Is Alberta’s energy future being held hostage by political intrigue?

Danielle-Smith
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Are Alberta’s green steps backwards strategically calculated?

Bill-WhitelawAll of us suffer a little from tinfoil-hat syndrome.

That is, we all have within us something of the conspiracy theorist. It’s what makes us curious about the complex world we live in.

Here’s mine: inquiring minds might well wonder if there is a connection between the Alberta government’s decision to place a moratorium on renewable resource development and Premier Danielle Smith’s – here’s me being politically correct – “disinclination” to release a report prepared by a panel headed veteran oilpatch guru and personal energy mentor David Yager.

Recall the premier trumpeted the panel’s creation not five months ago. It was to be a panel for the ages. Or at least until 2050. Its supposed purpose: to help the Alberta proletariat understand the future energy state it would inhabit. Led by Yager, it also included four other oil sector leaders – even though it was described as an “energy” panel.

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For the record, here’s the premier’s quote from that chilly February day.

“I’m excited to bring together these skilled and experienced energy experts to help us plot a path forward for Alberta’s energy sector … we all know the world needs long-term energy solutions that are responsible, reliable and affordable. Now is the perfect time to create a panel of experts to look ahead to the future of our energy sector and how we can meet global energy needs in the years ahead.”

For Albertans who travel the highways and byways of our fair province, seeing what there is to see, the panel’s efforts might be expected to include a focus on more solar and wind energy. After all, solar panels and turbines are almost now considered as much part of Alberta’s energy landscape ubiquity as pump jacks and compressor stations.

Have you been to southern Alberta lately? Wow, wind turbine central! How about Vulcan, southeast of Calgary, centre of the Canadian solar energy solar system’s biggest install?

Fast forward to July and the report is nowhere to be found in the public realm. Indeed, Albertans have been told the report is currently classified as “advice” to the premier – a status that protects it from the inconvenience of the public’s prying eyes. Of the views of 150 CEOs Yager et al. have ostensibly engaged with, we are left to wonder and ponder the whos and whats.

That sort of clashes with the whole spirit of advice to Albertans, which was the pretty explicit subtext when the panel was announced.

Here’s the thing about the panel’s composition. It is five died-in-the-wool petroleum professionals. All great individuals, to be sure – but nary a renewables person among them. And given the Area 51 secrecy shroud currently draped over the report, we can’t be sure if the panel talked to anyone outside of Club Hydrocarbon.

Now seemingly out of left (farm) field comes this moratorium on renewables development. Yes, it’s only for a six-month pause, ostensibly to give the government time to catch its breath to better understand the evolving sector; on its face, a pretty spurious (read flimsy) reason.

But you can’t recoup the cost of a bad headline. And there have been bad headlines aplenty calling into question the government’s sanity and pointing to the negative impacts on Alberta’s reputation as a global energy leader.

Poor old Nathan Neudorf. The Minister of Affordability and Utilities was sent out to walk the plank with this announcement. One wonders how much he had to grit his teeth, knowing the inevitable questions that would arise about processes that could have been easily integrated and aligned with the sector’s ongoing evolution.

So here is the $64,000 tinfoil-hat question: Did Yager’s report recommend the moratorium? Did it contain sufficient Gatling Gun rounds of ammunition, gussied up as recommendations, to start bringing renewables to heel in order to protect the legacy oil and gas sector? Is this really all about the premier’s determination to stare down Ottawa over contentious issues like clean electricity grids?

We don’t know. And we can’t know this because we’re not worthy enough to know the report’s contents. And if you like your irony delicious, try this on for taste. One of our birthrights as Albertans is that we own the hydrocarbon molecules beneath our feet. By extension, all the data associated with their exploitation is also ours. That data is readily available in the public realm – indeed, its availability drives much industry activity. But apparently, we’re not mature or responsible enough to handle the truth of the Yager panel insights about the molecules we own.

So, we are left to speculate about potential linkages between the two processes. And hovering over this is another tantalizing notion. The recent mandate letter to new energy minister Brian Jean made no mention of renewables.

Hmmm. Curious. Was the Jean mandate framework a cut-and-paste from the Yager playbook? How many more policy directions will emerge unburdened by public opinion from his manifesto?

Now, the reality is this: those headlines decrying the government’s decision hurt the oil and gas industry. Two factors prevail.

  1. The realists among us know we will still be producing hydrocarbons 100 years from now.
  2. But oil and gas are living on borrowed time. A whole new set of “conditions of combustion” will configure the terms and conditions of future production. That includes how a jurisdiction is seen to be evolving and transitioning with new energy times – including full-scale integration of other forms of energy.

Many of those pressures are embodied and articulated within the larger ESG – environmental, social, governance – forces reshaping the way the world does energy.

Indeed, Alberta itself has established an ESG Secretariat and aspires to be the first sub-national jurisdiction to have a totally compliant ESG report card. As one might expect, the role of wind and solar is boldly articulated within its PR material – so there’s another head-on collision between two seemingly polar positions.

That raises another question: how much did the Yager report decry Alberta’s ESG thinking? After all, it’s de rigueur in fashionable right-wing circles to disavow all things ESG. Again, we’re left to wonder because Albertans are not even worthy of a heavily redacted version of the panel’s thinking.

In the meantime, here’s some free advice for the premier.

Call a press conference and throw Nathan Neudorf under the bus. As you’re personally familiar with the technique, let the public know the minister used “imprecise language” when he said moratorium. What he meant to say was:

“We know wind and solar are a big part of Alberta’s future, and we want to work closely with industry to understand how to continue to bolster an integrated energy system in which security, stability and affordability are key drivers. We know the future will be built on the way molecules and megawatts work together.”

Bill Whitelaw is the Managing Director of Strategy & Sustainability with Geologic Systems.

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The opinions expressed by our columnists and contributors are theirs alone and do not inherently or expressly reflect the views of our publication.

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By Bill Whitelaw

Bill Whitelaw is a director and advisor to many industry boards, including the Canadian Society for Evolving Energy, which he chairs. He speaks and comments frequently on the subjects of social licence, innovation and technology, and energy supply networks.

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