Skip to main content
Open this photo in gallery:

Natural Resources Minister Jonathan Wilkinson rises during Question Period on April 7.Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press

Ottawa is set to launch a new program in which it will attempt to work separately with each province and territory to build new low-carbon industries, as it seeks to overcome intergovernmental squabbling that has plagued climate and energy policy.

On Wednesday in Vancouver, Natural Resources Minister Jonathan Wilkinson will announce new federal-provincial working groups – called Regional Energy and Resource Tables – meant to identify and pursue opportunities around sectors such as hydrogen, critical minerals and electric-vehicle manufacturing.

Mr. Wilkinson, in an interview with The Globe and Mail, described what he hopes will be a rapid process – co-led by the two levels of government, and bringing in Indigenous, industry and labour leaders – to develop “place-based economic strategies” for each part of the country.

These apps can help you track and offset your carbon footprint

First, he said, they will settle on a small number of priority sectors – ideally between two and four. Next, they will try to identify ways they can work together to pursue those goals, including better aligning spending programs and regulations. Then, they will home in on specific projects in those sectors.

It’s an ambitious attempt to somewhat reorient the country’s climate discourse away from environmental concerns and toward economic ones. Ottawa contends that beyond any moral obligation to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions, the country needs to move collaboratively on building low-emissions industries to compete in a decarbonizing world.

But even before the program has been launched, there have been some bumps in the road that indicate how difficult it will be for Mr. Wilkinson to get buy-in from some of his provincial counterparts – especially from provinces where he is most eager to show that the economic focus will help get past long-standing disagreements.

Mr. Wilkinson had initially hoped to announce Alberta and Saskatchewan, with which Ottawa has clashed over the future of the oil and gas sector and policies such as carbon pricing, among an initial group of provinces whose tables will begin work as of this week. (The idea is to launch second and third groups later this year, to avoid overwhelming federal capacity.)

Instead, Alberta and Saskatchewan decided not to sign on yet, leaving the first group to include only B.C., Manitoba, and Newfoundland and Labrador.

Mr. Wilkinson played down the setback. “Where I think we’ve gotten to with both of those provinces is they want to continue the dialogue about how we can put these tables together, but they think internally it’s going to take a little bit more time,” he said. “That’s fine. This is collaborative, and the last thing we’re going to do is say to them they have to meet our timeline.”

Alberta Energy Minister Sonya Savage, though, said in an interview that she felt the rollout of the tables has been too rushed. And she expressed concern about the initiative being presented and designed too much on Ottawa’s terms, as part of a shift away from oil and gas production.

“We can’t participate in something that’s just a great big federal initiative that’s about policy objectives that we don’t agree with – the ‘just transition’ and their emissions-reduction plan,” she said.

Ms. Savage nevertheless was optimistic that Ottawa and Alberta will soon land on mutually agreeable terms, noting that industry stakeholders expect the two levels of government to find ways to bolster emerging industries such as critical minerals and hydrogen. “We just have to get it framed right,” she said.

She also credited Mr. Wilkinson – with whom she talked last weekend, trying to iron out issues that Alberta has with the current format and terms of reference – for genuine interest in co-operation.

“I have so much good to say about his approach to this and taking the steps to make it work, and understanding and listening to our concerns,” Ms. Savage said.

British Columbia Energy Minister Bruce Ralston, whose government evidently had fewer qualms about the process, similarly praised Mr. Wilkinson for being collaborative. He’s optimistic that the tables will lead to co-ordinated investment and regulation of industries – including low-carbon hydrogen, for uses such as commercial transportation and heavy industry – that B.C. has been developing its own policies around.

“I think part of the discussion at the tables will be to get a better sense of how the federal government will roll out the commitments that they made in the last budget, particularly the Clean Fuels Fund and how firms that are making applications might access that,” Mr. Ralston said, referring to a $1.5-billion spending program that sits alongside others such as the $8-billion Net Zero Accelerator fund. And likewise, he said, on regulatory compatibility between the two governments.

After getting the provinces on board, the next big challenge will be ensuring that the tables produce actionable plans.

Some of Ottawa’s previous attempts to support low-carbon sectors, such as the federal hydrogen strategy released in late 2020, have been criticized for setting obvious high-level goals without providing adequate detail on how to meet them. That could be a particular danger as different governments try to land on mutually agreeable ground – and it’s one that Mr. Wilkinson stressed he is determined to avoid.

“I’m not interested in a lot of the blah, blah, blah, where we say nice things and never do anything,” he said. “I’m really interested in catalyzing action.”

To bring the requisite urgency, he said, he intends to be aggressively involved in the process himself, despite the tables being run largely by senior bureaucrats from the respective governments.

As for which sectors the tables wind up targeting, at least some will be quite specific to provinces’ circumstances. Among the early provinces, for instance, Manitoba has expressed interest in sustainable forestry and hydroelectricity exports.

Even where there is ostensible overlap between many provinces’ sectoral aspirations, Mr. Wilkinson expects variation when they drill down. That includes different types of critical minerals in different provinces, and different types of hydrogen production (using renewable electricity to produce it in some places, and natural gas accompanied by carbon-capture technology in others).

He contends that one of the big upsides of the tables will be enabling tailored strategies for smaller provinces whose specific economic interests are often subsumed in national policy discussions by the relative size of Ontario and Quebec.

Mr. Wilkinson acknowledged the stakes, in terms of public support for his government’s climate agenda.

He’s mindful, he said, of the many Canadians who recognize climate change as a problem, but want to know that their families’ economic future won’t be compromised in trying to solve it.

“My provincial counterparts that I have spoken to are of a similar view,” he said. “Which is, we really need to get moving on the emissions-reduction side, yes. But we really need to get going on ensuring that we are first movers in the context of developing these economic opportunities.”

Your time is valuable. Have the Top Business Headlines newsletter conveniently delivered to your inbox in the morning or evening. Sign up today.

Follow related authors and topics

Authors and topics you follow will be added to your personal news feed in Following.

Interact with The Globe