By Ed Whittingham
This article was published by the Globe and Mail on June 18, 2019.
I’m an Alberta environmentalist who has worked the past 15 years to promote responsible development of Canada’s oil and gas resources and effective climate and energy policy. Mine may be a minority view within the environmental community, but I support the federal government’s approval of twinning the existing Trans Mountain Pipeline. It is the right decision for Alberta and Canada.
In late 2015, Alberta took the biggest step forward to address the climate crisis taken by any jurisdiction – period. I was on stage with an Indigenous chief, environmental leaders and chief executives of Canada’s largest energy companies, symbolically holding hands, as Alberta’s then-premier Rachel Notley outlined an ambitious and transformative climate leadership plan: phase out coal-fired electricity, massively increase renewable electricity, expand carbon pricing, reduce methane emissions, introduce energy efficiency programs and cap oil sands emissions. With these policies, Alberta set out to decarbonize its economy and industries as much and as fast as it could while creating new jobs in the process.
Shortly thereafter, during the 2015 UN climate summit in Paris, dumbstruck attendees marvelled at the composition of the stage given the level of conflict that existed around Alberta’s oil sands. “How on Earth did you get everyone to stand on that stage together?” we were asked, as if we had defied the laws of physics.
The answer: the expectation that by doing its fair share on climate change, Alberta would satisfy a critically important condition for building a pipeline to tidewater, in order to receive a world price for its oil. That’s what I thought then and what I still think today.
That’s what Prime Minister Trudeau thought, too. When announcing federal approval of the Trans Mountain expansion in late 2016, he said “We could not have approved this project without the leadership of Premier Notley, and Alberta’s Climate Leadership Plan – a plan that commits to pricing carbon and capping oil sands emissions at 100 megatonnes per year.”
Now, in 2019, there’s a new government in Alberta that has promised to dismantle parts of the Climate Leadership Plan. So how can I, a card-carrying Canadian climate-policy advocate, continue to support this particular pipeline?
While the Climate Leadership Plan may be gone, the federal government has ensured that its two key climate-related approval conditions remain in place.
Last week, the federal government stated that it’s committed to making sure the carbon price in Alberta stays. Every single dollar of carbon tax revenue taken in will still be injected back into the Alberta economy – for rebates, transit projects, flood prevention infrastructure, and energy-efficiency upgrades at schools, hospitals and colleges.
Further, the Trudeau government has made it clear that it expects Alberta to follow through with the 100 megatonne oil sands emissions limit, and if not, we can expect that a federal limit will be put in place.
When was the last time an oil sands flyover by a Hollywood celebrity was in the news? Can’t remember? That’s because, compared with a few years ago, we’ve clearly shifted the debate about Albertans doing their part to address climate change. The precedent-setting cap is a big part of the shift and ground we cannot afford to lose.
I also support TMX expansion because it creates financial space for options as we continue to decarbonize Alberta’s economy and industries.
Energy evolution is hard for any company, province or entire country. To be clear, a pipeline is no panacea for all that ails Alberta’s oil and gas industry. But it will definitely strengthen balance sheets, and financial health is needed for Alberta to evolve.
It gives us options, whereas when our economic backs are pinned up against the wall we have few. Understanding this, the federal government also committed to reinvesting the proceeds of the operation and eventual sale of the pipeline into clean-energy transition. This will help.
Alberta’s strength is in energy. The province has a work force that can develop advanced fuels and renewable electricity. It’s all at our fingertips, but the transition takes investment and can’t leave citizens behind.
Alberta’s carbon intensive industries will only reduce their emissions if the regulatory and carbon pricing regimes put in place are maintained and eventually strengthened. The Kenney government needs to understand this. Doing so will allow us to continue to lower the carbon emissions from the hydrocarbons in TMX, as we must, and also continue the history of energy innovation in Alberta toward the affordable low-carbon future we need. It’s key to our energy industry’s global competitiveness.
All things considered, Ottawa made the right decision.
Ed Whittingham is an environmental policy expert. In April, he resigned from the board of the Alberta Energy Regulator. He was the former executive director of the Pembina Institute.