Energy ministers from across Canada recently met in St. Andrews, N.B. Media coverage of the meeting noted that the agenda included golf and a lobster dinner. Fair enough – the ministers are entitled to some rest and relaxation. But what really caught my attention was that the gala event was sponsored by Irving and Emera – two of the largest energy providers in Atlantic Canada.
Some taxpayers might be cheered to find that ministers keep their expense accounts in line by allowing energy corporations to cover the costs of events. But having the R and R for those responsible for regulating the energy sector paid for by the very folks they are supposed to regulate should cause concern.
The evening gala was just the tip of the iceberg, the informal aspect of what was going on behind closed doors during the meetings. According to their news release the Council of Energy Ministers “met with energy industry leaders” and heard presentations from the Energy Dialogue Group, an “alliance created by 18 energy industry associations,” and the Coalition of Industrial Energy Consumers.
The conference program lists the “Platinum” sponsors as Emera, Irving and Atomic Energy of Canada Limited. The “Gold” sponsors include Anadarko, one of the largest independent oil and gas companies in the world and headquartered in the US.
Provincial energy officials developing energy strategy behind closed doors with industry leaders should set off alarm bells for Canadians. Energy has become the most important public policy issue. Fuel costs have become unaffordable to more low income households, and most Canadians realize that we need to move away from a dependence on fossil fuel to more sustainable sources of energy.
Energy ministers are currently developing their energy strategies. In Nova Scotia, the energy minister has promised a new, or at least revised, energy strategy, although to date we have seen no public consultations.
The energy sector doesn’t need to wait for public consultations – indeed they already have direct, exclusive access to the ministers.
In addition, the meetings and the dinner gala provide an opportunity for various department officials to develop a good working relationship with the energy industry. During the conference, over 100 federal and provincial government officials sat down with over 70 industry representatives in meetings closed to the public and the media. Conspicuously absent from the meetings were environmental and non-industry consumer groups.
So what do Irving and Emera, the parent company of Nova Scotia Power, get for the cost of sponsoring the conference? The meetings provided industry with an opportunity to drive home their side of the story regarding environmental issues and energy costs. Those meetings were also an opportunity to convince governments to deregulate the energy industry. And they provided an opportunity for staff and energy officials to get to know each other on a first name basis.
Only last Spring Nova Scotians witnessed how such a cozy relationship can be useful to industry. Nova Scotia Power was pushing for a big rate increase that was alarming to both household and industrial consumers. While the Utility and Review Board (URB) was holding public consultations into whether to allow the requested rate increase, the Hamm government negotiated a back room deal between Nova Scotia Power and its industrial consumers. The deal completely bypassed the public hearings being held by the publicly accountable body regulating the setting of electricity rates. In the end, the URB rejected the deal.
The same three players who negotiated the back room electricity deal got together in St. Andrews to discuss energy policy, play golf and dine in fine style.
What did government officials hear in the official presentations by industry? The Vice President of the Canadian Petroleum Products Institute provided a primer on “understanding and explaining” petroleum markets. The industry also explained that we need an energy policy framework that focuses on the need to “reinforce investor confidence,” and regulations that increase industry production and profitability rather than enforcing compliance to public policy objectives, such as affordability and environmental sustainability.
So what was officially accomplished at the conference? Not much. The “Ministers called for a renewed commitment to work collaboratively to ensure continued prosperity from Canada's energy resources. They also agreed to work together to enhance the security, reliability and sustainability of Canada's energy systems.” I’m sure that’s been said before.
How will this be accomplished? Given the absence of policy initiatives, a deregulated energy industry is apparently the solution to our energy problems. The ministers “acknowledged the importance of relying on markets to guide consumer and investment decisions related to energy.” That’s the same market that sent fuel costs soaring and put big bucks in the pockets of oil and gas companies. It’s an energy market that shows no serious inclination to wean itself from a reliance on fossil fuels.
Conference documents don’t even mention the Kyoto Accord, which should be crucial to the development of an energy strategy. By default, or design, we are increasingly slipping towards a US non-Kyoto based energy policy.
What the conference demonstrated for us all is whose interests are foremost in discussions about energy policy. Not citizens; not the environment.
A version of this article was published in the Chronicle Herald. John Jacobs is director of the Nova Scotia office of the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives (www.policyalternatives.ca), an independent public policy research institute.