Wednesday, January 12, 2011

comment at canadian energy issues

"Historians who identify the early 21st century as the time of China’s astonishing rise will find it remarkable that western governments deliberately pursued energy policies that undercut their own economies."

I don't know if it so remarkable. I have lately become so utterly cynical about the politics in Canada and U.S. that what is happening makes sense to me.

This is funny, in a tragic way. But in both the United States and Canada, we see a large fossil fuel sector in the economy, and large (but relatively shrinking) energy consumption sector (manufacturing), and a growing service sector which may not have its economic health tied strongly to the price of energy. Also, the energy producing and manufacturing sectors are geographically and politically separate! In the US, an ever larger share of manufacturing is directly government supported (via the military), and so becoming rather servile and voiceless. But there is still pushback: a public understanding that manufacturing is very important, and the idea that the manufacturing tradition ought to continue. The corporate entities in the service sector doesn't seem to care about these issues, and service sector employees may care, but not feel that they have a real stake in the outcome - so they may care deeply and passionately, they way some people care deeply and passionately about their favourite football or hockey team.

Right now, clearly in Canada, the sector producing fossil fuels carries larger political clout than manufacturing, due to the very high prices of fossil energy which means the bucks flow to this sector, coupled with high competition in even high-value manufacturing, which keeps growth lower than it could be in that sector.

At some point, assuming nothing is done to publicly recognize the political and economic problems that can result from this situation, there is very likely to be ongoing strife and crises. In Canada perhaps the trouble is somewhat mitigated by the fact that, spread out fairly evenly over the country, there are service sector jobs, and mining and forestry sectors that are doing okay. (And sometimes mining and forestry companies complain in public about the rise in the dollar, but not too emphatically.) There isn't yet, in Canada, the awesomely rancorous inter-country political debates on energy and climate change seen in the US between the "Red" fossil fuel states and "Blue" manufacturing and service sector states.

I don't think having energy policies in Canada that attempt to reduce the use of fossil fuels, through the increased use of nuclear (and some hydro and renewables), and further promote electrification of industry and transport, would in any way harm the interests of Alberta, Saskatchewan, Newfoundland or North-East B.C., because there will be a growing worldwide market for fossil fuels for several generations yet. Similarly, having Canada promote international sales of nuclear, hydro or renewable tech, by, for example, ensuring strong international agreements to limit and price carbon emissions, would also not do any harm to Canada's international or domestic markets for oil and gas (lots will need to be used for generations to come).

But for Canada to be doing little to nothing, either internationally or domestically, to promote its nuclear (and perhaps hydro industries), only benefits the political order currently in power. Put plainly, I think it's a long term plan to tightly shackle Ontario's economy to Alberta's, to ensure a degree of political servility to western Canada's growing energy sector (i.e., to enhance the fortunes of the conservative party: don't vote against the interests of the hand that feeds you). It's shameful that there is no clear political voice from central Canada's manufacturing base regarding this state of affairs. Maybe they do not care, as long as their are enough jobs and profits flowing from an expanding oil patch, and there is no slowing down the expansion of employment in the service sector (ha!).

Canada is developing, silently, a national energy plan. The plan is to export oil, and give token appreciation to hydro, nuclear and renewables. The idea that it would be a good idea for the country to get on board expanding and exporting nuclear is pointedly not mentioned. We get a "meh, who cares", when the CEO of AECL (who takes orders from the federal cabinet) says that his company is not going to export, and instead build domestically, which then doesn't happen. (Can you imagine the government of Canada saying: "Meh, were going to put the breaks on the oil and gas sector, shrink its R&D, and tell it to stop any expansion of international sales." I can't even image Jack Layton saying this if he were to become PM and were forced to think soberly for once!)

I don't like it. Canada could be much more of a force for good in solving the world's energy and climate problems. Doing so would even help resolve some if its political problems. Instead, largely due to ugly domestic politics, we are uncommitted and increasingly irrelevent and uninfluential navel gazers.

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