve a seat.
Contact Jacqueline Ronson at