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Why Did Danielle Smith Block Alberta’s Renewable Energy?

If she has a strategy, what is it? Here are some possible answers.

Lisa Young 8 Aug 2023The Tyee

Lisa Young is a professor of political science at the University of Calgary. Her newsletter on Alberta politics is What Now?!?

It’s August. Surely we should be sitting on patios sipping cool beverages and enjoying the good weather. The only strategy I want to think about is how to avoid the neighbour wandering up and down the street clutching an armful of improbably large zucchini, looking for her next victim. (Just kidding! Keep ’em coming, J!)

But no. The Danielle Smith government wants to accomplish more in its first hundred days than just writing mandate letters for every member of its very large cabinet. Some of it is predictable: doubling down on the law-and-order and recovery-oriented approach to the terrible crisis of homelessness, addiction and toxic drug supply. Softening us up for a conversation about ditching the Canada Pension Plan. (Has the Overton Window shifted over far enough yet?)

What we didn’t see coming? That the Alberta government would pour a giant bucket of cold water over the booming wind and solar sector in the province, placing a seven-month moratorium on approval of any new projects. Politicians normally like nothing better than a booming industry. You might think that the premier of Alberta would be trying to spend her summer posing for photo ops wearing a hard hat in front of a big solar array. But you’d be wrong!

Turns out that the wind and solar producers are the bad guys in the Alberta energy sector, and the folks burning fossil fuels and filling tailing ponds are the good guys. Solar arrays: blight on the landscape. Open-pit mines: like an art installation celebrating Alberta ingenuity. Warms your heart (and the planet too)!

People who know a lot more than I do about Alberta’s energy sector have suggested some compelling reasons for the government’s August Surprise: Energi Media’s Markham Hislop suggests that natural gas producers are getting nervous about the way that wind and solar are eating into their market, and reminds us that those producers are among Smith’s strongest supporters.

Econ prof Aidan Hollis points out that the decision was announced just two weeks after a decision was made to let a solar installation go ahead even though it had a potential negative impact on sub-surface rights for the same land. And again the holders of sub-surface rights have strong ties to the Smith government.

On Twitter, the Globe and Mail’s Carrie Tait notes that there’s a “big overlap between Take Back Alberta and Albertans who dislike wind and solar projects. TBA types encouraged pushing back against wind and solar projects at land use mtgs, though petitions, etc.”

And of course there’s the “fight Trudeau” dimension. The premier repeatedly says that it’s not feasible to achieve a net-zero electricity grid by 2035, and the growth of wind and solar might make that statement seem implausible, so why not stick a giant spear into the nearest windmill and slow it down? And sure enough, on her radio show Smith said that the moratorium was needed because the federal government doesn’t want new natural gas plants on the grid, so there would be no “backup” for solar.

Even though the moratorium was announced on the Thursday before a long weekend, there has been a furore over the decision, which raises the question of whether Smith might make like Ralph Klein and walk it back.

My best guess is that the only thing that would make her do that is if she hears from enough CEOs — of renewable companies, but even more important from oil and gas players who are shifting their holdings to include renewables. Even then, I’m not sure it’s enough.

Politicians respond to short-term incentives, and for Smith, the incentives all line up in the direction of keeping the moratorium. It keeps TBA happy as the party’s fall annual general meeting approaches. It keeps the gas guys onside. It gives credibility to her claims about the impossibility of net zero by 2035. It makes pointy-headed academics furious. Win. Win. Win. Win.

Is there a mobilization that could change her mind? Hard to say. Since we don’t talk about climate change in Alberta electoral politics, it’s hard to imagine a public reaction that would counteract all the other incentives.

Can the renewables industry mobilize an “I Love Alberta Wind and Solar” campaign that would capture the UCP’s attention like the Defend Alberta Parks lawnsigns? Possible, but not probable.

And so, while the rest of the world gets busy (and possibly rich) building renewable energy, Alberta will sit this one out.

That’s all for now. I’ve got zucchini bread to bake.  [Tyee]

Read more: Politics, Alberta

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