Energy and environment top of mind for Alberta delegates at Conservative convention

Balancing climate policy and natural resource development is expected to be a large focus of the Conservative party's policy convention this weekend — an often difficult topic that's no stranger to Alberta. 

Province has experience debating the balance between energy and the environment, strategist says

Jason Kenney was joined by federal Conservative Party of Canada Leader Erin O'Toole back at the UCP convention in October. O'Toole is participating in his own party convention this weekend. (Submitted by United Conservative Party of Alberta)

Balancing climate policy and natural resource development is expected to be a large focus of the federal Conservative party's policy convention this weekend — an often difficult topic that's familiar in Alberta. 

That debate will take a national stage starting today as the virtual three-day event kicks off. 

Erika Barootes, Enterprise Canada's vice-president for the west, says the environment, energy and economic recovery are the big ticket items for western Canada. She's also attending the convention as a delegate. 

"There's a lot of economic development that will be discussed this weekend. And I think it's really reassuring around our natural resources, the diversification of the energy sector, while still finding that balance with the environmental goals that we would like to achieve."

Alberta has some experience dealing with the fraught nature of those discussions. 

The province is currently working to secure $30 billion in funding from the federal government for carbon capture technologies. Meanwhile, it's also challenging the carbon tax in court. Many oil and gas companies in Alberta are working toward net-zero emissions, as a new U.S. administration puts cross-border pipelines in its crosshairs. 

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Economic growth, energy security, small modular nuclear reactors, emission caps, and clean energy technology are all up for discussion at the convention this week.

Specific climate policies still unknown

Conservative leader Erin O'Toole has said his party needs a stronger environmental plank in its platform for the next election, but has mentioned few specific policies since.

In February he said his party had a plan to hit Canada's emissions reduction goals faster than the current Liberal government, though he provided no specific details. Part of that Liberal strategy relies on an increasing price on carbon, which Conservatives have condemned.

"Here we are eight months after the leadership race, we still don't know what they stand for on climate change." Duane Bratt, a political scientist at Mount Royal University, said. 

Before the last federal election, an Angus Reid poll found that 78 per cent of Conservative voters ranked climate action as a priority, but there was a wider variety of opinions on how that should be reflected in policy. 

"This is the delicate dance that Erin O'Toole has to play. He can remain the hard liner about opposing the carbon tax and that keeps Alberta and Saskatchewan delegates in line. But that does not help him break through in Ontario," Bratt added.

"If, on the other hand, he starts to waffle on carbon taxes in the hopes of winning Ontario in the next federal election, he's in danger of losing some of the hard core conservative supporters from the prairies who are going to be the dominant delegate presence."

'We are a big contingent of the votes'

Alberta has been pushing for a more prominent place in national conversations, and the province's conservatives are continuing that mission this weekend.  

Four Alberta MPs are also participating as speakers, including Calgary's Michelle Rempel Garner and Edmonton's James Cumming.

O'Toole spent a lot of time on western Canada during the leadership race, and Barootes said those delegates will be looking to show the leader how influential Alberta can be going forward — even if the province isn't the difference maker in federal elections.

"We'll challenge the other parts of our country and the other parts of our movement to not forget that we are a big contingent of the votes," she said. 

"Maybe we aren't necessarily the turning point, or sometimes deemed a safe area, but we are very, very powerful in the conservative movement in Alberta."

It's those powerful delegates that Maverick Party interim leader Jay Hill will be watching the convention for as he looks for disaffected conservatives to join his political movement, Bratt said.

Keeping everyone in that big conservative tent happy is O'Toole's biggest challenge, he added. 

"You can't just say my base is insufficient for me to win an election, therefore I can push them to the side to try to recruit new people. You could lose some of that base."

There has been increased tension between the party and its social conservative faction. Despite efforts by groups like Campaign Life Coalition, there are no anti-abortion resolutions in the policy book this time. 

That doesn't mean the social conservative members of the party won't push to have their ideas heard, Bratt said. 

"This is a test. If this is page seven news when the convention is over, that shows that O'Toole's got some skills."

It's likely those issues will come up, but Barootes isn't concerned. 

"This is the exact place where our grassroots members get to have those votes and say. I don't think it'll be a distraction. I think it's actually the process." 

Both Bratt and Barootes agreed that O'Toole needs to demonstrate to Alberta conservatives that he can work on their concerns while continuing to attract others from Ontario and Quebec into the party.

"A successful Alberta is a successful Canada," Barootes said.