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gary mason

Had the Pembina Institute held its one-day symposium on the challenges that climate change poses for Alberta a year ago, it might have filled a small room of similarly minded environmental do-gooders. Fascinating how that equation changes when an NDP government gets elected on the promise to bring in credible policies designed to recast the province's dismal environmental image.

Suddenly, there isn't a ballroom big enough to accommodate everyone who wants to attend. And industry is helping to sponsor the event.

It appears many in the oil and gas business have given up hope that their threats and warnings about what will happen if the government makes good on its promise to bring in more stringent environmental measures would force Premier Rachel Notley to beat a hasty retreat from her campaign vows.

Ms. Notley is not recoiling. To do so would be a mass betrayal to the hundreds of thousands of people who voted for her party in Alberta's spring election. The New Democratic Party made environmental protection, including reducing greenhouse gas emissions, a centrepiece of its platform.

The only question is what these reforms will look like. How far will they need to go to be judged credible? And maybe most important, to what extent will the government test the support of those who voted for it? How deep is the NDP prepared to reach into people's pockets – and industry's, too – to achieve tangible emissions results?

Because these measures are never free.

The government has a panel of energy experts looking at ways Alberta can achieve its broad mission of reducing emissions while not destroying the oil and gas industry in the process.

The panel is headed by University of Alberta professor Andrew Leach, a bright, media-savvy policy wonk (he writes about energy matters for The Globe and Mail and Maclean's) who, having spent time in Ottawa close to the climate file, has true insight into why we have consistently failed to meet our GHG emissions targets in this country.

The main reason is that we have put unrealistic targets ahead of realistic policy.

I expect Dr. Leach and his panel will do the opposite. They will lay out various scenarios for the provincial government and let it choose how grand or modest its environmental alterations will be. A carbon tax at $30 a tonne will achieve result X. A carbon tax of $60 a tonne will achieve another outcome entirely. In the end, it will come down to how much stomach the NDP has for this stuff amid a perilous economic climate.

The government will not be relying on one course of action alone to achieve its new reduction target. It will rely on a suite of measures, including shuttering most of the coal-fired generating plants in the province, and introducing programs to encourage residents and businesses to be more energy efficient, something not in place now.

The government is also looking at pricing carbon; from a carbon tax, to a cap-and-trade system, to enhancing the tax on high emitters it has in place now. In the end, the government will be judged, in part, on how its reforms stack up against other jurisdictions.

Making the climate panel's job more complicated is, of course, the falling price of oil. It has an impact on almost all of the panel's considerations, including emissions projections and the rate at which new technology will be deployed, given that industry isn't building new facilities at the pace it used to. The low oil price also has an impact on electricity rates and changes population inflows. With 30 per cent of Alberta's GDP coming from the oil and gas sector, the plunging price of oil affects the entire economy.

Given this, Dr. Leach's panel will likely have to design policies that work for $40-a-barrel oil and $100-a-barrel oil. No one knows for sure where it's going. On the short-term horizon anyway, the only consistent thing is inconsistency.

The climate file is fraught. There are many who believe measures designed to produce drastic results can be accomplished with the snap of a finger.

But those making the demands usually have no idea of what the real-life consequences of those actions will be, for them or their neighbours. They're about to find out.

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