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A bold national energy plan can benefit the provinces

Kibae Park/kibae park The Globe and Mail

Warren Mabee is assistant professor and director of the Queen's Institute for Energy and Environmental Policy, Queen's University

In Germany, a pledge to abolish nuclear power by 2022 will see nearly 22 GW taken offline, a move that Canadians consider either a wake-up call or environmental vandalism. In Ontario, Tim Hudak's Conservative party threatens to remove incentives for renewable energy contained in the controversial Green Energy and Green Economy Act if elected. Like it or hate it, energy is becoming a wedge issue around which elections are won and lost. Recognizing this, what should Prime Minister Stephen Harper do? There is a way for his government to get out in front of these issues and begin laying the groundwork for a truly Canadian energy strategy -- without compromising its commitment to provincial jurisdiction over energy resources.

Many Canadians may not realize this, but most of Canada's long-distance, high-capacity connections for oil and electricity run north-south, not east-west. In these key industries, we have focused almost exclusively on serving the U.S. This is one of the great strengths of our nation -- the ability of each province to create its own best strategy for developing revenue streams. It's also a weakness, because lack of access to other provincial markets has effectively siloed our energy strategies along provincial lines, leading to a patchwork of development across the country that does not take advantage of potential synergies across regions.

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This is not a new problem -- we have always struggled with our geography. Just over one hundred and twenty-five years ago, a Canadian Prime Minister completed his vision for a railway from sea to sea. This landmark project was perhaps the single greatest influence on our nation's development -- a transportation corridor that linked far-flung colonies into a single federation and dictated our pattern of settlement and development for years afterward. In building a railway, Sir John A. Macdonald built a tool that the provinces and territories could use to support their own policies for development and growth.

In the mid-1950's, a plan to create a natural gas pipeline that would connect the resources of the west to the markets in the east and south was developed. The Louis St. Laurent government pushed heavily for a Canadian route, and provided financing to the U.S. firms involved in construction of the line. This infuriated the Opposition under John Diefenbaker, which would have preferred a Crown Corporation to ensure Canadian control of the resource. Ultimately, this plan led to the creation of TransCanada Pipelines and the introduction of cheap, clean natural gas to the markets of central Canada. With the pipeline in place, natural gas has become the dominant heating fuel used in Ontario and Quebec, reducing reliance on foreign oil and coal products. Again, developing this project gave each region a tool it needed to serve and develop these markets.

Canada would benefit just as much from the creation of a national electricity grid as it did from the development of the railway and the pipeline. As a nation-building effort, developing these grid connections would give provinces options to buy and sell power of all stripes. Unlike crude oil, it is a consumer product that can be used everywhere, and Canadian supplies of electricity are increasingly renewable in form. Such a project would increase the renewable power potential for Alberta and Saskatchewan by linking existing and future hydro development in Quebec, Ontario, Manitoba and British Columbia to these markets. While the distances here are excessive, the challenge is not insurmountable. The longest high-voltage direct current line in the world is currently under construction in China and will stretch 2,500 km; a line connecting southern Ontario to Alberta, by comparison, would be about 3,500 km.

There isn't unlimited time to develop a project of this type. During the recent election campaign, the Conservatives pledged to support Newfoundland and Labrador's undersea connection that will deliver power from that province to New England. In the last week, Manitoba has signed a deal to sell hydro power to Minnesota, while providing 'storage' capacity for excess wind power from that state. The potential supply of renewable electricity in Canada is vast but not infinite; every future deal with U.S. markets limits our ability to use a trans-Canada grid in a similar way.

Nation-building projects rarely come without a price. The Pacific Railway Scandal sent the Macdonald government into opposition for five years; the Great Pipeline Debate is recognized as a major contributing factor in the fall of the Liberals to the Diefenbaker's Conservative party. These Prime Ministers, however, are today remembered as some of the strongest leaders our country has ever seen. Mr. Harper can continue to serve the status quo, and play it safe - or he can dare to be great.

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