Outlook: Year ahead is rich with opportunity for B.C.’s resource industries

The advent of 2021 is a prognosticator’s nightmare after the year we’ve had. There is ample room for embarrassment given that, however predictable some aspects of the pandemic may now seem in retrospect, nobody saw it coming.

After initial confusion, 2020 has shown us that the fundamentals still apply. Buying low and selling high rewarded the bold. Investment intentions continued to be affected by government policies. New leaders and disruptive ideas emerged phoenix-like from the ashes of the crisis.

Late in the year, we’ve seen some helpful commitments on decarbonization pathways. Western Canada has immense potential to turn natural gas into hydrogen at an economically viable scale and without combustion. We can safely tune out the debates about “blue” versus “green” hydrogen that risk big disappointments in getting hydrogen technology to scale up quickly. What we need to focus on is how to extract the beneficial parts of the hydrocarbon molecule while leaving the stuff we don’t want in the ground. This also leads to opportunities in carbon capture, and I predict that a lot more people will become familiar in 2021 with the term “negative emissions.”

Markets are much better than technocrats at getting to results. With more aggressive carbon pricing now in place, the signal to innovate just became much stronger. More regulation will dampen the potential for innovation and make us even less competitive as an exporter.

Goods-producing, trade-exposed industries have been hit hard by COVID-19. Carbon policies need to support a much-needed rebound in investment, not smother job-creating activities.

I’ll be using the term “energy transition” more sparingly in 2021 as it has proved too limiting. What we really want to be talking about is energy “transformation.” More people are realizing that our dependence on fossil fuels is too great to simply stop using them as we often hear is necessary. New technologies will create all kinds of transformation opportunities in 2021.

As a global centre of excellence in mining, Vancouver should be looking forward to 2021 as a breakthrough moment. Canada has abundant rare earths needed for electric motors, but it has been challenging to develop their potential.

Let’s not forget the critical minerals category, i.e., the ones needed for the batteries required if electrification of vehicles is to become widespread. Here again, Canada has abundant resources to equip that transformation. This will also provide the basis for a strong relationship with the Joe Biden administration, perhaps in the form of continental clean tech strategies that lift up both nations.

In 2021, we all need to get a firm grasp on the term ESG – environment, society and governance – because we’ll be hearing it a lot more. It’s no longer an arcane measurement from the world of finance. Much hinges on Canada’s ability to be acknowledged as an ESG leader internationally.

In 2021, economic reconciliation for Indigenous peoples will become a higher priority than ever. This is because of the federal government’s tabling in late 2020 of legislation stemming from the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. As the first Canadian jurisdiction to bring the declaration’s principles into law, B.C. has a first-mover advantage when it comes to shared prosperity that opens fresh opportunities for Indigenous people.

Worth remembering is that most of the economic growth that B.C. has seen recently was based on what I think of as the Big Four infrastructure projects currently underway: Trans Mountain, Site C, the Coastal GasLink pipeline and LNG Canada. Their impact can’t be overstated. Economist Ken Peacock of the Business Council of British Columbia recently discovered that B.C.’s growth in 2019 would have been closer to 1% rather than the respectable 2.7% expansion recorded last year if not for the economic activity flowing from several large projects in the province.

Traditional industries like forestry and aquaculture are major contributors to B.C.’s standing as a producer of low-carbon, sustainable export goods. Unfortunately, polarization has the potential to inflame the urban-rural divide while derailing some of our most accessible and rewarding opportunities. We need elected leaders who move confidently to ensure opportunities are not needlessly turned away.

There is too much at stake not to take this seriously. In 2021, we all need to get better at listening, even when we dislike what we hear or who we hear it from. •

Stewart Muir is executive director of Vancouver-based Resource Works.