Dr. Andrew Leach
Dr. Andrew Leach (left), panel chair and Shannon Phillips, Minister of Environment and Parks, speak about the creation of an advisory panel to study the province's climate change policy at the media room at the Alberta Legislature in Edmonton, Alta., on Thursday June 25, 2015. Ian Kucerak/Edmonton Sun

It's always more exciting and more newsworthy for an incoming government to re-invent the wheel, or, even better, contend the wheel didn't even exist.


The New Democrats have come to power in Alberta with a belief that they, and they alone, are the sacred guardians of the environment.

Past Conservative governments, they are convinced, were so beholden to Big Oil/Big Money that the province was rushing toward environmental chaos. That goodness Albertans saw the light and elected the Only Party That Cares About Anything!

Premier Rachel Notley quickly lived up to a campaign promise to create a "Climate Change Advisory Panel". It will be chaired by energy economist, academic and commentator Dr. Andrew Leach.

In record time, the environment ministry has released a "Climate Leadership Discussion Document" setting the stage for the advisory panel review.

Need action

"The future of Alberta's energy economy depends on getting this right," writes Environment Minister Shannon Phillips in the introduction. "The old approach of talk without meaningful action has not worked. Doing more of the same would be the worst thing we could do for our environment and for our economy."

Talk without meaningful action?

With one sweep of her hand, Phillips summarily dismisses the environmental stewardship that has already taken place in Alberta -- through decades of government/oil company/academic partnerships and initiatives.

Of course there's always more to be done. But so much has already been accomplished by those big, bad corporate oil companies.

A few examples:

• Greenhouse gas emissions from in-situ oil sand operations have been reduced by 20% over the past seven years.

• Suncor and Syncrude are bringing on new technologies spelling the eventual end of those wretched tailings ponds.

• Imperial Oil's Kearl Lake operation is producing far "cleaner" bitumen than was possible just a few years ago.

• New technologies, now being field-tested, are dramatically dropping the amount of water and heating (the primary cause of emissions) needed for in-situ operations.

The previous government created Canada's first "carbon tax" as a penalty on excess green-house gas emissions, and reinvested all that cash -- hundreds of millions of dollars -- into clean-energy R&D grants, through the cost-effective Climate Change and Emissions Management Corporation.

The coal problem is already being solved. All coal-burning power plants in Alberta must be replaced by natural gas, or "clean-as-gas" standards, by 2030.

My deepest fear is a government so doggedly anti-fossil fuels that it fails to recognize and capitalize on the obvious:

Alberta is already a world leader in research and commercialization of technologies making fossil fuels environmentally competitive, yet can still do so much more.

In 2011, then Premier Ed Stelmach commissioned "Shaping Alberta's Future", a report put together by some of the nation's best thinkers. Alberta, the report suggested, could easily become the "Silicon Valley of high-carbon energy sources".

We could, without breaking into a sweat, become a world leader in the "greening" of fossil fuels. So many parts are already in place.

It's about embracing, not scorning, fossil fuels! It's about creating clean-burning coal, clean bitumen. It's about 100% emission controls from well-head to wheels in the transportation sector.

Nowhere in the "Climate Leadership Discussion Document" is there discussion about what we have, and how to make it better. The rhetoric is about "downshifting to a global market that doesn't want high-carbon fuels," or "Alberta has more to offer Canada than energy" or "transforming to a knowledge-based, sustainable lower-carbon economy."

Clean and green

Oil, natural gas and coal, extracted and processed to the environmental standards of the day, brought us to the dance. Cleaning and greening fossil fuels will keep us there.

Dr. Leach gets it -- he's long been a voice of reason in the hysterical anti-fossil fuel debate. But the rest of his panel members all seem to have "sustainability" and "collaboration" in their job titles.

Should the panel deliver a clean-up-our-fossil-fuels message, may the government embrace the opportunity (in a fossil-fuel dependent economy) to lead the world in "sustainable," carbon-neutral, fossil-fuel expertise.

Sadly, I'm not about to bet on it.