Rachel notley’s big climate play

Alberta premier promises climate action to grease the path for pipelines


On the eve of the UN’s climate conference in Paris, Alberta premier Rachel Notley was in Toronto talking about the biggest obstacle to oil sands development: not climate change, but climate inaction.

Speaking at the Broadbent Institute’s November 12 gala, which was rammed with NDP glitterati still reeling from their recent federal election disappointment, the premier rallied the crowd with a list of fresh NDP wins in her long-time Conservative province: a tuition freeze, $15 minimum wage and stabilized funding for health care and education. They were all met with whoops and cheers. But the premier’s pronouncements on climate change had some environmentalists in the room on edge.

Notley told the crowd she’s been thinking about children and their future, “and that means thinking about climate change, and that means acting on it.” 

But this was still Alberta she was talking about, and she levelled with the audience that jobs in her home province will be heavily dependent on Alberta’s energy industry for many decades to come. Thousands of Ontario jobs, as well as health-care and education funding in every province, are knee-deep in oil-sands dependency, too, she added. 

Her big pitch: Canada needs Alberta’s energy sector to thrive, and “ignoring climate change is no way to develop the energy industry.”

She told the audience that the Harper government’s failure “to understand the challenge posed to the world by climate change, and to do our share to address it, have become one of the energy industry’s biggest problems.”

“If we continue with the failed policies of former Conservative governments, we will remain landlocked,” she said.

But not everyone in this audience of eastern Canada progressives wants to hear the need for climate action used as a lever to get pipelines built. 

Still, Notley’s definitely got Keystone XL on her mind. TransCanada’s proposed pipeline to ship Alberta crude to refineries on the Gulf Coast was rejected by President Barack Obama on November 6. Notley said that if Alberta oil is going to reach export markets, Canada has to become “a world leader on climate change, instead of the world’s political football.”

The oil sands’ tanking viability may be partly the consequence of bad environmental calls at home, but the premier vowed that’s all about to change with the province’s climate-action plan sketched out in Alberta’s budget a few weeks back.

Just don’t expect the premier to commit to keeping most of Alberta’s oil reserves in the ground. As Notley’s energy minister recently told the press, her government doesn’t want to “slow [the industry] down.” The province will, however, take a hard line on coal, phasing out the polluting energy source, which now fuels half of Alberta’s electricity needs. It’s also the province’s second-largest source of greenhouse gases. 

Notley promised a shift to “lower-carbon natural gas and zero-carbon renewables,” as well as a long-overdue energy efficiency program. (Alberta’s the only province in Canada without one.)

As for the elephant in the room, the oil that U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry called “one of the dirtiest sources of fuel on the planet,” Notley said her government will put a price on carbon, noting that it’s already doubled the price of carbon for the province’s large emitters from $15 to $30 per tonne by 2017, which still falls short of the $40 to $140 per tonne recommended by the Pembina Institute. 

“That was a good start,” said Notley, “but more needs to be done. So we will do what needs to be done.”

She has set up a climate change advisory panel tasked with assessing recommendations on next steps, and Alberta’s full climate plan should be revealed any day now, in the lead-up to Paris.

For now, she assured the audience that her government’s plans will make Canadians proud “so that Alberta and Canada can stand before the world in December in Paris, and for decades to come, as one of the world’s most progressive and environmentally responsible energy producers.”

She’s right about one thing: that’s the kind of change “all Canadians hope for and so desperately need.”

ecoholic@nowtoronto.com | @ecoholicnation

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