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Jurisdictional wrangling is overshadowing concrete action on climate change as Alberta ramps up its assault on the federal plan to decarbonize the country’s electrical grid by 2035.

Alberta Premier Danielle Smith invoked her sovereignty act this week, introducing a motion in the legislature that includes plenty of sabre rattling, threats to refuse implementation of federal regulations and the possibility of a new crown corporation to build new natural gas plants.

Smith argues her measures are necessary to keep the lights on and electricity affordable in the province.

Using the act is a warning to the feds to stay in their lane, says Smith. The Alberta government argues utilities are provincial jurisdiction under the constitution. The motion hints at a potential for a court challenge on the issue.

There was obviously a fair bit of government work going on behind the scenes in Alberta to produce this latest salvo in the province’s ongoing battle with the federal Liberals.

Wouldn’t it be grand if that energy went into the far more pressing fight against carbon emissions?

By rigidly setting a 2050 target, Smith is giving permission for the private sector, which currently generates the power in Alberta, to slow roll technology changes and transitions to carbon-neutral generating sources.

The government itself aided that drag on innovation by declaring a half-year moratorium on new solar and wind power projects.

The UCP sovereignty act is largely political theatre, meant to bolster Smith’s reputation as a battler for provincial rights. The federal regulations related to the 2035 grid target won’t be finalized until next year, so no court challenge can happen until then. And by 2035, the political scene in Canada, and perhaps in Alberta, is likely to have changed somewhat.

Alberta’s jurisdiction over utilities is just another front in the war with federal Liberals. Smith  takes heart from two recent court decisions slapping down federal overreach on large resource project approvals and a ban on plastic straws as proof of her legal footing.

She fails to mention a Supreme Court decision in 2021 that is perhaps more relevant. In a 6-3 decision the court ruled the federal government’s carbon pricing regime is constitutional, partly because the threat of climate change demands a national approach.

Several provinces had argued that natural resources were in provincial jurisdiction.

In a similar vein, while utilities may be in the province’s purview, the carbon emissions to keep them running could arguably be a federal concern.

That said, it’s important for the federal government, and specifically Environment Minister Steven Guilbeault, to recognize that Alberta has a far more difficult and expensive road to decarbonization than provinces which are blessed with emission-free hydropower resources. He continues to bluster that getting to net zero won’t be nearly as bad as Smith suggests, but concrete numbers and mitigating policies need to be put on the table immediately.

Immediacy, in fact, is the real imperative here. The Alberta government is so set on proving that its oil and gas industry has a future that it won’t articulate a plan that phases it out of the utility mix.

And that lack of leadership, so urgently needed as the climate clock clicks down, is sending a negative message to industry and entrepreneurs about the province’s willingness to embrace a net-zero future.

The day after the UCP invoked the Sovereignty Act, a government press release trumpeted that Alberta had reached its target for reducing methane emissions three years earlier than expected. Both levels of government are moving ahead with incentives for carbon capture and storage.

So there is real work being done behind the scenes, but is it meaningful enough or fast enough to make a dent in Alberta’s poor carbon emission record?

Smith’s rhetoric on utilities is clever. It’s pretty evocative to talk about Albertans freezing in the dark if the provincial grid fails mid-winter because the private sector backs off building more natural gas power plants.

But on the flip side Albertans need to contemplate the cost of those plants in global terms. Just as a reminder, the province has had a weirdly mild November, after a summer filled with forest fire smoke.


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