Canada needs politicians who can pass a basic energy facts test

Should there be an energy version of the SAT for aspiring Canadian politicians?

We’ve all heard about aspiring American high school students sweating their SATs (formerly the Scholastic Assessment Test).

For students, it’s a measure of – and introduction to – the rigours of academic life post-high school.

It can be a shock to the system because it helps them understand they need to know a lot more to be successful beyond Grade 12, as their post-secondary education paths roll out in front of them. Some don’t make the grade. That’s the point of the process.

The SAT functions as a filter, ensuring that those who deserve to succeed can. The test is based on the premise that knowledge and learning are prerequisites to success.

What if Canada’s aspiring provincial and federal politicians had to similarly demonstrate their energy knowledge before being permitted to stand for office?

Call it the EAT: Energy Assessment Test.

It would score potential politicians on a variety of knowledge baselines, across all forms of energy and energy systems – not just oil and gas.

To be successful on the EAT, they would have to study like heck. They would have to deepen their understanding of the energy world’s complexities, domestically and globally.

They would need to examine topical energy dynamics in a way that would precondition them for the rigours of elected office.

Most politicians come to office well-intentioned but ill-equipped to deal with the complexities of energy matters: economic, technical, regulatory, political and so on.

What they are equipped with, on all points on the political spectrum, is a particular ideological perspective on energy that’s their default position on what they think they know.

It’s not enough. Ideology must be tempered by socio-economic realities to drive an energy future that successfully balances the environment and the economy.

Canada’s current energy discourse is polarizing and paralyzing. We’re going nowhere fast. When we should be coalescing around a collaborative future that could set global standards for energy transition excellence, we’re backpedalling.

Politicians serve as a critical interface between voters and other stakeholders – investors, bureaucrats, arm’s-length regulators, non-government environmental groups, etc. What they know and understand about energy affairs should be a stabilizing force.

Instead, their lack of baseline energy knowledge is crippling the country. Instead of leading constructive dialogue, politicians are rooted in various ideological positions and so merely exacerbate the divisiveness.

New politicians learn on the job. It’s a messy process. They end up with solutions built on compromise instead of consensus. Bureaucrats often hold more influence than they ought to.

Unprepared politicians also take their cues from the headlines without really understanding that the media’s energy illiteracy and ideological orientation are as much part of the problem as their own knowledge gaps.

The SAT process is as much about preparation for the test as it is about the test. It’s about basic skills but, perhaps more importantly, it’s about critical thinking.

The same should hold true for would-be politicians when it comes to energy-related knowledge.

In 2019, Albertans and Canadians will go to the polls in provincial and federal elections. Just imagine what might result for our energy future should we elect parties whose members are actually prepared to balance ideology with practical knowledge.

Ronnie Wood and the Faces sang in Ooh La La: “I wish that I knew what I know now, when I was younger.”

It would be heartening if the politicians in office were to admit that they really didn’t know what they were facing when they delivered their nomination papers.

Canada’s energy landscape and the narratives that are shaping it might look much different had politicians been preassessed by taking the EAT. 

Bill Whitelaw is president and CEO at JuneWarren-Nickle’s Energy Group.

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