It was Kim Campbell who famously quipped that elections were no places to discuss serious issues. We all know that seriousness, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder but one big issue that has been absent from the current campaign is the idea of a national energy strategy. There is no shortage of complex issues in the energy file, including energy security and diversity of supply, access to markets, increasing prices, the role of energy in our overall economy, and expectations around the environmental performance of products and projects. These issues are especially relevant in a country that rates as one of the top energy producers and the second highest per capita consumer of energy in the world.
A national energy strategy is therefore appealing and would be helpful to set priorities and provide clarity. And it’s an idea that is increasingly gaining traction in the Canadian energy industry and among some think tanks. But it is not without its challenges.
One concern that national energy strategy proponents are sensitive to is that the idea might conjure up memories of the National Energy Program. However, any concern on that front is pre-empted by the fact that the most vocal champions of a national energy strategy are planted firmly in the oil and gas patch.
A larger structural challenge is that the provinces have significant jurisdiction over energy policy, including shared responsibility for setting tax and royalty regimes, regulating emissions, and conducting environmental impact assessments. Proponents recognize this complexity and argue for greater cooperation and harmonization wherever possible. Both the Federal Advisory Panel on the Oil Sands and the Royal Society of Canada in their respective reports released last year recommend a more integrated provincial-federal approach in the key area of environmental management and oversight.
Then there is the large role of local communities. So much of energy development today depends not on the wishes of government but on the ability of individual companies to manage their relationships with local communities and earn the license to operate. That key responsibility will always remain with companies, but the theory among energy strategy proponents is that an overall federal approach would better achieve and reflect consensus on energy and environmental issues prior to any projects and would provide more clarity for all stakeholders.
While not quite the third rail of Canadian politics, how would a federal government, especially a minority one and one that takes a more decentralized approach to governing than previous Liberal governments, attempt to bring in a national strategy, or even a national vision for a sector as complex as energy?
The answer is that national energy strategy champions need to make it safe for the federal government to do so by continuing to engage in dialogue and build the constituency. At a recent conference last week hosted by Queen’s School of Policy Studies entitled Clean Energy Superpower and Environmental Assessment, you could see this dynamic in action.
Industry representatives, regulators, environmentalists, and academics gathered in the same room to express their views and ask each other questions on some of the key challenges and opportunities around striking the fine balance between economic objectives and environmental protection. Even though the viewpoints were sometimes diametrically opposed, speakers occasionally using the same charts and statistics with equal conviction to draw opposite conclusions, the fact everybody was in the same room engaged in dialogue helped to break down some of the barriers that can be perpetuated when people talk at each other through the media.
I was reminded that even in this age of Facebook and Twitter, sometimes there’s nothing like sitting down in the same room. As these types of discussions continue, and as information and viewpoints are shared, the middle ground where we find the balance between economic and environmental objectives will become wider. For instance, you won’t find any national energy strategy proposals without a recognition of the importance of conservation and a desire to put a price of carbon.
Ultimately, developing an energy strategy from the ground up is the best kind of policy-making. With more and more people talking about the need for a shared energy approach, eventually government will have to listen.
Daniel Goodwin was the vice president of Hill+Knowlton’s public affairs group in Ottawa. He is no longer with the company.