Alberta goes to Ottawa

Indigenous partnerships, incentives and a regulatory diet were key recommendations from a panel discussion on the Alberta Business Council’s Future Unbuilt report.

Left to right: Mike Holden, Robert Bourne, Michael Bernstein, Karen Ogen and Denise Mullen. Photo from the Business Council of Alberta.

Every day, millions of Canadians fill their refrigerators, heat their homes, and get to work using a complex network of interdependent ports, highways, trains, pipelines and all the goods they carry. That network, stretching arteries of prosperity across Canada’s trade-based economy, relies on constant maintenance and new development to support modern life. But what if all of it slowed, congealed, and ground to a slower and slower pace – what if, instead of expanding, Canadian opportunity began to contract, and our future became unbuilt?

It's a question top of mind for those who attended the Business Council of Alberta’s recent event in Ottawa, the launch of the Future Unbuilt report.

The federal government set ambitious targets for emissions reduction by 2030 and a goal to be net zero by 2050. A whole new low-carbon economy could be in the wings. But, as layer upon layer of pancaking regulations begin to stack up, Canadians may find the road to net zero more sticky than first supposed.

The pace of major projects hasn’t increased. It’s slowed. And that includes green projects or developments integral to reducing carbon emissions in other parts of our interconnected world atmosphere.

“With our current regulatory systems, Canada will not be able to approve, let alone build, the projects we need to achieve our targets,” reads an open letter by the business council co-signed by Resource Works.

“Consequently, Canada is not seen as a place that can get projects built—and that has a big cost. If we cannot improve the process, our country will likely lose out on important low or zero carbon initiatives, strategic investments, and tens of thousands of jobs across the country.”

How Canada can extract itself from its regulatory quag, and the core issues for continued prosperity, decarbonization and economic reconciliation with Indigenous peoples, were core discussion topics on panel following the report launch.

For Karen Ogen, CEO of the First Nations LNG Alliance, improving the existing regulatory system, including mechanisms to both foster greater partnerships between industry and First Nations and speed up projects, could lead to an economic boom for everyone. It’s a pattern she’s seen in parts of BC, where Indigenous peoples are leading major projects like Cedar LNG.

"We've never had any major projects come to our community, and neither had we been invited to participate in a major project… but now we have a seat at the table… Benefits go back to the community and they're real and tangible,” she said.

Robert Bourne, associate general counsel at Enbridge agreed.

"Things have come a long way, and there’s still a long way to go, but there’s been a massive shift in mindset,” when it comes to industry’s engagement with and willingness to partner with Indigenous communities.

For Bourne, a growing emphasis on meaningful consultation has resulted in improved relationships and opens the door to greater Indigenous participation in the industry. He pointed to Athabasca Indigenous Investments, a historic partnership made up of 23 Indigenous communities from northeast Alberta who came together to purchase seven pipelines from Enbridge, and emerging Indigenous partnerships in carbon capture initiatives and other green and traditional assets.

Ogen looks to both reconciliation progress and global emissions reductions as the rationale for regulatory reform. Indeed, as part of Canada’s global competitive advantage.

“Our whole purpose is to reduce our emissions, but we need to think about that globally as well… Canada is in a place where we're in an advantage geographically… And then you have the Indigenous participation which is huge."

Competitive frameworks were top of mind for Michael Bernstein, executive director of Clean Prosperity, a Canadian non-profit that works toward climate solutions that reduce emissions and grow the economy.

Bernstein outlined three areas the Canadian government could improve in order to stay competitive with the US: specificity, incentives, and faster permitting.

“Do we have detailed sectoral strategies and is there a process with collaborating with the private sector?" asked Bernstein. The US, for example, tracks detailed measurements and progress points within sectoral strategies, like hydrogen energy. As members of Canada’s federal cabinet evaluate projects, they “need to understand how these projects fit into a broader economic strategy.”

"I would like to see us have a specific, publicly available dashboard that lays out every step in the review and permitting process and shows how many days it has taken," broken down into stages and steps. "This is being done in the US right now."

When it comes to improving Canada’s economic competitiveness through incentives, the federal government made great strides in the 2023 budget regarding green projects. Nonetheless, Bernstein says these incentives can’t keep up with those that exist in the US, thanks to that country’s curiously named Inflation Reduction Act.

Yet, perhaps surprisingly, there’s room for optimism when it comes to competitive permitting in Canada.

"The good news is we're not behind [the US]. There's potential that we can get ahead and use [fast permitting] to our advantage,” said Bernstein. “But the US is moving as well… There's no time to waste. The recommendations in the report are a good roadmap."

Denise Mullen of the BC Business Council also highlighted the importance of taking action. “Our environmental goals are unattainable without a robust economy,” said Mullen.

Canada’s small, open trading economy is vulnerable to competition from more agile global regulatory environments, especially trade-exposed industries like natural resources. According to Mullen, a quick look at GDP statistics shows these industries overwhelmingly pay the bills for Canada. Without regulatory reform, long, confusing, arduous and expensive processes may finally convince companies to head south.

"The regulatory system needs to go on a diet,” said Mullen. “If it takes a decade or more to get something done, then we won't be prosperous… Trees and plants grow better when you prune them, and this is true of our regulatory policy frameworks in Canada."

Closing the panel conversation, Mike Holden, Alberta Business Council vice president, circled back to council president Adam Legge’s invitation to collaboration: “As the federal government moves forward into 2023 with its commitments… we are more then ready to work together… All you need to do is ask.”

Josiah Haynes is the content director at the Resource Works Society. Find him on LinkedIn and Twitter. 

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