Durable Energy Policy In Canada: Waiting For Godot?

In Samuel Beckett’s iconic play Waiting for Godot, main characters Didi and Gogo wait endlessly for the arrival of Godot, passing their time discussing everything from the mundane to the existential. The play fittingly only has two acts, and needless to say, Godot never arrives. The audience is left wondering about the meaning and purpose of it all.

Those longing for sound energy policy in Canada seem also to be waiting in vain. For over a decade, Canada has been mired in disagreement, contentiousness and lack of clarity on energy policy and regulation. When elections bring about a change of government, people hope ‘the new guys’ will sort the mess out once and for all: the new government will take a different tack, it will focus on different priorities, it will ‘get it done’ — whether ‘it’ is getting a pipeline built, putting a price on GHG emissions, clarifying who decides what and how on energy projects, or articulating a national vision for energy.

But experience to date shows these hopes are increasingly unfounded. The fact of the matter is, Canadian governments have been in a slow motion train wreck on energy for years, and there are no signs it is abating.

Instead, it looks set to get worse. 

For energy policy to be durable, it must strike a balance between economic, environmental and security imperatives, in ways that garner the confidence of Canadians and are workable in the long term. This includes ensuring energy markets are competitive, efficient and innovative; ensuring effects on land, air, water and the global climate are appropriately mitigated; ensuring energy is accessible, reliable and affordable, and doing all of this in ways that garner the confidence of the public and investors. Admittedly, this is tough stuff.

Fortunately, many of these imperatives can go hand-in-hand — innovation drives lower emissions energy, an attractive investment environment strengthens energy security, and technologies to mitigate environmental impacts can generate market opportunities.

But there are also real and perceived tensions and trade-offs when balancing energy imperatives. Mitigating the environmental impacts of energy development through emissions pricing or altering project siting and scoping can have economic impacts, including higher energy prices and less favourable project economics. This can lead to voter backlash or capital flight, as seen in recent times. Likewise, community involvement in energy project development raises thorny questions about who ultimately decides whether or under what conditions projects go ahead. This is especially challenging when it comes to Indigenous communities, where the context is fraught with uncertainty and differences in interpretation over the meaning of court decisions and government pronouncements. Uncertainty likewise leads to volatile political and investment environments.

All of this is a nightmare for politicians, who instinctively shy away from explicitly articulating trade-offs, much less making choices about them.

In fairness, some governments have tried to address energy comprehensively. Alberta’s Climate Leadership Plan struck a ‘deal’ between divergent interests that secured support for oil and gas development with a carbon levy and an emissions cap. The Trudeau government took a three-pronged approach on energy: supporting access to export markets for oil and gas, reforming energy and environmental assessment decision-making, and putting a price on carbon dioxide emissions to address the climate impacts of energy.

But neither plan seems to have worked. In Alberta’s case, opposition to pipelines and to development of the oilsands has continued unabated. And Ottawa’s approach has gone far off the rails as it’s moved from idea to implementation (see my previous column on this here).

The unfortunate takeaway from these experiences is that compromise and balance don’t work.

Cue the train wreck.

Unfortunately, things look set to get worse. Political incentives to seek balance are on the downswing. Politics in general — and energy politics in particular — are becoming increasingly polarized and partisan. Rightly or wrongly, political parties calculate that there is more electoral gain to be had by differentiating from one another in divisive ways or by riding waves of voter frustration to power. Parties seem less inclined to build bridges between differing constituencies with workable compromises.

When it comes to energy, the more that support or opposition for various economic, environmental or security imperatives become divided along partisan lines, the less likely Canada will address them with balance and evidence. Instead, terms like ‘carbon pricing,’ ‘climate action,’ ‘pipelines’ or ‘market access’ become code for the political party to which one belongs — and when it comes to peoples’ opinions, group identity has a funny way of trumping evidence. All of this is hyped up by a social media context dominated by sound clips, factoids and polarized advocacy. 

In this environment, Canada is far more likely to get wild policy swings from one extreme to the next than stable balanced policy. Those waiting for durable approaches to energy may be left waiting indefinitely.

More and more, it looks like Godot has left the building.

So what’s to be done?

For one, those who want durable policy might start by impressing upon governments, politicians and political parties the long-term economic, environmental and security costs of taking short term unbalanced approaches to energy. Everyone loses when policy isn’t workable in the long-term. 

Second, people might work to depolarize business-government-society relations on energy. The ‘high politics’ of energy may be difficult to depolarize — especially in 2019, with both federal and Alberta elections hyping things up — but much can be done at the working level to build bridges and to blunt some of the sharpest edges of broader trends to polarization. 

Finally, maybe it’s time to start thinking about what to do if Godot never arrives. What if polarization and the emerging dynamics of intergovernmental politics mean policy uncertainty and pendulum swings are the new normal? Hopefully this is not the case — there is still room and appetite for compromise. But companies, communities and regulatory agencies might do well to begin identifying how to get on with getting on in the absence of durable balanced policy.

None of these approaches is likely to be successful on its own — they are all worth pursuing.

Only one thing is certain: doing nothing is a recipe for a lot more waiting.

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