Keith Gerein: Amid a tough month, here's a few things that should energize Edmonton


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OK, so it’s been a lousy month so far in the news.

From the scourge of racism that continues to surface in our past and present, to a worsening opioid crisis to another Sky Palace scandal, there’s been an awful lot of sorrow and anger to work through.

And even though our pandemic situation is improving every day, normality isn’t returning quite quickly enough to save a lot of our regular summer activities like festivals.

(Though I do hold out hope for an Elks game in August).

That said, there have been a few bright spots that have emerged amid all the gloom, though you could be forgiven for missing them. So for those needing a shot of optimism, here’s a few late spring laurels worth hearing about.

Hurrah for hydrogen

Getting federal ministers, the premier and mayor to agree on anything has been a rare achievement in recent years, so it was more than a little surprising Wednesday to hear all the leaders equally exuberant about a $1.3-billion hydrogen project (hopefully) coming to Edmonton’s industrial tax base in 2024.


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After learning some of the details, I have to say the politicians’ delighted demeanour was legit. This is a big deal for the local economy, with jobs, capital investment, a more diversified energy industry and lower emissions among the touted benefits.

In fact, backers at economic development agency Edmonton Global suggest the project will create the “world’s largest net-zero hydrogen network,” which is a great tagline even if most people may not entirely understand what that means.

There’s a lot to this announcement, but the basics are pretty simple.

Pennsylvania-based Air Products, which already operates three hydrogen facilities in the Edmonton region, is making an even bigger bet on continued cheap natural gas that is used to produce the hydrogen.

The facility, pegged for a northeast industrial park not far from where Anthony Henday Drive crosses the river, could be just the first phase of a much larger “multi-billion-dollar” expansion, the company said.

The facility will make both gas and liquid hydrogen, some for export and some for domestic use in the region’s industrial plants. The liquid is aimed at transportation, including a couple of hydrogen fuel cell buses the city plans to try out.

Still, the project isn’t quite a done deal, and will depend on some funding and regulatory hurdles getting worked out. Nor is it entirely free of environmental questions.

Although burning hydrogen creates no greenhouse gases, producing so-called “blue hydrogen” from natural gas does leave behind carbon gas. To be net-zero, that carbon will have to be injected underground into a carbon capture and storage facility — technology that still has questions about long-term cost effectiveness and environmental impact.


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It’s also unclear if the project is accounting for emissions created in getting the feedstock natural gas from the wellhead to the hydrogen plant.

Reimagining recreation

From burning fuel to burning calories, folks like me with a few extra pandemic pounds can be heartened by the news that gyms and fitness facilities are eligible to reopen as of Thursday, with certain restrictions. In the city’s case, five major recreation centres are set to restart partial activities, though with low capacity, physical distancing and timed entries.

And while it’s great to see rec facilities resume operating, a debate is about to begin on how much longer some of them should continue to be operated by the city.

As part of the municipality’s “Reimagine” process looking at how city business may have to adapt to a tougher fiscal reality, the idea of outsourcing management of certain facilities is being examined. The civic administration will present recommendations to council in the coming days.

This has the makings of an emotional debate, as do related discussions on reducing programs, and leasing city golf courses to private operators.

Whatever happens, my hope is that the final decision is guided by an evidence-rich business case rather than politics.

If private companies, non-profits or community groups can run these facilities more cheaply (while maintaining quality and accessibility), then that needs be proven by the numbers rather than assumed by ideology.


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A fresh Fort Edmonton

Besides recreation centres, a couple of other facilities are also set to open their doors after an even longer hiatus.

On Friday, it will be the Muttart Conservatory, whose botanical gardens have been off limits since the summer of 2019 to allow for upgrades and repairs.

Then, starting on Canada Day, visitors will get their chance to see the $165-million renovation to Fort Edmonton Park, which has been closed since September 2018.

The centrepiece is the new Indigenous Peoples’ Experience, which is being described as an immersive journey into history, culture, music and art.

At the risk of raising too many expectations, already I am hearing considerable buzz about this exhibit from those lucky enough to get a preview, including a suggestion that it will quickly become one of the top attractions in the city.

Who knows, perhaps it can even help a few more of us on the path to reconciliation, beyond the sorrow and anger of recent events.


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