Canadian oil and gas policy: To LEAP or to LEAD?

Image: BP

When it comes to manifestos and game plans, that's the salient question. But let's get right to the acronyms.

LEAP Manifesto proponents, including many elements of the NDP provincially and federally, have chosen “LEAP” purposely; presumably it is intended to connote a sense of dutiful action – the very physicality in the capitalization to overcome the perceived inertia of the existing state of Canadian affairs from which LEAPers so desperately want to be free.

If you haven’t read the LEAP Manifesto, take a moment and do it now:

For LEAPers, Canada is a messy, ugly, place – a country and its citizenry seemingly bent on self-destruction. Their intention is to LEAP free from this quagmire of social inequity, racism, environmental degradation and flawed trade agreements.

To LEAP, however, presupposes sufficient kinetic energy, enough to spring from a standing stop to a destination which promises a safe and secure landing. The LEAPers have in view their ideal landing spot: a Canada pure and unblemished by its current realities. LEAP's backers include the usual-suspect coterie of academics, entertainers, NGOers and folks from the political left. But it’s questionable whether there’s sufficient stimulus in that group to ensure the kinetic effort required to LEAP or just to stumble.

LEAP may not have stimulus, but it has shrillness in spades – the lingua franca of the left. The danger in LEAP is its potential divisiveness. The messaging is bellicosely clear: if you’re not behind LEAP, you’re against it...and therefore supportive of all things that define Canada the Terrible. And thus many of the manifesto’s elements which are indeed laudable are ring-fenced by its belligerent tone.

For millions of Canadians, LEAP hardly preaches from the pulpit of inclusivity.

That’s a challenge for ordinary folks: many of whom would be hard pressed to find a way to agreeably participate in dialogue that’s so polarizing because of its own rhetorical tone. It’s difficult for LEAPers to accept that action on climate change and support for a robust but evolving petroleum sector, for example, are not incongruent. But while that’s what many Canadians agree needs to happen, it won’t within LEAP’s framework.

Indeed, how difficult is it not to argue with the following in principle:

“The time for energy democracy has come: we believe not just in changes to our energy sources, but that wherever possible communities should collectively control these new energy systems.”

But the terms and conditions by which LEAPers propose to achieve such energy democracy are not conducive with the way things really work. Here’s the reality: we are already an energy democracy – the vast mineral reserves and resources beneath our feet are in point of fact mostly owned by ordinary Canadians. To date, however, as asset owners we have been too complacent; not actively engaged sufficiently at the grassroots in terms of how those assets are developed in our interests, responsibly and sustainably, with an eye to tending to climate affairs and carbon reduction.

It’s not a leap to suggest LEAP threatens the mutual interests of Alberta’s energy sector and its NDP government as the manifesto’s contents will be debated and discussed at the constituency level across Canada over the next several months. Absent a viable alternative, LEAP threatens to leach away the attention that other more constructive dialogues should garner.

So here’s a concept for Rachel Notley and her cabinet: launch a national program – in which Alberta is a clear leader – that runs concurrent to LEAP Manifesto discussions. It would offer a different set of objectives, via a collaborative process in which Canadians from all perspectives are invited to collectively design mutual energy future that recognizes, indeed celebrates, diverse energy viewpoints.

LEAP’s view of energy is broad enough – and sufficiently complex – to be dealt with independently of its other components.

Call this alternative the LEAD Initiative: Leading Energy Aspirations Dialogues. It would be a pan-Canadian process by which all Canadians – political spectrum position aside – could engage in discussions critical to shaping this country's energy future. Such dialogues would allow the NDP a more neutral framework in which to advance its climate and carbon reduction leadership initiatives and seek input in a facilitated, focussed fashion.

Like LEAP, LEAD would map to aspirational objectives to define a better Canada. But unlike LEAP, LEAD would recognize the future is a function of recognizing the here and now. Its aspirations would be prosaic and practical, grounded in a reality check from which LEAP is divorced.

Canada’s energy future needs discussion. Full stop.

Many pundits, like the Toronto Star’s Linda McQuaig, suggest it will come from “resolute” political leadership. That’s true, but only to a point. Politicians can only press on the populace top down before the populace pushes back – regardless of whether than upward pressure is rooted in any reality.

The challenge in the entire energy debate is its fundamental “binariness”: for the LEAPers, there’s no accounting for a world in which fossil fuels exist. Energy can only come from sources that are clean and green. No hydrocarbons. Period.

The flaw is this argument is that energy systems move synchronously with vibrant economies, stimulated by a combination of government policy and private-sector self interest.

The Stephen Lewis voices of the world suggest a green-tech revolution could be a vibrant job creation mechanism. Perhaps. But it wouldn’t be overnight – and there would be much cost to Canada to move ahead without a transitional plan based on the co-functioning of energy systems in planned transition.

In fact, federal environment minister Catherine McKenna had this to say recently in Washington, during the inaugural World Bank Group Carbon Pricing Leadership Coalition. She was extolling the economic virtues of renewable technology...and then sounded this cautionary caveat. She pointed out that governments alone cannot manage the massive shift to a less carbon-intensive economy: “There simply is not enough government money, and so that is why we absolutely have to leverage private sector investment.”

Clearly, there’s no LEAP in that scenario. It requires a robust private sector, including oil and gas companies and their supporters, to balance the equation. After all, there’s not a person in Canada who doesn’t share the aspiration of a sustainable energy economy: one which supports people – and the planet.

It’s just a question of how: by LEAPing or LEADing.

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