Is it time for a national energy discussion?

Caitlin Schulz

In 2010, the Canada West Foundation published a report calling for a national energy strategy to be influenced by Western Canada. Typically, when the terms “national” and “energy” are used together, what results are snide and scathing remarks from Western Canadians who remember Pierre Elliot Trudeau’s flawed and alienating National Energy Program.

However, the renewed discussion on national energy policy has garnered interest from the Senate, the Calgary Chamber of Commerce (located in the heart of Alberta’s energy sector), Public Policy Forum, the Pembina Institute and the Energy Council of Canada, to name a few. Interest has also been expressed by top industry officials such as Shell Canada’s President, Lorraine Mitchelmore, who are looking for clearer direction for future energy development and infrastructure in Canada.

As a student of intergovernmental politics and policy, and a born and bred Albertan, I understand that there are overwhelming complexities in energy policy and what it means to have a national dialogue. Looking at our national institutions, natural resources are a provincial jurisdiction, hence, we have a clashing of thirteen different policies across this country that must be considered. Politically speaking, national conversations that even briefly mention energy are met with suspicion by certain Westerners. Tensions flare when jurisdictions disparage natural resource wealth and its affect on the equality of federal transfer payments. There are countless obstacles in the way of a calm discussion on energy policy in this country, but consider this:

Alberta’s economy relies on energy extraction and production. Saskatchewan’s future economic growth is likely tied to the cultivation of its energy resources. Newfoundland has found economic success in exploiting its offshore oil resources. Provinces that have experienced economic growth and booms above their counterparts have been able to exploit their energy and natural resources. This means that this country is relying more and more on energy economies. It’s in our national interest to discuss how the success of these economies can benefit all Canadians.

As well, energy policies are tightly related to environmental policy, and while each deserves their own discussion, the world does not operate within silos where consequences do not overflow. We share the environment across provincial jurisdictions and the international community is becoming more and more concerned with how this country is exploiting and using its resources. A national conversation on acceptable greenhouse gas emissions, land reclamation, and the protection of water resources is important. While the federal government may have no place in telling Newfoundland and Alberta how and when to use their natural resources, a national conversation between all jurisdictions means that all parties can at least share best practices, national expectations, and a common understanding of what the future looks like.

Further, the issue is pertinent in the new globalized economy. On the global stage, the federal government has already taken a lead in promoting Canada’s resource wealth. The most current example of this is Stephen Harper’s support of the Keystone Pipeline that will deliver Alberta’s abundant oil resources to the Gulf of Mexico. Even with growing environmental opposition to the project, Prime Minister Harper and his government have been working hard to ensure the project goes forward by lobbying American politicians and working closely with American officials to address both public and private concerns over the social, economic, and environmental effects of such a large energy infrastructure project. Further, there has been mild federal support for a pipeline that connects Alberta’s energy resources to the Pacific Ocean, and in particular, the growing Chinese market. In an increasingly interconnected world, Canada’s ability to trade its natural resources will play a large part in our continued economic success.

More needs to be done to kick-start a national dialogue. Many non-governmental groups are having the conversation with themselves, but for action to take place, these groups must now start working hand-in-hand with government and forcing politicians and policymakers to make the issue a priority. The Government of Canada has already hummed and hawed about what a national energy strategy would and should look like (see the Senate’s discussion paper on Canada’s energy future) and what principles would be adopted. Economic prosperity, social development, environmental and sustainable production, national security – these are all large, overbearing principles that will have a place in the conversation.

There will, of course, be roadblocks: Albertans will inevitably raise concerns about the power the federal government and whether national principles undermine the right of provinces to act within their own jurisdictions. Eastern Canada will demand protection for the newly developing green energy market (rightfully so) against the carbon based energy industry (though there are ways these groups can work in concert rather than in confrontation). If history stands true, Quebec will demand what Quebec always demands; a sizeable chunk of the financial pie should a national energy strategy work to anyone else’s favour.

But beyond all the trials and tribulations that come with forging a national consensus on anything in this country, a national energy strategy is both economically and environmentally important to Canada’s future prosperity. Isn’t it time we acknowledge that and get to work?

Caitlin Schulz is a second-year student in the Master of Public Policy program at the School of Public Policy and Governance, University of Toronto. She holds a Bachelor of Arts (Honours) degree in Political Science with a minor in Economics from the University of Alberta. Her policy interests include intergovernmental policy as it relates to natural resources, energy and the environment and, to a lesser extent, health care and education.


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