Alberta Premier Danielle Smith’s wielding of her province’s Sovereignty Act to fight the 2035 net-zero provisions in federal Clean Electricity Regulations is “a bunch of political theatre,” a legal expert says, while clean energy advocates express concern that the “unnecessary” move could thwart clean energy investment in the province.
Invoking the Alberta Sovereignty Within A United Canada Act “will drive major new investment in the energy sector out of the province,” Pembina Institute Executive Director, Chris Severson-Baker wrote in a statement.
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“It introduces unnecessary and theatrical red tape instead of making progress on building a clean, affordable, reliable electricity grid for the province.”
In August, Environment Minister Steven Guilbeault unveiled preliminary Clean Energy Regulations (CER), establishing a mandate for all provincial grids to hit net-zero emissions by 2035. Alberta has resisted, expressing or professing concern over potential economic repercussions for its significant fossil fuel industry. More generally, the regulations have been criticized for trying to implement a one-size-fits-all policy across provinces with drastically different energy sectors. For instance, Alberta’s grid is still deeply reliant on fossil fuels compared to a province like Ontario, where a large amount of electricity comes from hydropower, even though Ontario is increasing its share of natural gas.
Smith said a goal of net-zero by 2050, rather than 2035, would be more reasonable for Alberta. Ottawa aims to have a fully carbon-neutral economy by that time, explains Global News, and analysts widely see faster grid decarbonization as a cornerstone to driving emissions down across the wider economy.
The Alberta premier has driven a long campaign opposing the regulations, with a C$8-million ad campaign in Ottawa and beyond suggesting Canadians will “freeze in the dark” without fossil-generated electricity.
That campaign has been called out as propaganda, lacking evidence and filled with misinformation. But now Alberta’s media release about invoking the Sovereignty Act strikes a similar tone.
“Alberta’s government will not put Albertans and their businesses at risk of freezing in the dark at -30°C due to the federal government’s proposed unaffordable, unreliable, and unconstitutional Clean Electricity Regulations (CERs),” a provincial website states.
This is the first time the provincial legislation has been deployed, and it has not been tested in court. “It seeks to allow the province to refuse to enforce specific federal laws or policies ‘that violate the jurisdictional rights of Alberta,’” explains Reuters. The act remains controversial as it grants powers to the provincial Lieutenant Governor to direct provincial entities on how to enforce or not enforce federal initiatives. Its supporters say it shields the province from federal overreach, CBC News writes.
Opponents say the act is not constitutional. Provincial laws in Canada are not allowed to frustrate the progress of federal laws, said Martin Olszynski, an associate professor of law at the University of Calgary. “This is just a bunch of political theatre,” he told Reuters.
Others suggested a disconnect between Smith’s concerns about electricity supply and reliability her government’s move to slap a seven-month moratorium on new solar and wind development, sidestepping the concerns of some rural municipalities and costing the province an estimated C$33 billion in economic activity and 24,000 jobs, at a moment when Alberta was leading the country in renewable energy deployment.
The measure Smith introduced Monday asks Alberta’s cabinet to order provincial entities not to recognize the constitutional validity of, nor enforce, the CER. It also instructs the government to explore the “feasibility of establishing a provincial Crown corporation for the purpose of bringing and maintaining more reliable and affordable electricity onto the grid in the event that private generators find it too risky to do so under the CERs.”
In a similar move announced a day after Alberta’s, Saskatchewan Premier Scott Moe said his province will establish a tribunal under the Saskatchewan First Act to look into the CER’s economic effects on the province, the Globe and Mail reports.
Federal Environment and Climate Minister Steven Guilbeault said the feds will not take Alberta to court, pointing to Smith’s acknowledgment that invoking the Sovereignty Act is largely a symbolic gesture. “You don’t take someone to court for something that’s symbolic,” he told reporters.
Smith maintained her move opened an opportunity for the federal government to back down, vowing that the fight will continue to court if it doesn’t.
But the province and Ottawa have been negotiating the CER, and Guilbeault said the Sovereignty Act has not been mentioned in their meetings. Smith also confirmed she did not intend to stop the talks, reports Global News.
Energy and Natural Resources Minister Jonathan Wilkinson cited those negotiations to explain his surprise at Smith’s use of the Act, adding that the federal government has already signalled its flexibility on final details of the CER and acknowledged Alberta’s concerns about newer gas plants becoming stranded assets, writes City News Edmonton.
Guilbeault and Wilkinson said in a joint statement that Smith is “choosing to create fear and uncertainty over collaboration and positive results” for Albertans.
Symbolic or not, those engaged in Alberta’s energy sector are considering the implications of both the CER and Smith’s response. The Independent Power Producers Society of Alberta sees the Act’s invocation as a precautionary measure to build “contingency plans” around Ottawa’s 2035 target, while others are still considering potential impacts on the market, Global reports.
Calgary Chamber of Commerce President Deborah Yedlin, acknowledged concerns about the CER’s impacts on grid reliability, stability, and affordability, but questioned whether the Sovereignty Act was the right way to go about addressing the issue.
“The worry is that now that this piece of legislation has been introduced, what’s the incentive to continue to negotiate in good faith on the part of Ottawa?” Yedlin said. “That introduces another element of uncertainty in terms of the direction of the conversations and the revisions that have been asked for.”