Albertans shouldn’t fear a greener economy

This op-ed was published in the Calgary Herald on October 10, 2012.

Re: “Even an imperfect energy strategy is worth pursuing,” Robert Roach, Opinion, Sept. 27.

Robert Roach’s piece raises many more questions than it answers and, sadly, shows us once again that the politics of fear and disrespect are alive in what passes for public debate on energy policy in Alberta.

Roach tells us that the purpose of a Canadian energy strategy should be “simple” – “to maximize the benefits of Canada’s energy resources.” But of course it is far from simple to say precisely what those benefits are.

To tell us, as Roach does, that a “new and improved strategy (it’s news to me that we had one to improve upon) is a critical step toward realizing the ambition of becoming … an energy superpower,” doesn’t help at all. What in the world does the phrase “energy superpower” mean? It’s empty sloganeering meant to impress, not to inform.

According to Roach, Canada has to sell its energy “at the highest possible price,” which sounds reasonable enough. Who doesn’t think we should seek a good price? – until you ask, but what does “possible” mean? What are the constraints on our pursuit of the highest price? Roach says “while maintaining an efficient and reliable domestic energy system.”

Really? That’s the only consideration? What about the energy needs of future generations of Canadians? What about aboriginal and other human rights – not to mention the desirability of sparing Albertans from the oppressiveness of another oilsands-driven boom. For example, ever-higher prices, especially for housing that many Albertans cannot afford, and also for the very firms whose projects are driving the boom.

And shouldn’t environmental considerations figure in our assessment of “highest possible price?” What does Roach say about the environmental dimensions of an energy strategy? First, he sets up an extreme position that virtually no one holds: he characterizes environmental goals as, “If you want to see the use of all fossil fuels cease as of noon tomorrow, you are not going to like a strategy that seeks to sell more oil and gas.”

But he must know that those of us who want to see improved environmental performance want no such thing. There is lots of room between turn off the taps tomorrow and all development, all the time, who cares about anything else, for a responsible energy policy. Why try to polarize us when there is common ground to be found?

Roach tells us that the engineer in Fort McMurray doesn’t want what critics of the oilsands want. Actually, many technically trained Albertans, including many who work in the oilsands, want what other Albertans concerned about sustainability want – not an all-out assault on the environment, but responsible development. And they have the knowledge to help us achieve that better approach to resource development, if only public policy demanded better of their companies. Further, engineers need not fear a greener economy. Greener means smarter and will require many engineers.

Perhaps most unfortunate of all, Roach tries to scare us into going along with his ideas: If we don’t build new energy infrastructure right away, then all those eager buyers of our resources might just disappear. He says, “We also have to expand – and quickly before someone else scoops up our potential customers – the pipes, transmission lines and port facilities that transport our energy products to market.”

No time to think, folks. No time to deliberate. No time to reach accommodation with aboriginal people or any others who would be directly impacted by new pipelines. Right now, before those two billion Chinese decide they’ve already secured enough non-renewable oil and gas for their exploding economy. Really? Why would anyone think so?

This is the politics of fear and Albertans should reject it. We are a democracy, and a complicated one at that. As we are reminded nearly every day, there are many factors to be taken into account in determining when and how our resources are to be developed and related infrastructure to be built. Canadians have much to lose if we allow ourselves to be rushed into something we are not ready for, such as the Northern Gateway pipeline. We need to talk through every relevant consideration. Participatory democracy requires nothing less.

Indeed, if we don’t expand the rate of production from the oilsands, then there may be (we don’t know yet) no need for new transportation infrastructure at all.

I agree with Roach that perfection in energy strategies is not what we’re after. Public policy making is not a perfectible art. But that doesn’t mean we should rush into something that is clearly inadequate and destined to cause bitterness, conflict and all sorts of destructive impacts that should be avoided.

Albertans are smart people. We can do better than the politics of fear, exaggeration and environmental destructiveness.

Janet Keeping is a lawyer and was recently elected leader of the Green Party of Alberta. Until April, she was president of the Sheldon Chumir Foundation for Ethics in Leadership.

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