Canada's Natural Resources Minister, Joe Oliver, is on a mission to make India think of Canada as it hunts for solutions to its acute energy shortage.
Canada did $5.1-billion worth of trade with India last year, but only $4-million of it – "let's call it zero" – was in energy, the minister said in an interview in the Indian capital earlier this week. The two nations have pledged to triple the amount of their trade in three years and "the way that will dramatically increase is natural resources," Mr. Oliver said.
He is using his time in the Indian capital – and a visit to Mumbai – to pitch the scale of Canada's energy reserves to government and industry groups. The minister's sales job involves emphasizing, first, the immensity of Canada's natural resource base (he rattles off statistics on potash, uranium, gas and oil production); second, Canada's synergy with India (including "shared values" such as democracy); and third, the many needs India has that Canada could meet, including supplying oil, gas and expertise in development of energy infrastructure such as hydroelectric transmission.
Behind many of his remarks was a hint that Canada has been slow to capitalize on India's emergence as an economic power and the size of its consumer market.
Developing the Indian market is an urgent priority for the government, he said, because of inevitable looming changes in Canada's energy exports. "One hundred per cent of our energy exports have gone to the United States, but that will not continue" because large reserves of shale gas and oil found there will reduce the need for Canadian imports. Meanwhile, Canada's production of liquid natural gas is rising sharply. "Now we've got totally new sources as we're looking at a market that is declining," he said. "We haven't been asleep at the switch, but there's a new reality."
India's energy supply gap is 8 per cent and growing; it relies on rapidly depleting coal reserves, and oil and gas imports, mostly from Saudi Arabia and Iran.
Canada has the appeal of being a stable country with a transparent, free market system – as Mr. Oliver reminded a room full of international delegates on Tuesday at a global seminar on energy – but developing a market in Asia would mean higher transport costs, and, for India, longer delivery times than those from its current suppliers.
Mr. Oliver said he had spoken to "quite a few ministers" during his visit who emphasized India's need to diversify its energy suppliers for the sake of the country's long-term strategic security. "Even if they can get all the [liquid natural gas] they need from Qatar, is that a smart thing for a country this size to do? Obviously not."
And while the Indian government is broadly aware of Canada's potential – and anyone contemplating a large investment certainly is – Canada doesn't yet have the profile it needs, he said. "We've got to get on the job. It's very important for them to hear from our government that we're open for business and keen on enlarging trade. It's important for companies to hear. … In a country of 1.2 billion, I don't think we're particularly well known. There's a need to try to tell the story more."
Canada and India recently concluded a fifth round of negotiations toward a free-trade pact, and Prime Minister Stephen Harper is expected to bring another business delegation here before the end of the year. Mr. Oliver also pointed out to his Delhi audiences that his visit brings to more than 20 the number of trips to the country by Canadian cabinet ministers since 2006 – a sign, he said, of the depth of Canada's interest in building its relationship with India.
But he is in Delhi as the International Monetary Fund's closely watched World Economic Outlook is saying that India's level of growth this year will fall below 5 per cent, which would have been unthinkable a couple of years ago. There is a steady diet of grim economic news here, including tanking corporate earnings, a weakening rupee, and legislation meant to reform opaque taxation and land acquisition regimens that repeatedly dies in a paralyzed parliament.
In fact, a "bland" statement Mr. Oliver made at an industry event on Monday – pointing out that "companies want predictability and certainty" in the regulatory environment in foreign countries where they invest – made headlines here; the highly critical business press seized on an apparent example of an outsider making veiled criticism of government waffling on economic reform.
But Mr. Oliver said he was merely "stating the obvious" and that he has "no concerns at all about Canadian producers dealing with companies here." And he dismissed the idea that India's woes should in any way diminish his government's aggressive pursuit of opportunity here.
"What we're talking about here is not responding to the cyclicality of economic growth in this country – we're talking about fundamental secular trends," he said, "and I've got to say, the number they are slowing down to is unobtainable for the developed countries."
Mr. Oliver said he "remains hopeful" that India and Canada will resolve outstanding issues and finalize a nuclear deal soon. While Mr. Harper and his Indian counterpart, Manmohan Singh, signed the deal in 2010, it has yet to be implemented due to disagreement over how nuclear material from Canada will be monitored. Canada wants the ability to verify that it is used for peaceful purposes (in the 1970s, India developed its first nuclear weapons through covert use of Canadian nuclear technology), but India calls that paternalistic and insists its reporting to the International Atomic Energy Agency must suffice. People close to the negotiations have told The Globe and Mail that the two sides remain deeply divided on this.
Mr. Oliver disagreed. "I don't think there's that big a gulf," he said. "We're keen to see it finalized. We're onside."
But he added that this does not mean that Canada will relax its requirements. "We're very anxious [to finalize] but I wouldn't say we're desperate. … We have responsibilities under the international non-proliferation commitments" and those will be honoured, he said.