Danielle Smith

A war of words over ‘just transition’ is just the beginning

Despite many shared goals, Alberta and Ottawa are on a collision course as climate politics heats up

Is there a better metaphor for the latest tension between Alberta and the federal government than tilting at windmills? There’s the creation of conflict where none really exists and, to be needlessly blunt about it, there’s a windmill — not quite a wind turbine, but close enough. 

In truth, however, even the metaphorical windmill is a bit much. It suggests something of substance, a physical thing. Instead, the latest row over “just transition” legislation is more about a disagreement over semantics, albeit one bolstered by a whole lot of sociopolitical baggage.

Both governments want to see more wind turbines. Both want jobs and economic diversification. There’s hydrogen, carbon capture utilization and storage and critical minerals — the list of shared objectives is long when it comes to climate goals and the economy. In other words, there is broad agreement on what’s involved in implementing a “just transition.” 

And yet, there is a growing rift between Alberta and Ottawa over the recent suggestion from federal Natural Resources Minister Jonathan Wilkinson that “just transition” legislation will be introduced early this year.

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At this point, the fight has largely focused on words — the term “just transition” described as too divisive.

It’s the opening salvo in what is likely to be an ongoing war as Alberta inches its way toward an election in May. There will be many more climate and environment skirmishes to come: emissions caps on the oil and gas sector, contracts meant to stabilize the price on carbon and a greater push for a cleaner electricity grid are all coming forward in the next few months. 

Lisa Young, a political scientist at the University of Calgary, says this moment has been coming since the federal Liberals signed on to the Paris accord in 2015, committing the country to deep reductions in emissions. The forthcoming just transition legislation is simply the latest, and most convenient, fodder for a United Conservative Party government in Alberta that is struggling to find its footing.

​​“This is a government that won a landslide on the slogan of ‘jobs, economy, pipelines’ — jobs matter to its base of support. There are lots of people in Alberta who feel very anxious about the idea of the energy transition and what it means for them personally,” she says.

“This is an issue where you can start connecting people’s anxieties with actions of the federal government, even though what the federal government is trying to do is to address those anxieties.”

Why so mad?

When Premier Smith stood in front of journalists on Jan. 10 to field questions, she opened her appearance with a sales pitch about Alberta’s economy and a dig at Wilkinson and Trudeau for their just transition pledge. 

But it wasn’t the idea of retraining workers and investing in economic diversification — key tenets of any transition planning — that raised her ire. It was those two words. Smith herself highlighted joint work on hydrogen, carbon capture utilitzation and storage and sustainable jobs.

This image shows the Sturgeon refinery in Alberta.
The Sturgeon refinery complex feeds captured carbon into the Alberta Carbon Trunk Line, which whisks it hundreds of kilometres south where it’s used to force oil out of old wells. The federal government has announced support for carbon capture utilization and storage projects in the form of tax credits worth billions of dollars. Photo: Alberta Carbon Trunk Line.

“I think we’re all on board with that,” she said. “But to use that terminology, they’re virtue signaling to an extreme base that is openly advocating to shut down oil and natural gas.”

Where the province and the federal government do differ — and it’s the heart of the ongoing tensions — is what kind of impact a changing climate and a changing economy will have and how quickly that province needs to transition away from fossil fuels. 

Ottawa has committed to steep emissions reductions in order to keep warming below 1.5C, and is pushing aggressively to implement targets that include a net-zero electricity grid by 2035 and more. 

Alberta, on the other hand, supports climate initiatives as long as they don’t shut down the industry that continues to bring in barrels upon barrels of wealth. It argues the industry will be around for decades and can successfully bring down its carbon pollution enough to be considered relatively sustainable. 

The tension that exists between those two views allows for the smallest spark — a word or two — to turn into a conflagration. 

But arguments over just transition and all of the coming climate-related policies, plans, legislation or regulations also have to be viewed within the larger context of Alberta’s identity, its residents’ long-simmering anxiety over the future of the economy and climate, as well as never-ending battles over legislative jurisdiction and pure politicking. 

“The provincial government is spoiling for a fight, and they’ll take any federal government statement or initiative that gives them a chance to raise the alarm about what the federal government is doing,” Young says. 

The coming election and Alberta politics

There is also the small matter of a looming provincial election. 

The new leader has struggled under the weight of controversies — from claiming unproven Indigenous heritage, to her Sovereignty Act, to saying the unvaccinated face more discrimination than any other group, to questions about her views on private health care, to name a few. 

Polls suggest a tight race with the opposition NDP.

“One political tactic or political strategy that is maybe the most likely to be helpful is to turn this into a fight with Ottawa about the status of the oil and gas industry,” Young says. 

“There’s plenty of public support for that industry. So that combined with the long history of Alberta alienation from Ottawa might be enough to turn the tides in that election.”

It’s a non-starter, she says, to come out and say you’re opposed to the oil and gas industry in the province. That’s a message the opposition NDP seem to have heard loud and clear.

“Certainly, any support coming into the Alberta economy to ensure that workers have good sustainable jobs in this province is good,” Kathleen Ganley, the NDP’s energy critic says. “But I also think that the energy industry is going to be with us for a very long time.”

Environment Minister Jonathan Wilkinson
Federal Natural Resource Minister Jonathan Wilkinson said there would be new “just transition” legislation coming early in 2023, a comment that has raised the ire of the UCP government in Alberta. The latest tension is likely only the beginning as Alberta prepares for a spring election. Photo: Province of British Columbia / Flickr

The NDP, like the UCP, want to see investments in things like clean energy and carbon capture, and also don’t want to see the federal government bringing down the oil and gas economy. Ganley agrees that the term just transition is too divisive, but says that shouldn’t be the province’s focus. 

“I don’t think it’s helpful the position that the UCP has taken. I don’t think that just fighting over every little thing and fighting a war of words, essentially, is the best way forward.”

She says the NDP wants to see the federal government reach out directly to industry if the UCP government isn’t willing to engage on ways to move forward. 

The planning process

All those politics are getting in the way of the real conversations that need to be had. 

An official with Natural Resources Canada, speaking on background, says it has been difficult to kick off meaningful dialogue with Alberta regarding regional discussions around economic opportunities in a net-zero future, due to the instability of outgoing and incoming premiers. 

It’s not for lack of enthusiasm on either side, the official said. 

That same official said the current flare up over the just transition legislation is much ado about nothing, and that the legislation will likely be “boring” once it’s unveiled — acting largely as a set of guiding principles and accountability measures for the sorts of initiatives the Liberals have already announced. 

Those policies and plans include investments in carbon capture, worker training and diversification. They consider the impacts on communities reliant on oil and gas, just as Alberta did a few years ago when  helping communities reliant on coal-fired electricity for jobs

For Kerry Jothen, who specializes in planning workforce transitions and who sat on Alberta’s coal transition advisory panel, the current political debate misses the point. Whether the lifespan of the oil and gas industry is short or long, prudent planning is key. 

“You do the same in terms of business operations or a business plan,” he says. “If you don’t know where you are today, what your vision is and where you’re going, you’re less likely to be able to get there or to mitigate potential impacts.”

Jothen distinguishes between upside transitions — where there are new opportunities to seize — and downside transitions, where the jobs are going to change or disappear. Energy transition in the age of climate change is a bit of both, he says. 

When government policy helps drive downside transitions it should be common sense, he says, that government also considers ways to mitigate negative impacts. 

Identity and anxiety

Jothen travelled through Alberta as part of the coal transition panel, and emotions were high then, too. 

He was visiting communities where workers would lose their jobs, where whole communities could be wiped out due to their reliance on one resource. It can be difficult terrain to navigate.

And that’s a real anxiety for some Albertans, many of whom are not only reliant on oil and gas dollars, but who also see the industry as part of the provincial identity — one of cowboys and pumpjacks. 

Alberta pumpjack with wind turbines in a canola field in the background
Alberta, known for its oil and gas industry, is also in the midst of surge in renewable energy production. With an identity and an economy closely linked to oil and gas, the province is struggling with anxieties brought on by a changing world and a changing climate. Photo: Larry MacDougal / The Canadian Press.

That sort of anxiety is only increased with shifting political norms and news visions of what Alberta is and can be. 

Jared Wesley, a political scientist at the University of Alberta who tracks perspectives about the province by those who live here, has identified a disconnect between perception and reality. 

“This gap between myth and reality creates tension when conventional ways of approaching problems fall out of step with the way the public wants to see them handled,” he wrote in an opinion piece for CBC News in 2021. “Dramatic shocks, like the decline of the oil and gas economy, climate change and the global pandemic, throw these anomalies into sharp relief, sparking cultural change.”

Ignoring the shocks that come from a changing political and cultural landscape, and not working to prevent economic shocks for those left behind can be a dangerous game. 

American sociologist Arlie Hochschild looks at similar tensions in the U.S., which gave rise to the Tea Party and then Donald Trump. Hochschild points to what she calls the “deep story” — a sense that a changing world is leaving many behind and favouring others — behind the rise in angry populism. Think race. Think gender. Or, think about Ottawa and urban elites and environmentalists. 

That sort of thinking is already established in Alberta. It has already led to anger and had a serious impact on the ability to have a real debate. 

Jothen argues we need to get past rhetoric from all sides to focus on a real conversation about exactly what it is we’re facing. How many jobs can be created? What are the probable wages? How many jobs could be lost? Who stands to lose and how can we help?

Given the current political climate in Alberta, pressure from the federal government for quick action to avoid the worst impacts of the climate crisis, a looming provincial election and a prime minister looking to solidify his legacy, it remains to be seen if that reasonable conversation is possible. 

If the start of 2023 is any indication, those windmills, real or imagined, aren’t going away anytime soon — and neither are the risks associated with fighting them. 

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We hear it time and time again:
“These are the stories that need to be told and you are some of the only ones telling them,” John, a new member of The Narwhal, wrote in to say.

Investigating stories others aren’t. Diving deep to find solutions to the climate crisis. Sending journalists to report from remote locations for days and sometimes weeks on end. These are the core tenets of what we do here at The Narwhal. It’s also the kind of work that takes time and resources to pull off.

That might sound obvious, but it’s far from reality in many shrinking and cash-strapped Canadian newsrooms. So what’s The Narwhal’s secret sauce? Thousands of members like John who support our non-profit, ad-free journalism by giving whatever they can afford each month (or year).

But here’s the thing: just two per cent of The Narwhal’s readers step up to keep our stories free for all to read. Will you join the two per cent and become a member of The Narwhal today?

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