Alberta Premier Danielle Smith and her chief advisor, Rob Anderson in 2010.
Alberta Premier Danielle Smith and her chief advisor, Rob Anderson in 2010. Credit: Dave Cournoyer Credit: Dave Cournoyer

Perhaps Premier Danielle Smith and her enabler and office manager Rob Anderson carefully plan their freeze on renewable electricity generation last week. Or perhaps they just came up with it on a whim. Either way, it’s now turning into a three-alarm international dumpster fire. 

On Wednesday, the British-based Guardian news site and newspaper published a major story on the seven-month moratorium. It had caught the markets and commentariat by surprise when Utilities Minister Nathan Neudorf announced it last Thursday. 

The Guardian’s story was not a friendly update of the sort typically filed by local media in Alberta. “Fury as Alberta cuts renewables during Canada’s worst fire season ever,” the headline shouted, pointing to an obvious irony. 

The decision, the story began, “has prompted disbelief among environmental groups and economists.” They’re not as familiar with Smith, Anderson, or their United Conservative Party as some of us here in Alberta, so I suppose their astonishment is understandable, if not justified.

“The move comes as the country struggles with its worst fire season on record,” the story continued, “a situation that experts agree is worsened by the climate crisis and a reliance on fossil fuels.”

“The decision to halt renewables has baffled economists, environmental groups and business executives, whose companies are now questioning hefty investments in the province,” The Guardian’s reporter noted dryly. 

As it happened, the day The Guardian published its story, Hawaii was also making international headlines with its worst fire season on record. At least 50 people are now dead as a result. The situation is also being blamed on global climate change. 

And don’t worry, the New York Times, the Washington Post, and other respected foreign publications are sure to follow with Alberta stories of their own soon enough.

Like it or not, believe it or not, the world is taking notice of planetary climate change. They are going to act on it, whatever Smith and Anderson think.

Steadfast in denouncing net-zero targets

Negative international coverage of Alberta is even more likely after Smith’s childish and irresponsible vow on August 10 that Alberta will refuse to implement Ottawa’s just-released and still-proposed net-zero electricity generation regulations. She aspirationally described them as unconstitutional. 

“If implemented in Alberta, these regulations would endanger the reliability of Alberta’s power grid and cause massive increases in Albertans’ power bills,” Smith said in a tendentious statement published on the Government’s website. “They will not be implemented in our province – period.”

Alberta Environment Minister Rebecca Schulz parrotted the premier at a news conference on August 10. The proposed federal regulations “will not be implemented in our province, period,” she said.

“They can’t,” she went on. “We are beginning our talks with the federal government and if we can’t get alignment, Alberta will chart its own path to ensure we have reliable and affordable electricity for the people we serve.” 

Alberta will continue to pump the tires of the natural gas industry, she implied – if not exactly in those words. That was presumably the purpose of last week’s moratorium on new clean energy projects as well. 

All this is meaningless hyperbole, of course, since none of the regulations will come into effect for a dozen years. 

And as University of Calgary law professor Martin Z. Olszynski explained on social media, “until successfully challenged in court, saying the proposed Clean Electricity Standards ‘won’t be implemented in Alberta’ is vacuous. It means *nothing*. Under our constitution, their implementation does not depend on provincial consent.”

What’s more, they can’t be challenged in court until there’s something in law to challenge – so there’s no need to trot out Alberta’s own unconstitutional legislation, the ludicrously named Sovereignty Within a United Canada Act, to see how it fares before a judge. (Prediction: Not well.) 

“The primary meaning in that statement” is that Premier Smith “puts herself above our constitution & the rule of law,” Olszynski observed.

A shot in the foot

The tantrum puts on a reassuring show for the most extreme elements of the UCP base. But this rhetorical dumpster fire can both hurt Alberta business and investment opportunities. It can also hand Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and his federal Liberals a useful cudgel with which to hammer federal Conservative Leader Pierre Poilievre, who lately has been enjoying a bump in the polls. 

What will Poilievre have to say about all this? Surely someone will ask him that question soon, leaving him between a traditional conservative rock and an environmentally aware hard place.

Meanwhile, as the rest of the world starts really paying attention to Alberta – international businesses already are – Smith and her strategic brain trust may have just frittered away what’s left of the “Alberta Advantage” and the silly notion of “ethical oil” to cozy up to the UCP’s Take Back Alberta faction. 

Renewable energy sector in shock

The renewables industry, which had been doing famously well until the UCP brain trust struck last week, expressed “complete shock” in The Guardian’s story. A spokesperson warned that if the Alberta Government would do that to them, it would do it to other industries as well.

“The government’s sudden announcement of an unprecedented moratorium on the lowest-cost new electricity available in Alberta puts 91 projects and $25-billion of investments and associated jobs for Albertans and revenues for municipalities at risk,” the Calgary-based Pembina Institute calculated last Thursday. 

“Accelerating the deployment of wind and solar energy in a responsible way is an essential part of the solution to the climate crisis,” Pembina Electricity Director Binnu Jeyakumar said in a news release. This appears to reflect the conventional wisdom throughout the world as the effects of climate change become more obvious. 

An op-ed in The Globe and Mail by an analyst in Pembina’s electricity program noted that last year was the first year in history that investment in renewables caught up to investment in fossil fuels – $1 trillion US!

“To remain a prosperous country while also meeting its climate change commitments, Canada needs to attract a larger slice of that pie, which will only grow in the decades ahead,” wrote Grace Brown. 

No matter how much Smith and Anderson hate renewables and think they’re a scam – and the record shows that they do – this is how the world is coming to see the situation. 

They can talk about defying Ottawa and ethical oil till they’re blue in the face and that won’t change a thing. 

The only person who can be really happy about the opera buffa in Alberta is Justin Trudeau. 

David J. Climenhaga

David J. Climenhaga

David Climenhaga is a journalist and trade union communicator who has worked in senior writing and editing positions with the Globe and Mail and the Calgary Herald. He left journalism after the strike...