Ever since the world price of oil crashed and burned in July of 2014 and remains a smouldering wreck of over-supply, Alberta’s power brokers have talked about economic diversification, talked about weaning us off our love affair with oil + gas, talked about finding a new lover to shower us with the same kind of wealth.


The problem has been that nobody knew quite what to do. Even if a plan comes together, growing dynamic, profitable, job-creating companies and new industries is a long and arduous process, fraught with peril. .

But now future industrial possibilities are emerging that actually sound like decent bets.

It’s about a host of futuristic non-polluting products that can be made from oil; products that are fast becoming cheaper, lighter alternatives to metals used in manufacturing.

In a talk to the University of Alberta Energy Club, Alberta economic thinker and industry strategist Dr. Richard Dixon made a gloomy but realistic case for an enduring global slowdown in demand for oil as a transportation fuel – where 80% of every barrel of oil now produced in Alberta now ends up.

Alternative end-uses for that barrel of oil, Dr. Dixon suggests, making products other than transport fuels, may be our bacon-saver.

Graphene is some nano-material that can be made from oil and is being touted as a lighter, tougher, cheaper and greener replacement for sheet metal.

Dr. Dixon envisions a future where Alberta refineries could start pumping out materials like graphene and other new commercially applicable molecular structures.

“The Suncor refinery east of Edmonton is the third most sophisticated refinery in North America” says Dr. Dixon. “It can make a vast array of products from oil. Suncor keeps re-investing in the plant, which has been around since the 1950s, so it can keep making new products.”

Diversification is not about brand-new industry in Alberta, though any such announcements would be greeted with glee. Imagine if a car manufacturer relocated to Alberta because of proximity to basic components!

Diversification is about making our primary products – oil and natural gas – into sustainable new petro-chemical products for an environmentally conscious world.

Diversification is also about making wiser use of what we have. Most oil and gas company execs have concluded that no new mega-pipelines are going to get built in Canada, period. Rather than ship low-value bitumen and its high-cost diluent down existing pipelines, the idea of making gasoline and diesel in the province and shipping it (rather than bitumen) through the same pipelines is once again coming into fashion.

The big Canadian oil companies, especially Suncor and CNRL, must be thinking about their own futures in a world where transport fuel demand will slacken, but demand for other oil-based products will grow.

They must be researching and planning to make new sustainable oil-based products, perhaps investing in new Alberta businesses that could take advantage of their new products. They’d be crazy not to!

The Notley government has been praised in industrial research circles for bringing a fresh set of eyes to economic diversification.

Industry may be aghast at much of what the New Democrats are doing, but it does approve of this government’s $500-million incentive program to build new petrochemical plants

A realistic diversification plan for Alberta may still be embryonic, but at least on this one subject the NDP government and Big Oil are seeing eye-to-eye.

Good things may yet happen in this province, even though the world is using fewer and fewer carbon-based fuels.