07/16/2011 05:53 EDT | Updated 09/15/2011 05:12 EDT

National Energy Strategy: Smokescreen or Substance?

Canada's energy ministers are now gathering in Kananaskis, Alberta for a discussion about a national energy strategy for the country.

On the surface, this is an important first step in a long-needed debate. Until now, talk of any national energy discussion has caused political leaders of all stripes to head for the hills because of the National Energy Program hangover that has stymied real energy dialogue in the country for decades. Canada is a large, diverse country with overlapping jurisdiction related to energy. Solving our energy problems will need cooperation between provinces and the federal government.

While many of us agree on the need for a national energy strategy, we headed into the Kananaskis meeting with two competing visions about what that will look like.

Over the last several months, the oil industry has been promoting a national energy strategy that would provide cover for the rapid expansion of the tar sands, and a smokescreen for the new pipelines that come with it. Battered by controversy in the U.S. and Europe, the push for a national energy strategy appears to be more about deflecting attention from the real environmental problems of tar sands development and seeking de facto endorsement for a continuation of a status quo than having a true national dialogue about our energy future.

But, this approach both misses the opportunities that a national energy discussion creates and has risks for other provinces and sectors. A strategy that supports unfettered tar sands expansion and pipeline construction would in effect lock Canada into being a climate laggard. The decisions that we make regarding energy policy will determine our approach to climate change and the two cannot be disconnected.

It would also impact the economic opportunities in other sectors and provinces. First, rising oil exports is already causing job loss in the manufacturing sectors of Ontario and Quebec due to Dutch disease. Second, the federal emphasis on supporting fossil fuel production has come at the expense of support for the development of renewable energy.

On the opportunity side, the Kananaskis meeting can be the time that provinces, territories and the federal government seize the chance to set Canada on a path to a clean energy future. As provinces like Ontario are demonstrating through the Green Energy and Economy Act, spurring renewable energy development can give us cleaner air, a secure energy supply and new good jobs.

The oil industry may be able to shell out money to pay for the meeting, but it's individual Canadians who elect the leaders who are gathering there, and it's our future at stake in the discussion.