By Len Coad
In the Vancouver Sun

June 15, 2013


Most Canadians live in the southern part of their provinces and this is where most energy is consumed. Despite this, energy is a northern development issue since the hydrocarbons and hydropower resources being developed are primarily located in the northern regions of the provinces.

Debating energy development in the abstract fails to take into account the huge impact it has on northern communities. We’ve spent too much time and (pardon the pun) energy on ad hoc debates.

We need think hard about northern energy development and we need to get six things right:

  • We need to be a global leader in environmental performance and recognized as such;
  • We need to ensure aboriginal communities benefit from and support energy development;
  • We need to have access to the best markets for our energy resources and the infrastructure to reach them;
  • We need to ensure that the energy industry has earned a clear social licence to operate;
  • We need to be an international powerhouse in energy services and technologies; and
  • We need to make sure our governments are working together on energy policy.

Northern communities struggle with a lack of infrastructure and educational opportunities. Health services are often in short supply. Aboriginal culture infuses and enriches community life but social challenges like poverty, unemployment and racism continue to disproportionately affect aboriginal people. Dependence on a single resource industry, partnerships with resource companies and close proximity to the environmental impacts of resource development mean that the pros and cons of the resource economy are always front and centre.

It’s a difficult path. Successful resource development requires companies and communities to balance their relative interests in a way that protects the natural environment, facilitates an appropriate level of economic activity and is supported by local communities as well as the broader public.

As resource companies partner with local communities, the discussion must include a broad range of themes. Companies must understand that they need the support of northern communities, and that thriving communities return dividends to project development. Viewing local communities as nothing more than a series of town hall meetings necessary to the project development phase is missing a fundamental opportunity.

In turn, northern communities must understand that although resource development provides employment and builds community infrastructure, there are no entitlements. Communities must ask what they can bring to the partnership, recognizing that a strong contribution builds greater social and economic benefits for all.

Each of the key themes around northern energy development requires effective partnerships between companies, communities and governments. For example, environmental protection is best accomplished when based on fundamental science, good data, community input, and effective monitoring and enforcement.

All parties need to have confidence that the process works and is achieving environmental outcomes.

All parties need to be willing to do their part to make the necessary repairs when the system begins to fail, or when the target outcomes are not achieved.

Pointing fingers and denying responsibility helps no one.

In today’s world of sound bites and partisan advocacy, collaboration may seem outdated and ineffective. However, working together to understand each others’ positions, find common ground and build on small successes to tackle larger issues can be transformative.

Progress is essential to more than just heavy oil pipelines in British Columbia. Finding common ground on each of these themes will help focus discussion on areas where consensus is difficult. It will also provide examples of how to resolve our differences. Finding common ground will help us understand how northern communities can best participate in resource development that creates wealth beyond their borders. Companies, communities and governments working together provide the best opportunity to meeting the needs of all stakeholders.

Len Coad is the Director of the Centre for Natural Resources Policy. The Canada West Foundation recently releasedEngine of Growth: A Western Canadian Energy Policy Framework, which outlines six policy issues that need to be addressed to secure Canada’s future as an energy supplier.