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With Low Oil Prices, the Time is NOW to Reframe the Canadian Energy Debate

Most people don’t think about energy until it isn’t there when they need it. Just imagine one million people without power to their TVs during last night’s airing of The Walking Dead? Many would be outraged, but- what about the rest of the time? Where, when and how do we talk about energy in Canada, and is it a productive dialogue? 

Per capita, Canadians rank fourth in their energy consumption around the world, yet for many consumers, energy is invisible- out of sight and out of mind. Most Canadians tend to think very little about how energy enters their homes, often taking for granted that when they flick a switch the lights will come on.  For instance when asked in a School of Public Policy survey what the main source of electricity generation was in Alberta, most residents (42%) answered natural gas, which is incorrect. The correct answer is coal, making up over 70% of electricity generation in Alberta in 2010. This, in contrast to natural gas – the lower carbon alternative- which sources only 18% of Alberta’s electricity generation.

But behind the everyday convenience of energy at our fingertips, a debate rages on about how energy resources are developed in Canada. Far too often this debate occurs in forums like regulatory hearings that are ill-equipped to foster a comprehensive dialogue that is inclusive of the thoughts and ideas of Canadians at large. With the price of oil hovering around $50, and ever increasing costs of regulatory delay, the time is now to reframe the terms of Canada’s energy debate for the better. Canadians deserve a productive venue for energy related debate and dialogue that is based on the principles of energy affordability, fairness, environmental sustainability and economic prosperity. Without it, Canadians risk losing affordable energy, a key component towards high quality of life.

Adversarial roles in the energy debate often put governments, industry, and regulators on one side of the debate, facing First Nations groups and environmental groups on the other. Frequently these groups find themselves at odds during the regulatory process over the outcomes of certain energy projects, rather than discussing their respective concerns about energy development more broadly. These different perspectives about how oil and gas development should take place often manifest themselves in costly delays at regulatory hearings, when the time for debate about policymaking is long over and done with. Simply put, regulatory hearings are not valid venues for productive dialogues about energy policy.

This is not only because regulators are technical, unelected experts responsible for enforcing regulations (not developing policy), but also because they are bound only to take into consideration the viewpoints of those directly and adversely affected by projects under their direct purview. When stakeholders that are not directly or adversely affected by a specific project become involved in the project’s regulatory hearings, unfair and costly delays can result for proponents. These delays can alter the economic viability of projects, an unexpected problem for proponents. Additionally, in presenting their arguments at this venue, some stakeholders limit their ability to meaningfully engage in Canada’s broader energy debate; a real lose-lose situation.

But if not at regulatory hearings, then where should these voices be heard? Arguably, this debate should occur in a setting where conveners are better equipped to foster a collaborative dialogue and where disparate interests can be mitigated in a more neutral, less combative, and most importantly, more effective manner that gives meaningful results. As owners of the natural resources, provinces are responsible for oil and gas development and must play a leadership role in effectively facilitating and managing this debate. But our federal government has a role to play too, as convener. Not only because many energy projects, like the Keystone Pipeline, cross borders and require federal involvement in their development, but also because the energy dialogue demands national leadership as well. Affordable energy is absolutely critical to the quality of life we enjoy as Canadians, so let’s reframe the energy debate now, before it’s too late.