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Reading the National Energy Program

As a non-native-Albertan academic (in particular one from back east), I have learned that there are two golden rules to follow when in Alberta – don’t mention the National Energy Program, and don’t mention the National Energy Program.  This post, and my next one, are going to break both of those rules.

After writing last night’s long post on Energy Security and Energy East, I got to thinking about the use of the term energy security here in Canada. This took me on a (thus far fruitless) quest to find copies of some of Pierre Trudeau’s speeches from around the time of the National Energy Program. I came across a gem though – the 1980 Budget Speech in which the National Energy Program was introduced.  The parallels to today are almost uncanny – the government was both looking to combat stubbornly high unemployment, while at the same time dealing with a, “shortage of skills in this country.” In fact, the Finance Minister lamented that, “even in the midst of recession, those shortages were apparent in many trades and employers have had to look for skilled craftsmen in other countries.” Luckily, the government of the day was to introduce a, combination of “manpower training and mobility programs…to deal with this problem.” Interestingly, the details of these retraining programs were to be announced at a latter date.

The government was also concerned with another scourge – that of high oil prices. To this end, the government introduced the now much-maligned National Energy Program, which was described in the budget as being founded on three basic principles:

1) security of supply and ultimate independence from the world oil market;

2) opportunity for all Canadians to participate in the energy industry; particularly oil and gas, and to share in the benefits of its expansion; and

3) fairness, with a pricing and revenue-sharing regime which recognizes the needs and rights of all Canadians.

Now, it is mostly the last one of these three which still to this day draws the ire of Albertans (and rightly so – see what I did there?), but the purpose of this post is not to re-hash the history of the NEP. What was interesting to me in light of the discussion around Energy East were the first two. Last night, I argued that you could use the parlance of energy security to justify any policy or project you wanted, and lo and behold, there it is in point 1.  We’ve also seen politicians, industry and labour all working today with some version of point #2 – the potential for all Canadians to share in the benefits of oil sands expansion. Remember Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s quote in Saint John? “We are also at the same time making sure that Canadians themselves benefit from those projects and from that gain in energy security…It’s a project that will assure all of Canada will benefit from our energy industry. ” In Quebec City? “It is, I think, a good idea that we find pan-Canadian solutions so that all of this country benefits from our energy products and that we enhance our own energy security.”

The NDP’s Peter Julian was quoted in the Toronto Star as saying that, “(the NDP) favours the project in principle because it would allow Canadian crude to be refined in Canada and would decrease eastern Canadian dependence on imported oil.” The 1980 Budget was right there with him, worried that, “the chink in (Canada’s) armour is our dependence on imported oil…(and we are)…therefore, unnecessarily subject to the vagaries of the world oil market.” Like the Liberal government  of 1980, the Quebec Chamber of Commerce today sees access to western oil supplies as key to the competitiveness of eastern Canadian businesses.

Now, by no means am I suggesting the Energy East represents a reprisal of the National Energy Program. Far from it. What I do find interesting is that the project, and some of the rhetoric surrounding it, would have been very much at home in The Honourable Allan J. MacEachen’s Budget Plan of 1980.  Of course, the last time this sort of rhetoric was bouncing around Ottawa with respect to Alberta oil, Peter Lougheed was preparing to take the Federal government to court.


2 responses to “Reading the National Energy Program”

  1. The National Energy Program – A missed boom for the oil sands?

    […] my post last night got me reading Budget 1980 and the National Energy Program, I stumbled upon something completely fascinating: the hated National Energy Program proposed an […]

  2. Robert Vail

    Andrew … BRAVE ,,, Bravo
    Finally it is refreshing to see another true Canadian that see the relevance of the challenges and opportunities today as in 1980 that were at play . You know the old saying”the devil is in the details” is very true when you actually study the N.E.P. it would have in all probability been the Countries finest moment and would have left
    Canada with NO MADE IN CANADA DEFICIT and also a more solid footing for ALL of us in the future . It is truly a disappointment when opposition is opposition simply for political reasons . I know the easy votes are a necessary evil in election victories like LOUGHHEED’S in Alberta , but we really should have considered what was truly driving the economy down it was not the N.E.P. it was in fact the Global Economy , next issue let’s take the BLINDERS OFF . thanks

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