While reading the glowing assessment of the tar sands as Canada’s future in this morning’s Globe and Mail, I couldn’t help feeling that large chunks of the big picture were missing.

One of the key pieces in the behind-the-scenes battle over Canada’s energy future that has been circulating amongst decision-makers recently found its way into my in-box: A Strategy for Canada’s Global Energy Leadership.

This document was put together by the Energy Policy Institute of Canada (EPIC). Don’t be fooled by the name. EPIC isn’t some kind of think tank. It is a lobby group made up of over three dozen companies and industry associations dedicated to putting in place a national energy strategy to facilitate the rapid expansion of the tar sands and its associated pipeline infrastructure.

There is some window-dressing in the report for gas and nuclear, and even some platitudes around the benefits of renewable energy and conservation, but make no mistake: this is an agenda driven by the oil companies who make up its core and who are dedicated to the radical expansion of fossil fuel extraction as part of turning Canada into what Prime Minister Harper has called “an energy superpower”.

What is interesting is not the document itself, but the simple fact that it had to be written at all. There has been no real need for the oil industry to organize itself politically since the collapse of the Trudeau-era National Energy Policy in the early 1980s. The federal and Alberta governments have offered up billions in subsidies to ramp up production in the tar sands and compliant regulators have approved every application brought before them, while allowing industry to design and run an environmental monitoring program designed to detect nothing.  

The emergence of EPIC is, in many ways, a sign of the success of the global campaign against the tar sands, as corporate Canada scrambles to get political cover for an agenda they can no longer take for granted.

The call for a national energy strategy has come from the CEOs of oil companies like Suncor and Shell (who are concerned about the social license for expanding their operations), pipeline company Enbridge (who need the federal government to push through their Gateway pipeline from the tar sands to Kitimat in northern BC over the objections of the First Nations on the route), industry-dominated think tanks like the Canada West Foundation, and key business lobby groups like the Canadian Council of Chief Executives.

Quarterbacking this whole operation is Bruce Carson. He managed to bounce back from being disbarred as a lawyer to a career as a highly effective Conservative political operative, including most recently in the Harper government. Carson was in charge of the energy file within the Prime Minister's Office and was considered to be “the mechanic” (they guy who got things done). He’s still offering up advice to Conservative political activists [Note from April 1, 2011: This speech was taken off the CSEE site following a news story about it, but I have reposted it and the link now takes you to its new location] from his new position at the Canada School for Energy and Environment (created in 2007 by a $15 million donation from the federal government, with Carson subsequently appointed as the first Executive Director) but he spends most of his time trying to put together a national energy strategy through his work with EPIC and the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers.

A careful reading of these various articulations of the need for a national energy strategy (from the oil industry) will find many references to the need to take into account greenhouse gas emissions as one consideration amongst many. What you won’t find, however, is a recognition that we need to achieve science-based reductions in those emissions (i.e. 80-90% below current levels within my lifetime) if we are to leave a habitable planet for our kids.

That’s because the problem that they are trying to solve is “How do we get the bitumen out of the ground faster?”

The problem a national energy strategy should be trying to solve, however, is: "How do we get off fossil fuels?" We need a strategy for rapidly phasing out fossil fuels by ramping up investments in renewable energy and energy efficiency, as well as making changes in the way that we live, so that we don’t unravel the web of life upon which all else depends.

Greenpeace has put out its Energy [R]evolution plan for doing this globally and in Canada, as have other environmental groups like WWF.

Ultimately, this is not a technical problem, but a moral and political one which can only be won with your support.

Right now we hope that you will contact your MP to demand an end to fossil fuel subsidies in the federal budget (due out next month).

And stay tuned for updates on what is happening on the national energy scene.