Strategy, Schmategy

March 25th, 2012
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Elections must be in the air – or maybe the meat drawer of my fridge needs cleaning. Well, something is hanging heavy in the air. Why else would Allison Redford be trotting out the “National Energy Strategy” thingy just now? Apparently she expounded on it at a meeting of the CAPP (Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers) Wednesday evening.

As reported by Pat Roche in the Daily Oil Bulletin, the as yet un-elected Premier touted her recent meetings with other premiers saying “we’re getting very good support”. Presumably that ignores Queen’s Park.  “We need to ensure that all Canadians feel a connection to creating an energy economy that will allow us all to succeed. And I think that’s possible,” Roche quotes her as saying. And further: “This is building momentum. Our ministers of energy will meet, I believe, in Prince Edward Island this summer to monitor the progress on a Canadian energy strategy, and I think we’ll have good news coming from that. The momentum is growing.”

I guess saying the word “momentum” often enough is almost as good as having actual momentum. Kind of like renewing your commitments. It’s almost as good as actually doing something, except that it isn’t.

Redford first floated this balloon back in January, following interviews late last year where she maintained that “We need to get people to come to a set of common values” and “acknowledge that we all need to support each other on our infrastructure objectives, on our goals with respect to greenhouse gas reduction (and) our environmental stewardship issues”. The originator of this thinking is purported to be the Canada West Foundation’s Roger Gibbins, who stated that the Alberta government needs the “protection, or cover, of a Canadian energy strategy” in order to achieve its goals in this field. Redford’s further remarks are instructive: “what I do want to say to thoughtful (environmental groups) that are concerned about environmental outcomes: Please come and work with us, and let’s try to develop a relationship of trust so we can achieve better outcomes than we are now, which is what we all want to do.”

These statements all reveal a particular, dubious line of reasoning. Firstly, the tone is defensive and the method suggests the underlying assumption that Alberta must justify its resource development not only to all the other provinces but to “thoughtful” environmental groups. The fact that Alberta’s environmental stewardship has been exemplary is not assumed, but apparently must be proven to the satisfaction of these groups. Good luck with that.

The clear economic benefit to all Canadians of Alberta’s resources must seemingly be muddled by a debate over industrial emissions. Rather than clearly state Alberta’s very positive contribution to the country, the preference seems rather to be entering immediately into some kind of negotiation where it’s unclear exactly what’s on the table and even who is at the table. So the manner of resource development, which is clearly of benefit to all Canadians, must by definition be watered down amongst a mire of competing interests. The “common values” that Redford seeks to discover, or create, are similarly undefined and open-ended.

This puzzling approach then begs the question as to the probability of achieving some kind of national energy consensus and what it would be, but also what kind of person strives after “national strategies” in the first place. Those broad, sweeping concepts are like intellectual meringue – light, airy, inviting, and for a moment tasty, but just as quickly gone in a bit of spittle.

Readers will be shocked to learn that I share with Prime Minister Harper a sense of bewilderment regarding Premier Redford’s yen for a national strategy. Equally unsurprising is his preference for market-based solutions. In fact, the call by Redford and others for a collective “strategy” suggests their lack of confidence in the market’s ability to provide optimal solutions.

Similarly, Wildrose Party leader Danielle Smith prefers a focussed approach: providing the best possible representation for Alberta in specific regulatory matters – such as the Northern Gateway pipeline – and targeted cultivation of bi-lateral relationships that aid Alberta’s resource development.

Those with experience in government, or any other challenging enterprise, will know that one only has so much energy, so much political capital to expend in any endeavour. So the imperative inevitably becomes – focus, focus, focus. This experience again breeds a spontaneous skepticism for complicated, drawn-out processes as a means of achieving difficult goals.

All of this underscores the ill-considered, questionable nature of Redford’s approach. I believe it also betrays her innate preference for “process” rather than an instinctive confidence in market solutions. One hopes that political developments will preclude her from further managing our province’s energy development.

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By John Weissenberger