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Canada's energy future: Wise strategy or rapacious sellout?

Council of the Federation

In my previous report from the Council of the Federation meetings in Halifax, Nova Scotia (July 25-27, 2012), The turning tide: Canadians and our energy future, I pointed out that that a large majority of Canadians want Canada to reduce its reliance on fossil fuels (66 per cent), to create more clean energy jobs (74 per cent), reduce carbon emissions to slow down climate change (67 per cent), and improve its energy efficiency (82 per cent), and only a minority (33 per cent) want Canada to focus on exporting more oil and gas. Therefore, in my view, there is a convincing case for the importance of developing a national energy strategy. Indeed 87 per cent of Canadians agree that our country needs an energy strategy to plan our nation's energy future. This is all according to the results of a new Harris-Decima poll released earlier in the week by Clean Energy Canada at Tides Canada. I expressed the hope that the Canadian premiers gathered at the Council of the Federation (COF) meetings were paying attention.

Indeed, on the face of it, the provincial and territorial leaders are seeing the turning of the tide, and they at least profess a desire to wade in. In a short communiqué entitled Premiers guide development of Canada's energy resources, the premiers lead by a team consisting of Alberta Premier Alison Redford, Newfoundland and Labrador Premier Kathy Dunderdale, and Manitoba Premier Greg Selinger commit to working with provincial and territorial Energy Ministers to, "assess the new challenges facing the energy sector and ensure that the country has a strategic, forward thinking approach for sustainable energy development that recognizes regional strengths and priorities and respects provincial, territorial and legislative jurisdiction over natural resources, a more integrated approach to climate change, reducing greenhouse gas emissions and managing the transition to a lower carbon economy."

BC Premier Christy Clark

Well, almost all of the premiers. An asterisk in the release points out that "British Columbia will not participate in this process at this time" and therein lies a story. As I noted earlier, relations between Alberta Premier Alison Redford and British Columbia Premier Christy Clark have become distinctly strained since Clark rolled out demands that, given that British Columbia would be exposed to the preponderance of environmental risks of the proposed Northern Gateway pipeline, that the province wants a greater share of the oil royalties in order to consider approving the proposal. In a hastily called news conference Clark told reporters that until the dispute with Alberta was resolved that B.C. would not participate in the energy strategy initiative.

[Fact check: an Enbridge submission estimates that 8.2 per cent of the Northern Gateway's projected $81 billion in tax revenues would accrue to British Columbia over a 30 year time frame, i.e., $6.7 billion. Ottawa would receive $36 billion while Alberta would get $32 billion. The five conditions that B.C. has said would need to be met before it would consider approving the pipeline include, the completion of an environmental review, assurances that the "best" responses will be available for potential spills on land and at sea, a recognition of aboriginal rights on the land, and an increase in the royalty formula for the province.]

BC Premier Christy Clark

Most observers feel that Clark's decision to take all her marbles and go home, is largely motivated by the internal political situation in British Columbia. Having sat on the fence of the Northern Gateway Pipeline issue for some time, Clark now has her electoral back against the wall in the run-up to next year's provincial elections (voters go to the polls on May 14, 2013). Recent polling by both Forum and Ipsos shows Clark's Liberals at 29 per cent, distantly trailing the NDP lead by Adrian Dix who have the support of 48 per cent of the decided electorate (the BC Conservatives trail the pack with 16 per cent), a situation that would lead to a massive NDP majority of 78 of 85 seats in the provincial legislature. Thus, Clark has absolutely nothing to lose and potentially everything to gain by suddenly thrusting herself onto this oily stage in competition with the NDP's Adrian Dix who has consistently said he will nix the Northern Gateway Pipeline proposal.

 The dispute has made for an entertaining spectacle at the COF meetings, with Clark pointedly telling the media that, "It's not a national energy strategy if B.C. hasn't signed on" and relations between Redford and Clark have been visibly icy. Aside from the many regulatory roadblocks that B.C. could throw in front of the Northern Gateway Pipeline, in an article entitled Christy Clark’s Northern Gateway demands just another extortion attempt, columnist Andrew Coyne has suggested that, "Clark's real weapon is political: the opposition of much of the B.C. public to the project, and the price the federal Tories would likely pay at the polls were they seen to be overriding the government of B.C. on the matter -- her own, or her likely NDP successor's."  This is undoubtedly true. Clark is positioning herself as a champion of British Columbia, its environment, its jurisdictional rights, and the future welfare of its citizens. Redford, who rejects Clark's case on the grounds that it would "fundamentally change Confederation" since it would introduce a new stratum of inter-provincial negotiation for projects spanning provincial boundaries, can afford to be equally tough. But if the federal Conservatives ride roughshod over this assertion of BC independence, they run the risk of political annihilation in B.C. where they currently hold 21 seats, and with it any hope of re-electing a majority government. 

Thus, the proverbial scorn of the Harper Conservatives started to flow this past week onto Premier Clark when federal Immigration Minister Jason Kenney, accused her of practicing of "toll gate federalism" and "balkanizing" the Canadian federation. Of course, Stephen Harper has been AWOL at the Council of the Federation, arguably practicing "deadbeat-dad federalism" with the Harper Conservative's cuts to transfer payments and his refusal to even meet with the provincial premiers, let alone enter into negotiations with them. Thus, the Harper kettle calls Clark black with very little credibility. Having said all of that, it's important to recognize that this dispute is a complete sideshow. In a splendid article for the Ottawa Citizen, entitled The pipeline debate is detached from reality, columnist Susan Riley writes:

"If you are looking for evidence that Canada's political leaders are completely detached from everyday reality, consider the current dust-up over the Northern Gateway pipeline.

"It is all about the spoils: is British Columbia getting its fair share of the resource bonanza promised by the pipeline, should Alberta be forced to compensate its unhappy neighbour for environmental risks, and what about the rest of Canada? How do Ontario and Quebec grab their share of the loot?

"Or, its about the Constitution: does an enabling province have the right to demand a share of another's energy wealth and, if so, won't this make the country unmanageable? And what is the role of the federal government when provinces spar: impassive observer, or impartial arbiter?

"Enough. You want to take the premiers, the prime minister, Jason Kenney and the rest, by the shoulders and (if it weren’t so crude and derivative) shout: It's the environment, stupid!"

Council of the Federation

Although the provincial premiers in their COF communiqué speak of "sustainable energy development … a more integrated approach to climate change, reducing greenhouse gas emissions and managing the transition to a lower carbon economy," and Premier Clark is doubtless correct in pointing out that British Columbia will shoulder the lion's share of environmental risks of such a pipeline, both along its land corridor, and in the sea lanes that lead to the proposed oil terminal in Kitimat, B.C., these lofty intentions risk being overshadowed by what appears to be a mercenary grubbing for a share of the spoils. Meanwhile, back at the ranch, climate change proceeds unabated and its effects, from droughts, floods, heat waves, wildfires, and epidemics of mountain-pine beetles, don't discriminate in the least between British Columbians or Albertans - and indeed are happy to colonize the entirety of Canada with no royalty payments whatsoever required.

Carrier SekaniThis point was made with even greater clarity today by the British Columbia First Nations who forcefully rejected Christy Clark's political-environmental brinksmanship. Chief Martin Louie of the Nadleh Whut'en First Nation, a member of the Yinka Dene Alliance who hold more than 25 per cent of the proposed pipeline route in their territories, said, "You can't put a price tag on our future. The Premier's sales job shows how little she has listened to us. It should be clear to her by now that this pipeline will not be built. It's against our laws for this project to proceed and our rights and title can't be sold."

Added Terry Teegee, tribal chief of the Carrier Sekani Tribal Council, "It is absolutely unacceptable for our Premier to play a game of "the Price is Right" while putting our lands, our waters and our futures at risk to devastating oil spills. The Premier is putting on a show because she's under political pressure and needs votes, but her actions have very real consequences for us here on the land. This is our lives, the well-being of our families that she is playing with. We won't let her sell our lands out from under us."

Alberta Premier, Alison RedfordIt's becoming increasingly clear that Canada's energy future is the nexus through which many of the most important elements of the 21st century connect. The shape of our society is determined by the energy matrix that supports it, and this in turn, has a myriad of ramifications. From climate change, energy security, environmental pollution, water rights, patterns of rural and urban settlement, development, densification, and economics -- tug on one strand and you will quickly see how it connects to energy, and how, in turn, that effects the shape of the whole fabric. The development of a Canadian energy strategy is a critical priority. The premiers have demonstrated that they are at least aware of the issues and can sling the jargon. But it's a long step from there, to fully engaging the multitude of issues that need to be resolved in such a comprehensive strategy -- and the pace of getting there must be brisk. Premiers Redford, Dunderdale, and Selinger have a significant task before them, taking these plans from a one-page media release replete with good intentions but bereft of substance, and initiating a process that will fully engage all their provincial and territorial peers. If they succeed, they will become a formidable political nucleus in the face of the Harper power vacuum.  But to do so, they need to set aside parochial squabbles and focus firmly on their responsibilities, and not just those defined by their provincial boundaries.

Christopher Majka is an ecologist, environmentalist, policy analyst, and writer. He is the director of Natural History Resources and Democracy: Vox Populi.

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