Time for Ottawa to embrace energy strategy, get serious about climate change

TORONTO—From July 24-26, premiers from across Canada will gather in Niagara-on-the-Lake for the annual Council of the Federation (COF) meeting. Though health care and transportation are expected to be at the top of the agenda, the Canadian energy strategy will also receive some attention.

The federal government isn’t part of the COF, and as such will not be party to the conversation. And the truth is, many of the provinces prefer it this way. Energy is in provincial jurisdiction and provinces don’t want the federal government meddling in their affairs.

Be that as it may, there can be little doubt that the federal government has a role to play in crafting a Canadian energy strategy. After all, it’s the federal government that harbours the aspiration for Canada to be an energy superpower.

The good news is there is a lot that Ottawa can do without stepping on the toes of the provinces.

Having Ottawa contribute constructively, however, necessitates that the federal government starts to take climate change and the environment more seriously.

Canada cannot advance our energy interests by simply claiming to have an exemplary environmental record, when the opposite is obviously true. Actions speak louder than words. 

To be sure, given the treatment the environment has received in recent federal budgets, there may not be much appetite for action on carbon emissions in Ottawa. But perhaps, the floods in Alberta and record-breaking rainfall in Toronto, or the recent words by U.S. President Barack Obama about the urgent need to address climate change will inspire the government to take another look at this file.

We hope so, and if Ottawa is ready to get serious about Canada becoming an energy super power, we have some suggestions as to what the federal government can do.

First, renewable energy and energy conservation need to receive priority support from Ottawa. Right now, both get a cold shoulder while $1.4-billion in taxpayer money is doled out to the oil and gas industry each year. We did some number crunching on this recently and found that 18,000 more jobs could be created in low-carbon industries if the whopping oil and gas subsidies were redirected.

Second, we need a federal plan to tackle climate change that makes sure all jurisdictions and sectors do their fair share. Some provinces, like Ontario, are doing their part to reduce pollution, but the planned increase in oil sands production over the next decade will wipe out those gains. It’s a recipe for inter-provincial strife to ask some provinces to shoulder greater burden for cutting greenhouse gas pollution so that other provinces can pollute at will and the country still meet its stated climate goals. It’s up to the federal government to sort this out.

Third, there needs to be a strategy for good jobs in the energy sector across the country. We need to take a hard look at the impact of rising oil production on the manufacturing sector in provinces like Ontario and Quebec, and decide how much oil production is good for the country and how to minimize the negative impacts on other sectors. And, we need to chart a path for building healthy industries that create jobs in a low-carbon economy, and proactively transition workers.

Finally, we need to have a serious conversation about the stakes and choices ahead of us. Canada has an abundance of energy resources—both renewable and non-renewable—and that means we have an abundance of options. To develop a Canadian energy strategy that is in the interests of all Canadians, we need to have a grown up conversation about those options, and assess which choices make the most sense for our country, now and in the future.

Ken Neumann is the national director for the United Steelworkers. Gillian McEachern is the campaigns director for Environmental Defence. The United Steelworkers and Environmental Defence are the founding members of Blue Green Canada.