By Martha Hall Findlay
Published on

June 20, 2019

Those of us engaged in the world of public policy almost always have something to suggest that is different, or better, or more considered, than what our political decision-makers propose or decide.

We stress the need for decisions to be non-partisan, based on objective evidence, with the greater public interest in mind.

But it’s easier for us. After all, politicians must consider their political fortunes in the decisions they make. We don’t have to get elected to keep our jobs.

So it’s nice every once in a while to say to political leaders, “Well done.”

The federal government’s approval of the expansion of the Trans Mountain pipeline, and what came with it, is one of those times.

(Of course, public policy types like me always have ideas to make things better, and I’ve saved one of them for the end of this piece.)

A crucial sector

Our oil and gas sector is hugely important to the Canadian economy — to our collective economic and social prosperity. It is several orders of magnitude greater than, for example, Canada’s auto sector, or our steel and aluminum sector — both of which get a lot of concern, care and attention.

Yet there remain some who believe that this doesn’t matter; that no matter how economically important our ability to sell our oil and gas resources is, for the sake of climate change Canada should keep all of what we have in the ground.

This may have emotional appeal, but it simply makes no sense. Canada has no control over world demand. And as long as there is global demand for fossil fuels — and there will be for some time — then they will be extracted and sold by someone. If not Canada, then Saudi Arabia, Venezuela, Algeria, Russia, others.

Yet at the same time as we refuse to buy so-called blood diamonds (for good reason), why would anyone prefer that the world buy oil and gas from those countries, with terrible human rights and environmental behaviours, and not Canada?

Canadian oil and gas extraction has seen dramatic reductions of GHG emissions per barrel. It is no longer “dirty” oil, but instead equal or better than the average barrel used in North America. And significant further reductions are in the works.

Our other environmental standards are world-leading, as are our labour and health and safety standards.

Some still want to keep Canadian resources in the ground, but really, the world needs more Canadian oil and gas.

To be clear, building TMX will not solve the sector’s market access challenges, but it is a key part, and the message from Ottawa was critical.

No one really wanted the federal government to buy TMX, but better they did than let it die. And with the recent decision to give it the go ahead, we have the chance to say, “well done.”

Proper consultation

Well done, also, on the eight additional commitments made in response to the more recent consultations with Indigenous communities.

These are not more regulatory conditions that could scare off investors, these are commitments to be fulfilled by the government in response to concerns they heard.

That is how consultation is supposed to work.

Well done, also, on the clear open door to Indigenous partnership, whether via equity participation, revenue sharing, even outright ownership.

This type of economic engagement represents the clearest path to true reconciliation. It is exciting to see these opportunities evolve.

And finally, well done — and a stroke of brilliant politics — to promise to turn any profits from the operations and ultimate sale to develop and deploy low-carbon technology to reduce GHG emissions.

One more idea

Now, here’s that idea I mentioned earlier. This would be the perfect opportunity — and dare we say even more good politics — to use some of that funding to help a project that would result in major GHG-reductions: increased transmission and electric power system connections between Manitoba and Saskatchewan.

Manitoba has clean hydro-electricity available; Saskatchewan wants to wean itself off coal, but neither province can fund the infrastructure to get Manitoba electricity to Saskatchewan on its own. Money from an oil pipeline going to fund replacing coal with clean, Canadian, hydro-electricity makes a lot of sense.

Helping two prairie provinces would also make for some great politics.