National Energy Strategy? Yeah, right

I wouldn’t say this in a column, because columnists aren’t supposed to say such things. But this isn’t a column, it’s a blog post, which is 100 per cent not the same.

I told you so.

Okay, maybe it was easy to predict that the Harper government wouldn’t buy in to the idea of a provincially-inspired national energy strategy. It was one of those situations  that sounded very nice, but had absolutely nowhere to go. And I told you it wouldn’t go anywhere.

You’ll recall that in July, most of the provincial premiers backed the idea of a “national energy strategy” to bring coherence to Canadian production and distribution, from petroleum to hydro power, coal, nuclear, wind and other renewables. While all of those sources are under provincial jurisdiction, proponents wanted the federal government to join in, putting everyone on the same song sheet.

Alberta Premier Alison Redford proposed the idea and since Alberta currently holds the Most Favoured Province rating with the Harper government, some people thought it would fly. Redford wanted the whole country to demonstrate support for the oil sands as part of the exercise.

It was obviously not going to happen, even though most premiers and certainly our prime minister support oil sands development. And it won’t happen. The federal government simply isn’t interested in elaborate deals with the provinces over anything.

Just ask Joe Oliver, federal minister of natural resources. Oliver, undoubtedly reflecting the views of province-averse Stephen Harper, says there’s no need for a national plan for energy.

Oliver maintains that Ottawa already has a national strategy on energy. It can be summarized pretty simply: markets dictate pricing and provinces control how energy is developed. The feds retain a role in regulation and cross-border matters like pipelines, but the Harper government won’t tinker in the energy space.

It won’t tinker, but it will cheerlead. The Tory government is the biggest, happiest, most positive fan in the world of Alberta’s “ethical oil,” so much so that environmental groups who think otherwise are demonized as foreign-financed troublemakers. On oil, Ottawa is not neutral. And Oliver won’t be getting on board with any gosh-darned national strategy.

He maintains there already is one, it’s just not called that. Nor is it, in any substantive way, the creation of the current government.

The Tory administration under Brian Mulroney brought about the last truly significant changes in federal energy policy. In 1985, the Tories started dismantling most of the worst parts of the Liberals’ chaotic National Energy Program, killed a slew of taxes and let the market decide pricing for both oil and natural gas.

Staying out of the oil patch’s face has been federal policy ever since, even under the otherwise-interfering Liberals. The current Harper government hasn’t done anything significant to modify it. Now, its sweating out a new oil challenge: foreign investment.

The proposed takeover of Nexen Inc. by a Chinese state oil company poses a real challenge to the Harper government: to come up with a clear and coherent policy on oil patch takeovers. The deal might never fly.

Oliver does see merit in the idea of building a pipeline to bring Alberta oil to the East Coast. He sees it as a job-boosting project that “also demonstrates to Canadians in Atlantic Canada and Quebec what the advantages are of having robust resources in Alberta.”

“If you want to put a bow on it and call it a Canadian Energy Strategy, go ahead,” Oliver said, in a classic moment of senior government condescension. “We’re not applying that labelling to it.”

It’s not just Oliver who sees little merit in devising national strategies for energy. The provinces themselves aren’t unanimous. As a pre-condition to even discussing it, B.C. Premier Christy Clark wants, in effect, a cut of the cash from Alberta’s oil revenue. Pigs will fly first.

As to Oliver’s claim that there’s an energy strategy already in place, what is it? There’s been barely a jot of change in Canadian energy policy in 25 years.

If there is a national enery strategy, it’s a combination of leftover Mulroney-era reforms and Harper’s miniskirt-and-pom poms approach to the western oil patch. Oh yeah, and calling ourselves an energy superpower. We’re Number 5! Go us!

About Dan Leger

Journalist, broadcaster, consultant. And sailor. I've been a pro journalist for more than 30 years as a reporter, writer, producer and senior editor. Parliamentary reporter for The Canadian Press. Executive Producer, CBC Television News, Former Director of News Content at The Chronicle Herald. Gemini Award - Best Live Special Event Coverage (1999) and Atlantic Journalism Awards winner, Commentary (2007 and 2009).
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