Ottawa launches bid to create separate low-carbon industries for each county - The Globe and Mail

Ottawa launches bid to create separate low-carbon industries for each county – The Globe and Mail

Natural Resources Secretary Jonathan Wilkinson gets up during question period on April 7.Adrian Wilde/The Canadian Press

Ottawa is set to launch a new program in which it will try to work separately with each province and territory to build new low-carbon industries, as it seeks to overcome the intergovernmental row that has plagued climate and energy policy.

On Wednesday in Vancouver, Natural Resources Secretary Jonathan Wilkinson will announce new regional federal working groups — called Regional Energy and Resources Schedules — that aim to identify and pursue opportunities around sectors such as hydrogen, critical metals and electric vehicle manufacturing.

Mr. Wilkinson, in an interview with The Globe and Mail, described what he hopes will be a rapid process – jointly led by two levels of government, bringing in indigenous leaders, industry and labor – to develop “place-based economic strategies” for every part of the country.

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First, he said, they will settle on a small number of priority sectors — ideally between two and four. Then, they will try to identify ways in which they can work together to achieve these goals, including better alignment of spending programs and regulations. Then, they will be involved in specific projects in those sectors.

It is a somewhat ambitious attempt to reorient the country’s climate discourse away from environmental concerns and toward economic concerns. Ottawa emphasizes that beyond any moral obligation to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, the country needs to move collaboratively in building low-emissions industries to compete in the world of decarbonization.

But even before the program was launched, there have been some bumps in the road indicating how difficult it is for Mr. Wilkinson to gain buy-in from some of his counties peers — especially from counties he is so eager to show that an economic focus will help weather long-running controversies.

Mr. Wilkinson initially hoped to announce Alberta and Saskatchewan, with whom Ottawa disagreed over the future of the oil and gas sector and policies such as carbon pricing, among an initial set of provinces whose tables will start working from this week. (The idea is to launch the second and third batches later this year, to avoid overwhelming federal capacity.)

Instead, Alberta and Saskatchewan decided not to sign yet, leaving the first group to include only British Columbia, Manitoba and Newfoundland and Labrador.

Mr. Wilkinson downplayed the setback. “I think we’ve got to these two counties is that they want to continue the conversation about how we can put these schedules together, but internally they think it’s going to take a little bit longer,” he said. “That’s fine. This is collaborative, and the last thing we’re going to do is tell them they have to stick to our schedule.”

However, Alberta Energy Secretary Sonia Savage said in an interview that she felt rolling out the tables was too hasty. She was concerned that the initiative was being rolled out and determined to be largely on Ottawa’s terms, as part of the shift away from oil and gas production.

“We can’t be involved in something that is just a big, big federal initiative related to policy goals that we don’t agree with – the ‘fair transition’ and their plan to cut emissions,” she said.

However, Ms Savage was optimistic that Ottawa and Alberta would soon land on mutually agreed terms, noting that industry stakeholders expect the two levels of government to find ways to support emerging industries such as critical metals and hydrogen. “We just have to frame it correctly,” she said.

She also credited Mr. Wilkinson – with whom I spoke last weekend, trying to iron out the problems Alberta has with its current format and terms of reference – for genuine interest in the collaboration.

“I have a lot to say about his approach to this and taking the necessary steps to make it work, understanding and listening to our concerns,” Ms Savage said.

British Columbia’s energy minister, Bruce Ralston, whose government apparently had fewer concerns about the process, similarly praised Wilkinson for being cooperative. He is optimistic that the schedules will lead to coordinated investment and regulation of industries — including low-carbon hydrogen, for uses such as commercial transportation and heavy industry — around which British Columbia has developed its own policies.

“I think part of the discussion on the tables will be to get a better idea of ​​how the federal government is going to roll out the commitments it made in the last budget, particularly the Clean Fuel Fund and how companies applying can get to that,” Ralston said, referring to a 1.5 percent spending program. $1 billion sits alongside other programs like the $8 billion Net Zero Accelerator Fund. Likewise, he said, on regulatory alignment between the two governments.

After the districts are involved, the next big challenge will be to ensure that the schedules produce actionable plans.

Some of Ottawa’s previous attempts to support low-carbon sectors, such as Federal Hydrogen Strategy Released in late 2020, it has been criticized for setting clear, high-level goals without providing enough detail on how to achieve them. This could be a particular danger as various governments attempt to land on mutually agreed territory – a danger Mr. Wilkinson said he was determined to avoid.

“I’m not interested in so much gossip, so-and-so, where we say nice things and never do anything,” he said. “I’m really interested in stimulating work.”

To achieve the required urgency, he said, he intends to participate vigorously in the process himself, though the tables are largely run by senior bureaucrats from the respective governments.

As for the sectors in which the target schedules will end, at least some of them will be quite specific to the conditions of the provinces. Among the early provinces, for example, Manitoba expressed interest in sustainable exports of forests and hydropower.

Even where there is an apparent overlap between the sectoral aspirations of many of the counties, Mr. Wilkinson expects variance when moving down. This includes different types of important minerals in different provinces, and different types of hydrogen production (use of renewable electricity to produce it in some places, and natural gas combined with carbon capture technology in others).

He asserts that a significant positive aspect of the schedule is to enable tailored strategies for smaller provinces whose specific economic interests often factor into national policy discussions based on the relative size of Ontario and Quebec.

Mr. Wilkinson acknowledged the risks, in terms of public support for his government’s climate agenda.

He said he recognizes a lot of Canadians who realize climate change is a problem, but want to know that their family’s economic future will not be jeopardized trying to solve it.

“My county counterparts with whom I spoke have a similar view,” he said. Which is what we really need to move on the emissions side of, yes. But we really need to continue to ensure that we are the first to move in the context of developing these economic opportunities.”

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