Varcoe: New environment minister heading to COP27 climate summit

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‘The reason why we are sending our own delegation is I don’t believe that we’re being properly represented by (federal) Environment Minister Steven Guilbeault. He clearly is hostile to our oil and gas sector,’ Smith said

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Alberta will send a delegation to the COP27 climate summit in November, marking a sharp shift from last year when the Kenney government shrugged off the gathering as a “gabfest” between politicians.

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Premier Danielle Smith said Monday she doesn’t expect to travel to Egypt for the event, but will send the province’s new environment minister, Sonya Savage, to head up Alberta’s group.

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“The reason why we are sending our own delegation is I don’t believe that we’re being properly represented by (federal) Environment Minister Steven Guilbeault. He clearly is hostile to our oil and gas sector,” Smith told reporters on Monday.

Smith’s cabinet was sworn in Monday, with new ministers assuming key roles in environment and energy that will play a pivotal part in the province’s future.

Airdrie-Cochrane MLA Peter Guthrie takes over the energy portfolio, replacing Savage, who shifts to the environment department.

Given the overlap between the two departments on issues such as emissions reductions and ESG (environmental, social and governance) performance, it makes sense for one, or both, to be part of Alberta’s delegation.

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And in an era of energy security and the drive to lower global emissions — and attract billions of dollars in necessary investments for decarbonization initiatives — sending the correct signal is essential.

“It’s important to be there at a ministerial level. Otherwise. . . you get a one-sided message over there and we need to ensure that Alberta’s voice is heard,” Savage said in an interview.

“What Albertans want our government to convey is that we have to have a very careful balancing of climate policy and energy security policy. And we need to get this right.”

Before last year’s summit in Scotland, then-premier Jason Kenney made a point of noting Alberta wouldn’t join Canada’s delegation at the COP26 climate conference, saying that having “one more politician flying into a gabfest in Glasgow is not going to make any meaningful difference.”

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This time, a provincial delegation of five is expected to attend.

“Alberta must send a delegation tasked with advancing our province’s interests on the world stage, not just political posturing to appease the UCP leader’s base,” NDP MLA Kathleen Ganley said in a statement.

Aside from concerns about the federal environment minister and the incoming national emissions cap on the oil and gas sector, the premier said she’s worried that Ottawa isn’t enthusiastic about all forms of hydrogen that could be produced in Canada — such as blue hydrogen made from natural gas.

She also wants Alberta to talk directly with Germany’s delegation about getting “Alberta LNG into their market on a long-term basis.”

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Leaders with the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers and the Pathways Alliance group, representing the country’s largest oilsands operators, will be at the climate summit in Egypt, which begins Nov. 6.

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The Pathways Alliance, which has committed to reaching net-zero emissions by 2050 and is progressing plans for a $16.5-billion carbon hub in the province, will also host a panel at the summit to discuss how industry, government and Indigenous communities are working together to lower emissions.

“This year especially has exposed the essential and growing need for secure and affordable supplies of oil and gas. . . while also meeting our climate commitments,” Pathways Alliance president Kendall Dilling said in a statement.

From an industry perceptive, it will be helpful to have the province attend next month’s event, said Tristan Goodman, president of the Explorers and Producers Association of Canada.

“It helps tell the Alberta story and makes sure we have representation there,” said Goodman.

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“I’m glad to hear Alberta is going,” added the Pembina Institute’s Chris Severson-Baker, who will be at the conference.

“So much is at stake for the province that it needs to be engaged. My hope is that they take it as an opportunity to really get grounded in what’s happening in the world on climate change.”

At last year’s gathering, the federal government formally announced it would impose an emissions cap on the oil and gas sector. The industry made up about 27 per cent of all emissions in the country in 2020, just ahead of the transport sector.

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The vast majority of large oil and gas producers are committed to reaching net-zero emissions by 2050, and the province and country have a positive message to deliver, said Kevin Krausert, CEO of Calgary-based Avatar Innovations, who will also be attending this year’s gathering.

“International markets are looking for energy security and emission reductions, and Alberta is delivering both,” Krausert said.

“To play out a family squabble in front of the international community that conveys a message other than security and emissions reduction would not be beneficial for long-term investment in the Canadian energy industry.”

And there’s the rub.

The province and industry need to show they’re taking serious steps to cut emissions as the sector strives to attract capital that’s needed for major projects such as hydrogen or carbon capture, utilization and storage facilities.

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The Alberta government also needs to “raise the bar on what is happening on the emissions reduction side,” said Sara Hastings-Simon, director of the University of Calgary’s masters in sustainable energy development program.

While Alberta has some elements of a climate plan, including making progress on the electricity front, it is also missing some parts, such as an energy efficiency focus — or an overall emissions reduction target.

“Whenever you are trying to achieve something. . . you have to know where you’re going and then you have to measure your progress,” she added.

“If Alberta goes to COP27 without a credible target and without credible plans and policies to meet that target, it is hard to see what the province can accomplish by being there.”

Chris Varcoe is a Calgary Herald columnist.

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