Alberta’s climate policy development ‘just a matter of talking’

EDMONTON – Alberta’s new climate change policy is partly rooted in a series of low-profile dinner meetings that took place well before the election of Premier Rachel Notley and her fellow New Democrats.

In 2014, the province’s environmental reputation was creating increasing resistance to its energy products and the Progressive Conservative government of the day, led by Jim Prentice, had made it clear that something had to happen, said Chris Severson-Baker of the Pembina Institute.

“He actually started talking about climate change in a different way,” said Severson-Baker of the clean energy think-tank.

Prentice “opened a space.”

“It started to create a sense that maybe we could agree on some things, or at least understand what would work and what would not work.”

People on different sides of the fence started getting together for dinner. Environmentalists behind some of the loudest anti-oilsands campaigns met with executives behind some of the largest oilsands expansions, just to talk.

“We weren’t even speaking the same language,” recalled Cenovus (TSX:CVE) spokesman Brett Harris. “You’ve got to learn to speak the same language. It’s a matter of moving from that environment of conflict to that of co-operation.”

“It was testy,” Severson-Baker said. “There were a lot of things that pushed each others’ buttons … (but) the result of them was that people started to understand each other’s point of view.”

The talks got more intense when the New Democrats came to power last spring with a promise to address climate change.

Dinners evolved into meetings between technical experts. Issues were thrashed out.

The hardest topic was emission levels.

“The whole notion that emissions would rise before they peaked was really hard for (environmental groups),” Severson-Baker said.

Industry fought any sort of emissions cap, fearing that would strand projects already under construction. The 100-megatonne limit agreed on was big enough to allow those projects to proceed, but low enough to force future development to find ways to radically reduce emissions.

“(Environmentalists) recognized that it’s going to be very, very hard for the government of Alberta to put in place policies that would actually result in projects that are under construction today never going into production,” Severson-Baker said.

Meanwhile, an expert panel was appointed last spring by the NDP. Led by energy economist Andrew Leach, it began holding public consultations and doing its own research.

Leach acknowledged that the informal discussions between industry and environmentalists fed into the report he and his colleagues delivered on Sunday.

“The opportunity to bring these parties together in agreement around the majority of what the climate panel recommended, as well as a few additional policy changes, was an opportunity that you have to take,” he said.

“The fact that there was a new government and the sense that there was going to be action — and probably some of this carries from Prentice as well — there was a different level of conversation. Just the simple fact that we had Greenpeace representatives in our oil and gas technical sessions, that’s probably a change.”

Those changes won’t stop with Sunday’s announcement.

The panel report acknowledges that the greenhouse gas reductions it estimates won’t bring Alberta into line with what would keep global warming under two degrees C.

“What we’ve laid out is a path to increase the stringency over time,” Leach said.

He points out that the international competitiveness of almost 20 per cent of the Alberta economy is directly affected by carbon prices. He insists a $30-a-tonne carbon price is as high as Alberta can go without simply shifting emissions to other jurisdictions.

“If there are more stringent polices applied in our competitor and peer jurisdictions, then the costs of imposing policies in Alberta become much lower. I don’t think this is the last greenhouse gas policy that Alberta will ever announce.”

For now, though, he calls Alberta’s policy more comprehensive than anything proposed by the province’s critics, including the United State or the European Union.

And on Sunday, representatives of Forest Ethics —a group that once tried to get Americans to stop buying Alberta oil — stood on the same stage as the four companies behind most of the industry’s growth.

Said Harris: “It was just a matter of talking.”

— Follow Bob Weber on Twitter at @row1960