Full Speed Ahead

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Highlights

A story of uncontrolled growth and carbon-fuelled wealth creation in Alberta, with limited economic benefits for East Central Alberta
Key Themes: Carbon Rich; Global Scale Agriculture; Uncontrolled Growth
Key Question: What if we can’t balance the needs of Big Oil and Global Scale Agriculture with community needs and limit the damages caused by unbridled growth?

Energy:

  • Coal is developed
  • Carbon capture is developed
  • Energy prices – High oil and gas prices/high dollar

Economy:

  • Big Oil and large consolidated farms (supported by Corporate Agribusiness) create wealth, but it does not stay in East Central Alberta.
  • There is little economic diversification
  • Services for Big Oil and Agriculture are centred in Edmonton, with some services in Camrose and in Tofield
  • Only a few high paying jobs are created in the region

Community:

  • De-population; no thriving communities
  • Health and social support services centred in Edmonton and Camrose, with Alberta Supernet supporting service delivery to rural areas
  • Uncontrolled growth in urban populations

Water and the Environment:

  • Impacts are mitigated, but there is no stewardship
  • Focus is on complying with global regulatory commitments
  • Impacts on air and land are managed, but water is still under severe stress

Governance:

  • Emphasis on meeting needs of the global market over community needs
  • Wealth creation for Big Oil and Corporate Agribusiness results in little local control or shared governance

Story (Scenario)

 

 


Full Speed Ahead - 2033

Ruth Carlson guides her rental car out of the Edmonton Airport, over the #2 Highway overpass and down the no longer familiar road that will eventually lead to her hometown of Tofield, and Thanksgiving dinner with her sister’s family. She tried to book an electric car, or a hybrid, common in Vancouver, where she now resides, but none were available. She checks her watch, and her disappointment is replaced by anxiety. It’s already 5:15 p.m.

Her sister warned her the going would be slow, with residential development spreading out over former farmland, marching east out of Leduc, southeast out of Edmonton, and west from Tofield, expanding the embrace of the Capital Region, turning once independent rural communities into city acreage living.

It’s almost three years since her last visit. Her anxiety, she’s well aware, has little to do with the passage of time, or with being late for dinner. It has even less to do with the fact that today is her 75th birthday, and she will have to endure being the centre of attention, and accept heartfelt congratulations. Other congratulations, she knows, will also be forthcoming. It’s 10 years since she received her award, along with two of her colleagues, for saving the planet - and the Alberta economy.

Back in 2012, renewed demand for energy from the world’s growing economies plus diminishing conventional oil reserves began driving a massive expansion of oil sands development, production and profitability. Oil prices continued to climb along with greenhouse gas emissions.

In 2015, a surface coal mine, occupying over 300 square kilometres just south of the Town of Tofield and the Village of Ryley, along with a gasification facility, became fully operational, primarily to support oil sands production and the new oil sands upgraders in the growing industrial heartland east of Edmonton. Spurred by high demand and skyrocketing prices, construction of a second gasification plant began almost immediately.

Several thousand high-paying jobs were created during the construction process. Camrose, and to a lesser extent Tofield, began to expand. Housing construction brought in more jobs, although about half of the workers chose to live in Leduc, Sherwood Park or Camrose and commute to work.
Despite the boom, there were growing concerns, as the planet heated up, of a global boycott of oil sands products and the gathering threat from inexpensive renewable energy technologies, although these were still perceived to be years away.

By 2018, the needs of Big Oil and global scale agricultural operations, a warming climate, and increasing drought all contributed to increasing regional worries about water quality, and fierce competition for East Central Alberta’s scarce water resources.

That same year, scientists at the University of Alberta announced they had perfected an inexpensive, effective and simple new technology to scrub carbon from the air. Five years later, they shared the Nobel Prize. Alberta was quick to invest in the application of this technology, and by 2025, it had reduced its carbon emissions by 50%, eliminating the boycott threat, and helping reduce, along with other jurisdictions, the long-term threat of global warming.

Fifteen kilometres from Tofield, the land opens up, and Ruth detours off the highway in search of marshlands she remembers from her youth. She recalls birds, beavers and bulrushes, and wind gusts tipping her canoe one mid-summer day into the shallow, warm waters. She remembers swimming among the reeds with the ducks and geese. She turns down a dirt road, pleased she has found her way. She stops the car, but does not get out, and is disappointed to see the marshlands gone. Driving on, she discovers gently rolling agricultural land reclaimed from early coal mining activities - with none of the wetlands restored.

After her award in 2023 and her initial euphoria, and after her halting attempts not to believe her own press clippings, Ruth moved to the University of British Columbia and semi-retirement two years later. Her Nobel Prize allowed her to attract new grants for environmental research. But somehow she was not motivated. With increasing fascination she watched a world suddenly free from environmental guilt, saved, or so it believed, at the 11th hour from global warming. She watched this world renew its fierce embrace of fossil fuels, despite high costs, dire predictions of dwindling supplies, and serious environmental degradation during exploration, recovery and refinement operations.

Ruth rouses herself from her thoughts and drives on to Tofield, to a place where real-world achievements collide with childhood memories. Ruth thinks, in her blackest moments, that her legacy is not as a saviour of the planet, but as an enabler of the world’s addiction to fossil fuels. She is thankful, she suddenly realizes, that this is not one of those moments. Her connections to the land, and to the successes of her family here in Tofield, give her a measure of reassurance.

During the 2020s, Alberta’s oil wealth continued to drive economic growth, but in East Central Alberta, the wealth was not evenly distributed. By 2023, expanded surface coal mine operations supplied coal for two additional gasification facilities. As local farmers sold their land to the coal company, the province’s energy revenues were used to subsidize large-scale farming operations producing cash crops and biofuels for global markets. A few large-scale greenhouses even produced fresh vegetables for local urban markets. Land from coal mining operations was reclaimed to suit the needs of Corporate Agribusiness.

Big Oil continued to compete with Agriculture for scarce water resources. Dewatering – the removal of groundwater to access mineral resources below – and the increasing use of chemical fertilizers and pesticides put the supply and quality of the region’s groundwater under increasing pressure. Water shortages impacted the size of communities and limited economic growth and diversification.

The high price of energy proved a hardship for rural communities, dramatically increasing the cost of transportation, heating, food, small-scale agricultural production, and local business operations. Conventional oil and gas production, particularly in Flagstaff County, dried up and was all but gone.

By 2025, it was clear that only limited economic advantage had trickled down to local communities. Camrose, Tofield and Ryley were prospering, but much of East Central Alberta continued to depopulate and age, as workers increasingly chose to live in larger centres and commute to their jobs, and as young people moved away in search of a wider range of employment opportunities. The government used its oil and gas revenues to support the region by developing service centres providing educational opportunities, and social support services. Healthcare was centred in Camrose and Tofield, with Supernet-delivered health services extending to more remote rural communities.

In 2030, an energy summit of government and industry leaders concluded, again, that Alberta needed to invest in alternative, renewable sources of energy. And in East Central Alberta, government and business leaders continued to talk about diversifying the regional economy.

Meanwhile, environment standards were harmonized to meet international requirements, not the concerns of local communities. Small, local farms, constrained by high energy costs and competition for scarce water resources, continued to be consolidated into large-scale farming operations.

Ruth lingers for a moment in her sister Fay’s driveway, on her 75th birthday, in 2033, fashionably late for Thanksgiving dinner. Just before she left Vancouver, Fay, who sits on the region’s new regional land use and water management board, told her of a growing consciousness in the region that in the pursuit of individual and corporate wealth, community wealth had suffered. Some blamed it on the loss of the family farm, and the loss of local farmers as stewards of the land. Others blamed it on outsiders making decisions, on the lack of local control. Others, Fay pointed out – she was nothing if not comprehensive in her evaluations – continued to ask where the region would be without Big Oil and Big Farms?

Ruth wonders if this growing consciousness extends to her two nephews, who live in Sherwood Park and visit their mother in Tofield on holidays, whose high paying jobs are dependent on the coal plant, and who often say, in a half-joking matter, that they have only her to thank.

Still she lingers in the driveway in her gas-powered rent-a-car. She wonders if this consciousness is nothing more than the realization that one day soon – the best estimates were about 15 years – there would be no more cost-competitive coal to mine in the region. Or perhaps no water to allocate.

Her spirits rise with the thought that humans are best at solving the challenges placed right in front of them, ones they can absolutely no longer avoid. And these challenges, as much as she had helped for a time to push them back into the shadows, were once again in focus. Her spirits rise further with an insistent knock and a little girl’s face peering through the car window. It’s enough, right now, she says to herself, smiling as she opens the door to Thanksgiving, and to the best wishes and congratulations that are about to come her way.
 

Detailed Assumptions
Energy:

  • Coal is developed in East-Central Alberta, mainly to support oil sands production and refinement
  • Conventional oil and gas reserves in East Central Alberta are depleted, and remaining deposits are not economically viable
  • Cost of oil/gas is high, driven by demand and global political instability, as supply dries up
  • R&D focused on making the fossil fuel industry efficient and lowering emissions
  • Carbon capture works and develops into a mature technology
  • Alberta does not compete in the development or application of renewable energy technology, remaining reliant on fossil fuels

Economy:

  • Continued high oil/gas prices and a high dollar are good for Alberta but hurt the manufacturing sectors in other parts of Canada
  • Wealth creation through Big Oil and large consolidated farms Agriculture (supported by Corporate Agribusiness)
  • The regional economy fails to diversify; there are few jobs available to supplement farm income
  • There is wealth creation, but it is not evenly distributed throughout the region
  • Services for the carbon industry remain centred in Edmonton, with some in Camrose and Tofield
  • With the exception of Camrose and Tofield, there is modest economic benefit for the region
  • Carbon fuel revenues are used to subsidize large-scale farming in the region to stay competitive
  • Large-scale consolidated farms buy out smaller farm operations and grows cash crops and biofuels
  • Little economic advantage “trickles down” to local communities
  • There is limited local food production for large urban markets, but it is produced by large-scale farms

Community:

  • While Camrose and Tofield expand, the rest of the region does not thrive
  • Tofield expands in the direction of Edmonton, and becomes a satellite community of Edmonton, providing services to the coal plant and to agricultural operations
  • Urban sprawl encroaches on the landscape as it expands into the countryside
  • Other communities in the study area empty out, as young people move away to find jobs, or commute to larger centres for work
  • The countryside empties out as small farming operations disappear
  • The high cost of energy dramatically increases the cost of food, transportation, home heating, agricultural production and small business operations
  • Health and social support services remain centred in Edmonton and Camrose with the Alberta Supernet supporting service provision to sparsely populated rural communities
  • Except in Camrose, the population of the region ages, putting a strain on scarce resources
  • Farm/family ethic is lost
  • The majority of workers commute to the coal mine and do not live in the region
  • Camrose continues as a regional hub and service centre for Agriculture, but as it booms, it faces housing and water shortages and an increase in crime
  • Suburban sprawl around Camrose reaches into agricultural lands

Water and the Environment:

  • Environmental focus is on complying with global regulatory commitments
  • Water for surface coal mining and gasification plants is drawn mainly from the North Saskatchewan River
  • Dewatering – the removal of ground water to access mineral resources below – puts the area’s groundwater supply under severe stress
  • Environmental impacts, including wetlands degradation and water shortages, are only partially mitigated through technology, with reclamation serving Big Oil (coal) and agricultural interests, without consideration of stewardship
  • Global warming, increasing drought, and the demands of Big Oil (coal) and global scale Agriculture (supported by Corporate Agribusiness) contribute to increasing regional concerns about water quality and quantity, and fierce competition for scarce water resources throughout the three counties
  • Water shortages impact the size of communities and limit economic growth and diversification

Governance:

  • Global political instability emerges from a push to fully development of carbon and nuclear energy sources
  • There is local polarization around resource issues, but public sentiment in the province supports the wealth creation agenda
  • Little progress is made implementing the concept of shared governance

Chart of Assumptions

Scenario – Full Speed Ahead - October 2008
Factor: Energy Future (Download Chart)
Theme: Energy - Carbon Rich

Factor: Economic Sustainability (Download Chart)
Theme: Agriculture - Global Scale

Factor: Nature of Community (Download Chart)
Theme: Community and our Environment - Uncontrolled Growth

Factor: Water Quality and Quantity (Download Chart)
Theme:
Community and our Environment - Uncontrolled Growth

Factor: Environmental Sustainability (Download Chart)
Theme:
Community and our Environment - Uncontrolled Growth

Factor: Governance (Download Chart)
Theme:
Community and our Environment - Uncontrolled Growth