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The turning tide: Canadians and our energy future

Are the premiers puppets?

Hands down one of the most interesting events at the Council of the Federation meetings in Halifax, Nova Scotia to date was a joint presentation by Merran Smith from Clean Energy Canada at Tides Canada, Steven Guilbeault from Équiterre, and Gil McGowan at the Alberta Federation of Labour on what Canadians want from a national energy strategy. The springboard was a poll conducted on behalf of Tides Canada by Harris-Decima (1005 Canadians polled between July 5-9, 2012; results valid at +/- 3.1 per cent).

The results are striking. It's clear that a vast majority of Canadians want Canada to reduce its reliance on fossil fuels (66 per cent), to create more clean energy jobs (74 per cent), to reduce carbon emissions to slow down climate change (67 per cent), and to improve its energy efficiency (82 per cent). A minority (33 per cent) wants Canada to focus on exporting more oil and gas.

Harris-Decima poll results

On two further key issues, 83 per cent of Canadian feel that Canada should set aside a portion of its oil wealth to help prepare the country for a clean and renewable energy future, and 87 per cent agree that Canada needs an energy strategy to plan our nation's energy future.

Harris-Decima poll results

It's hard not to be struck by the stark contrast between these results, reflecting the desires of Canadian citizens on the one hand, and the single-minded focus of the Harper Government on fossil fuels (and in particular, on rapidly accelerating the exploitation of the bitumen sands), its relentless determination to foster pipeline construction to ship bitumen to foreign markets rather than developing refining and other value-added capacity in Canada, the lack of a national Canadian energy strategy, Canada's formal withdrawal from the Kyoto Protocol and the substitution of utterly inadequate, bogus, and unrealized emission targets for carbon dioxide reductions, and its seeming indifference to the potential of capitalizing on the immense economic opportunities of alternative energy technologies.

Furthermore, since the province of Alberta ceased making contributions to the Heritage Savings Trust Fund in 1987 (and even before 1987, it was only 30 per cent of oil revenue royalties rather than the 100 per cent that the Government of Norway contributes to the Pension Fund of Norway), neither Alberta nor the Canadian government have invested oil revenues "to help prepare the country for a clean and renewable energy future". Indeed, given the wholly inadequate royalty structure in Alberta, which charges the lowest rates of almost any government in the world (39 per cent compared to the 76 per cent that the government of Norway charges Big Oil on its revenues from North Sea oil) colossal sums of money have flowed out of Canada and into the coffers of foreign multinational oil interests rather than being invested in any, environmental, or economic initiatives here.

Given the complete disconnect between what this Harris-Decima poll indicates the priorities of Canadians are, and the policies of the Harper Government, one might almost be lead to believe that the Harper Conservatives are governing on behalf of some entirely different nation -- Saudi Arabia, perhaps.

At the press conference to release the results of the polling, Merran Smith from Tides Canada discussed the data. Then Steven Guilbeault from Équiterre brought an environmental perspective to their implications, the development of an energy policy in Canada in 2012 being intimately connected on almost every level with environmental and climate change issues. With some 3,215 high-temperature records broken in the month of June in the United States, widespread droughts, flooding, mudslides, tornados, wildfires, and other extreme weather events, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) reporting that there have now been 328 consecutive months of above average temperatures in the world, an all time record decline of arctic sea ice, an unprecedented increase in the melting of ice on the Greenland ice cap and an increase in its albedo -- and all of these precisely consistent with the weather patterns we would expect to see associated with climate change -- it's becoming increasingly difficult to come to any reasonable conclusion other than the fact that we are witnessing the effects of climate change -- and at a pace that virtually no one expected or predicted even five years ago when the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change issues its most recent series of climate change reports.

Rounding out the presentation was an excellent discussion by Gil McGowan of the Alberta Federation of Labour on the human, labour, employment, and economic dimensions related to energy, the need for a comprehensive energy strategy, and the enormous costs and lost opportunities of Canada's not having one. Without uttering the words "Dutch Disease" McGowan gave an excellent encapsulation of this phenomenon and what it has done to manufacturing and other sectors of the economy reliant on exports, and what the employment costs of this have been -- a topic I discussed at some length in my article, Dutch disease denial: Inflation, politics, and tar.

This is particularly pointed issue at the Council of the Federation meetings in Halifax given both the injection of this issue into the national political landscape by Alberta Premier Alison Redford, and the current very sharp dispute (painfully on display at the meetings) between Redford and British Columbia Premier Christy Clark, in relation to the proposed economic and environmental terms between the two provinces on the Northern Gateway Pipeline proposal. Clark argues that British Columbia will be exposed to the lion's share of environmental risks of such a pipeline proposal, both along the land corridor of the pipeline, and in the sea lanes that lead to the proposed oil terminal in Kitimat, BC. Consequently, she wants a greater share of the oil royalties for BC and threatens to otherwise block permission for the pipeline to pass through British Columbia. Redford refuses to negotiate and refuses to budge. 

Smith, Guilbeault, and McGowan all made it clear that they expect -- and Canadians demand -- much more from a Canadian energy strategy then a mutual non-aggression pact between provinces. As the answers to the polls indicate, there are many other energy issues on the table: alternative east-west pipeline and electricity transmission corridors, the development of a smart grid, the issue of oil royalties, of heritage fund contributions, vaccines against Dutch Disease, energy security, national energy sustainability, measures to address climate change, the robust development of renewable energy resources, a transition to an sustainable energy economy, feed-in tariffs for a wide variety of green energy sources, and a multitude of other important issues that must be addressed if Canada is to have a sustainable future. Indeed, given the imperatives of climate change, a failure to develop a Canadian energy strategy to address all these critical issues, could be a fatal mistake -- politically, economically, and environmentally.

Alberta Premier Alison Redford & Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty

An important step in this direction are a series of proposals entitled Towards a Clean Energy Accord developed by Clean Energy Canada. It presents a convincing case for the importance of developing a Canadian energy strategy. Let's hope the Canadian premiers gathered at the Council of the Federation meetings are listening.

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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