Why Canada needs an Energy Policy

It is clear that debates dealing with energy choices dominate the news: Pipelines – Keystone, Enbridge, Kinder-Morgan, Energy East; oil sands versus tar sands; climate policy and the lack thereof; coal plants and so on. For the most part, these debates are treated as isolated, zero-sum games. You can either have a healthy economy or a healthy environment; choose between oil sands production and shut them down. The result is an unhealthy, polarizing and divisive argument.

Yet, surprisingly the discussion of energy policy gets brushed under the carpet. My contention is that the reason the various energy debates are so unproductive is that we are operating in the absence of any over-arching strategy. Canada is the only country in the OECD without an energy policy. Canada is one of the only countries in the world not participating as a member of the International Renewable Energy Agency. Canada is the only country in the OECD without a comprehensive climate plan. Canada is the only country in the world to have ratified Kyoto and withdrawn. Canada is the only industrialized country without a national Transportation plan.

These are not small gaps. And their absence contributes to the nastiness of the debate. The debate tends to fall to regionalism. As a federal party leader, I find the province versus province aspect of the discussion the least productive and most damaging to our national interest. Energy decisions cannot be presented as binary choices in which for British Columbia to “win,” Alberta must “lose.”

What we need is to think like a country. We need to assess what set of policy tools best advance the multiple interests of all parts of the economy and all parts of the country. We need an energy strategy for Canada.
The idea that we need a national energy strategy was floated by former Premier of Alberta, Alison Redford. It was then immediately shot down by the prime minister.

That idea must be revisited. We need a national approach to our energy future. Our starting point should be to agree to some key national goals. I would suggest they would include:

  1. Energy security – currently half of the oil consumed in Canada is imported from Saudi Arabia, Kazakhstan, Nigeria, Norway and Venezuela. Meanwhile, the “plan” seems to be to boost production of the most greenhouse intensive fossil fuel, bitumen and ship it to China for refining. Unlike the U.S., Canada has no strategic petroleum reserve. There is no plan for domestic energy security.
  2. Energy pricing – We need to stop subsidizing fossil fuels and start pricing carbon.
  3. An effective greenhouse gas (GHG) reduction plan for the needed transition to a low-carbon economy.
  4. Full employment goals – we create more Canadian jobs by processing bitumen in Canada than by mixing it with toxic diluents and then shipping that dangerous product through pipelines to tankers heading overseas to other nations’ refineries and jobs there.
  5. The promotion of innovation and competitiveness in Canada – Canada is falling behind the US in productivity and innovation. Part of the reason is shifting from relatively more value-added exports to raw resource exports (60% of all our exports were value-added in the late 1990s, falling to 40% recently, according to Statistics Canada.) Value-added not only creates more jobs, it attracts innovation, R and D and improves Canada’s productivity.
  6. Social justice; ending energy poverty – “energy poverty” concerns must be part of any national energy strategy.
  7. Any energy strategy needs to be premised on respect for First Nations right and title, as the recent Supreme Court of Canada language in the Tsilhqot’in decision makes clear is not optional; it’s mandatory;
  8. Energy strategies for a resourceful and resilient Canada.

Taken separately, we could be fighting over these individual elements without resolution. Taken together in a grown-up conversation, they all fit together.

If we met around the same table and worked to achieve a consensus that respected the interests of all parts of Canada, demonstrated a responsible approach to the growing climate crisis and worked to create the kind of energy super-power we could be, one working to decrease dependence on fossil fuels, I am confident a realistic energy plan could emerge.

The first step is to start thinking like a country.

Originally published in the Hill Times.