MESSy relations

Monica Gattinger

"I think governments on both sides of the border underestimated the environment and social acceptability components of the energy MESS."

– Monica Gattinger


To understand how divisive and complex energy policymaking can be, one needs to look no further than the Keystone XL pipeline debate. The plan to pipe crude oil from Alberta’s oil sands to refineries on the American Gulf Coast has faced numerous delays, robust public opposition and vigorous debate in the United States Congress, prompting Canadian politicians to lobby hard to seal the deal.

“Keystone is an excellent illustration of the energy MESS,” says Monica Gattinger, a professor at the University of Ottawa’s School of Political Studies, whose research focuses on the influence of North American economic integration on domestic and international energy policies and relations. While its connotation is unmistakable, the acronym Gattinger has crafted stands for an intricate set of policy dimensions—Market, Environment, Security and Social acceptability— which have increasingly shaped and challenged energy policy-making over the past three decades.

Canada-U.S. relations on energy have historically been quite stable but policy-makers must increasingly juggle market imperatives with environmental and security considerations, including critical infrastructure protection, post-9/11. Not to mention the wild card of social acceptability.

“The Keystone XL Pipeline proposal was infamously referred to by Prime Minister Stephen Harper as a ‘no-brainer’. And yet look at us now,” explains Gattinger, “we’re years into this process and it’s still not clear what the outcome will ultimately be. I think governments on both sides of the border underestimated the environment and social acceptability components of the energy MESS.”

While Canada and the United States have traditionally had tightly integrated energy markets, recent global economic uncertainty and a changing marketplace for energy are reshaping relations between the two countries, says Gattinger. Over the past five years, the energy landscape in North America has been transformed by the exploitation of huge reserves of shale gas and shale oil in the United States. The swift rise in the production of these new sources of fuel is calling into question U.S. demand for Canadian resources such as oil and gas from Alberta and hydroelectricity from Quebec or Manitoba.

“It wasn’t that long ago the talk was that North America faces an energy deficit,” says Gattinger, who is writing a book on the evolution of Canada-U.S. energy relations since the Free Trade Agreement of the 1980s. “Now the thinking is that North America could become a net hydrocarbon exporter.”

Will these profound changes mark the beginning of the end for Canada-U.S. interdependence on energy? Gattinger notes that while Canada is attempting to diversify its energy markets to reduce its reliance on exports to the United States, that doesn’t mean the two trading partners will no longer rely on each other. “Even in the wildest projections, the United States will continue to need to import oil,” says Gattinger, and it will look to Canada for supply.

Despite the cross-border challenges, Gattinger suggests that Canada and the United States could benefit from joining forces, for example, on a consultative process that would call on public involvement in both countries to help shape North America’s future energy policies. It’s an idea that may just turn the energy MESS into a tidy opportunity for greater international cooperation.


A novel energy network

The University of Ottawa has launched a new initiative to foster local and international collaboration on energy issues. The Collaboratory on Energy Research and Policy, comprised of representatives of academia, government and industry, aims to strengthen energy research and policy in North America.

“The Collaboratory, which brings together the words ‘collaboration’ and ‘laboratory’, is an idea whose time has come. Energy is one of the most salient and complex issues in North America, yet no university research groups focus attention on North American energy policies,” says Monica Gattinger, the Collaboratory’s founding chair and a professor at the School of Political Studies. “The University of Ottawa is ideally positioned to fill this gap. We have a solid core of faculty with research expertise in energy and a supreme location to build bridges between energy researchers, policymakers and stakeholders in North America.”

Among various activities, the Collaboratory will organize interdisciplinary workshops on energy research at the University of Ottawa and other universities throughout North America, create partnerships with stakeholders involved in energy policymaking and develop projects with researchers from Canada, the United States and Mexico. It will also offer training opportunities for undergraduate and graduate students and will promote energy literacy both on and off campus.


by Monique Roy-Sole

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