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Here’s What Danielle Smith Is Really Doing in Dubai

Alberta’s premier is looking for political points and investment in dubious climate 'solutions.'

Graham Thomson 5 Dec 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.

Steven Guilbeault and Danielle Smith are both in Dubai this week for the COP28 conference on climate change. But you could be forgiven for thinking they’re on different planets.

On Monday, federal Minister of Environment and Climate Change Guilbeault announced Canada would be cutting climate-warming methane emissions from the oil and gas sector by at least 75 per cent over the next six years.

Alberta Premier Smith immediately issued her own statement from Dubai calling the target “dangerous and unconstitutional” and in a personal attack suggested Guilbeault wanted to grab international headlines to benefit his “post-office career.”

What Smith ignores is that even though Alberta has been on the winning side of two recent constitutional court cases (involving single-use plastics and the Impact Assessment Act), courts in the past have ruled that when it comes to climate change, the environment is a shared federal-provincial responsibility.

But Smith is not in Dubai to discuss shared responsibilities.

She is using COP28 as a bully pulpit to show the anti-COP folks back home she’ll fight Ottawa on any stage, be it provincial, national or international.

In a by-now familiar refrain, Smith declared Alberta will “use every tool at our disposal to ensure these absurd federal regulations are never implemented in our province.”

You have to wonder what the world is thinking of Canada’s commitment to fighting climate change when Smith turns up.

Arguably, Guilbeault is there to show the world Canada is serious about tackling human-induced global warming (even though the federal government routinely misses its targets).

Smith, on the other hand, is treating the trip as something of a trade mission with a bit of political disruption tossed in. She is leading a small army of some 100 delegates, about one-third travelling thanks to taxpayers while the rest, according to the premier’s office, are paying their own way, including the premier’s husband.

The sheer size of Alberta’s mission might make it look like Smith is taking climate change seriously.

But this is not a delegation focused on the environment as much as it is focused on business. Based on Smith’s comments last week about seeing “if we can get some investment in Alberta,” and the list of delegates that includes a litany of energy-industry representatives, it seems the delegation is focused on selling investment in Alberta’s ambitious plans for carbon capture, utilization and storage technology — a method where industry hopes to keep burning fossil fuels while pumping carbon dioxide emissions underground while also using some CO2 to make products like plastics.

Globally, the complex and expensive technology has been proven to work in small-scale projects of a few million tonnes a year but is completely unproven at the billions-of-tonnes-scale needed to make a dent in global warming.

But for fossil-fuel-reliant industries, carbon capture is their “Plan A” to reduce emissions — and they have no “Plan B.”

Smith is in Dubai selling a magic bullet even though the troubled history of carbon capture so far is more bust than bang.

The premier insists she is also at COP28 to tout Alberta’s record on reducing emissions. In fact, while blasting Guilbeault Monday, she added “Alberta has already reduced methane emissions from the oil and gas sector by 45 per cent — hitting our target three years early — and we’re just getting started.”

True, to a point. What Smith neglects to mention is the methane-reduction plan was introduced by Alberta NDP Leader Rachel Notley after she became premier in 2015.

That was the year Notley went to Paris for COP21, as part of a delegation of premiers led by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, where she was feted as something of a hero who outlined the province’s new climate-change strategy that included phasing out coal-fired power plants. Delegates to the conference couldn’t have been more delightedly dumbfounded if Notley had travelled to Europe by walking.

That’s not to say Smith will get the cold shoulder in Dubai, particularly from desperate industries and countries keen to put their eggs in the carbon-capture basket. And keep in mind the host of COP28 is Sultan Ahmed al-Jaber, who happens to be CEO of the United Arab Emirate’s national oil company, ADNOC.

Petro-province meets petrostate

Even though Smith likes to take shots at Guilbeault publicly, behind the scenes Alberta and the federal governments continue to co-operate through a joint working group to find common ground on clean energy regulations.

Smith does have some legitimate concerns over the timeline to get Alberta’s fossil-fuel dependent electricity grid to net-zero. But any legitimacy gets lost in overheated rhetoric, threats and political theatre.

That includes Smith invoking Alberta’s Sovereignty Act last week. It was a largely symbolic move but as part of her “fight back” strategy, it opens the way for Smith to use her war with Ottawa to bring nuclear power to Alberta.

Raising the overwrought prospect of Albertans freezing in the dark because of the federal clean electricity regulations, Smith is contemplating setting up a Crown corporation to make the government a player in the electricity industry by, among other things, investing in small nuclear reactors, a technology she has spoken of fondly in the past.

That appears to be Smith’s end game, to hobble renewable energy projects through an ongoing seven-month moratorium in favour of a future more reliant on natural-gas-burning power plants and possibly nuclear energy.

And convincing the international fossil-fuel industry to invest in Alberta’s continued experimentation with carbon capture so they can keep burning oil and gas.  [Tyee]

Read more: Politics, Alberta, Environment

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