Ed Whittingham is an environmental policy expert and the former executive director of the Pembina Institute
Under Jason Kenney’s United Conservative Party, the Alberta government is conducting a “public inquiry into anti-Alberta energy campaigns.” Energy journalist Markham Hislop called it the “Un-Alberta Activities Committee.” It’s a fair assessment.
Off the top, I need to acknowledge that I am not a disinterested party to the inquiry, having been accused of perpetrating such un-Alberta activities as working at one point for the Pembina Institute, an environmental organization that promotes responsible development, and cycling to work. I also note that I have no issue with the head of the inquiry, a fine and competent person.
But at this time of growing global concern about climate action, such an inquisition would actually just be counterproductive to Alberta, and an energy industry already grappling with enough challenges.
People tend to forget how quickly everything happened in Alberta. Back in the 2000s, when the pace and scale of oil-sands development was first viewed as unsustainable, the absence of climate rules and land-use plans, as well as increasing pollution, had already alarmed many observers – including such notable anti-Alberta forces as Peter Lougheed. Yes, Alberta’s widely beloved former premier was so worried about the spectacular oil-sands expansion that he called for a moratorium in approvals. The local municipality of Wood Buffalo opposed projects based on a lack of government investments in local infrastructure. The Royal Society of Canada noted that the regulatory capacity to ensure responsible development was not keeping pace with the rate of development, and it has arguably been playing catch-up ever since.
Back then, on maps of forecast greenhouse gas emissions trajectories across North American provinces and states, one jurisdiction stood out for its hockey stick-shaped growth: Alberta. This is akin to being the lone person in the Saddledome wearing an Oilers jersey – you get noticed for all the wrong reasons.
At around the same time, Alberta’s provincial government thought it was a good idea to park building-sized oil-sands dump trucks on Washington D.C.'s National Mall. This was to attract capital to Alberta to help develop what boosters proclaimed was an area “the size of Florida.”
Surprising no one but perhaps the government, environmental groups began raising serious concerns that such a large area was at risk of oil-sands development. That began a pitched battle for the hearts and minds of citizens (and judges).
The battle between these sides continues to this day, but at a far less fevered pitch. Why? Because organizations like my former employer worked hard and collaboratively to advance solutions to these challenges. Although it may only be said in hushed voices in downtown Calgary these days, environmental organizations have done much to improve the environmental performance and, ironically, the competitiveness of the energy industry. Their nudging helped industry and government to recognize issues and start addressing them.
I’m proud of the work we did to advance stronger climate policy, conservation areas and stricter rules for pollution and water use. In the past few years, hard work and bold public policy shifted the debate about Albertans doing their part to address environmental problems such as climate change. We made a lot of progress.
Now along comes the persecution of these Kennemies of the State, in the form of an inquiry. When a government takes a highly aggressive approach to persecuting its political opponents, things have a habit of backfiring. In this case, it’s not just pouring gasoline on a fire – it’s pouring gasoline on smouldering embers and then striking a match.
I understand that many Albertans are feeling beaten up over Trans Mountain pipeline delays; I myself feel that Trans Mountain is in the overall national interest, although mine is a minority view in Canada’s environmental community. But Albertans have been beaten up far more by a sustained low price for oil that has forced companies to improve the efficiency of their operations. Unfortunately, it’s not as sexy to design a public inquiry into how companies are really good at figuring out how to increase output with fewer inputs (such as workers).
Maybe the inquiry’s proponents don’t particularly care about being seen as hostile to climate action and to Alberta’s image on the national and international stages right now. Trouble is, there will be reputational damage all the same; it looks to the rest of the world like they are putting climate action on trial, especially since the Alberta government is simultaneously rolling back policies that were helping the energy industry to rehabilitate its reputation in the first place. It really feels like the battle is heating up again, after years of progress on turning down the heat.
As someone who runs in both energy industry and environmental circles, I would rather we refocus on reducing emissions, improving environmental performance and transparently communicating our progress to the world, where only the lowest-cost and lowest-carbon performers will be winners. I’d rather us realize there are no different sides on this – that we’re all pro-winning, and we’re all pro-Alberta.
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