Why a national energy strategy is easier said than implemented

Canada's energy policies remain firmly tethered to U.S.

October 21, 2011

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So a bunch of old men walk into a room. That might sound like the opening line to a very funny joke, but it’s not. It’s what happens when the federal, provincial and territorial energy ministers gather somewhere in Canada for their annual meeting. In the room, the ministers all sit around big tables, backed up by legions of bureaucrats, the federal minister having by far the biggest contingent, as befits his role as conference co-chair and the representative of the whole nation. Then, once the ministers are ready, into the room come another bunch of old men, these ones representing the various energy-producing and energy-using sectors of Canada’s economy.

Organizations of petroleum producers, wind energy people, industrial gas users – they’re all there. This latter group, generally run by men who once worked for the very governments seated around the table, then proceed to make nifty PowerPoint presentations setting out the vast array of problems under which their industry has to labor. They suggest clever solutions and implore the seated ministers to help resolve the situation – all for the betterment of the country, of course.

Then, everyone heads to the bar for a drink and goes home and they do the same thing all over again the following year. That’s called developing an energy policy in this country. Except, we don’t develop one, not a national one at any rate. The ink was barely dry on the traditional communiqué issued following the July energy ministers’ Kananaskis get-together before provinces were “clarifying” what their signatures had meant. (Or, in the case of Ontario, what its lack of a signature meant.)

And so, regardless of what soothing words had come out of the conference, regardless of how many times the word “sustainable” had been used, along with the nodding commitment to “the environment,” at the end of the day all the old men went back to their provinces and all the old fights started again. Quebec won’t let Newfoundland and Labrador’s electricity flow through its transmission lines. Manitoba and Ontario can’t agree on an east-west transmission line. Ontario won’t accept Alberta’s oil sands emissions although, in a pinch, it will accept Alberta’s transfer payments. Alberta, forever fretting about a return of the National Energy Program, worries about federal environmental intrusion. And on and on it goes.

But, really, does any of it matter? Does anybody really care if we can’t get our energy policy wagons lined up? With very few exceptions, Canada’s energy policies have always been driven by the Americans. We need access to their market; we need to stop their takeovers of our companies; we need to clean up our environment in response to their concerns; we need new markets in China, but only because the American one is becoming more of a problem. Somehow all of our policies grow out of a response to an issue that has been defined by the Americans. Our old men haven’t had an original idea in the past 30 years.

But, luckily, there are some youngsters out there interested in energy issues, and two of them in particular are helping to clearly define the central energy conflicts faced by North America and, depending on which one wins, the energy policies that will guide Canada in the years to come. The Canadian is Alykhan Velshi, a 27-year-old lawyer and former Conservative government staffer, who has effectively taken on Ezra Levant’s mantle and is promoting Canada’s oil reserves as “ethical oil” as opposed to those of, as he so delicately puts it, “the world’s bastards” in the Middle East and South America.

Velshi’s pitch, primarily over the Internet for now, is a simple one. We’re here, we’re near and we’re pretty good guys compared to the rest of the oil-producing world. Velshi’s viewpoint is it’s time for the Americans to button up on the oil sands and get with the Canadian program. Canada can provide security of supply and that should trump all other concerns.

On the other side of the debate we have an American, 29-year-old Tim DeChristopher. He was recently sentenced in Salt Lake City to two years in jail for violating federal laws on oil and gas leasing. In December of 2008, DeChristopher disrupted an oil lease sale for several parcels in Utah by bidding up the prices offered and then, when it became apparent that he had no money, effectively shutting down the sale, to the loss, it was claimed, of the government.

In his address to the court at sentencing, DeChristopher was very clear that he acted as he did as a means of civil disobedience in order to draw attention to the “impacts of catastrophic climate change” and to try to force the government to live up to its responsibilities to protect the survival of young generations. “If the government is going to refuse to step up to that responsibility to defend a livable future,” he said, “I believe that creates a moral imperative for me and other citizens.”

For DeChristopher, the issue is sanctity of supply. If that supply is not good for the planet and not good for future generations, then don’t do it. In his world, it’s up to the government to ensure it doesn’t get done. And so, these two young men have pretty clearly defined the scope of the energy problem we face in North America. For Velshi, security of supply wins the battle – emissions be hanged. For DeChristopher, there can be no real security in continuing to depend on fossil fuels in general and the Alberta oil sands in particular.

The issue for us, those who live somewhere in the middle of these two positions, is how to square the circle. How can we keep the economy going while keeping the planet alive? One thing is certain – our old men don’t have the answer.

Doug Matthews spent 25 years working on energy issues for the Northwest Territories government. He now lives in Calgary and, along with his ongoing consultancy work in the North, spends much of his time writing about energy issues.

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