Rachel vs. Tzeporah: no clear winner at ATA event, but maybe the basis for real ‘meaningful dialogue’ about energy future

Premier Rachel Notley’s speech to Alberta teachers Saturday.

Notley says transition to low-carbon energy system will be gradual, Bermans says there is no time and Alberta must cap oil/gas production immediately

Saturday’s highly anticipated faceoff between Premier Rachel Notley and environmental activist Tzeporah Berman over climate change and pipelines turned into a sawoff. The arguments were familiar and neither scored a knockout punch. Even so, the event was important because Albertans heard both sides of a critical debate on the same stage. Dare we hope the two sides might actually talk to each other at some point?

Remember the Federal Court of Appeal’s decision that quashed federal approval of Trans Mountain Expansion? The Court wrote that, “The Government of Canada was required to engage in a considered, meaningful two-way dialogue,” with First Nations.

Tzeporah Berman speaking at Alberta Teachers Assocation panel.

The Trudeau Liberals didn’t perform any better on this requirement than the Harper Conservatives before them, limiting consultation to note taking. Transcription instead of engagement, as it were.

Communications between Alberta and British Columbia over pipelines and the oil sands doesn’t even rise to this level of federal incompetence.

The parties simply stay on their respective sides of the Rocky Mountains and occasionally hurl insults across the peaks.

And let’s not forget that Berman and Notley actually agree upon a good many issues when it comes to climate change.

If we use the familiar political continuum to situate them, Notley is in the middle (climate change mitigation, a more gradual energy transition, continued support for oil and gas development) and Berman is much further to the left (global warming is a serious threat to human civilization, radical action is required immediately to minimize the danger).

But Berman is not the far left, despite what her amped up Alberta critics may think. There are plenty more radical “keep it in the ground” activists who would happily stop oil sands production tomorrow, economic consequences be damned.

“No one is saying oil and gas should be shutdown overnight. But how much will we produce and for how long? Is it big enough?” she asked during her speech.

During an exclusive interview with Premier Notley for my upcoming book on Alberta energy policy, I asked her if she thinks a global energy transition from fossil fuels (coal, oil, natural gas) to electricity generated by low-carbon technology (wind, solar, hydro, tidal, etc.) is underway.

I think that’s absolutely true,” she replied.

How does Notley’s energy worldview differ from Berman’s?

In a word, time.

Berman made it crystal clear in her speech that she sides with the Inter-governmental Panel on Climate Change and its imperative that the world begin weaning itself from fossil fuels by 2030, that wrenching change is required immediately – if not sooner.

Notley holds a different view.

She noted that “according to the International Energy Agency, the demand for oil is projected to increase over the next two decades at least” and made the point that given her government’s efforts to reduce emissions from its oil and gas sector, Alberta has earned the right to sell its products on international markets.

“Does it make any sense for Canada to hold our economy hostage while countries like Russia and Saudi Arabia can sell their oil around the world – and also in Eastern Canada – countries that I might add don’t care one whit about climate change?” she asked during her speech.

I would say to those who oppose our fight to build this pipeline that they are being extremely foolish…They care about climate change but they are attacking a continental climate leader, our province. Without Alberta there is no hope of Canada meeting its climate commitments.”

There is the crux of the debate.

Bermans argues for drastic change now because global warming is an imminent threat, Notley argues change will be more gradual and Alberta intends to be a leader in a de-carbonizing, low-carbon global energy system.

Right there is the basis for a rational discussion about Canada’s energy future.

During her speech, Berman bemoaned the polarization of the climate change and energy debate: “Villifying each other, pointing fingers, ignoring global trends, won’t help us make a plan to ensure a strong economy, resiliency in the face of a changing climate. When we are all at our best, we face these issues with an open mind, we seek to understand, to find solutions to bridge the divides.”

Truth be told, both Berman and Notley are guilty of creating that polarization.

Alberta simply doesn’t bother talking to British Columbians about the oil sands and the producers’ efforts to dramatically de-carbonize bitumen, the Climate Leadership Plan and its role in support for decarbonization, and why as long as there is global demand for heavy crude oil those efforts acutally support the battle against global warming.

Berman, frustrated and disillusioned by what she sees as Alberta reneging on aggressive climate policy, has the British Columbia media stage to herself and plenty of folks receptive to her criticisms of Trans Mountain Expansion and the oil sands.

What is needed is a real conversation – “meaningful dialogue,” to quote the court – about climate change and the Alberta energy sector.

That didn’t happen Saturday.

But maybe the door was pried open just enough that the two speeches might be the start of a dialogue.

Alberta better hope so because the alternative is even more polarization in the very near future and that is not in the energy sector’s best interests.

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