Oh, to have been a fly on the wall of Friday’s meetings between the country’s oilpatch and Canada’s most powerful environmentalist activist.
And, no, I’m not talking about David Suzuki.
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On a frosty day in Calgary, federal Environment and Climate Change Minister Steven Guilbeault sat down with leaders from several petroleum producers, pipeline companies, power utilities and Alberta business groups at the Harry Hays Building.
It was his first chance to meet face-to-face in the city with top brass from companies such as TC Energy, Enbridge, Tourmaline Oil, ATCO and TransAlta.
A separate session was held with the heads of major oilsands producers, including Cenovus Energy CEO Alex Pourbaix, Suncor Energy CEO Mark Little (who attended virtually) and Canadian Natural Resources’ president Tim McKay — all representing companies that are jointly pursuing net-zero emissions by 2050.
A former Greenpeace Canada campaign manager and co-founder of Quebec environmental group Equiterre, Guilbeault was a fierce critic of the oilsands before entering politics in 2019.
Two decades ago, he famously scaled the CN Tower to string up a banner that declared: “Canada and Bush: Climate Killers,” under the observation deck of the Toronto landmark. He’s also opposed oil pipelines, including the Trans Mountain expansion and Energy East.
Now, he’s in charge of Canada’s climate strategy.
“Throughout my career as an environmentalist, I think I’ve shown an ability to be able to work with people who don’t think like I do, and that public policy is about the art of compromise,” Guilbeault said in an interview Friday.
“I am an activist. I was and I still am an activist, but I am now the minister of environment and climate change for all Canadians. And I have responsibilities now that were not the responsibilities I had as an environmentalist activist.”
Those ministerial duties will have a direct impact on the oil and gas industry, the largest emitting sector of the Canadian economy.
In his first month on the job, Guilbeault went to the COP26 climate summit, where the Trudeau government rolled out its proposal for a new emissions cap on the oil and gas sector.
He’s now started consultation on it and Canada’s new emissions reduction plan, with discussions extended until the end of March.
The Montreal MP understands why industry players might be apprehensive about his appointment, but said he doesn’t “have a back-pocket plan ready to go” regarding the cap’s implementation.
“I felt at the time, 20, 30 years ago, that we had to do things like scale the CN Tower to be able to get people’s attention on climate change. And I don’t think we need to do that now,” he added.
“Now, we have the B.C. flooding, and we have the heat dome, and we have the hail storms that are constant reminders that we have entered the era of climate change and we need to do something.”
It’s an understatement to say the minister’s arrival has triggered suspicion within the Alberta government and oilpatch, particularly as key federal policies move ahead, including the cap, new rules to slash methane emissions and a federal tax credit for carbon capture, utilization and storage (CCUS) projects.
Putting Guilbeault in charge of the portfolio was a signal from the Trudeau government to the country’s oil and gas sector, said Hal Kvisle, chair of ARC Resources and the former CEO of TransCanada Corp.
“We took it as a direct shot in the eye,” Kvisle said Friday.
“To pick Guilbeault as the environment minister, you might as well pick David Suzuki and just make it very clear to us what they think of us.”
The Kenney government is also concerned about Guilbeault and what impact the emissions cap will have on oil and natural gas production, an area of provincial jurisdiction.
The industry has big plans for CCUS, which would capture and store emissions deep underground.
Will producing oil with carbon capture technology allow for continued, or even additional, production as Canada moves toward a net-zero target by 2050?
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“In theory, if it’s carbon-free oil, it could. But will the demand be there in the same way it is now, I think is a fair question to be asking,” Guilbeault replied.
“My issue has always been with pollution. But I’m part of a government that has been very clear on this: We’re not going after production; we are going after the emissions.”
Those who attended one of Friday’s meetings called it a productive discussion.
“It’s a great start to a relationship that many were worried about it,” said Adam Legge, president of the Business Council of Alberta. “The proof is in the action and how well we work together.”
Is the new minister willing to search for common ground with the oilpatch?
Guilbeault noted he has a photo in his Ottawa office from November 2015, when he stood on stage with then-premier Rachel Notley and energy leaders to support Alberta’s climate plan, which included a 100-megatonne emissions cap for the oilsands.
While he preferred a lower number, Guilbeault said he was willing to support it, “which did lead to me being accused of being a sell-out by some of my ex-environmental colleagues.”
He also met with Alberta Environment Minister Jason Nixon, who has also been openly critical of his federal counterpart’s appointment.
Nixon called it a polite get-together but said he’s still worried about the impact the federal climate plan could have on Alberta jobs.
“My bigger concern after this meeting would be that the federal minister does not seem to understand still how some of the policies could impact not just the oil and gas industry, but multiple industries,” Nixon said in an interview.
“I will give him the benefit of the doubt. But in the next few weeks, we’re about to find out whether or not he really wants to compromise.”
Chris Varcoe is a Calgary Herald columnist.
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