Canadian oil has a problem; or rather, it has several problems. Those problems are: 1. The low price of oil; 2. The dirty image of oil-sands oil; 3. Inept political leadership; 4. The new forms of energy coming on stream.

Because Canadian oil has problems, Canada has problems too. We’ve been joined at the hip: If it’s in a mess, Canada’s in a mess. Or something of a mess. What should we do?

The first problem – the low price of oil – is beyond our control, but the extent of our investment in it is not. Unfortunately for us, the Harper government overinvested in oil. This once seemed like a plausible gamble, which must be why we didn’t flinch while Stephen Harper backed oil with sack-loads of subsidies: $34-billion a year according to the International Monetary Fund that covers the societal costs of the industry in Canada. Jobs and prosperity would both abound, we were assured. Anyone who breathed a negative word against the subsidy flow was viewed as unpatriotic and treated as next door to a terrorist.

The return never offset the investment, but who was doing the hard math? Now the price of oil is in the cellar and the Canadian dollar has been dragged down with it, meaning that most of our imports now cost us 30 per cent more. If we had spread our investment bets over more sectors, we’d have more to prop us up now.

The second problem is the “dirty oil” image. Oil-sands oil has attracted a Yuck aura, despite the efforts made to frame it as more “ethical” than other oil and the assurances that pipelines are safe, cleanup is effective, and so forth. What might a smart oil company do to improve the “dirty” image?

First, Big Oil should actually come through on its promises and environmental undertakings. It, rather than the Canadian government, should take the initiative, since Mr. Harper does not appear very interested in enforcing existing regulations.

Or the oil sector might follow the lead of BP and ConocoPhillips and invest in CoolPlanet, which makes carbon-negative gasoline. Imagine being able to tank up while knowing you’re actually reducing the CO2 in the air. That combo has broad consumer appeal.

Or oil might offset its carbon emissions with any one or more of the over a dozen carbon-capturing techs and plans now available. Restoring degraded tropical forests is one of the cheapest and most effective ways to capture carbon, and has the added benefit of creating wildlife habitat and helping local communities. There are several companies that offer forest restoration as a carbon-trading/offsetting plan. Big Oil could partner with them, turn itself green, and hardly miss the cash.

There are a number of other carbon-capture plans on offer. If enough of them roll out, the human race could actually start removing a net amount of C02 from the atmosphere instead of adding a net amount. And oil companies could be part of that solution.

As for the inevitable spills, a smart pipeline company would demonstrate that it has ample crises-management staff and mop-up gear in place. It could even help save monarch butterflies by using Protec-style’s superior made-in-Canada milkweed-based oil soaker. Imagine the video: a river of oil slick replaced by a river of monarchs! And a really smart company would avoid running pipelines through really stupid places.

The third problem is political leadership. If you were a leader promoting Canadian oil, maybe you should avoid annoying every other leader whose co-operation or territory is needed for your favoured projects – such as pipelines – to go ahead. Instead, Mr. Harper has threatened the U.S. President, treated First Nations with contempt, gone out of his way to antagonize the Premier of Ontario, and sullied Canada’s reputation abroad through foot-dragging over carbon-reduction treaties.

The oil patch must be wondering whether they backed the right champion. A leader able to admit to the CO2 problem, support practical tech, and avoid demonizing other points of view would be a wiser choice.

The fourth problem is rapidly approaching. Simply put, the world is transitioning from fossil fuels.

The transition is driven by our very human fear and desire. The fear, that we’ll kill our life support system: our planet. The desire, to find a substitute for fossil fuels that will produce enough cheap energy to keep us from plunging into economic woe and anarchy.

Efficient electric cars that run on solar-charged batteries are a reality, and the price is coming down; solar home-storage batteries, ditto. Non-toxic solar panels and batteries are being made. Cheap algae-growing energy-creating panels are being marketed by Grow Energy. If the price is right, consumers will choose these options because individuals are just as interested in energy self-sufficiency as nations are: Why be subject to oil cartels and price manipulation if you don’t have to be?

And why stay on the grid if you can get off? Huge installations – mega wind farms, solar farms, hydro dams – may soon be going the way of the cassette tape deck and the floppy disk. If every home or small community can generate its own cheap non-toxic energy, why run electricity through an expensive grid system?

Every new technology creates new jobs and the new energy technologies are no different. But how much of our tax money has gone into fostering this rapidly expanding sector? Almost none, because if your only god is oil you will try to stifle any competition. You will also try to stifle any data about climate science, as well as the kind of evidence-based, creative scientific data-gathering and technological thinking that is crucial for this new phase. And that is what Mr. Harper has been doing: stifling. It looks like panic.

We aren’t served well by a frantic one-trick pony. To manage both the oil we have and our transition into the rapidly approaching alternate energy era, both Canada and the oil patch need a different kind of leader: one who can understand the new world we are now entering and can help us navigate intelligently and prosperously within it.

Special to The Globe and Mail
Published Tuesday, Sep. 08, 2015 3:00AM EDT
Last updated Monday, Sep. 07, 2015 9:40PM EDT