The Politics of Energy - First blog from APPrO 2016
By Sean Mallen
The subject was energy, the theme was “Challenge + Change”, but the conversations throughout APPrO’s 2016 conference were dominated by the political earthquake in the United States.
Dan Dolan, President of the New England Power Generators Association, put it out early in the first panel discussion of the first day.
“Not sure if you heard, but we had a little election,” he said wryly.
The upset victory by Donald Trump in the presidential election meant that the White House would soon be occupied by a man who once tweeted that climate change was a fraud dreamed up by the Chinese.
Dolan and other American speakers agreed, however, that Trump’s impact on climate change initiatives could be limited, given that most of them are being driven at the state level. Dolan’s region, New England, is taking some of the most aggressive measures to cut carbon emissions.
“It may be naïve to say, but the presidential results are not going to dramatically change what happens in the local markets,” he said.
Similarly, he noted that opposition to new projects is almost invariably local, as are the political pressures. Dolan said that many politicians observe their own version of NIMBY (not in my backyard), which is NIMTO— “not in my term of office”.
The impact of political calculations also weighed heavily in discussions about Ontario’s energy future. Just a week before the conference it was revealed that the Liberal government’s internal polling has shown that 94% of Ontarians want relief on their electricity bills. The poll was done over the summer, and explains why the government announced a rebate on the provincial portion of the HST on power bills, and why it cancelled an array of green energy projects, saving approximately $3.2 billion.
Ratepayer outrage over prices was clearly reflected in Energy Minister Glenn Thibeault’s keynote speech to the conference. He repeatedly stressed the need to reduce costs. The Liberal government is trailing badly in the polls, and energy is seen as a key reason for its unpopularity.
“We are focused on delivering costs savings for consumers and businesses. Keep this goal in mind,” said Thibeault.
When Opposition Leader Patrick Brown spoke to the conference the following morning, he was ready with his retorts.
“The energy file has been terribly mismanaged by the government,” he said, saying that Ontario has the highest industrial rates in all North America, even while the province has a large surplus of electricity.
He pledged: “a PC government would do everything it could to de-politicize” energy planning.
The Ontario NDP was also represented at the APPrO Conference. In a panel discussion on the politics of electricity, MPP Peter Tabuns slammed the Liberal government for what he sees as an over-reliance on nuclear and fossil fuel.
“Unless they put efficiency and conservation at the centre, they’re going to have trouble,” said Tabuns. “This is going to be an extremely stormy file for anyone.”
Moderating the Tabuns panel was former Energy Minister Dwight Duncan, who drew spontaneous applause when he observed bluntly: “our parties have been bullshitting about energy for 30 years.”
“All of us face some responsibility”, he said for what he described as a failure to deal with the central problems of energy planning.
But Duncan is no longer running for office. Those who are still in the Ontario political arena face an election in a year and a half and panellists in the politics session agreed that electricity pricing looms as the number one issue—which causes concern in the industry.
“I don’t think either the electricity sector or the government have done a good job explaining why prices are where they are,” said APPrO President Dave Butters.
“We should all be concerned about that.”
Butters has seen past Ontario governments lurch into questionable action when faced with consumer outrage. In 2002, former PC Premier Ernie Eves froze prices at artificially low levels, a measure that drew much criticism.
“I’ve been around long enough to know when electricity prices are a political issue, governments react. And not always in a helpful way.”
Speakers predicted that the 2018 Ontario campaign would shed more heat than light on energy.
Mike Van Soelen, a former political advisor who is now a consultant at Navigator Limited, predicted that the two opposition parties “will develop policies but equally are hoping that they don’t have to speak about it much.”
Van Soelen believes that the PCs and New Democrats will focus on criticism of the Liberal government’s record, hoping to capitalize on voter fatigue with a party that has held power since 2003.
“They have to just be ‘the other guys’ and not say anything stupid or ridiculous.”
It is an old axiom of political campaigns: they are more often lost than won.