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Redford’s Keystone sales pitch in Washington getting tricky

When Alberta Premier Alison Redford gets on the plane to Washington in a couple of weeks, she'll be carrying unwanted baggage.

This will be Ms. Redford's fifth official trip there, and again, pushing the Keystone XL pipeline is Job One. But a pair of troubling environmental developments at home this month could make some of the dialogue uncomfortable.

Her refrain to U.S. senators and officials at the State Department, which is vetting the long-delayed TransCanada Corp. pipeline proposal, will be familiar.

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Ms. Redford will list examples of how the oil sands are being developed in a responsible manner, as she seeks to break the regulatory logjam blamed for delaying Keystone XL and creating transport congestion and price discounts for Alberta heavy oil.

She will mention how her government established some of the most stringent environmental rules, how world-class scientific monitoring of land, water and air is in full swing, and how Alberta is plowing big money into carbon-capture projects to cut greenhouse gas emissions while protecting expansive spreads of land from development.

She's sure to bring up Alberta's $15-per-tonne levy on emissions, which made the province a pioneer in carbon pricing. That money gets funnelled back into green technology development. What's not to like?

Alberta's record on environmental issues took some big hits in recent weeks, though, and it will be tough to explain it all away as President Barack Obama remains in no rush to approve a pipeline that would import a flood of oil into a U.S. market increasingly well supplied by its own domestic sources.

First there was the revelation that Alberta Environment officials broke their own rules when they excluded the Pembina Institute and other green groups from a hearing into an oil sands project in 2012.

Court of Queen's Bench Justice Richard Marceau castigated the ministry, saying the process was "tainted" and biased against Pembina, citing an internal briefing note that mentioned the group had previously "published negative media on the oil sands."

Ms. Redford subsequently defended the ministry, saying that the green groups were not directly affected by the project and it remained her government's prerogative the make that call.

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She pointed out that the legislation governing such matters changed last year, but her response to the judge's ruling did nothing to improve the optics of pro-industry heavy-handedness.

Then there's the even thornier problem of greenhouse gas emissions, a battle a new federal analysis shows that Alberta is losing badly. Mr. Obama has spelled out the paramount importance of this issue as it relates to the $5.3 billion (U.S.) pipeline, now in its sixth year of review.

The president said in June that he would green-light Keystone XL "only if this project does not significantly exacerbate the problem of carbon pollution." He later said that Canada "could potentially do more to mitigate carbon release" from the oil sands.

Last week, Environment Canada said emissions growth from the Alberta oil sands is overshadowing reductions in other parts of the economy, and that will likely mean the country will fail to meet its international pledge to cut greenhouse gases.

Following six years of overall reductions, carbon emissions are on track to jump in the next six years to a level that is 20 per cent above Canada's Copenhagen accord target of 612 megatonnes, or virtually the same as 2005 levels, the government said.

Consider the source. The figures did not flow from an anti-pipeline think tank, but from the same Stephen Harper Conservative government that has made exporting more Canadian crude a top priority.

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This all makes Ms. Redford's pipeline pitch a much tougher sell.

Five years ago, Ms. Redford's former boss, Premier Ed Stelmach, set a goal of cutting emissions in the province by 14 per cent from 2005 levels by the rather far-off deadline of 2050, and let any major cuts slide until after 2020 as oil sands output surged.

The government is now revisiting the policy, though there is no word yet when new targets will be set or what they will be. Perhaps it could be done as part of long-promised new oil and gas regulations in conjunction with Ottawa.

Without tougher concrete measures to talk about soon, Ms. Redford may find fewer open doors in D.C., and progress with Keystone XL could slow from glacial to stationary.

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