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It’s time for us to talk about energy and its environmental consequences

Maybe it was the late summer sun, or the fresh sea air.

Canada's premiers were gushing with happy-talk when they agreed in Charlottetown last August to forge a national energy strategy.

They spoke of a "watershed moment" (B.C.'s Christy Clark), about making Canada a "clean energy powerhouse" (Ontario's Kathleen Wynne) and of giving Canadians "access to energy of all kinds from the West Coast to the East Coast up to the North" (Quebec's Philippe Couillard).

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Nice sentiments, for sure. Sincere? Apparently not.

Less than four months later, newly installed Alberta Premier Jim Prentice is on a cross-Canada mission to test those sentiments in the real world – a world of sagging oil prices and troubled pipeline projects.

Mr. Prentice was in B.C. on Monday. He was in Quebec City on Tuesday to meet Mr. Couillard, and then on to Toronto on Wednesday to meet Ms. Wynne.

It is not going well. Energy East, Northern Gateway, Keystone XL and Trans Mountain are all facing serious setbacks. There is no certainty any of these pipelines will be built in the near-term.

Energy – in all its forms – accounts for a quarter of the Canadian economy. From oil and gas to hydroelectric power, energy is more than a treasured national asset and a lucrative export, it is the future, as Mr. Prentice pointed out in a speech on Monday to the Vancouver Board of Trade.

And yet Canadians have never had a serious national conversation about energy, or its environmental consequences.

The notion of a national strategy remains an elusive dream.

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Instead, Canada has become a nation of energy silos, where regions not only do not talk to each other, they often work at cross purposes, resulting in a collective loss to the country as a whole.

Ontario recently got out of the business of generating electricity from coal without seriously considering clean surplus hydro from Quebec as an alternative.

Decades of sparring between Quebec and Newfoundland over old wounds continues to limit the full hydro potential of Labrador's mighty Churchill River.

Now, Quebec and Ontario have thrown up new roadblocks to TransCanada Corp.'s $12-billion Energy East pipeline, which would carry 1.1-million barrels a day of western crude to eastern refineries and export terminals.

Enter Mr. Prentice. His pitch to Mr. Couillard and Ms. Wynne is part peace offering on climate change, along with a plea for "nation building" and grim warnings about the cost of not going ahead with various pipeline projects.

He says all Canadians will "feel the pain" because there would be less tax revenue to pay for health care, roads and schools.

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On fighting climate change, Mr. Prentice insists Alberta is ready to do its part, promising a "new vision" that would likely include stricter regulation of greenhouse gas emissions and higher carbon taxes.

And that is the apparent quid pro quo – more significant action on carbon dioxide emissions in exchange for pipelines.

But that is only one piece of an eventual national strategy.

For starters, Canadians need to recognize what the country really is – an energy export power in a world that will remain dependent on oil for some time. Pipelines have become a symbol of the oil-and-gas economy, but also a diversion.

Canada can try to shut off the tap from the oil sands by rejecting pipelines, but producers in the United States and other, more unstable countries would quickly fill the void.

The key is to develop and use energy resources in a rational, efficient and environmentally sound way. That may mean exporting more of the country's oil and gas while maximizing the use of hydro and other renewable energy sources at home.

Canada could do worse than take a few cues from Norway, which, like Canada, is a major exporter of oil, gas and electricity. Norway has a well-articulated national energy strategy, which is based on some of the most aggressive GHG emission targets in the world, high carbon taxes and a commitment to green energy.

A significant amount of the revenue raised from carbon taxes is reinvested in carbon-capture technology, renewable energy and other energy-related research-and-development.

It is time for the provinces, and the noticeably absent federal government, to turn all the happy-talk about a national strategy into concrete action.

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