Random Hicks on Biz thoughts, opinions and straight information from the business lands of Northern Alberta:

•All this pie-in-the-sky talk about bullet trains, magnet trains or giant vacuum tubes sucking humans from Calgary to Edmonton: Why not just a faster train? Down east, in the Toronto, Montreal and Ottawa triangle, plus the Montreal-Quebec City run, VIA Rail competes with short-haul jets and inter-city buses. Its trains travel at 100 to 150 kph, offer comfortable seating, meeting spaces, wi-fi, restaurant cars and competitive pricing. VIA actually has the Calgary-Edmonton run in its radar, once it gets the golden triangle figured out.

•Why is EPCOR pushing so hard to have residential customers insure their water line (from your home to the street main) with just one insurance company, HomeServe?  Insuring water lines was never a concern in the past, why is it so important today, especially at $10 a month? Aren’t aging residential drainage pipes in more danger of collapse? Should roto-rooting be insured too? Why is EPCOR giving HomeServe its data base for promotional mail-outs? Why is EPCOR senior VP Robert Petryk sending an “introductory message” with the Homeserve marketing materials? If EPCOR has public service in mind, shouldn’t it be recommending two or three or four insurance companies, not just one? Shouldn’t it recommend drainage pipes be insured too?

•Congratulations to AIMCo – the Alberta Investment Management Corporation – on earning a 10.8% return last year on the $70 billion it invests on behalf of the Alberta government’s pension plans and endowment funds, including the Heritage Trust Fund.  How about an AIMCo fund we could all invest in, mimicking the mother ship’s investment strategy?

I’d be ecstatic with a 10.8% return in 2012 on my retirement savings!

•Imperial Oil’s 25-year-old underground operations at Cold Lake, now producing 156,000 barrels of bitumen a day, show just far the “greening of the oil sands” has come. The “footprint” or surface operation is 40% smaller than at the start. It used to take three cubic metres of water to produce one cubic metre of bitumen. Today it’s a half cubic metre of water for every cubic metre of bitumen. Tomorrow, with a new underground extraction method called cyclic solvent process, water use will be eliminated and greenhouse gas emissions will drop by 60% to 90%.

•Give praise where praise is due: Since coming to power, Premier Alison Redford has rigorously and determinedly pursued her vision of a coast-to-coast, provincial-federal Canadian Energy Strategy. With B.C. back at the negotiating table over a pipeline or two to the west coast, and the acceptance (divided in Quebec) of sending western oil to eastern refineries, the pieces of this particular jigsaw puzzle are coming together.  Approval of the Keystone pipeline by the Americans would be the icing on the cake, but enough oil shipping alternatives are emerging to ensure our future oil production will get to global markets, with or without the Keystone.

•The mayoralty race in Edmonton will fire up right after Labour Day, and it’ll be interesting to see how each of the three credible candidates – Kerry Diotte, Karen Leibovici and Don Iveson – react to the wake-up call that the city is now carrying $2 billion in debt with more on the way. Fiscal hawk Diotte we know: Stop all unnecessary spending and start saving.

•A couple of University of Alberta spin-off companies with serious growth potential were publicized at a TEC Edmonton press conference last week. Prophysis has been formed to commercialize some eight to 10 possible new drugs, vaccines and diagnostics emerging out of the U of A’s world-respected Li Ka Shing Institute of Virology and Immunology. Forge Hydrocarbons has licenced Dr. David Bressler’s patented process to economically create 100% clean gasoline and diesel out of restaurant grease, animal fats from rendering plants, and tree oils.

•Perhaps Canada Post should turn its pension fund management over to AIMCo. With  the talk of the  national mail service heading toward insolvency, its ability to meet its pension obligations is a huge concern. If I was a retired postie, and there are thousands in town, I’d be nervous. “Guarantee” means nothing if the money runs out.

Graham Hicks

780 707 6379