The federal government is rolling out a series of regional energy and resource tables, in a bid to develop a national low-carbon industrial strategy.
Ottawa said the tables will serve as forums, catering to each province and territory’s “unique mix of its own natural resources, energy and electricity systems and clean technology strengths.” The goal is to prioritize and speed up low-carbon industrial development projects in each region.
B.C., Manitoba, and Newfoundland and Labrador have already signed on to the plan, which is slated to include the federal, provincial, and territorial governments, and "a tailored approach to Indigenous governments and groups to reflect their priorities and perspectives on regional opportunities," according to a federal news release. Ottawa is also promising a process that seeks input from municipal governments, experts, industry, labour, non-profit groups, academics, Indigenous communities and others."
“We would be very interested in participating,” said Colin Armstrong, chair of Hydrogen BC.
Hydrogen BC is part of the Canadian Hydrogen and Fuel Cell Association (CHFCA), a national, non-profit sector association, consisting of industry, academia, research agencies, and other stakeholders who seek to advance the use of clean hydrogen and fuel-cell technologies and products.
Armstrong said the CHFCA would also like to participate in the tables. He called them “a good idea,” noting that low-carbon energy projects are very complex. But Armstrong, who also serves as president and CEO of North Vancouver, B.C.-based hydrogen infrastructure and technology developer HTEC, wants to learn more about the plan.
“I’ve read the headlines,” he said. “I don’t know much more about it.”
The regional tables process is slated to evolve over time “in ways that will allow tangible outcomes to be achieved,” says the federal government news release.
Federally, Natural Resources Canada is leading what Ottawa calls a “whole-of-government initiative” that will involve regional development agencies and the Canada Infrastructure bank.
“The goal of these tables…will be to collaboratively identify the most significant three or four areas of economic opportunity in each province or territory,” Natural Resources Minister Jonathan Wilkinson told the Greater Vancouver Board of Trade in early June.
The tables are being funded with $25 million allocated in the 2022 federal budget under the category of regional strategic initiatives. Ottawa is aiming to have tables set up in all provinces and territories by early 2023.
Plans call for a small number of projects with the highest potential for clean-growth to be identified in each region and joint federal-provincial-territorial action plans to be created over the next two years.
Projects could draw from such federal financing programs as:
But one researcher with considerable knowledge of the Low-Carbon Economy Fund warned that the tables should not expect to influence where federal money is spent. (Research Money granted the researcher anonymity because an employer did not permit the person to speak publicly on such topics.)
“The sector tables [initiative] is just a way for the [federal] government to engage leaders in specific sectors on how to decarbonize,” said the researcher. “That doesn’t necessarily mean that the sector tables dictate what happens in the fund. The fund has its own governance model, its own processes. Any industry can apply to the fund for their project. You can think of the sector tables as being more of an understanding broadly at a higher level what industry needs to decarbonize so that it can help inform the government — whether it’s a policy, whether it’s a law on how to support [the industry.]”
Tables could incentivize businesses
But the researcher said the regional tables could incentivize businesses that are reluctant to decarbonize due to increased costs.
“If you’re a business, why would you invest in something that hasn’t been proven when you can wait for your competitor to invest in it and then, afterwards, you get to work on a second or third iteration at a much lower price point? So the fund is a way to incentivize industry to help take on that risk initially and, therefore, decrease the costs of decarbonization across the sector as a whole. I personally think the government should be doing more and more of this.”
However, the researcher added, Ottawa has to determine whether it could be subsidizing activities that an industry would already do, or taxpayers are funding “breakthrough, leading-class innovation that wouldn’t have happened otherwise.”
The tables are also a way for industry to have an open dialogue with government, and the forum could serve as “neutral ground” on which competitors can discuss shared problems and solutions.
The researcher called on the tables to address the workforce, training, and skilled-requirements of the low-carbon energy transition, and to examine how communities and businesses could be impacted, and how government and industry can work together to support the market.
“[One] of the biggest issues with innovation is that we have small companies that are doing all of the innovation, but they don’t have the skills or the resources that the large companies do,” said the researcher. “But the large companies don’t necessarily know which innovation or small company is the right bet.”
The tables also need to ask for “better answers on long-term regulation” and seek information on how resilient laws, regulations, and policies will be if there is a change in government.
“There are lots of questions to be asked," said the researcher, who suggested the tables will lower barriers and lead to more innovation. "The more resources that go into a space, the more opportunities there will be to innovate.”
Since each province has its own mix of natural resources, Wilkinson argues the economic opportunities and approaches leading to a clean-energy transition will vary across the country.
“In Alberta, significant opportunities will involve hydrogen derived from natural gas, (carbon capture, utilization and storage), critical minerals, renewable energy and biofuels,” he said. “In Quebec, the list would likely focus more on hydrogen from electrolysis, electricity exports, critical minerals and battery development and production. What we need is a plan that is based on comparative advantage.”
Russia-Ukraine conflict accelerates development
The regional tables rollout comes as Canada and other countries are accelerating green energy development and distribution in the wake of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, which has resulted in oil and gas supply shortages in some parts of the world and exorbitant energy price inflation. A key factor has been the Russian government’s decision to curb natural gas shipments to countries that oppose the attack on Ukraine.
In addition to regional tables, Ottawa plans to create the Pan-Canadian Grid Council, a technical advisory group mandated to remove barriers to clean-electricity production in all regions. According to the federal news release, the council will “feed into the regional tables process.”
Canada is seeking to align itself with global long-term emission-reduction goals, to be achieved by 2050. But Wilkinson warned that there will still be a role for fossil fuels beyond 2050.
B.C. First Nations want to be included
Robert Phillips, a political executive with the B.C.-based First Nations Leadership Council and First Nations Summit, said Ottawa must bear in mind the UN Declaration for the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP). In B.C.’s case, a provincial UNDRIP-related law must be considered along with Aboriginal rights and title, and treaty rights, and a forthcoming federal UNDRIP law must also be factored into tables in other regions.
In addition to being partners in the tables and projects, he said, Indigenous governments need to have separate “government-to-government-government” discussions with Ottawa and provinces and territories. In B.C.’s case, that means talks between Ottawa, the provincial government and First Nations.
“We want to be included – but not as a stakeholder,” said Phillips.
First Nations support the development of technologies and everything designed to achieve net-zero emissions over the long term, and the tables are a good way to reach out to communities, he added.
Although specifics are lacking, “the opportunity is there” for a low-carbon future through the tables.
“If we can help reach these goals and make this climate change or climate crisis that we’re in now be reduced or stopped or slowed down – whatever can be done – then it’s something that we should certainly have a good look at,” said Phillips.
Since First Nations have been around for thousands of years and are already involved in work around climate change and low-carbon transitioning, they need to be able to bring their “own expertise to the table.”
“When it comes to this low-carbon future that they’re talking about, First Nations have to be a big part of that,” said Phillips.