Energy East decision, and Carr’s reaction, makes constructive dialogue on energy even harder

Energy East protestors. Image: Council of Canadians

Here's a lesson on how to tank an initiative.

The head teacher: federal Natural Resources Minister Jim Carr.

The initiative: Generation Energy, a conference next week in Carr's hometown of Winnipeg to which his ministry has invited individuals and organizations interested in productive and constructive dialogue about Canada's energy future.

On the face of it, a sound idea.

Tensions around energy are dividing Canadians in a way that is both polarizing and paralyzing — and the concept of civil dialogue is refreshing even if it means people will at least be face to face.

That is, until you disenfranchise an entire sector that is central to making the concept of rational conversation work.

Then the idea of balanced and objective discourse falls flat with a resounding thud.

That's what happened this week with TransCanada's decision not to proceed with its Energy East and Eastern Mainline pipeline initiatives. No one who watches energy affairs was surprised; you could hear the coffin nails being driven into the projects when the National Energy Board recently announced it would consider increased emissions production as part of the regulatory approval process.

Carr's contention that Energy East would be considered under the same conditions as the Trans Mountain expansion is political bobbing and weaving of the first order. It is the uncertainty created by the unknown magnitude of emissions consideration that is helping cement Canada's global reputation as a jurisdiction where stuff doesn't happen unless it suits a small clamorous minority.

There's a certain political hypocrisy in claiming to support a sector while simultaneously creating the conditions under which its travails will only worsen.

Worse still is the startlingly glib and disingenuous way Carr tried to distance himself from the consequences of the company's announcement, describing it baldly as a “business decision.”

It was indeed a business decision. No sane company would proceed with a project whose fate is pre-signed, sealed and delivered — and into which it has already sunk hundreds of millions of dollars on the good faith it was working in a business environment conducive to project success. And it wasn't asking for a free regulatory ride, just the certainty that makes economies work well in the first place.

Generation Energy then is unlikely to be a festive affair, nor will it be productive. The oil and gas upstream and midstream sectors will still show up, of course. But here's the real rub: there will also be in attendance too many representatives of those opposing constituencies whose ability to generate excessive white noise is astoundingly disproportionate to the size of society they claim to represent. But somehow they're able to catch the right political ears and whisper the threatening blandishments that cause politicians to quake in place.

These folks will arrive in Winnipeg barely able to keep the grins of smug self-satisfaction from their faces. They will believe they have an upper hand with the petroleum sector back-footed. And while being disarmingly civil, they will push their objective of a fossil fuel-free future. Oil and gas representatives will nod politely and leave with the confirmation of something they have come to know: there's just no talking to some folks.

What should have been a positive pivot point in shaping Canada's energy future instead will go down in history as just another tepid affair where nothing material is accomplished.

Call it De-Generation Energy instead.

Bill Whitelaw is president and CEO of JWN, as well as executive vice-president, Business Information Group, at Glacier Inc. and managing director of Evaluate Energy, an affiliated energy analytics and research company based in London, UK.

Bill is a director on many industry sector boards including the Canadian Society for Unconventional Resources and the Canadian Petroleum Hall of Fame. He speaks frequently on the subjects of social licence, innovation and technology, and energy supply networks.