After a week of literal record-breaking heat, you might think the government of Alberta would at least pretend to take climate change more seriously. But as the mandate letters for Premier Danielle Smith’s minister of environment and minister of energy show, her government remains all hat and no cattle when it comes to the issue.
Oh, it’s still happy to pretend it’s doing something about climate change. As the letters state, “Alberta is the most responsible energy producer and exporter on Earth. Our industry and government spend billions annually on pioneering and commercializing technologies that are turning our massive oil and gas reserves into a long-term, environmentally sustainable and responsible source of energy for the world.”
Never mind that Alberta’s per-barrel emissions are actually higher today than they were in 1990 and barely lower than they were in 2005. And let’s set aside, for the moment — we’ll get to it — that its inventory of unreclaimed environmental liabilities is now well in excess of $100 billion. To hear the premier and her key ministers, the biggest priority here isn’t reducing emissions or tightening regulations but rather cutting red tape and finding ways to dump treated oilsands water back into the rivers more quickly. As the Pembina Institute’s Simon Dyer said, “It’s impossible to be an energy and environmental leader without a clear plan to reduce emissions, and Alberta doesn’t have one.”
Said plan was, by the way, one of Smith’s key pre-election pledges. While former environment minister Sonya Savage promised a package of “commissions, committees and studies” to determine how Alberta ought to pursue its “aspirational” net zero by 2050 target, those are conspicuously absent from her successor’s marching orders. Instead, it includes a very curious directive to conduct "an analysis into Alberta’s carbon sink capacity to establish a true understanding of Alberta’s position in relation to carbon neutrality."
In other words, they want credit for the existence of a boreal forest in Alberta and the carbon dioxide it’s sequestered over the years. This is a familiar argument among the dwindling crowd of climate change skeptics (and growing number of climate policy slow-walkers) that’s been debunked repeatedly by people who actually look at the data, including the National Observer’s own Barry Saxifrage. As he wrote in 2021, “Over the last two decades, the once great carbon sink has steadily drained away. It's now gone, and the balance in the forest has tipped to emitting CO2 instead.”
This isn’t the only free lunch Smith’s government is looking to dine out on. It also wants credit for LNG exports, another familiar fantasy that has been knocked down by economists and other experts who are in the dangerous habit of knowing things. The federal government is apparently entertaining the idea, which one can only assume is because it understands most of these theoretical credits — which, again, are about as likely to happen as me getting hired by Postmedia — would actually accrue to British Columbia. LNG terminals are located on the B.C. coast and process gas is extracted from within its borders. Jonathan Wilkinson, the federal minister of natural resources, must have a prankster’s sense of humour.
But Smith’s relentless search for reasons why Alberta doesn’t have to do the heavy lifting — or any lifting, really — on reducing its greenhouse gas emissions is no laughing matter. Instead of putting forward a real plan and policies needed to make it happen, the Smith government is trying to wait out the federal government and its belaboured efforts on an oil and gas emissions cap and net-zero electricity regulation for 2035. When they’re inevitably announced some time later this year, Smith will saddle up on her high horse and pretend they represent yet another affront to Alberta’s oil and gas industry.
What they really represent is a late-game attempt to bring Canada within shouting distance of its 2030 targets under the Paris Accord. And while the Trudeau Liberals may have held out hope that Alberta’s recent provincial election would deliver a government willing to at least take this stuff seriously, that’s clearly out the window now. Now, with an eye towards an election of its own and the need to protect Albertans (and Canadians) from the growing financial risks associated with the energy transition, the Trudeau Liberals might want to turn the tables a bit here and start playing offence.
If Alberta won’t force its oil and gas companies to start spending more — way more — on cleaning up its old wells and tailings ponds, maybe Ottawa should. In addition, the feds should end all remaining subsidies, which they’ve already promised to do, and introduce a new surtax on oil and gas profits. The proceeds could be used as a deposit against the cost of cleaning up the mess these companies seem comfortable leaving behind for taxpayers. If Alberta’s growing inventory of tailings ponds and unreclaimed wells are cleaned up ahead of schedule by industry — unlikely, given the current pace and scale, but theoretically possible — the funds could be returned to Albertans in the form of a special dividend or one-off transfer to its government.
Danielle Smith seems to think Alberta can reach its net-zero target by moving goalposts and recycling debunked arguments. It's time for Ottawa to save Alberta from itself — and Canada from the fallout of its failure to take climate change seriously.
Yes, the companies would surely howl about how this represents yet another “National Energy Program.” The Smith government might do some saber rattling about separation and independence. And federal Conservatives might even try to turn it into an election issue, one that could easily backfire in the places they need to win more seats.
Let them. Wakeup calls are rarely pleasant for the person getting woken up, after all. But the longer Alberta is allowed to sleepwalk towards a climate-driven financial catastrophe of its own making, the higher the price will be for everyone else. And if it really is “the most responsible energy producer on Earth,” as we keep getting told time and again, maybe Alberta and its United Conservative Party government will actually do the right thing here for a change.