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Eight environmental issues at stake in the Alberta election (that are not pipelines)

From oilsands emissions to efficiency programs to Bighorn, major policies and promises that are critical to the future of the province seem to have fallen from the headlines

So far in the Alberta election, much of the conversation related to the environment has revolved around two political hot potatoes: the carbon tax and pipelines.

On the latter, all parties agree. “Build that pipeline!” is an oft-repeated refrain here in Alberta.

There is, of course, more to a well-rounded energy and environment platform than just these two policies.

“The conversation around climate and environment — and even energy — is almost entirely ideological,” Ian Hussey, research manager at the Parkland Institute at the University of Alberta, told The Narwhal.

Duncan Kenyon, Alberta regional director of the Pembina Institute, agrees.

“We’re falling back into these dogmatic tribal discussions,” he told The Narwhal. “We need to get back to having hard, honest discussions.”

Now that the parties’ platforms have been released — and the leaders’ debate is over —  Albertans may be left wondering where the two major parties stand on other issues related to energy and the environment.

So we took a closer look at what’s at stake for the environment in this election — and what the two major parties are planning to do about it.

1. Energy efficiency

United Conservative Party (UCP) leader Jason Kenney is not a fan of the province’s energy efficiency program, describing its services as, “sending bureaucrats into our homes to change showerheads and lightbulbs.”

Energy Efficiency Alberta was created in 2017 and uses revenues from the carbon tax to fund measures to reduce emissions — in homes and businesses.

The NDP’s platform boasts the program has saved Albertans $510 million in its first year of operations and the organization has said its programs mean three million tonnes of greenhouse gas emissions were avoided in the first nine months of its operations.

“There’s really strong merit to having an energy efficiency program,” Kenyon told The Narwhal. “It’s much more efficient to save a kilowatt of energy than to build a new power plant to meet growing demand.”

According to Kenyon, prior to the creation of Energy Efficiency Alberta, the province was the only jurisdiction in North America without an energy efficiency organization. “We haven’t exactly been leaders in this space,” he said.

As for the UCP’s plan to scrap the program? “Don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater,” Kenyon warned.

2. The oilsands emissions cap

In 2016, the Alberta government passed Bill 25, which sought to limit the total greenhouse gas emissions from oilsands development to 100 megatonnes. Oilsands emissions are currently around 70 megatonnes each year, according to government figures — and many worry they’re poised to increase.

The NDP’s platform is clear the cap isn’t going anywhere if the party stays in power, noting, “we will keep the firm cap on oil sands carbon emissions.”

Advocates for the cap say there’s still work to be done. “Alberta’s oilsands’s emissions cap is not operating in practice,” said Hussey, who notes that the “legislation is sitting on a shelf,” and regulations have not yet been put into place. (The NDP’s platform doesn’t mention implementing regulations.)

The UCP makes no explicit mention of the cap in their platform, but leader Jason Kenney has said he’ll lift the cap the first week he takes office, and during the debate said that he would “absolutely” take the cap off oilsands emissions.

Alberta Oilsands

Alberta oilsands release an estimated 70 megatonnes of emissions each year, according to government figures. Photo: Kris Krug

3. Environmental liabilities in the oil and gas sector

“We have a trillion litres of oilsands tailings ponds,” Hussey of Parkland told The Narwhal. “We have no plan to deal with that. How is that not an election issue?”

Liabilities don’t end with tailings ponds.

On Monday, the Alberta Liabilities Disclosure Project found Albertans are at risk of being on the hook for an oil well cleanup bill between $40 and $70 billion — two to 3.5 times more than the $18.5 billion publicly reported estimate — and those are just liabilities for wells. That doesn’t include the cleanup tab for pipelines, tailings ponds and all other oil and gas infrastructure peppering the landscape today.

Companies are able to move their liabilities around, in what The Globe and Mail dubbed a “brisk trade in junk assets.” In some cases, financially precarious companies are permitted to take on liabilities they can’t afford in the long run.

Some of those companies end up bankrupt. The Redwater decision sought to provide some clarity on this issue, but problems remain.

For its part, the NDP says it will “implement new corporate health measures on asset sales to prevent liability dumping as we continue to work with industry.”

The UCP makes no similar specific commitments, saying that it will “work jointly with the AER and industry to overhaul the liability management framework in Alberta, ensuring liabilities are covered without unduly discouraging new investment.”

This issue could become increasingly important, as the number of inactive wells is on the rise.

The Narwhal recently reported that internal documents obtained from the Alberta Energy Regulator showed that senior staff project that, without a change in policy, the number of inactive wells in the province could double by 2030.

There are currently hundreds of thousands of wells across the province.

4. Wilderness and parks

Neither party has made much mention of the Bighorn proposal in their platforms (save the UCP’s assertion that “the NDP government ignored Indigenous groups on the creation of Bighorn park.”)

The Bighorn proposal — to create a network of various levels of protected areas on the eastern slopes of the Rockies near Rocky Mountain House — was big news earlier this year as vocal opposition to the proposal made headlines.

Both parties’ platforms talk about increasing partnerships with outdoor recreation groups and park societies in their platforms.

Neither explicitly mentions plans for any new parks. Under what are known as the Aichi Targets, Canada has committed to protect 17 per cent of land and freshwater by 2020 — and that includes Alberta.

5. Reclamation

Reclamation is the last step in any extractive industrial life cycle here in Alberta — it occurs once the resource no longer has any productive value, or is used up. Companies are required by law to clean up after themselves, but there are concerns about enforcement of these obligations.

As The Narwhal reported last fall, the provincial government’s own pilot project found that the vast majority of sites studied didn’t meet standards for adequate reclamation.

Neither parties’ platform goes into much detail about reclamation, with the UCP highlighting its goal to “streamline” the process and to “reduce costs.”

On the issue of how and when to ensure companies clean up after themselves, the parties’ platforms differ.

The NDP’s platform says the party will implement timelines for reclamation of oil and gas sites, noting it will also, “require them to justify delays in reclaiming sites.”

The UCP’s platform proposes requesting tax incentives from the federal government, and also highlights that it will rapidly accelerate the approval of new drilling.

Oil lease site in Wetaskiwin, Alberta on Monday, November 5, 2018. Amber Bracken

A flooded and inaccessible oil lease site in Wainwright, Alta. Photo: Amber Bracken / The Narwhal

6. Methane regulations

According to the Alberta government, the impact of methane as a greenhouse gas is, “25 times greater than carbon dioxide over a 100-year period.”

In 2014, Alberta’s oil and gas sector emitted 31.4 megatonnes of methane (measured in carbon dioxide equivalent).

Both Alberta and Canada released plans for new regulations to deal with methane emissions last year, but there have been vocal critics of Alberta’s methane regulations to date.

According to the Pembina Institute, “Alberta’s methane regulations will allow oil and gas companies to release far greater volumes of harmful methane pollution than if they followed the federal methane regulations enacted . . . by Environment and Climate Change Canada.”

The NDP claims it has “invested over $200 million to reduce methane gas emissions,” and pledges in its platform that the province under an NDP government would “achieve a 45 per cent reduction in methane emissions by 2025.”

The UCP platform does not mention methane.

7. Okay, so about that carbon tax (and lawsuits and the question of Alberta’s self-determination)

The UCP’s position on the carbon tax is well known: scrap it.

The party’s platform makes it clear: “Bill 1 of a United Conservative government will be the Carbon Tax Repeal Act,” while claiming the carbon tax “currently costs Alberta’s families and employers about $1.4 billion per year.”

The UCP proposes to replace the carbon tax with what it calls a Technology Innovation and Emissions Reductions (TIER) fund. This plan would target large industrial emitters, requiring them to reduce their emissions intensity — notably, this is different from their total emissions, as it is dependent on economic output — compared to their own recent annual averages.

On the flip side, the NDP plans to continue its current carbon-pricing system.

Advocates for carbon pricing say it’s a realistic and business-friendly approach to reduce emissions. And, they point out, Alberta isn’t really in a position to eliminate a carbon tax altogether.

“In a state of the world where the UCP wins and eliminates the Alberta carbon tax, we’d maybe have a few months of no carbon pricing,” Jennifer Winter, assistant professor of economics at the University of Calgary, told The Narwhal.

That, she said, wouldn’t last long. “Then the federal system is put in place.”

For Winter, a made-in-Alberta policy means the policy can be tailored to suit the province’s needs.

“It’s about whether we think Alberta should have control of our policy and revenues.”

She points out that shifting to the federal system would result in a “shift in who’s affected by the carbon prices.”

Alberta’s system, she said, is “means tested,” meaning that rebates are based on income. In the federal system, she added, “everyone who files taxes receives a rebate.”

She also notes that Alberta has negotiated a temporary exemption for some aspects of conventional oil and gas production from having to pay carbon taxes. That sector, she said, represents “a substantial amount of Alberta’s emissions.”

Moving to the federal carbon tax means the end of that temporary exemption, and could actually increase the amount those producers pay.

Kenney’s response to the imposition of a federal carbon tax if he scraps Alberta’s plan? “We will sue.”

8. Emissions trends

According to the NDP’s platform, Alberta’s greenhouse gas emissions have dropped 16 per cent since the party implemented its climate leadership plan — a plan the party plans to continue to implement.

The UCP’s platform says it is “committed to responsible energy development and that includes action to mitigate greenhouse emissions and reduce their contribution to climate change.”

Either party will face a momentous challenge, with recent reports indicating Canada is warming twice as fast as the rest of the world, the earth’s glaciers are shrinking faster than previously thought, the Arctic is entering an “unprecedented state,” and more climate-related extreme weather events are happening in Alberta.

And that’s just the beginning.

“The Alberta NDP have done a lot relative to previous governments,” Hussey noted of the party’s environmental track record, “but way less than is scientifically necessary to address the size of the climate crisis.”

“On the other hand, for their main competitor — the UCP — their plan is to undo everything the NDP has done.”

Sharon is an Alberta-based writer and reporter. Her essays, interviews and long-form nonfiction have been published by The Walrus, Harper’s,…

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