New provincial government could turn the page on Alberta’s poor environmental record

Blog - May 7, 2015 - By Ed Whittingham

I woke up Wednesday morning to an unusual orange hue on the mountains.

With the sudden shift to a NDP majority government in Alberta come many questions, including this: how will it change the province’s approach to managing the impacts of energy development, protecting nature and cutting greenhouse gas pollution?

Albertans have resoundingly voted for change — and the NDP must target these three big challenges if it aims to turn the page on Alberta’s poor environmental performance.

The Alberta Advantage

Alberta has a unique opportunity to make major progress toward reducing emissions: the province burns more coal for electricity than all other provinces combined, despite having the best solar and wind energy potential in the country. The NDP has committed to accelerating the phase-out of coal-fired electricity, and our research has found that doing so while expanding our capacity to generate renewable electricity would cut greenhouse gas pollution from the power sector by nearly 70 per cent.

The NDP has also committed to investing in energy efficiency which, if done right, could save Albertans hundreds of millions of dollars each year while conserving energy, cutting greenhouse gas pollution and creating jobs.

Prioritizing these actions — investing in energy efficiency while replacing coal-fired power with cleaner sources — would bring Alberta’s 2020 climate target within reach, as long as measures to curb the growth in greenhouse gas pollution from the oilsands are not far behind (more on that below). Not to mention it would give the provincial government credible, tangible evidence that it intends to start a new era of prioritizing sound environmental and emissions management.

As Premier-designate Rachel Notley commented last month, environmental degradation should not be treated as “business as usual” in Alberta’s approach to energy development.

“Way off track”

One of the most pressing issues is Alberta’s approach to regulating (and ultimately, reducing) greenhouse gas pollution. The oilsands industry is Canada’s fastest-growing source of emissions. By 2020, Environment Canada projects Alberta will be responsible for 40 per cent of all greenhouse gas pollution nationally, with much of this growth coming from oilsands expansion. This upward trend is expected to continue until significant changes are made to the amount of emissions the province will allow, and the price charged to emitters who exceed the limit.

This spring, the NDP criticized the previous government for not doing enough on climate change, with Notley stating that Alberta was “way off track” in relation to its 2020 emissions-reduction commitment, and calling the delay in renewing the provincial climate strategy “profoundly irresponsible”.

Why now?

The challenge of fixing Alberta’s flawed climate policies now falls to Notley’s government to resolve, and quickly — all eyes are on Alberta now that Ontario and B.C. have announced major next steps toward reducing emissions. After years of being named and shamed at the UN climate negotiations, Canada’s credibility at this year’s talks in Paris hinges directly on how it plans to address the runaway growth in greenhouse gas pollution coming from the oilsands sector.

All of this talk of stronger oversight for energy development has business commentators raising concerns about what an NDP government means for the oil patch and the provincial economy as a whole. Yet the previous government’s lax regulatory approach and penchant for using PR campaigns to change the channel on environmental concerns have largely hurt the industry, rather than helping. And frankly, if the only way our energy sector can compete is by treating environmental impacts as externalities, we need to take a hard look at its long-term viability, particularly as global markets shift in favour of lower-carbon energy sources.

By committing to stronger environmental oversight, cutting greenhouse gas pollution and helping Albertans save energy in their homes and businesses, the NDP could take meaningful steps toward improving Alberta’s reputation as an energy producer. That would pay dividends to the entire energy sector and the provincial economy, while rewarding companies who are showing leadership on environmental performance and incenting companies lagging behind in this area to make improvements.

For too long, Alberta has tried the opposite approach, and it’s clear that decision has not paid off. It’s time we give a different strategy a fair chance at success.

2015 was already shaping up to be a big year for action to tackle the climate challenge before Tuesday’s historic NDP win in Alberta. The Premier-designate and her government now have the opportunity to make it a turning point for Canada’s international reputation on climate and the environment.


Ed Whittingham

Ed Whittingham was the Executive Director of the Pembina Institute until 2017.


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