Politicians need to speak with one voice on pipelines

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When one part of Canada is hurting, we all hurt. Parochial provincialism did not build this country in the first place. When the times come to move energy east, we need to figure out the best way to make it work.

By Sheila Copps
First published in The Hill Times on February 1, 2016.

OTTAWA—Any Canadian who drives a car should take an interest in the Energy East pipeline debates.

And we should all be hoping, for the good of the environment and the economy, that political leaders start working together on these key issues.

Energy security and a clean environment go hand and hand. Nobody wins when we simply throw rhetorical brickbats from one side of Canada to the other.

The hot buttons currently being pushed on both sides are proof positive that the federal government needs to play a leadership role on this issue.

That, of course, means working with provinces, but it also means convening meetings where various governments can hammer out their differences around the same table.

The absence of federal leadership on the environmental and energy agenda has meant that every province has stood alone. Each believes they can score political points and extract economic concessions on pipeline route choice from their geographic neighbours.

It sets up a very ugly scenario where each part of the country beats the drum in favour of its own energy advantage, without considering the rest of the country.

Local politicians jump into the mix, with consequences that quickly turn toxic.

The latest volleys over the Energy East pipeline debate have ignited controversy from East to West.

Saskatchewan Premier Brad Wall’s suggestion that Quebec should return equalization payments as a penalty for non-support of the pipeline route was bound to play right into the hands of the separatists.

If the country cannot get its act together on something so crucial as national energy, what is the glue that binds us together?

Separatists argue that they would be better off defining energy policy on their terms, without any other government getting in the way.

Thoughtful leaders on all sides should understand the need for pipelines to carry product to market. There are certainly trade-offs in route placement and economic benefits. The location of a refinery, and value-added petroleum production, both play a role in the mix.

Properly planned, constructed and managed pipelines have served Canada in the past and will continue to do so in the future.

The foremost consideration of safe transport works in favour of pipelines. Whether by road or rail, the potential environmental damage and loss of life is much greater when factors like traffic load and human error are brought to bear.

One only has to reflect on the devastation of the whole Lac Mégantic community because of faulty train braking to realize that pipelines are a safer method of moving product.

Environmentalists will argue that we should be encouraging alternative energy sources. They are right. But in a world with a weakening economic picture, the investment in alternative energy innovation will take time.

Meanwhile, how are we going to gas up our cars?

Of course, an active federal-provincial dialogue will not solve all the challenges of the energy sector.

Quebec will continue to play the hydroelectric green card, because of its abundant access to electrical energy in its own north and that of neighbouring Newfoundland and Labrador.

Alberta is hurting, and needs support from the rest of Canada. But when an economy is suffering, politicians like to refocus the blame.

Only a national energy and environmental dialogue will ensure that all parties are working toward a common solution.

In his mandate letter to Environment Minister Catherine McKenna, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau asks for an early meeting “with provincial and territorial leaders to develop a pan-Canadian framework for addressing climate change.

Trudeau proposed the meeting occur with 90 days of the Paris climate change discussions.

The time frame is ambitious but it could provoke a sea change in debate tone and substance.

Canada has already committed to a trilateral North American energy pact. The government is in full preparation mode for the November climate change discussions in Morocco.

That doesn’t leave a lot of time for interprovincial squabbling.

We need to speak with one voice.

When one part of Canada is hurting, we all hurt. Parochial provincialism did not build this country in the first place.

When the times come to move energy east, we need to figure out the best way to make it work.

A national energy consensus benefits all provinces. Most importantly, it can tangibly demonstrate to Canadians that governments are prepared to come together for the common good.

When we work together, the whole of Canada is much bigger than the sum of its parts.

When politicians expend energy simply picking old scabs, we all lose.

Sheila Copps is a former Jean Chrétien-era cabinet minister and a former deputy prime minister. Follow her on Twitter at @Sheila_Copps.