Human ingenuity – often motivated by profit – is generally miles ahead of government regulations in resolving problems in society.
Take, for example, the issue of orphan wells in Alberta. In September 2016, the Alberta Energy Regulator said there were 84,100 inactive oil and gas wells in the province. The collapse of oil prices and a raging recession left tens of thousands of these wells abandoned across Western Canada. The wells lie dormant because the owners were financially unable to seal them, remove their equipment, and restore the land.
Alberta politicians have been concerned that taxpayers would be on the hook for the cleanup. However, it only took one entrepreneur from Edmonton to propose a simple remedy. Mitchell Pomphrey had been speaking for several months with provincial officials about his idea of retrofitting old, unproductive wells into geothermal heat sources. According to the Financial Post, “the technology uses a system of tubes that are inserted into the wellbore. Water is then pumped down the hole, where the tubes absorb the earth’s natural heat before it is recirculated to the surface and the heat is transferred [to heat homes and businesses] in a furnace system.”
A pilot project is going on to see if the procedure can be commercialized and orphan wells in Alberta can be repurposed to create geothermal energy putting a number of unemployed oil workers back to work.
More fundamental to the economy of both Alberta and Canada, an engineering professor from the University of Calgary has created heavy oil and bitumen pellets, and the idea has been recently patented and near pilot scale production. Ian Gates has invented pill-sized pellets that can vastly reduce the chance of a damaging spill or environmental accident. The innovation provides a way to get Alberta’s vast oil reserves to market without the using unreliable pipelines. The spill-free substance can then be transported via railway networks and get to ports.
This innovation could also revolutionize the Alberta oil and gas sector, which employs many Canadians, kick-starting the oil industry in Alberta, and creating economic opportunities across the country.
Technological innovations, driven by ingenuity, may also revolutionize remote First Nation communities. According to CBC News, a technology firm called Drone Delivery Canada is considering using unmanned aerial drones to deliver food, medical supplies, general goods, and mail to remote First Nations.
Moose Cree First Nation – a remote Indigenous community on the Island of Moose Factory in Northern Ontario – faces crippling costs for transporting foods to the isolated community. Normal air transportation is prohibitively expensive.
If these projects using innovative technology are successful, perhaps they can be used in other remote First Nations.
Of course, often governments want to advance innovation, but many times they go about it the wrong way. For example, the recent 2017 federal budget earmarked funds for innovation, including investments in clean technology. Of course, a positive step was to expedite the immigration of highly-skilled workers, but the budget largely focused was on government solutions.
But, governments can best assist innovation by getting out of the way of entrepreneurs and inventors. Governments must ensure that intellectual property (IP) rights are protected. Stronger intellectual property and improved patent laws will ensure that innovators are protected.
Strong IP rights are what spur research and innovation in the pharmaceutical industry, and it is the driving force that brings new drugs to market. As such, the search for cleaner energy will be spurred by ingenuity and profit. Environmental regulation will help, but not by itself.
Canadians need to have more faith in their ingenuity as innovators in developing new technologies that can help solve new challenges.
Relying on government mandate to solve Technological problems has not served Canadian well, so we cannot expect it to do so in the future.