Jan. 31, 2022
Leading scholar in innovation and sustainable development in the energy and natural resources industries returns to the SEDV program
Back when he was an undergraduate studying history at the University of Toronto, Dr. Harrie Vredenburg had a summer job leading tours to Canada's North, including communities above the Arctic circle like Tuktoyaktuk, Inuvik and Aklavik.
It was the mid-70s, and at about the same time, the Thomas Berger Inquiry was holding hearings across the North about a proposed natural gas pipeline that would run from the Arctic Ocean south along the Northwest Territories’ Mackenzie River. Indigenous people had objected to possible environmental damage, and the pipeline was eventually killed. In the process the inquiry set a new standard for consulting with local communities and taking Indigenous land claims seriously.
"It had a big impact on me," Vredenburg says. "I went to a number of these small communities and got to know the people, and it really got me thinking about the impact of resource development on the environment and on Indigenous communities in the area."
Today Vredenburg is a leading scholar in innovation and sustainable development in the energy and natural resources industries, and is the Suncor Chair in Strategy & Sustainability. He was also the founding academic director of the MSc program in Sustainable Energy Development and teaches courses in the program on how corporations make decisions around environmental and social issues.
Vredenburg was born in the Netherlands and moved to Canada as an adolescent. He went to high school in Toronto, and while there was part of the first ever Greenpeace demonstration. After graduating from the University of Toronto he earned an MBA with a focus on finance and international business, and took a job working for American Express in Toronto.
But facing a transfer to the United States, he decided to go back to school and received a PhD from the University of Western Ontario studying strategic management. While he was an assistant professor at McGill University the United Nations Brundtland Commission report on sustainable development had been released, calling for a balance between development and environmental protection.
"I decided that business was part of the way forward, and my focus would be business and public policy, and how business could be part of the future of a more sustainable world," Vredenburg says.
In 1993 he was a visiting professor at the University of British Columbia, at the height of the Clayoquot Sound anti-logging protests. Thousands of people demonstrated against clearcutting of crown land on Vancouver Island, and more than 800 were arrested. The protests attracted international attention and boycotts, and tarnished the reputation and earnings of Vancouver-based forestry company Macmillan-Bloedel. He would publish several interview-based research papers exploring the issues at play.
The protests also got Vredenburg thinking about how and why corporations include environmental concerns into strategic decision making, and how that affected profitability and competitiveness. Working with his doctoral student Sanjay Sharma, he took a look at Canadian oil and gas companies. Vredenburg found that companies that tackled environmental concerns proactively were more innovative and competitive than those that simply reacted to regulators or public pressure.
"What we demonstrated both theoretically and empirically was that being proactive with respect to the environment actually paid off," he says. "The paper got well over 3,000 citations, and sort of helped make my name. Since then I've been plowing that ground more and more."
In 2005 he returned to the topic of Clayoquot Sound in a paper he wrote with his colleague, University of Calgary professor David A. Lertzman. The two argued that when extracting resources from the land, companies needed to engage with Indigenous people as equals, and take seriously their needs and desires.
The paper included a case study into the Scientific Panel for Sustainable Forest Practices in Clayoquot Sound, which had been created after the protests there. The panel included 15 scientists and four Indigenous elders who were expert in traditional ecological knowledge. The panel was able to reach consensus on a land management plan that was later widely adopted by forestry companies.
In general, Vredenburg is interested in understanding the reality of why businesses make the decisions they do. Among other things, his work has looked at how much institutional investors are influenced by a company's social responsibility; how and why oil companies decide to cooperate with one another when trying to solve environmental problems; and the multiple factors that can determine whether a region adopts renewable energy sources.
"So often, policy makers seem to be setting up policy in the abstract," Vredenburg says. "It's important for policy makers to understand how business actually makes decisions and how these different pressures actually impact on decision making. That's what I try to teach students in the MSc in Sustainable Energy Development Program," he says.
Vredenburg continues to champion the rights of Indigenous communities to benefit from resources on their traditional lands. He believes justice demands it, but also that Indigenous people are in the best position to develop resources sustainably.
He is policy director of Project Reconciliation, which is promoting a plan for Indigenous communities to purchase and operate the Trans Mountain Pipeline. First Nations communities would benefit from the resources extracted from their land, and be able to make sure that the pipeline was operated in an environmentally responsible way. Most of the income earned would be reinvested in a low-carbon Indigenous Sovereign Wealth Fund focused on energy transition assets, a Fund that Project Reconciliation has already started utilizing equity loans to First Nations that allow them to partner with environmental, social and governance (ESG) investors.
"We've had 150 years of terrible treatment of Indigenous people by a colonizing country," Vredenburg says. "And the way forward is involving Indigenous communities in the economy, and giving them the sovereignty to make decisions involving their own lives."