Sep 9, 2012 / 7:37 am
When federal and provincial energy ministers meet in Charlottetown this week, forging a national energy strategy is conspicuously absent from the agenda.
The topic was all the rage this summer, with business groups, environmentalists, aboriginal groups and almost all the premiers saying the time has come for Canadian leaders to hash out a solid plan on how they will handle the country's natural resources.
Alberta Premier Alison Redford travelled from province to province, persuading one premier after another that a national energy strategy was in everyone's interests.
But the premiers' meeting in July ended with BC Premier Christy Clark refusing to talk about any of it until her demands on the Northern Gateway pipeline were recognized.
Now, as the provinces come together once again, and are joined by the federal government's Minister of Natural Resources Joe Oliver, top-level talks toward a national energy strategy appear to have been downgraded to "discussions for collaboration."
"I'm looking forward to discussing ways we can collaborate on future energy development," was all Prince Edward Island's minister of finance and energy, Wes Sheridan, would say.
Alberta, the driving force behind the push for a national plan, will be in listening mode only, after a last-minute family issue forced Energy Minister Ken Hughes to stay home.
"We're not pushing a national energy strategy in those terms," Oliver said in an interview late Saturday, before leaving to meet his provincial counterparts for dinner on Sunday night. "But the nomenclature isn't what matters."
He said the phrase irks many people, likely referring to Westerners with bad memories of the National Energy Program of 1980, but possibly also to the federal government's disdain for grandiose national strategies of any kind.
Instead, he said the Sunday evening-to-Tuesday meetings will focus on implementing federal changes to environmental assessment, making sure marine and pipeline safety standards are world class, and investing in market diversification, labour, environment and efficiency.
But that's not to say the national energy strategy is dead.
There's a broad realization that the country's regions need to take collective responsibility of the development of natural resources so that each region can share in the jobs and economic spin-offs, Oliver said.
And after speaking with both Redford and Clark frequently and recently about their differences and about their vision for energy exports, Oliver says there is plenty of common ground.
Four of Clark's five conditions are being met, he said, pointing to her insistence that the pipeline pass environmental muster, that oil spill prevention and response are improved both on land and in the sea, and that First Nations rights must be recognized.
Yet Oliver did not address the fifth and most problematic condition: that BC receive "its fair share" of the economic benefits stemming from exporting heavy oil.
Regardless of their differences and the official agenda, the ministers will wind up talking about the need for pan-Canadian infrastructure that will allow for more efficient export of the country's resources, Oliver added.
Every region of the country is caught up with the challenge of moving resources to market and diminishing their dependence on American buyers, he said.
In their July statement, however, the premiers, except Clark, were more ambitious than that. They issued a list of common principles and said a national energy strategy was "urgent" because Canada is facing newfound demand for its commodities just as the pressure to deal with climate change soars.
The statement was not just about pipelines and bitumen. It was also about creating a low-carbon economy, sustainable development, renewable energy and taking a more integrated approach to climate change.
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