Farmers are at the centre of Canada’s latest carbon pricing debate
Manitoba’s farmers say carbon fees on grain drying and barn heating are cutting into their...
New documents obtained by The Narwhal suggest the Alberta government and Premier Danielle Smith made false statements about why the province introduced a sudden pause on new renewables projects.
The documents, revealed through a freedom of information request, suggest Smith’s plans were in place well before the government’s announcement and were not — as she has said publicly — the result of requests from provincial regulators.
As it turns out, the government was already preparing speaking notes on its decision before provincial regulators weighed in.
Lori Williams, an associate professor of policy studies at Mount Royal University in Calgary, said the revelation the government made false statements is significant.
“There are serious questions about why this rather lengthy pause on renewable energy approvals was instituted in the first place,” she said.
She said the newly revealed documents show the government was justifying a decision that was already made — and the fact the government then made false statements about its motivations is puzzling.
Albertans, and industry, were caught off guard on Aug. 3, the day the Alberta government announced a surprise pause on all new renewable energy projects, stifling development of wind and solar projects across the province.
The government cited two letters to justify the decision: one letter from the Alberta Electricity System Operator — and one from the Alberta Utilities Commission. The system operator manages the provincial grid, while the commision is the regulator in charge of power projects.
Both letters were dated July 21 and were attached to the government news release announcing the pause. “This approach is in direct response to a letter received from the [Alberta Utilities Commission] and concerns raised from municipalities and landowners,” the news release said.
However, the utilities commission letter did not ask for a pause and the system operator letter simply said it would support the process as it is implemented.
Smith continued to reiterate the government was asked for a pause regardless.
“The Alberta Electric System Operator asked for us to do a pause, to make sure that we could address issues of stability of the grid,” Smith said on Aug. 14 when pressed by reporters on why the government made the decision.
“The Alberta Utilities Commission asked us to do a pause while we figured out how we could deal with end of life reclamation and the rural municipalities association passed a motion asking for us to make sure that we’re not building solar and wind on prime agricultural land,” she added.
At that same news conference, Smith doubled down on the letters, saying she was “disappointed” the media didn’t report the government was asked to institute the pause by the grid manager and regulator. She also said people should have seen the changes coming because she expressed concern about the pace and impact of Alberta renewables development at a Rural Municipalities of Alberta conference in the spring.
Rural Municipalities of Alberta has said it did not ask for the pause, nor pass any motions calling for one.
The office of Affordability and Utilities Minister Nathan Neudorf previously told the Canadian Press it wasn’t acting on the letters alone, after Smith’s contradictory statements.
“The letters from [Alberta Utilities Commission] and [Alberta Electricity System Operator] were sent following multiple briefings and conversations with the Ministry of Affordability and Utilities,” an unsigned statement sent to the Canadian Press read.
The Narwhal’s freedom of information request asked for all briefings and correspondence regarding the decision between Oct. 7, 2022 and Aug. 3, 2023. If, as the statement claimed, there were “multiple” briefings, the ministry failed to include all materials requested.
A newly obtained briefing note for Neudorf, prepared by his own ministry, dated July 20, suggests the government had already solidified its plans before the Alberta Utilities Commission letter — which the government had claimed asked for the pause — was penned.
The note was prepared in advance of a meeting with an unknown individual or company that had “requested an introduction meeting with Minister Neudorf to discuss their investments in Alberta and opportunities to collaborate to ensure Alberta remains a competitive market for clean electricity investments.”
The “key messages” outline for the minister includes praise for the surge in renewable energy in the province and touts the government’s policies as well as Alberta’s open electricity market for those investments, which it says provides stability to investors and competitive pricing for consumers.
The next section of the briefing note then outlines what to say if the minister is asked about the yet-to-be announced pause on new projects and outlines the details of the plan.
“The Alberta Utilities Commission has been directed to review the impacts of renewable projects on agricultural land use, visual impact on pristine Alberta landscapes, supply mix reliability, technical reliability and renewables on Crown land,” the government briefing note reads.
The rest is redacted.
Another briefing note for Neudorf from the Alberta Electricity System Operator, also dated July 20, says it “has been advised that the Government of Alberta is considering the implementation of a temporary six-month ‘pause’ on the approval of all generation power plant applications.”
The heavily redacted briefing note then goes on to offer advice to the government.
“If the Ministry of Affordability and Utilities moves forward with implementing a ‘pause,’ the [Alberta Electricity System Operator] offers the following insights for consideration to minimize unintended consequences,” reads the note.
Those insights and a summary of the briefing note are both entirely redacted.
Josh Aldrich, Neudorf’s press secretary, ignored specific questions emailed by The Narwhal for this story and sent a statement which says the decision was the result of multiple briefings and conversations.
In a follow-up phone call, The Narwhal asked Aldrich why documents were withheld from a freedom of information request — referred to as FOIP — if there were, in fact, multiple briefings on the pause.
“All I can say is what’s in the statement and anything that went through FOIP went through FOIP and was at the discretion of FOIP and legislation,” he said. “That’s all I can say and just refer you to the statement.”
Smith’s office was sent a set of questions and did not reply.
The system operator said it has no further comment beyond what was in the July 21 letter released by the government on Aug. 3.
Neudorf has admitted he did not consult with anyone from the renewable power industry prior to revealing the government policy and the reaction to the announcement has largely been one of shock and confusion.
“Perhaps we can explain it in terms of a political decision and pressures that we can’t see,” Williams, the political scientist, said, adding it still doesn’t explain why the government didn’t have a “better prepared set of reasons for justifying what doesn’t look like it was necessary to accomplish the objective.”
She pointed to the recent United Conservative Party annual general meeting and pressure from hard-right social conservatives, including an organization called Take Back Alberta. The pause could be an attempt to appease that base, she suggested, adding it’s a base that helped pass resolutions including opposition to race-based admissions in post-secondaries that seems to confuse Canada for the U.S.
“It just seems to be quite disconnected from the reality on the ground in Alberta,” Williams said. “Since it isn’t connected to what’s actually happening in Alberta, one has to ask whether this is good policymaking or frankly, even good politics.”
The pause on renewables has done considerable harm to Alberta’s reputation, she added, and there are still a lot of questions that need to be answered about why the government made its decision and for whose benefit.
Editor’s note, Nov. 9, 2023, at 4:39 p.m. MT: Due to an editing oversight, an earlier version of this piece and headline said the Alberta government and Premier Danielle Smith “lied” about the reason for the renewables pause. This has been corrected to indicate The Narwhal obtained internal documents suggesting she made false statements about the reason for the pause. The Narwhal did not review any evidence about whether any false statements were made intentionally. The documents revealed through The Narwhal’s freedom of information request suggest the government made false statements but cannot make conclusions about its motivations, i.e. whether the intent was to deceive. The Narwhal apologizes for the error.
When a little gray bird with black wings flies into a bushy tree on the edge of a steep mountain slope, ecologist Alana Clason scrambles...Continue reading
Manitoba’s farmers say carbon fees on grain drying and barn heating are cutting into their...
In our latest newsletter, we bring you two on-the-ground stories on disappearing old-growth trees and...
This summer, Ontario Energy Minister Todd Smith went to Windsor, Ont., stood in front of...