A war of words
A “historic” deal could serve as a model for provinces and First Nations to jointly manage land, water and resource development. Your pension fund may be taking a gamble with your retirement income. Climate misinformation is through the roof on Twitter. And BP plans to search for Canada’s next big offshore oil mega project this summer.
This week, I’m unpacking the latest tensions between the federal government and Canada’s biggest oil-producing province. Read on to find out more.
As always, you can let me know what you think of this newsletter at [email protected].
Have a great weekend and stay safe!
— Dana Filek-Gibson
Looking for more CNO reads? You can find them at the bottom of this email.
What's a just transition, anyway?
Alberta is itching for a fight over oil and gas — except Ottawa is on the same side.
You may have seen the headlines — or tweets — decrying the Liberals’ not-yet-released just transition legislation or the federal government’s subsequent effort to set the record straight. Alberta Premier Danielle Smith has slammed the proposed bill as “ill-conceived” and “short-sighted,” arguing the very mention of a just transition signals Justin Trudeau’s intention to shut down the oil and gas industry altogether.
“I won’t let him,” Smith tweeted a couple weeks ago.
But getting rid of fossil fuels is not something Ottawa wants to do, either. Just a few months ago, the prime minister insisted Canada can reach its climate goals and still make room for more oil and gas. Not long after, Natural Resources Minister Jonathan Wilkinson told his colleagues in Parliament the “global shift to a low-carbon future can be accomplished without phasing out Canada’s oil and gas sector.” The big-ticket climate item in last year’s federal budget was a tax credit for industries — including oil and gas — to invest in carbon capture technology, unveiled the day after the feds greenlit Canada’s first deepwater oil project. When it comes to keeping the oil and gas industry alive, Ottawa and Alberta are on the same page.
So, why the fuss? Because Alberta is gearing up for an election in May, and agreeing with the federal government does not play well with Smith’s supporters. Her United Conservative Party is neck and neck with Rachel Notley’s NDP in the polls, and Smith is using her clashes with Ottawa to prove she’ll stand up for Albertans as premier. Notley, meanwhile, tried to avoid the drama at first but is now calling on Ottawa to drop the bill.
At the heart of this debate is the phrase “just transition,” a term that means different things to different people. For some, it signifies a fair and equitable transition away from fossil fuels, recognizing the world must stop expanding its oil and gas operations if we want to meet our climate goals. For others — Alberta and Ottawa included — it means shifting to a “low-carbon” economy that invests in renewable energy and clean technologies but continues to use oil and gas with carbon capture technology added into the mix.
It’s worth noting here that there is no such thing as “low-carbon” oil and gas. The carbon capture governments are banking on will cut down on some, but not all, greenhouse gas pollution that comes from producing oil and gas. It won’t, however, account for the vast majority of the planet-heating emissions that happen when we burn those products to run our cars, heat our homes or power our workplaces. There is currently no way to capture that pollution on a meaningful scale.
However you define a just transition, the phrase does not go over well with a lot of Canadians. Abacus Data surveyed more than 1,800 people across the country in 2019, presenting them with six different ways of describing the shift to clean energy; “just transition” was the least popular. For its part, Ottawa has since pivoted to avoid the phrase altogether, instead framing the bill as a plan to create “sustainable jobs.”
But even though the phrase attached to the plan isn’t very popular, the idea of shifting away from fossil fuels is: another 2019 Abacus survey found half of Albertans and nearly three-quarters of all Canadians support or can accept the phaseout of fossil fuels over the next two or three decades.
That doesn’t necessarily mean Canadians will buy into the government’s transition plans, though. In a report last April, environment commissioner Jerry DeMarco pointed out Ottawa’s poor track record when it comes to providing support to workers facing big industry shifts, citing the federal coal phaseout and the collapse of Newfoundland and Labrador’s cod fishery as examples.
Still, like it or not, change is coming — in some respects, it’s already here. The country has shed nearly 42,000 oil and gas jobs over the past eight years, 30,000 of those in Alberta alone. As demand for oil and gas drops, the risk of fossil fuel infrastructure becoming worthless also goes up, creating a $100-billion problem for Canadians whose pensions and savings are invested in the industry.
Both Ottawa and Alberta recognize this reality but are banking on producing the world’s last barrel of oil in Canada. Earlier this week, oilsands executives even predicted the “low-carbon” version of a just transition could lead to Canada’s next big oil boom.
Climate researchers aren’t convinced, not just because the International Energy Agency projects Canada will have to produce less oil and gas in order to hit our climate goals, but also because of cost. Other oil-producing countries can take the same steps as we are to cut down on pollution, University of British Columbia climate policy researcher Kathryn Harrison told Canada’s National Observer last week, but our oil tends to cost more to produce.
“The idea that the rest of the world’s industry isn't playing the same game, I think, just ends up being a race to the bottom with taxpayers holding the bag.”
More CNO reads
The latest instalment in Scott Moe’s crusade against Ottawa should worry all Canadians. Saskatchewan's Bill 88 seeks to give the province "exclusive jurisdiction" over regulating greenhouse gas pollution from its oil and gas industry, among others, writes former Saskatchewan legislator Peter Prebble.
Confidential documents reveal Bay Street’s attempt to greenwash Canadian regulations. Canada’s financial heavyweights are trying to convince the federal government to let them keep pumping money into the oil and gas sector, John Woodside reports.
Students are turning their school grounds into a thriving urban farm, workshop and event space. Toronto's Don Mills Collegiate Institute now boasts an outdoor kitchen, a greenhouse, a vineyard and more. Morgan Sharp takes you on a tour of the facilities and tells the story of how the school's sustainable programs came to be.
First Nations youth were twice as likely to be hospitalized for mental health issues in 2011 as they were in 2006. A new study from Statistics Canada is the first to investigate changes in patterns of hospitalization among Indigenous children and youth over time, Matteo Cimellaro reports.
Racing against regulations, developers rush to build seaside properties in danger zones. The desire for waterfront views is fuelling a shoreline building boom on Canada’s east coast ahead of new rules that will try to curb coastal development, Moira Donovan reports.
Ottawa is investing in menstrual pads and textiles made from food waste. Six tech startups will receive a total of $2.4 million to tackle major sources of wasted food, Marc Fawcett-Atkinson reports.
A global ocean conservation summit is coming to Vancouver. IMPAC5, hosted by the federal government and First Nations in B.C., seeks to improve protection of the world’s biggest carbon sink, Rochelle Baker reports.