In Canada, decision-making on energy policy, energy regulation and individual projects has become increasingly challenging and subject to a highly polarized public debate. This state of affairs limits our collective ability to have an open and honest dialogue about Canada’s energy system as well as our ability to transition, in a climate-relevant timeframe, to a necessary and dramatically different way of powering our economy. Although a myriad of factors are at play, the largest missing piece required to refocus attention on evidence-based policy-making and regulation may be free access to high-quality energy data and information, for public and private decision-makers, researchers and citizens.

Canada has always lacked a commonly accepted, authoritative and trusted source of information about energy, electricity and its relationships with the economy and the environment. Canada’s energy information system has long been identified as rife with data gaps; inefficiencies due to redundancies, incoherence and inconsistencies; infrequent and/or delayed publication; lack of comprehensiveness; lack of credibility; and lack of physical and cognitive accessibility. These factors ensure that any dialogues on Canada’s energy future and our transition to low-emissions energy are based on incomplete or selective data and will become even more polarized. What’s needed now is a robust, independent and trusted Canadian energy information system.

Numerous proposals for reforming the Canadian energy information system have been developed over the past decade. A key question addressed in past reform proposals has always been whether Canada requires a new, stand-alone energy information agency, or whether weaknesses can be effectively addressed through coordinated efforts of the existing providers.

Many organizations across Canada now collect, analyze and disseminate energy data, including federal and provincial governments, regulators, nongovernmental organizations and industry associations. None of these can claim universally recognized authority on this issue. At the federal level, Statistics Canada, the National Energy Board, Natural Resources Canada and Environment and Climate Change Canada are key actors. For comparison, in the United States, a single government agency, the Energy Information Administration, is charged with collecting data, analyzing it and disseminating national energy information to both decision-makers and the general public. The agency is funded by government yet politically independent. In contrast, Germany’s energy information system relies on a mix of public and private sources. An annual report on energy supply, conversion and consumption is produced through collaboration and deliberation by the Working Group on Energy Balances (known as AGEB), a collaborative network of industry associations and research institutes. Compared with the American and German structures, the current Canadian institutional approach combines the worst of both worlds: it lacks both the simplicity and efficiency of a single agency (as in the US) and the credibility and flexibility of a well-coordinated network of diverse actors (as in Germany).

Most recently, the House of Commons Standing Committee on Natural Resources published three recommendations to the government: to designate a one-stop shop for comprehensive, timely, consistent and accessible energy information in Canada; to identify information gaps and address them; and to establish consistent definitions, standards and measures across jurisdictions and organizations. It was recommended that these steps should be taken in collaboration with industry, civil society, academia, Indigenous government and communities, and provincial-territorial governments. In its response, the federal government acknowledges the issue but, given the existential climate threat, does not go far enough, quickly enough to help set Canada on a suitable and productive energy information pathway. The 2019 federal budget set aside $3 million a year to improve the supply of energy information, notably through a new dedicated website.

While the website would certainly be a step in the right direction, this project and the earlier reform proposals neglect some structural gaps, wider challenges and questions in the reform of Canada’s energy information system. Here we explore these gaps and the questions they lead to.

Challenges and questions

Canada’s energy federalism. The complex division of authority among the various levels of government in Canada on energy policy, regulation and project approvals both generates and exacerbates the institutional fragmentation of the energy information system. For example, interprovincial pipeline approvals are a federal responsibility, but pipeline safety is also subject to provincial regulations, while emergency response to such spills sits with local municipalities. At the policy level, with municipal, provincial and federal governments growing farther apart in their approach to greenhouse gas emissions, the country’s federalism makes energy information gathering, synthesis and dissemination more politically controversial, and reform of the system more complicated. How can Canada’s national energy information system be redesigned to effectively address jurisdictional fragmentation on energy and related issues, including the environment and public health?

Balancing different quality criteria for energy data and information. Commonly accepted quality criteria for energy information such as comprehensiveness, coherence, timeliness, credibility and accessibility need to keep up with the changing dynamics in the energy space. For example, as generation of electricity transitions from relying primarily on burning of fossil fuels to using increasing amounts of renewable sources (which can vary dramatically with wind speeds or sun), the frequency of data collection (on consumer demand, solar output, wind speed and so on) will need to increase. Complex trade-offs exist between these criteria (such as timeliness versus comprehensiveness), and they need to be balanced with other considerations including confidentiality, transparency, security, financial costs and the work burden placed on the companies and organizations asked to provide data. Also, the quality criteria may be interpreted differently by different actors, and their interpretations may change over time as the energy transition occurs. Which criteria for energy data and information should be prioritized in the redesign of Canada’s energy information system, and what mechanism can be implemented to re-evaluate these criteria over time?

Balancing flexibility with continuity. In order to effectively drive decision-making in the energy transition, Canada’s energy information system must be flexible enough to stay relevant in the face of (possibly rapidly) changing technologies, policy environments and markets. For example, Canada’s energy information system will soon be tasked with integrating data and information in the Internet of Things world of interconnected fridges, cars, medical equipment, heating systems, solar photovoltaic systems and batteries. These new data streams need to be aggregated to provide evidence of their interactions with existing energy players and associated regulations. We need to ensure that Canada’s energy information system, once it’s reformed, does not become irrelevant again very quickly because it has not been designed to adapt to its changing environment during the low-emissions transition. At the same time, tracking changes in the energy system over time (for instance, to measure the effects of policy interventions) requires continuity in data collection, terminology and analytics. Moreover, building trusting relationships with data providers and users also requires a certain degree of stability in institutional structures and the collected data. How can a Canadian energy information system combine both a high degree of flexibility that allows for quick and nimble adaptation to new questions, facilitated by a culture of ongoing learning, and the necessary stability to maintain trust and to enable meaningful comparisons of indicators over time?

Balancing diversity of expertise with independence. To establish credibility among users and the general public, it is crucial for energy information institutions to operate at arm’s length from the government and be independent of industry interests. But at the same time, it may be advantageous to include a variety of actors in the production of energy information. For example, the German energy information system explicitly involves industry associations, capitalizing on their access to timely and relevant market information. Such a collaborative approach to producing energy information, which brings diverse actors to the table, may help to signal a commitment to unbiased and consensus-oriented processes and thereby rebuild public trust. How can the governance of Canada’s redesigned energy information system enable both freedom from bias and proximity to market, societal and policy dynamics?

The integration of Indigenous Knowledge (IK). The institutional redesign of Canada’s energy information system must take account of a much larger and more complex policy gap that extends far beyond the realm of energy: the reconciliation with Indigenous peoples. While the need for reconciliation has often been overlooked, Canada now plays a leadership role in addressing it. For example, the new environmental assessment process in Bill C-69 incorporates IK into the evidence base alongside Western science, a necessary step toward meaningful inclusion of Indigenous peoples in energy decision-making. But there are important practical challenges to the integration of IK and science for policy-making. In particular, IK holders and scientists must have better, more meaningful dialogue. Here, a key task is to establish universally accepted validation procedures that will help build public trust and maintain the coherence of the existing data streams. How can Canada’s energy information institutions appropriately document and consider both qualitative IK and quantitative statistics and analytics, and can these two bodies of knowledge be meaningfully combined to support decision-making in the age of climate change?

The costs of reform. Finally, while data gaps, inefficiencies and inconsistencies in the current Canadian energy information system warrant reforms, there are significant costs and potential risks associated with institutional redesign. For example, the expertise and experience that is dispersed across the numerous organizations currently involved in collection, analysis and dissemination as well as the trusting relationships between these organizations may be lost in a poorly designed and implemented reform process. How can the institutional redesign of Canada’s energy information system be accomplished in a cost-effective way that retains expertise and trust?

Mind the gaps

Reforming Canada’s energy information system is clearly necessary for evidence-based and energy-informed decision-making, and to mitigate the potential for political polarization to hinder our transition to a low-emissions future. The challenge, given the crucial role that high-quality, credible and accessible information plays for Canada’s energy future, is to balance the need for action against the need to be mindful. We must not let time pressures keep us from addressing the difficult questions. The costs and disruptions of such reforms may be high, but these impacts pale in comparison with the costs and impacts of the status quo.

The research informing this article was supported by the Positive Energy initiative at the University of Ottawa.

Photo: Shutterstock, by Suwin

Do you have something to say about the article you just read? Be part of the Policy Options discussion, and send in your own submission. Here is a link on how to do it. | Souhaitez-vous réagir à cet article ? Joignez-vous aux débats d’Options politiques et soumettez-nous votre texte en suivant ces directives.

Marisa Beck
Marisa Beck is the research director at the University of Ottawa’s Institute for Science, Society and Policy.
Bryson Robertson
Bryson Robertson is an associate professor and director of the Pacific Marine Energy Center at Oregon State University. His research focuses on the future of North American electricity and marine energy systems.

You are welcome to republish this Policy Options article online or in print periodicals, under a Creative Commons/No Derivatives licence.

Creative Commons License