Economic side of 'Green New Deal' launches in B.C., says federal minister

Natural Resources Minister Jonathan Wilkinson spoke to Glacier Media about the government's plant to usher in a decarbonized economy.

Natural Resources Minister Jonathan Wilkinson.| Alex Tétreault

The Canadian government has launched a three-year-long round of discussions with each of the country’s provinces and territories. The goal: nothing short of planning a new economy driven by renewable energy.  

Dubbed the Regional Energy and Resource Tables, the round-table meetings will kick off with British Columbia, Newfoundland and Labrador, and Manitoba.  

Big questions are on the table. How can federal spending back a transformation to a fully renewable electricity grid? Where can provinces create new jobs in low-carbon energy, mining and forestry? How do we make sure no one gets left behind?  

As Minister of Natural Resources Jonathon Wilkinson put it to Glacier Media recently, “it is the economic side of the ‘Green New Deal.” 

Essentially, it’s about “developing place-based economic strategies to ensure that people who live in British Columbia — but also in Alberta, and in Ontario — understand that there will be an economic future that's a positive one for their kids.” 

How will they work?

Over the next three months, representatives from the federal government, provinces and municipalities will draw up a plan laying out how all parties will achieve concrete steps over the next three years. 

That means figuring out how the governments will bring in planning experts, industry, labour, and particularly, First Nations, said Wilkinson.

Then comes lining up priorities, funding and regulatory processes for a transforming economy. 

“People, I think, often think that a low-carbon future means that there's a wind turbine everywhere you can see on the landscape,” said Wilkinson. “It means a heck of a lot more than that.” 

“When people are talking about this just transition, like, the first question is ‘transition to what?’” 

Wilkinson said the outcomes of the Regional Tables are meant to speak to Canadians who care about climate change but worry their standard of living will be sacrificed along the way. 

“You have a lot of people who want to be convinced that there can be a good future for their kids and that they don't have to move somewhere else in order to actually have a job,” Wilkinson said.  

While the minister says the process is important to get things done, he acknowledged most Canadians won’t start to pay attention until things start getting done.  

A large-scale hydrogen facility employing 2,000 people in Vancouver, a lithium mine and a processing facility creating 1,000 jobs — “those are the things that are going to move the needle for people,” Wilkinson said.  

Describing the Regional Tables as “a less partisan way” to push forward a “more comprehensive and thoughtful” economic agenda, Wilkinson said each province will be expected to come forward with its own agenda — in particular, three or four big priorities. 

In B.C. that means the growth of hydrogen fuel systems, the expansion of a critical minerals industry and the electrification of heavy industry. It could also include backing a new sustainable forest industry producing low-carbon building products such as mass timber.  

Bringing provinces together to build a clean grid

The federal government has pledged it would decarbonize Canada’s electric grid by 2035. That would mean weaning four provinces — Alberta, Saskatchewan, New Brunswick and Nova Scotia — off coal as a source of electricity. But it also means building something in its place.  

In Alberta, for example, there is vast potential to create wind energy. Link that with the hydro storage capacity of B.C. and modelling has shown inter-provincial energy ties to be one of the cheapest ways to satisfy peak demand with renewables, said Anna Kanduth, a senior research associate at the Canadian Climate Institute.  

The tables are meant to help bring provinces together to build those inter-provincial transmission lines.

“I think it’s a step in the right direction,” said Kanduth of the talks. 

“All electricity systems in Canada have work to do, even places like B.C. that have relatively clean grids now, because systems are going to have to all grow significantly in the coming decades.”

One recent study found electricity demand will triple by mid-century, meaning the current output of electricity will need to grow significantly in the coming decades. 

“If every house had an electric car right now, the grid is not set up to be able to do that,” said the minister.  

Securing an energy future built on batteries

With the price of gas reaching record highs over the last several months, nearly half of Canadians planning on buying a car are looking to choose electric, according to a recent poll

That’s the highest interest Canadians have shown in EVs to date. But many remain cautious about the cost and range of an electric vehicle. 

When Glacier Media asked about potential rebates for second-hand electric vehicles — something promised in the Liberal Party of Canada’s last election platform but noticeably absent in its last budget — Wilkinson said his government was still weighing the possibility.

“I certainly wouldn't rule it off the table,” he said. 

Of bigger concern, said the minister, were long-term plans on where EV batteries would come from.

That starts with the minerals critical to building batteries.

One push to develop their exploitation in Canada is simple — every country will need them to build batteries and complete the energy transition away from fossil fuels. 

The second comes down to rising fears China’s stranglehold on battery supply chains could spell disaster for Western countries. 

It’s a concern Wilkinson said was brought up a few weeks ago when he visited the White House in Washington, D.C.

“They were telling me that they have almost no nickel and almost no cobalt. They need both of those and they have to get them from somewhere,” he said.

“I will tell you, nobody in the western world wants to be in the same situation as Germany finds itself right now with Russian oil and gas. And so there is a desire on the part of many countries to look at Canada and Australia as stable and secure sources of supply.” 

Demand for critical minerals and metals — such as lithium, graphite, nickel, cobalt and copper — is exploding as government, industry and consumers clamour for everything from smartphones and laptops to wind turbines, solar panels and electric cars.

“Simply put, there is no energy transition without critical minerals, and this is why critical mineral supply chain resilience is an increasing priority for advanced economies,” Wilkinson said, in the written forward to a draft of his promised critical minerals strategy, released this week.

Making Canada a leader in batteries starts in mines. Wilkinson said the Regional Tables offer the perfect opportunity to streamline provincial and federal permitting processes to better prepare potential mine operators so they can avoid regulatory delays. 

“It cannot take us 15 years to permit new mines in this country if we are going to achieve the targets that we've set for electric vehicles,” said Wilkinson.  

The minister added that accelerating certification does not mean “cutting corners” on Indigenous consultation or “short-circuiting” environmental protections.  

But opening mines are just a start. Wilkinson said his ministry is looking to back the development of everything from on-sight processing to refining of critical metals in Canada. 

“It's about actually doing the manufacturing of batteries and electric vehicles and a range of other products that utilize critical minerals in this country,” he said. 

“I see this as actually a generational opportunity for Canada.”

Big potential, short on time

Wilkinson isn’t coming to the tables empty-handed. He pointed to money already announced in this year’s budget, including $4 billion set aside for critical mineral development and an $8-billion net-zero accelerator fund

Wilkinson said he told his counterpart in the Ministry of Finance that he would be asking for more money to achieve what’s needed at the Regional Tables.  

Most jurisdictions in Canada have clamoured at the opportunity to start first, said the minister.

“Virtually all the provinces and territories are kind of in that status of having a classroom of kids saying, ‘Pick me, pick me,’” he said.

“They want help in enabling this. They know they're gonna have to do it. They know they don't have the resources to do it on their own.” 

Meanwhile, Kanduth said the federal government’s plan to go province by province “makes a lot of sense” — largely because of the big economic differences and growing political rifts across Canada that stand in the way of transitioning to a low-carbon economy.

The biggest hurdle, she said, is time. 

“We have a lot at stake here, from climate action, for workers and communities, you know, for the broader economy and for the well-being of Canadians,” she said.

“Time will tell whether it's going to be kind of the economic side of the ‘Green New Deal.’”

With files from The Canadian Press