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Would an oil spill in British Columbia be good for Canada?

The first casualty of the recent Council of the Federation meeting in Halifax was an absurd oil industry spin. For months, anyone who questioned Big Oil's plans was accused of dividing the country and being anti-West.

Oops. 

As it turned out, the biggest scrap was between the two westernmost premiers, Christy Clark of British Columbia and Alison Redford of Alberta. We hope this means we never have to hear the silly regional argument again—because there are better things to talk about. Chiefly, we welcome the conversation about a Canadian energy strategy.

It’s good the premiers are moving forward in this direction. There is a lot of good to be found in the communiqué on energy that they issued. But there’s also a fundamental contradiction within the communiqué, one that’s bedevilled energy discussion for years in Canada: we can’t always do what Big Oil wants while also cutting emissions.

The premiers want “a strategic, forward thinking approach for sustainable energy development ... a more integrated approach to climate change, reducing greenhouse gas emissions and managing the transition to a lower carbon economy ...” and recognize that “all provinces and territories share an interest in renewable energy, energy efficiency, conservation, and research and innovation.” This is all good. 

British Columbia not being part of the discussion is unhelpful, but also speaks to a larger issue. What’s done in one province will affect others; in this case, expose British Columbia to large spill risks on land and the coast. More broadly, there is the small matter of global warming affecting us all which is what we hope the energy plan focuses on. If it does, it will also expose another oil industry untruth, namely that an oil-dominated energy plan is the best way to create jobs.

That’s not the current narrative, especially as it surrounds the risky Northern Gateway pipeline proposal from spill-prone Enbridge. 

Pipeline boosters say it’s in the “national interest.” But is an oil spill in the Great Bear Rainforest or off BC’s magnificent coast really good for Canada? Gateway would also help accelerate the development of the tar sands which would cost jobs elsewhere thanks to our petro-dollar, or so-called Dutch disease, which even the OECD says Canada has a case of. Is it strategic to turn Canada into a one trick oil pony? And then of course there’s global warming.

How, exactly, do we have more tar sands production and lower emissions, as the premiers’ communiqué implies we can? It’s possible we can’t. It’s certain we can’t without embracing proven ways to create jobs and lower emissions, and put Canada on track to transition away from fossil fuels sooner rather than later.

The good news here—but bad news for Big Oil—is that a dollar invested in clean energy and energy efficiency creates three times as many jobs as in polluting energy. It’s for this reason that environmentalists and unions created Blue Green Canada.

The tired argument that we have to choose between the environment and the economy or jobs vs. action on climate change is simply not true. For the Steelworkers, renewable energy is a growing sector of our membership. Steelworkers now make windmills in Nova Scotia; in Ontario, they processing solar-grade silicon and rolling steel for use in windmill towers.

Jobs in other sectors will come, too. From construction jobs making buildings more energy efficient or manufacturing jobs building public transit infrastructure and vehicles. 

Big Oil likes to pretend that there’s a switch to turn fossil fuels off, which people like us would like to throw. 

This, too, is wrong. Fossil fuels will be part of the mix for some time. The question is do we make the transition away from them sooner or later. If it’s going to be sooner, we need to embrace the solutions that can deliver on the premiers’ consensus to lower emissions. 

The three pillars the premiers outlined—more renewable energy, increased efficiency, and improved transit—need action sooner, not later. These are key to cutting emissions, saving families money, making our cities more livable and economically competitive, and creating jobs. Just because they’re not the energy plan Big Oil wants doesn’t make them a bad energy plan.

Indeed, with energy in provincial jurisdiction, if the premiers follow through on the conversation they began in Halifax, it could provide a valuable counter-balance. The real divide isn’t East versus West, but slavish obedience to oil wants versus alternatives. With the federal government clearly in one camp, the premiers have a chance to deliver some needed balance.

We hope they do and do so quickly. The approaching energy ministers’ meeting in Charlottetown would benefit from some specifics.

The views expressed here are the authors' own. Originally published in The Hill Times. 

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