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Opinion

Public Will Need to Seize Control of Energy

Radical as it sounds, government intervention is key to our survival.

By Rafe Mair 10 Nov 2014 | TheTyee.ca

Rafe Mair writes a column for The Tyee every other week. Read his previous columns here. He is also a founding contributor to The Common Sense Canadian.

In 1989, we've been told, communism died.

But did capitalism win?

Perhaps for a while. It's still acting as if it did, but time has shown that capitalism as we knew it is outdated, and to say the least, undemocratic.

The reasons for communism in the first place haven't gone away. There's still massive poverty throughout the world, and perhaps even worse, that plus working poverty in the industrial world. The capitalistic system just doesn't work for a hell of a lot of people all over the globe.

It is also clear that as an unrestrained exploiter of fossil fuels, capitalism bids fair to destroy us all.

This doesn't mean that communism will return. Nor does it even mean that we will have socialism -- whatever that might be. No doubt we will have something quite different, but just what remains to be seen.

The catalyst for this inevitable, massive change is energy, the production and sale of which largely has been a private preserve -- particularly here in North America.

But daily the civilization-threatening collision of fossil fuels and the environment becomes more evidently real. The latest forceful confirmation is the report released last week by the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

Decades back, as the connection between fossil fuels and the threat of climate change were becoming obvious, we began hearing passionate and forceful statements that we must and we would "wean ourselves off fossil fuels." Folks wondered just how the resultant changes would be accommodated. But, by God, we would do it!

In fact, nothing of the sort happened. If anything, the manufacture and sale plus dependence upon fossil fuels substantially increased. The private sector tightened control over the manufacture, sale and export of energy and our governments have meekly "gone along."

This is clearly no longer acceptable. Much has happened in the last few years.

Public resistance

Take, for example, British Columbia, where the public has risen against two proposed pipelines from the Alberta tarsands to move highly toxic bitumen through their wilderness, and ship it by tanker out of their fjords to Asia. The resistance has extended far beyond environmental activists and is so widespread that both pipelines are now in serious difficulty.

The governments in Ottawa and Victoria are enthusiastic about liquefied natural gas (LNG) but the public is not nearly so enthused.

Despite Victoria's best efforts to cover up the environmental impact of LNG, the public realizes that it is only marginally less greenhouse-emission causing than oil and coal, and in fact, may not even be that. The public sees, too, that Premier Christy Clark has displayed utter ineptitude in dealing with the industry.

Ottawa and Victoria haven't caught up to the public by a long shot. Canada, being what it is, will change when the eastern pipeline from the tarsands is finally approved, and Ontario folks will have to deal with a pipeline across their farms that connects to tankers through the Great Lakes. Then, as if as by magic, pipelines will be a national issue and even idiots like Joe Oliver will have to sit up and take notice as their own constituents raise hell.

The private assault from producing energy exists on a massive scale. Fracking is a huge issue worldwide. The initial reaction was that this was a marvellous thing because U.S. dependency on the Middle East was eliminated. It became not such a great idea when we realized that the U.S. was now self-sufficient in natural gas, thus eliminating B.C.'s major export recipient below the line.

First Nations rising

There's been another critical development and indeed it's probably the most important event in B.C. history. First Nations have not only won their court battles and established their rights, but gained the respect and support of much of the general public. This respect and support increases daily and poses real problems for Ottawa and Victoria. One has to wonder just how Harper and our premier are going to deal with this.

It's particularly troublesome for Premier Clark because she has committed the government to a new relationship with First Nations, yet just over the hill are the proposed pipelines which many First Nations oppose but the government does not. That foretells a collision which will be most interesting to watch!

As the public wakes up -- which it is happening very quickly these days -- governments are going to have to do something. The question is, what?

This won't likely mean massive changes in the system of governance but considerable government involvement and regulation in the energy business.

This brings horror to the boardrooms. Be that as it may, energy, in its manufacture and sale, has become a public matter. This rubs against the grain of all who hate to see the bloody government further involved in anything. Yet the fact is that no government can allow this enormous sector to simply do what it pleases any longer.

Take control from corporations

In one sense, it's early days. Governments have not yet fully awakened to what the public is beginning to demand, and have nothing in place to exercise control over the energy sector. The Harper dictatorship is, of course, disinclined to get involved for philosophical reasons. Yet interference is inevitable.

Readers may well think I've gone barmy. But you cannot have, on the one hand, massive protests by the public of all political stripes, and then not expect a government that finally understands and reads the polls to reject what the public is demanding.

Corporations are simply not equipped to do the "public good." That's not in their nature nor should it be. Shareholders are only interested in seeing the company spend money on what's necessary to run the business and the dividends. To expect that energy companies will see the light and become concerned about global warming and the public weal is akin to believing in Santa Claus.

It therefore must always be assumed that corporations will hack and drill, transport and sell fossil fuels without constraints except for those imposed by the marketplace or the government (while spending fortunes on PR to convince us of their righteousness).

If industry won't concern itself with the public good, who then will? There is only one answer.

The trick now will be for the public to ensure that their control over energy through their government does not confer upon that government powers that were not intended.

That will be a big trick indeed.  [Tyee]

Read more: Energy,

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