Trudeau vs. Kenney on energy: conference spat is preview of federal election battle lines

Canadians should not be surprised that Conservative provincial energy ministers are “frustrated” and “profoundly disappointed” with the federal Liberal government after the 2019 Energy and Mines Ministers’ Conference wrapped up Wednesday in Cranbrook, BC.

With a national election looming this fall, the battle lines over energy policy have been drawn, provinces have chosen sides, and if they didn’t before, Canadians now have a clear sense of the opposing worldviews and their champions. Alberta Premier Jason Kenney and CPC leader Andrew Scheer will champion the regressive positions of the oil, gas, and pipeline industries, while Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and BC NDP Premier John Horgan will support a long-term transition from fossil fuels to the low-carbon future.

Trans Mountain
Alberta Energy Minister Sonya Savage announced the start of the “Yes to TMX” campaign on Parliament Hill. Alberta government photo.

Alberta Energy Minister Sonya Savage, a former Enbridge pipeline lobbyist in Ottawa, complained in a press release that federal representatives engaged in only “superficial discussion” about competitiveness, market access, the devastating economic effects of the Impact Assessment Act (Bill C-69) and Oil Tanker Moratorium Act (Bill C-48), federal encroachment into provincial jurisdiction, and “no real solution to carbon emissions beyond taxing hard-working families and businesses…”

Consequently, she says, Alberta, Ontario and Saskatchewan declined to support the federal government’s communiqué, which was supported by the remaining provinces and territories.

What did the offending communiqué say, exactly? It was hardly anti-hydrocarbon.

“As the fourth-largest oil producer in the world and a jurisdiction with over 80 per cent of its electricity generated from zero-emission sources, Canada is uniquely positioned to be a global supplier of choice for the most environmentally sustainably produced energy in the world,” is a statement that could have been lifted directly from a Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers (CAPP) press release.

Then there was this seemingly innocuous comment from Amarjeet Sohi, federal minister of natural resources: “Canada’s natural advantage positions us to attract investments, develop new products sustainably and grow our global exports, while protecting our environment, fighting climate change and advancing reconciliation with Indigenous peoples.”

“The time is now to build a clean energy future through the electrification of Canada’s growing economy,” said BC Energy Minister Michelle Mungall, whose CleanBC climate plan recently led LNG Canada to adopt electric drives for its soon to be built $40 billion plant in order to meet provincial emissions targets.

Think of the political divide over energy policy as the clash of two energy worldviews.

Conservatives either deny anthropogenic climate change or are skeptical that it’s a crisis; at a minimum, Canada has no business leading climate mitigation because it is such a small contributor (1.6%) to global greenhouse gas emissions. They think the energy transition is a figment of environmentalist ideology or a long-term process during which hydrocarbons demand will be around for many decades yet. Ardent support for the Alberta-based oil/gas/pipelines industry is a given.

Comments like those from Sohi and Mungall induce nervous tics in Canadian conservative politicians, who oppose carbon pricing and subscribe to the Trump mantra of “innovation, not regulation.”

Progressives generally believe the opposite of conservatives: climate change requires urgent action by Canada, the energy transition is arriving sooner than we think, expansion of the oil/gas/pipelines industry should be stopped immediately and we should begin to discuss how to phase it out, and Canada’s economic future lies with clean energy.

How aggressively Canada should pursue progressive policies depends on the political party. The Greens want the country put on a war-time footing to combat climate change, the NDP favour much higher spending on climate and energy transition policies, and the Liberals are trying to balance immediate needs to maintain investment and create jobs while lowering emissions and gradually electrifying the economy.

The conflict between the two energy and climate worldviews played out predictably at the energy and mining ministers conference and it’s no surprise that Alberta is leading the conservative charge. Kenney’s UCP government is doing everything it can to prop up Scheer, whose victory would be a major coup for Calgary titans of the black gold; CAPP’s fingerprints are all over the recently released – and roundly criticized – CPC climate plan.

Another majority Liberal government – or, the worst-case scenario from Kenney’s point of view, a minority propped up by the NDP and Green Party – will ensure Alberta’s voice continues to be ignored in Ottawa.

Expect the snark to ramp up through the cottage season and hit a fever pitch once the election campaign is officially underway after Labour Day. Canadians can forget about taking the summer off from energy politics.

Thanks to duelling communiqués from last week’s conference, voters at least know which provinces and politicians are in which camp.

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