March 2005: Time for a Klein-Up

Hey, Ralph, enjoy your oil-fuelled party, but then clean up
March 1, 2005

Now that Ralph Klein has won his fourth term as Alberta premier, Canadians ought to let him enjoy the party, financed as it is by Alberta’s massive oil, gas, and coal reserves along with high oil prices and a rising Canadian dollar. But, as with any party, there comes a time to clean up. The consequences of Klein’s party include massive greenhouse gas emissions from extracting, refining, and using fossil fuels. In terms of taking responsibility for these climate-disrupting emissions, Klein has sometimes behaved more like the host that keeps the music blaring after midnight while tossing beer cans over the fence than as a good neighbour.  

Alberta ranks first among the provinces in spewing out greenhouse gases, accounting for almost one-third of Canada’s total emissions. The province emits over 220 megatonnes (MT) of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere each year from a Canadian total of 720 MT. (The Kyoto Protocol requires Canada to reduce emissions to 570 MT by 2012.) In the last decade, as Canadians across the country began taking climate decay seriously, Premier Klein oversaw a massive increase in provincial emissions that accounted for almost half of the entire Canadian increase. This may explain  his continuing resistance to the Kyoto Protocol despite the popularity, even among Albertans, of the international accord to reduce the damaging gases.

The majority of greenhouse gas emissions in Alberta come from two parts of the economy.  The first is Alberta industry, which accounts for almost half of provincial emissions. The fossil fuel industry, mainly the oil and gas sector, spews 80 MT into the atmosphere annually. Energy exports, primarily to the U.S., have risen rapidly and amounted to $36 billion in 2001. Extraction of oil from oil-sands, which contain most of Alberta’s remaining reserves, is highly energy-intensive.

It is no coincidence, then, that oil and gas industry executives are the gloomiest prognosticators on the Kyoto Protocol. In 2002, Gwyn Morgan, CEO of Calgary-based EnCana—one of North America’s largest independent oil and gas companies with a value of $30 billion— exhorted former Prime Minister Chrétien to reject the Kyoto Protocol. Morgan, sounding like a raucous partygoer who tells his sleepless neighbours that turning the music down even a bit will kill the party, said signing the agreement would be the equivalent of “economic self-mutilation” for Canada.

The electricity sector is the second largest emitter of greenhouse gases in Alberta, spewing out 50 MT annually. Almost all of these emissions come from coal-fired power plants, which supply 80% of Alberta’s electricity. Ironically, Ontario, which has pledged to close its coal-fired power plants by 2007, is developing generating plants run with cleaner natural gas while Alberta, the world’s second largest exporter of natural gas, relies overwhelmingly on dirty coal to supply its own electricity.   

Klein, and others including U.S. President George Bush, complain that the Kyoto Protocol is unfair because it does not bind developing countries. The logic of this lament is, however, backwards. North American and European countries have relied heavily on cheap fossil fuels to develop their economies. Developing countries were not invited to that party, but now Klein wants developing countries to play a bigger role in dealing with the burden created by our good times—the accumulated greenhouse gases in Earth’s shared atmosphere. The more logical way forward, surely,  is to show developing countries cleaner models of economic progress.  

Premier Klein is not the only Canadian political leader slow to take action on climate decay. He has, however, been one of the most vocal opponents of Kyoto. His conduct is surprising given that early in his reign he made a point of teaching welfare recipients a valuable lesson in personal responsibility. Tens of thousands of them were kicked off the welfare rolls so that they would “take greater responsibility” for their lives. The same lesson would have Klein ensure that the oil and gas industries (which, coincidentally, benefit from generous government subsidies across the country) take more responsibility for the greenhouse gases they emit.

All Canadians, of course, have benefited to some extent from Alberta’s prosperity. The federal government collects income and other taxes paid by oil and gas multi-millionaires and regular workers alike. The fossil fuel industry has created tens of thousands of jobs and many spin-off benefits. (On the other hand, a recent Pembina Institute report found that Alberta collects a far smaller share of oil and gas industry profits than places like British Columbia and Alaska, to the detriment of its health care and other social services.) Collectively, however, Canadians now understand the urgency of reducing greenhouse gases to prevent the massive social, economic, and environmental upheaval that climate change will bring.  

The transition period we face need not spoil the party, just slightly alter the guest list. Whereas oil and gas barons may have dominated the dance floor, innovators, renewable energy entrepreneurs, and energy efficiency experts will now vie for equal space. Albertans may well appreciate that their resources will be extracted with an eye on maximum efficiency instead of maximum profits. Indeed, despite Premier Klein’s invective against Kyoto, his province has already become a leader in wind energy and the long-term jobs that accompany it.

Klein has been a great party host. Now it’s time for the plain-speaking premier to show he can also be a good neighbour.

(Albert Koehl is a staff lawyer with the Sierra Legal Defence Fund, a non-profit environmental organization dedicated to strengthening and enforcing laws that protect the health and environment of all Canadians.)