BlackBerry’s Balsillie Touts Technology as Key to Keystone PeaceHugo Miller and Andrew Mayeda
More than two years after he resigned from BlackBerry Ltd., the struggling smartphone maker he co-founded, Jim Balsillie is back, promoting technologies of a greener variety.
In a speech in Vancouver today, Balsillie will make the case that protecting the environment can be good business. Clean technologies can help reduce pollution from the oil sands and cool the debate over pipelines such as TransCanada Corp.’s Keystone XL and Enbridge Inc.’s Northern Gateway, he will say, according to a copy of his speech obtained by Bloomberg News.
“Given our current capacities, radically reversing our natural resource policies is tantamount to economic and political suicide,” Balsillie says in his first major speech since becoming chairman of Sustainable Development Technology Canada (SDTC), a government fund that finances clean technology. “That doesn’t mean the status quo is safe.”
Framing the debate as “for or against the oil sands” or industry generally is unproductive, he says. It’s innovation that will “truly put ourselves on a path towards sustainability.”
Balsillie, 53, is weighing in on Keystone, the $5.3 billion pipeline that would link Canada’s oil sands with refineries on the Gulf Coast, after keeping a low profile since he resigned as co-chief executive officer of the company he founded with Mike Lazaridis. Canadian oil producers are counting on the project to ease a transportation bottleneck that devalues the price of the nation’s heavy crude.
Opponents like billionaire Tom Steyer and rock star Neil Young say the line would encourage companies to exploit the world’s third-largest crude reserves, unlocking carbon and accelerating climate change. President Barack Obama’s government is weighing whether to approve the project, which TransCanada first applied to build in 2008.
While engineering whiz Lazaridis invented the actual device, Balsillie’s push to promote the BlackBerry with bankers and lawyers on Wall Street and in Washington fueled its popularity, spurring the nickname “CrackBerry.” Balsillie sold his remaining BlackBerry stake and cut his last ties to the company in February 2013.
In June, he became chairman of SDTC, which invests in technologies that reduce the effect of climate change or otherwise improve the environment.
The “entrenched ideology” of some environmentalists and economists is preventing progress, Balsillie will say in the speech.
“We must quantify the variables we face today to compensate for the limitations of rigid, theoretical economics,” he says. “We must incorporate the environment, water quality, air quality, soil enrichment as public goods.”
As an example of a company that has both economic and environmental benefits, he points to Calgary, Alberta-based Titanium Corp., which salvages commodities like zircon and titanium from tailings -- the oily wastewater that is a by-product of extracting oil from tar sands. Titanium has received more than C$6.0 million ($5.4 million) to date from SDTC. Its shares have risen about 68 percent over the past 12 months.
SDTC, which is based in Ottawa, aims to nurture capital-intensive startups that might otherwise struggle to attract private equity investment.
While it depends on government funding, Balsillie says that for every dollar invested through the organization, the private sector invests $14 in follow-on funding. SDTC’s portfolio of companies includes 246 companies with a portfolio value of C$2.2 billion dollars.
Balsillie is urging business to take a bigger role in green investment to take the burden off governments.
“Placing this squarely on the shoulders of government is not practical,” he said. “Governments cannot simply compensate for the private sector -- they will come up far too short.”
Balsillie was appointed to the United Nations High-Level Panel on Global Sustainability in 2010 and made climate change a focus of the Waterloo, Ontario-based Balsillie School of International Affairs and the Centre of International Governance Innovation -- both of which he founded.
He and Lazaridis were criticized at the time for devoting too much time to philanthropic and side interests and not enough to the challenge of running BlackBerry as it lost market share to first Apple Inc.’s iPhone and then a stream of devices from Samsung Electronics Co.
BlackBerry shares slumped about 95 percent from 2008 to 2012, though they have gained about 33 percent this year in Toronto as new CEO John Chen fuels prospects for a turnaround.
While a nemesis of BlackBerry, Samsung and South Korea are a model for what Canada should be doing in green technology, Balsillie says, noting Ontario has worked with Samsung C&T Corp. to develop solar and wind technologies.
At the depths of the 2008 credit crisis, South Korea committed much of its fiscal stimulus to green growth, which has made the East Asian country a leader today, Balsillie says. South Korea now only lags much larger Japan and the U.S. in terms of green technology patents, he says.
“Unfortunately the dichotomy between the economy and environment is still very real here in Canada,” he says.