If Alberta Premier Danielle Smith ever gets tired of politics, she has a long career as a de-motivational speaker ahead of her. That was the role she played at the Pembina Institute’s Climate Summit, where her brief fireside chat with television host Dave Kelly was defined by her repeated efforts to discourage everyone in the room about the province’s ability to meet the targets in the federal government’s 2035 Clean Electricity Standard. “I am not going to engage in fantasy thinking and say something is possible,” she told the crowd, “when I know my principal job is to have a reliable energy grid.”
Kelly, to his credit, tried to press Smith on her can’t-do attitude, reminding her that Alberta’s economic history was defined by ambitious goals and technological breakthroughs that helped achieve them. The oilsands, he noted, were seen at the time of their earliest creation as a direct threat to the conventional oil and gas industry — one then-premier Peter Lougheed decided to bet on anyway. It wasn’t hard to see the parallel Kelly was trying to create with wind and solar, on which Smith’s government put a six-month moratorium in September.
Smith wasn’t having it. “There are long stretches in winter where we can go weeks without wind or solar,” she said. “That is the reason why we need legitimate, real solutions that rely on baseload power rather than fantasy thinking. And I am not going to engage in fantasy thinking.” It’s simply not true that there are stretches of weeks on end without wind or solar in Alberta, even in the depths of winter, and combining those technologies with battery storage is already cheaper than new gas-fired electricity in many parts of the province.
But it’s on carbon capture and storage technology where she really shows her hand. Smith is more than happy to brag about Alberta’s track record of “leadership” on the technology, especially in the context of decarbonizing the oilsands. But when it comes to electricity generation and the federal government’s proposed target of 95 per cent emissions reduction, it suddenly falls under the heading of fantasy thinking.
“Right now, the technology’s about 65 per cent,” she told the audience at the climate summit. “The folks in the industry I talk to think we can get to 80 per cent. But no one is going to invest now to get to 95 per cent, with their fingers crossed hoping it will happen when they say they’re going to use the criminal law power to put them in jail or give them fines. No one’s going to do it.”
That will come as a surprise to Capital Power, the Edmonton-based power generation company that’s proposing a carbon capture and utilization project on its Genesee 1 and 2 natural gas units. A final investment decision on that project is expected before the end of 2023. In a corporate update from July 2022, Steve Owens, the company’s senior vice-president of construction and engineering, said: “The project is expected to capture 95 per cent of the CO2 emitted from our repowered, best-in-class Genesee 1 and 2 natural gas units.”
There’s no question the federal government’s clean electricity targets are ambitious — maybe too ambitious. But the surest way to ensure Alberta doesn’t hit them is by refusing to even try and to talk down even the possibility of technological breakthroughs that might get us there. It also guarantees that Alberta will miss out on opportunities associated with the global energy transition, which the International Energy Agency described as “unstoppable” in its latest World Energy Outlook. “It’s not a question of ‘if’, it’s just a matter of ‘how soon’ — and the sooner the better for all of us,” IEA executive director Fatih Birol said in a press release.
A day earlier, Smith dismissed the IEA as “no longer credible” and suggested it simply works backwards from the outcomes it wants to see. There’s some rich irony there given her own government’s dubious case for an Alberta Pension Plan and the way in which it aggressively shepherds voters toward a preferred outcome of her own. But it also speaks to the degree to which she’s engaged in some fantastical thinking of her own. By burying her province’s head in the sand and pretending the world isn’t changing, she seems to think she can keep that change at bay.
Alas, Alberta just isn’t that important. Yes, by deliberately slow-rolling any efforts to keep pace with the global energy transition, much less get ahead of it, Smith’s government might be able to extend the life of the province’s legacy fossil fuel assets by a few extra years. But this will come at the cost of attracting the sort of new investment and entrepreneurs who will help build that future, to say nothing of the wealth they might create. Who, after all, wants to come to a place where the political leadership is constantly telling you what you can’t achieve rather than what you can?