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Jyoti Gondek, Calgary's newly elected mayor, is promising more nuanced thinking on energy. And that’s not a bad thing, writes Kelly Cryderman.Sarah B Groot/The Globe and Mail

Jumping right into the fray, Jyoti Gondek was less than 24 hours into being elected as Calgary’s next mayor when she gave an interview saying her top priority would be to get a “climate emergency” declaration passed by city council.

Ms. Gondek followed up by saying the city has forgotten about what it’s best at – innovative energy production. “We became fixated on that end product, being oil and gas. So, let’s move past the outputs, and start talking about the processes again,” she told Real Talk podcast host Ryan Jespersen.

Her words immediately raised hackles – especially since some reports simply stated she wants to move past oil and gas, ignoring the nuance of her words.

This was bound to be a tough issue. This is, after all, a city that has rises and falls largely on the fortunes of the fossil fuel industry. Calgary has faced years of painful job losses and empty office towers as oil prices and new investments in the industry have dropped. And at this exact moment, the city is in the awkward (and seemingly contradictory) position of simultaneously bracing for a painful global energy transition and a huge new wave of dollars from sharply rising crude demand.

But the question of whether the mayor’s plan is a smart pivot or not will be answered both in the details of how it’s executed, and in how it’s perceived outside of Calgary city limits.

Some were more than unhappy with Ms. Gondek’s words, concerned this sentiment validated the campaigns of environmental groups that want to halt any growth of the province’s oil and gas industry. Former Saskatchewan premier Brad Wall – who still holds a lot of political sway in his own province and in Alberta – tweeted: “Maybe Calgary oil and gas headquartered companies should ‘move past’ Calgary and look to some other more welcoming cities.”

In an interview in which I asked Sonya Savage about Ms. Gondek, the Alberta Energy Minister said climate is an important issue, “but we also have to be honest about reliable and affordable energy, and how quickly we can transition.” She is referring to rising demand for natural gas and oil around the world, with some countries risking short supplies as they head into winter.

The move to declare a “climate emergency” is part of global movement to get jurisdictions to commit to taking action on climate change. Citing forest fires, floods and other severe weather events, Edmonton declared a climate emergency in 2019. So did Toronto, Ottawa, and the federal government.

It’s not a straightforward proposition: Vancouver city council struggled this month with a decision on whether to impose city-wide residential parking permits as part of the city’s climate emergency plan. The deciding vote against the move was cast by Mayor Kennedy Stewart, who argued it would disproportionately affect low-income residents.

The risk in cities making such a declaration, said Calgary energy economist Peter Tertzakian, is that the wording won’t spur the necessary civic action, but will instead just cause people to become desensitized to the word “emergency.”

But with Ms. Gondek’s announcement, Calgary is joining the leagues of cities that have declared a climate emergency, proving it is serious about addressing climate change and having more ambitious greenhouse-gas reduction targets. It’s also the mayor making a marketing pitch for her city to the outside world.

In an interview with The Globe and Mail, Ms. Gondek clarified she is not saying that oil and gas is “bad.”

“I mean, I come from a family where my husband has been in the energy sector for his professional career. I did a master’s degree on corporate social responsibility where I looked at Nexen,” (now CNOOC Petroleum North America ULC), she said.

“It’s not like I walked in and said, ‘Time for a climate emergency.’ I have been following what’s happening over time, and I agree with global industries who are energy producers that we must come up with processes and practices that are more sustainable.”

Ms. Gondek said she’s pushing this so that Calgary has the opportunity to tap into the capital flowing in decarbonization. Despite what are likely to be high prices for oil and gas this year, and next, she said it’s not wise to simply go with the flow of economic boom-and-bust commodity cycles. “We have to learn how to bring some stability not only to our economy, but to the way we think about things.”

Being mayor of Calgary is also a much different ball of wax than, say, being the premier of an oil-producing province. Ms. Gondek won’t be asked to make decisions about implementing a consumer and industrial carbon tax, or whether carbon capture projects should receive public dollars. She, as one member of council with a bully pulpit, will be tasked with making smart decisions about how to reduce emissions from the city’s vehicle fleet, bolstering public transit, or mandating the city’s power generator, ENMAX, to get to net-zero greenhouse gas emissions in the decades ahead.

“She is highlighting the consumption side,” Mr. Tertzakian said. “And the pursuit of making Calgary a more efficient and sustainable city is a virtue.”

He added: “The follow-through is more important than the words you choose.”

Ms. Gondek is correct that a new mayor making this declaration could set a different tone for the city, and add to broadening Alberta’s economic reputation.

The mayor-elect is promising more nuanced thinking on energy. And that’s not a bad thing.