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National energy plan near impossible – but worth the effort

In the short space of seven weeks, a group of officials from the Western provinces will try to lay the groundwork for a new national energy strategy.

The task, on its face, appears hopeless. A national anything is hard to come by in Canada, these days, and the regions appear particularly at odds on the energy issue.

But a search for common ground is worth the effort, provided we understand what the word "national" means. In this case, it can mean anything on which Alberta and Ontario agree.

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In the wake of the National Energy Policy, the Meech and Charlottetown debacles and the wars over health-care funding, Ottawa has lost the authority to impose national standards in any area where the provinces have jurisdiction – something the Harper government well understands, which is why it never tries.

But provinces, acting together, can forge regional and sometimes even national strategies from the bottom up. There has been some limited progress, for example, in the areas of lowering interprovincial trade barriers and pooling resources in health care.

Alberta Premier Alison Redford got the other Western premiers to agree last week to seek a common strategy for harnessing and delivering energy across the country.

According to the communiqué, a working group will seek a proposed "strategic, forward-thinking plan" for "sustainable energy management and development" aimed at "ensuring that Canada is a recognized leader" in generating and transporting energy.

The goal is for the Western premiers to have something ready to show the other premiers when they all meet in Halifax at the end of July.

Really, that seems quite impossible. Quebec and Newfoundland and Labrador are one step short of open hostilities as each develops its own hydroelectric capacity, even though it would be better if the two worked together.

In Ontario, the McGuinty government is trying to kick-start an alternative-energy industry that will both supply energy and create manufacturing jobs. (Evidence of success is noticeably lacking.) And, of course, Alberta seeks to expand oil-sands extraction and to sell that oil via new pipelines. How could any plan encompass such contradictory strategies?

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Then there is the vexed question of global warming. As Michael Cleland observes, the country went from making huge commitments in the 1990s toward fighting climate change, with little thought for its carbon-based energy sector, to rampant development of that sector today, with little thought for climate change.

"I don't believe that's unbridgeable," the executive-in-residence at the Canada West Foundation said in an interview. But the only solution may be a carbon tax, an idea the Conservatives in Ottawa have emphatically rejected.

Matthew Mendelsohn heads the Mowat Centre, an Ontario-issues think tank. He sees a country divided between an oil-wealth-generating West determined to defend its interests and an energy-consuming East that worries about growing environmental and economic inequities.

Add to that American demand, which encourages oil, natural gas and hydro to move north-south rather than east-west, and you find "all kinds of pressures working against a national energy strategy," he said.

And yet there is a glimmer. In Canada, "national" rarely means something all 10 provinces and three territories agree on in concert with the federal government.

In this case, if Alberta's Ms. Redford and Ontario's Dalton McGuinty could agree on, say, how to raise money to invest in energy research, or on how to send Alberta oil east for refining in Ontario rather than west to Asia or south to the United States, or even on how to establish a price for carbon – then that agreement would carry a great deal of weight, not only with other provinces, but also with the Conservatives in Ottawa. They greatly depend on support from voters in Alberta and Ontario.

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That alone is enough to make searching for a common energy strategy worth a try. At the least, Mr. McGuinty and Ms. Redford need to have a conversation.

It might come to nothing. But if it came to something, then this year's premiers meeting could prove particularly interesting.

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About the Author
Writer-at-large

John Ibbitson started at The Globe in 1999 and has been Queen's Park columnist and Ottawa political affairs correspondent.Most recently, he was a correspondent and columnist in Washington, where he wrote Open and Shut: Why America has Barack Obama and Canada has Stephen Harper. He returned to Ottawa as bureau chief in 2009. More

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