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Quebec drives a wedge into national energy plan

Just days after energy ministers met in Alberta to lay the foundations for a national energy strategy, an accord is already running into roadblocks.

Quebec is pledging its opposition to a national plan, while Ontario and Alberta openly bicker about endorsing the oil sands as a sustainable supplier of energy.

Quebec's defiance is likely to slow momentum that has been building over the past few years, with corporate and politic leaders increasingly making the case for a co-ordinated national effort on energy. A national approach is needed, supporters say, to streamline regulations, pursue Asian oil and gas exports and support energy research.

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Federal, provincial and territorial energy ministers met in Kananaskis, Alta., this week to begin work on a unified energy plan. The goal of those meetings, Alberta Energy Minister Ron Liepert said, was to "set in place some general principles, goals and objectives that will ultimately lead us to a national energy strategy."

But it has not taken long for cracks to appear in that nascent effort. The day an initial "action plan" was released, Ontario said it did not support language describing the "responsible and sustainable" development of the oil sands.

Now Quebec is saying it wants no part of such a plan.

"Quebec doesn't want a federal energy strategy because first of all, energy is a provincial competence," said Marie-France Boulay, director of communications for Nathalie Normandeau, Quebec's Minister of Natural Resources and Wildlife.

The province will support some collaboration on energy, but does "not want a coast to coast" plan, Ms. Boulay said in an e-mail, pointing out that Quebec already has its own strategy emphasizing hydro, wind and energy efficiency.

History has shown that even the most ambitious efforts at creating a unified national voice often founder among regional differences in Canada. And if Quebec is only prepared to support some collaboration, other political leaders may have to scale back their expectations to something less ambitious than a national strategy, warned Jack Mintz, executive director of the University of Calgary's School of Public Policy.

"It's going to be very hard to have a single strategy that applies to the whole country because the provinces do have certain of their own responsibilities, and individually they may want to do some things that are different," he said.

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"I hope we don't go into a fight over this. I don't think it's going to be healthy for the country."

Energy strategy supporters, however, argue that Quebec's opposition is merely rooted in a provincial aversion to anything with "national" in its name.

"There might be some semantics around what is the appropriate wording, but frankly I don't care what the wording is, as long as we're moving forward in the same direction," Mr. Liepert said in an interview.

He also attacked Ontario Energy Minister Brad Duguid for his reticence in supporting the oil sands.

"I doubt he's checked with the tens of thousands residents of his province whose livelihood depends on the oil sands," Mr. Liepert said. "It sounds very much like a desperate government that has a short lifespan."

The emergence of public bickering does not bode well for a national energy strategy.

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At the same time, the growing ties between the west's oil reserves and the east's manufacturers adds a new complexity to political wrangling between the two ends of the country, which have developed some co-dependency over the oil sands.

David Emerson, the former federal cabinet minister who chairs the Energy Policy Institute, pointed to the need for the entire country to address issues such as carbon pricing and energy exports, which in the east tend to be electricity instead of crude oil.

"I think Quebec recognizes that they have an enormous amount at stake in getting it right along with everybody else in terms of regulation and development of markets and promotion of their own energy, as well as their own mining industries," he said.

And Mr. Liepert said looming issues, in particular with regard to greenhouse gas policy, make it critical the country establish a united face on energy. For example, if carbon prices begin to rise, Alberta may "have to be looking at how do we move hydro across Canada, so that our industries can be as competitive as they possibly can by having the least-cost electricity input costs," Mr. Liepert said.

"If we're all working together in the best interest of a national perspective, those are the kinds of things we can achieve."

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About the Author
Asia Bureau Chief

Nathan VanderKlippe is the Asia correspondent for The Globe and Mail. He was previously a print and television correspondent in Western Canada based in Calgary, Vancouver and Yellowknife, where he covered the energy industry, aboriginal issues and Canada’s north.He is the recipient of a National Magazine Award and a Best in Business award from the Society of American Business Editors and Writers. More

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