Oil sands and pipeline debates hindered by lack of energy plan

Photo: Oil sands and pipeline debates hindered by lack of energy plan

We need to slow down development, get our share of the wealth, and save some of the riches and resource for the future. (Credit: NASA Earth Observatory via Flickr)

The ongoing pipeline debates have become mired in conspiracy theories, distractions, and misinformation. Is there nothing we can all agree on?

To begin, who would deny that our most basic human needs are clean air and water, productive soils, and a diversity of species? It isn’t controversial to argue that we must protect these necessities of life.

We also need energy — from a mix of sources. Oil will be in that mix for the foreseeable future. But surely we can all agree that burning fossil fuels at the current or greater rate is not healthy for humans and the environment. Rational people also agree that doing so is driving dangerous climate change that threatens human existence.

Where does that leave us? Canada has tremendous natural wealth, especially energy resources. But we have no plan to guide us in the way we extract and use them or in how we get energy to Canadians. Indeed, one rarely reads of a national energy plan without seeing a reference to the “hated” National Energy Program brought in by Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau’s Liberal government in 1980 and killed after Brian Mulroney’s Progressive Conservative government won the 1984 election.

That plan was a response to the 1970s energy crisis, when oil prices skyrocketed. Its aims were to promote energy self-sufficiency and Canadian ownership, maintain supply, keep prices in check, promote oil exploration and alternative energy sources, and increase government revenues. But it ticked people off in Alberta. They saw it as federal meddling in provincial affairs.

Regardless of the successes and failures of the NEP, history shouldn’t prevent us from joining the rest of the developed world in getting an energy strategy in place. To that end, the David Suzuki Foundation is formulating a long-range plan, working with the Canadian Academy of Engineering on the Trottier Energy Futures Project.

It’s where I find common ground with people ranging from industry and union leaders to Alberta’s new conservative premier, Alison Redford, and several other Canadian premiers. Redford calls her idea a Canadian Energy Strategy to avoid the dreaded NEP association.

With so many bright people considering various plans, surely we can find a way to resolve some serious problems we’ve created. A solid strategy, developed with input from Canadians from all walks of life, would help us make more rational decisions about the oil sands and pipelines, as well as about other energy sources, including renewables and cleaner alternatives.

Should we send more of our raw bitumen to refineries in the U.S. or China via new pipelines? Keep in mind that the Keystone pipeline, now on hold in light of President Barack Obama’s decision to reject the current proposal, is not for supplying the U.S. with oil, but to take the bitumen to Texas for refining and eventual export.

I agree with former Alberta Premier Peter Lougheed, one of the NEP’s staunchest opponents, on this one. Lougheed has sensibly argued that shipping all our bitumen to the U.S. or China for refining means sending jobs to those countries instead of keeping them here.

Lougheed has also argued that we should behave like owners of the oil sands; that we need to slow down development, get our share of the wealth, and save some of the riches and resource for the future.

I couldn’t agree more. We Canadians have to remember that oil corporations — whether they’re from China, the U.S., Canada, or wherever — are tenants on our land, not landlords. We should be calling the shots, and deriving the benefits.

It’s time to get beyond conspiracy theories about small amounts of U.S. funding for environmental groups, insults about radicals, and cheap marketing slogans like ethical oil. (The David Suzuki Foundation gets less than 10 per cent of its funding from foreign sources, very little of which is used for climate and energy work.)

We shouldn’t sell any more of our raw materials or resource industry, expand oil sands production, or build new pipelines until we have a plan in place to ensure that Canadians benefit first — from the energy, the jobs, and the wealth. And we should make damn sure that whatever we do, we do it in a way that minimizes the impact on the environment.