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Jeffrey Simpson (Bill Grimshaw)
Jeffrey Simpson (Bill Grimshaw)

Jeffrey Simpson

Canada suffers for its energy incoherence Add to ...

Canada needs a national energy program, and some very thoughtful Canadians are trying to develop one.

No, we're not talking about another national energy program like we had in the Trudeau era. So Albertans can calm down right now. In fact, some prominent Albertans have been central to the discussions about some kind of national energy policy for Canada.

The discussions involve leaders from the think-tank community, such as the Canada West Foundation, the C.D. Howe Institute, trade and industry associations (including petroleum and natural gas), private companies' representatives, provincial hydro authorities, university representatives and environmental groups such as the Pembina Institute.

These leaders first met in Winnipeg, then again several weekends ago at Banff, according to three individuals who attended both meetings. No government officials were invited or attended. Indeed, one of the questions now before the civic leaders is how and when to present their ideas to the relevant governments.

Bruce Carson of the University of Calgary, a former adviser to Prime Minister Stephen Harper, recently testified before the Senate on the broad themes of the leaders' ideas, and has been given the task of preparing a short paper summarizing their ideas. This initiative, therefore, is bottom-up rather than top-down. It springs from a common concern and dismay. Canada has no coherent national energy strategy, the leaders believe - provinces do their own thing. They produce energy for their own needs, then ship the surplus south. Neither they nor the federal government think nationally. As a result, the full potential of Canada's comparative energy advantage is not being exploited domestically.

There aren't enough interprovincial transmission lines, and some are old and need upgrading. There isn't enough regional energy co-operation, and nothing approximating a national approach. Some provinces (Newfoundland and Quebec) spend more time fighting than co-operating, while other interprovincial deals fall apart (as between Hydro-Québec and New Brunswick Power) or never get going (as between Manitoba Hydro and Ontario).

Mr. Harper boasts that Canada is an "energy superpower," and potentially he is right. Except that when it comes to energy policy, Canada often seems like a series of provincial baronies, jealously guarding their constitutional control of natural resources, with insufficient thought given to the national interest (as opposed to their own narrow ones).

The same can be said of the battle against greenhouse-gas emissions. The Harper government doesn't like the climate-change file, starting with the Prime Minister himself, who has never given a full speech on the topic on Canadian soil. He thinks it is a political loser and an economic drag.

As a result, his government has essentially turned its policy over to the vagaries of the U.S. Congress, saying Canada will harmonize with whatever emerges in Washington. (What happens if, as is likely, nothing emerges from Washington remains unclear.) Provinces head in different directions with absolutely no national leadership even trying to pull them together. Quarrelling provinces made a spectacle of themselves at the Copenhagen summit, holding press conferences to dump on the federal government and each other while trying to score cheap political points at home. It was Canadian federalism at its worst.

Alberta and Saskatchewan want no part of any national cap-and-trade emissions trading system. British Columbia has a carbon tax, but no other province will adopt one. Ontario is driving up energy prices by subsidizing solar and wind power, while importing only small amounts of much cheaper clean hydro from outside the province. Relations between Hydro-Québec and Newfoundland and Labrador Hydro are toxic. With energy at the core of the economy of every advanced industrial society, and with climate change remaining a global challenge that will only intensify, the national government's passivity and the provinces' tunnel vision won't cut it any more. Not if Canada want to maximize its economic potential and make much greater strides against greenhouse-gas emissions, where the country's record remains an international embarrassment.

The civic leaders who are meeting to toss around ideas understand these twin imperatives. It's a great initiative they have embarked upon, trying to stir the country to stronger national efforts in two critical and interrelated areas.

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