Whatever happened to that energy strategy?


Originally published in the Hill Times, Monday, 04/15/2013

TORONTO—Given the importance of energy to Canada’s environment and economy, it’s shocking that we don’t have an energy strategy. 

Consider some of the highlights from just the past few weeks: There were multiple stories on the proposed Keystone XL pipeline. TransCanada officially announced plans to convert an existing natural gas pipeline to carry Alberta’s bitumen to Eastern Canadian refineries. The NEB unveiled new rules for public participation into pipeline hearings. Hundreds of thousands of litres of wastewater leaked into the Athabasca River from an oilsands operation outside Fort McMurray. A pipeline carrying Canadian bitumen ruptured in Arkansas spilling into people’s backyards and forcing an evacuation. Meanwhile, the B.C. Liberals announced they would freeze the province’s carbon tax if re-elected. And the Alberta government floated a plan to raise levies on the oil industry. 

Yet there was no mention of an energy strategy, and these stories are linked only notionally, if at all. Indeed, a Canadian energy strategy seems to have fallen out of fashion. But given the importance of energy to our economy and our environment, this is a mistake. 

An energy strategy, for example, would allow us to reconcile our current approach to energy, and, in particular, the development of Alberta’s oilsands, with a plan to combat global warming. Without a strategy, oilsands projects and pipelines are assessed on a project-by-project basis—800,000 barrels here, 300,000 there—which obscures the fact that this industry is the fastest-growing source of greenhouse gas emissions in Canada, and continuing to permit this growth will overshadow practically any other action we take to cut emissions. 

To be clear, we are not saying that we should shut down oilsands production tomorrow. We know we’ll need oil for many years to come. But we are saying that we need to talk about the pace of development, figure out a plan to wean ourselves off fossil fuels over time, and begin to execute that plan before too long. An energy strategy could help us do that. 

We need an energy strategy not just because we have a responsibly to our children. And not just because a warmer climate is already wreaking havoc around world and racking up billions of dollars in damages. But also because the rest of the world is waking up to the threat posed by climate change and working to reduce its dependence on fossil fuels like oil.  Carrying on, oblivious to this, puts our economy and the workers who make up that economy at tremendous risk.  

The appetite for high-carbon fuels is waning, and the economics of the oilsands—some of the most expensive and carbon-intensive oil plays in the world—are looking increasingly marginal. As a result, projects are being put on hold and investors are backing away. 

It was bound to happen. All booms go bust. 

It’s tempting to ignore this inconvenient truth. It’s tempting to prop up this industry, because without a strategy, it can seem as though we have to choose between jobs and the environment. 

In the absence of a strategy, we fail to appreciate the risks of continued business as usual. And without a strategy, there is no alternative on offer. Our choice appears to be between okaying projects or not okaying them. But we have a lot of other options. And the truth is, any plan to meet our needs for energy while dealing with climate change would be a massive job creator. 

A plan to build renewable energy could create hundreds of thousands of jobs. Look to Germany or, closer to home, to the province of Ontario if you want some proof.  

A plan to build low carbon transit would also create jobs, fight traffic, and unleash billions of dollars in productivity gains. Similarly, a plan to increase the energy efficiency of our buildings would put Canadians to work, cut emissions and save everyone money. 

An energy strategy can also provide for workers and ensure that any transition is a just transition. And it could help governments break with their dependency on resource revenues.  

A Canadian energy strategy would force us to look at the threats and opportunities in front of us. It would allow us to make an informed decision. And it would permit us to chart a path toward the future we want. 

Until we have a strategy we’ll be fumbling around, without a clear sense of where we want to go, let alone a plan to get there.

Keith Brooks is program manager of Blue Green Canada