By Geoffrey Cann
ConvergX, a cross industry conference that helps enable technology transfer across industries, held its 5th Annual Congress in Calgary. Here’s the highlights from my personal perspective.
ConvergX — What is it?
Imagine an opportunity to meet with thoughtful leaders from a number of industries that are all related by a common interest, and spending 2 days digging deeply into the issues of that interest, surfacing solutions and critical insights. Imagine exiting the meeting with a handshake deal in your hands to tackle some element of the interest area. Who would not want to be part of that discussion?
That’s the premise behind ConvergX, a series of global summits that held its 5th annual event in Calgary last week. In my case I was invited as the Master of Ceremonies, in the usual role to keep the event on time, introduce and thank the guest speakers, politicians and panelists, and crack Dad jokes.
The executive round table event focused on the Arctic, and was an eye-opener for me. I visited the Arctic years ago, but haven’t spared much thought to it since. Clearly, it’s a big deal for others. For example:
- the Aboriginal people who live there, wish to protect traditional ways of life while participating fully in modern society.
- The Navy, who are tasked with defending the border, providing international search and rescue, helping with navigation, and protecting sensitive infrastructure.
- The Air Force, who provide aerial patrol, surveillance and defence support.
- The Coast Guard, who patrol coastal waters, enforce Canadian laws, and provide search and rescue closer to shore.
- The Resources industry, who want to develop northern resources (diamonds, iron, copper).
- And specific industry sectors, who have solutions to the unique challenges of serving the Arctic, such as the Power and Aerospace sectors.
The conference design made for a very thorough and informative event: everything was under Chatham House Rules, no media was invited, and the mostly panel discussions proved highly engaging.
This post summarises my key take aways from the main congress which covered a huge range of issues, which I have in turn related to this question of the Arctic.
About The Arctic
Most Canadians give little thought to our northern lands, but we probably should as we own it. On our crowded little blue planet, other nations are interested in it. Here’s just a few headlines to think about:
The Arctic is truly vast. I had no idea that the whole of Western Europe would fit snugly into the geography defined by Canada’s North, with room to spare. Much of it is empty, speckled with small isolated communities poorly served with energy, communications, transportation, healthcare and food. Traditional fuel (diesel) is expensive, hazardous, and vulnerable.
The Arctic is becoming more accessible. Canada’s north is truly ice-free just one month of the year, but that is changing because of polar melting. Adventure tourism is on the rise. If tourists are worried about confinement to cabin because of coronavirus, imagine becoming trapped in ice and awaiting rescue. It’s a shorter sail from Canada’s west coast navy base to Tokyo than it is to the Northwest Passage, where a rescue may become likely as poorly equipped tour operators risk the route.
The north is becoming more attractive. There’s a treasure trove of resources that may become more accessible as the planet warms up. Those same authoritarian regimes that grab chunks of poorly defended bits of Europe may be tempted to seize bits of Canada’s north.
Belligerence is on the rise. More authoritarian nations, such as Russia, are using the Arctic as a trade route, which compels them to project a permanent military presence to protect the trade. Russia now has dozens of installations on their northern border, from mines, oil and gas extraction, LNG shipping, ports and military bases. Russian bombers recently buzzed Canadian Arctic airspace, presumably to see what the response might be.
Old practices are disintegrating. Eight nations bordering the Arctic have collaborated for years on topics like navigation, mapping and study. Other nations, like China, who do not border the Arctic, are increasingly seeking access. China sees the Northwest Passage as Canada’s sovereign waterway, a parallel with China’s muscular efforts to build up its islands in the South China Sea, declaring its sovereignty. It will expect Canada to follow its lead, whereas the US treats both as international waters.
The Security Challenge
“How should we defend Canada’s North” might be the wrong question to ask. Another question to ask could be “should we defend Canada’s North”?
This problem stems from the fact that the territory is vast, holds few if any militarily important facilities, and the coast line is enormous. Canada has 243,000 kilometres of ocean coastline to defend (along with another 900,000 kilometres of shoreline in the form of lakes and rivers). That’s not to say that northern communities are not safe, but Russia is unlikely to take aim at a hamlet if they can strike Toronto.
Military technology is now so advanced that intercontinental ballistics missiles can be launched from subs or from land, and hit any target in the populated south with just minutes’ notice. Defensive technologies that can destroy the incoming are spread thinly. Saudi Arabia didn’t detect incoming missiles set on destroying its oil business. Canada’s detection line, NORAD, probably needs an upgrade.
Drones might be a way to cost effectively patrol the northern lands, including both aerial and submersible drones, along with low cost monitoring and detection posts. As there are just a few key choke points, the number of such posts might be limited.
Meanwhile, the numbers clearly show that in defence spending terms, the US and China are on a race to outspend each other, and Canada is geographically pinned in between.
Moreover, domestic populations are unwitting belligerents in a different theatre of war, namely cyber warfare. Nation states (US, China, Russia, North Korea, Iran and many others), are all active in cyber, destabilizing each others’ internal politics, constructing fake news threads, developing deep fakes, and amplifying messaging through Facebook and Twitter bots. Even the White House has occasionally fallen victim in this war, by rebroadcasting false narratives, fake news and conspiracy theories.
We are all targets and combatants in this war. And it’s not clear that the next generation of western population shares the same views as their older citizens about information security and privacy–50% of all data is stored on our phones, and our biggest worry is dropping the phone in the toilet.
The Power Puzzle
How would you power the North? It’s thoroughly uneconomic to run wires to all those tiny settlements, so power must be locally generated. Long days of darkness means solar panels are less effective in winter, but full on in summer. Wind is the opposite, and seasonal constant uninterrupted wind could mean ample wind renewables. Battery technology could provide some solutions as could miniaturised nuclear (the US navy has micro nuke generators on much of its submarine and surface fleet, running safely for 30 years or more). But is it a good idea to locate a nuclear reactor (albeit a small one) in a lightly defended territory? And how should we handle the waste byproduct?
The fuel of choice today is diesel, but delivery is highly dependent on a sea lift. In fact, everything (food, clothing, supplies) is vulnerable to the sea lift. I was alarmed about the lack of redundancy throughout the northern energy supply system.
I had also long forgotten, but the power model before Thomas Edison was a local generation, local consumption model. It was Edison who came up with the power industry design as we know it today — central generator, distance transmission, local distribution, or small footprint generation to large footprint network. That doesn’t work in lightly populated places. Even in urban settings, the model is now shifting back because of the possibilities created by micro local generation and digital systems (blockchain, AI) for managing distribution.
Whoever solves the power puzzle for the Arctic areas also solves it for Africa.
The Waste Opportunity
Waste is one of those issues that sometimes pops up as a topic, but is mostly not on the radar. Here’s a few reasons why it should be:
Japan is now floating trial ideas to release its accumulated radio active water into the ocean. It would seem inevitable that once in the sea it will be hard to remove, and it will end up locked in ice in Canada’s north. An intractable problem.
The track record at recovering spent mining sites is not good (see the Giant Mine), and now a series of Canadian diamond mines are approaching their end of life. New solutions are needed to solve for mine reclamation in the North.
Waste piles and ponds leach into the ground water. Water used in oil recovery needs disposal somewhere, usually underground. A new generation of treasure hunters has spotted a trove of recoverable oils, minerals, precious metals, rare earth metals and other compounds in the waste. Since mines around the world produce tailings and oil production often produces associated water, this is a global opportunity for new solutions.
The world is awash in waste electronics, clogging our landfills. But the amount of gold per ton in electronics is hundreds of grams, whereas the gold concentration in the earth’s crust is just 0.5 grams/ton. Another trove. We need only concentrate the electronics close to a processor.
Waste plastics are either an unsolvable byproduct of society, or another source of recoverable polymers as feedstock to the chemical industry. Again, a global problem that could be solved with Canadian ingenuity.
The first solution to the waste problem is to stop calling it the waste problem. One person’s waste is another person’s treasure.
As you can probably tell, this was a serious eye opener of a conference, well worth it. ConvergX® is headed to London later this year. Next year it will launch at CES (adding Tech executives to the mix of Energy, Military, Mining, Aerospace, Defence and Security executives), before returning to Calgary in April, and onto Peru in September 2021.
Check out my new book, ‘Bits, Bytes, and Barrels: The Digital Transformation of Oil and Gas’, available on Amazon and other on-line bookshops.
Take Digital Oil and Gas, the one-day on-line digital oil and gas awareness course.