If you’re voting energy and climate, should you vote Smith or Notley?

Notley’s view of energy transition isn’t much more advanced than Smith’s. But she can be persuaded by evidence. Bottom line, that’s the leader Alberta needs over the next 4 years

If you follow my energy journalism, you know that my biggest concern for Alberta is that in the near future it will be overwhelmed by the rapid transition away from oil and gas. And the next four years will be critical: either Alberta takes the energy transition seriously or it will be left behind. Which party then, UCP or NDP, and which leader, Danielle Smith or Rachel Notley, is most likely to accelerate Alberta’s adaptation to a low-carbon future?

I’ve written a number of deep dives and columns recently that are relevant to that question. In, UCP is the worst energy government in Alberta’s history, I reviewed the past four years of conservative energy policies. I wrote a similar review of Notley’s four years as premier: Notley’s energy and climate policies laid foundation for modern Alberta oil patch. And I didn’t pull any punches in, Energy platforms of UCP, NDP are both bloody awful, but Smith is far worse than Notley

The column headlines have already tipped my hand. But you may be surprised why I think Notley is the better choice.

It isn’t her party’s platform. Nor is it entirely her record in power. But she did one thing while premier that Smith is constitutionally incapable of doing: she listened to experts.

This is important because the Alberta oil and gas industry has an insular, provincial culture that takes cues from Houston, not Europe or China or Silicon Valley, which are driving much of the energy transition. Alberta oil CEOs are managers, not visionary leaders. As former oil and gas executive Dave Collyer told me in 2017, “I think there’s still a tendency for Albertans in our industry to look at things through our lens as opposed to the lens of people outside Alberta.”

So, which party leader’s record suggests she can listen and take policy advice from experts who understand the threats – and opportunities – presented by the transformation of the global energy system?

It isn’t Smith. 

The UCP under Jason Kenney convened the farcical Public Inquiry into the Anti-Alberta Energy Campaigns, which found that US foundations provided a paltry $3 million per year on average to fund opposition to pipelines and oil sands expansion. 

Look at the composition of Smith’s hastily appointed panel to draft a long-term future for Alberta’s energy future, then given just four months to come up with a report. The five panel members are all from the small producer side of the oil and gas industry, the sector devastated by the price bust last decade and more recently the COVID-19 pandemic. Chair Dave Yager, an inveterate scribbler in industry trade magazines, frequently ridicules the energy transition and renewable energy.

As I pointed out in this column, Smith’s panel on Alberta’s energy future is a bad joke, the panel’s report is already written and sitting in Energy Minister Peter Guthrie’s desk.

Notley took a very different approach. In 2015, she appointed respected University of Alberta energy economist Andrew Leach to lead the Climate Change Advisory Panel. Other panel members included two sustainability executives from large energy companies, an expert advisor for a national green economy research and policy institute, and an experienced indigenous leader from northern Alberta. Notley accepted the recommendations of the panel’s report, which led to the Climate Leadership Plan, considered in 2015 to be one of the most forward-looking climate policies in North America. Oil sands CEOs at the time backed the Plan, four of them standing with Notley when she announced it.

The Energy Diversification Advisory Committee was co-chaired by representatives from industry, labour, and indigenous communities. Other panel members included a diversity of professions and experience. Its 2017 report led to Notley’s Petrochemicals Incentive Program (which the UCP kept) and the Partial Upgrading Program, both progressive policies that were widely praised at the time.

Based on their track records, Notley is the clear winner when it comes to creating policy based on expert advice.

And this is why I’m less worried by her party’s insipid energy and climate platform in this election. Notley is far more capable of recognizing the threat to the Alberta economy posed by the energy transition, creating a plan to address it, and then following through with sound policy.

Smith, on the other hand, has proven beyond a reasonable doubt that the UCP is simply the party of oil and gas. The party of the energy status quo. Working as an oil and gas lobbyist while promoting the dangerous RStar program is ample evidence of her priorities. She is the personification of the oil and gas industry’s myopic view that the energy transition will happen slowly and Alberta has decades to adapt.

Don’t get me wrong, at the moment Notley’s view of the energy transition isn’t much more advanced than Smith’s. But she can be persuaded by evidence. Bottom line, that’s the leader Alberta needs over the next four years.

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