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Danielle Smith Heads to COP28 to Sell Fossil Fuels

Premier plans to pitch carbon capture and Alberta’s ‘clean’ oil and gas at climate summit.

Graham Thomson 29 Nov 2023The Tyee

Graham Thomson is an award-winning Edmonton-based columnist who has covered Alberta politics for more than 30 years, first with the Edmonton Journal and now as a freelancer.

While much of the world views the upcoming United Nations summit on climate change as a step towards reducing the global reliance on fossil fuels, Premier Danielle Smith is taking a much different approach.

Believe it or not, she sees her trip to the COP28 conference in Dubai as a marketing opportunity for Alberta’s “clean” fossil fuel industry.

There’s certainly an element of chutzpah to Smith’s approach — or maybe it’s just dangerously unhelpful, like showing up at a weight watchers convention with a box of doughnuts.

But Smith is such a cheerleader for Alberta’s oil and gas industry, she’ll happily walk into the lion’s den to make her pitch.

“It occurred to me that on these major opportunities for international profile, we’ve got to be there to tell our own story,” Smith told reporters Tuesday. “I’ll be looking to tell the Alberta story and also see if we can get some investment in Alberta.”

These days, Alberta’s “story” is focused on the provincial government’s rediscovered interest in carbon capture and storage, a process that allows industry to keep burning fossil fuels but reduce their emissions by pumping the carbon dioxide underground.

In fact, Smith held Tuesday’s news conference to announce a new carbon capture incentive program that she hopes will generate $35 billion worth of investments by 2035. She is hoping to drum up some of those investments during her COP28 trip to the Middle East.

She’d also love some investments in Alberta’s related push for a massive “blue” hydrogen industry where natural gas is turned into clean-burning hydrogen. The process generates massive amounts of carbon dioxide emissions and the only way to deal with them is by pumping them underground via CCS.

That is what’s driving Alberta’s foray into CCS: to make Alberta the premier global supplier of choice for hydrogen exports.

But CCS is not the game-changer its proponents say it is, even when they add a U to the acronym to include “utilization” as a sop to the limited idea of using carbon dioxide to make some products like plastics.

CCS cannot make a significant dent in reducing emissions on a global scale, according to a new report from the International Energy Agency.

“Carbon capture, utilization and storage is an essential technology for achieving net zero emissions in certain sectors and circumstances, but it is not a way to retain the status quo,” says the report. “If oil and natural gas consumption were to evolve as projected under today’s policy settings, this would require an inconceivable 32 billion tonnes of carbon captured for utilization or storage by 2050.”

But Smith is not about to listen to the IEA, an organization she dismissed as “no longer credible” after it released a report in October saying fossil fuel demand will likely peak this decade.

When Smith arrives in Dubai with her fossil-fuel-friendly message, she won’t be alone. There will be more than 100 Alberta delegates, including officials from a consortium of large oilsands producers called Pathways Alliance that wants to build a 400-kilometre pipeline to transport carbon dioxide from 20 oilsands plants to be sequestered in an underground facility near Cold Lake.

Governments around the world would dearly love to keep burning fossil fuels. Carbon capture and storage carries the promise they can keep on doing that. Those governments, including Alberta’s, took a stab at it more than a decade ago but the projects proved to be complex, expensive and a drain on taxpayers, and didn’t live up to the hype.

The Alberta government has spent $1.2 billion on two projects in the past decade that sequester only about one million tonnes a year. Not the great success hoped for when the CCS experiment was announced 15 years ago. But it is enough apparently for Alberta to call itself a “world leader” and enough to embolden Smith to show up at COP28 with a pro-oil-and-gas message.

Given how too many governments are still looking for a magic bullet, Alberta’s delegates aren’t walking into a lion’s den. Especially when you consider that COP28 is being hosted by Sultan Ahmed Al Jaber, who is CEO of the United Arab Emirates’ national oil company, ADNOC.

Al Jaber also happens to be the UAE’s climate envoy.

If that doesn’t scream “conflict of interest” loudly enough — and environmental groups have certainly been screaming about it — there’s more.

The BBC reported this week that leaked documents indicate Al Jaber planned to use his role as host of COP28 to broker oil and gas deals with other countries.

In that context it would seem Smith will be among friends.

Unless, of course, she crosses paths with Canada’s environment minister, Steven Guilbeault, a man she said a few days ago was a “maverick” who “doesn’t seem to care about the Constitution.”

Smith insists she wants to find common ground with Guilbeault at COP28, and indeed the federal government is onside with Alberta when it comes to promoting carbon capture and storage.

But then again, on Monday Smith began the process to invoke the province’s contentious sovereignty act as a tactic to try to trip up the federal government’s yet-to-be-finalized Clean Electricity Regulations.

Smith will likely find she has more friends at a COP conference in Dubai than she has in Ottawa.  [Tyee]

Read more: Energy, Alberta, Environment

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