National energy strategy possible, federal leadership missing

For decades, the legacy of the National Energy Program left politicians so shell-shocked and risk-averse that they were unwilling to even moot the need for a national energy policy.

Now that the Senate of Canada, the corporate lobby in the Council of Chief Executives, and the premiers are all willing to talk about the need for a national strategic energy vision, perhaps there is some hope that we can, at long last, have a plan. For years, Canada has been the only country in the OECD with no energy strategy. That failing has meant that, de facto, our energy strategy was whatever the oil patch wantedor more precisely what foreign owned energy multinationals decreed.

No wonder we still import foreign oil at world prices to half the country while shipping out Canadian oil at lower prices to the U.S. market. No wonder we have no climate plan, subsidize oil and gas, and have no carbon pricing (other than due to provincial action in British Columbia, Alberta, and Quebec).

Nationally, despite the Prime Minister’s crowing about Canada being an “energy superpower,” we are establishing ourselves as a compliant resource colony for the United States and China.

Now that we are talking about having a national energy plan, what are those core principles that could form the beginning of a national consensus?

Let’s start with energy sovereignty. We should ensure that we control our own resources. Foreign state-owned corporate control over Canadian energy resources should be scrupulously vetted for national security and sovereignty risk. Such scrutiny is particularly important when the state-owned enterprises are attached to undemocratic regimes. China’s brand of Capitalistic Communism, with human rights repression and downward pressure on environmental regulations, requires particular review.

When we look at our energy future, a key goal should be to structure planning around demand-side management. We need to develop our energy planning with the goal of doing more with less. Canada’s built infrastructure, whether residential, business or institutional, is woefully wasteful and in need of retrofits. We are literally heating and cooling the outdoors. And energy policy should be about more than drilling and scraping out new supply. We need a strategy for wise use of resources.

Next, can we all agree that energy security makes sense? Should we not ensure that Canada has adequate energy resources for our own use before shipping exports overseas? The dependency of Eastern Canada on oil imports from Nigeria, Venezuela, Saudi Arabia, and Kazakhstan makes no sense. Nova Scotia imports coal from Venezuela for its dirty electrical grid. To build energy self-sufficiency, we need to diversify and build capacity in renewable energy for the long-term.

Another principle that would take us out of the resource colony trap will be to ensure that we build “value-added” into our energy exports. Canadian crude should be processed and refined in Canada, at least in sufficient amounts for domestic markets, but for export as well. We have been allowing promising energy developments in renewable energy to be commercialized in other countries. We have export opportunities in value added in petroleum products and also in renewable energy that we are abandoning.

Another key element for a viable energy future is found in diversifying our energy portfolio. Canada has huge potential in renewable energy – wind, solar (both passive and photovoltaic), geothermal, district energy, small scale hydro, tidal and, where sustainable, biomass. So far, our energy conversation seems limited to fossil fuels.

A national energy plan must be designed to meet climate objectives. Any viable energy strategy must start by eliminating all subsidies to fossil fuels and placing a price on carbon. An energy strategy must set out a reasonable plan for capping and reducing greenhouse gases throughout the Canadian economy.

All of this is possible. The largest missing ingredient at the moment is federal leadership. Thus far, Prime Minister Stephen Harper has displayed no enthusiasm for any energy plan other than more than tripling oil sands production to six million barrels of oil a day. While B.C. Premier Christy Clark and Alberta Premier Alison Redford clash over Enbridge’s proposed risky pipeline and supertanker scheme to Kitimat, Harper is firmly on the side of one governmentthe one in Beijing.

If we are to have a national energy strategy, it has to start with an effort to build consensus. Ideally, it will provide a vision that advances the needs and aspirations of all parts of Canada. An energy plan should have at its core that it meets the needs of all of Canada while building our common wealth. That might just get everyone around the table.

Green Party Leader Elizabeth May represents Saanich-Gulf Islands, B.C.
Originally published in the Hill Times.