Meeting for the first time in seven years, North America's three energy ministers admitted Monday much more needs to be done if the bold vision of an integrated continental energy market is to become a reality.
Greg Rickford, Canada's Minister of Natural Resources, called the meeting in Washington, D.C., "a crucial start," and said the three came up with a "to-do list as opposed to a wish list," as a result of direction from the last so-called Three Amigos summit, when the leaders of Canada, Mexico and the United States gathered in February in Mexico. While the three ministers were vague about specific objectives, Mr. Rickford said there was a commitment to lay out options "for our leaders as they look to how a fully integrated North American market for economic, environmental and security reasons should and could proceed."
U.S. Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz said "I consider this to-do list to be a major outcome, because we have not had this trilateral dialogue for so long and the conditions today are nothing like they were seven years ago."
Mexico's Secretary of Energy Pedro Coldwell said the shift from a state-controlled oil sector "to an open sector with competitiveness" will spur development and said U.S. and Canadian companies were welcome.
Although Keystone XL – the controversial Canadian export pipeline intended to funnel Alberta oils sands crude to refineries in the U.S. – wasn't on the trilateral agenda, Mr. Rickford made yet another pitch for its approval.
"There are already 70 pipelines safely delivering oil and gas across our borders every day," he said, adding: "Naturally, our government thinks that number should grow to 71. The Keystone XL obviously can help end dependence on insecure sources of crude with a secure and reliable supply from Canada. Of course, helping our friends from North Dakota and Montana with transportation as well."
Mr. Moniz made no mention of the long-delayed decision. President Barack Obama, who has delayed a decision for years on the now-$8-billion project, has been increasingly critical of it in recent public statements.
Last week, Mr. Obama suggested Keystone would add to global warming by spurring developments of Canada's vast, carbon-heavy, oil sands reserves. "We've got to make sure that it's not adding to the problem of carbon and climate change… and Keystone is a potential contributor of that," Mr. Obama said, adding the project wouldn't create many jobs. "Essentially, this is Canadian oil passing through the United States to be sold on the world market. It's not going to push down gas prices here in the United States … it's good for Canada … but we've got to measure that against whether or not it is going to contribute to an overall warming of the planet that could be disastrous."
With a Nebraska Supreme Court decision coming soon that could determine if TransCanada's route approval is legal and Keystone XL looming on the horizon as a showdown issue when Republicans take control of the Senate in January and attempt to wrest the decision away from Mr. Obama, the project will continue to dominate Canada-U.S relations in general and the energy sector in particular.
At Monday's trilateral meeting, the three energy ministers agreed "to begin co-operation" in three areas: sharing data, statistics, and mapping, setting up a group to determine and share "responsible and sustainable best practices for the development of unconventional oil and natural gas" and promoting a "modern, resilient energy infrastructure for North America."
While seemingly modest, the objectives expose just how limited trilateral co-operation has been. For instance, Mr. Moniz said, maps from each of the three countries supposedly showing pipeline and electrical transmission lines routinely fail to match up at borders.
"It isn't that we don't have energy infrastructure maps, it's just that they don't agree," Mr. Moniz said.
A progress report on all three areas will be delivered to leaders a year from now.
Meanwhile, with oil prices falling precipitously, the three energy ministers said there was no need for hasty overreaction.
Mr. Rickford said short-term price volatility should not drive policy. "Our best decisions and therefore the policy of our government are typically made with a view to long-term – 20-to-40-year market expectations. We are equally interested in the cost averaged out over those times," he said.
He offered no prediction as to whether Canadian oil production would decrease next year in response to low prices.
In the United States – where the shale oil boom has transformed the nation into the world's biggest producer and dramatically reduced the need for imports, Mr. Moniz predicted further increases in 2015.
The "rate of growth of production will slow a bit (but) we are still looking at growth," he said.