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Alberta's Environment Minister Sonya Savage says Ottawa’s pledge to reduce the energy sector’s greenhouse gas emissions by 42 per cent by 2030 'has failed to recognize what’s actually feasible.'Todd Korol/The Canadian Press

Let me count the ways that Canada is an outlier of one sort or another. We were an early adopter of taking a mix of COVID-19 vaccines. Canadian senators have a mandatory retirement age. A key ingredient of the country’s signature cocktail is clam juice.

Here’s another: No other major oil-producing country is planning an emissions cap for its oil and natural gas sector.

The federal government sees this pledge – to reduce the energy sector’s greenhouse gas emissions by 42 per cent by 2030 – as positioning the country as a global climate leader.

But Alberta’s Environment Minister says Ottawa’s ambitious plan has failed to recognize what’s actually feasible. She adds that the industry-heavy province will launch a court challenge should it determine the federal plan, which is expected to be outlined in detail by Ottawa sometime this year, to a de facto production cap.

“The federal government, again, are going about it backward. They’re creating the cap – picking a random target with a random year,” Sonya Savage said in an interview.

“At the level they’re talking about, it’s technologically impossible, financially impossible and constitutionally off the rails.”

Alberta is often in conflict with Ottawa’s climate policies, in large part because its export-focused oil industry is so emissions heavy. The province fought Ottawa’s version of a national carbon price. Premier Danielle Smith has promised to use her controversial Sovereignty Act if the federal government doesn’t stay in its lane on energy issues. United Conservative Party cabinet ministers have put out statements attacking Ottawa’s plan for a “just transition” as a hidden plan to wipe out oil and gas jobs.

Cryderman: Dispute over Ottawa’s Just Transition to become the top issue in Alberta election

The battle over the issue of a just transition – or, as Ottawa has preferred to call it recently, “sustainable jobs” – might have seemed like the conflict of the year between two levels of government. But it’s a bun fight compared with what could be coming. Ms. Savage said there’s no grown-up discussion to be had on the just transition program “unless we know what they intend with this emissions cap.”

In this particular interview with the Globe, Ms. Savage is talking in some measure about working with the federal government: “everybody’s looking for emissions reductions” and “there’s good work going on behind the scenes.”

At the same time, she expresses her specific concern about the near-term cutting and capping of emissions in a national oil and gas sector that resides largely within Alberta. That would clearly being intruding on the province’s jurisdiction, she said, adding the Supreme Court of Canada’s 2021 decision that affirmed Ottawa could price carbon didn’t say it could “single out a particular sector for tougher treatment.”

There will certainly be some who disagree with the Alberta government. Last week, the Net Zero Advisory Body, a nine-person group advising the federal government, said Ottawa should go full steam ahead with the emissions cap. The group said current policies are not stringent enough to drive upstream oil and gas emissions reductions down in line with Canada’s 2030 and 2050 targets.

“The track record of the oil and gas sector suggests self-regulation will be difficult,” the group said in a brief discussion of the oil and gas sector in its first annual report to the federal environment minister.

“We extend our full support in favour of adopting a rigorous but fair cap on oil and gas emission.”

The question of what is rigorous but fair is key. Although the advisory body talked about “carbon leakage” and the concern of investment going to other countries in the course of the energy transition, it didn’t do any comparison of climate policies in other oil-producing jurisdictions. No other country that gets significant barrels of oil out of the ground is pursuing an emissions cap. And as has been pointed out by the International Energy Agency, Canada, which is the fourth largest producer of oil and natural gas on the planet, is one of the few major global fossil fuel producers committed to achieving a net-zero goal by 2050.

In a new paper published by the Macdonald-Laurier Institute, Janice MacKinnon and Jack Mintz say on the question of the cap, the federal Liberals made the pledge unilaterally. “While it is true that the oil and gas sector produces the most emissions, transportation is not far behind and the oil and gas sector has done a much better job of increasing production while keeping emissions flat,” they write.

“The federal government’s decision to impose specific emissions targets and reductions on oil and gas without consulting with the province feeds into historic concerns that federal governments with virtually no representation in the region impose policies on Alberta (and Saskatchewan) that are contrary to their interests.”

In an interview, Dr. MacKinnon said if the federal government comes out with an emissions reduction plan for oil and gas that leads to production cuts, all Canada is doing is shifting production from Alberta to other parts of the world. “There would be no reduction in global emissions, but great harm to Canada and Alberta,” she said.

She said a preferable option would be for the provincial government to pass legislation detailing its own plan to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions.

Ms. Savage is not making commitments on that front. She said she’s focused on getting a sector-by-sector analysis and inventory done. Will any Alberta-specific goal would actually be legislated or put into regulations? “It’s too early to say.”

This is the problem. If emissions-heavy Alberta doesn’t have an updated, detailed, overarching climate plan of its own, the federal government will fill the vacuum.

Still, Alberta already faces a hectic schedule this year when it comes to complex energy and climate questions, including the federal pledge for net-zero electricity grid by 2035 and the debate over how much public money will be allocated to carbon capture utilization and storage projects.

But nothing will trump the tough debate that will unroll from Ottawa’s planned oil and natural gas emissions cap, Canada’s most stand-alone climate policy.

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