Skip to main content

Douglas Channel, the proposed termination point for an oil pipeline in the Enbridge Northern Gateway Project, is pictured in an aerial view in Kitimat, B.C., on Jan. 10, 2012.Darryl Dyck/The Canadian Press

A national energy strategy, which has become an important rallying point for an Alberta government eager to ships its oil sands crude abroad, is unworkable, and "highly dangerous" to Canada, a prominent western academic is warning.

"Trying to develop an overarching Canadian energy strategy will be another Italian cruiser heading to the rocks at shore," Jack Mintz, who heads the University of Calgary School of Public and sits as a director with Imperial Oil Ltd., argued in a speech Friday.

It can "do more harm than good. We should drop the idea fast."

Developing a national energy strategy has become a key objective for the Alberta government. Premier Alison Redford has spoken about the province taking a role "in leading that conversation." The sub-text of the strategy is a bid by Alberta to gain national support for its need to export oil, which must flow through other jurisdictions to access new markets in both Asia and eastern North America.

But such a plan is likely to be untenable – and, if accomplished, would be likely to have unexpected effects, Mr. Mintz told an energy regulatory forum in Calgary Friday.

He pointed to the dramatically different energy interests between provinces that draw on a range of electricity sources – hydro for British Columbia, Quebec and Manitoba; nuclear and others for Ontario; coal for Alberta and Saskatchewan.

"Each province will have different views as to the best strategy to pursue and consensus is difficult to achieve without potential conflict," he said.

Opening a pan-Canadian discussion could also "backfire on the provinces that jealously guard their constitutional rights over resource development. ... It is not difficult for the federal government to stop many projects under a Canadian energy strategy."

He also warned about the follow-on effect of pursuing government intervention in industrial development. He pointed to ideas floated to, for example, create an auto company strategy that would involve devaluing the loonie, a step that could be achieved by stopping or slowing energy output. "These pick-and-choose industrial strategies will eventually do more harm than good since it is often the less successful investments that get government support," he said.

National energy strategy talks have already run into a series of issues. When talks were held in Alberta last July, Ontario balked at language calling the oil sands a "responsible and major supplier of energy to the world." Quebec subsequently stated its opposition to any "coast to coast" plan, pointing to energy as a "provincial competence."

Alberta, mindful of the connotations of the word "national" in Quebec, has since taken pains to avoid calling it a "national" energy plan. In January, following a meeting between premiers Jean Charest and Ms. Redford, Quebec softened its stance, saying it could support a pan-Canadian plan so long as it did not involve the federal government.

Nonetheless, the idea remains nascent. Provinces have, so far, agreed to agree on working together. But many of the tricky details have yet to be worked out, including who supports controversial hydroelectric plans by Newfoundland and Labrador, which Quebec opposes, or whether B.C. would back construction of the Northern Gateway oil pipeline to the West Coast.