How to lose control of a narrative: World is watching as Alberta supports end-run around pipeline protestors, suspends oil/gas environmental monitoring, changes policy to promote coal exports

Alberta under Jason Kenney never misses an opportunity to tarnish its reputation and promote narratives that hinder, not help, the very oil and gas industry it purports to champion

How much damage to its international reputation can one province do in under two weeks? Ask Alberta and Premier Jason Kenney’s United Conservative Party government.

Last Wednesday, the Alberta Energy Regulator (AER) suspended almost all environmental monitoring of oil and gas production because of the COVID-19 pandemic. On May 15, the UCP government “updated” coal mining regulations to create “the necessary conditions for the growth of export coal production.” Then Energy Minister Sonya Savage’s comments about how COVID-19 is a boon for pipeline construction attracted international attention on Monday.

Albertans can stop wondering why other Canadians and foreign investors see their province as out of step with the modern world. As the world greens up and gets serious about reducing greenhouse gas emissions, Alberta seems hell-bent on heading in the opposite direction.

Savage attracts the wrong kind of international attention

The energy minister figured prominently on social media Tuesday morning after a rather candid Friday performance on a podcast by the oilwell drillers association. The Globe and Mail ran a story that was picked up and amplified on social media, including by Swedish teen climate activist Greta Thunberg.

“Now is a great time to be building a pipeline because you can’t have protests of more than 15 people,” Savage said. “Let’s get it built.”

“People are not going to have tolerance and patience for protests that get in the way of people working,” she added.

On the face of it, the Minister’s comments aren’t particularly shocking. Similar sentiments are probably regular fare in the Calgary Petroleum Club.

But they make the Kenney government look sneaky, willing to support shady tactics to get what it wants. As Thunberg tweeted, “Well, at least we are seeing some honesty for once… Unfortunately this how large parts of the world are run.”

There’s the rub: the perception of Alberta as just one more jurisdiction captured by the oil and gas industry that will do anything to advance its interests. Coming from Thunberg, the comment suggests Alberta doesn’t take climate change – or environmental protection – seriously.

That impression is amply reinforced by two other Alberta government decisions in recent days.

Round 3 of suspending environmental monitoring

The AER says it has received “legitimate concerns and information demonstrating that the Operators will not be able to meet certain monitoring requirements” and still comply with COVID-19 guidelines.

The regulator suspended the reporting of monitoring data (which still had to be collected) in early April, followed by allowing oil sands operators to completely suspend monitoring in late April. University of Calgary associate law professor Shaun Fluker raised serious concerns about that decision in a May 7 ABLAWG post. Watch Energi Media’s interview with him about those decisions here.

The AER decision offered “little justification for granting such extraordinary relief from regulatory requirements,” he wrote. “…it is very discouraging to see Alberta’s energy regulatory authority turn off environmental monitoring in the oil sands with no advance notice, no public process, and no justification other than a stated need to balance monitoring of environmental conditions with the need to ensure [the] safety of workers during COVID-19.”

Fluker concludes by observing that the “decisions are yet another entry on a very long list of disappointments in how the AER (including its predecessors) has administered its public interest mandate.”

Of the latest move, Fluker thinks that COVID-19 is being used as an excuse to grant concessions to industry. Watch Energi Media’s interview with Fluker below.

This view carries some weight after the leak of the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producer’s 13-page COVID-19 financial support recommendations, which were almost entirely relief from various federal climate and environmental regulations. Ottawa granted none of them. In fact, the $1.7 billion for orphan well cleanup and the $750 million loan to plug methane emission leaks came with plenty of environmental and climate strings attached.

It’s hard not to conclude that Alberta is giving the industry some of what Canada denied.

And why now? The AER is suspending monitoring just as the government is beinning to relax restrictions and re-open the economy. If monitoring needed to be relaxed to protect oil and gas workers, shouldn’t this have been done two months ago as COVID-19 infections began to climb?

Doing it now, after the curve has been flattened, seems mightily suspicious.

Alberta’s back to the future coal policy

As does the move to produce more coal in Alberta. The Kenney government’s decision is being sold as updating mid-1970s regulations with “modern regulatory processes, integrated planning and land-use policies.” The purpose of that modernization?

“Government is placing a strong focus on creating the necessary conditions for the growth of export coal production,” the press release says. “This includes the export of metallurgical coal, which is a necessary component in the production of new steel.”

There are two problems with this line of reasoning.

One, it flies in the face of the government’s own propaganda about how necessary it is to use Alberta natural gas to create “green LNG” for export to Asia, where it will somehow miraculously displace coal. Apparently coal is evil until it’s in Alberta’s advantage. Then it becomes ok to “attract new investment for an important industry and protect jobs for Albertans,” according to Savage.

Two, if Alberta intends to market fuel for steel-making and other industrial processes, why not focus on “blue hydrogen” instead of mining more coal? Blue hydrogen is made from natural gas, with the carbon sequestered underground in old oil and gas reservoirs. The carbon content is only slightly higher than “green hydrogen,” which contains no carbon because it is created using renewable electricity like hydro.

Hydrogen is a fuel of the future, but Alberta for some reason is clinging to the worst fuel of the past for all its worth.

More evidence Alberta is driving by the rearview mirror

This is a government that whines ad nauseam about how Alberta and the hydrocarbons industry are unfairly maligned for “dirty oil,” then plays fast and loose with environmental monitoring. The Premier loves to label oil sands opponents and concerned investors – like the Norwegian sovereign wealth fund – as hypocrites, but sees nothing wrong with attacking coal one day and preparing to export more coal the next.

The Alberta of Jason Kenney and his oil and gas backers is an insular backwater that appears oblivious to how its actions are perceived by those outside the province. Or, if it is aware, doesn’t care.

Well, the world is watching. A good guess is that it doesn’t approve of relaxing oil and gas environmental standards while preparing to export more coal.

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