In politics, as in baseball, you have to hit the pitches you know are coming. And credit where it’s due: Danielle Smith has been waiting on the federal government’s draft clean electricity regulations ever since she was elected in May, and she didn’t get cheated on her swing. “We are simply not going to achieve these 2035 targets and we’re not going to pretend they’re achievable,” she told the Calgary Sun’s Rick Bell.
Smith suggested the proposed federal regulations were “unconstitutional,” while Environment Minister Rebecca Schulz described them as “irresponsible and unrealistic” in her own comments. Never mind, for the moment, that they don’t ban the use of natural gas or prevent companies from building new natural gas-fired power plants, as Smith and her proxies have claimed repeatedly. In Smith’s Alberta, even the idea of trying to meet an ambitious climate change target is a bridge too far.
It’s the political equivalent of that old Simpsons meme: Her government has tried nothing and it’s all out of ideas. But this “can’t-do” attitude is a jarring departure from the story Albertans like to tell people, both about their energy sector and the province’s core values. In this story, Albertans are pragmatic problem-solvers who can rise to any challenge, one that’s often validated by their ability to “get the oil out of the sand,” as so many political speeches have said in the past. As such, the goal of getting the carbon out of the barrel — or, in this case, the megawatt-hour — shouldn’t be so immediately disqualifying.
That’s especially true when working towards the federal government’s net-zero target would actually help create jobs and attract clean energy investment, which used to be the priority of Conservative governments like Smith’s. But her government’s recent moratorium on new wind and solar developments — one that caught the companies building them completely off-guard — makes it clear the UCP’s top priority is preserving the status quo, no matter the cost to the long-term interests of Albertans.
Smith’s act of intergenerational political vandalism will probably work, too, at least in the near term. The instability created by her government’s energy moratorium will almost certainly be felt for years, as Alberta’s reputation with international investors suffers and wind and solar energy project developers look elsewhere for their next opportunity. By deliberately poisoning the well of renewable energy in Alberta, Smith is trying to turn an already difficult job into an impossible one.
The draft regulations are far from perfect, especially when it comes to the way it treats Alberta’s unique electricity grid. Unlike the rest of the country, Alberta’s deregulated electricity market relies on the private sector for the construction and operation of generating capacity. That means the carve-out for so-called peaker plants that would allow them to operate for 450 hours a year doesn’t make economic sense, given that it’s less than five per cent of an average gas plant’s annual operations. “I don’t see merchants in Alberta sitting idle for 5%,” University of Calgary economics professor Blake Shaffer tweeted.
Shaffer also highlighted the inclusion of so-called “net-to-grid cogeneration” (surplus electricity generated by oilsands plants) and shorter than expected end-of-life provisions (which allow plants built in 2015 and beyond to operate unabated for 20 years after they were commissioned, albeit, with a theoretically rising carbon price attached to their output) as provisions that weren’t particularly friendly to Alberta’s interests. And the need for an expanded intertie with neighbouring provinces like British Columbia, one that would allow Alberta to backstop its wind and solar with that province’s firm hydro assets, now becomes all the more urgent.
These are all negotiable points — they’re draft regulations, after all. But that requires the Alberta government to actually be interested in negotiating on matters of substance rather than merely grandstanding on principle. “To achieve the massive transformation requires an all-of-govt approach, working in sync with industry,” Shaffer tweeted. “The recent moratorium on wind & solar suggests no such behaviour is in the works; instead AB appears to be swimming against the tide.”
Whether Smith wants to admit it or not, that tide is only going to get stronger. Alberta’s hostility towards the federal government’s decarbonization efforts will cost it in terms of its international reputation (hello, negative Guardian story), its ability to attract talent and capital, and its appeal to young people who might be considering it as a potential home. It has already cost jobs and investment in its renewable energy sector, and it will almost certainly deter other investments in related areas of the cleantech economy. Even the oil and gas industry, which theoretically needs to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions if it wants to remain economically viable over the longer term, may come to rue this decision.
In Alberta, it used to be "skate to where the puck is going." Under Danielle Smith, it's "don't bother lacing up your skates at all." Why her "can't-do" attitude on climate and electricity is bound to backfire. @maxfawcett writes for @NatObserver
But these are problems for tomorrow’s Albertans. Indeed, if there’s one enduring lesson from Alberta’s political past, it’s that you can write cheques on the backs of future generations without paying a price for them. It’s why the savings in the Heritage Fund are a tiny fraction of what it could be. It’s why as much as $260 billion in environmental liabilities have been allowed to pile up without a real plan to actually clean them up. And it’s why Smith can pretend the federal government’s clean electricity regulations are an attack on Alberta’s future instead of an invitation to make it better.