It’s not the first time Canada has been down this road, but a new set of hikers has emerged, eager to blaze a trail toward a pan-Canadian energy strategy. The idea conjures up memories (nightmares to most in the West) of Ottawa’s National Energy Program of 1980. But this time, it’s the provinces " or some of them, at least " that want to grab the trail map out of Ottawa’s hands and chart a national energy course.
During her election campaign in the spring (2012), Alberta Premier Alison Redford called for the provinces and the federal government to find a common path on issues pertaining to energy supply and exports. Judging by the election result, the notion of working with other provinces resonated with voters. Albertans gave a thumbs-down to the isolationist Wild Rose Party, which campaigned on ”œPutting Alberta First,” and re-elected Redford with her more outward-looking focus.
Among the provinces Alberta has the most at stake on energy policy, but Redford isn’t the only premier to have called for a pan-Canadian strategy. Former New Brunswick premier Frank McKenna and current Manitoba Premier Greg Selinger have both spoken in support of greater interprovincial cooperation " McKenna on natural gas pipelines, and Selinger on electricity grids.
On paper the idea of a national energy strategy is fantastic. But in practice, it’s more fantasy than fantastic. There are two reasons why it won’t work.
The first is timing. Politics simply cannot move at the speed of the energy economy. The corporate oil and gas giants, whose only purpose is to produce and sell energy, have a hard enough time responding to the wild price swings and ever-changing global energy dynamics. Even if an energy plan could win the support of 13 premiers and the federal government, how would it account for the rapid, destabilizing changes that regularly hit resource industries? There’s no way a deal could be renegotiated every time the price of a barrel of oil goes through the roof because of a foreign crisis. We cannot expect political leaders to draw up a national strategy flexible enough to react to the volatile fallout from, say, an American military strike on Iran.
The second problem is that ”œenergy” is made up of so many commodities and industries that it’s folly to believe we can come up with the magic key to a plan that will satisfy everyone. Think of what’s involved: oil, bitumen, hydro, coal, solar, wind, natural gas, uranium, nuclear, ethanol, bio-mass, fusion and fission. Every one of these industry groups would demand a say in the process, as would First Nations and environmental groups, some opposed to any compromise with conventional energy. Everyone would get a turn to talk, adding to the uncertainty that the energy industry " in all its forms " says is the biggest obstacle to investment and development. Hearings that could last a decade or more could see whole new forms of energy emerge while others fade.
This would be an incredibly complex undertaking. If the proponents of a national energy strategy mean devising a set of laws across the federation to govern production and trade of energy, legislating how and when energy will be exported, and establishing a common set of environmental standards, it’s hard to see how the the political will to get a deal could be sustained. Right now, provinces can’t even agree on the trade of margarine.
A more realistic goal might be to turn the term strategy into ”œlet’s keep the discussion going.” That is doable " and preferable. A regular energy summit could bring together Ottawa and the provincial ministers in a sort of G13 format to discuss the moving target of challenges and opportunities, while finding ways to synchronize policies in a manner suiting everyone’s jurisdiction. An ideal ”œprocess” would be flexible, offering a forum to discuss and react to changes in the energy environment. As in other summits, interested parties would lobby to make their voice heard.
The summits would not seek to lock policies into law or settle for mushy compromises. They would meet to discuss the issues of the moment, and work to set a policy direction for the country.
To refine the famous quote from Marshall McLuhan: ”œThe conversation is the strategy.” It may fall short of a grand, pan-Canadian, all encompassing program for energy production and export. But at least we can keep talking. No shame in that.
Todd Hirsch is the Calgary-based senior economist with ATB Financial and author of The Boiling Frog Dilemma: Saving Canada from Economic Decline.