/Canada isn’t having a national conversation about energy — it’s having a quarrel

Canada isn’t having a national conversation about energy — it’s having a quarrel

Just how split are Canadians on resource development and climate action?

A quick glance at the federal election campaign shows a deep chasm between the sides, with more name calling than a schoolyard squabble over issues such as national climate targets and developing oil and natural gas resources.

It’s not a national conversation; it’s a Canadian quarrel.

From Halifax to Vancouver, the bickering has entrenched groups on each side talking past each other.

From a business perspective, organizations from across the country representing large urban centres are meeting this week, hoping to help assemble a national vision on some of these divisive topics.

It begins with the Natural Resources Summit, a one-day gathering to be held in Calgary on Wednesday.

The event is expected to draw about 300 people and is being hosted by the Calgary Chamber of Commerce, along with the Canadian Global Cities Council, an alliance of CEOs from eight of the country’s largest boards of trade and chambers.

Calgary chamber CEO Sandip Lalli says it’s time to have an “and” conversation that examines how to develop the country’s natural resources and do so in an environmentally responsible way that fights global climate change.

The fact the group has business representatives from eight cities — Halifax, Montreal, Toronto, Brampton, Winnipeg, Calgary, Edmonton and Vancouver — representing more than half of the country’s population is “a very powerful statement,” she says.

“We decided to take up the mantle on natural resources, because we don’t have a vision, but we also saw that the cities were very much divided and very polarized on the topic,” Lalli says.

“Conversations around energy development and environment … everyone was having their own issues, but they’re running in their own lanes.

“But they are trying to solve the same issues of competitiveness, and how do we be responsible to the environment?”

Crafting a national vision during a divisive federal election campaign could be messy.

Concerns over climate change are growing and it’s one of the key issues in the election. A series of large marches held across the country last Friday shows public pressure is mounting on politicians to come up with credible plans to curb greenhouse gas emissions.

Polls show a majority of Canadians also supports the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion and believes developing the country’s oil and gas sector should be a priority. Meanwhile, federal parties are sharply divided over issues such as carbon pricing, pipelines and the future of liquefied natural gas development.

“We are one country, a very small pinpoint on the global stage. So we really need to speak with a very unified, proud voice on the things that matter,” says Edmonton chamber CEO Janet Riopel.

“We did this intentionally in advance of the federal election so that we could lay (out) the table and put out some of the issues that are impacting business.”

Steel pipe to be used in the construction of the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion in Kamloops, B.C.

Dennis Owen/Reuters files

The event will include speakers from the Indian Resource Council, B.C. LNG Alliance and the Ontario Nuclear Innovation Institute. Alberta Energy Minister Sonya Savage will also address the forum, as will executives with MEG Energy, Modern Resources and Canadian Natural Resources.

“This polarization, this name calling, has led to 20 years of fighting in this country, arguing, and it’s dividing the country,” says Modern Resources CEO Chris Slubicki, who will speak at the summit.

“We have to find middle ground. The marches are great … but there’s not a single solution being proposed, so we need solutions.”

Patrick Sullivan, head of the Halifax Chamber of Commerce who is attending the Calgary summit and then touring the oilsands, wants to hear about issues such as the coming energy transition and opportunities for future development.

“We recognize government needs to have a plan to get us to that more sustainable future. And that plan is likely; let’s take advantage of the resources we have today,” he says.

Toronto Region Board of Trade CEO Jan De Silva will moderate a panel on sustainable development and natural resources, examining the challenges and progress that have been made in areas such as environmental, social and governance (ESG) issues.

She notes $2 billion was spent in Canada on clean technology research last year, with the lion’s share coming from oil and gas companies.

“The fact is we have natural resources that the world needs to continue a transition to clean energy,” she says.

However, a conversation led by business leaders can only go so far. A broader discussion in Canada is also needed in the weeks and months ahead, involving policy makers and the public, employees and employers, academics and NGOs.

To have a full conversation, you need to have “enough different views in the room” to be talking about solutions, says Duncan Kenyon with the Pembina Institute.

Given the acrimonious discussion around energy and environmental issues today, there are plenty of reasons to be pessimistic about the future.

But Kenyon believes the split may eventually propel more people to look for common ground.

“The more you see this polarization … the more likely you are to create room for people to quietly get together and go, ‘We’ve got to fix this,’” he says.

Lalli hopes the conversation can start to pick up steam, beginning with this week’s summit.

“You can refute how we got here, but you cannot refute how we are going to move forward,” she says. “And how we are going to move forward is together.”

Chris Varcoe is a Calgary Herald columnist.

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