Originally published in the Edmonton Journal

EDMONTON – Politicians, industry and environmental groups across Canada are bracing for a lengthy battle to define how governments will balance competing demands to exploit national energy resources and protect the environment.

Premier Alison Redford has launched an ambitious bid to secure a pan-Canadian energy strategy, which she will discuss this week when she meets provincial and territorial leaders in Victoria for Council of the Federation meetings.

The idea has deep roots in the province’s most conservative think-tanks and tied to key strategists in Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s inner circle.

“We need to get people to come to a set of common values,” Redford said in an interview late last year.

“The first place I’d like to go with it is to get provincial leaders across the country — because we have jurisdiction over energy — to 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 stewardshipissues.

“I don’t believe that any province anymore can do its work in isolation, because we’re all affected by what other provinces are doing.”

Redford recently met with Quebec Pemier Jean Charest, who expressed his support for developing a national energy strategy. Saskatchewan Premier Brad Wall and British Columbia Premier Christy Clark have also agreed to back the idea, which could involve greater co-ordination in environmental standards, new infrastructure and getting energy resources to new markets.

Redford said environmental groups will play an important role in the process, partly because they can help ensure environmental concerns are addressed to Canadians’ satisfaction. This is crucial to secure the social licence to develop the resources, Redford said.

“I’m not naive. I don’t believe that by putting together a Canadian energy strategy that I’m going to get everyone to buy into … what we’re doing in the oilsands,” Redford said.

“But 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.”

This most recent attempt at a Canadian energy plan comes more than three decades after the introduction of the national energy program, an unpopular policy introduced by former prime minister Pierre Trudeau in 1980, and cancelled six years later.

The province is branding the new plan a “Canadian energy strategy” to distance it from the NEP, though the idea is fundamentally different.

Launched in Alberta

First, it was conceived in Alberta, not Ottawa. The concept was first laid out in a 2007 paper by Canada West Foundation CEO Roger Gibbins, a member of the University of Calgary school of conservative thinkers and a longtime colleague of Alberta Energy Minister Ted Morton.

At the time, Al Gore’s movie An Inconvenient Truth had just been released and the public discourse was dominated by talk of climate change. Gibbins said the think-tank didn’t want to see energy production take a back seat.

“What we argued is that the climate change debate is all about how we produce and use energy, that’s really the core,” Gibbins said. “If this is all about energy, then let’s not back into it from the climate-change debate.”

In his 10-page paper he argues that debate must begin in the West because “western Canadians have more skin in the game.” In a recent interview, Gibbins said it makes sense for Alberta to lead the way.

“The Alberta government realizes it needs the protection, or cover, of a Canadian energy strategy. If Alberta is going to go sort of mano-a-mano against opponents in the U.S. and so on, it’s just going to have a lot of trouble,” Gibbins said.

He said the Keystone and Northern Gateway pipeline projects “demonstrate how critically dependent Alberta is on a national strategy that identifies things like market access as matters of national interest.”

The controversial pipelines are crucial to Alberta’s ability to export its oilsands bitumen to the U.S. and Asian markets, Gibbins said, and getting them built will be much easier if the federal and provincial governments are all united behind the effort to do so.

Gibbins published a second paper in September 2008 and made the opening argument for a Canadian energy strategy.

Think-tanks agree

In 2009, a group of western think-tanks met in Winnipeg also agreed on the need for an energy strategy and formed the Winnipeg Consensus Group. That group went on to organize the Banff Clean Energy Dialogue, Gibbins said.

That invitation-only conference was hosted in April 2010 by the Canada School of Energy and Environment. The new school was headed at the time by Conservative political fixer Bruce Carson, a senior adviser to Prime Minister Stephen Harper. Carson is now embroiled in a sex and corruption scandal. The school’s report on the conference lists him as co-host; he is also a member of the Winnipeg Consensus Group.

Roughly 60 organizations took part in the Banff conference, and though the convention was heavily dominated by industry representatives and affiliates, some environmental groups were also invited, including the Pembina Institute and Pollution Probe.

The keynote speaker was David Emerson, a federal Liberal-turned-Conservative and former minister of international trade and foreign affairs under Harper. Emerson had by then become the chair of the Energy Policy Institute of Canada, or EPIC, a key industry think-tank established in the fall of 2009 with the single goal of shaping the Canadian energy strategy.

EPIC’s founding president is Alberta Senate candidate Doug Black, an energy lawyer and provincial Tory insider who co-chaired the Alberta Progressive Conservatives’ election campaign in 2008.

Black was also steering chairman and spokesman for the Canadian Coalition for Responsible Environmental Solutions. The anti-Kyoto business coalition made national headlines in 2002 after drafting a letter that suggested Canada’s leading investment dealers had secretly warned the prime minister’s office of a powerful Wall Street backlash against Canada’s ratification of the Kyoto Protocol.

It was later discovered the coalition’s letter had been leaked but never sent, and had been attributed to a leading investment dealers association without its permission. Black told the Toronto Star at the time: “We thought the (other group) would be a more credible source for it to come from.” The coalition subsequently went dormant.

David Collyer is the president of the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers, a member of EPIC that represents companies that produce about 90 per cent of Canada’s natural gas and crude oil. He believes a Canadian energy strategy will help energy producers at home and abroad.

“It helps us internally to get aligned and arrive at some common understandings and it helps us represent our views more effectively internationally,” Collyer said.

Reconciling varied interests

“If we can step above our differing interests – whether that’s between provinces, or between industrial sectors, or consumers versus producers or environmentalists versus the oil and gas industry – then I think we’ve got an opportunity to do what’s best for Canada.”

The Ottawa-based Council for Canadians has been lobbying for a Canadian energy strategy since 2009 and wants the government to put citizens’ interests first.

“A primary goal of an effective plan must look at how we can transition off of fossil fuels dependency,” energy campaigner Andrea Harden-Donahue said.

“We feel this is a responsibility we have to ourselves and future generations in the face of climate crisis, and it’s really planning that should have started years ago.”

Harden-Donahue said she believes Redford’s push for a national strategy is designed to legitimize the oilsands.

“When you have the premier of Alberta pushing for this sort of a strategy, it’s a way to have the oilsands formally accepted as legitimate. Alberta and the federal government have been arguing at the European Union and in the U.S. that the oilsands are no different than any other energy source, when the reality is quite starkly different.”