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Canada Research Chair: Petra Dolata

New Canada Research Chair in the History of Energy looks forward at energy by looking back


Petra Dolata, new Canada Research Chair in the History of Energy. Photo by Riley Brandt, University of Calgary

By Jennifer Allford
October 31, 2014
When you crank up the furnace this time of year, you’re likely not thinking about the meltdown at Chernobyl or the doomed Mackenzie Valley Pipeline, but Petra Dolata argues that those events and much more in the history of energy can help us understand the global energy challenges we face today.

Dolata, the Canada Research Chair in the History of Energy in the Faculty of Arts, explores different experiences—both political and individual—in different parts of the world.  “There isn’t a single energy history,” she says. “Countries have different historical trajectories.”

Most histories of energy are written by economic, diplomatic or military historians who tell a “world story,” Dolata says. “For example, the transition from wood to fossil fuels is important to understanding industrialization but we need to really understand national histories in an international context to see all the ways these transitions have happened.”

She looks at the international history of energy crises in the 1970s and the history of European and North American energy integration since 1950. Beyond studying governments and foreign policy, Dolata is collecting information from oral and every day sources about how regular people experienced the energy crisis in the 1970s and how they: “made sense of energy and what energy means to them.”

And that’s very different depending on where you lived. Energy security has been a pressing issue in the U.S. but in Germany, where Dolata grew up, the safety of nuclear energy is more top of mind. “If you were close enough to Chernobyl in the 80s, nuclear might be a clean option, but certainly not a green option for you,” she says. “And that’s something that you bring with you simply from having grown up in that environment.”  

Collecting and understanding all those different historical energy ”narratives” can help us understand what we’re facing today: “That uniqueness creates distances and approaches and even narratives around energy that become a problem, because we need to deal with it globally,” she says. “The more we understand how other people think about it the better we can deal with current issues.”

One of those issues is building pipelines to transport Alberta bitumen to market, and just like the long debate over the Mackenzie Valley Pipeline, not everyone shares Albertans’ views.

“In a globalized world I think the biggest problem that we have is that we always assume everyone else is thinking the same way about energy as we are.”