I never thought I'd see the day when the words "national," "energy" and "strategy" would be strung together and promoted by the Alberta government. For 30 years, Pierre Trudeau's 1980 National Energy Program (NEP) had been recurrently trotted out by Alberta premiers and Calgary's oilpatch, strung up, and ritualistically pummelled.
Don't you dare ever try a national energy plan on us again, they cried. Leave it to the market. Governments must stay out of the business of business. Canada had a new NEP -- no energy plan.
Ralph Klein, the former premier of Alberta who made "get out of the business of business" the centre point of his 13-year reign, admitted -- or was that bragged -- "we had no plan." Klein once claimed, apropos nothing, "By God, Ottawa, keep your hands off," even though no Liberal in Ottawa had threatened to put their hands on.
Now we see a coordinated effort to promote something called a "national energy strategy." Predictably, it started in business-supported think-tanks like C.D. Howe and the Canada West Foundation , associations of oil and gas corporations, and provincial hydro authorities. Soon the Canadian Council of Chief Executives (CCCE), representing 150 of the largest corporations in Canada, including big, foreign oil, joined in. Then Alberta made the call for a national strategy, and finally the premiers endorsed the principle last week in Kananaskis, Alta.
Why the about-face? Was it a Saul moment on the road to Damascus where the petrocrats finally saw a light from heaven?
Did the light tell them that Canada needs what every other industrial country already has, a national plan framed around energy security? As the 14th greatest oil importing country in the world, relying on foreign sources to supply half the oil Canadians use, this country surely needs a national strategy to replace OPEC oil that now accounts for half our imports.
Did the Saul moment include a plan to create strategic petroleum reserves that every other member in the 28-country International Energy Agency has? That includes Norway, a much greater net oil exporter than Canada.
Did it include a strategy to ship tar-free domestic oil from the West in a pipeline on Canadian soil so that easterners don't freeze in the dark when the next international oil shortage strikes?
What about energy independence, which every U.S. president since Richard Nixon has promised Americans but never delivered, because as Jimmy Carter said 34 years ago while occupying the Oval Office, "America wastes more oil than it imports"?
I searched in vain for the sustainable strategy that would deliver national energy security by strategizing how to scale down fossil fuel use in this country so we get in step with the rest of the world as it moves to a low-carbon future.
Instead, I saw a strategy for what Canada's first Conservative prime minister, John A. Macdonald, called Canadians' colonial role as hewers of wood and drawers of water, dressed up as a national strategy.
The CCCE released a "Clean Growth" report last fall that seems to have set the premiers' agenda. It calls for a bilateral accord with the U.S., a national approach to carbon-emissions pricing using the Alberta model, an "efficient" regulatory regime and branding Canada as a responsible environmental actor.
In plain English, the CCCE strategy is to deepen Canada's commitment to export most of our energy to the U.S., adopt Alberta's very low carbon price, gain much quicker approval for corporate megaprojects, and wash off Canada's dirty oil label.
Running into growing resistance in the U.S. to oil pipelines that regularly burst and to environmentalists' campaigns against "dirty tarsands oil," Ottawa and the Western provinces revised the CCCE strategy and framed it around diversifying exports to Asia. That's in Canada's "national interest," they say.
They could instead have learned what a real national strategy is from Canada's first one, John A's National Policy that aimed at and partially succeeded in broadening this country's economy beyond that of diggers of oil.
Or the Harper and Alberta Conservatives could learn from their current Conservative cousins in the United Kingdom. "Go green, vote Blue," urged the David Cameron Conservatives on their way to electoral victory in 2010. Charles Hendry, Britain's minister of energy and climate change, declared last fall that "there is a price for energy security but it's nothing like as high as the price of energy insecurity."
To have a truly sustainable, national energy security strategy, Canada has to power down. Instead of hoping for continual growth in a finite world, it could do worse than follow the wisdom of foundational conservative philosopher Edmund Burke.
"The great Error of our Nature is not to know where to stop; not to be satisfied with any reasonable Acquirement," Burke wrote in 1757, "not to compound our Condition; but to lose all we have gained by an insatiable Pursuit after more."
Gordon Laxer is co-founder and co-director of Parkland Institute at the University of Alberta.
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