Colleen Collins is vice-president of the Canada West Foundation
If one were to look back to review the biggest political mistakes in Canadian history, the National Energy Program (NEP) imposed in 1980 would rank pretty high on any list. Not only was it disastrous economically for the West – it was disastrous in terms of national unity. It cemented what had been an already growing distrust of Ottawa, Montreal and Toronto by many in the West. It took the then-government five years, and only after great harm, to realize just how much of a mistake it was before it was dismantled.
Yet here we are, a generation later, and the son of the man behind NEP1 has succeeded in creating NEP2. The reaction in the West is at least as bad as it was the first time. The big question is whether it will take five years for this government to realize its mistake, or whether it might fix the mess sooner. Because fix it, it can – and most certainly should.
The infamous Bill C-69 – now the Impact Assessment Act (IAA) – and Bill C-48, known as the “just one part of just one coast” tanker ban are widely seen, by impartial legal experts as well as the global investment community, as no-more-pipelines legislation. Whereas the tanker ban is particularly egregious – indefensible – and should be reversed, Bill C-69/IAA is much more complicated. We at the Canada West Foundation have, in fact, supported its stated intentions – including better environmental protections and respect for Indigenous rights when planning and building any new major infrastructure. But the road to hell is paved with good intentions. And it’s pretty hellish in the West right now.
Good intentions that were “too big,” “too ideological” and done “too fast” have led to legislation that is rife with problems – including massive government discretion rather than regulatory independence, and major loopholes just asking for court challenges. It’s not just pipelines. The IAA applies to most major infrastructure projects – not just energy. Left as is, this could prevent virtually any infrastructure project in Canada from being built – including, for example, flood-mitigation projects or transmission lines needed for the push to electrification.
Combined with rhetoric from Prime Minister Justin Trudeau on down about the need to “fight” the oil industry, or “phase it out,” this is most certainly seen in Alberta and Saskatchewan as “keep it in the ground” legislation – a way to keep any our energy resources from being extracted and sold to the world, despite growing global demand, and despite the extraordinary efforts in the industry that are leading Canadian oil and gas to be among the cleanest in the world. Just as with the original NEP, many in Alberta and Saskatchewan see this as Ottawa thwarting the economic ambitions of the West.
In effect, NEP2.
Imagine if a few decades ago, the federal government in Ottawa said to Hydro-Québec and the Quebec government that, due to (legitimate) environmental concerns around damming rivers, and (legitimate) concerns about Indigenous rights of the region’s Cree and Inuit populations, Ottawa was going to deny Quebec the ability to build the James Bay project. That alone would have been more than enough to have pushed Quebec out of Canada. The frustration in the West is very, very real.
So what can be done?
The IAA need not be reversed – indeed, we advise against it. There are improvements to the prior legislative regime that should be retained. But there are some key changes that can and should be made. Changes that should not be seen as ideological, that would reduce neither the protection of the environment or respect for Indigenous rights contained in the bill. Rather, we recommend changes to ensure regulatory independence from government (political discretion being a major hindrance to investment), and removal of (unintended) loopholes that can and will be abused by those for whom “no” at any cost is the only option to create never-ending court challenges.
Changes that are win-win for the environment, Indigenous rights and the economic and social prosperity of the West – and, by extension, Canada.
Let’s hope that it won’t take five years.