Alberta's energy minister is calling on the federal government to rush a decision on a controversial crude-oil export pipeline, after hosting an energy ministers conference that fell short of achieving a national energy strategy.
The conference failed to achieve complete consensus after Ontario disagreed with language in a conference communiqué that calls the oil sands a "responsible and major supplier of energy to the world."
"We just weren't comfortable with the wording that the oil sands are sustainable and responsible," Ontario Energy Minister Brad Duguid said in an interview Tuesday, noting that his province is trying to replace coal with wind and solar energy. Alberta's oil sands are often targeted as an environmental threat and a major source of carbon emissions.
Ontario did support the remainder of a broad-strokes energy collaboration agreement hammered out in Kananaskis, but the disagreement about the communiqué wording demonstrates the thorny issues Canada must confront as it attempts to develop a broad energy plan.
It also shows how Alberta has been unable to win over its provincial and territorial counterparts as it works to develop and export the thick oily bitumen from its massive oil sands reserves. On Tuesday, Alberta Energy Minister Ron Liepert called on his federal and provincial counterparts to push for a speedy approval of Enbridge Inc.'s $5.5-billion Northern Gateway project, which would carry Alberta crude to the B.C. coast but has been fiercely opposed by many first nations groups.
Gateway is "going to go to a [National Energy Board]hearing in January," Mr. Liepert said. "I would presume that before September … we can work as governments to ensure that federal cabinet expedites that decision."
The level of political advocacy, both from Mr. Liepert and federal Natural Resources Minister Joe Oliver, is notable, given that the pipeline remains far from receiving any regulatory clearance. It isn't the only project seeking to carry Canadian crude to Pacific tidewater for export to Asia; Kinder Morgan Canada is pursuing similar plans, as is Canadian National Railway Co.
Mr. Liepert said his government "will support any and all projects that meet the environmental and regulatory standards that are set out for them."
On Tuesday, the ministers meeting at a Kananaskis mountain resort west of Calgary released an energy action plan that outlines co-operative steps they can take on issues such as streamlining regulations, developing a U.S. market for hydroelectric power, and boosting energy efficiency.
The plan includes few specifics on measures related to Canada's oil and gas industry, although it details steps that provinces and territories intend to take on, for example, creating more stringent energy codes for buildings and improving industrial energy performance.
With regard to new projects such as Gateway, the ministers agreed only to "collaborate on the development of infrastructure to facilitate the diversification and expansion of efficient and competitive markets for energy products and services."
The ministers left some of the thorniest issues – including specific steps toward regulatory reform, new markets and international trade and electricity reliability – for another meeting in PEI in September 2012.
"For those who were expecting us to solve all of the problems and have all of the solutions and have all of the answers, they're going to be disappointed," Mr. Liepert said. But, he added, "I think we've made incredible progress over the last two days in setting us on a path that ultimately will get those questions answered."
In a statement, John Manley, head of the Canadian Council of Chief Executives, called the agreement "an important step forward" that picks the "right" priorities for the country.
Environmental groups, however, blasted the energy ministers for committing the country to further development of the oil sands, echoing the concerns voiced by Ontario. Discussion of greenhouse gas policy wasn't on the agenda, although it may come forward in a future joint meeting with environment ministers. If Canada ties its energy future to oil, it risks being left behind, said Gillian McEachern, program manager for climate and energy with Environmental Defence. She called the agreement between energy ministers a "let's pick up tar sands to burn the planet strategy." "We'd really hoped for the ministers to commit to a strategy that would clearly put us down a path toward a low-carbon economy," she said.
In the U.S., she said, new clean energy jobs are "outpacing the growth in fossil fuel industries. So work on the assumption that oil is a pathway to prosperity is a bit outdated now, given where the economy is shifting."