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opinion

Jen Gerson is a contributing columnist for The Globe and Mail.

There is much sound and fury emanating from Alberta ahead of federal “Just Transition” legislation planned for later this year. But I have to admit something: I don’t get it.

I understand the history between Alberta and Ottawa on the energy file. I understand why the former would distrust the latter to manage something as contentious as a “transition” away from carbon-intensive energy sources. I get the fear Alberta feels at the prospect of losing its primary industry. And it’s not hard to grasp the anger this province feels after years of pipeline projects and oil sands investments have gone awry, at least in part owing to federal meddling.

I also understand the political motivations. Premier Danielle Smith needs a popular fight with Ottawa ahead of a looming provincial election; NDP opposition leader Rachel Notley needs to avoid being associated with Justin Trudeau; Mr. Trudeau needs to assure the rest of Canada that thousands of workers won’t be left in the lurch as he stakes his legacy on reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

But when I actually looked into the plans for the “Just Transition” legislation, I didn’t see anything worth getting particularly worked up about – at least not yet. All I see is another small-scale boondoggle in the making: a garden-variety package of federal incompetence that is more likely to waste cash on feel-good programs than effectively shut down the oil and gas sector.

“Just Transition” is language that has been kicking around since at least the UN’s 2015 Paris climate summit. It proposes that governments ensure workers in carbon-intensive industries maintain access to high-quality jobs as the world weans itself off oil and gas.

The Liberal government began working on this in 2018, creating a “Just Transition” task force that focused on the future of coal workers as Canada phased out coal-powered electricity.

By all accounts, it did not go well. “Overall, we found that Natural Resources Canada and Employment and Social Development Canada were not prepared to support a just transition to a low‑carbon economy for workers and communities,” the Commissioner of the Environment and Sustainable Development wrote in a report last year. “Although the government had identified Natural Resources Canada as the lead department to deliver just‑transition legislation in 2019, the department took little action until 2021.”

So some skepticism of the federal government’s ability to smoothly transition workers out of major sectors of the economy is entirely warranted. However, it should also be noted that part of the problem was that Canada, and Alberta in particular, have been phasing out coal much faster than had been predicted. Ottawa failed to keep up, leaving workers wanting.

If there’s a warning for Alberta, it’s here. Yes, the world will use oil and gas for the foreseeable future – but the global economy can become far less reliant on our comparatively expensive energy far more quickly than we, and Ottawa, can currently anticipate. But that doesn’t seem to be the message Alberta’s government wants to project. Instead, Ms. Smith and the United Conservative Party are claiming that the “Just Transition” legislation aims to eliminate 2.7 million jobs. This claim is based on a federal briefing memo making the rounds. It is also deeply dishonest: The memo simply states that, as the world transitions away from fossil fuels, workers in numerous industries may be affected. In those industries, 2.7 million workers are employed.

It’s poorly worded, but there’s no evidence to date that “Just Transition” is anything other than carrot legislation: the provision of some governance structure and maybe cash to manage a global shift. It may even benefit Alberta with resources that could be used to set up new training programs and the like.

That doesn’t mean I’m totally sanguine about it. If the “Just Transition” carrot is paired with a heavy stick – for example, the imposition of an emissions cap on the oil sands beyond the 100mt that the province has already decreed – then Alberta’s screaming will be justified. And the federal government has already stated that the oil and gas industry would need to reduce emissions by 42 per cent if the country is to meet its 2030 climate goals. Doing so would require significant investment and expansion in carbon capture technology and, according to Reuters, a fight is already under way between the federal and provincial governments about who ought to be footing the bill.

But an emissions target is not the same thing as an emissions cap. We don’t yet know what’s on the table, and until we know what is, later this year, it’s hard to read what’s coming out of Alberta as anything other than disingenuous bluster.

That, I get.