Friday, 26 July 2013

The National Energy Plan as Environmentalist Holy Grail

Every few years, some Canadian environmentalists campaign vigorously for a national energy plan in the mistaken belief that it is not only achievable, but will reduce carbon pollution. Since this pursuit deflects their focus from Canada’s ineffective climate policies, it is a welcome gift to carbon polluters and their political operatives. And, amazingly, decades of failure have failed to dampen enthusiasm for this Holy Grail quest.

The stark reality is that a meaningful energy plan in Canada is unachievable. The country is a federation in which ownership of natural resources and much responsibility for environmental protection resides with the provinces. It would be political suicide for a provincial politician to voluntarily relinquish that control to the federal government or a multi-provincial planning agency. And, given the diversity of energy resources in the country – especially the contrast between hydropower-rich and fossil fuel-rich regions – the energy and environment interests of provincial governments across the country diverge dramatically.

This does not stop some provinces at some times from calling for some of the elements one might expect to find in a national energy plan. Alberta today would love a national plan that forced an oil pipeline through BC to the Pacific just as for decades Newfoundland has wanted a national plan that forced a high voltage transmission line through Quebec. But BC and Quebec would have to willingly cede their constitutional rights to such a plan. No provincial politician could do this and survive. So while provincial politicians may sometimes negotiate bi-lateral deals that expand energy infrastructure, like pipelines and transmission lines, they will never give up their constitutional authority to some national energy plan or planning agency.

This reality does not prevent provincial politicians from uttering conciliatory and promising sound-bites when someone asks them at a premiers’ meeting about a national energy plan. But it is downright foolish to interpret such comments as portending real change. With an energy system that is laden with competing interests (especially fossil fuel expansion with the effort to stop global warming), it is almost inevitable that a negotiated energy plan – even a plan for just one province – would be milquetoast, albeit chock full of terms like “sustainable development,” “energy affordability,” and “economic opportunity.”

I confess that my views are partly influenced by the sad fact that, like Charlie Brown repeatedly duped by Lucy into trying to place-kick a football, I have participated in negotiating several provincial energy plans over the years – in Quebec, BC, and the Yukon (twice!). All of them were dominated by motherhood statements. None did anything to reduce carbon pollution.

Environmentalists hate it when people delude themselves about the evidence on climate science. How about applying the same rigor to the evidence about the likelihood of a Canadian energy plan that significantly reduces carbon pollution? An effective national climate plan is already a long shot. Why worsen the odds by wrapping it inside an impossible-to-achieve energy plan?


  1. As a Canadian studying & living in the U.S., I'm always fascinated by the differences in governance between the two countries.

    The U.S., arguably, don't have a national energy "plan"—in the sense that there's no one document or piece of legislation which lays out a complete statement of the country's energy policy—but they do have a federal Department of Energy. Although by budget the DoE is mostly focused on managing the nuclear stockpile, it also contains offices like the Energy Information Administration (statistics & projections) and ARPA-E (promoting energy-related R&D).

    Setting aside the impossibility of an energy *plan*, wouldn't these be appropriate roles for a Canadian Ministry of Energy? The current approach of splitting the energy file between National Resources, Environment, Foreign Affairs etc. might allow the government of the day to pursue its policy goals by venue-shopping, but it hardly encourages coherent planning.

  2. According to the Department of Energy, 56 percent of the total energy use in American homes is spent on heating and cooling. That explains why utility bills are so much greater during months when the weather is the most severe. When you find ways to make your home more energy efficient, you ultimately save money on your utility costs.