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Alberta needs to get the message on carbon

Albertans really didn't need another reminder that their Progressive Conservative government is bad at picking up on social cues when it comes to getting more serious about carbon-reduction policy.

They got one anyway, this time from the provincial auditor-general, who pilloried the Tories for failing to meet their own targets for greenhouse gas emission reduction, being lax on monitoring the six-year-old program and not getting around to publishing any public reports yet.

This performance is from the same government that spent the past several years jetting to Washington to pitch U.S. officials on increasing oil sands exports and pushing for approval of the contentious Keystone XL oil pipeline, touting its environmental progress.

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Alberta just doesn't get the respect it deserves for being a North American leader in real actions on carbon, former premier Alison Redford often said during her trips, pointing to the province's $15-per-tonne levy on emissions from the largest industrial facilities.

But during her tenure and after it, discussions about toughening the regulations – even if that could offer U.S. President Barack Obama more cover to approve Keystone XL – have resulted in nothing so far. The Specified Gas Emitters Regulation, whose centrepiece is the carbon levy, had been up for renewal on Sept. 1 – smack dab in the middle of the race to appoint a new Alberta Tory leader and premier. But on Wednesday the Tories punted the renewal back to Dec. 31.

Major players galore, from the 13 member companies of Canada's Oil Sands Innovation Alliance, the group formed to share environmental technology, to Jeff Immelt, CEO of General Electric Co., a top supplier to the industry, have launched drives to find ways to chop emissions.

Mr. Immelt told me this week that the industry's goal must be to put oil sands production on equal footing with other worldwide crudes when it comes to emissions, and that technology is the key.

Suncor Energy Inc. chief executive Steve Williams said the COSIA developers are close to agreeing on a new carbon standard for oil sands projects. They apparently see this as critical for assuaging critics as they seek to expand operations.

So is the Alberta government taking the hint and moving quickly with complementary policy, such as a higher levy on even more industrial activity? Not exactly.

So far, climate-change policy has not proven to be an overriding ballot-box issue in the race between Jim Prentice, Ric McIver and Thomas Lukaszuk. With so much at stake in terms of energy and investment, it should be.

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But as Auditor-General Merwan Saher reported on Tuesday, even the plans put in place back in 2008 haven't been tended to.

Here's what he had to to say: The government has not followed up on the AG's recommendations dating back six years, and he found no evidence that it monitored progress for cutting emissions between 2008 and 2012.

He said the province is only now preparing its first public report since start with the strategy, which initially foresaw reducing emissions by 50 megatonnes under a business-as-usual case by 2020. Two years ago, the government conceded it would fall short of the goal.

The plans relied heavily on carbon capture and storage, and some projects envisioned in 2008 have already been scrapped.

"Overall the department's progress implementing our recommendations since 2008 has been slow. This pace does not reflect the significance that effectively managing climate change has for the economy and environmental performance in Alberta and in Canada," Mr. Saher wrote.

That's what's so surprising about the whole thing. The Alberta government may not be as focused on environmental issues as some jurisdictions, at least not for motherhood reasons. But, as Mr. Saher makes clear, this is as much a trade issue as a green one.

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For the government, "market access" for oil sands derived crude has been the rallying cry for the past few years as new export pipeline plans stalled and revenues suffered when supplies were backed up into Alberta, triggering deep price discounts.

Making real, measurable progress on carbon reduction won't solve all of Alberta's problems, but it certainly won't hurt efforts to open the right doors.

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