National Energy Strategy?

September 11th, 2013
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My “Letter from Calgary” column from the mid-October 2012 issue of the Investment Executive newspaper:

JOE OLIVER, THE FEDERAL NATURal resources minister, has been showing a better understanding of Alberta’s interests than Alberta’s premier herself. Alison Redford’s continuous but uninformed urgings for a national energy strategy – sounding like fingernails on chalkboard to Albertans of a certain age – have gotten the province nowhere while exposing it to extreme risk.

It took the blunt-talking Oliver to point out that there already is a national energy strategy. It’s called Ottawa’s current policy. And it’s about as pro-Alberta as any federal government’s has ever been. Back in mid-September, Oliver pointedly noted that nothing Redford had suggested isn’t already being done by Ottawa. But, as Oliver phrased it: “If you want to put a bow on it and call it a ‘national energy strategy, ‘ go ahead.”

Ouch. Redford could counter that Ottawa’s policy is federal rather than truly national, one with input and buy-in from all provinces and territories. But to make that distinction is to illuminate how unwieldy Redford’s idea is. Perhaps far worse: it’s a death trap.

When do all the provinces, territories and Ottawa reach consensus on anything? Energy is one of the worst areas. Not only do hard economic interests diverge or conflict, but the very mention of oil and natural gas exports triggers conflicts of ideology, debates over nationalism vs globalization, hoarding resources “for our children” vs trading them for cash today, environmental preservation vs careful development, and visceral emotions as irrational as they are deep-seated.

It’s too bad that Redford doesn’t recognize that the current lack of a national strategy is as good as it gets for Alberta. There is routine but fragmented sniping from other provinces while Alberta pursues its energy interests and works with a supportive federal government. Alberta fought Ottawa for decades to get to this point – and came remarkably close to separating from Canada over energy policy.

Today’s situation is vastly better than in the long decades preceding the late 1980s, when Alberta had to seek federal approval for every individual export shipment of natural gas. Sure, there are still tough individual issues today, such as the Northern Gateway pipeline. But these can be worked out one on one, in which Alberta negotiates as an equal. Under Redford’s process-obsessed push for a national energy strategy, the province would face multiple opponents.

Energy should be the very last policy area in which a resources-based, export-driven, trade-dependent province should put itself in the position of asking permission from counterparts with completely different interests, agendas and political constituencies.

Formless musings have become a Redford trademark. She agonizes over normal situations of competing interests. It may be a holdover from her long career as an unelected government official. In any case, it’s utterly unrealistic and very dangerous for the province she has been elected to lead.

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By George Koch
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