June 2010 marked the sixth consecutive year of minority government rule in Canada, the second longest run of consecutive minority governments in Canadian history (second only to an nine year stretch in the 1920s).  While the past six years have produced an ample serving of political drama, the legislative and policy output during this period, from an electricity sector perspective, has been decidedly mixed.

While the early years of the current minority era were defined by a weak Liberal minority, scrambling under constant threat of defeat in the Commons, recent years have been defined by the increasing dominance of the Harper Conservatives.  The opposition parties, with lukewarm public support, see little prospect of replacing the Conservatives, and have employed various methods to ensure the government survives confidence votes.  However, not far from the spotlight of mandatory confidence votes on Budget legislation in the House of Commons, in the Committee meetings rooms and, until recently, the Senate, the Opposition majority have continually halted or delayed much of the government’s legislative agenda.

The Conservative government is adapting to this reality.  Buried deep in the last two Budget implementation bills were measures that traditionally would not be included in Budget legislation. These include changes to the Navigable Waters Protection Act, and notably in the most recent Budget Bill, C-9, changes to AECL and the Canadian Environmental Assessment Act.  This “all or nothing” approach forces the Opposition’s hand with the threat of an election.  It has been estimated that C-9 contained half of all legislation passed by Parliament in the past year.

This current minority government era has coincided with an increased global focus on the environment and energy.  The electricity sector, while eager to face these complex challenges head on, has suffered from whiplash in recent years as the federal parties have proposed and announced a series of statements, intentions, plans and frameworks to address these concerns.  From Project Green to The Clean Air Act to Turning the Corner to The Green Shift, Canadians have been presented with a smorgasbord of potential energy/environmental strategies and proposed solutions at the federal level, with none having yet to see implementation.

The November 2008 Speech from the Throne announced  a new government’s objective:  that “90 percent of Canada’s electricity needs be provided by non-emitting sources such as hydro, nuclear, clean coal or wind power by 2020”.  However, other than a handful of mentions in subsequent speeches by Environment Minster Jim Prentice, this objective has yet to backed up with any cohesive strategy, framework or legislative backdrop.  In June of this year, Prentice announced that the Federal Government will “move forward” with regulations to “address” GHG emissions from coal-fired electricity generation.  The broad strokes of the proposed regulations (scheduled to come into effect on July 1, 2015) will likely require coal-fired electricity generation to meet more stringent emissions standards at the end of their economic life.  With stakeholder consultations expected to begin later this year leading to Gazette notice early in 2011, the proposed regulation has only received tertiary mention since being announced, and again is not part of a larger, cohesive vision for an energy strategy for Canada.  Furthermore, critical buy-in from provincial governments, who under the Canadian Constitution have exclusive jurisdiction for electricity, has not yet been secured.

In the 2010 Speech from the Throne, the government pledged to “introduce new legislation to reform Canada’s outdated system of fisheries management.”  The Fisheries Act is in dire need of modernization, and represents one of the key areas where federal jurisdiction intersects with the electricity sector on an almost daily basis.  CEA members have developed an extensive set of recommendations that would modernize the Act and enable more effective operation and expansion of clean hydro electricity generation.  Legislation has yet to be tabled, and with the clock ticking late in the current minority Parliament, the likelihood of a Bill passing before the next election is slim.

In the early spring there had been speculation in Ottawa that legislation would be introduced to amend several federal statutes with the goal of improving regulatory processes; specifically duplicative environmental assessments that delay the development of new energy projects, and that for years have failed to provide any additional positive environmental outcomes.  Finally, it appeared that a cohesive legislative initiative that would address electricity sector concerns was imminent.

In late April, the oil spill in the Gulf had a shrapnel-like effect on any proposals that could even remotely be construed to weaken environmental protection.  In the minority government era, as expected, these initiatives were seemingly shelved.  Back to square one.

Where do we go from here?  While various announcements from Environment Ministers and statements found in recent Throne Speeches are encouraging, and attempt to address key electricity sector concerns, all have been made in patchwork fashion, removed from any cohesive national plan or strategy to address larger energy issues. And in almost all cases, abandoned in the early stages.  While the unfocused, short-term political mindset inherent to minority Parliaments, and outside events such as the Gulf spill, are partly to blame, the development of a cohesive energy vision for Canada with clear national objectives for a sustainable energy future would go a long way in cutting through the political noise of the current minority era.

Pierre Guimond

President and CEO

Canadian Electricity Association