Canada: An Energy Superpower?

What wonderful political spin! You’ve all heard of spin, a modern word for questionable public relations. One generous definition of spin is telling only the facts that suit the corporation or government in question. In the hands of PR flacks with “flexible” principles, spin can lapse into the realm of storytelling that bears little resemblance to the truth.

I have to admit to a little surprise recently when Steven Harper started re-branding Canada as an energy “super power”. Obviously, the Prime Minister has access to information that the public doesn’t have. The decline of conventional light and heavy oil in Western Canada started in 1973 and 1997 respectively according to the National Energy Board (NEB), the agency given the task of advising the government on energy matters. As to conventional natural gas production from the West: “Initial productivity of new wells continues to decline and will require an increasing number of new wells each year just to hold deliverability constant” – source NEB report.

But Canada does have the oil sands, that dubious energy source of last resort, those gold mines of bitumen which nature has unfortunately mixed into the sand. Some of the more environmentally conscious of our citizens have noted that oil sands extraction consumes large quantities of natural gas, fresh water and despoils huge tracts of land, and generates huge quantities of CO2. In fact using natural gas to produce oil has been compared to making lead from gold. But I digress…

Could this be where our energy superpower status comes from? Perhaps the real message being spun is convincing the masses of Canadians that we are an energy superpower, and a super power can do anything. An energy superpower must have lots of energy to export. Is that why the PM has been trumpeting this message in New York, London and other locales looking for investment? The plan is for oil sands production to rise from 1 to 4 million barrels a day by 2015. The cost of this development plan is between $100 to 150 billion dollars and it’s a bonanza for the west and the rest of Canada by the way of jobs, jobs, jobs. Corporate America and Canada are making huge dollars on these projects so there probably won’t be any real discussion about strategic planning.

What would be in the strategic energy interests of Canada and Canadians, assuming that we eventually do talk about it in a rational way?

In the same way that we have a national highway and railway; ensure that energy sources can move east – west or west – east before additional exports are allowed. For example, crude oil would be made available to Central and Eastern Canada before China or the United States receive additional tar sands output. In another example, Manitoba has 5000 MW of hydro potential sites available for development that could be transmitted east or west instead of south if the necessary transmission lines were in place? With a capacity factor of 60%, this is close to $2.5 billion in annual revenue, which is equivalent to a $30 billion construction budget. Can we build the dams and transmission for that amount? Quite likely. A bonus from this plan would be a roughly 20-megatonne reduction in CO2 gases, which is a significant amount. (if this displaces 100% carbon sources).

What about BC, Quebec and Newfoundland hydro expansion plans? Can we think big here?

The federal government could also recognize world peak oil depletion as a national security issue and retain adequate reserves of energy in Canada to last for many generations to come. Around the world, stated owned companies control 75% of the world’s oil resources. It is interesting that China’s state owned companies are buying Canada’s resource industries lately. Other countries recognize that energy is a strategic resource too important to be left to the private sector.

Canada could make significant investments in renewable energy of all types to help the transition from carbon sources. Could the Lower Churchill project in Labrador be financed in part by a federal government carbon reduction loan? Provinces would guarantee the repayment of eligible projects with interest. In other words, the federal government could make itself useful and significant to Canadians.

How about government programs to reduce the energy footprint of Canadian homes and businesses. The recent announcement of a four year $220 million energy efficiency program is the equivalent of $1.80 per Canadian per year. This is a little better than nothing but probably could be called window dressing for an upcoming election.

Could Steven Harper become a statesman and a remarkable Prime Minister? Nothing is impossible if the PM reflects on his energy and environmental orientation. His steadfast friendship with George Bush is admirable. George has been losing friends lately and needs all he can get. However, we should not believe that selling huge amounts of oil to the United States provides long-term value for Canada. It’s like selling the family inheritance for a bottle of rum. An American once noted very clearly – “The US has no friends, only interests” and that best summarizes their feelings towards Canada. The relationship between Canada and the United States is based solely on business interests. How many times have our “good friends” south of the border sacrificed our interests? The truth of the matter is that Canadians don’t vote in American elections and really don’t count. Let’s get over it and move on towards solid investments for Canada.

Steven Harper was elected to look after the long-term interests of Canada. If his policies are created though that prism and solid plans are advanced with courage, he could yet build a respected place in Canadian history.

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