Rachel Notley and Alberta NDP offer few details on environmental plans

The stereotype suggests an NDP government will put Alberta on a much greener path. Beyond some broad platform statements, though, no one is really sure exactly what to expect — perhaps not even the new government.

Uncertainty making industry nervous, breeding optimism in green lobby

Rachel Notley's new NDP government has a lot on its plate, including what to do with the environmental file. (Canadian Press)

How much green may be in store for Alberta is among the many unknowns following the orange wave that just crashed over the province.

Environmental issues, as political stereotypes would suggest, may well prove to be close to the heart of the new NDP government, but at this point any specifics are hard to come by.

Beyond a few broad platform statements it appears that no one — not industry, green groups, or perhaps even premier-designate Rachel Notley herself — knows exactly how Alberta's environmental policy might change.

A higher level of ambition, that's what I'm hoping for- Ed Whittingham, Pembina Institute

Such uncertainty is making industry nervous, while simultaneously breeding new optimism in the environmental lobby.

"A higher level of ambition, that's what I'm hoping for," said Ed Whittingham, executive director of the Pembina Institute, an environmental think-tank.

Every province has its own plan to help Canada curb emissions enough by 2020 to keep the country onside with targets set in Copenhagen six years ago. Prior to the election, Alberta, which is now expected to move its efforts to the front burner, was thought to have only a puncher's chance of meeting its commitments.

Canadians have good reason to pay attention to whether that happens. Alberta is ground zero for Canada's fight against carbon emissions, which could become more serious after the Paris climate change talks later this year.

According to Environment Canada, Alberta accounts for 36 per cent of Canada's greenhouse gas emissions, despite having only 11 per cent of the population. Compare that to Ontario, which is home to 39 per cent of the country but responsible for only 24 per cent of emissions. Alberta's emissions-intensive oil and gas industry means it performs even more poorly in comparison to British Columbia, which has more people but only a quarter of the emissions.

More public transit funding

An election platform, by definition, is long on vision and short on details, but at least one of the NDP's environmental planks was decisive. Alberta is now abandoning Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS), which covers a range of technologies designed to curb the amount of carbon dioxide emissions that burning hydrocarbons releases into the atmosphere.

Alberta made the technology central to its 2020 plans, funnelling hundreds of millions into different projects. The effort was a struggle at best, and by last fall former premier Jim Prentice was already backing away from CCS in favour of other options.

Under the new government, public funding earmarked for CCS projects will instead go towards public transit with an eye to cutting emissions by taking cars off the road.

The shift doesn't mean CCS is dead in Alberta; rather it looks to be on pause until a breakthrough in technology or economics allows a project to make commercial sense without government funding. 

Changes could come by June

A bigger unknown is what the new government will do with Alberta's approach to carbon pricing.

It could follow Ontario and Quebec's lead and join a cap-and-trade scheme, choose to adopt a BC-style carbon tax, or go with a beefed up version of its current policy.

Under a plan known as the Specified Gas Emitters Regulation (SGER), Alberta currently charges large emitters $15 a tonne for emissions over a set amount. If the NDP sticks with that model, it's a near certainty the program will become more stringent.

New rules are likely on the way for Alberta's large industrial emitters. (Canadian Press) (Canadian Press)

Options include: increasing the price per tonne, the threshold to qualify for large emitter status, the target emissions reductions levels, or a combination thereof.

Changes could come as soon as June when the SGER is up for review, said greenhouse gas expert Richard Adamson, president of CMC Research Institutes.

"There's a requirement for them to do something at that point, even if it's a conscious decision to delay," he said. "A $40 a tonne price on carbon probably wouldn't be a shock."

Regardless of a change in government, industry is already believed to be pricing carbon costs significantly higher than $15 a tonne for internal numbers used to decide on new projects.

Coal is Alberta's workhorse

Another target of the NDP platform is, of course, Alberta's fleet of coal-fired power plants.

Coal plants are already being phased out under Environment Canada rules, but the question facing the new government is whether they're being taken out of the mix fast enough.

Stepping up the pace of decommissioning could be expensive for both the government and utility bills, given that coal is the workhorse of the province's power grid. Less coal would certainly be a win for natural gas-fired power generation, as well as renewable energy. That said, an NDP victory doesn't mean the wind industry, for one, is celebrating quite yet.

"We're encouraged, but we haven't seen the details and the details are really what matters," said Tim Weis, the policy director at the Canadian Wind Energy Association.

For now, the province's biggest coal players, such as TransAlta, are just looking to have some early conversations with the new policy makers. 

"By saying closing coal plants is our greenhouse gas policy, well that's a solution looking for a problem," said Don Wharton, TransAlta's vice president of policy and sustainability. "It's not about the fuel, it's about the emissions."

As much as industry is worried about the unknowns of an NDP government, the early read is that Notley and her new MLAs are as interested in reaching out to corporate Alberta as the other way around. 

A party that wasn't expected to win the election probably shouldn't be expected to have all aspects of its environmental policy down pat after only a few days in power, says Michal Moore, a professor of energy economics at the University of Calgary's School of Public Policy.

"What you're likely to see is a learning pattern," he said. "My guess is that if Ms. Notley is an adept politician, and I have every reason to believe she is, then she's going to tread pretty slowly and pretty deliberately in these first few months."


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