Much ado about Canada’s energy ‘strategy’ – by Andrew Coyne (National Post – January 7, 2012)

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Then we’re agreed. Canada needs a national energy strategy, says the Canadian Council of Chief Executives. Canada needs a national energy strategy, the Council of Canadians concurs. What this country needs is a national energy strategy, asserts the Energy Policy Institute of Canada, an industry group. Or what about a national energy strategy, counters the Alberta Federation of Labour, not an industry group. The country’s energy ministers discussed the need for a national energy strategy at their meeting last summer, since which time not a week has passed without someone demanding to know why we have not yet got one.

Given the idea has such universal support across the land, it might seem strange to find the prime minister, of all people, in some uncertainty as to its meaning. Asked his views on a Calgary radio show, Stephen Harper confessed, “the honest truth is I don’t know precisely what it means. I’m looking forward to having some discussions with some provinces to find out what they have in mind.” But in fact the prime minister’s confusion is entirely appropriate.

When so many disparate groups with such disparate aims are all in support of the same thing, it’s usually a sign they have very different things in mind. As with most proposals for a “national strategy” for anything, the words “national” and “strategy” are essentially placeholders. If they mean anything at all — a debatable proposition — they are stand-ins for “my preferred policy.” But a call to adopt “my preferred energy policy” lacks a certain something, especially when compared to the grandmasterly, world-historic sweep of “a national energy strategy.”

Why a strategy, rather than a policy? Experience teaches that where “strategy” goes, “strategic” is never far behind. Why do we need a national strategy for energy and not, say, for shampoo? Because, dear child: energy is a “strategic” sector. And what makes it so strategic? Perhaps the Energy Policy Institute can shed some light. “Canada’s rich abundance of resources and its success in building an open and vibrant energy market,” it explains in a policy paper, “has created a significant and strategic sector for the Canadian economy.” So: “large,” then.

Well, not quite. If the need for a strategy is implied by the strategic nature of the industry, the word strategic is usually taken to mean it possesses certain unique qualities that exempt it from the ordinary laws of economics, such as might govern lesser commodities: rather, some sort of government intervention is in order. In other words, it’s strategic on account of the need for a strategy. Or as former TransCanada Corp. CEO Hal Kvisle puts it, “there’s some room for some central planning here. Not in the Communist sense of the word, but somebody has to come up with a game plan.”

Ah, but whose game plan is it to be? When industry and business groups talk about a national energy strategy, they mean a concerted push to expand sales of Canadian oil abroad, together with the regulatory approvals needed to make it happen at home: a big broom to sweep away local objections to energy infrastructure projects, such as Enbridge’s Northern Gateway pipeline, the subject of hearings starting Tuesday in British Columbia. But when labour and environmental groups talk about a national energy strategy, they mean policies to reduce Canada’s use of fossil fuels, whether through conservation or alternative energy sources.

For the rest of this article, please go to the National Post/Financial Post website: http://fullcomment.nationalpost.com/2012/01/06/andrew-coyne-much-ado-about-canadas-energy-strategy/

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