Alberta Pension fund invests in Coastal GasLink pipeline, the latest risky fossil fuel investment

Carbon Tracker, the group which originated the term “stranded assets, published two new reports about the financial risks of fossil fuel investment in June:  It’s Closing Time: The Huge Bill to Abandon Oilfields Comes Early  and Decline and Fall: The Size & Vulnerability of the Fossil Fuel System on June 4 .  Banking giant Goldman Sachs also released a new report, Carbonomics: The Future of Energy in the age of climate change , which sees a fundamental shift from fossils to renewable energy investments.

Yet even as the drumbeat of fossil fuel decline continues, the public sector pension funds of Alberta and South Korea purchased a majority ownership stake in the Coastal GasLink pipeline from TC Energy on May 25,  using  the  retirement savings of millions of individuals.  “Alberta and South Korea’s pensions just bought the Coastal GasLink pipeline: 8 things you need to know” in The Narwhal (June 10) analyses the situation and cites a report from Progress Alberta :  Alberta’s Failed Oil and Gas Bailout , with this subtitle provided: “How AIMCO invested more than a billion dollars of pensioners and Albertans money into risky oil and gas companies with more than $3 billion in environmental liabilities and how the people running those companies got rich through huge salaries, share buybacks, dividends and conservative political connections.” Besides exposing the political shadows and environmental liabilities of many AimCo energy investments, the report makes recommendations, including for a public review of the investment performance and governance of Aimco; to divest from risky fossil fuel investments; to allow pension plans whose funds are being managed by AIMCo to appoint representatives to its board ; and to allow pension funds the freedom to leave AIMCo.

The recommended reforms are necessary because of the changes made by the Kenney government in November 2019,  described by WCR here and by Alberta unions in:  Union leaders tell UCP: ‘The money saved by Albertans for retirement belongs to them, not to you!’    Alberta’s Failed Oil and Gas Bailout   report urges: “The mismanagement of pensions and the Heritage Fund today offers opportunities for unions, political parties, civil society groups and organizers to engage and activate people who otherwise might never get involved in political collective action. People’s retirements and Alberta’s savings fund from its fossil fuel wealth are at stake.”

Pembina proposes a low-carbon blueprint to create 67,2000 jobs in Alberta

alberta emerging economyA report released on June 15 calculates  that, with supportive government policies, 67,200  jobs could be created in Alberta by 2030 in four key areas: renewable electricity; transit and electric vehicle infrastructure; energy efficiency in buildings and industry; and environmental cleanup and methane reduction in the oil and gas industry.  Alberta’s Emerging Economy: A blueprint for job creation through 2030  was funded by the Alberta Federation of Labour  and written by researchers at the Pembina Institute.  It provides detailed data for each of the four sectors, along with well-informed policy discussion. Notably, the number of jobs forecast represents a significant diversification of the labour market for the province: 67,200 jobs is equal to 67% of the total workforce of the mining, and oil and gas extraction industry in 2019.

Alberta’s Hydrogen initiative

Alberta’s Emerging Economy does not consider the potential jobs from new technologies such as carbon capture and storage, or hydrogen production.  Fundamental to understanding that technology is the difference between “grey hydrogen”,  “blue” hydrogen and “green” hydrogen”- explained by an expert at the International Energy Agency here , or in Green Tech Media in “The Reality Behind Green Hydrogen’s Soaring Hype”.

On May 14, the Alberta Industrial Heartland Hydrogen Task Force was launched as “an independent working group created to develop a framework to implement a hydrogen economy in the region” and “produce a public report detailing the approach and steps needed to advance a zero-emission fuel economy in Alberta’s Industrial Heartland.” The Task Force includes local mayors from Alberta and Saskatchewan (including  Edmonton Mayor Don Iveson). The full list of Task Force members and advisors is here , and is organized by Transition Accelerator – itself launched in 2019, by the University of Calgary research group CESAR.  A recent report in their  “The Future of Freight” series, Implications for Alberta of Alternatives for Diesel  advocates for “blue hydrogen” production (hydrogen made from natural gas by steam-methane reforming (SMR) coupled to carbon capture and storage (CCS)).

Hydrogen production is described in the Globe and Mail on June 14, “Ottawa, Alberta develop new hydrogen strategies” .  An overview in Corporate Knights magazine on May 14  claims “Hydrogen can make Canada an energy superpower again”.  It concludes:

We live in Alberta, so know the danger in including the words ‘national’ and ‘energy’ in the same sentence. But picture a Canada where hydrogen is the focus of a pan-Canadian strategy that would have all provinces working together for a net-zero emission energy future that revitalizes our economy and again positions Canada as an energy superpower.

 

Alberta dissolves Energy Efficiency agency, weakens oil and gas approval process

Bill 22, The Red Tape Reduction Implementation Act  passed first reading in the Alberta legislature on June 11.  The latest in Alberta’s environmental roll-backs, Bill 22 is a 14-point omnibus bill which eliminates the need for cabinet approval for oil and gas projects, and dissolves the Energy Efficiency Alberta agency, begun in 2017. Alberta’s Environment Minister has said it  will be wound down by September and most staff re-assigned to the Emissions Reduction Alberta agency, which focuses on large-scale industry such as the oil and gas industry.  The changes are summarized in  an article in in The Energy Mix (June 14) and  in The Globe and Mail .   Efficiency Canada reacted with a critical press release on June 12, titled Alberta cuts successful job-creation engine in the midst of recession” which asserts that Energy Efficiency Alberta  created more than 4,300 private-sector jobs between 2017 and 2019”.  The Pembina Institute reaction also cites the job losses which will come from the decision, and states: “This move reinforces the negative image that the Government of Alberta was attempting to change when the EEA was installed as a major pillar of Alberta’s climate plan.”

The government justifies its decision in a blog  which doesn’t mention the job creation success of the agency.

Environmental rollbacks during Covid-19 in Canada and the U.S.

This post was updated on June 17 to include new developments in Alberta and Ontario. 

On June 3, Canadian journalist Emma McIntosh compiled and published a Canadian list of environmental rollbacks, and continues to update it as changes continue in almost every province.  “Here’s every environmental protection in Canada that has been suspended, delayed and cancelled during COVID-19” in the National Observer, is a compilation built by scouring news reports and legislative websites.  Although it includes all Canadian provinces, the Alberta and Ontario governments are highlighted as the worst offenders, including changes to Alberta’s environmental monitoring in the oil sands and weakening of air quality monitoring .  The inventory was updated to include Bill 22, The Red Tape Reduction Implementation Act , which passed first reading in the Alberta legislature on June 11. A 14-point omnibus bill, Bill 22 eliminates the need for cabinet approval for oil and gas projects, and dissolves the Energy Efficiency Alberta agency, begun in 2017. Alberta’s Environment Minister has said it  will be wound down by September and most staff re-assigned to the Emissions Reduction Alberta agency, which focuses on the oil and gas industry. Efficiency Canada reacted with a critical press release on June 12, titled “Alberta cuts successful job-creation engine in the midst of recession” – which states that “The agency created more than 4,300 private-sector jobs between 2017 and 2019”.

In Ontario, early on, the government suspended part two of the provincial Environmental Bill of Rights, excusing the government from notifying or consulting the public on environment-related projects, changes or regulations.  Changes were also made to zoning requirements, to speed the development approval process. Unexpectedly,  the government restored the protections on June , although it has been vague about its reasoning, and more importantly, has not revealed what projects were approved during the suspension period.  “Doug Ford government restores environmental protections it suspended amid COVID-19” (June 15). The article notes that since Premier Doug Ford took office in  2017, “Ontario has cancelled 227 clean energy projects, wound down conservation programs, weakened endangered species protections and has taken away powers from the province’s environmental commissioner.”

In Newfoundland

Although it is not noted in the National Observer inventory yet (updating is ongoing) – Newfoundland joined the ranks of major actors on June 4, when the government press release announced  a “New Regional Assessment Process Protects the Environment and Shortens Timelines for Exploration Drilling Program Approval”. This action reverses a 2010 decision and places authority for exploration approval back with the Canada-Newfoundland and Labrador Offshore Petroleum Board (C-NLOPB), rather than the federal Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency (CEAA). Calling the drilling of offshore exploration wells a “low impact activity”, the press release promises a faster approval process which “allows the province to become more globally competitive while maintaining a strong and effective environmental regulatory regime.”  A June 4 press release from the federal government endorses the move, according to their press release:  “The Government of Canada announces new regulatory measure to improve review process for exploratory drilling projects in the Canada-Newfoundland and Labrador offshore” .  

It is notable that the Just Recovery for All campaign launched in Canada on May 25  calls for a fair and just recovery from COVID-19 through relief and stimulus packages, and includes as one of its six principles:

“Bailout packages must not encourage unqualified handouts, regulatory rollbacks, or regressive subsidies that enrich shareholders or CEOs, particularly those who take advantage of tax havens. These programs must support a just transition away from fossil fuels that creates decent work and leaves no one behind.”

In the United States

Donald Trump’s environmental rollbacks during the Covid-19 pandemic have been well-reported, with the New York Times maintaining  an ongoing register in “The Trump Administration Is Reversing 100 Environmental Rules. Here’s the Full List” (last updated on May 20) and more recently, on June 4,  “ Trump, Citing Pandemic, Moves to Weaken Two Key Environmental Protections”. This article notes his Executive Order allowing agencies to waive required environmental reviews of infrastructure projects, and a new rule proposed by the Environmental Protection Agency which weakens air pollution controls under the  Clean Air Act regulations.

Greenpeace USA issued a response highlighting the racist intent of these changes, and DeSmog Blog published a blog “Trump EPA’s Refusal to Strengthen Air Quality Standards Most Likely to Harm Communities of Color, Experts Say“.

 

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Alberta oil and gas voices calling for innovation while Newfoundland’s Hibernia workers face layoffs on June 12

Alberta’s Minister of  Energy, Sonya Savage outraged many Canadians with her comments on May 25  that the Covid-19 pandemic offers a “great time to build pipelines” because of the lack of protestors , and construction on the TransMountain pipeline began in Kamloops B.C.  on June 2.  Yet,  Max Fawcett, former editor of Oil and Gas magazine writes in a CBC Opinion piece, “Alberta could be fighting its last pipeline battle”   (May 27), stating:

“It will be difficult for a government that prides itself on its willingness to fight for one vision of the oil and gas industry to adapt to this rapidly changing landscape…..It will be tempting for it to continue railing against the federal government, environmental activists, and all of its other enemies, foreign and domestic. And if Biden wins the White House, and follows through on his pledge to cancel Keystone XL’s presidential permit, that temptation may prove overwhelming.

But the ground has shifted under the Government of Alberta’s feet, just as it has for all of us, due to COVID-19.

The sooner it comes to terms with that, and helps the rest of Alberta do the same, the better.”

Fawcett also criticized the Alberta government of Jason Kenney in  “Still waiting for Alberta to get the memo on climate-conscious investing”,   commenting  on the implications of the Norway’s Government Pension Fund decision to divest from Canadian oil and gas companies  because of their excessive climate impacts. Fawcett  calls for Alberta to tell a “more honest story”.

Notably, voices from Canada’s oil sands industry “Establishment” are also speaking out and signalling a shift in attitude.   On June 1, as part of the  Climate Knights Planning for a Green Recovery series, Mark Little, the CEO of Suncor Energy and Laura Kilcrease, CEO of the government agency Alberta Innovates  wrote an OpEd titled, “Canada’s oil sands are best positioned to lead the energy transformation”.  Hearkening back to the 1970’s in Canada and citing a 2019 BNP Parabas report on the declining future of oil , they acknowledge the inevitable coming transition with this:

“While Canadian oil and gas will remain a significant part of the global energy mix for some time, we have to take advantage of new opportunities that offer attractive growth prospects. The temporary economic lockdown triggered by the 2020 pandemic is giving us a glimpse into a not-too-distant future where the transformation of our energy system could disrupt demand on a similar scale. Disruption breeds opportunity and forward-looking companies and countries will need to step up and lead.

Now is the time to take a big step forward. As the history of the oil sands reveals, disruption and transformation are nothing new for Albertans and we’re optimistic that the Canadian energy industry is up to the challenge and best positioned to invest in and lead energy transformation.”

Industry response to the joint OpEd appears in “Suncor, Alberta Innovates op-ed a game-changer as oil and gas industry finally embraces energy transition” appeared  in EnergiMedia (June 2).  noting “ ….. it cannot be a coincidence that the same day the op-ed was published, Alberta finance minister Travis Toews told Postmedia that the Alberta government is preparing an economic recovery plan that will focus on diversifying “various industry sectors that we know have a great future in the province, certainly energy and agriculture as you would expect.”

Layoffs in June as Newfoundland’s Hibernia and offshore oil industry in crisis 

offshore rigOn June 3, CBC reported “Hibernia layoffs about to begin ‘with heavy hearts,’ drilling company says” , summarizing the announcement by Hibernia Management Development Corporation (HMDC) that it will suspend drilling operations starting June 12, as a cost-cutting measure in response to a collapse in oil prices.  The 18-month suspension of drilling  had already been announced in April , even before the negative impacts on demand by the COVID-19 pandemic.   The total number of layoffs may approach 600 members of  Unifor Local 2121 , which represents workers at  the Hibernia offshore installation and also at the affected Terra Nova FPSO vessel.  According to Article 32 of the current collective agreement  , six months’ written notice was required “In the event of platform closure, partial platform closure, technological change or restructuring, which will involve permanent reduction of regular rotation employees….”

These developments are the latest in a series of setbacks which constitute a crisis for the oil and gas industry in Newfoundland, summarized in  in “How a pandemic and production war thrashed one of N.L.’s 4 producing oil fields” (May 20) . The political lobbying for federal funds is described in “N.L. oil industry, former premier, rally behind MP Seamus O’Regan in quest for federal help”  (May 14)  and a Canadian Press article “N.L. warns of exodus of oil and gas industry without more federal help”  (May 26).

On June 4, the provincial government of Newfoundland announced  a “New Regional Assessment Process Protects the Environment and Shortens Timelines for Exploration Drilling Program Approval”  which  reverses a 2010 decision and places authority for exploration approval back with the Canada-Newfoundland and Labrador Offshore Petroleum Board (C-NLOPB), rather than the federal Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency (CEAA). Calling the drilling of offshore exploration wells a “low impact activity”, the press release promises a faster approval process which “allows the province to become more globally competitive while maintaining a strong and effective environmental regulatory regime.”   This comes a week after the government-appointed  Wilderness and Ecological Reserves Advisory Council released their long-delayed report, A Home for Nature   which proposes  32 protected areas and a framework for ecological protection on land and offshore.