Obama speech to let Alberta move faster on climate change: ministers

EDMONTON – Alberta cabinet ministers are praising U.S. President Barack Obama’s remarks on climate change and say his state of the union address shows the Americans are catching up to what the province has already done.

“After years of being out front alone on this in Alberta, now we have a president very strongly signalling that the opportunity is in front of the American people to move aggressively on these files,” Intergovernmental Relations Minister Cal Dallas said Thursday. “We know that what’s been handed to us by the indications from the president’s address is that our largest trading partner is prepared to move with us.”

Still, provincial environment officials have been asked to speed up work on oilsands monitoring. As well, a “renewal” of Alberta’s climate change strategy — possibly including a higher price on carbon — is expected soon.

“I’ve asked our staff to come back with some draft ideas on a renewed climate change strategy,” said Environment Minister Diana McQueen. “I’m hoping it’s shortly.”

Obama used Tuesday’s state of the union speech to promise action on climate change, either through market-based solutions or regulation. U.S. Ambassador David Jacobson later said that message was meant as much for Canada as it was for the United States.

The statements came at a nervous time for Alberta, as the U.S. State Department led by pro-environment Senator John Kerry considers whether to approve the Keystone XL pipeline. The pipeline is considered crucial to move more oilsands bitumen to markets, but is bitterly opposed by American environmentalists as long-term infrastructure that will lock the U.S. into high-carbon fuels.

Several anti-Keystone demonstrators were arrested Wednesday in a protest at the White House.

But Dallas said Obama’s remarks sparked no alarms around Alberta’s cabinet table. He pointed out Alberta has invested heavily in carbon capture and remains the only North American jurisdiction that prices carbon emissions.

If the Americans want to move faster, that means Alberta can too, he said.

“We can continue to push the bar and do it in a manner that doesn’t jeopardize the opportunity to continue these technological investments because our industry will continue to be competitive.”

Still, he’s aware that’s not how Alberta is often seen. He said the government is considering another high-level trip to Washington to make its case.

“We’re taking a look at that, in the context that I regularly do that,” Dallas said. “Is (Premier Alison Redford) likely to engage again in the United States prior to a decision? I think that’s more than likely.”

Meanwhile, McQueen said she has asked the committee setting up the governance system for the new oilsands environmental monitoring effort to move up its timetable.

“I’ve asked them to move more aggressively on it. I’d like to have something by summer.”

McQueen said she’s given her staff a clean slate to update the climate change strategy.

“I’ve given them the freedom to come back with what they may think may work best to reach our targets.”

Officials are, however, likely to recommend a higher price on carbon emissions than the current $15 a tonne, widely considered to be too low to make a difference.

“That was certainly always something that was on the books, that we would progress to a higher amount. That I would expect would be one of the options that they would bring forward.”

Opposition Wildrose party Leader Danielle Smith called the remarks from Obama and Jacobson a “challenge” to Canada.

She said Alberta could reduce its carbon emissions and improve its environmental image with practical methods such as encouraging the shift to natural gas from coal for power generation. The “obsession” with the oilsands is unfair, she said.

Coal-fired power plants are by far Alberta’s largest source of greenhouse gases.

“Some of the biggest strides we’d be able to make would be moving from coal to natural gas,” Smith said.

New Democrat environment critic Rachel Notley said Alberta should be pressing Ottawa to do more as well.

“They need to publicly call out the federal government and say, ‘We need to put a higher price on carbon and you guys need to lead the way.'”