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Alberta speeds up climate plan in hopes of pipeline approval

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's decision on the Kinder Morgan oil pipeline project is due in the next month, and the Alberta government has been busy this fall trying to create the conditions for his approval by ramping up implementation of its own climate action plan. Having set the table, Alberta is asking Mr. Trudeau to accept the invitation to be both a climate champion and a pipeline builder.

Alberta Environment Minister Shannon Phillips has just returned from the United Nation's annual climate-change conference, COP22 in Morocco, where she defended her province's twin agenda for tackling global warming while also looking for new markets for its fossil fuels.

"We are the example where everyone said it cannot be done and yet it is being done," Ms. Phillips said in an interview on Friday. "There are only so many ways for all of our large industrial economies to move forward. … And that is to take advantage of our opportunity with respect to our oil and gas resources, and make sure they are extracted in the most responsible way possible."

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The Alberta government will mark the one-year anniversary of its climate action plan on Nov. 22. The plan imposes an economy-wide carbon tax starting in 2017 and a cap on emissions from the oil sands, while offering incentives to ensure 30 per cent of Alberta's electricity is generated from renewables such as wind and solar by 2030.

In the past six weeks, Alberta has rolled out a dozen initiatives and actions to implement the plan. Up next, they'll begin auctions for renewable energy contracts to phase out coal-fired power plants, which promises to make Alberta the single largest market for new renewable energy projects in Canada.

Ms. Phillips said the Alberta plan makes space for new pipeline capacity: "For the conversation around climate impacts of what is in those pipelines, Alberta has come to the table with the most robust and substantive answers of any energy-producing jurisdiction anywhere."

For the past eight years, the B.C. government has claimed bragging rights as the country's climate leader after introducing North America's first carbon tax, along with hard caps on industrial emissions, and a legislated goal of reducing emissions by 33 per cent below 2007 levels by the end of 2020. But under B.C. Premier Christy Clark, the government has conceded it will miss that 2020 target and has had to renew its plan to get it back on track for future years.

A key turning point in B.C.'s climate action plan came when Ms. Clark set her sights on developing a liquefied natural gas industry. In September, the B.C. government celebrated the federal Liberal cabinet's approval of an $11.4-billion terminal to export LNG – a project that will produce up to 4.3 million tonnes of equivalent carbon dioxide per year. According to the Pembina Institute, that would make up between 13 per cent and 15 per cent of British Columbia's total emissions in 2014.

British Columbia, having received its hoped-for LNG approval, is in no position to criticize Alberta for wanting to move its own fossil fuels to Asian markets via the Kinder Morgan Trans Mountain expansion project, which would result in upstream GHG emissions ranging from 14 to 17 megatonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent per year. (The federal agency that produced that estimate did not look at downstream emissions.)

The B.C. government is inching toward supporting Trans Mountain. But with significant public opposition to the pipeline – especially on B.C.'s coast – the story to watch now is how the Prime Minister handles the file. At least two members of his B.C. caucus are on the public record as opposing Trans Mountain.

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Mr. Trudeau's government – the one that has described climate change as the greatest challenge of our time – still has some work to do before the Dec. 19 deadline for a cabinet decision on Kinder Morgan's pipeline application.

In early December, the Prime Minister will gather provincial and territorial leaders to finalize his national plan for cutting emissions 30 per cent below 2005 levels by 2030. And he might find time, in the next few weeks, to enact a campaign promise to impose an oil tanker ban along B.C.'s north coast, which would effectively kill the Northern Gateway oil pipeline proposal.

Even with Alberta's efforts to rebrand the carbon economy, approval of the Kinder Morgan pipeline will cost the federal Liberals support in B.C.: Indigenous leaders, environmentalists and mayors alike will be lined up against it.

Mr. Trudeau would have to invest his own political capital to pull this off. He cannot hand off the announcement to his ministers, nor can he avoid the B.C. coastline as his backdrop, if his answer to Kinder Morgan is yes.

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About the Author
B.C. politics reporter

Based in the press gallery of the B.C. Legislature in Victoria, Justine has followed the ups and downs of B.C. premiers since 1988. She has also worked as a business reporter and on Parliament Hill covering national politics. More

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