Premiers' national energy strategy draft "positively disingenuous", says professor of Canadian environmental policy

BC premier Christy Clark stole the headlines when she walked out of the Council of the Federation meeting in Halifax last week, but what actually came of the national energy strategy on the agenda?

BC premier Christy Clark stole the headlines when she walked out of the Council of the Federation meeting in Halifax last week, but what actually came of the national energy strategy on the agenda? Photo credit: Premier of Alberta on Flickr.

While BC premier Christy Clark's public walkout over her feud with Alberta about pipeline profits overshadowed the annual Council of the Federation (COF) meeting about a national energy strategy last Friday, Kathryn Harrison, a UBC political science professor who has written about the Canadian federal government's role in environmental policy and federal-provincial relations concerning the environment from the late 1960s to the early 1990s, was more concerned about the unclear and disingenous communique that came out of the meeting.

“There’s a lot going on beneath the surface that is not reflected in this communique, so I find it positively disingenuous,” Harrison said, referring to oil politics being at the centre of the dispute between Clark and Redford.

All provinces except BC agreed to build on an existing 2007 national energy plan that included climate change as one of its priorities.

The goal of a new national energy strategy, spearheaded by Alberta premier Alison Redford, is to “ensure that the country has a strategic, forward thinking approach for sustainable energy development that recognizes regional strengths and priorities,” according to the communique issued on Friday.

Harrison is skeptical that the action needed to follow the rhetoric will happen on the scale and time frame necessary to seriously address climate change.

She pointed out that there is no mention of fossil fuels in the communique, a striking omission given that Canada’s production and exports of the resource is increasing.

While the communique states that any new policies should respect the provinces’ legal rights to develop resources as they see fit, it also includes the goal of creating a “more integrated approach to climate change, reducing greenhouse gas emissions and managing the transition to a lower carbon economy.”

Alberta's long term plan for oil sands, recent developments contradict low carbon emissions goals

A long history of provincial sensitivity about energy and different energy needs and endowments makes Harrison wonder how the provinces will be able to come together to agree on a strategy.

She said that it's difficult to pinpoint what exactly a national energy strategy means with so many different and even competing interests. In particular, she noted that Alberta's idea of 'urgency' for a low-carbon economy may be different from the other provinces, given its current and long term goals which include carbon emissions for decades to come via oil sands development.

Recent develpments also indicate that there is a low sense of urgency about transitioning to a low carbon economy in Canada. Soon after the premiers met in Halifax, the National Energy Board allowed Enbridge to reverse its Line 9 so that oil could flow from western Canada to Ontario, according to the The Calgary Herald

Not long after that, Shell Canada applied for approval to build a massive liquefied natural gas plant geared at export in BC.

Canadian energy consumption by primary type. Source: Foreign Affairs and International Trade Canada 2006.

As the BC government actively promotes the development of new liquid gas plants geared for exporting the fossil fuel, the controversial drilling technique, known as hydraulic fracturing or "fracking", continues full throttle as companies seek to tap into shale gas deposits in northeastern BC.

There is also a lot of interest in coal, and all of this development is not consistent with transitioning to a low carbon economy, Harrison points out.

The million dollar question: will feds take the provinces' national energy plan seriously?

Executive director of the Pembina Institute Ed Whittingham said including climate change in the communique was a milestone, and that it was crucial for the premiers to recognize the importance of transitioning to a lower carbon energy system. "Canada can either be a part of that transition or get left behind,” he said. 

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