Energy Addicts

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Faced with rising fossil fuel prices and rolling blackouts in California, the U.S. government released a policy at the end of May that stated, among other things, its intention to buy more energy from Canada.

According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, Canada is the United States' biggest foreign source of energy. Only Mexico and Saudi Arabia sell the Americans more oil, and no one sells them more natural gas. We also sell large amounts of electricity to the Americans, and import a smaller amount back across the border when necessary.

In the days following the U.S. policy announcement, Canadian politicians like Alberta Premier Ralph Klein - along with Canadian companies and multinationals operating in Canada - have been quick to respond to the invitation. Their eyes are on the profits to be made - but environmentalists fear it's Canada that will pay the price.

"It's just huge," says John Bennett of the Sierra Club. "It could undo all the work that environmentalists have done over the last thirty years."

Adds Scott Vaughan, of the continental Commission for Environmental Cooperation: "It would be a miracle if there were an intended increase in overall production and no increase in net emissions."

In May, the Vancouver-based David Suzuki Foundation released a report outlining how the U.S. president's energy plan could have an impact on the Canadian environment. In it, the foundation argues that Canada will not be able to meet its Kyoto target if it produces the energy the American market demands. (The Kyoto protocol is an international agreement to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.)

The foundation calculates that the expansion of tar sands oil production in Alberta, new natural gas production and new coal-fired electricity will add 63.5 megatonnes of greenhouse gas emissions to Canada's total each year.

In Ontario and Quebec, electricity will likely be the biggest battleground. While Ontario Power Generation has promised to close down some of the worst coal-fired polluting plants on days when smog is at dangerous levels in southern Ontario, it has not committed to stop electricity production for export to the United States on such days.

Jack Gibbons, president of the Ontario Clean Air Alliance, says the hottest days cause the biggest energy demand across the border as Americans fire up their air conditioners. "They are the most profitable days in the United States, but they also tend to be the worst days for smog in Canada," he says. "[Ontario Power Generation is] quite willing to sacrifice human health to make profits."

The decision to open or expand a power plant or pipeline rests largely with the National Energy Board. Denis Tremblay, a board spokesperson, says the increase in production is happening already. "There's definitely more drilling going on. In Alberta, they're running out of drills."

However, the board, he says, looks only at the impact each company has on the local environment and economy, not at the overall effect nationally or internationally. "As far as the effects of developing on the environment, we'll have to deal with that when they make each application," Tremblay says.

John Lowe, executive director of Natural Resources Canada, says his department also looks at each project as it arises: "When we build a pipeline, there is a conscientious environmental assessment, and I can't see us ever not doing that."

He adds that it's still too soon to tell exactly what the impact of the U.S. policy will be, and that a large response on the part of the federal government would be an overreaction. He points out that most of the authority over energy production belongs to the provinces.

Environmentalist Scott Vaughan says there are more than ninety jurisdictions involved in energy regulation in North America, and the situation is further complicated by the privatization of electricity in several states and provinces. Thanks to the North American Free Trade Agreement, both trade and investment in energy has been liberalized, making the Canada-U.S. border very porous when it comes to who does business where and how. The increase in Canadian energy exports over the last few years is as attributable to NAFTA - and to a falling Canadian dollar - as it is to increased demand south of the border.

"The Canadian government is simply following the market," says David Hocking of the David Suzuki Foundation. "It has no vision for an energy policy for Canada other than making the private sector as much money as it possibly can."

Sierra Club's John Bennett agrees. The U.S. plan, he says, has the potential for a large impact on the industry and the environment, yet the government has been virtually silent: "It's like someone just threw a million dollars up in the air and said 'Scramble!'"

Kate Heartfield is a freelance journalist who lives in Ottawa. She has written for The Ottawa Citizen, Ottawa Life Magazine, Ms. and Realm. Her last piece for was "Municipalities Fight Back," published May 23.

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