OTTAWA – As federal and provincial energy ministers gather this week in Charlottetown, forging a national energy strategy is conspicuously absent from their agenda.
The topic was all the rage over the summer as business groups, environmentalists, aboriginal groups and most of the premiers — spearheaded by Alberta Premier Alison Redford — called on Canadian leaders to hash out a solid plan for handling the country’s natural resources.
Redford travelled from province to province, persuading one provincial leader after another that a national energy strategy would be in everyone’s interests.
But the premiers’ meeting in July ended with B.C. Premier Christy Clark refusing to talk about any of it until her demands on the Northern Gateway pipeline were recognized.
Now, as the provinces come together once again, joined by federal Minister of Natural Resources Joe Oliver, top-level talks toward a national energy strategy appear to have been downgraded to “discussions for collaboration.”
“I’m looking forward to discussing ways we can collaborate on future energy development,” was all Prince Edward Island’s minister of finance and energy, Wes Sheridan, would say.
Alberta — the driving force behind the push for a national plan — will be in listening mode only, after a last-minute family issue forced Energy Minister Ken Hughes to stay home.
“We’re not pushing a national energy strategy in those terms,” Oliver said in an interview Saturday. “But the nomenclature isn’t what matters.”
The phrase irks many people, Oliver said — a reference, presumably, to Western Canada’s lingering bad memories of the National Energy Program of 1980, but also an echo of the federal government’s famous disdain for grandiose national strategies of any kind.
Instead, he said the Sunday evening-to-Tuesday meetings will focus on implementing federal changes to environmental assessment, making sure marine and pipeline safety standards are world-class, and investing in market diversification, labour, environment and efficiency.
That’s not to say the national energy strategy is dead.
There’s a broad realization that the country’s regions need to take collective responsibility of the development of natural resources so that each region can share in the jobs and economic spin-offs, Oliver said.
And after speaking with both Redford and Clark frequently and recently about their differences and about their vision for energy exports, Oliver said there is plenty of common ground.
Four of Clark’s five conditions are being met, he said, pointing to her insistence that the pipeline pass environmental muster, that oil spill prevention and response be improved both on land and in the sea, and that First Nations rights be recognized.
Yet Oliver did not address the fifth and most problematic condition: that B.C. receive “its fair share” of the economic benefits of heavy oil exports.
Regardless of their differences and the official agenda, the ministers will wind up talking about the need for pan-Canadian infrastructure that will allow for more efficient export of the country’s resources, he said. “It’s pervasive, really.”
Indeed, Oliver said, every region of the country is caught up with the challenge of moving resources to market and diminishing their dependence on American buyers
In their July statement, however, the premiers — all but B.C.’s Clark — were more ambitious than that. They issued a list of common principles and said a national energy strategy was “urgent” because Canada is facing newfound demand for its commodities just as the pressure to deal with climate change soars.
The statement was not just about pipelines and bitumen. It was also about creating a low-carbon economy, sustainable development, renewable energy and taking a more integrated approach to climate change.
The premiers put Alberta, Manitoba and Newfoundland and Labrador in charge of coming up with details.
Still, the statement was vague enough for many an interest group to read their own agendas into it.
The World Wildlife Fund in Canada said work on the strategy gives provinces the perfect opportunity to devise a carbon-pricing scheme for the country that will move Canada more quickly towards its climate change goals.
Some environmentalists are heading to Charlottetown to push for sustainable development and lower emissions.
The Mowat Centre for Policy Innovation, based in Toronto, sees a chance to build a strategy based on all region’s needs to invest better in energy technology.
And provinces have widely divergent views of how Canada’s natural resources should be treated, said energy economist Andre Plourde, dean of public affairs at Carleton University in Ottawa.
So it’s not surprising that the federal government, as co-host of the Charlottetown meeting, is not going to push talks for a national energy strategy ahead, Plourde said.
“It’s hard to talk about it because it will be clear that all parties don’t agree.”
There is no clear understanding of what a national strategy would actually do, beyond stating principles that reflect what governments do already, he added.
“We’re going to end up with some kind of bromide: ‘we all want the energy sector to grow.'”